Things I wish I understood about being a mom before I became one

Infant Insomnia by KelleyBean86 via DeviantArt

I like to think I’ve learned a few things in the six months I’ve been a mom. Most of them involve how much poop/barf/cereal you can leave on furniture before it’s permanent, but there are a handful of lessons that run a little deeper. Keep in mind this is my experience; your mileage may vary, etc.

All your emotions now go to 11.

A friend warned me about this, but for some reason I thought I was immune. I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation, endured mania, fallen in love on a first date, and had over-affectionate feelings for cats–I’ve run the gamut. But none of that prepared me for babyfeels. New levels of fear and joy unlocked the second she was born. No rejection has ever sliced so fine and sharp as her refusal to nurse; no smile has ever healed so easily as her first.  The way her cries of distress paralyze my soul; the bone-deep satisfaction of her giggles. Every emotion I’ve ever had is suddenly raw with unfamiliarity, as if it’s never been handled before, almost like I’m experiencing things the way she is–for the first time. It’s both amazing and terrifying.

Mother’s intuition isn’t automatic.

There is no switch that flips when you have a baby and now you magically know how to feed, clothe, clean, and soothe it. No matter how nurturing you are by nature, there are things you have to learn like any other skill. Much like learning a foreign language, you pick up concrete things first (diapers, food) and then move on to abstract concepts (tired vs boredom vs gas). You develop mother’s intuition by becoming a student of your child; what looks like an innate sixth sense from the outside is really the fruit of experience.

You forget those precious first days.

It’s heartbreaking but true. The first 6-8 weeks are brutally beautiful., and I didn’t feel like I came up for air until after 12. You have no idea what you’re doing, you’re exhausted, there’s so much crying and so few answers, and you can’t stand how cute they are. But no matter how many pictures you take, endless days and sleep deprivation slowly rob you of what you wish you could hold onto forever. The closeness of nursing, the wonder of holding them for the first time, the moment they look at you with recognition, how tiny their newborn body feels in your arms. You know you did it, but the realness is gone, like it happened to someone else. I’m convinced that it’s this forgetting that makes us want to have another baby–we want to remember.

Your body is different: forever.

I’m not talking about muffin tops and stretch marks (although they’re certainly a factor). I’m talking about being physically reshaped. Your bones and muscles and tendons are subtly changed by nine months and thirty hours of increasingly hard work. Your butt and hips don’t hold up your pants they way they used to, now too broad and round. Your shirts and bras have shifted position, a little fuller and lower. Your face is changed. You walk differently. One day you look in the mirror and realize that this body isn’t the one you started with. And that takes some getting used to.

Every choice has a consequence you can’t foresee.

Breastmilk or formula. Attachment or babywise. Parent-led schedule or baby-led schedule. TV or no TV. Back to work or stay at home. Your baby’s life is shaped by the choices you make every day, big and small, and you have no way to know if they’re the best ones. It is so, so easy to let fear take over and make you obsess about every possible option and outcome. But there’s no right answer, and no matter how unsure you are, you still have to decide. You have to use what you have and know and trust that it’s going to be okay.

You’re never alone. You’re alone all the time.

I’ve never experienced anything like this paradox before, and it’s hard to wrap words around. As an introvert, I like spending time alone, often going days without stepping foot outside, but I wasn’t prepared for feeling isolated while being tethered to someone. You’re juggling the baby’s feedings, sleeps, baths, and playtime while caring for the house and your partner, all while trying to shoehorn in food, sleep, and hygiene for yourself. You spend more time with your baby than anyone else; you’re constantly in contact and on call. But it’s not like they can converse about world affairs or help with dinner, so you end up feeling desperately lonely. And given everything you’re managing, it’s hard to connect with someone who doesn’t secretly poop themselves. When you finally do, you’re so relieved to speak in polysyllables that you swear you’ll get out more. Then you don’t because it’s so much easier to just stay home. And it starts all over.

Your best isn’t good enough.

No matter how hard you try, you’re going to flub something. It’s going to happen. You’ll mistake gas for hunger and make it worse. You’ll sacrifice naptime to run errands. You’ll nurse too soon after a beer. You’ll give meds when you’re not sure if it’s necessary. You’ll forget to buckle them into the carseat. You’ll drop your phone on their soft spot. (Yes, I’ve done all of these.) Control is an illusion; perfection, doubly so. And you can either let that be a prison of condemnation or accept that fucking up is inevitable and be set free. As a recovering perfectionist, I’m working hard to break out of jail. Every day, the bar gets lowered a little, which is actually a good thing. It means I don’t have to be Mom of the Year every day. As long as we survive until bedtime, we’re good.

Don’t wish it away. Don’t look at it like it’s forever.

Shortly after Mackenzie was born, I turned to my mother and said, “This week has been the longest day of my life.” I was in pain, the baby’s cries petrified me, and time made no sense. My mind grasped at imaginings of an easier future where I didn’t have to nurse with cracked skin (or at all) and the nights were uninterrupted. But I knew I had to stay present or I’d miss the most precious time of my daughter’s life. I’m constantly wanting to be elsewhere/when, anxious to get to better times, if only this would stop or that would change. But that’s how I end up with regrets, how I’m blinded to what’s precious right now. I will always regret wishing away nursing–and getting my wish. Reality is that momming doesn’t get easier; it just changes. You (I) have to remember they’re only this little once. This is the most they’ll ever need you. Don’t rush because it’s hard. Don’t miss it.

Love wins.

So much of what I’ve learned about being a mother has been hard. A lot of it no one talks about, some of it I didn’t believe, and the rest requires stretching myself in uncomfortable ways. I never had a love-tsunami wash over me like a lot of moms describe; it trickled in quietly. But on the days when she’s crying and I’m crying and nothing is okay and darkness presses in, that slow, steady love is a life preserver holding us both up. It makes her happy to see me after a hard-won nap. It makes me cling tighter when she’s angry. It makes each morning new. No matter what happens today, tomorrow is a fresh start because we love each other in a way that I don’t fully understand. And that’s enough.

Writer’s note: I cut a point from this list because it’s so important and potentially inflammatory that needs its own post. Stay tuned.

2 Comments

  1. Susabelle

    October 24, 2016 at 12:17 PM

    The alone thing. It’s not really that, in my mind. It is that this one little person depends on you for absolutely every little thing, and you cannot provide every little thing, yet you are obligated to continue to try, and NO ONE seems to understand and you have no one to help lighten the load. Unlike other things, you can’t put it down because you are frustrated and walk away for a while and do something totally human and adult-like, like going for a coffee or making yourself a totally decadent chocolate cake and eating four pieces before you realize you’ve done so. It is a true fact of motherhood – this constant response to NEED that you cannot deny because all those hormones rushed in after delivery and you really, truly, have no choice. This leads to a lot of frustration and doubt and guilt. Hormones. Ridiculous little buggers. The good news is, and you’ve probably figured this out already, is that this time is finite. There is an end to it. Mack will walk, talk, run, make decisions, and need less of you. Just ride the wave.

    The reason we have more kids? HORMONES again. They come in and make you forget the pain and the deep exhaustion and the horror of giving birth and you think, “wow, that wasn’t so bad, let’s do that again!” Stupid hormones. 😉

    1. elliedi

      October 24, 2016 at 2:28 PM

      Oh, yeah, the NEED thing is huge. I’m amazed that I can even partway meet a baby’s needs, much less be basically wholly responsible for them. I am fortunately, though, that I have some great mom friends who “get it” when I’m all strung out. I truly couldn’t (shouldn’t) do it without their support.

      Though I have to disagree about forgetting the trauma of giving birth part. That is VERY clear to me still! I’m sure it fades a bit with the years, but I made damn sure to write it all down so if I ever forget I can go remind myself about what I’m getting into. 😀

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