THE BLOG
07/17/2015 07:42 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2016

The Most Perfect Metaphor for New Motherhood

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Isla.

That is the name of the baby a friend of mine is waiting to bring into the world at any moment. I have been thinking a lot about this lovely word, the Spanish for "island," and have concluded that it's the perfect name for a baby, because birth sets us adrift. She comes and lifts your anchor and you are off to sea, just the parents and that baby in one little boat. Even among partners, within your family, there are times when you're all in your own vessels, sailing close but separately, a wobbly fleet of love.

That is why no one can quite understand new mothers in those early days or weeks. That is why any and all advice you receive, and there is lots of it, is barely intelligible, as if it were being shouted across some vast space from a distant, unimaginable world. It is. It's coming to you across the water. It can be comforting or even useful, but the fact remains that no one knows what's going on in your own boat but you and the captain.

The captain is not you, by the way. Your baby has a plan for you, and you are along for the ride. In my view of things, parenthood doesn't start with birth. Not all of it, at least. It phases in, like childproofing. Many, many months down the road, your child will do or say something that requires a stern retort, and you will come to as if out of a fog, and think, Oh, sh*t! It's starting! But that's later. For now, just ride. You are there to comfort and sing and feel your way in the dark and bail the ship out of the many fluids of newborn babydom, but you are not calling the shots. Not yet.

Let the waves come, murmur a seafaring song, and know this: in any moment of new motherhood that is rough going for you, there are countless like you; there are also others for whom that very same moment was transcendent and amazing (and you'll probably hear all about it). By the same token, in every moment that is wonderful for you, there are others for whom that very same moment was terrible. Every ship takes its own course.

Birth itself? As many experiences as there are women. First attempts at breastfeeding? Can be blissful, can be hellish, but no matter what, you're not alone. Even the first time you hold your baby can be euphoric, or wrenching, or terrifying, or all three, or something else altogether. It's all OK. Your boat will bob forward. Your baby may look feeble, but she knows what to do.

You won't be in your little boat forever. Soon you'll realize you've circled up with others, comfortably at anchor, jostling against each other quite companionably off the shores of that nonsensical, psychedelic land of toddlerhood. You'll notice all the boats now look a lot alike. Whether made of locally-sourced unfinished wood with organic dyes or mass-produced Chinese plastic, they're all covered in some sort of breakfast cereal and they all have a weird smell coming from somewhere. The mothers are the captains now, though mutinies are an hourly occurrence. These women have a lot more in common, at least within their groups, defined mostly by the presence or lack of a sense of humor. They share and support each other. They are becoming landlubbers.

And they remember you, out at sea, holding on for dear life. They remember you wistfully, even longingly, depending on the woman: you and your baby, alone on the waters, curled up in a rainstorm, mystified and awestruck, nursing each other into a brand new world. They see your boat out there and remember their own, that place no one else could fully see, that place no one else could truly know, that place they will never, ever forget. They cup their hands and call out to you across the booming surf, annoying things like "Enjoy every moment!" or unhelpful things like "It goes so fast!" or, well, "Nipple cream! Nipple CREEEEAM!" And you bail out your boat and shake your head.

For she is already charting her course, this one-woman island, this launcher of fleets, the only one with the power to make you brave this particular ocean.

As for you, you will find your sea legs the only way they are ever found: amidst the waves.

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