It took me almost a full year to feel like a mother. One day, as he was reaching his little arms up at me—possibly the definitive stance of his one-year-old self—I realized, I’m someone’s mama. And it turns out, that was the best thing ever.
I didn’t grow up with a lot of role models of happy motherhood. Troubled families exist everywhere, but money provides much of the infrastructure and support for solid homes. So growing up in an area where no one had much of it meant that many of my models of parenthood were unhappy. I was used to parents who didn’t like each other, home environments that were varying levels of run down and over-run with mess, emotionally absent or emotionally abusive parents, families lurching from crisis to crisis. It wasn’t that the mothers around us were not doing their best. It’s that having a baby at sixteen, or having two abusive husbands, one after another, or being unable to work your way up the economic ladder because of extreme post-traumatic stress shapes what your best looks like.
Here, in the currently money-soaked San Francisco Bay Area/Tech Industry/Lawyering social circles, motherhood is serious and competitive business. With a combination of time, resources, and a determination to turn out kids that climb to the top, there is a culture of motherhood that’s both foreign to me and exhausting. We mothers are supposed to read a lot about parenting, research everything, and make specific choices about what kind of parents we’re going to be. We’re supposed to Pinterest-ify our motherhood, while at the same time make sure that everyone knows that we’d never be focused on something as shallow and self-centered as what we’re wearing, or how our house looks (we have our children’s futures to attend to). And we’re supposed to bond by bitching (just a little bit). And why not? This intensive motherhood will wear a girl out.
But my experience of motherhood is a reaction to a different experience than most of my peers. In one of the most important missions of my life, I’m trying to prove that living rooms can be clean, kids can be dressed neatly (if not thoughtfully), and motherhood can be a rewarding—not emotionally scarring—experience. I am trying to prove that you can raise a kid without screaming (much). That motherhood can co-exist with a clean and pretty home (clean-ish, at least). That you can be a mom and still be fulfilled by your career and your relationship (most days). That it’s possible to have the emotional bandwidth available to put your kid first.
Some days I win that battle, and some days I don’t. Most days I’m proud of what a joyful little being we’re raising, but some days I crumple into a ball, wishing my best had been a little better. My best days of motherhood don’t look much like what I see hazily portrayed on many blogs. Starting from my rough pregnancy and an emergency c-section, I was never able to live up to the natural mother ideal. I couldn’t baby-wear after my surgery; co-sleeping didn’t work for our family; we were never really able to organize around homemade and organic food. And these days, my parenthood is fundamentally shaped by being a working parent with a consuming job. We never seem to have time for baby classes. I don’t have the chance to go on many playdates. I usually find out I’m supposed to have researched some sort of safety protocol about something (cribs, cabs, salt in food?) way too late.
But in the hard moments, I try to remind myself that my goals are simpler: I’m trying to prove to myself that motherhood doesn’t have to be an overwhelming burden. I’m trying to model what good motherhood looks like for this particular child. Because I’ve seen what it looks like when stable motherhood just isn’t possible, and I know better, so I’m trying to do better.
Motherhood isn’t my primary identity. It’s not one I wanted, because it’s not one that I saw being worn with joy or grace very often. But it is an intensely amazing relationship. It’s a place where I’ve learned to receive love in a way I didn’t know was possible. It’s allowed me to open my heart, and it’s also filled my life in ways I needed. It’s kept my hands busy and my brain whirring, and it’s helped me relax.
I’m trying to get better at saying, “Motherhood is one of the best and most joyful things I’ve ever done.” Because it might not be the cool thing to say, but it’s the fucking coolest, to me. This one’s for my elementary school self. It’s for sixteen-year-old me and all my high school girlfriends. We know better. We can do better. And better can be awesome.
The true dictionary definition of awesome:
“Causing feelings of fear and wonder. Causing feelings of awe. Extremely good.”
Photo: Me and my kid by Eyes And Hart, personal for APW