This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The thought thrummed constantly below the surface, a drumbeat following me everywhere. Doing the dishes, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Making dinner, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Bathing my son. Speaking in gentle clucking tones as I lowered him into a few inches of warm soapy water, wiping the soft flannel across his wrinkled forehead as he mewed with that animal newborn cry. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Years of conscientious big-sistering and nannying had given me glimpses into the ugliness of child-rearing – the messes, the tantruming rages and the fatigue. Looking back, I think that my sense of knowing a little bit about what I was getting into was part of my problem. I expected it to be hard and so I believed I was prepared. Countless lessons in Young Women’s, saccharine anecdotes in Mother’s Day Talks and the genuinely sweet and fervent testimony of my own mother had instilled in me an understanding that motherhood was largely about ennobling sacrifice. I earnestly and naively believed that I would suffer, but any trial I endured would magically transform into a holiness that would flow from fulfilling the birthright of my ovaries. I thought it was what I was put on this earth to do.
I can’t say I enjoyed the sleeplessness, the complete loss of bodily autonomy, the times when I had to put my beautiful wailing son into his crib and lock myself into the bathroom with the shower running to muffle both of our cries and keep myself from shaking him, or doing worse, in bitter frustration (a sage tip from my own mother). All of that sucked. The daily grind of parenthood is unrelenting — day after day of not being able to pee or sleep or shower when you want to takes its toll. But, in the end, it wasn’t the hard work that wrecked me.
I was not prepared to be flooded with longing every time I saw a bus stop and unwillingly imagined hopping on and never returning. I didn’t expect the strong resentment followed by terrible guilt followed by deep sweetness. It was the paradox of my love for my first born that baffled me. My love was so complete, so whole and all-encompassing that I didn’t understand how it could be accompanied by so much regret. I was ashamed of how conflicted I felt. Other mothers complained, they made a game of it during play dates, laughing and venting about the not peeing and the lack of sleep, but I felt like I was the only one consumed by an unaccountable sense of loss.
At the time, I went into hyper drive, trying to sweep away all uncertainty and ambivalence in the way that I understood all problems should be solved – with correct behavior. I prayed fervently for patience and forgiveness and tried to hand my burdens over to Christ. I made myself read my scriptures every day, although the scriptures were mostly silent on women’s lives, I was by then used to imagining my own experience through the eyes of men and took solace where I could. I also devoured every parenting manual I could find. I read everything from the ridiculously rigid methods of the Baby Whisperer and Gary Ezzo’s On Becoming Baby Wise to the (for me) self-annihilation required by Dr. Sears and attachment parenting. I read them all and tried some of their methods, feeling that everything was too hot or too cold, nothing just right.
And then, one day in Borders, I came across an odd little book buried in the pastel-coloured how-to manuals and fuchsia hot mom books with diaper bags hanging off slim black silhouetted figures on their covers. The book was called The Mother Trip by Ariel Gore and the subtitle told me that it was “Hip Mama’s Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood.” My heart leapt at the word “chaos” and I opened the book to see that the first part was titled “Forget the Rules.” The epigraph before the preface read: “It will be a sore fight letting go and letting the sea in.” I suddenly felt like I could breathe again.
What followed was a series of short chapters — the perfect length for breastfeeding — gleaned from Gore’s own experience as a teenage mother and the experiences of her readers. Gore is the fiercely big-hearted, inclusive and funny founder of Hip Mama, a zine started in 1993 and still published quarterly. Battles with depression, family court and an upbringing in an unconventional household imbued her with both compassion and grit and The Mother Trip is framed by poetry, Buddhism and feminism.
I read the book over and over again during my first year of motherhood. I’ve always been the kind of reader who has difficulty putting boundaries between myself and whatever I’m reading, but certain books become so deeply ingrained in my consciousness that they are forever part of the way I view the world. The Mother Trip is such a book for me, I’ve quoted it endlessly and drawn on its wisdom over and over again. (And if you know me, I have probably quoted lengthy sections and tried to push it on you 10 or 20 times.) I took a lot of things from the book, but the thing that resonated the most, that let me relax into motherhood and embrace its contradictions, was Gore’s insistence that there was no one way to be a “good” mother.
We talk about motherhood as though it is this monolithic thing — a universal experience — but every mother has a different story, a different set of struggles and strengths. Gore is not prescriptive, she simply tells stories about her own life and her readers’ lives. None of the details of these women’s lives resembled mine, but somehow seeing these women in their particularity, getting a sense of how big and broad the world of motherhood could be, was deeply healing for me. I began to accept that conflicted was how I felt and there didn’t have to be a reason and it didn’t have to be solved, I could love my children just as fiercely with my imperfect love. Unsurprisingly, when I stopped erecting walls of correct behavior to protect my heart from the profound vulnerability that I felt as a young mother, I began to relax and my conflicted feelings subsided. I started to enjoy the sweetness of motherhood, a sweetness that had always been there. I began to understand that transcendence doesn’t come from fulfilling a role or reaching a perfect understanding. It rises from the ashes of devastation, from a heart laid bare and opened to whatever experience life gives you. Only an open heart can let the sea in.