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Surprised by Motherhood
Everything I Never Expected About Being A Mom
By Lisa-Jo Baker, Stephanie Rische
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Lisa-Jo Baker
All rights reserved.
motherhood is a superpower
Hardware stores used to intimidate me. All those aisles of wood—two-by-fours or four-by-eights or ten-by-twelves—I have no idea. It's like an entire store full of math. And math has never been my friend. The rows of glue and tools and things that require electrical wiring skills are only somewhat more intimidating to me than the men who work there. In their gruff orange aprons, they seem to be able to smell estrogen from a mile away, and I've always been sure they would shut down any communication attempts at the first whiff. Nothing terrified me more than having to ask where the air filters were. I'd rather have walked laps around the store than be forced into admitting my sense of deep confusion and desperate need for storewide GPS to make it out with my dignity intact.
The gym could make me feel the same way. Stocked with so much big equipment that fit, sweaty people who don't at all look like they need to be there in the first place seem to know intuitively how to use, these places have always struck me as a clubhouse I'm not cool enough or brave enough or fit enough to enter. My friend Katherine could tell you about the time I showed up at a gym in an outfit that screamed, "I have no idea what I'm doing here" and sneakers that added, "I've never been on a treadmill in my life and would prefer to go back to walking the mall, where I belong." I did one obligatory circuit before I hightailed it out of there and didn't return for a decade.
It didn't matter that I'd gone to law school, worked overseas in jobs with big titles, or been through a bunch of passports, or that I spoke several languages; I always felt ridiculous anytime I entered either a hardware store or a gym.
But then I gave birth to three human beings.
Not all at the same time, mind you (although it sort of felt that way the first time around). I grew a baby and pushed him out and lived to tell the tale. And a few weeks later I walked into the biggest, most macho super-trendy gym in our neighborhood. I walked past the rows of workout machines. Past the aerobics studios and stationary spinning bikes. Past the pool and the warm-up area and the indoor track all the way into the deep, far recesses that housed the gym equivalent of a "man cave"—the weight room.
I walked in wearing pink and just stood there. I surveyed the landscape of muscles and testosterone and weight-lifting hulks, and I didn't blink. At home in my brand-new, brave body, I stood and let the rush of assurance run through me that I wasn't afraid anymore. I had scaled Everest. I had run with the bulls. I had shot the rapids. I had bungeed with the best of them. I had done something that required a kind of strength none of the men in that room could imagine, let alone replicate.
I just stood there and let the braveness seep all the way through me, and in my mind I might as well have been Kate Winslet, with arms spread eagled over the tip of the Titanic, yelling, "I'm flying, I'm flying!" And it was true. Just with much less glamor and a lot more call for nursing pads.
It was like discovering a superpower—becoming a mom for the first time. It has led me to believe that motherhood should come with a superhero cape along with the free diaper bag and samples you get when the hospital sends you, otherwise defenseless, home.
* * *
But the feeling fades. It fades under the mounds of laundry and more diapers than any of those pre-baby war stories could have prepared you for. It is threatened by the mundane reality that you will never be alone again. Ever. And that a baby would put an FBI tracking device to shame for the strength of its orbital pull on a new mother, who cannot leave the driveway let alone the neighborhood without what feels like years of planning.
So we turn to books. We buy bookshelves full of good advice from well-meaning experts who manage to make us feel even more tired than we did to begin with. Seven years ago, I thought there was a formula to parenting—you do what the books tell you to do, and then the baby does what the books tell him to do. I'd aced college and law school and figured motherhood would go down the same way. It turned out my baby had completely different plans in mind.
Motherhood became the first test, other than federal taxation, that I thought I was truly going to fail.
I would read all those books that tell you when the baby should be sleeping and when the baby should be eating and when the baby should be this, that, and the other thing-ing, and all I would see was a big, fat red F. Jackson did nothing according to anybody's schedule but his own.
And he threw up a lot. I would finally get him to eat, and he would look at me deadpan, cough, and puke it all out again. Forget crying over spilled milk, I wept over what felt like oceans of baby puke.
Parenting is not for the faint of heart. And it's especially not for those type A personalities accustomed to having all their ducks in a row, all their check boxes checked, and their sofa cushions, cereal boxes, and entire lives neatly arranged.
I had a nursing chart. I'd harnessed my elementary school poster-board and marker skills and set up a timetable. After each feeding, I would dutifully put a check mark in the box—which side I'd nursed and how 1 ong—before I stumbled deliriously back to bed. Jackson cried, I nursed, I made check marks, and he never, ever once slept or ate as much or as long as the books promised my chart and me he would.
F, F, F, F minus in parenting.
I pretended it made sense to me. I pretended I had a handle on his "routine." I pretended I hadn't started to resent all those parenting books lining the shelves of our teeny oneroom cottage.
And still he ate at a snail's pace and woke up to eat slowly at 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m., and 7 a.m. I kept waiting to fall in love with him, and instead I just felt like we'd both failed our midterms.
There was an afternoon when a friend came over for tea. (We do that a lot in South Africa. It's one of the best customs ever—early-morning and l ate-afternoon hot tea and cake or cookies or pie or rusks—our version of biscotti. And it's genius, I tell you. Genius.) Jackson was passed out on a milk high in my arms, and Natalie had two kids wrapped around her ankles. I was desperate. I was up-since-five-on-a-cold-South-African-morning tired, sore, and desperate for a formula that would give me back my old life.
I had been living with one foot in my stay-up-late, sleep-in-late, come-and-go-as-you-please world and one foot in my I-want-to-be-a-mother-if-the-baby-would-just-leave-me-alone world, and I wanted something to make the commitment to motherhood easier. I wanted the baby to adore me. I wanted to be the mom on those billboards with the beautifully blow-dried hair, lying in bed with one cheek resting against her cherub as he beams up at her. I wanted Jackson to want me for more than my milk. I wanted him to care about my feelings. I wanted him to wrap chubby arms around my neck and declare his undying affection for me and my sacrifices in front of smitten strangers. I wanted him to feel bad for all the puke and the laundry and the fact that I couldn't remember the last time I'd actually been out to a movie theater.
I wanted the baby to love me with such unbridled, adoring passion that everything I'd lost along the way would be worth it. Especially my size 6 jeans from Prague.
I didn't know it then, but I was grieving.
I was grieving the loss of a stage of life I'd loved, and I needed directions to navigate into this new one. A life where everything was unfamiliar and often scary. A life that couldn't be reduced to a poster-board checklist. A life that was mundane and unpredictable at the same time.
I stared over the top of Jackson's blond head and asked Natalie, "But when will he love me?" That one question carried all the weight of a mom half out of her mind with exhaustion and confusion.
And from the way Natalie paused and how gently she answered, I think maybe she understood everything I wasn't saying. She read the billboard over my head and quietly answered, "What you're doing now—all of it—that is what will build the love." I thought about it. I thought about every wake-up, every diaper change, every bottle, every single step of pacing to rock him back to sleep, every thankless load of laundry, every extra shift of cleaning up all the food I'd just fed him.
We drank tea in silence for a while. Kids played. Jackson slept.
The parable of motherhood is a profound one. I just didn't know it yet as I spooned more sugar into my Five Roses tea, passed the rusks, and wondered if time spent visiting could have been better spent sleeping. I didn't know that I was being grown up by this baby who had spoiled all my alone time. I didn't know that you continue to labor long after the baby is born. I didn't know that there was someone connecting the cacophony of dots that spelled out my life, which so far had seemed without rhyme or reason.
I walked with Natalie down the flight of stairs and rows of framed family tree photographs to the top of the steep driveway that rolls downhill and away from my parents' front door. The jacaranda tree was blossoming—a purple rain—and we hitched babies on hips and hugged good-bye one armed. Jackson was awake, and I felt ready to go another round.
Excerpted from Surprised by Motherhood by Lisa-Jo Baker, Stephanie Rische. Copyright © 2014 Lisa-Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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