When I was engaged, people were enthusiastic about my upcoming marriage. A lot of them said, by way of congratulations, “You’re going to love marriage!” and “Welcome to the marriage club!” It wasn’t until after we were married and hitting all the little bumps a couple hits in their first year that the truth came out from our friends: marriage is hard. It’s work. It’s a lot of compromise and dying to yourself. But, it’s worth it!
Pregnancy is so different. First, the amount of joy and support people have expressed is far beyond what it was when I became engaged. I mean, if you want to make your friends happy cry, let them see you pregnant and touch your belly. But, at the same time, being a pregnant woman means I’m a magnet for warnings, horror stories, and sarcastic advice like, “Get your sleep now!” I’m also recalling all of the horrific, poop-filled status updates and blog posts I’ve read in the past few years; they’ve all lain dormant and now are coming back to me in one giant, teeming mass of dread that basically boils down to one idea: having a baby is the worst thing ever.
I’m not crazy to think this. Our culture sends this message all the time, from sitcoms and commercials to our friends’ social media feeds (trust me, the tales of sleeplessness and potty training-gone-wrong have a lot more staying power than photos of their Halloween costumes). Please don’t get me started on the endless mommy-blog-rant-articles that show up in my Facebook feed almost every day because my mom friends have either liked or shared them.
Slate writer Ruth Graham wrote last year how this culture of “real talk” about parenting is confusing and alarming for the non-parents and expecting parents of the world. About those Scary Mommy/Rage Against the Minivan type of viral blog posts, Graham notes, “My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff. ‘So true!’ my friends write over and over again, because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves. (Somehow they do find the time to blog.)”
And then I come across a study saying the birth of a couple’s first child made them unhappier than even losing their spouse or losing their job. Yikes. Or this one: “Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family.” Or Jennifer Senior’s bestselling book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.
So as my pregnancy winds down (winds up?), I can’t help but feel incredibly ambivalent about the whole idea of having a baby. Mostly negative feelings, to be honest. I get to quit my job in a few weeks–yay!–but then I have to endure birthing a baby out of this body of mine, with all the pain and discomfort that brings, and then what do I have to look forward to? Apparently, more physical discomfort and horrors in the postpartum/breastfeeding phase, absolutely no sleep, and a hefty dose of “mom guilt” that other women swear is inescapable. And I’m supposed to be excited? Sure, once in a while I feel great anticipation over seeing our daughter’s face for the first time, watching her learn and grow into her own little person, but then these other voices come crashing in, talking about baby blues and postpartum depression, destroyed marriages and lost selfhood and living in “crisis mode” until the children are at least halfway through elementary school.
Since when did having and caring for a baby and/or children become a crisis, rather than the most natural thing human beings do?
Robert has noticed me sinking into a more and more negative state about our upcoming addition, and he suggested I just sit down and think about all the great things about having a baby and starting our family. He’s right. I need to dwell on the positive a bit more, and keep looking at my favorite positive mommy blogs (Love Taza and Cup of Jo, I’m looking at you!) that don’t do the “I haven’t showered in 3 weeks and my clothes are covered in spit up and I can’t remember the last time I had a thought to myself but this is the best job in the world!” dance. They focus on the positive, which is what I need to hear right now. (I should also probably rewatch all 6 seasons of Parenthood, right?) The real, poop-covered stuff is inevitable, and I’m completely aware of that. I’m not going to be blindsided by the fact that babies cry and spit up and don’t sleep for 8 hour stretches. But I hope I will be blindsided by some of the good things about motherhood, some of the tiny joys that people don’t share–maybe because they seem too insignificant? Or because they’d feel they’re bragging? Or because they feel too special, too vulnerable to share?
I love reading the motherhood interviews on Mother magazine, and this woman’s answer to the question, “What was the biggest surprise to you about having children?” really stood out to me:
“All the things that worried me about having kids before I had them were the wrong things. I worried, really worried, about things, like how I would not be able to have brunch or sleep in on Sunday mornings. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what my life was going to look like and that seemed terrifying. Of course, all those things are true—I never sleep in, I rarely have brunch, but what I didn’t know is how little I would care. I try to tread gently when I say this to friends who are deciding if they want kids or not, because I can sound like I’m into evangelizing, but my experience of having a baby was that it suddenly pulled back the curtain to an entire part of the world I couldn’t see before. I had no idea how big my heart could stretch, how vulnerable that would make me feel, and what an amazing experience it would be to learn to live in the world with all that vulnerability.”
When women share like this, it helps push back the dark dread that can crowd out any joy I feel at the prospect of bringing new life into the world. I want to try and follow Mary Oliver’s advice: “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” I can easily imagine all the trials and the hardships of new parenthood, but what I can’t imagine is the bond I’ll share with our daughter, or the beautiful little moments of caring for her and watching her grow. That doesn’t mean they won’t happen. I just need to keep making space in my little worried heart for them.
I’d love to hear your positive experiences of motherhood, too, or maybe your thoughts on why our culture has tipped so dangerously toward sharing the bad instead of sharing the good?