I have been a mom for three years, four months and 3 days. It has been a terrifying and beautiful kick in the pants. Motherhood came with many things I very much expected. I knew there would be sleepless nights, dirty diapers and the occasional meltdown. I assumed I would love the little darlings and that there would be kisses and story time. I even anticipated the sad damage having a baby would wreak on my once perky who needs to wear a bra ever breasts. (Oh, 18 year old Meg. Who needs to wear a bra? Silly girl. Six years from now you will be talking to the nice lady in the lingerie section at Nordstrom. And you will hear yourself say to this nice lady, "So I need a lot of lift. Like, industrial crane placing the star on top of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, type of lift. Do you have anything that offers that?" They do. It comes in beige, white and old lady.) Becoming a mother also came with a few surprises. I didn't know that the word "love" couldn't even begin to describe the soul bursting emotion I feel for my children. I had no idea I would have to clean human waste out of a bath tub...more than once. And nobody ever told me that motherhood, that most universal of institutions, would often be just so very lonely.
I remember the first time I felt it. Margaret was five weeks old and the postpartum depression was eating away at me like I was some sort of bacon covered dessert. (I love bacon and sugar...I assume depression does, too.) I stared at ceilings and wondered how someone that had forgotten how to feel could cry so much. My new baby had never taken to breastfeeding, so I spent hours of each day attached to a breast pump. The whirr and whoosh of my high end milking machine (look ma, no hands!) made me feel like I was a dairy cow struggling with depression, which was somehow much worse than a Meg struggling with depression. It was simply the last thing in a long list I just couldn't do. So I decided to quit. And the joy, THE EFFERVESCENT EVER FLOWING JOY, of putting away the pump and buying formula! It was such a revelation to me, that not every part of parenthood entailed struggle. Oh my goodness, I thought, maybe I have a say, maybe there can be compromise, maybe I get to know what my child and I need. Maybe, just maybe, I can do this. And then I had a conversation with a friend who looked at me and my new decision and said, "Meg, It is hard for everyone and we get through it. Breastfeeding is really the right thing to do. You just need to do it." I spent the rest of that day on the internet. Every pithy blog, earnest statistic and mom endorsed article said the same thing, if you care for your child you will breastfeed. According to those "that know" the question of formula vs. breast milk defined who I was as a mother. And I didn't measure up. The pump stayed put away but I was ashamed and told friends my milk had suddenly dried up, and Yes, it is just devastating and No, I don't know what the baby and I are going to do without that time together. And they shook their heads and nursed their babies and felt badly for me. What I really wanted to say was, But this is so much better for me. I haven't had to stare at the ceiling for days. I am almost happy. I am, I wanted to shout, never going to try breastfeeding again. But I couldn't say it. Because somehow those mom's knew that there was a RIGHT way to do things. And there was something wrong with me. Motherhood, it appeared, had rules. And it only took me five weeks to break the most important one.
The Beatles had it wrong. Rule breaker is, in fact, the loneliest number.
The rules of motherhood are varied and often contradictory. They change according to region, socioeconomic status and time of day. What is held to be sacred truth at one play group is often considered heresy at another. And now a list of just a few I have encountered, in no particular order: All children should read by the time they leave preschool, if children read too early it will ruin their intellectual growth, cloth diapers are the only answer, cloth diapers waste too much water, babies should be taught sign language, teaching sign language stunts a baby's language development, if your child throws a tantrum it is due to bad parenting, if your child does not throw tantrums he must lack spark, babies should be breastfed until they ween themselves, breastfeeding past a year old is "creepy", more than a half hour of TV a day is detrimental, micromanaging the way your child spends his day is harmful, mothers should work outside the home, mother's who work outside the home are missing out on what matters, if you want to bond with your baby you will give birth without an epidural, an epidural is the only way to enjoy your birth experience, homeschooling is the only responsible education, public schools are the only way to achieve proper socialization, parents should co-sleep with their children, co-sleeping with your children makes them too dependent, children need a firm hand, children should be given a long leash. And on and on and...on. Women, WOMEN! how we LOVE to enforce these rules. To judge and question and then discuss the judging and the questioning. And sometimes in the middle of the "I can't believe she let her kids..." and "Well, I just know that I would never...", I realize that I am the type of mother they are talking about and I start saying my goodbyes. Because maybe I can get out the door before Zuzu decides not to share, or throws a fit, or acts in any way like the three year old she is. Maybe Viola will start to cry and just won't stop. Please, I think, let me get to the car before they realize exactly what I am and exactly what I am not. And on the drive home I feel apart and as if I have wandered away from a path I never really found.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Maybe I am naive. It is more than possible that I am a below average mother making excuses for my poor performance. I mean, honestly, I haven't wiped off Margaret's face all day. She has started touching the dried milk on her cheek and calling it a beard. Really.
But here is what I think.
Damn the rules. Do you know what makes a good mother? Loving our children, teaching our children, hoping for our children, praying for our children. We know what our babies need. We know it whether they sleep in our beds, whether we work outside the home, whether they have memorized every episode of DORA! or have never seen a TV in their ever lovin' lives. We are Mommas, for heaven's sake. We bring life into this world and then raise it up to the light the best way we can. And it doesn't have to be lonely. We do not have to divided by labels, methods and philosophies. We are not defined by the way we diaper or discipline. What if for just a moment, we all acknowledged the grandness of this thing we are a part of, this blessed, God given role? What if we held each others hands and said, "Isn't it heartbreaking, bright, boring, beautiful, tear-out-your-hair frustrating, and just so magical it hurts?" What if we loved each others children, tantrums and all, because they are just learning and aren't we all and isn't it just so hard sometimes? What if we decided that we were all doing just fine, every last one of us? What if, at the end of each day, we realized we had done our best and that was enough?
Anyone want to give it a try?
Thank goodness. I thought I was the only one.