Challenges as a First Time Mom Living in Another Country

We have been married for over 13 years now, but we have not had our honeymoon yet. Our first attempt was ruined by a friend who asked if he could join us! Seriously! We were young. We did not have the courage to bluntly say no to a friend. Oh well. Our second attempt was supposed to be my dream trip, but we were caught by surprise by a pregnancy that started two weeks earlier than what we thought. It was our fault, though. We were misinformed about how to plan for a desired due date.

We wanted our first child to be born at the end of April, when I would be done with my MBA courses. Instead, his due date was actually April, 10th! Did you know that week 1 of pregnancy starts counting on the first day of the woman’s last period? We had no idea! I mean…think about it. It makes no sense! That is about 2 weeks before conception! On the exact day a woman gets pregnant, it is already week two! Two weeks may not matter for most new mothers, but it is a big deal if you are trying to complete graduate school! Needless to say, my first pregnancy was challenging, but I wish that had been the only challenge. There was so much more to come.

Moving to the US – We got engaged on December 2005 and scheduled our wedding to a year after the engagement. Nonetheless, 5 months after, my then fiancée got a letter of acceptance. He had been awarded a full scholarship to a PhD program in Worcester, Massachusetts. We both wanted the adventure of living in another country, immersing ourselves in another culture, and the US was perfect because we knew the language and would be able to improve. The American Dream seemed like such a huge opportunity that we left our upper-middle class, fun, social, party-filled, year-round warm and comfortable life in Brazil to start a new chapter in a freezing cold place where we did not know anybody. But we were only 26 and most of all, we were in love, and that translates into “everything is easy and exciting”!

He came to the US in August and I stayed in Brazil to finalize the wedding planning. We had to stick to the date, December 9th, as the location and some services were already booked. Here, too, two weeks made a huge difference to us. Had we been able to marry two weeks after, my husband would have finished his final exams and would have gone to Brazil to marry and spend a few days on vacation. We could have had a honeymoon right there, after all, December is Summer in Brazil! But what actually happened was he arrived in Brazil on a Friday, married on that Saturday, and we came to the US on the next morning because he could not miss his final exams. An almost 24-hour trip, (each way!) for a 2-day long “vacation”, plus an almost $2k airplane ticket. That is precisely how much those two weeks cost us (and our parents)!

When his exams were finally over, another student’s fiancée offered us the key to her studio where she lived near NYC, as she was going to spend Christmas away. We could not afford to stay in a hotel. My husband’s scholarship was just enough to pay for groceries and to rent an attic turned into an apartment in a house built in the 19th century, even though he had a master’s degree in computer science and was working at the university 20 hours per week as a researcher and teacher’s assistant. That is the price international PhD students pay to be able to study in America, tuition free: they are turned into very cheap, highly specialized labor force. Our motto was “think long term”!

These cost-free nights in our friend’s studio was our chance to have a honeymoon and go to NYC for the first time. But another friend, a nice but inconvenient student from Kazakhstan, asked if he could come with us. He had never been to NYC either and was as excited about it as us. “Sure”, we could not avoid saying. So, the trip was not romantic, but it was still an amazing Christmas. Just not yet our honeymoon.

Pregnancy – Three and a half years later, we had accumulated enough miles on our credit card to go on my dream trip: California! We bought the tickets in advance, to use during the summer vacations, and about a month before our departure, I got pregnant! Interacting with children had always been fascinating to me and being a mother had always been my biggest dream, by far. I was extremely happy, although also extremely nauseated during our California trip. I remember being in beautiful, fun places, but hoping nighttime would come fast so I could finally lay down and rest. My head was constantly spinning. I was vomiting everywhere I went, hating the smell and taste of every food, constipated, with strong headaches, heartburn (which I was surprised to learn the name in English as it has nothing to do with the heart) and of course, I was energy deprived, to the point that even a short walk was a sacrifice. Again, our supposedly romantic honeymoon was not so romantic, but we were so happy our first child was on his way!

I suffered with these symptoms during all my three pregnancies, but this first one was the worst. Everyone told me it would go away by week 10 or 12. I was at week 20 when it started to get a little better. As if it was not bad enough, I had to suck it all up instead of resting my body and mind, because I was at the final year of my MBA and had a lot of papers, projects and presentations to finalize.

I always thought that, while pregnant, all I could do for my baby’s wellbeing was to sleep well and eat well, and mother nature would do the rest. It had never occurred to me that my thoughts or the state of my mind could interfere with my unborn baby’s health. I thought that would be the case only after he was born. Then, one day, a wise friend from India saw me stressed about a disagreement with a school teammate and told me that it deeply affects the baby. That was when it clicked with me. She recommended that I take a break from school to enjoy a relaxing pregnancy, for my baby’s sake. Nonetheless, International students are not allowed to take a break, or they lose their visa status. So, I kept going but trying as much as possible not to stress.

A colicky baby – My most stressful pregnancy resulted in an extremely colicky baby. Coincidence? Maybe. From the very beginning his colic was very intense. I remember when he was two weeks old, I asked his pediatrician about it. I said he cried a lot, not in a whining way but rather in a desperate screaming way, as if he was in excruciating pain, and to the point that he got a bluish face. She said he was too young, that colic only peaks at week 4. I was shocked to hear it! I could not imagine it getting worse. I was not sure I could make it. I myself cried every day, feeling sad watching my poor baby suffer and not being able to soothe him. Also, I felt exhausted and sleep deprived. He never slept for more than 30 minutes, not even at night. He would wake up screaming, inconsolable, constantly. We could not go anywhere because the minute we tried to put him in a car seat, he would scream incessantly, no matter how long or short the trip was. It was traumatizing! 

Eventually, we found one way to make him sleep a little longer: first, to get him to stop crying and finally falling asleep, we had to bounce him in our arms, bounce really high and briskly! You should see my husband doing it. So funny! I was afraid he would drop him down from ceiling height! I am glad in times like these my husband was able to keep a much-needed sense of humor. When finally asleep, my son had to be held in our arms, belly down. If we put him in the crib, or in a swing or bouncer, he would wake immediately, crying, and the bouncing would have to start all over again. So my husband and I took turns, every 2 hours, every single night. I read many books about baby colic at that time. The first thing I learned was that colic is not the name of a health condition. It is simply a symptom that can be caused by many different conditions. The challenge is to figure out what is causing it so you can plan on how to treat it. In my son’s case, I think there was more than one culprit. I first thought of allergies, even though he was exclusively breastfed until close to 6 months. The chances of allergens passing from the mother’s diet through her breastmilk are small, but it is possible. I lost my baby belly fast because I cut many of my favorite foods from my diet at that time: all dairy, tomatoes, soy and anything acidic, like lemons or oranges. It did not help much with his colic, but just in case I kept that diet for months. I would do anything to help my poor baby.

One of the books mentioned that some colicky babies could grow into highly intelligent people, because the colic could be caused by a very alert, therefore easily overstimulated, type of brain. But because their baby brain is not ready yet to process all of that stimuli, these babies get very irritated, overtired, and cannot rest. That makes things even worse, as rest would be the solution. So, the cycle keeps going until the brain matures enough to deal with the extra stimuli. My son is 9 years old now and has always been much ahead of his age in cognitive aspects, so that explanation could well apply in his case. Another culprit was GERD, or reflux. This one leaves no doubt. I had to buy three tall piles of large burp cloths. I think probably around 35 or 40 of them! He spit up a lot and sometimes vomited! They filled a full load in the washer, which for us was shared with three other tenants and located in the dark, dirty, scary, unfinished basement of our attic apartment, three floors below us. One day, when my baby was 1 month old, his throat was so sore that he could not swallow. He did not nurse for the whole night. I called his pediatrician and she told me that, because he was so young, I should take him to the ER, where they gave him an IV to avoid dehydration. Until around 6 months old my baby not only napped, but also slept, in a baby bouncer, propped up with two pillows to increase the angle. He was basically seated and tied with the seat belt all night. We tried to incline the crib mattress, but it was not enough.

Finally, the last culprit I can think of for his insane baby colic is gas from all the air he was swallowing while breastfeeding. I remember me asking the instructor during a newborn care class if I would have enough milk for my baby, given that my breasts are so small. She explained that the size of the breast and the production of milk are totally unrelated. Bigger breasts have more fat, not more breast glands and ducts. That was proven very much true to me. My milk first came in the very moment my son was born! It was an incredible, unforgettable moment. Two or three days after, I was engorged and felt like my skin would rip. My breasts were heavy big rocks, while the skin felt like it was burning. During a shower, I could not even take the pain of water touching my breasts. I could not find a comfortable sleeping position, as gravity would make my breasts hurt too much. Thankfully, some supporting pillows helped a bit. A few days after, the engorgement and pain got better. But still, there was always a lot of milk and when my son was feeding, milk would gush all over his face and the room if he was not focused on swallowing fast. Taking a break was not an option! That poor thing had to learn early how to coordinate swallowing and breathing with an intense flux of milk. There is no doubt he ended up swallowing a lot of air in the process. More colic! He was on Zantac for the reflux, and taking gas drops, which probably helped a bit. Just a bit, though.                                     

When he was 5 months old, we took him to a hot air balloon festival. He cried and screamed the entire drive there, as usual. When we parked our car and finally held him, we were so stressed! How I wish it was allowed, and safe, for the baby to ride on his mother’s lap. Well, after he had a long day and at night, it finally happened: he slept for five straight hours for the first time ever! He was 5 months old already. The longest he had slept so far was about two and a half hours, I think. The next night he went back to sleeping for less than three hours, but I was excited for that progress, that sign that sooner or later things would get easier. And they did. By 7 or 8 months old he was sleeping through the night! We also introduced yogurt to his diet at around that age, which may have helped with the probiotics and gut regulation. We were afraid of triggering dairy allergies, but he did just fine with yogurt, which is easier digested than milk. He also would not even try a bottle. I tried all different sizes and shapes of nipples, different formula brands, tried daddy feeding instead of me, tried letting him be hungry… nothing worked. So, he skipped from breast milk to cow’s milk in a cup when he was one year old. He also refused to try a pacifier, which would probably have helped with the screaming in the car, but he would not accept it. He kept spitting it out instead of sucking it. No, he was definitely not easy! But with time, patience and love, everything eventually falls into place. Oh, did I mention his labor was induced and I did not know the contractions are much stronger, and more painful, than when labor starts naturally? Or that I had a severe episiotomy classified as 3rd degree? The whole thing was a bumpy road, but hey, great things don’t come easy. What better reason to fight for than for our own family?  

My son was not even one yet and I was already hoping I could get pregnant again soon! I wanted him to a have a sibling to grow with, and to count on when they are adults. My children are 9,7 and 5 years old now, and life with them is great! Writing my own story and revisiting these tough times is not easy, but I wanted to share it with other moms out there, so they know they are not alone, and they are reminded that it does get much easier with time. The journey of motherhood is a quite different and unique experience to each one of us. Some might be more challenging than others, but I am sure none are made of pure joy. Our challenges might be different, but we are all fighters and admirable humans just for being mothers.

In part 2, I will share my experience on my second pregnancy, when my baby was born almost 8 weeks before his due date. Spoiler: it is a sad story but with a happy ending! Stay tuned.

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