My thoughts on motherhood, and the mother I envisioned myself being, in no way matched my early experiences as a mom. This dissonance derailed me for a time. I had a great mom, who loved and nurtured me. I assumed I was cut from the same cloth, and would model myself accordingly. I never doubted that I would be a good mother before I had kids. I’ve doubted it many times since… I felt completely overwhelmed most of the time in the first year of Maya’s life. I thought I knew what it would be like. I thought, if exhaustion is the worst of it, I could surely handle that! I thought, yes babies cry. So what? I won’t mind sitting, and cradling her until she falls asleep. I pictured myself as an endlessly giving, forever nurturing, and never-impatient parent. Seven years in, mom to two daughters, I can assuredly say, that isn’t me.
In that first year I cried a lot… Like maybe as much as Maya did. I walked with her in her stroller through all 4 seasons, and I cried. I cried because I felt like a failure. I wasn’t the mother I thought I would be. I cried because I didn’t feel the way I thought I was going to feel- you know all warm and fuzzy, and madly in love at first sight with my precious newborn daughter. We tell moms-to-be that they will automatically fall in love. While motherhood can have its blissful parts, we exercise selective memory when we tell only the good parts of our stories. We unintentionally set women up to feel inadequate right out of the gate, when we paint the picture that they will not mind being selfless, exhausted and depleted. Think about it.
I knew when my first-born was still living inside of me that I loved her, and that I would care for her with all of my heart. When I held her, and my husband and I looked down at her together, I felt an indescribable connection with this little stranger. But she was just that, a stranger. I understood that she was part of me, of us. I loved and worried for her, but it took me a while to fall in love.
Despite all of the support I had early into motherhood, I felt incredibly alone. I hated the solitude; I was angry, tired, and frustrated. I ached for freedom. Do I have time to shower? Will I ever leave the house alone again? Can I make time for me? When will she stop crying? When will she sleep? For how long? I never could have imagined the impact of sleep deprivation on a person’s wellbeing and stability, and how I would obsess over how to get just a little bit more. Tippy-toeing around, crawling out of her room on all fours, and planning life, as I knew it, around nap time. I need to say here, that what fed my frustration was all of the well-intentioned, one-size-fits-all-advice I got about sleep. The only advice I really needed to heed was do what keeps you sane. Simple. I needed to quiet the noise in my head, so that I could listen to what my instincts were telling me. It came down to- if it soothes her, and gives you a little peace, do it.
Being a mom is the hardest, and best thing I’ve ever done. In time I did fall in love with that little stranger. Worrying for her safety, and welfare became the new normal, and I learned to appreciate the weight of responsibility attached to parenthood. She has taught me more than she will ever know about letting go of preconceived notions, and listening to my inner voice. There is a depth to my love for her that words cannot capture. But, it’s still hard… I imagine it always will be. From the moment our children are born we sit on the sideline of their lives, moving our chair as the game changes. At first we are intimately involved in the game, we shadow the play, and attend to every need. As they grow, and the challenges change, so too does the sideline. I realize now that I will spend the rest of my life negotiating and renegotiating that sideline. I’ve learned that the weight of parental worry is more manageable when shared, and that navigating all of this, is not quite so ominous when I’m taking care of myself.
There is nothing wrong with needing time to adjust. There is nothing wrong with loving so much of what motherhood brings, while not loving all of it. We don’t need to be ok with being selfless, exhausted and depleted. That doesn’t make us good mothers. What makes us good mothers is leaning into the hard stuff, instead of backing out, and making space for our joy and humanity in the process. It is our responsibility to make time to recharge when needed, so that we can get back to the work of being a parent. It’s ok that we see it as work. My expectations of being a mom needed to shift, in order to align with my new reality, thus softening the edges of my previously held rigid beliefs.
My kids don’t need me to be selfless or perfect, they need me to be happy. We sit on the sideline, preoccupied with our children’s wellbeing. We forget our own. With a little nudge, and some encouragement, I am reminded that I foster joy in my children by emanating my own. Cultivating happiness is an inside job. I want my children to learn by example, that exercising self-care is essential. Not only incredibly restorative, and good for the soul, but good for all the souls it’s connected to.