Last week, I signed up to run a 15K—a move that has shocked and mystified nearly everyone who knows me. You see, I’m not much of a runner these days. For a brief period pre-kids, I ran semi-regularly and could eke out three miles before feeling like I was going to die, but that phase is pretty far back in the rearview mirror now.
Why have I committed to running nine-plus miles next January? Well, you should know that the race is in Maui, which automatically sweetens the deal. I’m running it with a friend as part of a mutual commitment to a better level of fitness as we enter our mid-30s, and also as a chance to watch ourselves achieve a goal that seems impossible at the outset. With six months to go until race day, the training has begun in earnest. And friends, it’s kind of awful.
For me, the first five minutes of a run are the worst part. Okay, to be fair, the initial 30 seconds aren’t so bad. The breeze teases my hair; my heartbeat starts to quicken. I feel strong and powerful.
Then it starts to hurt. Just a bit at first—a stitch in my side or a twinge in my knee. I slow my pace; maybe I just came out of the gate too fast, right? I glance to my left and recognize those tulip beds; they belong to my neighbor three doors down.
I have only traveled 500 feet, and my entire body is already waging a protest.
The next four minutes and 30 seconds are sheer agony. I clench my teeth as my lungs start to burn, and cast a glance around to see if I’m alone. Would any of my neighbors judge me if I quit and turn back to the house?
Sheer willpower carries me forward as the perspiration dampens my shirt. My body is screaming but my mind is too stubborn—it tells the pain to shut the hell up; we’re running here.
Slowly, my determination grows stronger. I’m not going to lie to you and call it a “runner’s high;” it’s much less glamorous than that. But my body resigns itself to the task. My mind begins to think around the pain. I persist. I survive.
Somewhere around minute five, I hit my groove. It doesn’t really become easy, but it doesn’t feel impossible anymore, either. I stop looking for a reason to quit and start noticing the sunrise peeking over the treetops, the stillness of the air, and the silence of a world just starting to wake up. Where there was once only room for pain, space is made for strength and beauty and persistence.
In minute five, I become a runner.
If motherhood is a marathon, the beginning is the equivalent of the first five minutes of running.
It’s the worst.
It begins innocently enough. They lay your sweet babe in your arms for the first time, and it’s euphoric. The pain and exhaustion are held at bay, and you realize this moment is what you’ve been working toward for so long. You count tiny fingers and tiny toes and stroke eyelashes finer than silk. It’s nothing short of magical.
Then they make you walk to the bathroom for the first time, and it feels like your entire body has been set on fire. Your back stiffens in protest, but you grit your teeth and shuffle slowly toward your destination. Things do not improve once you get there.
Nobody warned you about this. You see women mothering all the time; some of your closest friends are experienced, seasoned mothers. No one said anything about how much it hurts.
After a day or two, you are sent home from the hospital. Now it’s up to you to keep your baby alive, without 24/7 medical supervision. You read a few books and did some babysitting back in high school, but it didn’t prepare you for this. Your daughter refuses to close her eyes a single time that whole first night home. Instead she nurses, for hours, while you Google things with your left hand like, “world record for longest nursing session,” and “can a nipple actually fall off?” You are still awake when the sun blazes over the eastern horizon; your bloodshot eyes burn in solidarity.
Finally, the baby drifts off at last. Your whole body goes limp with relief, and you are just about to close your eyes when suddenly, your three-year-old bursts into the room.
“I need a muffin, mama,” he proclaims. With a groan you drag yourself out of bed and wonder briefly, can I quit motherhood?
Everyone loves a cuddly newborn, but no one seems to acknowledge how damn hard it is. Sleep—especially sleep logged in consecutive hours—is elusive. Your mind grows thick and heavy with exhaustion; you lose track of when you last ate, slept, changed your clothes.
Your head throbs. Your neck and shoulders ache from carrying seven pounds in the crook of your arm everywhere you go. Life feels fuzzy around the edges, and despite the love you feel for your child, you miss the clarity of the life you used to have.
One day, you look at a calendar and realize it’s been exactly three weeks since giving birth. There are still 17 years and 49 weeks to go until adulthood. You want to cry. This is so much harder and slower than it looks like when everyone else is doing it.
It’s sheer willpower that carries you forward. Your entire body is screaming in protest but your heart is too stubborn. It may be mind over body in running, but in motherhood the heart rules them both.
It’s your heart that keeps you pacing the floor, bouncing and shushing, as the clock progresses to 2, then 3, then 4 a.m. Your love is what drives you to call lactation consultants and specialists and sit in a pediatrician’s office, tears coursing down your cheeks, to explain that something is not quite right and you’re not leaving until they help you fix it.
A mother’s love is a powerful force. It is brave, bold and unwavering. But perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to keep us moving forward when every other part of us is demanding that we quit, and that’s especially true in the beginning.
It gets better, too. Not all at once or at a specific milestone, but gradually, something shifts. Your body stops resisting so much and settles into a rhythm. The sleep deprivation ebbs a bit, and your mind finds the space to think around the pain. It’s not really any easier (spoiler alert: it will never be easy), but it no longer takes your full and undivided focus to simply keep placing one foot in front of the other. There’s room for more: smiles and giggles after bath; snuggles with big brother on the couch in the morning; maybe even a kid-free lunch date.
As your stride becomes more confident and your breathing evens, you can feel it: you’re a mother.
You just have to make it past the first five minutes.
Photo by N'tima Preusser.
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