I hovered behind my mom in the kitchen as she made dinner. The fish sticks went in to the built-in oven, and when my mom turned around, she almost bumped in to me.
She sighed, “What is it, sweetie?”
“I have a serious question.”
I was 13, and in these moments, my mom responded with the appropriate and comforting balance of concern and care paired with the awareness that our definitions of serious are often different.
“Well what is it?” she asked.
I blurted out: “What if I don’t ever want to have kids?”
She stopped her dinner chores and looked at me, smiled, took a little breath and answered, “Oh. Well – you will when you’re older.”
“But what if I don’t?” (Was something wrong with me?)
“You will, sweetie. Don’t worry so much about it.”
I wanted to believe her, but in that moment I felt the pressure of making a wrong decision. What if I never had children? Would it be ok? Would I be ok? Would I miss out on a fundamental life experience? Why did I feel this way at only 13?
Spoiler alert: I became a mom at age 33, after a lot of ambivalence. To be honest, I still don’t understand what it means to hear or feel a “biological clock.” I have never experienced the longing and yearning for a child I’ve heard people describe. After we got married, my husband and I focused on building artistic careers. We got college degrees, then jobs, then a house in the suburbs. We “had it all.”
But I still felt restless. I didn’t consciously think that a child would heal or repair whatever I felt was missing, but I found myself wondering if becoming a mother wasn’t the missing piece. I remained ambivalent as I chose to get pregnant. I was really scared, but I also felt excitement at a new trajectory in my life. I felt the excitement of possibility.
When my daughter was born, I felt like I had been living as a barbarian, and now had a small amount of grace. It was a heart-opening experience, and humbling, and scary – but beautiful and empowering. She made me slow down. She helped me see my worth and power.
When my son was born, I felt like the pressure to care for two children was an insurmountable challenge. But he has brought a level of joy to our family I never could have imagined.
And even with the tremendous blessings I know my children to be, at no point did I experience, to quote two favorites: like a hole in my heart was filled, or like I now understood the purpose of my life. Sorry to disappoint. I felt love. Unimaginable and unconditional love, but I also felt an odd detachment. Like an old part of me had died and was replaced with something I wasn’t familiar with. Often when I’m one on one with my children, I feel like I’m watching myself from the outside.
It’s a challenging sensation to understand because motherhood seems to be something I’m equated with a lot. Friends have called me the “mama bear” of our social group. I have leadership responsibilities at my job that imply nurturing and emotional care. I’m the person that some friends call when they need to be reminded that they matter.
My feelings about motherhood are complex. I see the gratitude and deep appreciation I must hold for the charge I’ve taken. I look at my children and my husband and I know that in my tiny house and stained clothes I have more than so many.
On the other hand, raising small people to be decent human beings is the absolute hardest thing I have ever embarked upon. It is a messy and exhausting process through which all of my darkness is mirrored back to me. There are days that I want to run away and never look back. The worst days during which I contemplate actually leaving, I go through the planning of where I would go and what I would do, only to realize I am ill-equipped for such adventure and have become institutionalized.
I joke, but it’s important to acknowledge. I miss my friends and art galleries and interruption-free work time. I have trouble concentrating on simple conversations and tasks. I’m no longer capable of multi-tasking. I’m surprised at how quickly I lose my patience during temper tantrums and feel the need to fight my daughter’s iron will. I’m shocked at how much they eat, how quickly they outgrow clothes, and the effort it takes to get them to bed every night. I worry about their future. I have to face pain from my own childhood that I didn’t even realize was there until I see it mirrored through one of my children.
An older friend, a woman who is my grandmother’s age, told me once that there will come a time when I miss having clothes to wash and dinners to make. I think she is a messenger from my future self, reminding me to slow down and pay attention. Like the moment with my mom in the kitchen at 13, I want to believe her. But if I’m real, there are a lot of days that I wonder how I’ll get through them. Motherhood is imperfect and raw, and not the seamless façade projected by society. It’s ok to admit that.
I want to love this new person I’m becoming: with unconditional love for myself, despite faults and mistakes and bad days. To be able to look back and say I did my best and to be proud of what I created. I want to love this new person I’m with. I want to love The Mother.