I see new friends starting out on the road to motherhood with mixed feelings. Immense joy at the ecstasy of love they are about to experience, great protectiveness, wishing to shield them from the scars it will make on their souls, the pain, the heart ache, the worry, the exhaustion, the touching of anger which they had been able to keep hidden all these years. But this is the journey. The one that makes us the mothers that we will be. The mothers that our children will live with every day, yet barely know… –Lucy Pearce, Moods of Motherhood
A few years ago, a life coach and women’s health expert I follow online got pregnant. During her pregnancy, she started a new Facebook fan page called Blissful Motherhood* (*not really. It was called something different, but I’m protecting her identity). I am going to confess that my first reaction was to kind of meanly laugh to myself as I thought, “oh honey! You poor thing. You have NO FREAKIN CLUE.” So, a couple of months after she had her baby, she showed back up on her real Facebook page with a familiar lament: oh my goodness, this is SO HARD, why didn’t anyone TELL ME?! And, again, my initial reaction was kind of a mean secret snicker (so, how’s that Blissful Motherhood page treating you now?!). Then, I swallowed that unbecoming reaction and I told her this:
When I had my first baby, I would see women who were pregnant and feel almost a sense of grief for them—like, just wait, you have NO idea what is coming. I also told my husband more than once: “this is both more wonderful and more HORRIBLE than I ever could have imagined.” The fear of being thought a “bad mom” is SO powerful that it keeps us quiet about many things. I’ve felt more than once that my kids were “torturing” or me or literally trying to crush my spirit/soul. It sounds horrible to type it out, but that is how I feel sometimes! I’ve also written about how it interesting to feel both captivated AND captive. Bonded and also bound. I discovered that there was a whole new section of women’s rights I hadn’t even been aware of prekids–mother’s rights. I do think many, many women have written about this, but when you start out you feel like you’re the only one whose “daring” to mention the ugly side [she'd also mentioned, "why doesn't anyone write about this?" Um, they totally do. A lot]. Start reading “momoirs”—they’re a lifeline! So many good ones out there. I have a big collection of them. Oh, and start reading Brain, Child magazine. The best look at real mothering I’ve ever know.
This, “why didn’t anyone tell me?” and, “why isn’t anyone talking about this?” is a common refrain echoing in the postpartum tales of many mothers. So, why don’t we tell them? Or, what can we actually tell them? Is there a way to really do so? I kind of think there’s not.
Lucy Pearce explains it like this in her Moods of Motherhood book:
Nobody told me… You look at me bewildered, eyes grey with exhaustion. Milk-spattered, baggy clothes, hair awry. “Nobody told me…” you begin. You look at me, urging me to explain myself. How could I have kept this, all of this, secret from her? Surely it was my duty to prepare her. “Nobody told me how much it would hurt, how exhausted I would feel, how much love I have in my heart that I think I will burst, how overwhelming it all is…” her eyes begin to well with the enormity of her new knowing. All I can do is to smile. To hold her. “We tried.” I say softly. Stroking her tousled hair. And I think to myself. It is not so much that we did not tell you, as you could not hear. Until you have your own child, held in your heart, your ears are blocked, your eyes are blind to the reality of motherhood. Its pains and its glories. Once you have been there, stood in the body of motherhood, then you can hold hands with every woman who has ever mothered. You know her joys and pains. You are her.
Looking at my own pre-motherhood life, I think this is right. I could not hear. I didn’t want to hear. I saw frazzled mothers stumbling into LLL meetings and “complaining” about their precious darlings and thought things like, “I’ll never feel that way!” I remember thinking after my first son was born that everything I’d feared it would be like to have a baby was TRUE and everything I’d dreamed it would be like, was also true. My mother told me before he was born that the, “highs are higher and the lows are lower” after a baby, which is also very true, but I don’t think there’s any way to fully prepare for that. My future doula gave me a letter at my blessingway in which she tried to lovingly express what it is really like and I put it away thinking,”for you maybe!”
In response to the Blissful Motherhood life coach, another woman responded: “I remember my mom trying to get real with me before I had my first baby and I was horrified with what she told me, almost angry that she would try to burst my bubble… then I had my little boy came along and I wondered why she hadn’t told me more…Sometimes the realities of motherhood do just seem too harsh to share…” Personally, I didn’t want to hear much about the realities of parenting from my own mother, because if her experience of mothering was terrible, HELLO, that would have been my fault. I didn’t want to know that I’d made her suffer and stress!
My own childbirth educator simply told a story: when her own first child was a newborn, sometimes the baby cried so much and so long, that the educator would put her down in the middle of the living room floor and go outside and run around the house multiple times. While initially only “hearing” this story in brief passing (i.e. I’ll never feel that way), I touched back in with that story multiple times during my first son’s first year. I never actually did the running, but what the story gave me was permission to feel badly about parenting and to want to get away from it. And, you know why? Because that childbirth educator was a rocking cool lady and if someone that rocking cool had to “lose it” and run around her house like a freak, then I must not be doing such a bad job myself.
However, I also don’t tell them, those sparkling, beautiful, bright, glorious, happy, and full of promise pregnant women, what it is really like, because I don’t want to ever be the one to steal their joy, their excitement, their sense of promise, and their happy anticipation of “the greatest days of their life” or the fulfillment of a lifetime dream of parenthood. And, guess what? I think I’ve also realized that that sense of promise and anticipation is reborn, at least in part, during every pregnancy. It isn’t only the territory of the blissfully unaware, it is a gift that accompanies each new baby—the dream that this baby will be wonderful and perfect and so, too, can you be the mother you’ve always imagined being. It is a new, bright, hopeful start, every time.
It wasn’t actually until I had Alaina that I felt like I finally really enjoyed having a baby and being a mother the way I’d always dreamed of. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the others, I certainly did, but not in that delicious, complete, whole, and vibrant way in which I reveled in her. She was the first baby for whom I felt fully capable of totally giving myself to and not feeling captive by that gift. Perhaps not coincidentally, she was also the first baby for which I did not quit doing other things I wanted to do in order to mother her. My first son’s birth necessitated essentially totally dismantling my previous life and identity. It was SO HARD. I felt so much grief and loss about abandoning so much that I’d cared about so deeply. With my second son, I was finding my legs as a mother-person and feeling my way into other roles and responsibilities that were compatible with motherhood. My feelings of depression and fatigue after him were lifted when I started to find my voice as a blogger, as the editor of the Friends of Missouri Midwives newsletter, as a breastfeeding counselor, and as a birth educator. I’d redefined myself to include motherhood as the core facet of my identity, but in a way that allowed me personal expression and the ability to “make a difference” to other women. With my last baby, my mother-voice outlets were firmly established, my tribe was healthy and strong, and my non-mother career was compatible in an integrated and fairly harmonious way with family life. It was then that I finally felt like being a “good mother” AND doing others things at the same time was actually possible and (pretty much) stopped trying to make excuses for never having given up on that desire.
So what do you think? What can we tell mothers-to-be about the realities of mothering? Do we tell them anything or do we just hug them later when they cry and tell us they had no idea, why didn’t anyone tell me? What stories, like that of my own childbirth educator, do you have that you share with clients? Stories are handy ways of imparting life wisdom without being directive or prescriptive, or implying that someone must be exactly like you. I tell my clients a story of reaching out my hand to my husband, our fingers not quite able to touch, and saying, I miss you. I tell them about my feelings of this parenting thing being both more horrible and more wonderful than I ever imagined. I tell them about my childbirth educator running around her house. I give them tips and tips and more tips about making a postpartum plan. And, I tell them they look gorgeous. And, that they’ll be wonderful parents; that their babies are so lucky to have them. I listen to their happy birth plans and celebrate their enthusiasm. I point out how I notice how well they work together and what a great team they are. I wish them beautiful births and happy babymoons and tell them to email me or call me if they need anything. I hope they’ll remember that I’m there and that I do have the capacity to hear “ugly” without rejecting them. I remind them as many times as I can that they’re strong and beautiful and capable…and then, I open my hands and heart and watch them fly away into their own unknown, mysterious, tender, fragile, and precious journey.
Some relevant past blog posts: