So you’ve just found out that you’re pregnant — surprise! — and you’re thinking, Oh no, no, no. You’re thinking that your life has ended. That you just flushed the liquid asset of your independence down the toilet alongside the extra pee from your pregnancy test.
You’re thinking of your friend who disappeared from social life when she reproduced. You’re hearing the war cries of her three feral children in the background when you call her on the phone. She was going to become a doctor.
You’re noticing parents in restaurants, watching them corral their toddler back into the booth for the sixth time while the baby throws food from the high chair. You watch it all and weep silently into your pasta. Is this really going to be your life? You do not want this to be your life.
You wanted to travel.
You wanted to get your master’s.
You wanted that job.
Or maybe you really do want a baby, but now you’re freaking out over the sheer enormity of new life gestating in your once-virgin uterus and you’re calculating how old you’ll be in 18 years when this eternal little being will go out into the world and you’ll be independent again.
I wept in fear and surprise when I saw those two pink lines on a pregnancy test three years ago. So, too, did I think mournfully of my independence. I was 22 and barely out of college — we’d only been married four months. We were going to travel the world! I was going to become a teacher! How could this happen? I panicked.
Probably you are panicking. Probably you will panic at various points throughout your pregnancy, or like me, your anxiety will be on a steady low simmer throughout the whole nine months. Maybe you’re wondering if you are even cut out to be a mom. What if you don’t love your baby? You don’t even like cats! You kill all your plants!
I was terrified as I stared down the barrel of motherhood. Before my eyes sprang up a new world of misbehaving children and frazzled mothers. I went for dinner with a friend who had kids and cringed as they threw garlic bread at each other in a series of increasingly violent uprisings. A co-worker brought her newborn to work for a visit, and I lurked near the photocopier as he spit up on everyone in the office. “He only woke up three times last night,” she beamed.
I can’t do this, I thought. Parents are insane.
Then, one September day, I had my baby.
In a moment (give or take eight hours of labor), I crossed over to the other side into motherhood. And everything changed. You’ve heard this before, I know. Everything changed. It means nothing to you now. It will mean everything, though, once you are on the other side.
It’s going to be fine. It will be better than fine, though you can’t possibly know this now.
Here is what I learned on that morning three years ago. It’s what every woman learns when she gives birth or signs those adoption papers or obtains custody. This is the secret, at once the most obvious and hidden: Motherhood looks better from the inside.
There are many things about motherhood that you can see from the outside: tantrums and boogers and diapers and minivans. But, from the outside, you can’t see the love. You can’t see those silky, spiderweb, stronger-than-steel bonds of sheer adoration that bind those mothers to their babies like superglue. And how it makes them not only endure the tantrums and boogers and diapers and minivan, but do it all willingly, unthinkingly. Because all the fibers and filaments of love that once looped in steady strings around their own hearts have been flung out and away from their own beings and onto their children.
Holding my son for the first time, I could feel it — those strands falling magnet-like from me to him, tethering us together. In the quiet hum of the hospital room, I looked down at the bundle in my arms and suddenly realized I was holding my own heart — but now, infinitely more precious — somehow beating and breathing outside of my body.
In that moment, and in many moments since then, I looked back at my terrified, pre-baby self with a fond sort of pity. What did I know? I knew nothing.
None of it makes sense to you now. You haven’t crossed over yet. But while you’re cringing at restaurant tantrums and your friend over-posting her daughter’s 1st birthday on Instagram, just remember that this magic that has transformed other, saner people into doting parents will happen to you too.
You’re a skeptic still, I know. There’s so much you wanted to do with your life. You wanted to make a difference.
You sweet, selfish thing. Do you know it yet — that this is what life is truly about? You, who has always spoken of changing the world and embracing the unknown and bettering yourself? You’d planned to do it in other ways, perhaps: to find yourself through travel or start an NGO or climb the corporate ladder or forge ahead into the world with the blazing torch of your education or skill.
But here instead, it has come quietly to your door, as close and deep as your own heartbeat. Let yourself be stretched. Make room for life the way it has made room for you. Here it is — your shortcut to the heart of life. Ask for the grace to bend — if you stand rigid, life will surely break you. As your body stretches and grows, so, too, will you in the fear and apprehension and loss of control as well as in the abundant joy and reward.
There is life — vast, vibrant life — during the season of babies. They tell me there is also life on the other side of children. Perhaps in a year, or 10, or 20, you and I will go after that job or degree or travel adventure. It will still be there, waiting. And when we go, we will go as those who have made room for life. Who bear the indelible marks of sacrifice and love. Who have bent with awkward, fledgling grace and have allowed ourselves to be untied and stretched and transformed. (This is not a thinly veiled warning about stretch marks, although no promises.)
My son is now nearly 3. He and his little brother are, of course, two of the very best things in my life. I won’t say more — until you’re on the inside, any rumination from a mother of two toddlers will surely only depress or bore you. If you’re overwhelmed and afraid like I was, just keep your head down and avoid small children. Don’t stare down the echoing hallway of 18 years. Don’t weep about diapers or minivans. You don’t have to make it years. You only have to make it 9 months. The secret of motherhood will carry you from there.