The Three Faces of Motherhood

by Jennifer Ryan

            My son, Asher, is now almost three years old. Everyone around me is getting pregnant, and soon-to-be mothers send me questions about pregnancy, childbirth, and babies constantly. I’ve gone from first-time-mom to learned advisor. I don’t know if this new title is warranted. My son is still the world’s worst sleeper, and we are constantly sick.  We’ve definitely had our ups and downs. What should I tell a pregnant mother looking for answers concerning everything motherhood? You’d think it’s a simple question, but it isn’t because how you respond actually says a lot about you as a parent. Are you a practition? Are you a magician? Or, are you a faker?

            I call them practitions because they are practical. Practitions try to give prospective mothers a cold, hard dose of reality before the baby comes. They’ll give you a laundry list of things you’ll never do again, like sleep. You’ll never, EVER sleep again. You won’t travel again for at least three years. If you’re anxiously anticipating maternity leave because you think it will be a long vacation, think again. Reading? Other hobbies? Tackling that room you’ve always wanted to remodel? With a baby? No. They’ll tell you that parenting doesn’t get easier. It just changes. Pucker up and kiss your life goodbye because life, as you’ve known it, is over. They always close every conversation the same way: “It’s all worth it.” The it’s-all-worth-it statement is intended to erase any negative emotions you might be feeling as a result of the conversation. It doesn’t. When you’re filled with joy, joy pregnancy hormones, a practition’s comments are the equivalent of electric shock therapy. You’ll be tempted to dismiss these people as bitter parents whose experiences are not the norm. This is a rookie mistake. Practitions are wise sages and your new best friends. Input their names and telephone numbers into your phone immediately. You will want to call them later.

            Then there are magicians. I loved magicians, when I was pregnant. I wanted to maintain the rosiest picture of parenthood possible, and magicians let me drink cup after cup of pregnancy Kool-Aid. They always had perfect babies who slept through the night at birth. If their babies didn’t sleep through the night, they were elated because that just gave them “extra alone time” with their little ones. Practitions live in reality. Magicians live in Neverland. I remember standing in the break room at work. I had just finished pouring myself another sixty-four ounce jug of water with lemon. A magician approached me and asked, “Don’t you just love being pregnant?” The only time a woman just loves being pregnant is around the fourth or fifth month because she’s probably just felt the baby move for the first time. Her entire first trimester is basically spent sleeping or hugging a toilet bowl thanks to morning sickness. This magician had the misfortune of asking me this question, when I was eight and a half months pregnant. At this stage of the game, I was the size of a small planet. I also raced home every day after work to put a bag of frozen vegetables on my stomach, which felt like I had rolled in a fire ant bed. (FYI, it’s called a PUPP rash. The only thing that cures it is Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap. You can buy it on Amazon. Your bathroom will smell like a troop of Boy Scouts got their campfire badges in it, but I swear it’s the only thing that works. There. That’s your helpful tip for the day.) Anyway, I looked at her with borderline contempt and responded, “What? Are you high?” Then, I waddled to my desk, so I could put my swollen feet on a crate underneath it.

Magicians say things that are sweet but are also complete nonsense. You’ll think they’re the world’s greatest mothers, which is sort of the point. You’ll also think they’ll be part of your emotional support system once the baby is born. Again, this is a rookie mistake. Magicians aren’t your friends. They are making you the butt of their joke, a joke you won’t get until about six months after the baby arrives. Don’t ever call them for advice. Calling a magician is a lot like drunk dialing your old college boyfriend. It seems like a good idea at the time. The next morning, you’ll just feel bad about yourself. Here’s how a phone call with a magician typically goes. You’re sleep-deprived and desperate. You’ll babble incoherently about how unprepared you are for motherhood, how this isn’t what you thought it would be, how clearly your child hates sleep. Once you stop, the magician will sit there for a moment. You’ll think she’s collecting her thoughts, so she can dispense some critical pearl of wisdom. Instead, she’ll say, “Oh. That wasn’t my experience.” Her response will feel like a dagger to the heart because you’ll start doubting yourself as mother. Just like the drunk dial to the old college boyfriend, the best way to save yourself from this situation is to delete the magician’s number from your phone. That way, you will never call her in the first place.

Finally, there are fakers. Fakers are basically magicians on the outside and practitions on the inside. They’ll feed you a few magician statements, while they look quickly for the nearest exits. You can spot them though, if you’re a good poker player. Their smiles are completely fake, and their eyes look like those of a deer that’s been caught in the headlights of a passing car. Why would they lie? One word. Fear. Fear of judgment motivates the faker. You really can’t blame them. After all, people can be pretty judgmental in general. They can be especially judgmental regarding parenting. Take a look at any online message board for breastfeeding support or parenting techniques. If you’re feeling particularly bold, read the comments at the bottom of a pro- or anti- vaccine article. You will see complete strangers spew cyber venom at each other. Fakers just don’t want to be in the crossfire.

You can observe all three of these categories in their natural habitats: the baby shower. The expectant mother reclines on a couch, surrounded by presents. She makes the mistake of asking a practition a question about motherhood. The practition fills her cup with punch. She spikes that punch with a flask she’s kept hidden in her purse. Then, the pracition tells everyone how her sex life has evolved into a reconnaissance mission. Troops in. Troops out. Lights off. The faker pretends to be horrified, so she won’t be “discovered.” Now, the expectant mother turns her attention to the magician and begins peppering her with questions. The magician always gives the same cookie cutter answer, the reason for her namesake. When asked any question, the magician’s response is always, “Oh, it’s magical.”

 -How does holding your baby for the first time feel?

            -Oh, it’s magical.

-What’s breastfeeding like?

            -Oh, it’s magical.

-What about childbirth?

            -Oh, it’s magical.

           The only magical aspect of childbirth is that a woman would choose to endure the pain a second time. After my labor started, I checked into the hospital at eight o’clock. At eleven, the nurse asked if she should call the anesthesiologist. I gave a nonchalant, “Sure.” I thought I had the whole labor thing under control. An hour and a half later, anesthesiologist was no longer in my vocabulary. He was the “epidural guy.” He was late, and I was begging my husband to find something, ANYTHING, that he could use to render me unconscious.

            I don’t know what accounts for these different parenting perspectives, but I have a few theories. Maybe practitions are blessed with what Dr. Williams Sears terms “high needs babies,” or as I like to call them…babies. Maybe magicians are optimists, and practitions are pessimists. Or, maybe…just maybe…one day a magician wished on a star for a baby. A few months later, a beautiful, white stork delivered to her a leprechaun that pooped Lucky Charms, and the magician thought it was a baby. Well, a stork didn’t deliver a leprechaun to me. I gave birth to a baby. He ate. He pooped. He cried. Sometimes, he screamed. He also slept occasionally.

            Still, I find myself faced with the same conundrum. What advice can I give? How do I describe motherhood to a mom-to-be? Well, if you’re pregnant, I suppose I could save you a phone call. Let’s see. Nothing can prepare you for the first time you hold your new baby. You’ll feel immediately protective of this tiny, little person. You’ll also feel a tremendous weight of responsibility. You’ll look at your baby and at your husband with deepest love. Later, you’ll wonder when your husband found time for a lobotomy. Did he sneak next door while your legs were in the stirrups? You won’t know. Some days, he’ll be the man you married. Other days, he’ll feel like your arch nemesis. Some days, you’ll be the woman he married. Other days, he’ll wonder when you turned into your mother…so will you. (In case my mom is reading this article, that was a joke. I love you, Mom. You’re awesome!)

            During that first year, your sex life will be virtually nonexistent. The next year, your sex life will resemble a childhood game of red light, green light. You’ll measure every daily activity in units of lost sleep. You’ll measure the success of your day by whether or not you still have morning breath at lunch. Sometimes, lunch will consist of pieces of deli meat wrapped in cheese because putting those items between two pieces of bread takes too long. Your body will completely change. You’ll look longingly at the belts in your closet and wonder if you’ll ever wear them again. One day, you’ll get tired of seeing all those clothes you used to wear in smaller sizes. You’ll decide you won’t be bullied by pieces of fabric, so you’ll throw them in a big sack for Goodwill. You can just go shopping later as a treat when you lose your baby weight. R-i-g-h-t. Of course, your feet also increased a half size, so you’ll have to purge your shoes. All of them. Remember the cute pair of designer pumps you got half price at Nordstroms? Gone. You’ll cry a little because they were your favorite pair.

            You’ll navigate the world in a sleepy fog. Some days, you’ll have trouble remembering your own name. You used to be early for appointments. Now, you’re consistently late. Leaving the house to buy groceries for the week now becomes a herculean task because you feel like you’re hitting the Oregon Trail. Two oxen and a covered wagon please. You’ll wonder why no one told you how much work this would be. Being a mom truly is the toughest job you’ll ever have. Then, your baby will laugh for the first time, and that laugh will be the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard. You’ll blink. Your baby will be sitting in a high chair with icing from his first birthday cake all over his face. Has it been a year already? You’ll think about your life and how it’s now a Charles Dickens novel. Being a parent truly is the best of times and the worst of times…

 But, it’s all worth it.

 What category of parent am I? It’s an easy guess.

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