The birth of my first child, CJ, was a shocking experience. When we arrived at the hospital, my husband rushed me down the hall, while I bellowed long, guttural screams past nurses who panicked and frantically directed us into an empty delivery room. Brad practically catapulted me onto the bed, where I landed on all fours. I howled with every push and cried between contractions through the curtain of my sweaty, matted hair.
“I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” I screamed.
The nurse cheered me on. “You’re doing it, baby! You’re doing it!”
CJ slipped out into my just-arrived doctor’s hands, and he and the nurses handed her up to me through my shaky legs, the cord still attached. I struggled against gravity to cradle her up to my hyperventilating chest. But where there should have been euphoria, joy, and soul-shattering love, I felt only a surreal shock—absolutely the opposite of what everyone prepared me for. My first few minutes of motherhood felt anything but natural.
Despite having been an excellent teacher before having kids (if I do say so myself) and having had years of experience with children, a great deal of motherhood has felt surprisingly unnatural for me. I have to remind myself constantly to talk to my children throughout my day, to get them involved in what I’m doing instead of going about my work or being stuck in my own thoughts, to take one-on-one time with them, to be silly, 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.
There are a lot of things that have come naturally to me as a mother, but they aren’t necessarily the good parts of motherhood: the anxiety, the incessant worry, the guilt, the overly-high-expectations I carry, and the critical inward voice driving me to be better. 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 felt like I had been mentally prepared.
I felt prepared to handle those first moments and days with her, and I felt a great fondness and a protective love for her, but not the all-encompassing connection that I had heard about. I knew that for me, that kind of love would probably take time and be hard-earned. 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 patient with myself because I recognized that I was new at this motherhood thing.
Five years and two more kids later, when I have difficult days (the kind where I fantasize about taking a vacation with my baby, because he’s been the only nice child that day), I need to go back to my roots and remember: I am still new at this. I have never had a 5-year-old before. And while I’ve had a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old, I have never had these particular children.
Each year with each child will hold different struggles and journeys. 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. These women thrive on childrearing tasks that make me pull my hair out. They know they aren’t perfect and neither are their children, but they genuinely feel purpose behind their work, much of which appears to be instinct-driven. Then there are women like me, who struggle with not feeling natural at this work we have chosen to embrace. Women who more often feel burdened by the daily tasks of motherhood and struggle to find fulfillment in them, who grapple with our own growing pains, even if being a good mother is what we truly want, at the heart of it all.
So to me and women like me, I say this important reminder: Motherhood isn’t about being, it’s about becoming. At each stage of motherhood, we are beginners. We don’t just 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 the stressful times.
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 make the choice every day, through all the stress and exhaustion, to become the mothers we want to be. 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 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 the mother of our dreams.
QUESTION: Did mothering seem to come naturally to you or did you have to grow into it?
CHALLENGE: This week, focus more on what you naturally do well as a mother and celebrate the unique strengths you bring to motherhood.
Edited by Lisa Hoelzer and Megan Roxas.
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Julie Finlayson.
Feature image provided by the author.