The Breaking and The Blessing of Motherhood

Friday, November 13, 2015 - 5:40 am

The Breaking and The Blessing of Motherhood

“If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? These exotic revelations bubbled up involuntarily and I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother. It hurt. I tried to be conscious while it happened, like watching my own surgery. I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with. But I knew this was unlikely; when the process was complete I wouldn’t have anything left to complain with, it wouldn’t hurt anymore, I wouldn’t remember.”
Miranda July

My Maya is two-years-old today, which is to say, not a baby any longer.

I am no longer who I was either. It’s not that I feel like I’ve fully evolved into the label mother. It still doesn’t slip off my tongue. There is still a small part of me that is waiting for the real maternal authority to show up and tell us that we did an okay, though certainly not excellent, job these 24 sleepless, poop-filled, miraculous months. Maybe a B or, at best, a B+.

The fact that we didn’t realize we were supposed to brush her teeth as soon as they arrived definitely brings down our average. As does the fact that I could only think of depressing Tracy Chapman songs or the theme song from Fresh Prince of Bel Air to sing to her so many nights. We were brave, taking her on airplanes all over the country. We mostly managed not to sweat the small stuff. I think I only muttered, “I feel like I’m going to die,” once or twice in the dark. At least out loud.

I still don’t feel like an authority, but I do feel like someone new. It’s hard to wrap words around it. I feel transformed at a cellular level.

In part, that transformation is love — carnal, physical, visceral love. I love her more purely and fiercely than I have ever loved anyone. I cuddle her in bed and smell her hair and it is, as advertised, the most satisfying sensory experience I’ve ever had. Just wrapping my hand around one of her little dirty feet is enough to make me feel like all that I dread in the world is insignificant in comparison. When she was tiny and less willful, I used to lay her in my lap and press her heels into my closed eyes when I got migraine headaches. I felt healed.

The author holds her newborn baby Maya in her arms. (John Cary)

In part, that transformation is discovery. The world has been made entirely new by her presence in it. I had forgotten how stunning and strange peacocks are. I am as surprised as she is every time we go riffling through the little garden bed in the back and find a few ripe, red, exquisitely shaped strawberries. We get to eat them! And more show up in just a matter of days! It’s beyond imagination that we should be so lucky as to eat these little strawberries and spot airplanes flying through the sky and shovel dirt in and out of containers. And sometimes, when we are very lucky, a ladybug even lands on one of our hands. The world is insanely, incomprehensively, intricately awesome when you are being directed by a two-year-old.

In part, and this is the part that is messier, much harder to articulate: that transformation is about responsibility. I have been broken down by motherhood in a profound, sometimes dark and lonely way. I have had to confront my own physical and emotional limits. I have had to reckon with the reality that I am her mother, her only mother, and I will do anything it takes to make sure she is okay in the world.

There are times when she’s a little bit not okay in the world, and these desperate moments give me some small taste of what it would feel like would she ever really, truly not be okay in the world. That’s as daunting a realization as I have ever had in all my days.

Before she was born, I used to worry: What if she was in the other room crying and I just didn’t want to go get her? But what I didn’t understand then (and how could I have?) is that what compels you to comfort your child is not in the same country as choice, which is also why post-partum depression is not about a lack of motivation. The maternal instinct, at least as I experience it, is not even rightly called an instinct. It’s as fundamental as breathing. I think I breathe twice as much every day now that I’ve become a mother.

My psychic, physical, spiritual boundaries got obliterated, and now that I’ve mostly reconstituted myself, I’ve made a sort of amends with the obliteration. I mourn the old life… what I would give to wake up at 10 am on a Saturday and wander to some brunch spot in my neighborhood in a cute boy’s flannel. On occasion, I even resent the intrusion (this often happens when she won’t even let me pee alone or when I feel inspired to write and there’s just no logistical way it’s going to happen).

The author films her daughter Maya being serenaded by a boy band with their VW camper van. (John Cary)

But one of the gifts of obliteration is that I just don’t hold on as tightly to my own agenda. I don’t measure as many of my days by to-do lists. Productivity and social status have lost their glean almost entirely. I’m humbled. I just to want to express some small part of who I am in the world, to love people well, to spend time with those who don’t have time for any other bullshit. So motherhood narrowed me, but it’s also focused me. It’s made me as clear as I’ve ever been about what matters — and what doesn’t. I spend so many more of my moments on what does. I let go. I let go. I let go.

Some days, I feel stronger and wiser than I’ve ever been. Some days, I feel like I’m stretched so thin I might break. But, because I’m so attached to her, I’m less attached to everything else — including my own ego, my own singular capability even. When I consider the possibility of breaking, I pretty quickly convince myself that there are good people all around who will help me glue myself back together should that be necessary.

Breaking apart, in general, seems less scary. I’ve learned it’s the beginning of permanent transformation. I did it two years ago to the day and it’s led to the most extraordinary blessing I’ve ever known.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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