I'm going to tell you something a good friend told me recently.
I'd just performed some poetry about mothering and she came up to me, to share congratulations and to chat. She leaned in and said...
You know...I don't know anyone who didn't get their ass kicked by mothering at some point in that first year.
And you know what, neither do I.
In that first year of mothering, there will come a moment when it will absolutely unmake you. It will unmake you the way a tsunami unmakes buildings on a shore. It will rearrange the furniture in your psyche. It will pick up your house and plonk it down again in an unfamiliar land, no map in-hand.
Mothering is like another strange puberty, in that within a year or two, you will not be the same person you were when you began. You will take a different shape. Your brain and social relations will rearrange themselves around new centres of gravity. The world will not respond to you in the same way it used to. You will be living, breathing, embodying, navigating, a different reality.
If this sounds a little dark, good. Because what our dominant culture tells women mothering is like, is not what mothering is like. The sociallly acceptable stories about mothering are heavily weighted to the tender, the joyful, the giggly. And mothering is all of those things, at times. And yet, mothering is also facing fear of death as you birth; it is long days with a non-verbal, possibly very unhappy, human; it is responsibility for sustaining the life and wellbeing of a profoundly vulnerable human.
For some women, it breaks my heart to know, it is being coerced by your intimate partner for sex before you've healed from birth; it is discrimination in employment or being made redundant; it is long-term financial disadvantage; or being so exhausted, you mistakenly think you have dropped your child at day care and instead, find them dead in your car.
To mother in this age, is to receive a constant torrent of advice, and much less practical support. Some of the advice will be useful, some of it won't, but the cumulative effect of it all, is to convey that you, individually, are the cause of any difficulties you face, and responsible for finding and implementing solutions. Offers of actual childcare, or help cleaning the house, mowing the lawn or doing the groceries, may be far more sparse than you had hoped. The maternal and child health nurse you see every couple of months, may or may not be kind to you.
At some point, you may discover that you carry within you legacies of how you were mothered, and your mother before you. Given that we are within one generation of when contraception became widely available, these legacies may not be wholly comforting ones. You will see your own mother through new eyes; both with greater compassion for what she went through in mothering you, and possibly anger and grief for the ways she failed (we all fail) you. You may decide you wish to mother differently; and then realise you don't have a clue how to do something that wasn't modeled for you.
You may look at your child and know in your bones, that the work you are doing tending, loving, and responding to them, is profoundly powerful and will flow on in their life, and the lives of others in positive ways you cannot know. Yet, you'll also hear politicians saying that paid parental leave is too expensive (by which they really mean, not important), and that childcare workers don't deserve a pay rise because they're only wiping bums. You may begin to consider the phrase 'maternity leave,' (should you receive it), highly deceptive; conjuring, as it does, the image of an exotic resort where pregnant women frolic in swimming pools, and infants and mothers sleep peacefully through the night from day one. Call it 'national service' and we'd be much closer to the truth; a solemn commitment, to a difficult and rewarding job, that requires grit, perseverence, resilience, courage and, done well, ultimately benefits us all.
We are culturally confused about what a 'good mother' should do, and so it's likely that at times, you too will feel confused about what to do. You may find you need to drop your baby off at day care far sooner than you want to. Whether you think staying home or working or some combination of the two is for you, you may find that what you anticipated you would want to do, is not at all what you want to do. You may be treated like a sentimental sap for wanting to spend time with your own child.
My hope is that eventually, we will look back at this time in history, wedged between the industrial and digital revolutions, as ridiculous and slightly horrendous for mothers and children; that we see with clarity, the collective stewardship and support we are capable of extending to children and the people charged with raising them.
In the meantime, if you find yourself, baby in hand, being unmade by an inconvenience like waiting in a queue, or feeling an urge to scream at the moon, know this; it's not just you.