The older I get, the more I’m convinced that the decisions we make in life, the ones that truly deeply change us, are by accident. We always think we have a plan. And sometimes those plans result in good things. But the turns that really upend your life, putting you in a place you never thought you’d be—those are ones we can never possibly plan for.
So it was that I had children. I never professed a desire to be a mother, even in my younger years. It just didn’t seem a role that fit me. So when I married and started down the road of adulthood, having kids simply seemed the next logical step to take. I had no fervent desire to procreate. It just kind of happened. Should we do this now? Okay sure, let’s do this.
My first-born was not a fun experience. I spent 14 hours in weird, jarring labor only to be wheeled down a hospital corridor at the end, screaming in pain with nurses jogging alongside, because my daughter’s heart rate had slowed considerably. I was anesthetized by one of the top experts in the country (remember the conjoined Egyptian twins? He was their anesthesiologist!), and he was incredibly calming as I realized I was about to be sliced open to bring a human into the world.
She was born at 9:11pm and I was ushered into a recovery room, in which I immediately came down with a horrible case of the shakes. I’d been given so many various drugs throughout the day that my body was rebelling, and I spent a good 45 minutes shaking like an addict in need of a fix. When my daughter was wheeled into my room, more than an hour after her birth, I met her for the first time. She lay in her bassinet, eyes wider than I’ve ever witnessed, staring at me. I lay on my side, finally feeling the shakes subside, and stared back. She was an alien to me. I had no idea what to do with her. And she looked at me as if she knew that.
Three days later, I sat on the edge of my bed at home, watching her as she slept. The prevailing feeling was one of unpreparedness. An overwhelming, crushing feeling that only comes with the most irreversible of decisions. There are few, very few, of those in life—choices you make that cannot be undone, that affect other humans in massive ways. As I stared down at her, in a hormone-induced mania that carries no reason, I had a sudden, gut-punching realization: no one is coming to get her. There are no backups. I am it. And days later, when she had a fever and seemed sick, I so clearly remember her father looking at me and saying basically, You have to direct this. You are the mother. Your instincts are all we have.
We muddled through because you have to, and managed not to kill her or each other. Twenty-three months later I had another daughter, in more an act of divine providence than anything else. Anyone who knows my youngest will understand when I say that she forced her way into the world. My husband and I were not in a great place at that point, but she needed to exist. So she did.
She was a much easier birth, but a much, much harder baby. She had colic and never slept. Standing in a completely dark bathroom with the fan running, vehemently swaying a tightly swaddled infant back and forth for hours at a time— I’m sure Kim Jong-Il has more cruel tortures, but I would have taken them as an alternative back then. You question your sanity. You hope you keep your shit together long enough to avoid harming your child. You want to punch your husband. But mostly, you stand in that dark whirring abyss, angry at your girlfriends. Really, just women in general. In all those months I spent reading ‘What to Expect..’, why did no one prepare me? Why did no one give me even a hint of what was to come? Why didn’t anyone talk about the profound loneliness and isolation that comes with bearing a child?
I remember reading an interview with god-help-us Gwyneth Paltrow before I had kids. And I remember her saying that, once you have a baby, you just get it. The concept of motherhood clicks immediately, the instincts lock into place, and it all comes naturally. I can now confidently say that’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. Sure, it happens for some women, and god bless them. But I kept waiting for the “get it.” And waiting. And waiting. When it didn’t come, I spent several years questioning my character as a woman and a human. What was wrong with me that I didn’t “get it”? I was clearly faulty.
And then. My children became humans. They grew older. They started having actual conversations with me and were witty and sly and just damn fun to be with. They argue with me about music. We watch Gilmore Girls together and talk about sex. We watch Lord of the Rings together and get grossed out by Orcs. They are little bad-asses, charging through life with no fear, approaching every situation with honesty and a million questions. They are what I wish I’d been like as a child.
My daughters are without a doubt my two most favorite human beings on the face of the planet. When it’s their dad’s week to have them, I feel like one of my arms is missing. But it took me a long time to “get it.” Not only did it not happen immediately, it didn’t happen until they were out of kindergarten.
Once I turned the corner, I finally felt comfortable bringing this up with other mothers. And guess what? There were so many other women out there like me, who suffered through infanthood with a glazed eye; who nodded and smiled during playdates, then went home and sat in the closet and cried. We loved our children, but we didn’t understand them. We didn’t get why this was so damn hard and unenjoyable; why the phrase, “the toughest job you’ll ever love” made us shake our head in dismay. Because we didn’t love it. At all.
When I find these other women – which I seem to on a regular basis now – the conversation always turns to, “Why didn’t we tell each other? Why didn’t anyone give us some sort of heads-up?” My friend Kerry sealed it up with this comment: because no one wants to spoil your motherhood. What if you absolutely revel in having infants? What if that phase is one of the most enriching of your entire existence? You don’t want to be the asshole that scares them needlessly. At the end of day, becoming a mother is a total crap shoot. You have no idea what’s going to happen until it happens. So you roll the dice and hope that at some point, it begins to make sense. And it really really does. It just takes a little longer for some. Give those women some space and some love and some support. Because they need it. More than you can ever know.