It was the early hours of a Friday morning. I was sitting on the floor, leaning against the sofa, trying to get a sense of myself again, surrounded by plastic sheeting and towels.
She was so tiny, lying in her father’s hands, big eyes already taking in this new world. I knew the last nine months (or so) had been leading up to this moment, but… what had just happened?
I was in my mid-30s before I had my first child, and was used to managing a team of staff and an annual budget of several million. The pregnancy had been planned and I’d done everything I thought I needed to—took my supplements, stayed away from caffeine and alcohol, and kept up my yoga. Even the birth was relatively easy for a first time. She was born at home with her dad and two mid-wives in attendance, and I had the luxury of my own bathtub afterward. But, to quote the old cliché, nothing could have prepared me for what came later. Not being the eldest of six, not all the babysitting and au-pairing, not all the reading. Yes, I was pretty comfortable with the practicalities of handling young babies and children, but I wasn’t used to being a mother. And being a mother involves so much more than the practical.
Becoming a mother for the first time sends a depth charge through the lives of many women, shaking up the world outside and in.
I was no exception. My first inkling of how deep the change was came almost immediately. For nights after the birth, I would awake suddenly, thinking I’d lain on top of her as she fed in the bed, or thinking I heard her crying when she was sleeping soundly in the crib. She was ever-present in the back of my mind—my last thought at night, the content of my dreams, my first waking thought. Unlike a project or a challenging presentation, I couldn’t just put her to one side and go off to have a coffee or a night out. She was with me, in my thoughts and unconscious, 24/7. I was her mother and she had no other. No other role I’d ever undertaken had ever demanded that total commitment from me, nor had consumed me in such a way.
And this, in a nutshell, is partly why so many women find mothering a baptism of fire—it’s with them all the time and for life, demanding and challenging them to grow and mature in new ways, to learn new skills, to adapt to another’s needs no matter how they may be feeling. It’s an initiation into a new way of being and living.
The same is true I know, for many men. In a society where we’re encouraged to pick up and leave jobs and partners as they work out or don’t work out according to our liking, being a parent is not something we can reverse. Even if we choose to literally walk away, it’s still there somewhere in the background. Once a mother (or father), always a mother.
The other thing I was unprepared for was the drastic effect it had on my relationship with my husband at the time. Becoming a mother can change the dynamics within a relationship, not only because there’s another being to share the couple’s attention but also because any mothering energy the woman may have been sharing with her partner is now redirected to the child. I don’t think I was the first woman to give birth to her first-born only to find that she had been unwittingly already mothering her partner.
Like most mothers, I harnessed my resources and got on with the job in hand. I’ve blogged about some of the tools I’ve found useful as a mother on my personal blog (homeopathy, astrology and meditation, among others, helped me cope with the ups and downs, and to find a deeper understanding of myself and my children).
I also had to find a way of feeling held more deeply myself, as the demand for me to hold others increased. The shamanic traditions introduced me to the something I had intuited already, that the earth is the mother who is large enough to hold us as adults when our own mothers may not be present or be the best source of nourishment for us (although, frequently they are invaluable). Spending time in nature grounded and refreshed me, and even taking a night-time walk outside in the middle of teething bouts gave me a renewed sense of perspective when it felt as if the world was closing in around me.
In the middle of it all, though, was the most unexpected gift.
Becoming a mother triggered a deep life-review. I wanted to raise my children to listen to their hearts and to follow their dreams. But I had been putting my own dreams on hold, always waiting for a better time. How could I teach something I wasn’t living myself? And so I began the process of unhooking myself from the career that had started by default and continued because it paid me reasonably well. I took the first steps I needed to in order to follow my dreams.
Mothering still continues to be hard from time to time, challenging me to make time for the things that nourish me and are deeply important to me, and demanding the normal sacrifices which the ego resists—extra lines on the face, skin tone which is never quite what it was, putting others’ needs ahead of my own, being tied down to school-terms and one location (I’m not willing to go the home-schooling route). And there are days, if I’m totally honest, when I wonder if I would do it all again if I were to know then what I now know.
I wonder, though, if my life would have felt as chaotically full of diversion and fun if I had chosen not to be a mother? Would I have fully appreciated the relative freedom and ease that being without children can bring, or would I inevitably have filled the gap with other things to challenge and stress me? And would I have made the decision to follow my dreams eventually, or would I have floated along in the career path I was already on, enjoying my evenings out, holidays for two and hip lifestyle?
Mothering may be hard at times, but the depths it draws out of me keeps me real, grounded and humble, and seeing my children flower is an experience like no other. If I had my Mother’s Day to do-over this year (we’ve already had ours here in Ireland in March), I would focus it not only on honoring mothers for all that they do, but also on the deeper gifts that mothering brings into the lives of those of us who are mothers.
(Originally published on Elephant Journal)