There’s a story I tell my daughter about the day she was born. “I never had a baby before so I didn’t know how long it would take. By the time I got to hold you in my arms, I had been in labor for 18 hours. I was so hungry I thought I might eat you up. I told your dad “put Journey down and go get me a cheeseburger!”” Journey giggles and snuggles up to me. She’s heard this story a dozen times before but never tires of it. She asks after one retelling: “why didn’t you eat a cheeseburger before you had me?” I tell her the truth: “no one told me I needed to; no one told me that you only get to eat ice chips once you’re admitted to the hospital.”
That’s not the only thing I didn't know before I became a mother. At 21 years old, I had never held a baby (that I can recall). Most of my friends were still falling drunkenly into bed at 4 am, not getting up at that time to feed a baby. Those early days of motherhood were terrifying; I was certain that I was doing everything wrong. Am I feeding her enough? Should I vaccinate her? (The answer to that question, I firmly believe now, is yes.) Does she need playdates when she’s a month old? At what age will she start talking? Those early days were also sweet; I would nestle my nose in the rolls of her neck and inhale a big whiff of fresh baby smell. I carried her everywhere, not wanting to miss a single moment. That preciousness I felt often carried an undercurrent of uncertainty. What if I’m not a good mom? Can she feel when I’m frustrated and overwhelmed? Can she tell I never planned on being a mom?
Fast forward to today and everything is different. She’s turning eight this month, I’m turning 30 next year. I’m disappointed to report that the feeling of fucking it all up has never gone away. The sweetness has transformed into something new: a mash-up of rushed FaceTime calls, two-week visits where she sleeps in my bed and doesn’t want to leave my side, grief for what once was, and hope for what can still be.
She lives with her dad, which is really a story for a different essay and is also part of the reason I’m sure she’ll need massive amounts of therapy as an adult. This piece is a good place to start, if you want background. In a nutshell, life took us on twists and turns that ultimately ended in me leaving Journey’s father and moving across the country with her. Even more twists and turns later, I relinquished primary custody — but never my parental rights, to be clear — and she went to live with her father, his new wife, and her older sister (who, it’s worth nothing, is from Journey’s dad and his new wife, who was also his ex-girlfriend that had his baby before we met. Complicated.). This is a simplified version but if you really want to know more, you should read the article I linked to above — it explains everything in much more detail.
As Journey’s birthday is in 9 days, I’ve been reflecting on this, well, journey of motherhood. Not knowing I should eat before going to Labor & Delivery was just the tip of the iceberg made up of things I did not know before becoming a mother. Remember the Titanic? It wasn’t the visible part of the iceberg that sunk the ship, it was the unseen mass of ice underneath the water. An iceberg is such an accurate metaphor for motherhood. There are all the things you do and say on the surface: the kisses, the stories, the meals, the funny stories you share about mispronounced words, the sad moments when children miss their dad. Then, there are the things that happen internally that may never see the light of day but have the power to capsize the ship of motherhood and plunge you into icy waters: the self-doubt, the feeling that everyone else knows exactly what to do and you are a total failure, the existential exhaustion that comes with being the sole provider for another human’s every physical and emotional need.
Why did no one ever talk about what was underneath the surface of motherhood? Is that not written into the Girl Code? It should be: Thou shalt not let other mothers think they suck at being a mom when you also think you suck at being a mom.
I felt wholly unprepared for motherhood when my daughter was born. Maybe it was because I wasn’t ready to be a mother. Maybe it was because my own mother, ever staying true to who I know her to be, didn’t even seem to care that I was pregnant (I believe her words were “Um, can you call back tomorrow? It’s almost midnight.”). Her and my step dad flew over San Diego, where we lived at the time, to get to Hawaii — while I was in labor. Maybe you had to be mothered well yourself to be a good mother.
There are so many things I wish I’d known before becoming a mother. Namely, that none of us knows what we are doing. That would have been revolutionary to hear all those years ago. Let me repeat this for all the moms in the back with baby puke on their shirt: no mother on this Earth knows what she is doing. We are all making it up as we go, trying not to screw up our kids too much. I also wish I’d known that kids don’t need or want a perfect mom, they just want a present mom. And that postpartum depression is a very real thing and if a doctor tells you “it’s normal, just give it time” you should find a new doctor who takes the mental health of mothers seriously. And that it’s ok if sometimes you don’t really like your kid. And that, first, before you are a mother, you are a human, and that means you are allowed to have needs and dreams; you are allowed to make mistakes; you are allowed to change your mind. And that sometimes you need a good cry. And that you will absolutely grieve the person you used to be because you will never, ever be her again. Mostly, I wish I’d have known that bad mothers don’t worry about whether or not they are a bad mother, they just don’t.
Of course there are other, more trivial things that would have been useful to know: it’s ok if she eats Cheerios off the floor, being exposed to germs is good for her immune system, always pack a change of clothes and extra wipes because inevitably, one day, you’ll be at a gas station and realize that not only has she pooped in her diaper but that the poop has oozed up her back and into her hair.
But I wanted the meat of motherhood. I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only one pushing up against icebergs that felt bigger and more destructive than they looked. I’ve learned over these last eight years that there is no one to blame (and believe me, I’ve tried to lay blame everywhere I could: myself, my mom, the media) for all the things I did not know before becoming a mother. No amount of hoping and wishing will bring me back to the first time I held my daughter in my arms for a do-over. I am learning to accept that, and to accept my version of motherhood for what it is: trial and error and tears and too many see you laters and an immense, unshakeable amount of love.
So while I don’t exactly know how to parent an eight-year-old (and especially one who doesn’t live with me), I feel a certain amount of peace about not knowing. I know now that motherhood is just one giant game of fake-it-til-you-make-it and that I am capable of figuring it out. Being a mother doesn’t come with a checklist. There’s no manual to refer to (is there??). There is only each moment and the decisions we make to love our children and raise them the best way we know how.