Why didn’t anyone tell me this? Is it too much of a buzz kill to mention that possibility in childbirth class?
I’m pretty sure I would’ve benefited from a head’s up.
I was, utterly, unprepared for motherhood.
But that’s pretty much all of us, isn’t it? No matter how many classes we take on birthing a baby, or that useless one about infant care when they teach you how to diaper a doll, we’re all air dropped into a foreign country when it comes to new motherhood.
This November, an essay I wrote about my post partum experience will be published in an anthology aptly titled, Mothering Through the Darkness (She Writes Press, created by the HerStories Project). It’s now available for preorder.
For months I hesitated to write my story, let alone submit it, because I didn’t know if it “counted.” Sure, I had a hard time as a new mom, but I hadn’t been diagnosed with postpartum depression. I hadn’t sought help.
Looking back, it’s clear I needed it. I wonder if I had read some of the essays in this collection, if I would’ve reached out instead of holing up. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m proud to be part of an anthology that broadens the spectrum of postpartum distress.
When I was pregnant I used to watch this ridiculous baby show on TLC called, “Bringing Home Baby.” There was something comforting about watching the new parents return home psyched but frazzled. The cameras followed them as they basically lost their minds.
But they always ended the show the same way, about six or eight weeks later, with everyone looking and sounding like they had gotten their act together. Every now and then I’d catch a glimmer in the mother’s eyes, a primal flash of fear, but then they’d cut to the cute gurgling baby batting at a mobile in her crib or sleeping in a bassinet. All was well. Show over.
But life doesn’t work like a TLC show (thank goodness, really TLC, you have gone downhill). It doesn’t wrap up neatly as the credits roll and the parents take their sweetly reclining baby on a stroll around the block.
Mine certainly didn’t, and I suspect, most don’t.
I still have no idea if I had postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety – an ailment I didn’t even know existed back then. But I do know that new motherhood kicked my ass. Hard.
Do you want to know what I wish I had known? (Hint: It has nothing to do with breastfeeding, vaccinating, sleep training, or any other hot topic parenting topics.)
How completely I would lose myself.
Not temporarily, but forever. The woman who left for the hospital with a baby contracting in her belly did not return that evening. A different person arrived in her place, holding a baby, with aching breasts and a sore battered body.
Perhaps if I had only known about the irretrievable loss of my old self and the necessity of forming a new one, maybe life after birth wouldn’t have felt so bewildering. Maybe.
Of course I’d heard the warnings, the catch all, “Nothing will be the same,” but people said that in relation to physical things, like my body and sleep.
The insinuations were that my life as a mother would be different than my life as a non-mother. I knew there was no going back to my single unattached self, but I assumed I’d slowly collect the pieces of my shattered identity as time went on.
I’d be able to write again, go out at night, visit with friends, and go on vacation with my husband. All this would be returned to me when the baby got older, learned to sleep (ha, try never), or went to school.
But what became apparent as time went on was that there was no milestone that would return me to my old self. I had to forge a new one.
This sentence in the August 2015 edition of Harper’s magazine article, “The Grand Shattering” by Sarah Manguso (author of Ongoingness, a book I just bought) sums it up:
“[Motherhood] is a shattering, a disintegration of the self, after which the original form is quite gone.”
Maybe other women realize this sooner, or maybe this isn’t a lesson everyone needs to learn. I imagine that some women find their way intuitively, or that the new self that motherhood creates is one they fall into like a warm embrace.
In an NPR interview, Jenny Offill, the author of the brilliant book, Dept. of Speculation eloquently states what I felt and continue to feel, which is that the conversation about motherhood is a little narrow.
She explains that when women speak about motherhood, the only other option besides pure bliss seems to be ambivalence. But for the women she knew who had become mothers, it was more complicated than that, “especially for women who had a great passion for some kind of work.”
“They were struggling to bridge the person they used to be with the person they were now, and that maternal love, which is quite fierce can be obliterating of what came before it.”
This line of the interview struck me with such force, as it gave voice to what I had been holding onto for years, the shameful admission that motherhood did not feel like bliss.
I loved my baby and my new life as a mother while simultaneously mourning the loss of my old life and struggling to reconstruct my identity.
I feel as though we are just at the cusp of this conversation about motherhood in the 21st century. I’m grateful to authors like Jenny Offill, Sarah Manguso, and Sarah Ruhl’s, whose book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write, inspired my first post on this blog, for shedding light on the many nuances and complexities of modern motherhood.
If you’re a mother, how did you come through the other side? Did you feel the need to start over, or were you able to integrate your new identity in a different way?
Beautifully honest. What about a course in high school or college that focuses on things we’ll actually apply to life? Budgets, cooking, home repair, how to hire someone to fix your car/landscape/whatever, do taxes, become a parent? With guest speakers who’ve been there?
I came through the other side of fatherhood as the man I was supposed to be. Everything before that was a lone-wolf prelude. Fatherhood gave me purpose. I didn’t realize this until I compared fatherhood to the other major things I’d been designated in life: son, brother, husband, writer. Nothing compared.
It’s so complete that I couldn’t identify with myself before children if I tried. Fatherhood opened me to a better career and coaching youth soccer. It changed everything.
Eli, thank you so much for this thoughtful and lovely response, and also for reminding me that fatherhood is also part of this discussion!
I agree that there is much high schools and colleges could add regarding life lessons, including what you suggest. I love that fatherhood gave you a piece of your identity that you didn’t know you were missing, and that it completed you. That is beautiful.
Sarah Mangusos shares a similar sentiment in her article, how she used to see motherhood as a hinderance (to being a writer), but now sees it as an integral part of her identity.
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I loved reading this post. And I have to disclose that as men, we dads don’t experience becoming a parent the same way that women do – not by a long shot. We’re contributors to the process, not hosts, of course. And I’ve seen my share of men who would rather forget the whole thing than to stick by it.
Honestly, we all, moms and dads, probably feel times when it’s a blessing, parenting, and other times when it feels we’ve been cursed. And a lot in between.
I was never diagnosed with postpartum…anything. I look back at my journals, think back to those newborn and infant years and I know something was wrong. The title of your post alone had me nodding. Beautiful, albeit heartbreaking, piece. Thank you for sharing this because I wish someone had told me, too.
Sarah, too bad we didn’t know each other during those early hard days. The title of the post was initially the first line, it came to me last night and then I stayed up late writing. My struggles felt like a failure, so I pushed ahead feeling more alone than I ever have. I was also mourning my mom simultaneously, which didn’t help matters. Thank you for reading and understanding.
Thank you for this post. Beautifully and so clearly written. Motherhood swallowed me whole. The responsibility of raising kids that are emotionally whole and well nourished and the need to be ever present to their needs, when naturally I’m quite a distracted person, has taken everything I’ve got. But now they are teens and tweens and watching me so closely, my daughters especially, wanting me to be more than their Mom, wanting me to be an interesting, multi-dimensional woman admired or at least respected by others. And so, for them and for me, I am stepping out now in new ways, allowing them to see other sides to their mother they didn’t know was there. And you know what? As a result, I find myself less fearful, micromanaging less, and trusting they have the foundation now to work through some of the stuff on their own without me always making myself available to run to the rescue all of the time.
Julie, thank you so much for this comment. I love the way you describe motherhood, swallowed you whole, yes, exactly! I remember when I was a teen and my mom was ill (multiple sclerosis) and she could no longer do her pottery, but it meant a lot to me, years later, when I realized what an incredible artist she was. It connected me to her in a different way, in that, she wasn’t only my mother, but a human being with desires and gifts that had nothing to do with me. I think it’s wonderful that you are chasing your dreams and taking time to follow your curiosities. It will be good for you all.
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I was not diagnosed, but I definitely had some post depression. This is so honest and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for reading Michelle, and this comment. I really appreciate it.
I was utterly overwhelmed — especially when I had a newborn and a two year old! I remember watching “Sesame Street” at 6:30 a.m. with my toddler, feeding my new baby, and crying from exhaustion. The C-section didn’t help. My husband was there, but busy with work. Somehow we all make it through, but that time is still the benchmark in my life for unrelenting stress.
Thank you Laurie, I’ve also cried through many kids shows. Also, while driving, and well, probably many other places! Thank you so much for reading and commenting, and also, thank you for the beautiful and heart wrenching post you wrote about your father’s hospice care. I tried to respond, but sometimes I have trouble getting my comments to stick on blogger. I’m so glad you and your family had a peaceful goodbye, though it still is so very sad.
Thank you for this. I have been lost, shattered, and endured unending reconstruction for six years — the first four of which I was a SAHM struggling in the wake of a joyous life and a career I was passionate about.
Now, however, I am able to use the most desperate time of my life to support other SAHMs who are in the same place I was. Now I am able to say that while I never want to be in that place again, I do not regret having lived in darkness.
Thank you Ashley, it can be so hard to find your footing after babies, but it sounds like your experience and hard earned wisdom is helping other mothers. I really appreciate this thoughtful comment.
I so can’t wait to read this. I may have told you that I almost submitted a story about how motherhood obliterated me but I ultimately saved it for something else because it happened five years after I became a mother.
And yet. No one told me it would obliterate me – right away or five years later. Whenever.
I would love to read your story of obliteration, Tamara! I think many of us have them, probably more than we realize. I don’t know if I would’ve wanted anyone to be so blunt, but a little honesty, some kind and gentle warning, might have been nice. Plus, some direction of where to turn if need be. I think I was so caught up in the “definition” of postpartum depression and the assumption that I didn’t have it, that I didn’t give the struggles I was having the right kind of attention.
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Yes, Yes, Yes. A million times yes! Motherhood is a complete overhaul of your identity. I came across your post through the HerStories Facebook page–so glad I stopped by. I am publishing a book on this very topic on August 1st. It’s a reflective memoir called “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity.” (http://www.amazon.com/Sharon-Tjaden-Glass/e/B011LTYIVA?ref_=pe_1724030_132998060)
Here’s a line in which I talk about this disintegration of self: “The breaking of motherhood makes it impossible for (the pieces) to ever go completely back to their original states. They couldn’t hold together in the same arrangement. They weren’t big enough to hold all that I am now. And so underneath the exciting and joyful narrative of giving life, I realized that there is an equally present—yet widely unspoken—narrative of death and destruction throughout my transition into a mother.”
I, like you, believe that more women are opening up about this issue of identity in new motherhood. I think it’s necessary that we spotlight how difficult this transition is in the hope that someday our society can start getting behind policies (like paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare) so that more women have the time and space to be able to work through this often difficult transition.
Thanks for sharing! I’m pre-ordering my copy today 🙂
Sharon, I’m so glad we found each other! Your book sounds incredible, and that passage really blew me away. “They couldn’t hold together in the same arrangement.” YES, and why didn’t I understand this? Looking back I was so naive about pregnancy and babies, and plus I was in active mourning for my mom who had died two months prior to my getting pregnant. Then my baby had colic… So, you can imagine 🙂
But I think it comes down to a lack of general awareness and how our culture talks about new motherhood. So much emphasis is on the pregnancy, and then the baby, but not so much about the mom. I hope we can both help change that perception! I am definitely going to check out your book. Is it available in paperback?
Reblogged this on Becoming Mother and commented:
A great piece about motherhood and its restructuring of identity.
I was a complete and total mess, just trying to survive for the first five years of my son’s life. When people asked if we were having another, I couldn’t fathom the idea. It wasn’t until later, when I discovered energy healing, and did a bit of work that a side effect was coming out of depression. It was very rough. And having a baby/toddler/child with issues (diagnoses) is most definitely not for sissies.
Beautifully written. Motherhood most definitely is obliterating.
Thank you so much for this honest and raw answer. I also couldn’t even imagine having another child, and when my daughter was not quite 3 we found out we were pregnant and I was honestly horrified.
I agree that babies are hard enough, but children with diagnosis are much harder. I’m so glad you found some light and relief despite your hardship.
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Obliterates is the right word. And it’s obvious from all of these comments that this is a conversation that needs we need to continue having. I’ve really struggled with the transition to motherhood, first trying hard to be someone who was totally blissed out by it, and then, when that wasn’t sticking, I became angry and depressed. I’m just coming out of that now, and coming into my own and figuring out who I am as a mother. Coming back to my passion for writing has been so important in my recovery. I’m definitely going to check out some of the books and articles you referenced here, and I look forward to the anthology!
Also wanted to say that TLC has totally gone downhill. ; )
Tara, thank you for this, I held onto this comment all day. I feel like our emotional journeys are similar. I don’t know if I expected bliss, but I definitely didn’t expect it to be so brutally hard and lonesome. It was also my mother’s recent death that was kicking my ass, and I think I felt foolish about complaining since I was the one who got pregnant so soon after her death. As if I didn’t have the right to feel the way I did, so I stuffed it away.
I love how you say you’re figuring out who you are as a mother! Me too. Writing helps SO much.
It must have been incredibly difficult to become a mother so soon after losing your own. I hope you’ve been able to give yourself the space to process all that you went through.
I feel like our journeys are similar, too, in respect to coming back to writing through motherhood. So much of what you write resonates with me. I’m so glad I found your blog and this wonderful community of women/mothers/writers!
It was tough, and I basically had to put my grief aside to care for the emergency at hand, my new baby. I have had time to process since, but I suspect it’s going to be a lifelong processing.
I’m so glad we found each other, too! One reason I just love the internet, how it brings kindred spirits together 🙂
I love this, Dana. And I often wonder how I can address this in the childbirth classes that I teach without coming across as overly negative and scaring them or completely pollyanna-like. I would actually encourage them all to read this post and the book. Though part of me knows you can’t really know until you’re in it what it’s going to be like! Thank you for writing. Your words are beautiful.
Thank you Caitlin! I know, that’s the tricky part, how to explain in a way that’s not totally off putting. I was annoyed enough by all the negative birth stories when I was pregnant, and pretty sure I would’ve ignored (and been angry) by what I might have mistaken as negativity.
But, I was open to hearing about PPD and I think it could be included in that convo. Explaining that the transition to motherhood can be intense and sometimes bumpy, and there are ways to seek help and support. I think you could add it to the classes you teach 🙂 Those lucky ladies!
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This is so honest. I would say that I am looking forward to reading the anthology but that isn’t quite the right way to put it. I am sure it will, like this essay here, be beautiful and hearbreaking all at once.
Allison, thank you so much for this. I feel the same way about the anthology. It will no doubt be hard to read at times, but I’m looking forward to hearing so many voices on the subject.
Really important topic. Post-partum anxiety- I had that. My heart rate was so high, they sent me to the ER right as I was almost out of the hospital with my newborn. I think laying in the ER alone for seven hours made it worse. I struggle with real anxiety- not little nervousness- but genuine panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. I associated it for a long time with ptsd from receiving the phone call my husband died in a tragic accident, but I realized later that it really truly started when my daughter was born. I felt completely overwhelmed at my responsibility and literally couldn’t catch my breath. While the mothering things I’d taken countless classes on: nursing, sleep, etc- came quite naturally- I wasn’t prepared for how crazy I would feel. It didn’t help that we had to move suddenly a week after she was born leaving everything we owned behind. So I also struggled to know if I had genuine post partum depression or was depressed about that situation. I do know I barely left my childhood room (where I’d been forced to move back into) and zoned out watching TV all day. I can remember at my lowest point my husband coming in on Thanksgiving begging me to come to dinner with him and my parents and telling me Audrey wanted me to- and all I could do was sit and cry. It’s a period I haven’t had much time to reflect back on as I quickly moved on to single parenting in grief- so I apologize for writing so much! This is a very important topic that should be addressed more. I always feel motherhood is over-domesticated to be something it is not! Even the bloggers who write over the top sarcasm/witty pieces on how hard it is are failing to capture the true essence of it.
Julia, thank you for this, every word. It makes so much sense that you haven’t had a chance to process your own mixed feelings and challenges about motherhood considering your devastating loss when your daughter was still so young. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface the last year or so.
I feel for your anxiety, especially since I witness it firsthand through my husband and daughter. I can imagine how paralyzingly it would be to experience that as a brand new mom.
And I agree that some of those witty/snarky essays miss the mark. It’s a conversation that needs more thoughtful voices and exposure.
I agree with everything you’ve written here – down to the postpartum anxiety and not even knowing that was a thing until quite a bit later. I was lucky enough, a few months in, to stumble upon a book that provided me a context for this experience of transformation. It’s “By the Secret Ladder” by France’s Greenslade’s and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Part memoir of her early motherhood, and part literary and mythological analysis. She compares the path of motherhood to the hero’s quest in mythology – fraught with darkness, danger, and ultimately transformation. It’s beautifully written and I clung to her words so tightly in the early months of my son’s life.
Anna, your comment gave me chills! I am going to look for that book ASAP. It sounds like something I would love. I’m so glad you found it at just the right time. Isn’t it amazing how books can serve as therapists and guides through dark times?
Have you read, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes? It’s too dense for a new mom (at least it would’ve been for me), but last year I read it and honestly feel like it changed my life. It was as if the author was speaking directly to me. Kind of eerie, in a good way 🙂
This resonates powerfully with me. I have written before about my difficulty bridging that gap, crossing that chasm, which is marked by both intense love and very real mourning. Thanks for conveying familiar feelings so beautifully. xox
Thank you Lindsey, your comment means so much to me as I am such a fan of your introspective and beautiful writing. I love how you describe it as crossing a chasm. It makes me think of Cheryl Strayed in Wild (which I finished last night, and LOVED). Motherhood is like crossing a river, and you just can’t go back.
What an incredible post and conversation. I did not have PPD, but I for sure took a very long time to settle into motherhood. I never babysat or had younger cousins. I was the baby of the family and I had a hard time settling into both the emotional the physical aspects of motherhoods down to the diaper, etc. Every time my first got sick I would completely freak out. I was a real control freak and it made me pretty miserable. I loosened up eventually and settled into “good enough,” which helped a ton, but it took me until maybe baby 3 but for sure 4 to get there. 😉
Thank you Nina, you know, I hardly ever babysat either, and though I was an older sister, I was too young to really take care of my brother as a baby. So my experience was pretty nonexistent, too. I’m all about good enough, though I don’t think I’d survive three kids let alone four to figure that out, ha! I feel like my first born is kind of like having 2.5 kids 🙂
This is such a fascinating post and it is also so enlightening to read all the different experiences others have had in the thoughtful comments. I definitely found becoming a mother transformative. I have been reflecting as my child grows older on how in the big picture of my life many other experiences have also been transformative but my perception of the has been different. I don’t know how much it has to do with the fact that it is such a sudden change, that in many ways we have no control over it many aspects of it (child’s temperament and health, partner’s reaction, etc.) , and that it was a profound change to the roles and responsibilities of a marriage rather than just my own. For the past few years I felt not that I lost myself by becoming a mother but that I found myself. For as much freedom as I gave up in the delivery room I eventually realized I gained some freedoms of not caring as much what others thought, of feeling confident to do what feels right for myself and my family, and for returning to parts of myself that had been hidden in the intensity of early career demands. I wish there was some way to tell parents in childbirth classes how challenging the transformation can be but also to give a glimmer of hope for what the possibilities are for eventually being able to integrate parts of one’s various earlier selves.
I love this description of your experience, Pia. Motherhood is transformative, and as much as I gave up, I’m also aware of how much I’ve gained – not just a baby, but things you mention, like not caring what others think, how to be an advocate for my children and for myself.
I agree that there needs to a be a glimmer (at least!) of hope when discussing the huge change from pregnancy to motherhood. Because there is hope, it’s just hard to see at first. I like the person I’ve become and in some ways, I wonder if my writing is fuller and more nuanced because of it. I know for sure that having less time has actually helped me focus. Before I had all the time in the world, and I wasted it. Now, I use every moment.
Thank you for this beautiful piece, Dana. I’m finally writing you now because, as a mother too, I’m just finding the time to do so.
I felt pretty certain that motherhood was going to fulfill/fill that space in my being that had long felt…not empty, but not full. I was happily married, had spent several fabulous years in graduate school, had traveled as much as I could afford, but had not found a career that I loved and so…
And so I looked to motherhood, knowing I wanted children, knowing even that I wanted to stay home with them and hoping that finally, my life would feel the completion I felt (and everyone else seemed to feel) it should.
My sons are now 9 and 6, and I adore them. And I’m glad I have stayed home with them. But obliterating, yes. I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision to stay home but as I didn’t have a career that I to return to, my discontent often seemed invalid. And I often felt judged for it.
Then I started a blog, and finally, FINALLY, found that passion that sparks my soul: writing. My children do too, of course, but not in the same way. And what I’ve found is, as you say, so many of us have to put the pieces back together in a different way. We have to forge new identities because the old ones don’t fit or aren’t possible anymore.
I’ve also found that way too many women feel alone during this restructuring. They, like I did, feel terribly judged for not experiencing motherhood as the pinnacle of joy and accomplishment. That expectation is such an invalidating experience for women. One of the best parts of my writing is the community I’ve cultivated with others who have also felt alone. Our coming together has normalized our experiences, lessened the stigma we felt or imposed on ourselves. It’s heartening and meaningful to hear from others who say “thank you, I feel less alone.”
This is what I find so important in what you say: that we need to better prepare women for not only being a mother but also being a women who was not and now is a mother.
Thank you! Emily (www.em-i-lis.com)
Emily, thank YOU for this lovely note! I can relate to so, so much here. I didn’t have a career to return to either (besides my passion for writing) and felt guilty for the mother thing not being more fulfilling, as if it was my own failure. But in reality, I was mourning my old self and didn’t quite realize I needed to rewrite (ha) my new self, which meant return to my passion.
I love that you found your way to writing! Clearly, it is a gift 🙂 I really enjoyed reading through your blog and your other publications, especially My Limit of Two on HuffPo. Beautiful and rings so true to me.
Women are so alone during this time of restructuring (great word), and I don’t think they need to be. I am still thinking of what can be done about that…
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What a lovely reply, Dana. Thank you! I think about this subject a lot too, and one concrete action I think we can take is to continue to share our stories. Perhaps in doing so, others will feel they can open up about their own isolation or struggle which is, at least for me, a powerful form of connection and healing in and of itself. I hope to keep in touch with you. I’ll certainly continue to read your wonderful work. All best, Emily
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I agree, sharing our stories is definitely a way to help! And so glad to have connected with you and your words. I’m following you on Bloglovin 🙂
Dana loved this post. What I noticed about myself is I lost my silly sense of humour. The challenges of Autism did not help. Happily it returned as we evolved as parents. Different for every one I expect.
Thank you for this, Kath. I can imagine the challenges of autism have their own weight on top of the regular baby/young child issues. I definitely lost my sense of humor for a while, everything seemed so dire.
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Mine is back thankfully, laughter is the best medicine.
Mine too, though it took a while! 🙂
Great post Dana and as usual you’ve made me think. I suspect if I came back and commented in a few days, having had time to reflect, I might respond differently because the whole motherhood identity thing feels too complex to remain constant. Today I would say that motherhood smacked me in the face – with love, with fear, with wtf is going on? – But 8 years on I feel more ‘me’ than I ever did before. By finding a way through it I found myself.thanks for making me ponder this.xx
Maddy, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment. The motherhood identity is always in flux, isn’t it? Really, it often depends on the day, the hour. I love your words – “finding a way through it I found myself” – YES, that is a beautiful way to put it, and I wholeheartedly agree.
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