Oh, that Newborn Smell!

Pregnant with #2, 2020

(Disclaimer: This was written pre-pandemic as I chronicled my pregnancy.)

I have an astrologer. I first met with Wendy in early 2007, when we were both living in LA. Wendy is the mother of an industry colleague of mine who was affiliated with Nike and who gave my name to Nike when they were searching for a yoga teacher to be the face of their upcoming yoga campaign. I moved out of LA later that year (Wendy had told me there was a lot of upcoming travel in my chart) but I have checked in with her every year since.

I have never made a decision or changed a course of action based on my readings with Wendy, nor has Wendy ever tried to sway me one way or another. But I love our sessions because I can talk to Wendy about anything and everything and she listens with compassion and responds with wisdom, all wrapped up in her interpretation of how I am being affected by the stars and planets. It’s like a therapy session with a mother-figure who has an other worldly perspective on our existence.

When I was entrenched in my postpartum depression and experiencing regular, debilitating, terrifying panic attacks, I reached out to Wendy. I had spoken to her shortly after Ryker’s birth so she knew I was in pain, both physical and mental. She has seven children herself, and has told me I am like one of her children, so I knew she understood me. I remember she emphatically told me to take care of myself, because I couldn’t take care of anyone else with an empty tank.

But I didn’t take care of myself. I didn’t know how. I also didn’t know that I wasn’t. I needed bigger support than I had ever needed before.

When I spoke to Wendy at the height of my panic disorder, I was desperate for some explanation as to why I was going through what I was going through, some sign that it was going to be over soon. Which planet’s energies could I blame for all this?

Of course, I knew it was not so simple. But what Wendy did tell me was that as human beings, we are all in the "School of Life." We are here to learn. The emotional instability I was experiencing was a signal to dive deeper within, to learn more about my inner self, and that I was ready to take this on. This work of self study was a big part of my healing process, along with therapy, writing, and doing my best to practice fierce honesty with myself.

I spoke to Wendy the other day and told her the news of my pregnancy. Because she knows what I have gone through with Ryker, she knows that there’s a lot that comes with my being pregnant again. Naturally, she hopes that I will have a better experience than I did before.

I have no idea if this time around will be better or worse. What I do know is that the shock factor of becoming a mother for the first time won’t be there. I’m versed in the language of motherhood now, in a way that was simply impossible before. I also know a lot more about postpartum mental illness, how to identify its symptoms, and how ask for help. Perhaps most importantly, I got through it before so I know that I can get through it again.

Wendy said she knew things would be better this time around because I wasn’t going to have the same depth of pain like before. She started getting excited about the joy I would finally get to experience with having a new baby. She said, “Oh that newborn baby smell! Nothing in the world beats the smell of a newborn baby, it’s just the best thing in the entire world!”

This love of the newborn smell seems to be a universally shared sentiment. People talk of wanting to drink it in or bottle it up.

And then, there’s me.

That newborn baby smell makes me recoil.

I liken it to people who literally despise cilantro, like my husband. He cannot stand it. It makes him gag. It turns out that his distaste of cilantro is actually written into his genetic code.

Even pre-motherhood, I never really had that enraptured response many people do to the newborn smell. I find its intensity almost oppressive, like someone has put on one too many spritzes of perfume. I could objectively understand that I should be thinking it was a pleasant smell. Kind of a mixture between flowers, a dryer sheet, and a bit of warm milk? But never having really been a “baby person,” it just wasn’t something I wanted to bathe myself in.

Post-motherhood, I like it even less.

About a year ago, I caught a whiff of a new baby. I nearly gagged. I hadn’t even been holding the baby. The smell was just so potent, so powerful. But what kind of monster was I to have this kind of reaction to the smell of an innocent newborn baby?

When I got home, it hit me. I realized it wasn’t the smell itself and it certainly wasn’t the baby. It’s what that smell represents for me. It reminded me of the horribly dark, raw, and scary time when Ryker was a baby. I gag and recoil out of an innate reaction to shield myself from pain, out of fear of reliving those darkest days. That new baby smell, for me, is haunting. It symbolizes my postpartum darkness, grief, and panic.

I actually cannot remember Ryker smelling a certain way as a baby. I think my senses were dulled by my depression. I don’t remember thinking that he smelled bad, but I certainly wasn’t getting some oxytocin kick from breathing him in.

Weirdly, I now think Ryker smells delicious. Other mothers seem to lament that long gone baby smell that has ben replaced by a more normal smell of an older kid - sweaty, a bit stinky, and certainly not anything considered precious that you’d want to bottle up. I couldn’t feel more opposite.

Riding home on the subway at the end of a school day, I smell my son’s head and while it’s not that I think he smells objectively nice, to me, he smells delightful. I would search for the ickiness of an active little boy who hadn’t had his hair washed in a few days, but to this day, I have not found this. All I smell is my little one, my child, my son.

It’s a smell that reflects my love for him as his mother, a love that depression prevented me from feeling immediately upon his arrival. A love I wasn’t sure would ever really come and the gift of having initially felt the absence of this love is that it is now a love I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted.

It’s the smell of finally loving motherhood, of having healed so much, of stepping into who I am.

It’s the smell of making up for lost time.

I’m not sure how I will feel when this baby arrives. I may or may not experience postpartum depression again. I may or may not notice any newborn smell or immediately feel overcome with motherly love. What I do know is that I have the strength and wisdom of my past experience to get through it. I probably won’t ever be one of those people who can’t get enough of the newborn smell, and that’s okay.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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