I was 28, married to my high school sweetheart, a published writer, and an adjunct professor at a university in New York City. Things were going so well, I thought I’d have a baby.
Oh, the things they don’t tell you about motherhood. Not just the basics, like the fact that none of the books will pertain exactly to you — you will take a little from everywhere and find what works. Or that the burning love you feel for your children will be tightly bound up with a desire to get up and run away from it all. Or that the actual depth of your fatigue in those first few months will be greater than you can fathom — that you won’t ever sleep the way you used to, even when your children start to sleep all night.
No. I’m talking about your identity. I’m talking about the fact that in one quick instant, you go from being woman, girlfriend, wife, professional, artist, lover, free-thinking-doing-being-person to MOTHER. Just like that. And mother, at least at first, is bigger than all those other things, whether you want it to be or not.
And then you have to process it all, and figure out how to be this newfangled person. All while wiping butts, looking like hell, and existing on five hours of broken sleep.
It is this transition — this total change of identity — that seems to be the hardest thing for new mothers. I see it each time a friend of mine becomes a mother, and in the many mothers I have met since becoming a mom. And I felt it, profoundly, in the first years of motherhood.
It began with the realization, sitting there on the couch holding my newborn son, that there was nothing else I wanted to do but take care of him for the next — I didn’t know how long — and that I was just going to have to figure out how make that work.
Only it wasn’t as clear-headed as that. It was messy. It was pressure from within and without to find a way back to college teaching (because it was so prestigious, and how could I give that up?), and then realizing that my heart hadn’t been in that job all along. It meant letting go of all these images of my future self as a tenured creative writing college professor somewhere out in the middle of Kansas.
But mostly, I had to figure out how to spend as much time as possible with my children, all while not going completely fucking broke. And I had to realize that certain people in my life might not understand my choice to be a stay-at-home-mom (oh, they said so loud and clear).
And then I had to realize that it actually doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about that at all. AT ALL. Because staying home or not is a completely individual choice based on a million different factors and every mother is going to do it the way that works for her and her family.
And all this time, as I said, I was nursing all night, not sleeping, scooping poop out of the bath, not showering for days on end, having yogurt thrown in my face, and, oh, did I mention not sleeping?
It has been eight years since I became a mom for the first time. And there has been barely a moment to reflect on it all. But the other day, while pushing my 2-year-old in the stroller on a bright April morning, a light wind blowing past us, I felt it. I could almost see myself, from the outside in, and I thought, “that’s a mother who is comfortable in her skin.”
And I kinda sorta was.
I don’t believe motherhood has a clear-cut path for everybody — I know it certainly hasn’t been for me. We are all works in progress, with our own struggles, needs, desires, and ways to make things work.
But I wish someone had told me it was normal to feel like the person I’d been before kids had been smashed into sharp little pieces of glass.
I wish someone had told me that it was normal for the love I felt for my child to be both dark and light, to be all-consuming — but mostly, that the love would confuse the hell out of me, and make me feel uncertain, and totally scared shitless.
I wish someone had told me that I would eventually find all those pieces of myself — that I would sweep up the glass, put it together again. And that the new me would sparkle, bend light, make rainbows.
I wish someone had told me I would come out of it all intact, kick-ass, more resilient than ever — a mother.
Related post: What I Wish I’d Known as a Newborn Mom