I haven’t been able to put my finger on the “why”.
Maybe it was because you, sweet daughter, our first born, were a (BIG) surprise. That daddy and I (but especially me) weren’t quite ready to become parents yet even though it probably looked like it on the outside. Maybe it was your traumatic birth that left me feeling like I wasn’t as capable as I had thought, the delivery that haunted me and made me feel like I couldn’t trust myself, that my gut instinct wasn’t as accurate as I had thought. Maybe it was the lack of skin-to-skin time at birth, maybe it was a chemical imbalance, a hormonal imbalance, maybe it was my entire life being turned upside down in every way imaginable for the very first time.
Whatever it was, that first year is sort of a gray blur. I was never diagnosed with Post-Partum Depression, and with my background in mental health counseling I know I didn’t meet the criteria, but that first year was the hardest of my life.
I recently read a post by one of my favorite writers – Bunmi Laditan. She was talking about her son’s third birthday and wrote:
“As I was shopping for tonight’s dinner (two refrigerated pizzas and red bell peppers for a side dish), I decided that, no, I was not going to simply buy him a cake like an average mother, oh no. I would bake one. Maybe I was overcompensating. I do that a lot when it comes to him. I find myself worrying if I gave him enough hugs that day, smiled in his direction enough…am I treating him like my other two children?
Surviving postpartum depression isn’t the end of the battle. It leaves you insecure. When you missed out on that early bonding, it colors your entire relationship with that child. During my darkest days of postpartum I remember wondering when his real mother was going to show up. I felt more like a babysitter.
Now there’s no doubt. I am his mother. He is my child. But something was taken from me during those early days when he lived in footed onesies that I’ll probably never get back. So I try harder with him.”
And reading it, just this one little post, just these 3 little paragraphs made me feel like I was finally really, truly understood. I read the comments from all of the other mamas who felt the exact same way and I cried and cried. So I knew I had to write this – because not only might there be another mama out there who felt this way, but that mama might be you someday.
That description: I kept waiting for my baby’s mother to show up? That couldn’t be more accurate for me. I felt entirely ill-equipped to be responsible for you. I wasn’t – I had your amazing daddy, we owned a home, both had good jobs, in our late 20s, but everytime my mom (Gam Gam) would walk through the door to help me with you I felt a deep sigh of relief – your “mom” was finally there. That’s what it felt like – I was the babysitter until my mom could get there to take care of us. When I finally got to see you for the first time, wrapped in a blanket, clean and calm, I looked at you with awe and slight detachment – how could I be the mother of this perfection? You were perfect and absolutely stunning to me, and I would have done anything for you – but you didn’t feel like “mine”. To be honest I was a little (A LOT) scared of you. Scared you would cry and I wouldn’t be able to calm you. Scared you would get sick or hurt and I wouldn’t know what to do. Scared that someway I was going to mess it all up. I’d never changed a single diaper in my life. I’d held two babies for a sum total of maybe 10 minutes as an adult.
I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING. I had no idea how to be a mother. I watched on the internet as friends posted cozy photos of themselves gazing at their babies with heart eyes and I tried to emulate them because I just didn’t know. Nothing was coming “naturally” to me about being a mother. Technically I was doing it all right – you were an incredibly happy, well-fed, healthy baby. Breastfeeding was a breeze even though I hated it. You were growing off the charts and meeting and exceeding developmental milestones. But the heart eyed mama? I couldn’t figure out how to do that. This was the only kind of motherhood I was seeing, this ooey gooey drippy with love type. This “natural” urge, instinct. “You’re the mama, just follow your instinct” is great advice if you have an instinct to follow. If you don’t, its just another slap in the face.
You were quite possibly the easiest, happiest baby in the world. You slept like a dream, cried so infrequently I can still remember the individual times and can count them on one hand. You were smiley, super social and super smart, and just beautiful. Other friends with babies shook their heads at me, it was a little ridiculous how lucky I got with you.
And after a year it got so much better. I started to feel like myself again, albeit a completely new version. I started to laugh and breathe and enjoy. I started to feel like those heart eyed mamas. I thought that maybe I just wasn’t going to be a baby person – that this was how I would react to any baby. I prepared for that when we started thinking about having another baby. I was ready to just hit “survive” on that first year again.
Then your brother came.
Everything (minus the first trimester) was easier the second time around. The pregnancy, the delivery, the newborn phase. You prepared me for it. I already knew what to expect – I already knew I didn’t like being pregnant, that I would get asked if it was twins all the time. Because of what happened with your delivery, I did a LOT of deep soul searching and work and I learned to advocate for myself, to trust my body and my instincts. I learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, how to do self-care right. I learned that all because of you. Because of you, I was willing to do it all again. Daddy and I looked at each other and said if we got another baby that was even 1/1,000,000th of you, it was worth going through again. You made me brave. You made me strong. If you were never born, if you hadn’t come at that exact time in my life, I might have never learned these things. Because of you and all you taught me, little brother was born and laid on my chest and I looked at his little face and his warm pink skin pressed right up against mine and I felt a fierceness I had never felt before – and unmistakable instinct – THIS IS MY SON.
I got to have that moment, because of you.
Because YOU taught me what love is.
Because you taught me how to be a mama.
I never knew before you.
And it was brutal. It was messy and imperfect. But you taught me. You made this love possible.
It physically hurts my heart to write about the differences between you and brothers birth experiences. I can’t even find the words to describe how I feel about it. Its too painful, too much for me to touch right now.
He has been much more challenging than you ever were. Lots of fussiness, lots of inconsolable crying, needy, needy, needy of me and my attention. But I feel in control, most of the time. I feel an intense primal tie to him, a deep knowing of what he needs. I look at him and think “I’ve got this.” I feel that nobody in this world knows him better than me. I am able to enjoy the early months. Enjoy, something I never thought possible for me.
If that isn’t the recipe for mama guilt, I don’t know what is. Feeling different things for your kids. You are supposed to feel the same. I felt fear with you. That fear is still there a little – you get to go first so I still don’t really know what I’m doing – but it has been overwhelmingly replaced with joy. Overwhelmingly replaced with amazement and gratitude and the deepest bubbling love. But it doesn’t seem even remotely fair that I felt that joy immediately with your brother. I worry you will think I favor him, which isn’t true. And of course I worry that you will read my words one day and think something was wrong with you.
But baby, nothing was wrong with you. You were and still are an absolute dream come true. And nothing was “wrong” with me. I did the best I could with what I had. Things didn’t happen easy. I was scared, I had some things to learn and growing up to do, and I had to do those things with you, not before you. But I learned them and I grew and I became who I was meant to be and you simply flourished, sweetheart. You bloomed and blossomed and thrived. And if someday you become a mama and things aren’t easy right away, if you wonder if you are doing it right, if you are scared and feel inadequate and like everyone else is having an easy, head over heels time – I want you to know that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mama.
I wasn’t a bad mama. I fed you and loved you and played with you and sang to you and read you stories. I took a million pictures of you and wrote about you all the time and cuddled you every day. But it took time for me to feel like a mama. We need to talk more about that, about how becoming a mama looks different for every person, with every baby. We need those variations in experience, those honest memories, not just the ones that have been made rosy with the passage of time.
Sweet pea, you aren’t going to remember that first year. You will look back on pictures and wonder why I was so dramatic, because everything looked like a dream. You are smiling in all the pictures, me and daddy are kissing you and cuddling you and taking you to the park and out to dinner and it all just looks like The Perfect Family. But there’s no such thing as perfect, and that tough year made me a better person in pretty much every way possible. You taught me how to be a mama. You were patient with me and loved me anyway.
I owe so much to you for making me into this new, better, stronger, more empathetic person. You made me a mama. I love you with every single beat of my heart.
Photo cred: Wild & Free Photography