“Have you ever felt like being a mother has ruined you? Has brought out the absolute worst–from being a sensitive, emotional mess that will snap at the slightest challenging remark or unexpected turn in the day to making you seethe with anger and frustration all too often?
I feel like I used to be so good, so on top of everything, so “proficient.”
And here I am, on the eve of my son’s first birthday, and I feel like I have suffered a long, tragic, and painful defeat. I only have one child; it has only been one year. I thought I was ready, that I was going to make a great mom, and look where I sit.”
This is a snippet of an email I got from a sweet young mama in need of encouragement. Reading her words brought tears to my eyes because I HAVE BEEN THERE. I have been exactly there. It brought back a wave of pain just remembering my son’s first year and how defeated and exhausted I was. Drowning is probably the best word for it. I was drowning. Gasping for air.
I don’t think this reader and I are the only ones to have experienced the brutal reality of motherhood in this way. So I’m sharing my response here in hopes it can encourage others.
Have I ever felt like being a mother has ruined me? Brought out my absolute worst? Of course. All the time.
I thought I was a patient, laid-back but on-top-of it kinda gal. I didn’t have a short fuse. I didn’t get easily flustered. I was rocking out life. I was good at everything. Then motherhood broke me. Or rather, it was a huge inescapable mirror that showed me who I really was. And I didn’t like what I saw.
I had a friend tell me once what an empowering experience becoming a mother had been for her. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I’ve found the thing I’m really good at. I’ve never been good at school, or sports, or anything like that. And then I had my baby and I discover that I’m really, really good at being his mom.”
I’m sure my friend isn’t alone in her experience. But mine was very different. I had always been good at stuff. When I was growing up ballet was my thing and I was just good at it. I didn’t have the ballerina body, but I was intuitive. I trained hard but dancing came easy. I got the starring roles I wanted. If I tried, I got what I wanted.
School was a breeze. There was that one time that I got a B+….the rest were A’s. Sure, I studied but I never struggled. I was offered a full scholarship to a private university and graduated with honors. I got a great job right out of school. Then when I applied to one grad program (just one?! What was I thinking?) I was accepted and offered a stipend. If I wanted to succeed at something, I did. I just did.
When I got pregnant it was my first taste of what it feels like to be out of control. Hard work and talent had no effect on the nine months of unbearable morning sickness. I would drag myself to the office, vomit into my trash can all day, and crawl into bed as soon as I got home. Willpower couldn’t fix the situation.
“But when I get through this physical suffering, when I get to the mothering part, it will be better,” I told myself. “I’m going to be the best mom. How hard can it be?”
Enter my precious, perfect baby boy. After my 48 hour labor, I had never been felt so empowered. I had just brought a new life into the world! Any accomplishment that preceded that seemed trivial. Despite my exhaustion, I stayed up all night just staring at him. He was the most beautiful, wondrous sight I had ever seen. And my heart broke with love for him.
I expected that night to be the start to regaining control over my life, but it was really the beginning of my unraveling. I would break down at 3am after spending all night desperately trying to get my baby to sleep. The tears would fall on his perfect little cheeks as I rocked him in my arms wondering why I was so terrible at this new role. I had read the books! I had followed the rules! Nothing worked, so I assumed it was me that was broken.
Breastfeeding was a nightmare. Wasn’t it supposed to be intuitive? Why was I so bad at it? I gave up after 4 months and switched to formula trying to ignore the guilt I felt every time I mixed a bottle.
I was an emotional basket case and would have pushed my husband away if I hadn’t been holding on to him for dear life just trying to survive each day. But it was more than the physical and emotional upheaval that was breaking me. It was the realization that the love I had for my son was forcing me out of myself for the first time.
I actually cared about someone more than I cared about myself! And the transition from self-absorption to self-giving hurt.
Motherhood is a refining fire. It is sanctifying love, like marriage. It doesn’t smooth things over, it brings sin to the surface. And that process is unforgiving. Everything we’ve been able to keep under wraps, under control escapes and reveals itself. Like a flashlight on the dark places in our souls.
Each night’s sleep lost for love of a child, each puddle of vomit to be cleaned up, each nursing session with cracked and bleeding nipples, each bottle scrubbed, each tray washed, each onesie laundered, each diaper changed chips away at our former selves. But what’s underneath is something better and more beautiful. That painful love washed away every facade I clinged to and revealed a truer me. But the process is brutal.
The hardest thing I’ve ever done? Yes. A thousand times yes. Worth it? Many times over. What my kids bring to my life and how they have changed me is like seeing in color after living my whole life in black and white. Trust me. I wouldn’t have had two more after my first. I wouldn’t hope for many others if they weren’t the absolute best thing to have ever happened to me.
I want you to know that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one drowning. While some women may just take to motherhood like a duck to water, I think there’s plenty of us who struggle. And I think if we’ve experienced success in other areas of our lives it makes the transition harder, not easier.
We’re not used to struggling. And we’re certainly not used to the thanklessness of it all. Succeed in school? Get an awesome grade and praise from professors. Succeed at work? Get fantastic performance reviews and feedback from your boss or clients. But there’s no awards for surviving one more day of motherhood. So here we are, formerly successful ladies, drowning for the first time in our lives and there’s no award at the end of the day.
But here’s some reasons to give yourself some grace. You haven’t slept in a year. Let me repeat that: YOU HAVEN’T SLEPT IN A YEAR. Sleep deprivation is real. Sleep deprivation is a method of torture. Don’t be disappointed in yourself for falling apart in physical circumstances that would break any human being.
You’re also dealing with some crazy postpartum hormones. And if you still don’t feel like yourself, don’t hesitate to ask your midwife or doctor about postpartum depression. Caring for an infant is hard enough, as it is! If you have any inkling that you could be experiencing more than just run-of-the-mill new mom exhaustion, seek help. You are not alone.
You have to give yourself a break. Pick a time each week to go somewhere alone, even if it’s just for an hour. Grab a coffee. Read a novel. Give your brain a chance to relax from being on mommy alert. Having that time scheduled without fail makes it easier to survive the rest week because you know that you will get a chance to come up for air. Needing a break doesn’t mean you’re weak or you don’t love your baby. It just means you’re made of flesh and blood. Give yourself that.
And when motherhood feels like the hardest thing you’ve ever done, remember that’s because this is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
Don’t let your imagination run wild and get ahead of yourself. Stop the “I only have one kid and I’m drowning….what will things be like when we have two…three….four…. Will we homeschool? Will I be a full-time SAHM forever?” Just stop. One day at a time.
While having a new baby is always a transition, after your first child, a new baby doesn’t bring a complete identity overhaul in tow. You may become a mother for a second time….but you never have to become a mother for the first time again.
Here you are. A mother. And like anything worth learning how to do, you’ll get better at motherhood as you go. I promise. That first baby and that first year will likely be the hardest year of your life. So give yourself some grace. Throw that first birthday party not just in celebration for your baby’s sweet life, but because YOU SURVIVED the first 12 months as a mom.
And one last thing. Allow yourself to think outside of the ideal motherhood box you’ve created for yourself. God made you. He made YOU. He didn’t make the cookie cutter perfect mother who lives in your head. He made you. And He made you with all the gifts and talents and personality you have to share with the world.
It is ok if your motherhood looks different than you expected. God can handle that. He made you. Give yourself room to explore how to make YOUR family thrive. Maybe you thought you’d love staying home but now are itching to take on some work outside the home. That’s ok! Maybe you thought you’d love homeschooling but now you’re reconsidering. Reconsider! You get to change your mind because it’s your family. It’s your life. Explore that. Sometimes you may realize you want to make a change. Or you may realize that actually, you’re exactly where you want to be and then you can own it.
Have I ever felt like motherhood ruined me? Yup. But I needed it. I needed to be broken and remade. I think we all do. And if it’s not motherhood, there’s something in life that will break down our charade of control and proficiency. There will be some kind of pain that can teach us how to love if we let it. But for someone as selfish as I am, God is using motherhood because He knows that the only chance for me is the pull of that overwhelming love I have for my kids. That love so good it hurts. That love that makes their laughter golden. That love that hits me in the gut when I’m least expecting it.
It takes a few hours of pain to birth a baby. Becoming a mother takes longer and it’s more painful. But your baby is turning one. You made it, mama. You’ve been broken and now you can be remade. Now you can do anything.