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Mixed Motherhood Messages

Through the last few months of my pregnancy, Morgan of High Diving Board (and various APW posts) and I have spent a lot of time talking about motherhood, impending motherhood, and the damaging aspects of the Motherhood Myth currently entrenched in our cultural narrative. We’ve talked about how choosing to have kids doesn’t turn you into some saintly woman who wants to sacrifice her life, and how living outside the Hyperbole Of Motherhood can be difficult. So when we were putting together Kids/No Kids week, I asked Morgan if she’d write about choosing to have kids, with all the ambivalence and complexity that comes with it. Here it is: early motherhood, in all its richness and depth.

At twenty-six weeks pregnant, I announced that I could happily stay at twenty-six weeks pregnant forever. I was plump and lush, my libido was dialed up to eleven, I was at that nice stage where people always offered me a seat on the train but I was still comfortable enough to continue my fitness classes and generally felt pretty great. Sure, I had terrible heartburn and some sciatica issues, but Zantac and physio helped. I physically relished my pregnancy.

Mentally, however? It was a whole different game.

The world has so much to say about motherhood, and it is all so hyperbolic. It is either the BEST THING EVER or the WORST THING EVER. I made the mistake of reading all the books and all the blogs and all the words and internalized far too many voices. “You’ve never felt love like you have until you’ve held your first child.” “Being a mother is the hardest thing in the whole world.” “Having a child is like having your heart in another person’s body.” “You’ll never sleep in again.” “It’s all worth it the first time your look in to your baby’s eyes.” “Once you have a kid your life is over.” “Once I had a kid I understood what life is all about.” “Enjoy your pregnancy because once the kid’s born, you’ll never eat out/have sex/have money/go to a movie/travel/read a book/etc. ever again.”

And with everything I read, I got more and more anxious. I was so anxious that when my water broke three weeks before I was expecting a baby, I went into full on hysterics. I wasn’t ready for my life to be ruined yet.

Thankfully, it wasn’t. It’s funny—the fears that stalked me the worst during pregnancy were the easiest to allay. My kid’s seven months old now, and we have managed to go to a couple of movies, a play, a trio of concerts, a couple of hockey games, a few nice dinners out without her, and many casual restaurant dinners with her. I’ve read forty-eight books—slower than my usual pace, but respectable. We still have money—people were very generous with their hand-me-downs and most of the rest of the baby gear was bought cheap. We’ve taken Jess on three in-province weekend trips, an international weeklong road trip, and we’re going to Mexico next month. We’ve made a conscious effort to make sure that what makes life awesome for us did not, in fact, end. Sure, some of it’s harder to do, but hard doesn’t equal impossible. We are lucky to have family and friends in town that can babysit, but if we didn’t, I’d be talking to the teenage girls down the street, or looking into one of the professional babysitting services in town. It’s important to me, and it helps me feel like I am still me and that our family is still us—just with an extra (really cute) person.

It’s harder to talk about the other messages.

My husband and I wanted kids. We discussed them rationally, and made a fairly cerebral decision to have them, and agreed on when we wanted to start trying. For me, it was based on a vague feeling of wanting to have had children when I am old and looking back at my life, instead of a feeling of biological-ticking-clock-of-baby-fever. Frankly, David had way more of a biological clock than I did, and he was the one who prompted the ‘when to have kids” discussions. I had some ambivalence, but it was a team choice for sure, even with him as the instigator. Once I was committed—once the ultrasound showed that the alien parasite was actually a growing human being—the ambivalence ramped up, and I really started to question what the hell we’d got ourselves into. The more pregnancy went on, and the more mixed cultural messages I got, the worse I felt.

Then Jess was born. I tried very hard for a “natural birth,” because I wanted that “fall in love with your infant” moment I kept reading about. Instead, I had a fifty-five hour labour, sixteen of which were on full blast pitocin, and eventually had the c-section I was utterly unprepared for. And the postpartum depression hit mere hours after she was cut from my body. Instead of feeling blissful about my new baby, I just felt so sad about everything, and sure, a lot of that was hormones, but some of it was definitely because of the conflicting messages I had about her birth, and motherhood, and my new role.

There is this image of motherhood out there—this sweet, saintly, giving, loving angel of a mother. It’s clearly not real—no one could ever live up to such perfection. And there’s the other image, the one of the exhausted screaming harpy of a mother, which I choose to believe is equally made up at the other end of the spectrum. I didn’t want to be either of them, but felt the cultural pressure of them both. Every time someone would ask me, “Have you ever felt love like this before, isn’t it wonderful?” I would make polite noises and not really say anything. It took me a few months to love Jess, which I know from talking to close friends isn’t outside the norm.

When people ask, “Isn’t this the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” I equivocate, because truth is, this isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s exhausting, but I’ll take it over watching my dad die, or having to be fourteen again, any day of the week. It’s just, you know, life. The new normal, in which some things are clearly different (maternity leave, physical changes, having produced and being responsible for an entire human) and also, so much the same (I still like books and trips and cooking and live music). I actually needed a friend to point it out for me that that the biggest reason that it wasn’t a message I heard much while pregnant was because there’s no drama in that message. No hyperbolic story, nothing dramatic or sensational. No book deals or pageviews from it.

So I’ll end this on an equally undramatic note. I had a rough birth experience and a tough time with PPD. I was ambivalent about having kids, and was ambivalent for a while after she was born, but I now love her tiny little face so much I can’t stop chewing on her cheeks. She changed my day-to-day life a lot, but didn’t change the fundamentals of who I am almost at all. When I stopped reading about How It Was Supposed To Be and focused instead on how life actually is for me, I felt better. When I stopped blaming myself for things that really were out of my control (like the c–section), I felt better. When the hormones ebbed, I felt better. As I became more confident in my role of parent, I felt better. For me, pregnancy was a gradual process, and so was finding the new normal, and that’s just fine. Better than fine. The new normal is pretty damn awesome.

Photo from Morgan’s personal collection

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