I’m not the kind of mom that I thought I would be.
Truth be told, I didn’t have very many conscious expectations about what kind of mom I would be. It was shockingly easy for us to have a baby. We didn’t have a long wait or struggle before we were pregnant, we just were. Four months after we were married I held a positive pregnancy test in my shaking hands.
Theoretically and practically, we were prepared to be parents. I had worked with children since I was 14. Both my husband and I had friends who with babies and toddlers, both of us wanted a family, and we both had jobs in our fields of study that allowed us the flexibility to change our “five year” plan. We quickly became excited that we were starting our family.
But, somewhere in the flurry of planning, my subterranean mind was working and carving out caves full of ideas. Different visions of myself as a mother had been formed without me thinking through my self-expectations. They came into my mind slowly, in the months following Elias’s birth, emerging from the shadows like unexpected ghosts of who I had thought that I would be. I felt guilty about not being the kind of mom that I had somehow constructed in my mind; a combination of a working mom, a stay at home mom, crunchy yoga loving mom, and a mom who was down-to-earth and grounded. I expected that I would be balanced but passionate, emotional but logical, and creative but structured.
The truth is that becoming a mom has been the most joyful but also the most humbling process of my life. I am constantly aware of how little I know and how much I don’t understand. I have been physically weak, I have struggled with moments of deep anxiety, and I have found that my personal and professional expectations of myself needed to be drastically modified.
The week before Elias was born I bought bags of frozen fruit and divided them into serving size freezer bags. I though that I would reach into the freezer with one hand and easily make myself a smoothie in the days ahead. Confession, I have yet to use any of them. Instead, I eat bacon, beef and potatoes, and put butter on everything. We joke that my “caloric needs” while breastfeeding match those of a high school freshman.
Four days after Elias was born I was hospitalized for post-partum preeclampsia. In the car on the way to the hospital, I sat in the back seat, holding my newborn’s tiny hand and crying because I was afraid. I had never been hospitalized before, and had never had any major health concerns. My blood pressure was so alarmingly high that they immediately made me lie flat in a dark room and started an IV of Magnesium. David and Elias stayed with me in the hospital. David would bring Elias to me to nurse and would hold his tiny face to my breast while I lay on my side in the dark, an IV sending burning fluids into one arm and a blood pressure cuff constricting the other. I couldn’t even hold my own baby without supervision. After the first 12 hours of the Magnesium I had a pounding headache, so they gave me oxycodone. Two hours later, when they brought my diner tray, I threw up so hard that I peed all over myself and wet through all the bedding. Tears were streaming down my face while David helped me into the bathroom, while he cleaned me up and changed my adult diaper, while he murmured words of encouragement and love, and while he told me to stop apologizing. I have never felt so disconnected from my body or so physically incapable.
Halfway through our pregnancy we went on a Honeymoon/Babymoon trip to Spain. We rented a car for half of the trip and drove through the Northern Coast, and were constantly amazed at the views of the mountains and the sea.
One day, we were driving up into the mountains to visit an overlook of a large lake, when clouds started rolling in. We couldn’t see more that 20 feet in front of us. The road was narrow and we were on the outer side without guardrails. I gasped panicked breaths every time that tour buses broke through the mist, barreling downward at seemingly impossible speeds, passing us with a margin that was too close for comfort. In my anxiety I was convinced that we would be hit by a bus and flip over the side of the mountain. I suddenly knew the fear of losing my child and I felt terrified in a way that I could not control.
I went back to work when Elias was three months old. In the early February mornings I crept out of the house, while the greying light slowly illuminated the brown trees and dirty snow. I was both sad and pathetically grateful that Elias wasn’t awake when I left. I would have loved to give him one last snuggle, but I was glad that I did not have to hear him crying as I walked out of the door. I was only working three days a week, but every one of those days felt like a mental and emotional rollercoaster. My brain wasn’t engaged in the same way with my work. I was always thinking of when I could get back to my family and always planning the next transition. The early days went like this; wake up, go to work, pump at work, get back to seeing patients, make phone calls while pumping, make sure all my charting was done, pump again, drive to pick up the baby, clean the bottles and pumping equipment for tomorrow, hold my baby, cry with gratefulness and exhaustion, greet my husband when he came home, plan for tomorrow, go to bed, repeat. On my days off, I constantly had a nagging feeling that I needed to be keeping the house clean while simultaneously being 100% present to the baby. But, each week I noticed that my checklist of things at home and at work took a hit, and I felt less and less satisfied with how I was holding it all together.
It is no secret that we were hoping for a different outcome in the Presidential elections last November. (I wrote here about the ways that my faith felt like it was directly challenged by the rhetoric that we heard before, during and after the election.) I thought that maybe, by the time I became a parent, I would have this whole faith thing figured out. Instead, current events in the geopolitical and personal arenas have shown me that a large part of my faith was made up of the need to be in control. Crazy political scenarios, war, pain and suffering, children with cancer, and all the things that we don't understand have been rubbing raw spaces in my heart and mind. I am much more sensitive to these things when I look at my tiny son and think about the future. There are no easy explanations, and my discomfort with these questions has shown me how attached I was to the idea that Faith would somehow make me more comfortable rather than constantly challenging me to look deeper.
Each of these moments has been surprising to me and has made me let go of a different vision of myself. I often feel that I am both “too much,” (too emotional, too vulnerable, and too anxious) and “not enough,” as a mom. And the truth is that I will never be able to reach those impossible and imaginary standards that I had somehow constructed for myself.
But, when I think of my own mother, I don’t think of the metrics of her motherhood. Instead, my childhood memories are full of the feeling of her. I remember how she taught each of us to swim in my grandmother’s pool, and how her red highlights caught in the morning sunshine as she brushed her hair on the way to church. I remember the day that she taught us to catch grapes in our mouths, and that she was the only mom that I knew who wanted to climb trees with us. I remember creeping into her side of the bed when I had a bad dream and needed to be held. I remember how much she LOVED to win when we had family game nights. I remember how she walked through my Dad’s illness, how she was vulnerable, and how she kept pressing into community even when her Faith felt so difficult. I remember the feeling of my mom, not a checklist of her performance in different areas of life. I remember that I always felt loved. And I think the gift that my mom gave to each of us was that she was so wholeheartedly herself.
So, as I let go of this idealized version of myself, my hope is that I would let myself be emotional and goofy, and that I would eat bacon and dance with my husband in the kitchen. My prayer is that I would be a sincere and safe place for my husband and son as we practice life together, and that the things we haven’t figured out yet would not get in the way of the Joy of being a family or the Hope of our faith.
Vulnerability, humility, anxiety, and “to-do” lists aside, I want to soak in the precious moments of life and be myself not “the kind of mom I thought I would be.”
Today, I am sitting next to a huge pile of laundry and Elias is playing on the floor while I type this on my computer. My mother-in-law is on her way to help me this afternoon because we are packing to move out of our apartment at the end of the month. I am going to a yoga class this evening, one of my first classes since I had the baby. It has taken me a long time to get back to any kind of activity after my blood pressure came back down. I am learning to ask for help. I am learning to take time for writing and journaling. I am learning to do what I can when I am at work and when I am at home, and to leave the rest for another day. My friend Kristin says that moms have to “give ourselves grace,” which is something that you can only learn to do when you are faced with your own failures... Oooof, that’s really uncomfortable. And yet, here I am, learning as I go, that being myself is enough.