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We Know What Motherhood Does to The Body, But Nobody Tells You What It Does to the Heart

The Motherhood Identity Project

Pregnancy and breastfeeding gave me stretch marks from nipples to knees, boobs that look like they just got tired and gave up, hair in places I never had hair before kids (looking at you, beard), and a post C-section belly flap that took up permanent residence. I would call these things unpleasant surprises — but, though I definitely find them unpleasant, I can’t say that there’s anything surprising about it.

After all, the physical toll of motherhood is one that we’re warned about in all those “what-to-expect” books that we eagerly devour for nine months, hoping to get a clue about what we’re in for. From postpartum acne to leaky bladders, we’re given a little bit of a heads-up about the inevitable changes we’ll go through once our bodies have performed the task of creating and birthing a whole human.

But nobody told me that when I held each of my babies, I would be overwhelmed — with love, with awe, with the invisible weight of responsibility. Nobody told me I would rush to their crib a hundred times to make sure they were still breathing, telling myself not to panic but OMG what if something terrible has happened.

No one gave me the warning that I’d suddenly see my own children in the faces of every emaciated, hungry-eyed child on the TV ads for charities. Or the smiling photos of kids — babies — who were taken down by school shooters before they got a decent chance at life. No one ever suggested I’d be sick with outrage at reports of pedophiles, or feel nearly crushed with compassion and sorrow hearing the stories of parents with terminally ill children. Once I was able to stomach doom-and-gloom news reports with unflinching stoicism; now I can’t see anything anymore without somehow relating it back to my kids and the world they’re growing up in, which makes it all seem more raw somehow.

I had no idea of the depths of that infamous mama-bear instinct, from the ripples of indignance you feel when your toddler waves to someone from the grocery store cart and they don’t wave back, to the burning anger when someone legitimately hurts your kid. The mixed feelings of helplessness and determination in knowing that it’s impossible to protect your children from every danger and every trauma, but you’re going to damn well try anyway.

I didn’t know that there’d be times when I am literally brought to my knees by “mom guilt” — from infancy on up — despairing that I’ve damaged my child in some way or another. (Spoiler alert: It’s never as bad as you think it is.) I didn’t know that everyday things, like trying to get rid of baby items my kids have outgrown, could trigger such deep feelings of nostalgia and sadness: sweet, but oh so heavy. I can be breezing triumphantly through the house collecting junk in a trash bag, congratulating myself on such a ruthless purge, and then I come to the closet where that baby stuff is stored — just when it feels like I’ve mustered up the strength to give it all away. I stand there for a minute, running my fingers over the little outfits, and remembering how adorable my pudgy little babies looked wearing them. Reflecting on how they’re not babies any more, and never will be again. And then there it is: that deep-down ache, a nagging sadness bubbling to the surface of my consciousness, squeezing my chest and throat like a vise. And I close the door and walk away, trash bag half-empty.

Nobody pointed out how I’d feel when I was all out of babies. I had no clue that the simple act of going from “Mommy” to “Mom” could set off so many shockwaves of emotion. The surprise of realization. The wonder at how fast those years have gone, colored with the grief of letting them go. And there I am in the middle of it, silently screaming, “Wait! No one asked me if I was okay with this!”

I had no idea I’d take the teenage mood swings so personally — that eye rolls and short tempers could actually hurt my feelings. Or how disheartening it can be to see them grow apart from friends, or watch them start to socialize and date and realize that the time when I was the center of their universe is long past. Or how hard it feels to stand back and let them make their own mistakes, no matter how important, because they’re turning into adults and the best way to do that is through experience. But oh, man, is it hard to let go.

The books never told me any of this. Nor did they tell me that motherhood is, in turn, both the best and the hardest thing I’d ever do. That there are days when those motherly duties are like nails on the chalkboard of your soul, and other days when you can’t imagine being anywhere else than right here with your babies (whether they’re little or big). That it is a journey that’s both indescribably beautiful and utterly heart-wrenching. That it’s not only possible for those two feelings to coexist — it’s guaranteed.

But hey, at least I know what to do about those stretch marks.

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