My firstborn had just reached the six-month mark when I heard four little words that changed everything: “Peas are peas, Alicia.”
I had been exclusively breastfeeding since my daughter was born and was talking with my pediatrician about moving her on to solids.
“It doesn’t matter if they come from a jar,” he said. “Don’t drive yourself crazy making baby food from scratch.”
He was right — I was driving myself crazy. For the first six months of my daughter’s life, I was striving to become an all-natural parenting warrior. I entered motherhood with degrees in things like holistic nutrition and positive psychology. But underneath all my lofty wellbeing ideals — ones that I could validate with cold, hard research — was fear. Desperate to get the whole motherhood thing right, I clung to my rigid expectations in order to cope.
At the time of the peas conversation, I was still recovering from a “failed” birth experience, because my whole “going natural” plan flopped after a series of interventions that ended with a cesarean delivery.
For a long time, I blamed my OB (and her impatience) for this, but I was 41 weeks and three days pregnant and had been in prodromal labor for days when I signed the consent for induction. Then I was on Pitocin for half a day and pushed with no progress for two hours.
Still, somewhere in the process of labor, I morphed from warrior to martyr while attempting to deliver naturally.
I recognize all of this clearly now, but at the time — lying on the stretcher in defeat, just moments before my daughter was surgically delivered — I truly felt that this “failure” of mine was a prediction of my future success in motherhood.
I was so shattered that when my OB came to pull the staples from my incision and found me nursing, she quipped, “Thank God that baby latched or we would have wheeled you straight to the psych ward.”
An insensitive comment for sure, but I can appreciate the fact that I must have been irritating. After all, I had a healthy baby girl to hold. What was there to be mad about?
Still, my rigid beliefs about natural childbirth left me with guilt and shame when I thought I had failed. I soon doubted my ability to parent, and then, postpartum anxiety completely darkened my world.
I might have avoided the psych ward, but I found myself in therapy to cope with those early days of motherhood. And while the peas conversation was, on the surface, simply about nourishing my baby, it was really about so much more; because it exposed a larger struggle we all face as new moms.
Every single day we make choices that shape our children. From pregnancy onward, we set out to succeed; and yet there is no clear way to define success in motherhood. For every empirically validated argument there is about what we should do, there’s another study to contradict it.
Given the grey matter that is parenting, sometimes we need to make the choices that take Mom into account, too. I’ve since learned that choosing the hardest path doesn’t reveal the depth of our love or our commitment to our children.
To the uptight new mom I was back then, the “peas are peas” reminder was helpful. I could have countered my son’s pediatrician with theories I’d read about on food quality, but instead felt a wave of relief after stocking my pantry with jars of baby food.
Now I’m a mother of four, and my expectations have definitely relaxed over the years. I’ve learned to make the best of what each day brings and try hard not to take myself too seriously. Yes, on the days I get a home-cooked meal on the table, I feel like I’m totally #winning at this parenting thing. But on takeout days, I never lament over #failing — because I’ve learned that it’s just not productive.
All four of my birth experiences differed greatly; but the way I gave birth doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted my children. (I assure you, they are all equally irritating and amazing.) I’ve breastfed my children for different lengths of time, too; given three out of the four of them formula, let one cry it out but, caved and took the other into my bed …
In other words, if I’m certain of anything at this point, it’s this: There is no “perfect” way to parent. And I’m reminded of that almost daily, by so many of the incredible moms who surround me.
One of my friends delivered a 9 lbs. baby in her bathtub at home, and another raised her hand in childbirth class eager to know how early she could induce and get an epidural. One feeds her child “from the earth,” while other will tell you her son survived on chicken nuggets alone for an entire year.
These moms parent on opposing ends of the spectrum, and yet they all have two things in common: 1. They are my friends 2. They are amazing moms.
The happiest moms I know do what they need to in order to take care of themselves as well as their kids. We need to make choices that take into account both the love we have for our children and the compassion we have for ourselves.
For me, this means I love my kids through the apple pie I made from scratch yesterday (okay, with ready-made dough) and the piece of candy I let them choose for snack today. I love them when they are sick or healthy, unfathomably sweet or infuriating in the throes of a public tantrum.
Loving kids takes work, but parenting is also about knowing when simply showing up is enough. I might not be living up to the expectations I started with every single day, but I continue to show up with love; both for my children and myself.
Soon after my OB made the “psych ward” comment that day, she also told me this: “Birth is just a tree at the beginning of the forest.”
Indeed, childbirth and the individual choices I make every day to nourish my children are all “trees” that comprise the forest — or rather, the jungle — of motherhood. I often feel lost and it’s easy to lose perspective in the small yet big decisions I make every day.
But then I notice the impeccable scar from my cesarean delivery almost eight years ago (that OB was one heck of a surgeon), and I am reminded how small the trees become with time and experience.