Now that I’m hovering in the so-called sweet spot of parenting between the trenches of toddlerhood and adolescence, I can admit it—early parenting was brutal for me.
It wasn’t “just” the postpartum depression and anxiety, or the colicky, strong-willed, sleep-fighting baby.
It was the utter neediness. The complete evaporation of my autonomy—something I’d never even thought, since becoming an adult, to take the time to appreciate. For years, I’d floated lightly through my life with my mood, decisions, and health having little impact on those I cared about, besides my partner.
Suddenly sharing my body with a tiny, helpless creature who depended on it for food, warmth, and love was a shock to my system.
Don’t get me wrong—there were moments, so many of them, that left stretch marks on my heart. Moments that amazed me from the first time I laid eyes on my babies’ faces, taking in the landscape of them that was simultaneously foreign and completely familiar. The midnight smiles that made the torture of sleep deprivation worthwhile, that made me utter to my newborn son, “You want a pony? I’ll totally get you a pony if you keep smiling like that.”
I didn’t arrive at motherhood reluctantly. I’d wanted to nurture—to learn how to love in a deeper, more textured way. I’d even written a letter to my future offspring once, as my biological clock ticked, loud and sweet, about how hard it would be to—once I had them—let my children go.
What I didn’t expect was how hard it was to let the old, untethered version of myself slip away.
I was ill-prepared for the realities of early parenting. For how much I valued my independence. For how little patience, as it turned out, I actually possess. For how damned boring mothering young children could be, for how much I missed being mentally stimulated, and for how new motherhood literally relandscaped my brain, turning me logy and airheaded. For how physical it would be, how intrusive it would sometimes feel, to share my body with a dependent being, like I was one of those cats who rolls over as her kittens nurse, looking completely defeated.
While feeling restless and unsatisfied, I often chastised myself. This isn’t supposed to be so hard, I’d think. There must be something wrong with you.
Now that my kids are in elementary school, I’m stricken by how quickly they’re growing up. But when they were little, it was like time had bent, Narnia-style; I’d check my watch, feeling like I’d already put in a full shift of parenting, and it’d only be 9:30 in the morning. The days stretched out into endless loops of soothing tantrums and wiping butts and nursing. And the nights. Nights when I couldn’t string together two hours of consecutive sleep, when only the thought of endless, sleepless generations of mothers enduring punctured sleep would soothe me.
My kids are six and nine now. I don’t think parenting ever gets easy, but for me, it’s gotten so much better. Some people adore the baby stage, the sweet, earthy scent that rises from a baby’s head, the constant cuddles.
I prefer watching their personalities unfold, watching them become. The surprise and pride I felt when my nine-year-old recently decided to start taking solo bike rides on the mornings before camp, or when he steps in to soothe his little sister when she’s upset. The creativity my six-year-old harnesses to make up games for us to play. When she was just a baby, she’d wake up grinning in the mornings, her eyes shining, and I always wondered what words she’d exhale when she learned to speak.
Now I get to find out.
I can still see the babies my children each were in their faces, and I also catch glimpses of the older children and adults they’ll morph into. Being able to witness who they are becoming, for me, vastly exceeds the tiny bundles of skin and potential they seemed to be as babies.
And I’m becoming, too. I’ve shaken off the silver shock of being so suddenly tied to another human being. I’ve learned to be more steady, to apologize when I screw up, and now I’m studying how to begin to loosen my hold on my children, even when—especially when—they need space.
They’ve taught me that being a mother isn’t about perfection. It isn’t about relishing the role. It’s about showing up over and over and over again. It’s about witnessing all the versions of our children as well as knowing their essence.
It gets better, I want to go back and whisper to that new mother version of me—that stressed, exhausted ghost mother. I want to mother her; I want to smooth the hair off her forehead, visualizing the older, less restless, more creative woman she will become.
It gets so much better.
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