Dear Mamas: I’m Sorry, and Thank You

Motherhood

June 17, 2020

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photo courtesy of: @mrs.jordonbailey

“But what does she DO all day? Her life must feel like a perpetual vacation!”

“Yeah. Must be nice, right?”

We were digging chips into bowls of fresh salsa, guac, and jalapeno queso, equally bewildered as to why our mutual friend, an able-bodied woman in her mid-twenties, would voluntarily disrupt a promising career trajectory to stay home with a baby. A newlywed woman to whom “kids” were a nebulous concept I’d relegated to the remote, unseen future, I decided this logic made no sense. 

I’d gone to law school. I’d passed the Bar Exam. I knew what it felt like to be tired. To be pushed to the absolute limit of what I thought I could achieve. That is, I really, truly thought I did. 

Translation: I had no. freaking. clue. 

And when I think about that naive baby lawyer shoveling chips into her self-righteous mouth, I can’t tell if I want to hug her or slap her (or both, in quick succession).

Before I became a mom, to say I had no clue what motherhood entails would be the grandest understatement in history. Not only could I not fathom the sanctification process motherhood would take me through, but I’ve realized, retrospectively, how much compassion I lacked for my mama friends when they admitted they were struggling. When it came to motherhood, I pulled out my best Elle Woods impression (“What? Like it’s hard?”) and swore up and down that when I became a mother, I wouldn’t act like I deserved a medal for it. 

*****

FOUR YEARS LATER

The way the maternity ward pulsed with life – even in the dead of night – disoriented me. After twelve hours of labor and a flurry of visits from family, my husband and I asked the nurses to take our newborn baby boy to the hospital nursery so we could steal a little sleep. Although it had been four hours, it felt like mere seconds. A quick glance at my husband, sprawled on the “pull out couch” that was probably a plywood plank wrapped in plastic (the kind that fuses to any exposed skin on your body at the slightest hint of perspiration), confirmed that he was in the same boat. Blinking to adjust to those lights that somehow, eerily, never turn off, I saw the silhouette of two nurses. 

“We ran some tests,” they said, “and we need to talk to you about James.”

A dizzying reel of terms like bilirubin, hemolysis, exchange transfusion, and NICU pelted us as our drowsiness morphed into low-grade panic. Something was wrong with our newborn son. Within the hour, I limp-walked to the NICU to peer at him through incubator peep-hole, sobbing desperately when he writhed and screamed. I couldn’t just pick him up, hold him close as a mama should, and the reality eviscerated me. I wanted nothing more than to hear that this was all a mistake and he was fine and we could take him home tomorrow as planned, but I never did.

I was twelve hours into motherhood and it was already the hardest thing I’d ever done.

*****

THREE MONTHS LATER

I bounced and hushed, patted and paced, kissed and cooed, but there was no calming this storm. In an Oscar-worthy rendition of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, our typically happy, placid baby wailed so forcefully I saw lights flicker on in houses down the street. I didn’t know if it was hunger or gas, teething pain or night terrors, but it broke me. Like a dam weakened by months of building pressure, I burst and in barely-intelligible strings of strangled words, gasped: 

This is so, so hard.

****

Mamas, I don’t need to tell you all the ways that motherhood is hard. I don’t need to tell you that when you see your baby for the first time, you feel like a part of you now exists on the outside and that even the slightest threat to that person’s wellbeing can shred you to pieces. I don’t need to tell you that the first two weeks postpartum are  what originally gave the word “tired” its meaning in common vernacular. I don’t need to tell you that being a stay-at-home, work-at-home mom is not a perpetual vacation. I don’t need to tell you that you will experience emotions that you never knew existed on any kind of spectrum, anywhere, and that in a single day, you will pass through each of them. I don’t need to tell you, because you already know. 

But what I will tell you is this: I’m sorry. 

I’m sorry about that one time (er, many times) I thought that what you were doing was easy. 

I’m sorry that when you needed grace, I didn’t give it, because I thought your life was easier than mine.

I’m sorry that when postpartum depression gripped you and you wouldn’t take my calls, I took it personally. 

I’m sorry that when you decided to stay at home with your baby, I privately swore that I would never “throw away” a career like that. 

I’m so sorry, sweet mama, that when your child was in the hospital, I didn’t understand the fear that consumed your entire world and threatened to swallow you whole. 

I’m sorry that I was frustrated when you canceled our brunch plans because your baby was up all night teething and you needed to sleep in.

But dear mamas, I also want to say this: Thank you.

Never before have I been prouder to be a part of any group, any collective identity. From the moment I announced my pregnancy, I felt an instant kinship with you. Messages from friends I hadn’t seen in years, or classmates I never really knew well, filled my DMs and welcomed me into the fold. Strangers in restaurants – mothers themselves, many of them much older than me – beamed at my bulging belly and shared their stories. And now, some of my dearest friends are people I never knew existed three years ago. Mamas, you are some of the most forgiving, gracious people I know, and you’ve carried me on your backs through the last year of my life. 

Thank you for dropping off massive bags of maternity clothes and sharing your own baby’s beloved but outgrown toys.

Thank you for encouraging me that it is 100% acceptable for a first-trimester mama to nap at work, and for suggesting we take a walk instead of grabbing brunch when even the slightest hint of wafting bacon fumes threatened to turn my stomach inside out. 

Thank you for brightening my early postpartum days with flowers, sweets, and heaping pans of comfort food.

When I needed to bail on our plans because my teething baby kept me up all night, thank you for your grace.

Thank you for responding in a dignified manner to my multiple hysterical texts that I think my baby is going to die because he has this rash and I read something on BabyCenter and the Internet gurus told me it was probably deadly and, and, and…

Thank you, mamas, for welcoming me as one of your own. 

Some of you knew that guac-eating, smack-talking young lawyer so many years ago, and some of you didn’t. But it doesn’t matter, because not a single one of you has hesitated, even for a second, to embrace me anyway. 

So maybe one day I’ll share a meal with a not-yet-mama. Maybe she’ll rant about how hard her life is and reflect smugly on how easy mine is in comparison. Maybe she’ll be gracious about it, and maybe she won’t. 

But what I do know is this: I’ll smile knowingly, slide the basket of chips toward her, and order more guac. She might need me soon, and if she does, I want her to know I’ll be there.

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