This piece was originally posted on my friend Fiona Lynne's blog. It was long in coming, painful; frustratingly difficult to remember and to share. But it's my favourite story from this year and I'm so thankful to Fiona for allowing (forcing) me to write it.
There was no switch, no lightbulb. A waning shift in posture, imperceptible to the naked eye.
We grow into it, don’t we? The nine months we wait, our hands cradling, rubbing the genie bottle of our womb. We make a wish a thousand times over. For fingers and toes, for health and happiness. For safety and sleep-filled nights. And for grace. Oh God, we pray, give me grace. Grace and strength and the wisdom to not mess this up.
“When I get home, let’s get on the baby-making train,” I tell him from a payphone in Temple Bar. I am in Ireland and in love and I am silly to think I am ready. We’ve been married three years now and our friends are having children. Irish babies smile at me with round, ruddy cheeks. “Okay, okay,” he laughs at me, “Let’s go for it.” I do not know it yet, but I am already a passenger on the baby train. I am five weeks gone and it will take a half-dozen pregnancy tests before I believe it.
I always pictured myself with children: four, to be exact. I could list off their names before they ever grew inside me. Scruffy Jackson would come first. Spritely Eleanor (nicknamed Ella) would quickly follow. Bold Asher would eventually make his appearance. And our brood would be complete with the free-spirited Daria.
I practiced their names in script, tried out middle names on the tip of my tongue. I imagined fully-formed existences for them: what they might study, which sport they might play, how their hair would be like mine but they would have the eyes of their father.
Oddly naïve as it sounds, it never occurred to me having children meant becoming a mother. I saw them as sidekicks, faces to fill picture frames, little bodies you’d drop off at school. Every change in life’s circumstances happened outside of me, but the change that floored me most happened within.
I sit motionless in a dining room chair. My robe is still on and my hair up in a towel several hours after my morning shower. I feel an emotional immobility, the impossible weight of motherhood threatening to drop like an anvil. Matt holds the baby behind me, calling my name, “Karen, Karen.” Soon, I feel nothing.
I didn’t think I’d survive motherhood. I thought having him irrevocably broke me. It’s entirely possible I was never put together in the first place. But bits of myself fragmented even more, through no fault of a 9 pound, 6 ounce baby boy. I was still a child myself; becoming a mother at twenty-four seemed to stunt whatever growth I was bound for. I felt mixed up and screwed up and unable to ascertain why I even wanted children in the first place. After all those years of planning what they would be like, I had forgotten to take into account who I would become.
Twelve months of post-partum depression slowly gave way to a subtle identity shift. As he grew sturdier, I grew healthier. He did become a little sidekick and I began to recognize parts of myself he seemed to draw out of dormancy. In the art of mothering, in the addition of each child, and in the act of losing one, I gradually came to an understanding with myself.
Jack jumps on the bouncy castle in the garden of our new next-door neighbours. I can’t keep the names straight, or figure out which child belong with whom. Ella plays at my feet in the sandbox, eating sand straight from the shovel. My neighbour smiles at me, “Isn’t she gorgeous!” she says. A statement, not a question. “She takes after you.” I return her smile, a bit exhausted after an intercontinental move with a five- and one-year-old. But it’s true; her big brown eyes and dirty, sandy smirk reveal it. She takes after me.
The truth is: we are mothers before we know it. We are changed before a child ever enters the scene. It’s the already, not yet; an evolution always talking place. Motherhood was and is and is to come.
Unfortunately, motherhood did not alter my DNA. Though it initially affected my brain chemistry, the old Karen wasn’t replaced with a new one. I didn’t instantly become nurturing, cooking healthy finger food and running an impromptu crèche from my living room floor. The all-giving, all-sacrificing persona of a Holy Mother evaded me and the “calling of motherhood” confused and confounded me.
But I rest in this: becoming a mother is becoming a part of the whole of me. In the 11 years hence and with each new morning, the mercies – measured mostly in sloppy kisses and high fives – continue to rain down. And my wishes, though sometimes delayed, are granted. I am changed again and again.
I am becoming.
He walks closer to the herd of fallow deer, his feet crunching the reeds below. He calls to them, talks to them, unaware of their ambivalence towards human children. I am immobilized with awe, standing still under the sun so as not to miss a second of his adventure. Soon he will join big brother and sister in primary school and I don’t know when we’ll have another morning like this together. He is the last but in so many ways, he feels like the first. I call to him now, “Asher, Asher. Quieter or you’ll scare them.” He pays no heed and marches ever onward. And I follow in his wake.