Sixteen years ago, somewhere around this time of the year, I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. I was too young to be a mother, and my fantasies of motherhood were proof of that naiveté. I’d promised my husband, who at the time was my steady boyfriend, that I would dutifully stock up on packages of Huggies and Tear Free shampoo, which, in my world, meant we’d have everything we needed to raise a child. I knew nothing about being a mother.
Eight months after I peed on a stick in the grocery store a block away from my grandmother’s house, saw two pink lines and celebrated by eating a foot long veggie Subway sandwich, I gave birth to our oldest son, who might strangle me in my sleep if I share his name. The birthing process, the pièce de résistance of my painfully swollen pregnancy, was a shadowy night of pain and triumph spent mostly alone, until the nurse informed me eleven hours later that a head, his human head, was crowning. My husband, by then my fiancé, was serving his first tour in Japan with the Marine Corps, and had no clue I’d gone into induced labor. I called my dad and grandmother, who were celebrating their pending familial promotions over icy vodka with twists of lime, to come, quickly. They arrived in time to each hold one of my bearded, formless knees while staring at my son’s primordial exit from my body and entrance into life as a singular being. It was disturbingly beautiful.
That is the moment I was viewed as a mother by the world at large. I had believed myself to be one that day in the Kroger toilet stall while staring at the EPT stick, but now I had more than two pink lines and a grotesque body to prove my title. I had a child who looked a little like me, smelled like risen dough and warm milk, and would one day mouth the words, “Mom.”
The magic of my imagined foray into motherhood withered after two days, when I came home from the hospital, infant in tow, to an empty studio apartment where every whimper and meconium-laced diaper was now my responsibility. There were no more helpful nurses, and not enough barf clothes to save my shoulder from ruin. Sure, I had dozens of packs of diapers and countless bottles of golden baby shampoo, but they could not save either of us. Motherhood was not what I had expected.
Yet, somewhere between the agonizing sleepless nights and shared tub water with floating baby poo, I discovered a tiny shard of what motherhood could be. It started with his skin, perfect, smooth, and golden, with neither a mark nor a blemish. I would stare at his skin with deep fascination, admiring its smoothness and creamy color, and then fret at the thought that one day, his faultless body would carry scars from wounds I couldn’t spare him.
Then, he smiled. Somewhere around the second month, when his pediatrician swore it was only gas bubbles escaping his rosy lips, I saw my son’s brown eyes crinkle in the corners and his healthy red gums emerge. In that moment, I questioned if I had ever truly loved another person before, because I knew that for this child, I would easily give my life to ensure his would continue. Motherhood was not what I had expected, it was so much more than I could have hoped for.
My husband and I married before our son turned a year old, then soon after we welcomed our next son into the world. Years passed and lessons were learned. I knew to register the soundlessness of an inquisitive toddler with loud alarms inside my head, an easy trick once you find your son rolling on the bedroom floor covered in thick, tacky diaper cream, laughing at the tickle against his slick skin. I discovered that reruns of annoying costumed television characters could jar my nerves but also kept my children occupied long enough for me to fold the laundry and make dinner. I learned that a scraped knee hurt more if I said, “Oh no, are you okay?” rather than, “Get up, you’re fine.” I developed what I believed were perfected routines, devoting every second of my waking life to being the best, most dutiful mother I could, regardless of my own peace of mind. In my desire to protect my children and give them the best life possible – I forgot that I was a person with needs, too. I was so blinded by motherhood, that I didn’t see how miserable I had made my family in the process.
How did it change? Stay tuned for part two on Thursday!