Learning Motherhood

The day I left the hospital, holding my child made me physically ill.

Call it some combination of physical and emotional stressors. I was recovering from preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication that causes an unsafe spike in blood pressure paired with a drop in heart rate and can lead to seizures. I was also starting to be aware of the whole not togetherness of my torso, as my severely separated stomach muscles allowed my organs to flop around and I needed to carry my sagging belly in my hands like a loose sack. I could barely walk, and even sitting up was a strain that led to intense back pain for weeks after. The pain medications I was given to deal with the discomfort was making me throw up daily. And in the midst of all this jarring physical discomfort, the thought of caring for my children was upsetting and panic-inducing.

So on the day I was set to leave the hospital, when my husband, mother-in-law, and father left the room to get everything ready, my husband put the smaller of my 3-day-old twins in my arms. And I looked at his tiny face, pale and wan and so pathetic, and the smell of baby formula and my own body mixed in my nose, and suddenly I was stumbling to place this tiny creature back in his bassinet so I could collapse on the floor of the bathroom and hold my stomach while my organs strained to push out whatever was bothering me.

For the next few days, while family and friends flowed in and out of my house, I kept this knowledge like a shameful secret – I felt nothing for my children, all I cared about was myself. My husband knew, my doctor knew, and even though I knew other people in my life would understand, I by no means wanted to tell them what I was feeling. As much as it cognitively makes sense that in that state, where I felt infirm and incapable, I would feel intense anxiety around the thought of caring for something that so desperately depended on me, and as much as we talk about postpartum depression and feel we should support women through that difficulty, there is still an expectation about motherhood and what women should do an want to do in those early days that I was fighting against. Rather than feeling strained by my enormous family constantly around, I relied on this situation for there to be enough people to take care of my children that someone in the room also thought to take care of me. Everyone was so eager to hold a baby that with two of them and that many people, I hardly had to do anything. No one was looking at me to nurse or change a diaper or soothe one of these tiny people who was so unfamiliar to the world.

A month later, fully recovered from my worst symptoms and largely caring for my children on my own, this thought crystallized in something my own mother said to me. I had just finished nursing one of my sons, and he was stretched out in my arms, delighting in being held in his post-milk stupor. I thought this position was hilarious – when he does this it looks like he’s stuck in a full back-arched stretch. And I pointed this out to my mom, and she said “this is the power that you have, to make this baby totally content and no one but you can do it.” I realized that my mom’s understanding of motherhood was the unique necessity of the biological mother – in her version, my babies love me because they are hardwired to, because they need my body even after they’ve left it, and through that need they feel complete with me. This perspective makes perfect sense with my mom’s own style of mothering, which I experienced and which I saw in the way she cares for my children – she cannot let a baby cry for any period of time, and so she’ll hold him until he falls asleep for every nap, and while she does she will interpret and rationalize every emotion he might have in response to his surroundings. Unsurprisingly, even after I’d moved on from my initial feelings of panic and anxiety, I still don’t feel this way about motherhood. Call it overly rational, but I don’t think babies have feelings at this age, or rather, I think that babies only experience contentment and panic, and that these aren’t emotions as we come to experience them, but physical responses to their needs. The feeling ends as soon as the need is met. So my mothering style is much more utilitarian – I do what needs to be done, and while I enjoy our time together and feel an intense bond with my tiny new people, I interpret most of their responses as survivalist and little more. As they get older, I can see them starting to develop preferences, but even then, when all they want is to be held I think this is more of an association with the fulfillment they associate with having been held in the past than it is an emotional response to being close to me.

It took me over a month to get to a point of uncomplicated affection for my babies, and still someone might say that my overly rational view of their development is cold and a reflection of ambivalence. Maybe so. But it works for me. And what bothers me at this point is what I perceive to be others’ expectations on what I should feel and do as a mother. As throughout my pregnancy, these feelings of obligation mostly come in response to other mothers, who have strong opinions about childrearing. From my own mom’s passive-aggressive commentary every time I intentionally let my babies cry to the baby book¬†On Becoming Babywise‘s assertion that I can’t be a good mother to twins without a schedule, I have enough fodder around me to develop feelings of guilt whenever I do what I think is best for my own children. The fact is that I can get away with a lot because I have twins. Without a constant second pair of hands, there will always be times when one baby is crying and I simply can’t do anything about it. And through my fading ambivalence, I was able to ease into breastfeeding in a way singleton moms aren’t allowed to – only now, at almost 2 months, am I even nursing at every feeding, and even then, I usually supplement with formula.

I’m trying to carve out a space for myself where I can feel I’m being the best mother my children could have while still existing as myself. I’m not my mom – I don’t think my role is to give my body and mind to my children, and I think that attitude was detrimental to both her and her four children. My mom was so dependent on us for her sense of self worth for a decade or more that when she did finally have other things in her life again, she became extremely self-righteous. And my brothers and I are all, to some extent, emotionally dependent people who cling to the support of just one other person. I want my children to feel safe enough to explore, not sheltered or adrift. And for myself, I have neither the means nor the inclination to stop working the way my mom did. I didn’t stop being a person just because I had kids. But these are hard goals to achieve well, especially since my work is going to require me to be gone from home for most of the next year. Maybe I’m overly attached to making that ridiculous research year requirement work out of a desire to assert my independence, but I don’t think I can be the best mother if I’m not also my best self. So right now, before things kick into gear, I’m learning how I want to parent, I’m learning how I want to be, and I’m laying plans to succeed in both simultaneously. Will it work? Let’s find out.