When I was 18 weeks pregnant, Aaron decided we should hire a mother for additional support during my postpartum weeks. With no mother, sister, aunts, cousins, or friends able to make such a commitment, we realized that I would be short on the female guidance and nurturing I so craved. Though I had flirted with the idea of posting for a mother under Help Wanted in the Village Voice, I wasn't sure how I felt about hiring someone to help me care for our newborn. Certainly the idea of a mother by my side encouraging me, comforting me, teaching me how to attend to my baby's basic needs was seductive. But hiring a complete stranger when I was at my most vulnerable--I wasn't sure if I dared.
Aaron agreed that it might be awkward but he believed we could compromise our privacy and transcend any sense of discomfort with the right person. Would hired help fulfill my hopeless desire for a mother? Would I be able to thrive with her concern and attention if it was based on salary not affection? Could anyone live up to my admittedly high expectations? Whomever signed on would be stepping into some high motherless daughter drama. Was hiring a mother a necessity or an extravagance? For weeks I thought of nothing else but how such an arrangement might feel. In the end, the truth was that I had only two choices: go it alone once Aaron returned to work, or succumb to opening up the possibilities beyond what transpired from the ad.
There are no listings for post delivery mother figures but I quickly found many agencies representing postpartum doulas and infant care specialists, alternatively known as baby nurses. Since I had already contacted many labor doulas, my first avenue of inquiry was a postpartum doula. The doulas explained that the role of the doula is to care for the mother and the family as a whole, rather than being solely responsible for the baby. The doula teaches skills and strategies and takes care of household chores so that the mother is better able to care for her child. "Mother the mother," seems to be the overriding philosophy. With this, I rejoiced. What approach could be better for a woman seeking a mother?
The hours and responsibilities are flexible. Their goal is to cater to our needs. But what did I require? What were my expectations? My upcoming motherhood filled my mind but it was a challenge to imagine my new life as a mother. The more I conversed with various doulas, I was overcome by the awareness that I had no idea what I needed. Who was I going to be as a mother? Someone who never handed my baby over to anyone or someone who relished the idea of a nap or a nice soak in the tub to unwind? How would I know until the baby was in my arms? When I inquired as to the difference between a postpartum doula and a baby nurse, I was repeatedly told that a baby nurse is for mothers who don't want to take care of their own babies. The displeasure in the women's voices embarrassed me; why would I want someone else cuddling my baby while I did laundry? Was that a scenario I relished? Of course not. I obsessively worried about becoming the best mother I could. To this end, what I conceived of in a mother was a supportive foundation that included female mentorship and a second set of loving hands. In this case, skilled hands.
I decided to call a few agencies that handled infant care specialists. Several begrudged the bad wrap placed on them by the doulas. I hadn't realized that this territory could be a bit of a land mine. After several conversations, I encountered a woman who had once been a baby nurse full time and now ran her own agency. We clicked instantly. Yolanda shared with me that it is her opinion that the baby nurse facilitates the bonding between the mother and baby by providing assistance with all aspects of the infant's care. It was clear that she picked up on my mother needs without my even declaring them. We spoke for hours about all aspects of motherhood and family. After I'd disclosed the particulars of my situation, she assured me that I would find someone to assume that coveted mother role for myself during this overwhelming time and guide me through the skills needed to foster the best environment for the baby. She thought I would elicit it from the right person. Her sentiments resonated with Aaron's beliefs. Perhaps this was a sign. Was she that person for me? She offered herself up to provide our infant support but as accomplished as she seemed, I worried about her managerial obligations and told her that I needed to look around a bit more.
She provided me with the name of a baby nurse that she felt would provide a sufficient motherly role to me as well as unquestionable expertise. I called the woman's references and had to admit from the feedback that she sounded like she was more than experienced with the babies but there was clearly also an undercurrent of displeasure with her presence in the home. The idea of a disharmonious day to day existence terrified me. Was I good at setting boundaries and household rules? No. Then this woman was not for us. My fears of sharing our home reignited. How was I to proceed? How could someone so used to solitude manage the 24-7 intrusion that these other families described? I resumed my interest in the postpartum doulas. With them, I reasoned I would attain an acceptable amount of assistance and maintain our solitude. Aaron pushed me to reconsider. I mined friends and neighbors and friends of neighbors and interviewed several recommended baby nurses but no one clicked as much as Yolanda. Should I just try her out and hope she could juggle her agency, our family and her own? Back and forth I went on this option. And then I came across the name of one more person. With each call, I received one glowing testimonial after another. This woman was not only wonderful with infants, but also a subtle calming presence in the home--a beacon of sanity during dizzying days and nights.
On the phone, she was quiet, a woman of few words. I was incredibly nervous. Based on what I'd heard, she sounded perfect for us. While I had made my mind up, I had no idea if she would have any interest in us. We set a date for us all to get together in the city. As the week approached, I grew more anxious. Was she all that she was cracked up to be? I had essentially stopped my search in hope that she was the one. Would she be comfortable with two large dogs keeping constant company with our newborn? Would she synthesize with our home routines? And how would she handle this mother need that I scarcely hid now never mind how it might escalate when I returned home with an infant and no practical skills to care for him?
In person, she was calm, easy, sane. Everything we posed, seemed agreeable to her: dogs in the nursery, her being my only hands-on support other than the short time Aaron would be home, living out in the woods in an environment nothing like Manhattan. All fine. Her brochure outlined that she would be responsible for everything related to the care of the baby. She could care for him 100% or not at all, depending on what I needed from her day-to-day. She'd teach me everything I'd need to know and in the process foster independence and self-confidence. Aaron and I agreed; we signed on for Janet to come to us once the baby arrived.
Months passed. Enough time for me to worry. Would this work? How would this work? I didn't even know her. Would I feel safe enough with her to be fragile and awkward and also make my own choices? Could I learn to be a mother with her by my side? And was it even a possibility that I might gleam some mother comfort for myself?
I am still fighting this latest round of mastitis that began last weekend when Lisa arrived for her visit. Today Janet combed my breasts with cream and a fine toothed comb. As the primary means of feeding my baby, my breasts fall under the umbrella of tending to all aspects of my baby's care.
She told me that it is a Trinidadian custom for softening the lumps in the breasts. Apparently if I traveled to Trinidad, she explained, I would see mothers walking around combing their breasts. I was in too much pain to laugh.
"I don't know how you might list this combing skill on your resume along with all of your other accomplishments, " I said. "But you should."
Each pull of the comb brought tears to my eyes. But receiving this attention was definitely more lovely than horrible.
I can't say that I had anticipated this scene or really many of the things that Janet has brought to our home when I hired her.
My own mother never combed my hair, but today Janet combed my breasts.