Becoming a Mother Didn't Change Me That Much
Recently, I had a revelation. After four and a half years of motherhood, I woke up one day this spring and realized that, contrary to what I’d spent these past few years thinking, motherhood hadn’t changed me so much, actually. I woke up that spring morning, opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. “I’m pretty much the same as I was before, I think.”
I’ve spent most of my daughter’s life — all but the first six months of it — documenting her struggles as well as my own. I was 36 when I gave birth, and already a writer by trade. It came naturally to me to simply observe and write down what I saw and thought. I found the daily experiences, though sometimes boring and often hair-raisingly challenging, to be incredibly worth the effort to document. I’ve written thousands of words in columns, and an entire book, exploring just how deeply the process of becoming and then being a mother has affected me. That I had changed, permanently and epically, was sort of assumed, right?
But what did it mean that I woke up that day to the notion, suddenly so obvious and clear, that my presumably life-changing event had been temporary? Tempered by the many years — all 36 of them — that had come before?
I have a theory, and for these few months I’ve carried it like a secret, which I will now share with you. Motherhood changed me in the beginning because I wanted and needed it to. I use mother broadly, as I use the word birth broadly, because I believe that for first-timers, neither your gender nor the fact of whether you physically birthed the child or not matters: You, the primary caregiver in the trenches, are forced by the weight — all 5 or 7 or 9 pounds of it — to change. If you are that person for your baby, you are, I think, mother. Motherhood by definition is change. It is fearsome and angry. It is unstoppable. You must be vigilant where formerly you slept. You must be aware when you used to be relaxed. You must guard your own life as never before: You, your body and your presence are needed as no one has needed you until now. You must live, survive at least, so that this, this baby, can flourish. Your happiness in this period is, to be blunt, unimportant. But you must be awake, sober and aware.
“Now” was all I had in the beginning, my life reduced or expanded as it were to the confines of my home, my baby’s crib and pediatrician’s office — and I said to myself, “I am changed. I am now poetic and grave where formerly I was obscene and trite. My fart jokes now are not the fart jokes of before: These ones are told as I stand at the edge of death, pushing it back and holding on.” This is the truth.
And yet the truth in my life is rarely the truth for always. I am changeable in my ability, so flexible, and I have contracted back to my previous self. My body wants to be heavier than it was before my daughter was born, and only through great effort can I hold that desire at bay. But everything else contracts back to its former shape: I was made anew with the birth of my daughter nearly five years ago. But now, now that she is rational and conversational, now that babysitters can help out without weeks of training and hundreds of panicked texts back and forth for two hours of “out alone adult time,” now that she goes to school and I go to work, we are truly ourselves. She is herself, and I am me.
"I need privacy, adulthood, time to myself. I need work. I need to spend most of my time with my daughter, but not all of it."
I have always wanted my daughter to know me. I grew up with a mother who seemed unknowable on many levels, mostly, I think, because she was an alcoholic. When my daughter was born I wanted none of the barriers I had grown up with. I wanted her to see me, the real me, and to love me the way that I loved her.
But the person I was in the first years of her life, nervous and afraid, vital, yes, but also self-denying and selfless, is not me, or not all of me. The me my daughter knows now, years into her life, is the real one. I am a mother, yes, but I am also all of the many things I was before. I am complicated, in love with my husband, I need privacy, adulthood, time to myself. I need work. I need to spend most of my time with my daughter, but not all of it.
I have always thought that it is cruel that children cannot remember the first years of their lives, so full of action and beauty and accomplishment. But it occurs to me now that maybe the generosity of that lost memory benefits not the child, but the mother. The mother who, if she is like me, was maybe not the most ideal version of herself in that early period, and who took some time to return to herself. Having a baby is life-changing. Lots of things change lives. And my daughter certainly changed my life for the better. She helped me to improve my relationships with my family, my husband and myself. But owning up to the fact that, after almost five years of motherhood, I am much the same as I’ve always been is not a disappointment to me. It is, in fact, comforting to find that what seemed lost in the first, rough, transitional days of parenthood, was actually just patiently and quietly waiting inside me to return. Welcome back.
Laura June was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Now My Heart Is Full, available now from Penguin Books. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, BuzzFeed, Cosmopolitan, Jezebel, New York Magazine, The Outline and The Washington Post. She was previously a staff writer at New York Magazine’s The Cut and is a contributing writer at The Outline.