These days, it feels like the Internet is out to scare the pants off anyone with an empty womb and conflicted feelings about having kids — while simultaneously reminding parents that their lives kind of suck.
Based on recent studies, parenting is officially “the most depressing statistic imaginable,” “the crappiest thing that can happen to you,” and has “basically the same effect as death.” (This isn’t new, of course; we’ve seen it year after year.)
Researchers — and subsequently, Internet commenters — are clearly in search of why something so supremely terrible on paper is, in real life, a worthwhile thing that people do not just once, but many times over. In succession.
Are we masochistic creatures or is there something else going on?
First, I think we need to back up a little.
For starters: What exactly do we really mean by happiness? To me, there’s a buoyancy to happiness. A lightness. Yet motherhood is heavy stuff, weighing on our hearts and identities and bodies. Motherhood is also a crash course in change, as one phase transitions to the next, again and again. No one glides through change with ease; no one lets go of life stages without some sadness and discomfort. Motherhood involves creating and molding life — and the fabric of life, even a happy life, is stitched with fear and loneliness and grief.
And yet our culture is clearly obsessed with happiness, with feeling good, and with avoiding pain at all costs. We attempt to design a life with maximum pleasure and minimum suck (along with life coaches who promise a life of bliss and ease in six easy steps and three monthly payments). So why even bother with something like parenthood — something that requires a heroic dose of vulnerability and sleep deprivation? Something so statistically terrible?
I suppose it’s true that motherhood hasn’t given me pure happiness, but it’s certainly given me humility. (You can’t feel too special with poop smeared on your forearm, or with your breasts hooked up to an electric pump, or when a 23-inch screaming baby forces you to your knees in exhaustion.) It exposes our base humanness — not just in ourselves, but in complete strangers.
After having my son, I couldn’t help but see people, all people, as simply “people who were once babies.” It first hit me a few weeks postpartum, when I drove past a car accident on my way to work. I saw the driver’s side ripped open like a wound, and suddenly I thought of that driver as a formerly helpless baby who would one day have it all end on the side of I-95 at 8:42 in the morning.
I thought of that driver’s mother, having rocked and kissed and bandaged that body for years. And that “seeing adults as babies” perspective stayed with me, long after my postpartum hormones settled. The grocery bagger is someone’s baby. The angry man at the post office once had a mother who lovingly pushed him in a stroller. (Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe that’s the problem.) From that perspective, it’s easier to see people for who they really are, at the most fundamental level: small people crying out in the dark, looking for comfort, looking for connection, looking for our person.
Empathy, is what I’m saying. Motherhood has given me an ingrained sense of empathy.
It’s given me a front row seat to the unfurling of a human life, and that’s as much scary as it is joyful. I’ve come face-to-face with the fragility and impermanence of existence. Of mortality.
Mothers deal with real sh*t, both literally and metaphorically. We hear heartbeats inside of our bodies; we stop hearing heartbeats inside of our bodies. We’re pushed to our biological limits — functioning on small chunks of sleep, at the mercy of wild hormones, as nights bleed into days which bleed into nights. This isn’t happiness, per se, but it’s humanness. It’s sacrifice and torture and sweet, gooey love. It’s all parts of the emotional spectrum — from red hot to murky blue to bright blinding yellow — sometimes all at once.
And yet the happiness is woven in there too, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Like when my son’s startled newborn cry would jolt me awake every two hours like clockwork, and I’d drag my sleepy head over to the bassinet. I was tired, but I was needed. I remember picking up his warm body, so tiny and alive, and I’d smile. Smile. I’d latch him onto my breast and hold him close, and the exhaustion would sort of fall away. In that moment, it was just the two of us awake in a perfectly quiet house, our eyes locked, lingering in some other-worldly time space that was still and dark and ours.
Inevitably he’d fall asleep in my arms, and his rhythmic breaths engulfed me in a new kind of sensation. A tranquility. A peace.
And that’s when it would hit me: the inexplicable, nonsensical, biologically activated happiness that comes from holding your sleeping baby. It’s like nothing else I’d ever known before — and perhaps nothing I ever will.