Times are changing. It’s time for the script about motherhood to change too.
Motherhood blindsided me. I know I’m not the only one – I’ve heard lots of women say the same. After months of preparing and getting the gear and taking the classes and reading the books you think you’re prepared. And, by all traditional standards, you are. You built the nursery, you just need to put the baby in it: open door, insert baby, and wa-laa, your new life as a mom begins.
But as it turns out, it’s not that simple. The first few months after bringing home baby are not always as blissful as we assume they will be. Breastfeeding is hard. Healing is long. Isolation is common. And figuring out the needs of a new human who can’t communicate is baffling.
It’s in that space of utter confusion – mixed with complete exhaustion and the roller coaster of hormonal hell– we first realize:
Motherhood is not at all like what we expected.
And while we do eventually find our groove, things are never exactly how we imagined they would be, even years later. Ask any mom and she will tell you the same: motherhood is one of the most complex shifts of identity a woman ever has. For a lot of us, finding the path forward after becoming a mom is like being blindfolded and spun around 19 times and then trying to walk forward in a straight line: you never actually end up where you think you will.
Initially, the identity shift is met with resistance. And why wouldn’t it be? Everything we hear about motherhood in our social and cultural conversation tells us to do all we can to get back to where we were before we had the kid. We hear we need to “get our body back,” “bounce back,” “get our career back,” “get our social life back,” “get back out there,” or even “get back on track.” We are taught that motherhood is a sacrifice – we might lose our body, our career, our partner or our friends. We might lose our sanity, our dreams, or our white carpets.
We fear how motherhood might change us, and we make a silent pact with ourselves that it won’t.
We – the generation that was taught we can have it all – expect we will have it all. We naively assume bouncing back will be as smooth (and quick!) as it is for the faces that grace shiny magazines… until we are thrown into the deep end.
Many of us encounter obstacles we didn’t foresee. We are penalized at work for being pregnant. We are passed up for the promotion or threatened with replacement. We struggle to breastfeed – or we do breastfeed but it’s not easy, and not the magic weight loss pill everyone said it would be. We are strapped to afford full-time childcare or can’t find it in the first place. We can’t help peeing our pants. Our hair falls out. We have a hard time relating to our childless friends or can’t find time to meet up with them. We’re so exhausted we can’t find the energy to exercise. We develop postpartum anxiety and don’t trust our own thoughts. Dammit, sometimes we even have to give up cheese and ice cream because the baby’s stomach ain’t havin’ it, and maybe THAT’S the reason she won’t sleep. Suddenly motherhood feels every ounce like the sacrifice we feared it would be.
And then, there’s a rising.
At some point, as the weeks, months, and years roll forward and the fog of new motherhood lifts, we begin to see clearly again. At some point – consciously or not – we surrender to reality and give up on expectations. And when we do, we tap into a wellspring of potential that we didn’t know was there.
Raising a child is a heroic act – a chance to directly influence the future by teaching the values that will determine its course. We discover that the power of motherhood isn’t found in the act of bouncing back, it’s found in the opportunity to launch forward with more purpose and power than we had before.
When you become a mom, the future becomes immediate.
As you look into your child’s eyes you see time staring back at you, and suddenly your life takes a whole new meaning. Looking at your baby, who quickly becomes a toddler and just as quickly goes off to school, you realize that time is fleeting. You want to cherish every moment – but, likewise, you must make every moment spent away from your child count. All the time-sucks that were a part of your daily life before kids become glaringly apparent: pointless meetings and unproductive drama – or even a job or relationship you aren’t passionate about – are wastes of the resources you must now ration out strategically. In short, you no longer have time or energy for bullshit. You only have time and energy for what matters most.
And let’s talk about purpose for a minute. Sure, for some of us, our kids become our purpose – the reason we do what we do. But perhaps more surprisingly, motherhood illuminates our larger purpose in the world. As much as we lament the fact that corporate American doesn’t readily support our roles as parents or offer us the flexibility we need to balance work and family, the push-back we get is sometimes the push forward we need to take the leap we’ve always wanted. After becoming mothers, so many women start their own companies, or write their book, or become deeply involved in social causes, or just decide to live life on their own effing terms, for once. That potent combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and having a deeper sense of purpose means we become incredibly efficient, superhuman goddesses who get shit done and make an impact while doing it.
Meanwhile, motherhood changes our brains’ biochemistry, making us feel and care more deeply. Our bodies continue to house the cells of every child we’ve ever carried for years after pregnancy ends, which means our children are quite literally a part of us, like we are part of our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers before. Mothers are hard-wired for empathy and connection, biologically tethered to the rest of the human race and highly perceptive to the needs and feelings of those around them. We are innate activists, equipped with the empathy, foresight, and fire to make the world a better place for ourselves and our children, come hell or high water.
We’ve been trying to bounce back for years and where has it gotten us?
We’ve hidden our struggles, silenced our stories, resigned ourselves to broken bodies, and acceded to the demands of a corporate system that often devalues our contributions. It’s time for our cultural narrative about motherhood to change. We were taught motherhood was a sacrifice, and in believing that, we made the biggest sacrifice of all.
It’s true: motherhood changes you. But in recognizing the power and purpose motherhood offers, we are given an opportunity to realize our greatest potential.
Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.