In the weeks after my son's birth, a growing frustration rattled around in my new-mother brain. It wasn't about the endless diapers or sleep deprivation or any of the usual symptoms of self-sacrifice that accompany caring for the most vulnerable of beings.
It was a frustration with my inability to articulate this new experience. Every observation I had about "becoming a mother" seemed to wither into cliché the moment it began to form. It was as though my powers of insight or self-awareness had been relegated to the same bin where I'd discarded other things I once made use of—like concert tickets and non-stretch jeans and disposable income and intact abdominals.
There was so much new personhood to parse: The one fizzing beneath the surface of myself, and also, less charted by far, the one dozing in my lap while I stared down the blank page of a journal.
You know that feeling when a fantastic, just-right word is on the tip of your tongue and your mind flicks through its file cabinet of word associations but you can't...quite...find it? That's the feeling.
I wanted someone else to speak the words for me, to help map a territory so new to me that I began to feel overwhelmed by the expanse.
My son is two and a half now. You would think that two and a half years of reflection might have been distilled into a moving full-length memoir or a tear-jerking documentary. But it's just this list, and a few scrawled, stream-of-consciousness journal entries that are virtually unreadable.
As a gift to other new moms, or pro moms, or no-label moms, I share here my handy list of things you might be feeling, or sentiments to which you can possibly relate, or words arranged in an order which, at least, you might find comprehensible—just in case you thought you were the only one.
Motherhood with a newborn is:
Wandering blissfully through a hazy afterworld of euphoria, sleeplessness and impossible sentimentality—but with stitches in inopportune locations.
The savage abandon of self, as every space you're accustomed to occupying—the bed, your body, your own rich, internal life of the mind—is aggressively re-landscaped into the terrain of giving everything to another, who (as of yet) has not uttered a single word of gratitude.
Accepting that sometimes the best decisions we can make bring more chaos into our lives than resolution. At least, for now.
An entire Jane Austen novel wrapped in a baby blanket, grasping and gasping the way the newest lungs do, flailing in the twitchy motions of learning life.
Building new reflexes, wound so tightly that they snap to attention with startling force at the slightest of summons from this new, occasionally benevolent but relentlessly kissable dictator.
The necessity for ruthless efficiency, learned not in the halls of that expensive education you're still paying off, but in the classroom of naptime routine, as the eerie black-and-white of a baby monitor solemnly polices your use of free time.
The drain that forever swirls; the tap that infinitely runs; the ebb and flow of stamina that is simultaneously superhuman and subhuman, depending on how long it's been since you slept or showered.
Reflecting on the barbarity of childbirth that nature (which has had millennia to become more dignified and stubbornly refuses) has inflicted on your kind, and your kind alone, but never admitting this to your mom friends who insist it is a magical experience. Magic and barbarity, it would seem, have coexisted since the dawn of time and we should all be okay with this tension.
Soberly coming to terms with the things that can now be regarded as ex-fixtures in your life, and occasionally, or regularly, mourning their loss.
Knowing with absolute clairvoyant certainty that there is nothing this precious person could say or do, ever, that would make you love him less, and wondering if your parents said that too and if they still meant it when you joined a cell phone family plan with the boyfriend they loathed the most.
Counting down the seconds until your child's bedtime—then scrolling through photos and videos on your phone with weepy eyes because the moment he goes silent is the moment you already miss him.
The act of becoming—one that doesn't coincide with New Year's or your golden birthday or any of the other moments when you're supposed (or allowed) to reimagine yourself.
SWAT-level risk assessment, everywhere, in every space, at every moment, with no bathroom breaks or vacation time allotted. All. The. Time.
Understanding, perhaps for the first time, that happiness and joy are two separate continents—and that Pangaea is not the one-off convergence you learned about in eighth grade, but it's not a permanent state either.
Learning to exercise forgiveness—an ocean of forgiveness.
Of yourself, for not having spent the last 25 years saving for all those expenses you now realize you're saddled with.
Of the well-intentioned nurse who nevertheless painfully botched your IV, and of the hospital kitchen staff who determined that a dog bowl of tea-flavored water and two cookies constituted an adequate post-delivery breakfast without once offering you the Big Mac you deserved.
Of those who shared your pregnancy news with others when you explicitly told them not to.
Of those who resented your pregnancy, because they were hurting in ways you couldn't then imagine.
Of those who told you that you weren't ready, that you shouldn't have, that you waited too long, that you didn't wait long enough.
Of those who withheld joy and weaponized its absence, of those who suffocated you with their expectations, who brought gifts riddled with choking hazards to your baby shower.
This, I was startled to find, is the most important thing on the list. Forgiveness in all its curative alchemy, the perpetually unfinished act that motherhood demands. How can I cradle my little boy and stroke his soft hair when my hands are busy clinging to all that baggage?
The words don't always come; the clarity of these heady, exhausting newborn days might be years in the making. Perhaps I'll wear out an entire bookshelf of journals trying and still never be able to do them justice.
I can forgive myself for that.