Something happened when I had my first child, and I’m not referring to the monumental feat of bringing forth a new life onto the planet from my very being. Something happened to me that clearly created a “before” and “after” division of a once completely sane individual. Parents talk about this type of thing all the time: “It changes you forever.” “You have no idea until you actually have children.” But those comments are usually explained by undying love and affection, or, well, sleep deprivation.
Days after giving birth to my son, my free-spirited, world-loving, life-embracing self was bitten by a nasty bug that has yet to completely detach itself – a kind of tapeworm of the mind that has leeched away my spontaneity, clarity, and confidence.
While pregnant, I had conjured up this pretty little world that baby and I would cohabitate. I had a reasonable basis for this – I was reared in a very traditional environment where mothers stayed home, creating meals from scratch, gardens from seeds, curtains – and even clothes – from material! At the same time, I also viewed myself as a “modern woman” and planned to go back to work. I felt sure that my child would be a tofu-loving, sound sleeper who went everywhere with me as I resumed my career.
What actually occurred was four months of colic (baby), coupled with a fear of just about everything (me), which meant that leaving the house was pretty much not an option. In the very early stages of motherhood, I was convinced nearly every night that someone was breaking into our basement. I often woke up in the middle of the night, sure I had left a stove or oven on. I could no longer watch the news, nor could I drive with the baby unless I checked the car seat an absurd amount of times. I developed a crazy fear of heights. I became slightly hypochondriacal. Basically, I developed Momma OCD.
For the first time in my life I couldn’t create a solution or just come up with a better plan. Instead, I had to stick it out with something I wasn’t great at or, in certain cases (breastfeeding, calming a colicky baby), even particularly good at. Having learned early on in life to identify my strengths and steer clear of weaknesses, I was at a loss.
I was reared in the generation of women who were told we could be anything we wished and succeed. Our expectation, our greatest achievement in life was no longer wife and mother – we had evolved! Our focus was on career, success in business, making a name for ourselves. Our mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers had fought hard for the opportunity to be something outside the home. And I appreciated that, so much so that I assumed my purpose in life was simply me : what can I do, who can I be? I was of the evolved generation, a product of women’s rights! What I didn’t count on was that motherhood, something that is supposed to be biological and natural, would be the most challenging.
Thinking I was a defunct model, I decided to educate myself. I became a scholar of motherhood! I read every book I could get my hands on. But book after book of smiling women dressed in Ma Ingalls’ prairie dresses and relishing in the fact that they were as big as the circus lady told me nothing. Those books weren’t designed to address defeat; they were written about the biological imperative, the time-honored process of incubation. They didn’t tackle what happened after.
Generations of women longed for the right to work outside of the home and raise families. It was about “having it all,” and I felt like I needed to rise to the occasion for the women who paved the way for me. I had a conversation with my grandmother, who has since passed, and whom I still consider to be the greatest woman I have ever known. I loved picking her brain about women’s lives in the past. I asked her if she considered life to be harder for her generation or mine, and she simply said with a smile on her face: “Well, yours honey. We may have wished for more, but our roles were already planned. It was easier to feel that you had done a good job when it was the only job you could do. Now there’s enormous pressure to have a job, a house, and a family, and do it all well.” With that one statement, my grandmother nearly absolved my fear of failure.
There was a flaw in the logic I had grown up with. Just because you can “have it all” doesn’t mean you’ll be instantly good at having it all. And just because you’re not instantly good at something doesn’t make you a failure.
We have a saying in my now two-child house. “Epic fail!” It’s meant to be a declaration of humor when Momma and Dad haven’t lived up to our full potential. This can apply to our work, our personal relationship, meal preparation, dog training, bathroom cleaning, getting dressed before noon (me), appropriate hat attire (him), budgeting our finances (toss-up) but is most often reserved for parenting our children. We have been known to cower in our kitchen and whisper back in small voices that the kids are “winning.” (For the record, they are 8 and 2 and a half.)
It’s been nearly ten years since I was pregnant with my first child. I’ve had a long time to digest this period in my life. I can’t pretend I have some soothsayer solution to making it easy everyday. But I do know that whether it be motherhood or every other aspect in my life, I have embraced the utmost importance of the “epic fail.” In simplest form, it’s the ability to look at life’s most difficult moments, find the funny in the situation, and get on with my day.