My mother took the photo above — our first picture as a family of three. We were returning from Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago after I’d delivered my daughter via c-section three days prior. After being discharged, I’d had to walk multiple long hospital corridors in order to get down to the car, white-knuckling it as I’d pushed myself to keep up with the nurse, who — it seemed to me — was walking at a manic speed. The climb into the car and every subsequent divot in the road on the way home jostled me and shot off new rivulets of pain. Beyond the incision woes, I was exhausted from nearly 72 hours without sleep, emotionally overwhelmed by the birth experience and the indecencies of recovery, having trouble breastfeeding my daughter, and knocked sideways by the medication, which left me feeling as though my head was disconnected from my body. I was also weepily tender about my daughter — her blinking eyes, the noises she made, the fact that she was mine. Her presence was a reality that felt nearly incomprehensible to me. I wanted to hold her around the clock. I could not take my eyes from her. I was living on the moon. Meanwhile, love swallowed me each time I watched my husband tend to both my daughter and myself. I was humbled by his devotion, rent in two when I’d look over at my daughter’s tiny form against his chest. At the same time, I was beleaguered by something a close friend had said to me the day before my daughter was born: “It will never be the same. Soak up this last night, just you and your husband.” I think she meant something positive or perhaps was trying to “give it to me straight,” but the words kept ricocheting through my head, forcing me to think in terms of the befores and afters and all the changes to my life. I did not want to say it aloud — could scarcely pony up the courage to say it to myself — as I worried it made me seem unmotherly, or ungrateful, but I inwardly wondered whether life would ever “go back to normal”? Would I ever feel better? Would I ever find stasis or calm? Would my husband look at me the same way? I wanted to be positive, but I felt like I couldn’t get my bearings: shiny, new, enormous thoughts raced through my mind as though on a freeway joyride.
So when my mother opened the back door to our home to take the photo above, I distinctly remember blinking back tears whose provenance was difficult to make out.
Of course, when you look at this photo, you see a squinting smile and the start of something new and beautiful. Which it was.
I guess I am writing this to say that the euphoria of new parenthood is only a part of the story, not all of it. I had been so focused on the unknowns of delivery that I had not even remotely accommodated the emotional aftermath. A few minutes after my mother took this photo, I would attempt to climb the stairs to my bedroom and stop halfway through, clutching Mr. Magpie’s shirt in sobs. I remember that the stairs were painful, but that the challenging ascent was more an excuse to let the tears flow than anything else, and I needed that catharsis. I wept so many times during those first few weeks of motherhood. I wept to my mother, alone in the shower, on the phone with friends, in Mr. Magpie’s arms. I wept for no reason and every reason. I wept without knowing why. A friend stopped by a week after my daughter was born, and she asked about the birth experience, and I opened my mouth and no words came. Instead, tears streamed down my face. I was embarrassed and confused by the enormity of my emotions, and apologized. She reached over and squeezed my arm. “Let it out, girl. Let it out. Hormones, medication, the intensity of the experience — it’s a perfect storm.” When my son was born about two years later, my mother came into the recovery room, her hands outstretched. I watched her make a beeline for the baby, who was ensconced in my husband’s arms, and then stop mid-stride and shake her head before pivoting to come to me. “I have to check on my baby first,” she said. I will never forget the wisdom baked into that course correction. As a new mom, it can sometimes feel as though you are meant to sideline all of the emotional and physical chaos you are enduring in order to fawn happily over the baby. But the mother matters. The mother is half — arguably more — of the equation. And becoming a parent is a lot.
I write this not to be morose or discouraging, because not all tears bespeak grief or pain, and every birth experience is different,
and I write this careful not to tarnish in any way the unfathomable, gorgeous gift of having a baby,
and I write this at the risk of sounding ungrateful and possibly unmotherly (I hope not, I hope not, I hope not),
because if there is anything I wish for a new mom, it is the space and freedom to permit herself to feel how she feels, and fully.
Motherhood is a surfeit. It is too-much, too-fast, and I can’t say that feeling of over-the-top-ness ever goes away. Yes, you get into rhythms and find your sea-legs, but the emotions of parenthood remain outsized, surging, wont to spill over. I wish I had known that. I wish I had given myself the grace during those early days; I have needed it constantly since. Earlier this week, I learned that my daughter, who has an eye condition called amblyopia that requires her to wear a patch over one eye for several hours a day, would need to return to her patching regimen after a brief break during which we were trying to assess whether we had permanently corrected the condition. My daughter took this information on the chin, nodding solemnly at the doctor, then asking after a picture hanging on the wall, then happily selecting a superhero sticker for her dress. We discussed a plan — routine, rewards — in the car ride home, and she trotted off to her room afterwards, seemingly unfettered by the regression. When she was out of earshot, I closed the door to my husband’s office and cried on his shoulder. The next morning, after I’d affixed her patch for the first time in several months, I squeezed her and then absented myself to the back patio, where I grounded myself by staring at the dew on the kiwi vines that wrap around our patio railing, and praying that Mary stand with me there. Her condition is correctible and in the grand scheme of things not a big deal. We have done this for years. And yet I carry this modest burden as though lead because I do not want anything to weigh her down. Like Demeter, I would walk to the ends of the earth, live in tundra and stone, for her. I cried, in other words, because I am her mother, and what happens to her echoes in me.
+Another intense and beautiful memory from my daughter’s birth.
+On the way in which our children become the new centers of gravity in our lives.
+Some of the wild emotions of motherhood.
+My daughter cheerleading me on.
+I am obsessed with this under-$100 pattern, which comes in two chic dress shapes: option 1, and option 2.
+Ordering these for our outdoor dining chairs.
+This white dress is spectacular for a bride-to-be…or a big anniversary!
+Fun heart bezel necklace.
+Love this punchy tunic.
+Cute personalized sleepshirt.
+This feels like an approachable way to get in on the knit dress trend.
+These adorable terrycloth shorts for littles are under $10 (orig $32!)
+Gorgeous embroidered skirt.
+Love this popover dress in the navy.
+This $30 sweatshirt reminds me of the styles from Sporty and Rich.
+Loving this new lilac print from Rhode.
+Some really cute mommy and me matching or coordinating options here — great for family photos.
+Another inexpensive pair of running shorts getting some good buzz.
+Hunter Bell always has such great, fashion-forward pieces with the best details.
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28 thoughts on “Motherhood Is a Surfeit.”
This post is such a gift. I bookmarked it and added it to my “parenthood wisdom” note in my phone when you wrote it a few months back and pulled it up this morning – my first morning at home from the hospital with my newborn – and it prompted a flow of emotions and tears that I desperately needed. You have put words to this experience that validated my current reality and all of the feelings swirling within. Motherhood is indeed a surfeit, too much and too fast, and this post offered me tears, a catharsis, and a reset. Thanks, Jen.
Oh Joanna! So many of us are right there with you during these tentative, intense, too-fast and too-long, tender early days. You got this — give yourself space to feel it all! I’m so glad this post resonated; thanks for letting me know. Congratulations on your new little one, and on stewarding him/her into the world!!
This is such a beautiful post, my friend! I love reading your motherhood posts because I haven’t followed a traditional path, and your writing helps me build more empathy for my sisters-in-law and friends (really, all folks who birth) who have gone through the process of matrescence. I myself have never (and likely will never) given birth but I’ve helped to raise my stepkids from pre-school onwards, and I can relate so much to what you have written about motherhood. Your open-heartedness is so striking and refreshing, and I’m so grateful that you have shared your gift of eloquence and insight on this topic (and others) with us!
Thank you so much, MK! I really appreciate the generous words here and am happy this post resonated with you. xx
Gosh, I feel every bit of this to my bones about my first birth. Thank you for putting what many moms must feel to paper — it was healing just to read it.
I’m so deeply glad it resonated with so many moms — thanks for writing in, Kate. xx
I went to comment “yes yes and yes” and realized someone had already commented that. Goes to show how universal this post is for so many new moms. You just put perfectly the words to all the feelings/tears/emotions I was experiencing after the birth of my son last year. Thank you for sharing and thank you for being you! The most wonderful mother.
Thank you so much, Kate – you are too kind, and I so appreciate the solidarity! So many moms chiming in to say they felt the same way. Reassuring!
That photo is beautiful, how lovely of your mother to take it! As you predicted I saw nothing but happiness in it; of course the first few days of parenthood is so much happiness and so, so much more.
I remember sobbing when my daughter was a few weeks old to my husband about how we had had such a nice life and we had ruined that. Then crying more because I felt so guilty. I cried so much!
Motherhood IS a surfeit; good way of wording it. I think without a little restraint I could very easily become a bulldozer parent. I’ll accept difficulty for myself (not always graciously, see above) but I feel it’s incumbent upon me to remove it for my daughter. Your story about the eye patch and your hidden response really resonated.
Hi Hayley! Sounds like we are kindred spirits in so much when it comes to motherhood. I can totally (!!!) relate to the experience of crying over the change in lifestyle, then crying because I feel guilty, then crying because…because…because…! I’ve been through many a crying sessions!
Ooof, so many emotions reading this (and the comments) as I stand on the precipice of giving birth to my first. I’m typically a fairly stoic, rational person, but these last few weeks of pregnancy have spun up new emotions and anticipation in ways I never thought possible. Will continue to look towards your wisdom & the shared experiences of your readers/commenters in the impending early newborn haze!
Erica — you got this!! We are cheerleading you on. It is intense, emotional, happy, beautiful, exhausting — all the things! — and I think being aware that there will be a LOT happening and giving yourself advanced notice that you are committing to giving yourself grace to feel those things and move through them as you need to could be helpful. You will do great. Sending you THE BEST VIBES, lots of hugs, and a squeeze on the hand (a la my mom, who did this a lot when I was emotional)!!!
Means the world! <3
Yes, yes, yes. Regarding your friend’s comment and the weight of those words the night before your delivery, it isn’t necessarily that you wish you could go back to the “before times,” but that the intensity of such a huge change — a change you truly can’t take back — is overwhelming. Is there any other decision in life that has a lifetime impact, really? I remember weeping to my mom about how my baby was “mine, forever” — a joy, to be sure, and also a huge responsibility. It still blows my mind sometimes. ❤️ (I also wept to my mom in those early weeks because “I didn’t know how to play with a newborn.” In retrospect, this is silly, but I think it’s just all that weight of responsibility. Tears help relieve it!)
Oh man, I so remember those new mom nerves and question marks and missteps that often ended in tears. I once called my mom hysterical because I had been rushing around to give mini a bath and accidentally bumped her head on the wall. I knew she was fine, but I remember saying “she’s never cried out of pain before and I just caused it” between loud sobs. I totally lost it! It is so intense and so overwhelming!!
I read this at the perfect time for me with a 16 week old second baby and LOTS of feelings. Thank you for your beautiful, eloquent words.
I’m so glad, Haylee — sending you love!
Beyond beautiful, incredibly moving as always. As a soon-to-be mother of two whose emotions and sciatic back pain are raging, I resonate with this so, so deeply. I, too, am so fortunate to have a mother who still looks after (Well, “looks after” is an understatement”) me.. and I can’t wait to share this post with her as I know it will resonate with her as well. xxx
Mallory! I’m so glad this resonated. Hang in there, mama! I know the final trimester is long and trying, especially with another one to care for! You got this. Let yourself feel all the feels! As Rilke put it, “no feeling is final.” And it is a lot!
Your writing is so poignant regarding motherhood. I too was told “things will never be the same” and looking back that is not a bad thing because I had 5 years with my husband before we had children and after children we embraced a new family lifestyle I loved and enjoyed. That’s life!
But the BEST part was your mother stating “I have to check on my baby first,” How endearing! I absolutely died reading that. Exactly what any new mother would love to hear. Thank your mother for such a loving memory.
Thank you so much, Cynthia. I know – I think about my mom saying that all the time. It was just what I needed to hear – I felt so loved and cared-after. I was reminded that I was a human, living this experience!
I agree with you re: the changes of starting a family. I was married seven years before mini came along, and I loved our time together, adventuring, exploring, trying new things, staying up late, traveling, trying new cities. I feel like we lived it up together. Having children changed things, and I love what we have now, too.
This is such a profound and exact narrative of becoming a mother and being a mother in the young years. I state the following as one of the things in life I have found genuinely surprising (call me naive). When my children were young I believed that the overwhelming emotions I navigated, tethered tightly to theirs, would not hijack me as strongly the older they became. What I have grappled with in recent years is that this is categorically false. This realization also leads me to respect my own mother even more (if that is even possible). I reflect often on all the times in the past and likely present that she must be sick with worry or sadness propelled by something one of her six children is/was experiencing. It is the most inextricable love there is.
I’m so glad this resonated, Allison. I have been moved by a number of moms messaging me and emailing me to say that this post made them feel less alone, that no one ever talks about the hard and emotional recovery of having a baby. So much change!
Thank you also for the reminder about what’s to come. You are so right.
Jen, I always appreciate so much when you share about your children and being a mother. Although we are in very different life stages, so many of your writings resonate deeply with me. I remember wondering the same thing, when will life go back “to normal?” not realizing that the answer is never. I read a statement once that said becoming a parent is like wearing your heart outside of your body for the rest of your life and it is so true! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences and daring to be vulnerable and honest.
Hi Sandy – So true. Life never returns to “normal!” There is a new normal. It’s OK to think fondly on and miss the previous days, the way things were. But there is a whole, full, happy future ahead, too. Such a powerful mix of emotions in all directions!
Thanks for writing in to let me know this resonated for you. Touching that this still rings true even when your children are much older!
This is so well articulated, Jen! You’re giving us all space to feel whatever we feel or whatever we felt as (new) Moms, without guilt.
Thank you for that.
Our friends are right- nothing will ever be the same. And though it is often said with tenderness and in a spirit of honesty, the not-the-same is unique to each of us. Especially, I think, our inner lives.
Thanks for sharing. ❤️
So true, Rebecca — “especially our inner lives” (!). Wow. I agree. Everything changed!