I saw my bestest friend Kris today. She had her first child, a boy, about a month ago. She asks me, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me what this would be like?”
Kris and I have known each other for almost 10 years. If there was anyone I’d tell the truth to about motherhood, it would be her. I did my best, during her pregnancy, to answer her questions without sugarcoating anything. I tried to convey the tiredness and exhaustion. She said things like, I’ve been tired before, don’t worry. And I knew she had been pretty tired and strung out before, believe me when I say she hasn’t had an easy life. Basically, her responses were a variation on one of the following, “It can’t be that bad” “That may happen to some people but it won’t happen to me because xxxx” “Don’t they sell xxx product for that?”
It was nearly impossible to pucture her illusions. I made sure she had plenty of reading material. In addition to all the Sears books and related things, I lent her Operating Instructions, Mother Shock, the entire Girldfriend’s Guide series, Ariel Gore books, Misconceptions, and Mothers Who Think. There were more that I can’t remember.
And she was still shocked to pieces by the experience of becoming a mother.
I started thinking back to some of the conversations that we had about impeding motherhood, and I started to wonder if I had pulled any punches at the last minute. Did I turn up the corners of my experience into a reassuring smile?
It’s hard to know where to draw the line between truth and reassurance. I start telling, and then I see these saucer eyes and hands wringing and I wonder whether I’m doing this pregnant woman a disservice by giving her too much to worry about. What if her baby doesn’t do this and I’ve worried her for nothing? What if she doesn’t experience this feeling and then she thinks I’m insane?
And then there’s the old worry: What if my experience is irrelevant to her because I didn’t become a mother in the normal way?
I’m out of touch with this because I had the Alice in Wonderland of first pregnancies, when nobody talked about the joy of being a mother in my earshot. It was all about the difficulty, the pain, the burden. With my adoption plan in place, this is all I could allow to filter through. So when I was standing half asleep in a dark hospital room with the newborn Ellie in my arms (because she needed me to be swaying and bouncing, not sitting or sleeping, and I was not about to waste one precious minute that I had with her), I was not in the least bit surprised. It was awful, it was everything everyone said it would be. What shocked me was the exhilaration and my body’s ability to use that exhilaration for fuel after five days with no sleep. I was floored by the love and joy nobody told me I would feel. By the time I had Naomi I had integrated both truths: the wonderful and the horrible. When Naomi was born nothing shocked me.
In some ways I feel like I couldn’t have prepared Kris for how it would feel, since my experience was so different from hers (and from everyone else’s that I know). I was high on gratitude for months after Naomi was born. I suppose only a mother who had lost a baby feels that way. I don’t know. I accepted the sleeplessness and lack of control as par for the course. I never expected it to be any different. WIth some experience I can say that Naomi wasn't an easy baby, but she wasn't a "high needs" baby either. I felt like I got soooo lucky whenever she would let me put her down.
When I first discovered Mother Shock, my immediate response is “what’s so shocking?” Why did people expect motherhood to be without negative feelings or a dark side? I didn’t get it. People get their dream job, and of of course there are going to be aspects about it they don’t like. People marry the love of their lives, and there are bound to be bad moments. That’s normal. Why did they expect motherhood to be this shining trancendant thing?
It took me a while to see motherhood from the perspective of a woman who has done most things right and been a reasonable success in her life. A woman who comes into motherhood with a feeling of competence and mastery in every other area of her life is in for a shock indeed. Whereas my perspective was “Everyone says I’m not ready, this is really hard and exhausting, that I have no idea what I’m getting into, but I’m going to do it anyway and muddle through because my psyche is giving me no choice. Become a mother or rot on the vine. So here I go…” It must be all about expectations.
I had an email correspondence with another birthmother awhile back. We talked about the relative ease which we slipped into motherhood compared to most people we knew. We both felt the same…it was like slipping into perfectly fitting pair of shoes. It felt like relief.
I am always comparing my experience of becoming a mother with the experience of “most people”. It never ceases to amaze me how different being a birthmother makes me. I would never dare tell my mommy friends how good I felt for Naomi’s first few months. Most of them don’t even know of my previous experience. It would take too long to expain my pathological happiness at caring for a newborn.
I explained it to someone obliquely once: my life before Naomi was unfufilling and unhappy. Why would I long for it?