Unscripted: Courtney and Ian
Introducing, Unscripted. Chronicling pregnancy, birth, and the early days of growing families.
In our first edition, Courtney McCracken and her husband Ian, give us a glimpse into their whirlwind of a year. Follow along as they take us on their journey, trading their go-go-go San Diego days for the landscapes, seasons, and family back in New England all while prepping to become first time parents and welcome their sweet baby girl, Ryan.
Courtney and Ian were secluded in a 400 square-foot cabin in the Oregon woods, thinking about where life might take them next, when a little plus sign on a stick told them a tiny McCracken would be joining their family...
Tell us a little bit about where you two are from, and where you lived up until your daughter's birth?
Ian is originally from Princeton, New Jersey, and I am from Toronto, Ontario. We met at Bishops' University in Quebec 12 years ago and have lived in a few places since. Whether it was San Diego for the surf, Verbier for the mountains, or Toronto for the city experience, whimsy and excitement mainly guided our search for a home. Now we have the challenging task of finding a home that combines our lifestyle passions yet prioritizes raising a family.
We eventually settled on moving back to the Northeast since most of our family lived there - but where exactly, we didn't know for some time. At five months pregnant, I packed our belongings, and our less than obliging cat Tum Tum, into our car, and said a teary goodbye to our friends in San Diego. We hit the road yet again not really knowing where we'd end up, but this time the stakes were raised, we were choosing a place to raise a daughter.
First of all, how was driving across the country pregnant with no set destination in mind?
Well, we knew we would be heading to Ontario and Quebec to see family so that helped us get most of the way there. Ian had to work mid-trip so I drove from Phoenix to Omaha alone which gave me a lot of time to think about everything. What kind of mom would I be? This impending birth - I was terrified of. Where to live? You know, simple questions with simple answers, ha! I stopped a lot to stretch out and snack, and there were a lot of beautiful views along the way.
You ended up choosing to move to Portland, Maine - how did you end up deciding?
In the best way to solve big questions, we drew up a pro-con list while we were at our favorite little pub in Toronto. One city was on one side, Portland was on the other. After we visited Portland we were like, "yep, this is it." We walked by a for rent sign and took it later that weekend.
What drew you to Portland?
We knew we wanted to be in the New England area because it’s relatively close to our family who is scattered around Toronto, New Jersey, and Vermont. We would be close-ish to family without living on top of them. Then we simply fell in love with Maine. The craggy coastlines and beautiful lands were just the start of what is so appealing about this state. Then you have Portland: a vibrant city for it’s small size, beautiful architecture, a lively art and music scene, and the food and restaurants are at the peak of their game right now. All of this on the soulful Atlantic coast making it a short hop to Boston, NYC, Montreal and Europe.
What are you most looking forward to raising your little in Maine?
So much! Winter activities here are abundant and we can’t wait to take our daughter snowboarding, cross country skiing, dog sledding… The list goes on and on. Our family loves hockey so we already have Ian’s brother calling dibs on teaching her how to skate. And in summers - another endless list. Camping in Acadia National Park, hanging out at beaches along the coast, and renting little camps in lake country. All with our family near enough to join in on these adventures was icing on the cake.
So you're settled into a new city, and the day finally comes. Did your overall birth experience meet your expectations?
My expectations were shattered in amazing ways, as in I was amazed by almost everything.
There were odd little amazements such as: I knew about water breaking but no one told me after that anything you drink goes right through the baby and out again. So, in a way it felt like my water was breaking for hours while waiting for labor to start. That was strange!
There were painful amazements: I wondered for years how much labor would hurt. And yep, that expectation was exceeded a hundredfold.
But most important were the beautiful amazements: My experience at the hospital was far from clinical. The labor and pushing positions utilized warm tubs and yoga balls. Each and every nurse and doctor acted like a sister holding my hand and cheering me on. They were the kindest, most amazing team.
How did labor start?
It started in slow motion. It was a sunny wintery day, two weeks before my due date. I woke up steeped some tea and took a shower and I felt something like it might be my water breaking. My husband and I decided to see my doctor to check it out and in the parking lot, my water broke in Hollywood proportions.
We knew this was happening now. We grabbed our overnight bags and took a one minute walk to the hospital, which is one block away from our front door. It felt like I was checking into a hotel, except on check-out we’d be three instead of two. Then we waited.
What happened next?
I wasn't progressing naturally like we hoped so they induced me to avoid infection. A part of me thought - hey this isn't so bad! I've totally got this. Famous last words...
Fast forward yoga ball positions, hot showers and a tub, contractions started to hit a type of pain beyond measure. It’s indescribable. I’ve been trying explain the experience ever since, but I still can’t grasp the right words. Being on the other side now, it was all worth it, but there were some deep dark places in my brain I had to dig into to get through the contractions.
Was there anything specific that helped you relax during labor?
A Planet Earth marathon just so happened to be on TV the few days we were there. The voice of David Attenborough helped me through so much of it. Plus seeing life in all it’s forms around the planet was a weird cheerleader for my mind through the stages of labor. A warm bath helped when my contractions were about 6/10 on the pain scale.
What moment sticks in your mind most from the birth?
I pushed for almost four hours, and halfway through I was so exhausted, I honestly didn’t think I’d make it. I felt like giving up. My husband kept me in the game though and switched the music to Sade. We. love. Sade. It’s what we listen to when we cook dinner together or sip whisky to on date nights. Her songs helped me get my strong woman up and running again. Her voice got me to home plate. Funny enough little Ryan June was born on Jan 16th - which is guess who's birthday? SADE. (Another fun fact, January 16th is also Lin Manuel Miranda’s birthday, who we named her Chinese name after - Shan Lin)
How long was your baby and how much did she weigh?
Ryan June was born 7lbs 13 oz, and 20.5 inches long. I can’t imagine delivering her two weeks later!
How did breastfeeding go in the first few days?
It went from cute, fun, and exciting to extremely difficult in a matter of hours. Aside from the painful latches and engorgement, the confusion and uncertainty was the hardest part. I was always wondering if she was getting enough.
In the third week I started to get the hang of it and seeing lactation consultants helped. We’re not smooth sailing yet, but I’m no longer in pain and every time I see her gaining weight, or latch with her cute little face, my heart explodes with a maternal pride.
How are you feeling physically and emotionally?
Physically it kind of felt like I was hit by a bus. Every step I took felt like I was trying to keep my body from falling apart. If it wasn’t my stitches then it was my milk coming in. If I had those at bay, then it was my mind. I seemed to do better in the daytime when the naps came easier and longer. A hot shower, or eating a warm lunch would feed my happy meter for most of the day. But at night when the sun set, I became really sad, almost devastated at the thought I know she would fuss and eat every hour all through the night. Being that tired going into the start of your night felt crippling. And then knowing you have to do this for x amount of months is what brought many tears. Ian had to keep reminding me of all the small wins, which of course I didn't want to hear in the heat of my self pity parties!
What were your thoughts about motherhood before Ryan was born, and how has it changed?
Before kids, I had some prejudice towards moms. I fidgeted to get out of conversations about my friends' kids eating schedules and nap times. I didn’t believe pregnancy brain was real. (I thought it was an excuse to get out of responsibilities!) I also couldn’t understand how paranoid some of my new mom friends were. Now? I am all of this and more. I watch her on the monitor while under the covers and I'm in the same room as her. I forget what day of the week it is (although thanks to the pandemic that's making it doubly hard) Basically, I am humbled beyond words now.
What about motherhood did you think would be difficult and is?
So with labor, birth, breastfeeding - I knew those would be tough and they were/are. But more difficult was managing my mind. I was told that any emotions suppressed with your own mother might emerge - and oh boy did they ever. My mother and I haven't spent time together in almost a decade, so I'm unpacking what that means to me as a new mom. I'm unpacking what it will take to write my own story of motherhood. I am finally confronting a lot of my hidden emotions. It's especially heart wrenching to see my mother’s face in Ryan’s.
Do you have any tips for feeling like yourself in the first few days? First few weeks?
Get outside if you can. Something about fresh air stimulates your brain in such a positive way. It was the middle of a Maine winter right after Ryan was born, so dress appropriately for the weather. Also just let yourself be OK with doing nothing. Stare at the baby, watch anything you want on tv. This is the time to nest, dream, repair, and indulge in your sacred space. After a few weeks, it helped me to work a little, which was luckily socially-distant friendly: photography. I just drove around the city with my camera. It helped clear my head and made me feel a little productive.
What advice do you have to new moms about to give birth?
Eat as many fruits and veggies as you can while you’re healing. It’ll help your mind and your digestion get back on track faster. If you have visitors limit them to small visits and have them do chores for you. If you have a partner help them get on your side about how long visitors and family can stay, when to visit, and how to help. These first few weeks are all about your bond. "Toolkit" wise: ice maxi pads, heating pads, coconut oil, peri bottle, cushions to sit on, walks in sunshine, a good quality giant water bottle, and for your sanity, a baby carrier, a baby carrier, a baby carrier.
How has Ian bonded with the new baby and supported you in your postpartum period?
Every morning after Ryan's 6am feeding, Ian takes over. He burps her and they hang out while I get a little more sleep or some alone time. That extra bit saves my day in the mornings and they get to bond before he goes to work. He wears her and does skin to skin anytime he can too. For me, he keeps the house clean, cooks my favorite meals, and most importantly calms me down when I’m going through stormy mood swings.
Do you feel like there are two different women, Before & After Ryan's birth?
A few friends told me that you have to grieve the woman you were, after becoming a mother. This is true in those first few weeks because you're so transformed and life changes in an instant. You're in a fog that doesn't seem to clear, and it's hard to see yourself walking again let alone jumping into oceans and hopping on planes. I remember feeling like I was in a pile of ashes waiting for this phoenix creature to emerge. And you know what? It does, slowly but surely, one foot in front of the other. Ok, you might not be a fire-breathing bird, blazing out of your house one day, but eventually you sleep again. Eventually you manage to see friends and family. Eventually your confidence comes back, the lights turn on, and you're stronger than you were before. I don't necessarily want to discount the woman I was before Ryan was born, I very much needed her in order to get here. However there is a new lens in which I use to view the world, and it's clearer and sharper than ever.