We've just about hit that point in our lives where the engagement photos and wedding invitations are slowing down and the baby announcements are stacking up. Several of my girlfriends have recently announced their pregnancies, and pictures of tiny, bright-pink newborns and chubby-cheeked toddlers are beginning to dominate my social networks. Those photos normally include somewhat tired-looking versions of our friends, whose faces reflect both the happiness and exhaustion that comes from learning how to be a parent to a new little person.
When friends tell me about their impending arrivals, they almost always talk about being both excited and nervous. They ask about registries and baby showers and childbirth and post-baby sleep and finally, the big questions: What's it really like? What do you think has been the biggest change?
I never quite know how to answer. My hesitation is partly because my experience is mine alone: I may not feel or react or think the same way as others do; what has changed for me as a mom and a wife and an individual might not match what happens for my friends. And it's also partly because if I answered the question honestly and fully, I'd be talking for quite awhile. So normally, I say something brief and cliché about my heart walking around in two pieces outside of my body, about loving someone else more than yourself (and more than you thought possible), about shifting priorities and schedules, about the inability to just walk out your door, get in your car, and go to Target to run an errand.
It's all true, but it isn't the whole truth.
That goes something like this:
From the moment I heard Emma's shrill, loud cry as she emerged into the world, I knew that I would never again feel content unless I knew she was OK. When Charlotte arrived one minute later, floppy and quiet for a moment, that feeling doubled and my heart quickly found its way to my throat. When she finally cried, long and loud, I did, too -- tears of happiness and relief.
Despite that overwhelming sense of becoming someone's protector, I was surprised that I didn't feel like mom right away. As I watched my babies in the NICU and discussed serious topics with the neonatologists (Emma had a brief period of bradycardia/apnea this morning; Charlotte has jaundice and needs bili lights immediately), I felt almost detached, like it was all happening to someone else. Suddenly becoming a parent, six weeks early, was surreal and jarring and scary.
Being a mom meant waking up frantic from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, short of breath, calling the NICU to find out if they were sleeping all right, or if they had taken their 11:30 p.m. bottles. When the girls came home, it meant obsessively watching the monitor and creeping into their room to lean over their cribs, hold my own breath and listen for theirs.
Becoming a parent meant setting an alarm to wake every three hours to nurse and then pump and maybe catch 45 minutes of shut-eye before starting all over again. It meant cleaning bottles and changing about twenty diapers each day and learning not to wear anything that I didn't want adorned with spit-up.
It meant sitting perfectly still and staring for hours at two tiny people who had snuggled close together and fallen asleep, understanding for the first time in my life the depth and true meaning of the words gratitude and joy and love.
As a new mom, I was surprised to learn that my emotions often matched those of my children. I'd figured that as the parent, the adult, I'd be calm and in control more frequently than not. Witnessing their milestones and accomplishments, things like sitting up or crawling or taking those first stumbling steps, made me feel like I had won a Pulitzer or ran a marathon. When one of the girls cried, obviously sad or frustrated, I sometimes broke down in tears, too. I shared in their smiles and laughter and struggled along as they fought to express emotion without the benefit of language.
My feelings are no longer totally my own. But I guess it's really quite simple: they have my heart.
I worry constantly about being around for the duration of their lives. I religiously check every mole and spot on my body for changes; I eat healthier; I even floss more. I don't take risks while driving. I lock all the doors in my house, even when I'm home. I set up routine doctor's appointments. It is so important to me that my girls have their mom. I think constantly about my own mother, about how she has been relentlessly there for me, even into adulthood. She knows just how much sour cream to add to beef stroganoff, how to wrap a gift so the corners are tight, how to form a comeback to a mean comment and what to say when I need a smile, and I want so badly to be that person, that rock, for my children.
Though it sounds somewhat redundant, becoming their mother has made me more maternal in general. I tear up when I hear about kids fighting cancer who want only a card for their upcoming birthday and make it a priority to send one. I slow to nearly a crawl when driving through crowded parking lots, scanning the spaces between cars for a darting child.
Parenthood has also changed my relationship with my husband. I can vaguely remember a time when we went out to restaurants and discussed politics, TV shows, work and the like. While we still get away for the occasional date night, we spend much of it happily comparing pictures of Emma and Charlotte, talking about things they did or said. So many people have told us don't put your kids first, put the relationship first, and if that's true, then maybe we're doing it all wrong. But I will tell you that I've never loved my husband more than when the girls run to him as he comes home from work. On a normal day, he hasn't yet kissed me hello when he scoops them up and squeezes them tight. And in those 30 seconds where they are in his arms, when he looks at me while holding their tiny little bodies and smiles, I feel so undeniably complete.
Oh, I could go on. I could tell you about how even though you're a great mom, about how even though most days you get the kids clothed and bathed and fed and happy, you still have nagging insecurities. On a physical level, you will think: will I ever lose this baby weight? Do I look okay in this bikini? Can I still wear my skinny jeans? On a personal level, you will think: should I go back to work? Should I stay at home? Which is better for my kids? Which is better for me? You'll wonder whether your friends can accept your now-limited social life, think about where you'll be five years from now, try new projects and endeavors. You will still be you, even if it takes awhile to feel yourself again.
But you will never just be you again. And for that, you will be eternally thankful - for the good days, the bad, the boring, the in-between. If you're anything like me, you'll look into your babies' trusting eyes and feel awed that somehow, you have been blessed enough to be their mama.