I’ve always been what they call a “baby person.” I’ve always loved babies, always been good with babies, and always wanted babies of my own. I’ve literally dreamed of motherhood since I was in my early teens. I used to cry at Mass on Mother’s Day during the blessing of mothers, longing to be one of them and afraid I never would be.
When my husband and I got married, we tried for a baby right away—successfully. We were overjoyed, of course. I have PCOS and a history of endometriosis, so getting pregnant right away felt like a miracle (and maybe it was). But immediately, I started feeling nauseous and overwhelmingly tired, and much of that excited happy feeling was often missing. In its place was fear, fatigue, and guilt.
I’d prayed for this child, and I’d always thought pregnancy was so beautiful. Why couldn’t I enjoy it? Did I not want this baby?
I knew I did, but the difference between my expectations and reality was stark. What happened to that starry-eyed girl who longed to be a mother?
She was still there; I had moments of immense joy throughout my pregnancy. But it was a difficult experience, physically and emotionally, and I also had moments when I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to do it again.
Then, we came home from the hospital, and the really hard part began.
The last six weeks have been the hardest of my life. I’ve cried a lot, often for no apparent reason (thank you, hormones). This baby needs me every moment she is awake, and it’s exhausting. But, as the postpartum fog began to lift, and I gained a little more perspective, I realized that what might be the hardest part of all is coming to terms with the fact that being a mother feels nothing like I thought it would.
My best friend has four children and my sister has two; I didn’t think I had an overly rosy picture of motherhood, because I’ve seen through them how difficult it is. I’d also worked at a church nursery through college. I knew nursing wasn’t always a walk in the park and believed that “fed is best.” I’d changed countless diapers, been spat up on, and eaten meals one-handed while holding a baby. I’d rocked crying children—babies who were still screaming after every attempt was made to make sure they were fed and comfortable.
In short, as I told people, “I know you can’t really be prepared for parenthood, but if you could be, I would.”
I did know a little more about babies than many people do going into parenthood. But nothing, nothing can prepare you for becoming a parent. You can read all the books and blog posts and talk to all the parents you know, but the experience will still surprise you. And if you’d hung your hat—knowingly or unknowingly—on a particular image of what being a mother would be like, that surprise will be painful.
I didn’t think I’d had an image of what being a mother would look like, but now, I realize that I did, and I am struggling to rid myself of that image and embrace reality. My image of motherhood did not involve a baby with a painful latch or needing to pump on one side for a week to heal myself. My image of motherhood did not involve needing to give my baby a bottle of formula after nursing her because my breastmilk was not enough, and it definitely didn’t involve ultimately making the difficult decision to wean her off breastmilk and use formula exclusively. My image of motherhood did not involve weekly weight checks for the first month to make sure she was gaining enough weight. My image of motherhood did not involve feeling overwhelmed and guilty for needing a break sometimes. My image of motherhood involved getting up in the middle of the night to feed my baby but did not understand how hard it would be to do so. My image of motherhood involved the possibility of postpartum depression and anxiety (I have an anxiety disorder, after all) but did not consider just how it would feel.
My image of motherhood had realistic expectations and compassion for every mother except myself.
I thought that I would feel joy, and I have—but I’ve also felt frustration, anxiety, and sadness. I thought that I would immediately feel “like a mom” (whatever that means). I thought that after a few days of difficulties, I’d be bonding with my baby every time she nursed. I pictured myself, suddenly more domestic, caring for a baby in between doing the dishes, cooking dinner, and editing and writing. Granted, I knew life wouldn’t quite be like this at six weeks, but I think I imagined I’d be further along that path than I am.
I thought I could do it all, and now I know that being a mother means having the humility to ask for help—from family, from friends, but from God most of all. Relying on him is the only way I’ll be able to do this.
Last year, I read “A Call to a Deeper Love,” the collected letters of Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin (parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux), in preparation for being a wife and (I hoped) mother. Now, I keep turning to St. Zélie for inspiration (she was the mother of a doctor of the Church!), comfort (did you know that she wasn’t able to nurse her babies?), and (most of all) intercession.
One line from Zélie’s letters that resonated with me when I read it was, “I’m crazy about children. I was born to have them.” I firmly believed the same about myself, but over the last six weeks, I’ve doubted it frequently. But ultimately, I believe that my vocation is to be a wife and a mother. I believe that God set my husband and me on this path and that he is there to help us on it, if we only ask him. The moments of joy are coming more and more frequently (my daughter is smiling at us now!). I’m starting to embrace being a mother in a way that looks very different—but is much richer and more wonderful—than I ever dreamed.
Now, my image of motherhood involves not knowing what I’m doing a lot of the time. My image of motherhood involves pivoting based on the needs of my daughter. My image of motherhood involves praying for strength and knowing that God will give me what I need, when I need it. My image of motherhood involves rejoicing in every smile my daughter gives me and resting in the knowledge that in my arms, she feels safe and loved. And that’s enough.