Becoming a mother is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Not having a baby. That part, while not at all comfortable, was fairly easy.
No, the hard part, the hardest part, the very hardest thing I’ve ever done and may ever do (and yes, I’ve thought this through) was becoming a mother.
No one told me what it meant when, the minute that precious baby was born, the minute I held her and listened to her cry and tried to believe that the crying in that moment was good, at that very minute, a mother was born, too.
They say that the mother is born when the baby is born, that for every baby that becomes, a mother becomes, too, but they say it in a sappy way, They say it in a way that made me think of cupids and want to gag. I’m not a sentimental person and things like that, things that show up on greeting cards and cheesy quote sites just don’t do it for me.
In all fairness, I’m pretty sure they meant it the way I read it. But as I think about becoming a mother and then I think about the ways I’ve heard people try to describe what it might be like to be a newborn, I think this is one of the truest things ever said: “The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new.”
When I became a mother, I found myself thrust, suddenly, into a world I’d never known existed before. I felt helpless there, unable to care for myself, let alone the little life some crazy person let me take home from the hospital. I felt much like a newborn, blinking at the light and trying to take it all in, but wanting all the while to curl back up into a small, dark, safe place to ride out this storm.
I spent days, weeks, months trying to be a person who didn’t exist anymore, because she was the only me I knew. I didn’t feel like I had a new identity, just an entire lack of an old one. I couldn’t find myself, couldn’t find the place where I knew I loved my baby, and I couldn’t even begin to have the words to ask for help.
I’m saying the same thing over and over here, trying out different words, hoping that something resonates, because I’ve tried to tell people this before. I’ve tried to tell them how hard it was and how stunned I was and how terrifying it was to suddenly exist in a world that looked the same and yet had changed entirely because I was an entirely different person in it. I’ve tried to say how crazy I felt, how it wasn’t just hormones and chemicals but some sort of making and re-making that I didn’t feel confident would ever be complete.
I’ve tried, and most of them cock their heads or squint at me and say, “But doesn’t every mother feel that way?”
That used to stab me through, to feel like a knife turned and twisted as it damaged hurt places even more than they were already damaged, but now I hear that and I think two things.
1) I felt undone. Un-fucking-done. Unmoored. Unmade. Unprepared. Unable. If every woman feels that way, if every woman who becomes mother feels like that, then we need to do a damn sight more to address it. We need to talk and share about what things are really like after a baby is born. We need to share the things we actually think, the times when we wonder if we really should just take the baby to the nearest fire station or a church and make an anonymous baby drop-off, because it would hurt like hell forever but at least the baby would be in competent, capable hands. And we need to talk until people listen, to say it over and over and over again because that one person who actually hears might get to have a different experience because of it and that would be worth it, even if many disparage and begin to worry about us. Because I prepared to become a mother, I was well-prepared, even, and I had no idea the maelstrom that would come.
2) The more I ponder this, the more I think that every woman could feel this way, that this unmaking and remaking happens to everyone and different people are in touch with it in different ways and use different words to talk about it because it’s not something words describe very well, and some aren’t in touch with it at all. The more I ponder it, the more I hear my story in the stories that I hear other people tell, in the words people say when they’re trying to say something deep and meaningful and can’t find the words and so they let their experience be classified some other way, sometimes as postpartum depression and/or anxiety, or even as the helpless feeling all new parents have when they take a babe home from the hospital.
A word, on postpartum depression and/or anxiety, before I forget and you wonder if I think things I don’t actually think. Postpartum disorders are real, and they suck. I struggled with anxiety, an anxiety that eventually lifted when I stopped breastfeeding and started exercising, which was the point where I could finally see it for what it was, because I didn’t fit any of the doctors’ descriptions. I don’t ever want to say that these aren’t real, but I do want to say that, sometimes, I think we let these terms, these categories, diminish or define this experience of being unmade and remade in a way that takes away from what the experience really is.
My experience was anxiety and it was more. The anxiety made the unmaking and the remaking harder, but it didn’t make it a different sort of experience.
Asides aside, becoming a mother made me into a new person, and figuring out what that meant and who I was took a long, long time, took years, took until today and tomorrow and I’ll let you know when it’s done.
At first, all I could see was the unmaking. I lived in a world where I no longer existed, at least not in any form I could recognize. An unfathomable chasm separated me from my previous life and I couldn’t return, even if I could have found some responsible and conscionable way to do that.
What saved me, though, what kept me from performing an out of control nose dive into the nearest empty swimming pool, was a growing sense of being remade. I wasn’t just undone, I was done up in a new way. One person, one me, didn’t exist anymore, but another one did.
I didn’t know this the way I know that one plus one is two, or even the way I know God exists. I couldn’t have told anyone why I hung on, Maybe it was just the simple fact that I was still here, still living, and so I had to be someone even if I didn’t know who I was and wasn’t sure I ever would.
I wish I could give you some sort of undeniably happy ending. The truth is, my eldest is 4 1/2 and I’m still finding out who I am as a mother – not just what I am like as a mother, what works for me and what doesn’t in parenting, but who I am now that I am a mother. Who is this new person, this mother, this person who is and is not the me I’ve always known and who, on the outside, is mostly given over to caring for small people? How am I the same? How am I different? What can I hold onto from before, and what do I need to let wash away?