Last summer, I was a brand-new mother. I had a soft, bulgy belly and hips that were too wide for shorts I’d worn easily the year before. I lived in a total of three or four outfits and wore makeup zero times. (The no make-up was wonderful, freeing.)
My days and nights had swirled into one big daydream. There I was at the center of it—on the couch, on the bed, on the couch, on the bed, outside on the steps—with the same loving people passing around me, always doing something, or keeping me company, doing nothing.
When they were gone—silence. My dog, a constant warmth at my feet, was vigilant, aware of the change in the air.
My life felt like an abstract painting that I was painting blindfolded. Looking at it now, I find the painting beautiful. I wish I could reach back into those days and swim there for a little while longer. Dip my feet in and tell myself it gets easier. Mostly, tell myself that I am amazing. I didn’t feel amazing. I felt happy, yes, but there were frequent dips of sadness. (With any gain a loss must come, a loss needed to make room for the new.)
I was in a daze, not working for the first time in years, listening to the sound of cicadas at dusk, I mean really listening, and contemplating the hot laziness that was summer, with a feathery new weight on my arm.
What was being lost in those days? Me.
Or, the me I had known up until the day I gave birth to my daughter.
I was unfurling into something, someone, who I’m still discovering today. Peeling layers and painting new ones. This is motherhood, a constant layering, a constant stream of newness to encounter. I was… all the phases of the moon, moving back and forth between pre- and post- mother me, trying to find common ground between who I was and who I was becoming.
My breasts felt foreign to me. They were too big for my chest, too tender to sleep on (so much for being able to sleep on my stomach again), they ached at certain times of the day and no longer belonged to me. They were on center stage, doing things I never knew they could do, teaching me about myself and about perseverance, patience, pain, power, selflessness, strength. Breastfeeding is hard.
Last summer, I was without a washer or dryer (perfect timing with a newborn), but I had my stainless-steel kitchen sink, a bar of laundry soap that smelled of cypress oil, and I had my trusted clothes rack, the kind that folded into itself, that I would set outside in my backyard on the sunniest days.
I loved to sit on the stairs that came out of my kitchen’s back door—my baby in my arms, still too delicate to hold her head up—and watch her clothes hang there in the sun, like tiny kisses. I never thought laundry could look so cute.
I felt anything but cute.
My hair was still lush from pregnancy, but my body felt… like an empty boat, bobbing in the middle of an ocean. In the celebrated realm of mother-to-be no longer, I’d been thrust into a strange new reality of am-now-mother, where I was supposed to get on with it and just know how to be.
I had nine months to prepare for this day, but let’s face it. I’d spent those months daydreaming about the blissful moments I’d spend holding my baby in perfectly clean outfits and sheets, seraphic music and chirping birds playing sweetly for us in the background. So unaware I was of all the bodily fluids, stained clothes, discomforts, well of emotions, loneliness, exhaustion, demands, decisions, hunger, diapers that awaited me. I mean I knew, but I didn’t know.
Everything felt so heavy (me physically, my tears, people’s opinions and advice, the new responsibility, the social media I finally turned away from, the thought of going back to work). Everything came down on me so fast, a sudden monsoon. I listened for my motherly instinct while voices crowded around me, all the while wondering, how in the hell have women been doing this all this time? (Also, my God, mom, thank you; I love you.)
On those steps of my kitchen’s back door I heard my heart say:
I’m someone’s mother. I’m… mom.
I watched my daughter’s onsies, white and pink and yellow and blue, play in the wind as these words rolled around in my heart, picking up old wounds and planting new hopes.
An image of my daughter playing in this backyard one day conjures before me. I see her but I can’t see her face. I wonder what she will look like, just as I had wondered what she would smell like when she was still doing somersaults in my womb.
My womb, it feels like a bruised grapefruit.
I feel like a fallen tree.
I’m alone and it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, probably, I don’t know, I don’t check the time these days.
I’m happy, I tell my heart, who keeps fumbling with the words, trying them on for size—I’m mom.
There’s no selfie here and no social media to prove my feelings to. Good. There’s no one who calls to ask if I’m happy. Not so good.
I think my friends are giving me space. Others, I think, don’t know what to say. I’m too busy, they must think. Too busy being a mother and being happy.
People come over to hold my baby. I don’t put eyeliner on for these occasions, but I put on earrings. Earrings make me feel put together. They make me feel pretty.
The people stroke my baby’s sleeping face, softly, with their fingers, and my insides scream. Please don’t touch her face, I want to say, but I decide to wait it out and be polite. Later, I run a damp wash cloth over her cheeks (as she still sleeps).
(When will I stop treating her so delicately? I can’t picture treating her any other way.)
Before I had my daughter, everyone told me to get ready for no sleep. But that’s all my daughter does is sleep, all day, she sleeps. Even at night! Dare I say. Sometimes, I sleep too. Other times, most times, in the silence of the day, I watch her sleep.
I google questions that lead to more questions. I watch movies. I drink so much water. I wait for my husband to come home.
My dog wonders why we don’t walk together like we used to. I try not to think about it because I don’t have it in me to consume the sadness.
My hands sting from the laundry soap even though it’s suppose to be gentle on the skin. Washing gloves… I’ll walk to the store to get washing gloves. I’ll take my daughter and my dog.
But my daughter, she’s so new and the sun is so hot. What if she gets thirsty or too hot and she can’t tell me? What if I trip and fall while crossing the street and the stroller goes rolling out of my hands? (Extreme, but not far-fetched.) What if it starts to rain? (Very possible where I live.)
I decide to stay home because honestly, leaving the house requires a militarized kind of effort. And I think I need to nurse her soon. Her laundry is done anyway, and her clothes are probably dry. I go down to inspect the tiny colorful things. I’m happy, my heart tells me again. (I need so much reassurance these days.)
My eyes live on my daughter. I memorize her eyelashes, her nose, the dip in her upper lip, her chin, her hair, so dark and so much of it. I marvel, so thirsty to know her. I try to remember what it was like when I didn’t know her face, when I was so eager to know it.
The wind is warm and blowing a little too strongly now. The clothes rack shakes and threatens to fall, but instead of rescue her clothes, I retreat inside with my daughter (still asleep). My dog follows me, collar click-click-clacking.
You’re happy, aren’t you? I ask my daughter, and for a moment I imagine her replying, Yes, I’m happy, mom, because I’m with you. You’re the only person I’ve ever known and the only place I want to be. Can’t you see? You’re perfect for me, exactly as you are. (This makes me tear up because I hope that I am.)
I’m inside now, away from the wind. I settle into my nest of pillows and throw blankets on the couch. Remote control, check. Water bottle, check. Cell phone, check. Yes, my daughter is definitely happy and content. I feel a bubbling in my heart because I know this to be true, and the sureness of it and its simplicity puts me at ease.
I kiss her nose and as I do this I hear the soft thud of the clothes rack fall outside in the grass, but not a drop of worry accompanies the sound.
I’m mom… it’s all good… I’ve got this, I hear my heart say.