Motherhood is a universal drill sergeant; relentless, hardcore, and physically demanding. She doesn’t care who your daddy is or how much money you’ve got in the bank, because from the very moment that the pregnancy test reads positive, your ass is grass. Either lean into it, or spend the rest of your life feeling trapped in martyrdom.
Most people don’t walk into parenthood expecting it to be uncomplicated, exactly, but I think almost everyone expects it to be simpler than it actually is. It sounds painless in theory — feed the baby, hold the baby, make sure he or she is dressed appropriately for the season — but, as I was recently reminded while catching a sneak peek of the upcoming movie Life Itself, (opens in theaters 9/21)! life is full of surprises.
In my case, the surprises have included such things as a colicky second child who didn’t sleep for more than 1-2 hour stretches for the first 6 months of life, major financial losses during the Great Recession, and, more recently, a Kindergartner who developed a fever on the very day I planned an important business meeting. The unpredictability of life is probably what makes it worth living, but it’s also what led me down a path directly to rehab (unpredictability makes me literally want to leap out a window).
Each of us has our own story, but there are key events that can change everything for moms. These are the moments that bring us to our knees, in sadness or elation, hopelessness or fear. They are the experiences that unite us as mothers and allow us to truly understand each other, because we have so been there.
A diagnosis. Whether the news comes when the baby is still in utero or when he’s 10 years old, it’s an enormous blow to find out that something is wrong with or different about your child. We’ve had several unexpected diagnoses in our house, and even though it’s validating to hear that my intuition was on point, facing the reality of whatever is going on is scary. No mother wakes up thinking, “I sure hope today is the day I find out that my child is tragically neuroatypical!”
The thing about a diagnosis is that everything shifts from being normal to varying levels of insanity in a pretty short amount of time. So, regular mornings of shuttling children to and fro morph into circus-like events that include administration of meds, extra time to allow for the inevitable tantrums, a bowl for the kid who throws up from the stress of taking a different route to school, requesting time off work to make therapist and doctor appointments or extra trips to the hospital … you can fill in the rest of the blanks here.
A sick or dying parent. In that same vein, unexpected illnesses or conditions of close family members can stress already maxed-out moms to the very edge of their own personal cliff. My mother hasn’t been in good health for years, and as her condition steadily declines, the way I relate to her is shifting from daughter to caretaker. However, as much as I worry about her, she encourages me to focus on my own family. Sick or not, she’s still my mom, and she’s probably going to mother me until she draws her last breath.
Finding out the gender. My husband and I had two boys, ages 4 and 1, when I announced that I wanted another baby. I’ll never forget the are-you-fucking-serious look he gave me over our baked potatoes and beer. The two kids we already had were a handful, and I’d suffered through some major postpartum mental health issues, but I was absolutely fucking serious. I wasn’t done having babies. Flash forward a few months. I was pregnant and he’d already gotten a vasectomy because that was part of the bargain we’d struck that night: just one more baby, but ONLY ONE. We hoped it was healthy, because after this the baby factory would close forever.
“A girl!” announced the ultrasound tech. My husband’s eyes were full of tears and, I think, gratitude to me for being so brilliantly pushy. A healthy baby girl rounded out our family, and she is a gift I’m grateful for every single day.
Addiction. I entered recovery for drug and alcohol addiction 18 months ago, and it was the best, hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I first got sober, I told everyone I was doing it for my family — I couldn’t imagine putting them through anything more than what they’d already dealt with — but now that I’ve been sober a while, I can honestly say that I’m doing it for me.
Getting sober changed everything from my thoughts and behavior patterns, to my marriage and the way I relate to my children. Substance abuse, just like any other self-destructive behavior, destroyed me from the inside out. I could have easily allowed it to destroy my life, and it still could, if I stop taking the steps I need to take every single day to keep getting better. Today, though, being sober and present is the greatest single thing I’ve done to improve, and possibly save, my life.
Finding yourself. When I became a mother, every part of my life stepped aside to create room — just like my innards moved out of the way for my gigantic uterus on three separate occasions. After all that shifting, it takes time for a woman to find herself again. Nothing is recognizable; the landscape changes. I am no longer the same person that I was a decade or two ago, and I’m not sorry about it, but sometimes it’s startling to go to a department store and realize that I’m wearing a way wrong bra size or I went up two sizes in jeans. Settling into motherhood is a sometimes awkward and ugly process, and it’s not for wimps, but the beauty is in the unexpected moments that make it all worthwhile.
The relentless nature of parenting amplifies the importance of self-care. Time with friends and occasional date nights remind us of who we are underneath all this. So, do yourself a favor: arrange for a babysitter now and buy tickets for Life Itself You can thank me later.