CJ--my first baby--was born shortly after we arrived at the hospital. My husband ran as he pushed me in a wheelchair while I screamed one long, guttural scream down a hallway, past nurses panicking and rushing to direct us to an empty room. Brad practically catapulted me onto the bed where I landed on all fours, screaming like a cavewoman with every push and crying between contractions through the curtain of my sweaty, matted hair, "I can't do it! I can't do it!" The nurse cheered me on, "You're doing it, baby! You're doing it!" Right when I felt like I was surely dying, CJ slipped out into my just-arrived Dr's hands, and he and the nurses handed her up to me through my legs, her cord still attached to my insides, while I shakily attempted to cradle her up against gravity, to my hyperventilating chest. After a minute, I asked, "Um, can I turn around now?"
Where there should have been euphoria, joy, and soul-shattering love, I felt only shock and a kind of out-of-body surreal-ness--absolutely the opposite of what everyone prepared me for. My first few minutes of motherhood felt anything but natural.
Now, please allow me to jump around a bit.
I've been mulling over a post with this theme for months... It started when I read something a woman posted on a mommy Facebook group. I can't find it to post word for word, but her son/daughter was moving into toddlerhood and she said, "This isn't fun anymore. Being a mom sucks."
I couldn't get it out of my head. Day after day, and month after month, this comment popped into my mind. I wanted to respond but knew my thought wouldn't come across kindly, and that thought is, "What did you think you were signing up for?"
Another root to this post: I met with a new-to-me friend, one that I made through my faith post. She wrote to me right when I needed her to, when I was feeling mighty foolish. Her email was full of lots of "You are me!" sentiment, of which I totally agreed. And she wrote something there that really struck me. As a fellow recovering-perfectionist and one who thrived at her work before motherhood, she was surprised with how difficult the transition was to becoming a mother. We talked about it more in person, how there is nothing more in this world we want than to be home with our young children, but how very, very difficult and often very unfulfilling it feels; how sometimes, it's soul-sucking and feels like you are achieving so very little.
The final root for my thoughts came this past week when I read a post from Love Taza. In this post, she wrote about how motherhood has been the most fulfilling thing she has ever done. She is a Julliard graduate who left dancing behind, but has found motherhood filling all the holes in her life. When I read that, guilt washed over me. And then again, and again. It left me wondering, "Why don't I feel that way? Does that make me a bad mother? I should be feeling fulfilled every single day."
For the past week, I've analyzed my reactions to these things. Here is what I've decided:
I've decided that not feeling consistently "fulfilled" by motherhood is not a bad thing--it's just a "me" thing.
When you are of a perfectionist sort, motherhood is going to me mighty hard for you because there is so much out of your control. So much! And each day, you will not have many tangible achievements or lists checked off. One of the things that is so disheartening for me as a mother is that a great deal of what I spend my time doing has to be done over and over and over again, and all without any notice. Changing diapers, washing clothes, preparing meals, cleaning up meals, shopping for food, constant housework, folding laundry, putting it all away, getting kids dressed, disciplining, teaching the same lessons, having the same conversations, breaking up fights, and on and on. Those are the groundhog-day tasks that make me feel disheartened.
To throw on top of that is guilt. Almost nightly, I find myself reviewing my day and feeling inadequate. I think about how many times I lost my cool, how I didn't spend quality time with a certain child or all of them, how poorly I handled some situations, and how little I got done. I'm not doing this intentionally--it's just who I am.
It's not that I don't find motherhood unfulfilling--there are those moments of compete joy and satisfaction, and those are the moments I live for. It's just that much of the time I feel sucked up by the demands of motherhood and overwhelmed by how much of that work is internal. Motherhood demands constant growth from me, and I feel it.
Despite being an excellent teacher (if I do say so myself) before having kids and years upon years of experience with children, a great deal of motherhood has felt so very far from natural for me. I have to remind myself constantly to talk to my children throughout my day and get them involved in what I'm doing instead of going about my work or being stuck in my own thoughts, to read to them, to be silly with them, to play on the floor, to get on their level, to meter discipline with love, and to handle with grace the fact that they are always, always in my personal space.
While there are a lot of things that have come naturally to me as a mother, they aren't necessarily the good parts of motherhood: the anxiety, the incessant worry, the guilt, the overly-high-expectations I carry for my kids and myself, and the thought constantly echoing in the background, "I don't know what I'm doing at all."
With more thought, I've decided that I don't need to be "fulfilled" by motherhood. Because like that Facebook mom I wanted to respond to, I didn't sign up for that. I signed up for the hard stuff. I signed up for the growth.
When I was pregnant with CJ, I had a pretty realistic view of what things would look like as a new mother; I knew it was going to be a difficult transition and that there was so much I would need to learn. I was more scared than excited. That thinking didn't turn out to be self-destructive, really! It helped because my firstborn was easily the saddest baby I've ever come across; my own mother-of-seven could concur with this fact. CJ had all sorts of issues that would have made even the most idealistic of new moms feel completely shattered. But instead, I felt like I had been mentally prepared.
I felt prepared to handle those first moments/days with her, when I felt fondness and protective love for her, but not an all-encompassing connection that I had heard of. I knew that for me, that kind of love would probably take time and be earned. And it did. But it absolutely came.
I felt prepared for the feelings of helplessness, of worry, of not knowing what I was doing with even the simplest of tasks. I was prepared because I knew I was new at this motherhood thing.
So now, five years later, where I am facing days upon end of hard mothering, the kind of days where I think, "I am no good at this," or when I fantasize about running away with my baby, because he's been the only sweet child that day, I need to go back to my roots and remember: I am still new at this.
I have never had an almost-5 year old before. And while I've had an almost-3 year old and a 9 month old, I have never had it with these particular children that have followed, each with their own peculiarities. Each year with each child will hold different struggles and realities. Each year I will learn more about my own weaknesses as I see them reflected in the actions, words, and habits of my kids. I will be stretched, kneaded, punched, and pulled. I will be forced to change and to do better, to rise to the occasion, because that's what my children need from me. That's what I need from myself.
Some women out there were made to be mothers. My own mother comes to mind. They thrive on childrearing tasks that make me pull my hair out. They naturally have the know-how and patience on handling on each kid differently and mostly correctly. They instinctively view the little moments of joy for what they are and relish them. They know they aren't perfect and neither are their children, but they genuinely feel purpose behind what they do. They feel fulfilled more days than not.
But there are women like me, mothers who struggle with not feeling like they are a natural at this work we have chosen to embrace. Women who more often feel burdened by our daily tasks and struggle to find fulfillment through the stress of it, who struggle with their growing pains, even if it's all they want to do at the very heart of it.
So to me and women like me, I say this important reminder: Motherhood isn't about being, it's about BECOMING.
Many of us don't become mothers when we give birth; we become mothers as we trudge through all the trial and error, the self-doubt, the worry, the overwhelmingly hard days, and the joy too. We become mothers as we learn to look for that joy and use it as fuel for all the rest of it.
Some of us might not feel like we were born to be natural mothers, but that doesn't mean we can't become them.
We can become the mothers we want to be because this was our choice, and it can be the choice we make again every day through all the stress and exhaustion we face. It can be our choice to constantly evaluate, change, and try again. It can be our choice to dwell more on what we naturally do well and use that to mother well in our own way. It can be our choice to practice, practice, practice until mothering is who we are at our core, until it feels natural. It can be our choice to let our children transform us into the mothers they need us to be, the mothers we want to be too.
It can be our choice to BECOME that kind of mother.
So, do you want to be more silly than stressed? More patient than reactionary? More loving than anxious? More involved than frustrated? More relaxed than regimented?
You can become that.
It's the work you signed up for.