Following My Passion: Changing the Motherhood Narrative Through Storytelling

Today felt like a long, sad march away from my little love. Being a non custodial mother is not easy; there are some days I scream and cry my pain into a pillow. I didn’t scream or cry today. My heart is so full from the last four days I spent with Journey and David, my two favorite people in the universe. Journey did not cry when we said see you later which surprised me. For the last 24 hours she’d been clinging to me and saying she wants to stay with me. Instead, she promised she would write me letters and see me on spring break. Her focus was quickly turned to telling her sister about the robot we built. This is becoming her normal. Being away from each other is becoming her normal. So while there were no tears today, there was something else: a sense of permanence. That this - the long weekend visits in oceanfront hotel rooms, the long drives to and from mommy’s and daddy’s houses each spring break and summer, the constant separation from the person you love most in the world - is now our normal and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

This made me sad in a way that is so deep and visceral that I can’t yet articulate it. But as the miles between us grew and grew, I realized something: it is time to start really talking about non custodial motherhood, as well as the larger narrative around motherhood. As with any discussion of motherhood, this topic is emotionally charged, and it is complex in the way that a human brain is complex which is to say that it is, at times, incomprehensibly so.

But it is what I know, and aren’t writers called to write what they know?

From the time I was born to now, I feel that motherhood - in both practice and concept - has been a central point of my life. This did not begin with me. As far back as I can look into my maternal lineage (my beloved great-grandmother, “Grandma Catherine”), there have been signs of maternal dysfunction. It appears that I am the first one to look at the dysfunction, give it a name, and do the excruciating work of digging it out of our legacy. I want to do this because I want Journey to have a clean slate if she decides to become a mother, and I want to heal the incredible pain I’ve felt on both sides of the mother-daughter coin.

This is not what I set out to write about. It also isn’t what I intended to happen in my life. But all roads keep leading me back to here. Back to the nudge, then the shove that I need to write about motherhood and all its many facets. So here I am, writing about motherhood - the most tense, loaded, emotional part of my life on many, many levels.

Writing about this is not easy and it is not fun. At times it feels cathartic, at other times like I’m ripping my heart out of my body. I am scared of being judged for my decisions and my beliefs. I know that by writing about this I am opening myself up to an internet full of potential trolls and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t terrify me. I have thick skin but I am a mere human; vile hurts.

I turned to my dear friend and prolific writer, Sarah Hosseini, for advice on the matter. Do I write about this and follow my passion or do I hold it close for fear of being judged? As usual, her words struck deep:

“I think it’s normal to feel scared about it. You’re not any less brave if you decide not to put your story out there. I think protecting your peace and mental well being always comes before using your gift and talents to help others. Also, people are going to judge the living shit out of you regardless so who fucking cares. Honestly. Clearly I feel two ways about it! I’m the worst advice giver. Listen, I’m embarrassed and ashamed about some of the shit I wrote about years ago, especially parenting stuff, even though at the time it seemed to be a good idea. And women DID write me saying they felt helped. So do I regret any of it? Fuck no. It got me here. I can’t be concerned with how I’m judged on past or present art. I just put it out there because without doing so my soul isn’t full. It’s my evolution. All of it. It’s all of our evolutions and women and mothers. The people who love and support your life and art will support you. The people who you want to reach will be reached.”

It is necessary, though, and I intend to follow this path as long as I am called by my soul and the Universe to do so. My hope is that I find healing and, just maybe, help to shift the perception around motherhood - especially for those of us that don’t fit the traditional model.

I am not sure what this project will look like. It may be just me, writing on here. But I am open to storytelling in a way that has a larger impact. All that I am focused on right now is standing in my truth - no matter how it looks - and using my experiences to serve a purpose beyond myself.

♥ CV

Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Mother

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. 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.

♥ CV