Updated: Aug 12, 2019
I envy the woman whose life calling it is, to be a mother.
I tell my child I love her with conviction. I almost always pause, stare at her, and say it twice, as if the first time wasn’t believable enough for me, or her for the matter. Sometimes I wait for her reaction. On occasion, she’ll tell me she loves me too, other times Paw Patrol or PJ Masks will outdo me for her affection. I tell Lyla I love her with emphasis so that it sticks… so that she understands… so that I understand. I’m not sure why I repeat it. Maybe I repeat it because subconsciously I think she feels what I feel. The more I mother, the more I am reminded that for this calling, I simply struggle to pick up the phone. For a selfish twenty-something like me, motherhood is a balancing act of preserving my innermost character while learning a new persona dedicated to the life of someone else.
I love my daughter. The gap between my two front teeth, a bane of my childhood existence, gift from her late great-grandfather, sits beautifully on the bottom half of her tiny face. My imperfections, on her, look so perfect. Her infectious laugh rings in my ears far past her drop off at daycare – it serves me as a reminder to breathe and not take the MTA commute to Brooklyn too seriously. Her words struggle to meet the speed at which her tiny brain functions. When the words finally let up it’s almost as if she’s catching up to her thoughts, stuttering, pausing, and then releasing an eloquent three-year-old sentence. In her high-pitched cartoon-esque voice she squeals, “Mami, why do you have boobies? See, I have boobies too!” She’s a charming kid – I’m pretty biased though.
As charming as she is, there exists a disconnect between my expectations of who I should be as a mother, and how I should feel to be granted the opportunity to mother this incredible piece of life. We are still learning how to co-exist within one lifetime; a struggle I can perceive will only grow, as we both get older. While some mothers relish at the opportunity for playtime, I look forward to the age when the silent reading time is a norm in our household – and together we can cuddle up with our recent reads. For others, teaching right from wrong fulfills their inner parenting ego with a self-denoted sense of inspiration. My future inspiration carries a different aura. I hope that my daughter is inspired through watching me write feverishly as she completes her homework assignments, us sitting side-by-side working from our desks that we carefully curated to fit our learning needs. If she’s anything like her mother, she’ll struggle with math, while I struggle to make connections in my writing. Together we will grow, together we will struggle, and together we will find solutions. This idea of motherhood feels far-fetched with my boobies-asking child. The perfect picture of motherhood that I paint suggests that the balancing act is possible – that my passions and my role as a mother can intertwine. Except, in reality, that hasn’t happened, and feels farther and farther away with every missed call.
The title of “only child” was removed from my identity by the end of my thirteenth year, about twelve years too late to rid myself of only child tendencies. I am fundamentally selfish and introverted. This part of my character slaps me in the face when my partner tells me, “Not everything is about you, honey.” He always softens his blows with honey or babe because we only-children are sensitive. But, he is right and motherhood challenges this flawed characteristic, often. Being a mother requires me to prioritize my tiny energy-filled human, in ways that otherwise I wouldn’t even consider. I am on pause when she is home, and motherhood propels itself forward. Mother and Writer have a hard time being friends. Those two women can never co-exist. They don’t know how. Maybe this is something they should’ve taught the both of us before we left the hospital.
On March 29th, 2014, I left Lennox Hill Hospital knowing two things: How to change a diaper and to never shake the baby. Hindsight is 20/20, so nothing those nurses said could have prepared me for the failed expectations of motherhood I encountered. Time after time, I was reminded that this life isn’t for me. Instead of baby shaking syndrome, what hospitals should be showing are videos of the post-partum depression the sneaks in through the crevices of a new mother’s fragile character, and the fact that it disproportionately affects mothers of color. That certainly would have been helpful to know.
A Breast-milk pumping student-mom: that’s the identity I decided I would assume for the next few months post-birth. To my surprise, breastfeeding is not as simple as baby – boob – eats. It didn’t work out for us, but I was too intimidated by the anti-formula feeding mob to even consider another option. My Medela breast pump and I developed an interesting relationship. I called her “Pumparina”, and we were inseparable for 10 months. The incessant noise coming from the machine inside the black bag still lingers in my memory. At first, the noise sounded like a regular machine, but as time progressed, those sounds turned into rhythms, then words, then phrases. Pumparina was meant for extracting liquid gold, and in that same process, she extracted my pre-motherhood existence. My life revolved around calculating times and spaces to pump, and less around my happiness and fulfillment as a person. For medical reasons beyond my control, the pumping had to cease. Secretly ecstatic, I was worried that now my identity would only be comprised of a student-mom, and even that came to an end on graduation day. Come May I was no longer a mother with “complex identities”, I was simply a mom.
A year in, when despair beat my desire to move forward, I sought out answers that went beyond the traditional “it’s just your hormones” narrative. After committing the motherhood sin of leaving your child in daycare to have time to yourself, I hopped on the 1 train to Lerner Hall on 116th. As a graduate student, we were allowed three free sessions with a Columbia University therapist, the least they could with all my tuition money. In the elevator, I couldn’t feel. I wasn’t nervous or excited; I would even go as far as to say I walked the fine line of skepticism. Me, a social worker, should be conditioned to believe therapy worked. Instead, I heard my parents’ voices in my head, reminding me that what happens in the home stays in the home. I didn’t look at her biography when I chose her, the therapist. The mystery of seeing who would call my name in the waiting room was enough thrill seeking for the day.
The first fifteen minutes of therapy loosened the knots of my feelings and the warmness crept up in my eyelids. I cried about everything and nothing all at the same time. There’s something cathartic about telling your problems to a stranger who will listen. They don’t know you enough to judge you, but that lack of judgment was short lived in my second session when she said, “It seems like you are in search of the perfect family, and are willing to put up with anything to achieve that.” I didn’t go back for my third session, which was still free. That was a truth I was unprepared for. She was right, and I wasn’t ready to hear it. She should have left a voicemail.
When my gap-toothed three-year-old whines for me to play with her after a long day, I always think of the easy fix – just have another child, for her! This train of thought sheds a light on the remarks of my family members. “You cannot leave your daughter by herself”, “When are you going to give your fiancé a child” and “Who will take care of you when you are older”? I am immediately brought back to the long nights on the crème colored rocking chair in my newborn daughter’s room that creaked on its way forward. I cringe at the post-partum tears involuntarily flowing down my cheeks as I stare at what I should have felt to be my greatest accomplishment despite the degrees on my wall. I couldn’t connect with the loving mother role. I know mothers who would kill to stay at home 5 months with their children. I couldn’t wait to get back to the workforce. My motherhood is different, does that make me less motherly?
When I say I am envious of motherhood, I am referring to the lack of emotion I feel towards motherly duties. I would love to want to be a stay-at-home mother, 100% responsible for the intellectual milestones in my child’s life. I would love to want to play on the floor the way my partner naturally does. I would love to want to feed my child before myself, as the rumble in my stomach gets louder. These qualities of motherhood are not innate, even though my culture conditions me to believe that motherhood should be the pinnacle of my achievements. It isn’t, and I’m not sure that it will ever be. I dream of New York Times Best-Selling books, and not a home, dog, and 2.5 children. The green of my envy yearns but is always subdued when I can begin to see the motherhood I envision come alive before my eyes. Should motherhood call again, I’m not sure that I will answer the phone but I hope she leaves a voicemail with her callback number, in case I change my mind.