All My Life, Preparing For This

(Alternately titled: Ms. Smarty-Pants Becomes A Mother And Finally Realizes She Doesn’t Know Everything)

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A little over four years ago I lay on a hospital delivery bed, reeling not only from the intensity of having birthed my first child, but also from the other-worldly experience of having prayed a continuous loop of Hail Mary’s, pleading for the child’s life.

He had been born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.

As soon as the baby emerged, the feeling of the room had changed. It became cool, focused, urgent. First my nurses tended to him, then the NICU staff rushed in. I felt as if I were in a tunnel, the sounds and activity muted, only the Hail Mary’s ringing loudly in my mind.

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Soon enough, though, the activity abated and there at the end of the tunnel was a screaming baby boy. He was fine – completely, totally fine. Thank you, Lord.

I looked up to my left and saw him lying in a sterile plastic basinet in the corner of the room, screaming, panicking. He seemed so scared, so alone. I couldn’t reach him because I was being tugged and pressed and stitched up by my doctor. But my heart went out to him and I did what I could: “It’s okay, Baby. It’s okay, Baby.” I cooed to him, over and over, five feet from his side.

He stopped crying. He became still and he listened and my mother said, “He knows your voice.”

An incredible feeling washed over me: gratitude and joy, fear and wonder, all mixed together. An incredible realization, too: This is my baby. He knows my voice. I am his mother and I can calm him like no one else can.

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I had spent years holding and loving and caring for other women’s babies. Now I finally had one of my own.

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I come from a big extended family (including twenty-five first cousins younger than myself) and my parents had always surrounded our little, immediate-family unit with a large network of good friends, most of whom had children. So I knew my way around a baby. And a toddler. And a little kid.

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I had been baby-crazy since I was a little girl, preferring to spend most barbecues and holiday parties “mothering” the little ones, rather than hanging out with kids my own age. I babysat – boy, did I babysit – more than any other teenager I knew. When I was a single young professional, I’d swing by my aunt’s house to take her kids on outings. One time I even cared for them for several days running while their parents were out of town. I told everyone I was “playing working mom.”

So I went into parenthood feeling pretty well prepared in the childcare department. I was an old-hand at diapering and bottle-feeding and bathing. I had kissed boo-boo’s and paced with screaming babies. I had a pretty good sense of which kinds of discipline worked and which didn’t.

I had also heard enough of my aunts’ and my mom’s friends’ chatter to know that parenting was hard. I had no illusions of serene domesticity.

Which all made me a pretty smug, smarty-pants kind of first-time mother. I felt like I had spent most of my 31 years watching, practicing, preparing for this opportunity. Why should I read parenting books? Why should I seek advice? I already had enough knowledge to get it right. On my own. (Or rather, with only my husband.) Pity the mother who tried to give me tips.

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It probably sounds like I’m setting you up for a tale of complete and utter failure, doesn’t it? But that’s not quite what happened. In fact, if you’d asked me, a year or two into motherhood, whether it was what I expected, I would have told you (as I did, in fact, tell many people) that the only thing that surprised me about motherhood was how physical it was. (i.e. Having to wrestle toddlers into submission so that I could change their diapers.) Just call me Ms. Smarty-Pants.

But now, four years and three children into motherhood, I have more perspective. I now realize that those first couple of years were really hard on me. I realize that while I may have been prepared for the nuts and bolts of the work that goes into caring for children, I was woefully unprepared for dealing with the emotional strain of motherhood.

Just because I knew what I was doing, doesn’t mean I knew how to deal with the intensity of doing it all the time, without a break, for little people who relied almost entirely on me. It doesn’t mean I knew how to get through the baby blues or withstand the sound of my baby crying for hours on end or handle the heart-wrenching truth that I couldn’t produce enough milk to feed my own child.

Motherhood was so much harder than the “making dinner while trying to calm a screeching baby” kind of hard I expected. It was “feeling useless because my mother was making us pancakes” hard. And “crying on the kitchen floor because my toddler won’t leave me alone” hard. And “sobbing in the front passenger seat because my husband wasn’t being the right kind of supportive” hard.

It is less hard today.

It’s not less hard because it’s less work. (With three boys now, parenting necessarily involves much more work today than it did at first.) Motherhood is less hard simply because I’m more used to it. The idea of being constantly on-call has by now been absorbed so completely that I wouldn’t know what to do if I weren’t responsible for my boys. And now when I find myself emotional and despairing of whatever it is that seems so hard at the moment, I know enough to recognize that whatever it is is simply the next in a long line of real but passing hardships.

I know that I have more hardships ahead of me and I know that some of them will make their season of motherhood feel more difficult than the one I’m in now. But at least then I’ll have the benefit of even more perspective – that which I will have gained from my own experience and that which I will have gained from parents whom I’m not too much of a smarty-pants to listen to.

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When I was Little Ms. Smug, Smarty-Pants, First-Time Mother, I offered lots of advice to newer moms than myself. I may have personally eschewed parenting books and advice from other mothers, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to tell somebody else what she should be doing. These days, I try to bite my tongue. I don’t always succeed, but I try to remind myself of how much I wanted to find my own way when I was in those shoes.

These days, I try to offer words of comfort rather than advice. Because I think the best thing you can say to a first-time mother is, “It gets easier. It gets better.”

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This post is part of a “blog hop” hosted by Amy of Go Forth And Mother. Amy has just kicked off a year-long life betterment project called “The Happy Wife Project.” To get things going, she’s asked ten bloggers to post about their expectations of motherhood… and how reality stacked up. In the coming days, please be sure to “hop” on over to the other participants too:

July 21 – Amy @ Go Forth and Mother
July 22 – Julie @ These Walls
July 23 – Kelly @ This Ain’t the Lyceum
July 24 – Sarah @ Fumbling Toward Grace
July 25 – Nichole @ Yackity Shmackity
July 26 – Colleen @ Martin Family Moments
July 27 – Lindsay @ Lindsay Sews
July 28 – Olivia @ To the Heights
July 29 – Ana @ Time Flies When You’re Having Babies
July 30 – Jamie Jo @ Make Me a Saint
July 31 – Michele @ My Domestic Monastery

13 thoughts on “All My Life, Preparing For This

  1. Well, this had me in tears. I am only one baby into the game, but I have definitely been surprised by the emotional strain of motherhood. I also was not able to produce enough milk to feed my baby, and it started off my journey as a mother on a very humbling note.

    Loved, loved, loved this post. Thank you!

    • I’m glad you liked it! The milk thing is SO hard. In all honesty, it was kind of difficult for me to look at all those newborn pictures of my son because I associate them with the trauma of not having enough milk for him. So. Hard.

  2. What do you mean, you don’t know everything?? Pshaw!! ;-)

    p.s. Those first few weeks with my first baby, I HATED when people told me that “things will get better.” I would think, “You don’t know what I’m going through! You have no idea! Things will NEVER get better! THIS will be the rest of my life!” Hahaha! Now, of course, I know better AND I know that things DO get better. But, man, when you are in the moment, it seems like forever. And now I say that same thing to other new moms and probably drive them nuts. Lol!

    • Oh, that’s funny. That comment never bothered me at all. I took it as sympathy/solidarity. I hated when people tried to tell me how to fix it. Because IT COULD NOT BE FIXED, people! It just had to be gotten through. And of course I hated all the, “It goes by so fast!” comments.

  3. I lied to everybody and myself about how hard my first year of mothering was. I was having a rough time emotionally and I didn’t want to admit it. Baby number two has helped me process those emotions. If I’d been more open about it I think I would’ve had an easier time…

    • Me too. I think with every baby I’ve answered, “We’re fine! FINE!” to the “So how are you doing?” question. I realize now that I’ve meant it more with each child. I probably never should have bothered saying it with my first.

  4. This is quickly becoming my favorite blog, but I’ll need to start keeping Kleenex nearby. The pictures just killed me – those little feet!

  5. So true, every single bit of it. I can even tell you that by the time you have 6 kids, it will be a breeze. Really, it becomes second nature. OH, it’s still hard, but it’s what we do, right?
    That milk thing I totally get, my last baby was born with a cleft lip/palate and could not suck…I have to say that the saddest part for me was not being able to breastfeed him. Pumping was just not the same.
    Nice to “meet” you!!

  6. Beautiful reflection, Julie! I especially loved your comment about giving advice to “newer” moms. It’s hard not to, but it definitely bothered me when I got unsolicited, unhelpful advice from someone who didn’t know the whole situation. I need to remember to give other moms the benefit of the doubt more often!!

  7. Julie I grew up with lots of babies in the home, so I can relate when you say you knew what the care of children would look like. But, “…while I may have been prepared for the nuts and bolts of the work that goes into caring for children, I was woefully unprepared for dealing with the emotional strain of motherhood.” This is totally spot on. I wish I had read something like this when I was 21 and a brand new mama. I completely thought I was alone.
    Beautifully written!
    I loved meeting you at Edel!!

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