Published on September 18th, 2018 | by Caitlin Vestal2
What I Thought Would Be & What Is
What I keep saying to my therapist, when I tell her, again, of the guilt that won’t untangle itself from my brain, is that I knew this was going to be hard. I had none of the illusions about becoming a mother that so many women do. I didn’t think I’d sail through pregnancy on a cloud of roses and cupcakes and birth an angel who would sleep through the night or latch onto my nipple without a hitch.
I’ve watched too many of my friends go through this transition to think any of that. I’ve seen how they have to let it break them all down—first their bodies, during pregnancy, and then their minds, during birth, and then their whole lives, once the baby has arrived. I knew that we’d climb through those first weeks in a fog of diapers and pajamas and the steady rhythm of the rocking chair. That we wouldn’t sleep for days on end. That breastfeeding wouldn’t work right away. That my nipples would blister and crack and bleed. That I would cry and cry and not be able to explain to my husband why, exactly.
And yet, some part of me also thought that after losing our first baby four years ago, when I was 22 weeks pregnant and without any hint that something might be wrong, I would welcome the hard. I would be so grateful for this tiny new creature with his tiny soft limbs and his tiny squeaky noises that I would breeze through the hard and show the world how lucky I was to make a person with my body. My husband thought so too. We admitted it to each other one morning, huddled together on our bed, the baby tucked into his bassinet just inches from us. We leaned our foreheads together and turned our eyes away, whispering that we’d thought the joy of the new baby would be as great as the grief of losing the first baby. And that it wasn’t.
So then, of course, there was not only the lack of sleep, the leaking breasts, and the relentless wake/eat/nap cycle that I was mucking through, there was also the guilt. And the shame. This feeling that I should have been grateful, because the thing I wanted most in the world had finally happened. But instead I was just scrolling through Instagram, looking at pictures of my childless friends who weren’t in bed by 7pm to try and make a few hours of sleep happen somehow, and regretting that I’d ever wanted to have a baby in the first place.
Somewhere around 10 months, I started to feel like myself again. I started to believe it when I told myself over and over again, You got this, you got this, you got this. By then, if the baby hit one of the developmental leaps that devastated whatever rhythm we’d cobbled together, I could remember that it was temporary, and that it would pass, eventually. We were all sleeping through the night most nights. I was meditating in the mornings, taking freelance writing work again, starting to do a little Pilates here and there. I actually entertained the idea of another baby. An idea which had, until then, elicited only an emphatic Fuck, no, from both me and my husband.
It’s been just over a year since my second son was born. And suddenly it’s all shifted again. My frantic Googling while he fought both naps today tells me that he’s probably in another sleep regression. The first one, at four months, nearly destroyed me. Today, for the first time in many, many months, I screamed while my son cried in the other room. And then I screamed again while he threw his water cup on the floor as I cut up chicken enchiladas for him. And then I screamed again when I thought about how I should just shut up and be grateful.
My rational mind knows, of course, that that’s not how it works. That being a mother is just fucking hard, even when you have the incredible privilege of choosing to not work full-time and can go to therapy every week and have amazing mama friends telling you that yes, you do got this. So why can’t my heart be okay with that? Why do I feel the shame of not loving being a mother all the time? We all hate it sometimes, right? (Right?) A few months ago, I told new mamas that anyone who said they loved being a mother all the time was lying. So why do I still feel like I should?
There’s not an answer. There’s no epiphany at the end of this essay. My therapist asks me, when I tell her of this guilt again, and again, and again, if it can just be okay that it’s not okay. I want it to be okay. I want to cut myself the same slack I cut every mother I see out there, hair unbrushed, eyes slightly glazed, shirt covered in various milk and food stains. But somehow, my brain insists that I should know better. That I’ve been on the other side of this—the side where your hair is unbrushed not because of a toddler running you ragged, but because your soft belly, empty 20 weeks too soon, consumes the rest of you, and you forget that you have hair to brush or shirts to clean.
Tonight I begged my husband to come home early from work. To put the baby to bed so I could hide in our basement and weep. When I go upstairs, I know he will ask me if it’s better now. If that made it better. And I will have to say that no, it’s not okay. And that somehow that has to be okay.