Dim, Sticky Beginnings
Let’s pretend it’s 2006, and I’ve just had my first child.
I’m cowering in the corner with my laptop, hiding from a messy house and the adorable 10-week-old baby girl wiggling on the living room floor. I feel like I’m trapped in a lonely dark hole. A hole littered with baby toys and dirty dishes. I don’t know why everything feels so dim; why I can’t even get up the motivation to vacuum. All I know is that I’d rather be on the computer than with my baby, and I feel like I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life cleaning the house and peeling poop-soaked onesies off Bug’s squirming body. Oh, and I know I feel guilty about it. I feel like scum.
I’ve been married to DH for almost a year.
Did you do the math there? One year minus ten weeks equals I got pregnant two weeks into marriage. Don’t call us crazy. Call us uneducated. Or maybe careless. We’d intended to wait at least a year to start our family. But as it turns out, that sort of thing requires more reliable birth control, or at least a solid knowledge of the female monthly cycle, and I didn’t have either.
Part of me thought it might be romantic to have children right away, even though we were both still in school and barely made a living wage between us. That part of me was pretty embarrassed when it discovered, six weeks into marriage, that it couldn’t eat anything but buttered baked potatoes without throwing up. I remember sitting with my friends at lunch, slumped over a bottle of raspberry ginger ale while waiting for my doctor’s appointment. You see, I was terrified of babies. They were tiny and breakable and I had no idea what to do with them. Plus they cried when I held them. It was like they could sense my fear.
DH? Well, he didn’t want one yet, plain and simple. We were supposed to get to know each other first. Have fun just being the two of us. Not worry about how on earth we were going to pay for a baby while he worked retail and I worked food service.
But we were at least a little excited. The baby would be a little, well, us, after all. Month by month, our excitement grew. How could it not, when we could both feel tiny feet and elbows beating against my belly from the inside? When we could see our little daughter wiggling on the screen in the dark ultrasound room, and hear the swoosh swoosh of her heartbeat? At one check up, the nurse had to press the monitor into my stomach a few inches to pick up the heartbeat, and the baby whacked it. Kerthump! She showed that monitor who was boss. Now we know that’s just who she is: strong, stubborn, and playful. If you turned the sun into a little girl, you’d have our Bug.
Back to me in the corner, slaughtering giant digital spiders as if that was going to solve my problems. Little Bug is squawking for attention and waving her limbs in the air. She’s never content to play on the floor by herself, and I’m rarely content to get down there with her. It’s just…difficult, for some reason.
I don’t write anymore. Writing makes me feel guilty. I’m a mom now, and there’s always something more to clean, a meal to make, a baby that needs cuddling. To waste time on something as trivial as fairy stories would be irresponsible.
Yet here I am, slaying giant digital spiders online. Why is that okay, but exercising a real skill that I’ve been passionate about for most of my life is selfish?
Two answers: one, I don’t actually feel okay about the spider-slaying, but I don’t feel like I can handle facing anything else right now. Two, slaying spiders is okay specifically because I don’t really care about it. I may be wasting time, but the only thing I’m really committed to is my family. In my stress-saturated mind, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Having grown up as a Mormon, I’ve been taught since puberty that being a mother is the most important thing I can do in this life. Often implied by the teacher, though never by the doctrine itself, was that being a mother was the only thing I should do in this life. To spend time now doing something else I love, something I’d wanted to make a career out of–well, that would be getting dangerously close to Working Outside The Home. Cheating my family. Failing to live up to God’s plan for me. This may sound nutty, but at this moment, nutty is mostly how I feel.
On with my List Of Stuff That Is Not Going Well.
I hate my body. The baby weight is falling off at a rate that draws constant compliments, but all I can see is imperfection. The loose skin crumpled up below my belly button. The stretch marks threading down the sides of my breasts, across my hips. I worry every day that DH is no longer attracted to me. And I mean worry. Every day. It’s on my mind every time I pass a mirror.
I believe I am a bad mother—what else could I be, when I rarely want to play with my baby, and pass her off to relatives every chance I get? What else, when my little girl’s presence triggers terrible, uncontrollable thoughts of harming her that make me hate and fear myself even more? The Internet tells me it’s Postpartum Depression and it’s not my fault, but I can’t quite believe that. No good mother would think these things.
In short, despite having my happy chubby bundle of love and possibly the nicest husband on the planet, life is not so great.
I mostly keep it inside, and apologize to DH when he comes home to a house in chaos every evening, even though he always says he loves me and that he doesn’t care how the house looks. Like this:
DH walks in. I’m probably nursing or cooking something. We kiss, usually a lot.
Me: “Sorry the house is such a mess.”
DH: “I love you and I don’t care.”
Glancing over the rim of my laptop at the dishes stacked in a fetid sink and piled on sticky counters, I realize that this must not be normal. Not just the nasty kitchen. I knew that wasn’t normal. There was something very wrong with the way I was feeling.
I felt like a monstrous mutation of a woman. Motherhood sounded so simple in all those marriage-themed lessons at church. I was a woman, and therefore I would love taking care of children. I would be good at it. Naturally. They never said that I might have trouble nursing–which I had–or that I would feel isolated, or bored and overburdened at the same time. Just that being a mom was the most important and fulfilling thing I could do with my life. And, of course, that sneaky undertone–that it would be the only thing I needed in my life. Yet here I was, in my dark, sticky hole, desperate for anything but. Feeling like a sinner. Like a selfish failure. Wondering what I was doing wrong.
But I soon found out I wasn’t alone in my hole. One Sunday during the women’s meeting (called Relief Society), a lady made a comment along the lines of “Women just do this mother thing naturally, aren’t we all so special.” Special indeed. What was I missing, then? And was I the only one?
I squirmed in my seat. My adrenaline spiked. What she was saying wasn’t true. Not for me. At that moment, I couldn’t pretend, and silence would condemn me. So I raised my hand, feeling like a heathen but unable to keep my mouth shut.
“I, uh, never actually used to think much about being a mom.”
They were all staring at me.
“It doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I’ve had to work hard at it, and sometimes I don’t like doing it.”
I tried to steady my breathing.
They did not zip off to the Bishop to arrange my excommunication.
My relief was probably obvious as I watched a scattering of hands go up, some hesitantly. People were actually nodding. They were agreeing with me!
“Not natural for me,” they said.
“Hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”
“I love my kids, but a lot of times I don’t love being a mom.”
Soon after, we had a lesson where the teacher told us how growing up, she never wanted kids. She wanted to be a lawyer. She had a scholarship to a good graduate school and everything. But she felt God wanted her–specifically, her–to stay home with her kids. So she changed course. Motherhood did not come naturally to her. When she spoke, I could tell she had days when escape to a quiet, polished office hovered in her mind, somewhere between the diaper wipes and the goldfish crackers. But like me, she was doing her best. And that was good enough.
I was almost crying when I thanked her after class. It was such a relief to hear those words come out of someone else’s mouth, and in public, too. Now I was truly starting to see that I was not the only one living this story.
I decided then that I would share too. Social awkwardness notwithstanding, I would always be open about my misgivings, my mistakes, even my depression. Because I never knew who might be listening. I never knew who might be desperate to hear that she wasn’t alone.
As I recovered from my postpartum troubles, I learned more about the realities of motherhood, the myths, the terrible things we do and say to ourselves to try to keep up with a “norm” that doesn’t actually exist. I learned that when mothers hold themselves to impossible standards, their families suffer. I learned that mothers experiencing depression, anxiety, or chronic anger need to seek treatment for the sake of their families and themselves, rather than bottling it up and making it worse. I learned that being bored, overwhelmed, sad, angry, messy, lonely, or unsatisfied does not make me or anyone else a bad person, or even a bad mom. It makes us human. Humans, both child and parent, need love and comfort when they feel bad. And one of the things that can comfort us the most is sharing our experiences and hearing others share, so we can know we’re not alone.
Eventually I started writing down what I’d learned. Contrary to my fears, I’ve found that writing makes me a better mom. The time I spend being creative, being the woman I was before I was Mom, refills my reserves to tackle everyday mom stuff and keeps my kids happy. No joke.
So here I am. Sharing. Sometimes the sharing will be unpleasant for me. But I’m doing it anyway, because we need to feel good about saying these things out loud. We need to accept that being a mom is hard, and that sometimes we don’t like it, and that it’s different for everybody. We need to know when “Good Enough” is good enough, so we can stop hurting ourselves and our families in a quest for something more–something that doesn’t exist.