I don’t regret finally coming home to be the primary caretaker for our children, who are four, two, and 10 months. But sometimes being with them does make me angry. At least once every day, without fail, all three scream at me simultaneously while I can’t attend to them momentarily because I need to handle something else, like muffins burning in the oven or changing a tomato-covered shirt. Or, like now, they’re hooting up their bedroom at 10 o’clock although I’ve been in there threatening them four times already. The very first time, I took away their nightlight after I found them in the bathroom, “going potty” and smearing liquid soap all over the mirror. It’s taken me no less than a half hour to write these 150 words.
In such moments, however, I never find myself wishing I were back at the office, wearing clean clothes and working for more than three minutes without interruption. Truly. And I’m more surprised than anyone to find this my new reality. I do wish the kids would shut up already, but not to be away from them, doing something more important. I did not expect that. Nor did I expect to feel, when complaining about their aggravating and never-ending antics, simultaneously that I adore them.
I never knew motherhood would feel this way. I grew up in a conservative home, where family, mothers, and children were held in high regard and sacrifice for my sake was my parents’ habit. For whatever reason, it didn’t take. It’s probably most fair to blame me. Even with all the safeguards my parents put in place to help me understand what is true, for a long time I believed lots of lies about my own femininity and its consequences. For one, I imbibed the idea that stuff is more important than people, so a career is the way to prove your worth to society, which pretty much immediately casts the female capacity to bear and nurture children in a bad light. So I thought kids were a pestilence and definitely wanted none. Then, when my then-fiancé made it clear he wanted kids in his future, because I was utterly obsessed with him I grudgingly agreed to have “at least one. I guess maybe two, if I have to.” Like it was my onerous wifely duty. (Funny how we’ve reversed the Victorian stereotype of sex as the wifely duty and kids as the woman’s delight.)
Motherhood Ruined My World to Remake It
And then our first child came about five years early, according to my timetable; in fact, we now have three kids about by when I’d planned to have one. I almost cannot put into words how deeply upsetting that was. It was so upsetting I stopped writing in my journal—a practice I’d carried out regularly since age 13—because I didn’t want anyone to ever know what was going on inside my head in those days.
It seems silly now to care so very much about me, me, me, so much that I hated my own child, but to be wrenched from that position was devastating. Socrates was right: Leaving your spiritual cave for the sunlit lands is no picnic. I used to go into the stairwell at work and climb up or down five flights of stairs whenever I had the overwhelming urge to sob, which was typically several times a day almost the entirety of my first pregnancy. My husband is going to learn that from reading this. I never told him, because I felt so alone. This baby was dashing my whole world. What are we going to do with this kid? How are we going to pay off our student loans if I can’t work? Why, oh why, did this child have to come at the worst possible time?
I knew my child was a human; even if I hadn’t been a pro-life leader as a teen, I had an early ultrasound when he was about six weeks old because of a medical concern, and there he was. The size of a grape, and the shape of a tiny person, with a heartbeat I saw on the monitor. I wished abortion were an option, but it just wasn’t. Knowingly killing my child would only make everything far worse. So I cried for nine-and-a-half months, and then I gave birth to my firstborn son.
We named him Ransom. It’s a weird name, I know. I’m not keen on weird names, or weird name spellings (with no offense meant to people who feel differently). But his name is deeply meaningful to me. Even as I was sobbing my heart out all those months, I knew I was a selfish idiot. The teachings of my family and faith had come back to me in those days, and held my hand. In moments of anguish, inside of me there was a rock the emotional waves couldn’t shake. I knew my tears were wrong, that this child was a gift, that no two-bit office-bound career of any level is worth even just wishing to take the life of another human being. I didn’t feel that way, but I knew it was true nonetheless. I even bitterly berated myself, as I cried, for being so selfish as to want a sterile office and a sterile womb merely because I knew it was so comfortable compared to being here, now, with these children.
Challenge Makes Life Worth Living
I was sure right about that. I have been in many high-pressure, high-performance situations, and not one can compare to what it takes to be a mother constantly present with my children. You try keeping an even temper without having a good night’s sleep for five years. Then civilize a little pack of barbarians while you’re at it, without using a bullwhip. Those babies, they keep you awake for ten months straight and expect you to keep smiling and feeding and cleaning and entertaining them, which according to the Geneva Convention qualifies as torture. Not even the North Koreans ask their prisoners to physically carry their torturers 24/7.
But—and maybe this is just Stockholm Syndrome—I still like it. No, I enjoy it. I have never been asked to do all the myriad things I suddenly must do extremely well, like gauge toddler emotions within a half-second of losing their minds, and understand precisely which discipline technique is appropriate given the complex cocktail of said toddler emotions combined with basic biology such as “they’re crazy because they need a snack, but they won’t eat because they’re crazy, so I have to do something genius in about two seconds or I won’t regain control of this situation for 20 minutes. Is it a silly joke, placing food directly in the kid’s mouth, or a calm command?” It’s an applied psychology course from hell.
But, you know, back when I was a good student, I loved the killer classes, the ones where I knew I was ruining my chance at a 4.0 but I couldn’t help myself, because, dammit, I was here to learn, not play beer pong. These kind of experiences, like p-chem for pre-med majors, winnow the wanna-bes from the queen bees. In my life, they’re winnowing the mother from the woman.
And I like who that woman in my future looks like. She’s not here, but she’s starting to take shape. That competent, yet relaxed woman, who is really comfortable in her skin because about six people are always touching it. Who knows a ridiculous amount about how humans understand language, because she had to take a crash course when her kids started to read. Luckily, having kids young means she’s got enough energy to keep up with them and her body recovers easier from pregnancy. She has this network of rich community relationships, because her kids force her to get out of the house into places you can’t help but meet other interesting people, and they make for lots of small talk to help ease a relationship into big talk. And she and her husband became this deeply knitted team with years of shared experiences and the inside jokes that come with it because they had this hugely complex and enormously lengthy project to work on together that no one but them, together, could pull off.
I have never seen myself as a marathon runner. But after experiencing such huge turnaround in my mental life, who knows. So I can compare motherhood to a marathon: exhausting, but fun; a huge series of risks accompanied by an even bigger series of intrinsic rewards. Who I was five years ago would never have believed me now saying that. But it’s true.