Becoming a mother is a lifelong journey. I don’t know if we ever truly finish it. My mother still introduces me by saying ‘this is my baby’ and I’m like, I’m thirty-two and capable of running in high heels (which is easily the most fantastic thing about me). But she sees the daughter who was rocked to sleep and that time I got left behind on my first day of school. I know right. Having a child in your life, whether you pushed them out in blood and glory, met them when they were two years old as they sat frightened and uncertain in your lap, or if they live in your memory and the memories of those around you who say their name with love and sadness; having this child means you are a mother. Which is kind of a big deal. Because how we mother is this bizarre mix of self, and child, and family and society. And different bits drift up to the surface of your life at different times.
There’s the saying that when a baby is born a mother is born too. For some, it can be that quick. I have a friend, Luschka, she of the fabulous career which she had every intention of keeping up with after the birth of her daughter. An advance booking was made at a crèche for when her unborn daughter would be 6 weeks old. Then, Luschka met Ameli in a pool of water at night surrounded by love and family and birth, and she’s never left her since (you can find her beautiful birth story here). Creche cancelled, career relegated to second place and this passion that she has for her children (there are two now) is evident in her every move. She became a mother the moment her daughter looked at her.
Personally, I became scared.
Upon meeting my son all the things I didn’t know about raising a child suddenly seemed very important, and all the things I didn’t know was most of the things. And I knew about all the things I didn’t know because I read voraciously during my pregnancy, partly because when pregnant I am gigantic and books are easy to catch. But also because I like to be prepared.
There is no book about the utter despair and exhilaration of your second night in hospital, when you realize that a) this person is depending on you to keep him alive and b) that you can actually do that. I sat in the window of my hospital room holding my Boy, looked out at the 3am lights of the city and cried, not like a baby, but like a woman who was becoming a mother.
Luckily, whilst I was shakily learning how to mother – my Boy knew how to baby. He babied like a Boss while I read more books, then, looked at my kid and threw said books against the door. And slowly, he taught me how to be who he needed.
Initially mothering may be about throwing yourself into meeting the needs of your child, that symbiotic relationship where this small person and you feel like the whole world. This can be a fantastic feeling of the world condensing into your baby sleeping on your chest and giggling at your funny faces. Or it can feel like shit when you’re trapped on the couch and the freaking remote is way over there.
Some people lose their sense of self at this point. Because society can tell you that raising small humans is not as worthwhile as making money for big humans. Society can also tell you that making money for big humans makes you crap at raising small humans. You can lose yourself when you realize that this person who weighs less than 10kg controls every facet of your life. Or when you look at the pile of dishes and think ‘fucking hell, is this it? Is this what parenting is? I used to wear clothes for fucks sake! Why do I only own trackies! I only own trackies!’ Your triumphs aren’t so much triumphant as they are girding your loins for the next battle. Which is frankly the only amount of loin action that’s taking place due to constant exhaustion and the relative importance of sleep versus anything else ever.
But as they get older, they don’t need you as much. Girl drags a small set of steps with her everywhere at the moment. We often hear the grunts of a small child combined with the screech of wooden steps on the floor, and we know, oh how we know, that the next thing we hear will be ‘I DID IT MYSELF!!’ Generally followed by a whisper of ‘Ohhh, there’s a mess.’
I remember what it was like when they were babies, but I’m not living that anymore. That part is done. Now I’m learning to do this part. Which means reaching way back and dragging bits of myself into the limelight that I’d forgotten about, bits that I couldn’t attach to earlier because it wasn’t the right time. But this still feels like mothering, I’m still floundering around and fucking up frequently enough for this to be familiar. This new stage of mothering where the newborn it turns out, is myself, in which I’m learning how to be a part of the world without the safety of my children.
Mothering is sometimes about being, and sometimes about becoming. There were times when this role sat perfectly, I knew what to do and so did they and we did it and thus I mothered. Ta-da. But things change, and I would become a new mother again, the one that they needed this time around, because the last version just wasn’t right anymore. The various selves we are juggling are constantly in flux.
This process of changing states starts long before we meet our children. Research has shown that we build up a picture of our children while pregnant, imbuing them with qualities and characteristics that may or may not be true, then around eight months of pregnancy we drop this view (Pisoni et al., 2014). We let go of that child and prepare to meet the one we have. The one we love just as they are. We repeat this process countless times, for ourselves and our children; we adjust and readjust our mothering. We balance ourselves and our offspring to see who is the most likely to lose their shit at that moment in time, and we act accordingly. Or we whisper ‘for fucks sake’ and then act accordingly.
Mothering changes our bones. Growing a person in your body leaves it irreparably different – your rib cage expands, your heart gets pushed to the side, feet get bigger, hips widen, stretch marks happen and a thousand pieces of your body will never be the same. They leave their mark. They change our bodies, our lives and our hearts, literally. We wear them just as clearly on our perpetually tired faces as we did when we threw them up in a ruck on our backs, had them tugging on our hands, or carried them out in front like a big ol’ watermelon.
The ghosts of the mothers we have been remain with us, but there will always be another mother around the corner. Waiting for her turn with the baby.
Maybe the next iteration of my motherhood will be the one who has her shit together because honestly, I’m still quite scared.
Pisoni, C., Garofoli, F., Tzialla, C., Orcest, S., Spinillo, A., Politi, P, Balottin, U., Manzoni, P. & Stronati, M. (2014). Risk and protective factors in maternal-fetal attachment development. Early Human Development, 90(2).
Linking up with The Annoyed Thyroid for Down the Rabbit Hole here