The First is the Worst

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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The Other Momma in My Village

Childbirth has always been my biggest fear. For some reason, I knew what an episiotomy was in the fourth grade, and I now imagine myself sprawled on a metal table, out of options and forced to have one. This thought makes my body physically ache. I deal with the anxiety of my approaching birth and the heaviness of soon being responsible for another life through nonstop, frenetic Type-A planning.  

Preparation takes many forms during my pregnancy. I watch Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born so many times that my husband threatens to cancel our Netflix subscription. I pack, unpack, repack, and edit the packing of hospital bags more times than I’ll admit out loud (six). My smallest bag with labor “necessities” is stocked with essential oils, labor socks, a heating pad, a tennis ball for pressure points, snacks, and labor lollipops. (None of which I use, by the way.)  

At work, I have a full transition plan with key contact lists and timeline charts to make sure all projects are covered. The perfect daycare is selected long before my due date. There are cubbies with nametags and daily themes like crazy hair day and favorite sports team. My husband and I visit the infant room where several babies are stretched out for tummy time on colorful mats as they coo and smile at each other. In the next room, the one-year-olds sit contently around a table eating their lunches and babbling together.  

As the daycare tour comes to an end, I rest my hands on my small bump and look down at my son. He’s kicking inside and I decide it’s because he hears laughter from the kids playing with bubbles nearby. Standing in front of me is his future teacher, an older woman who has a sparkle in her eye and a clipboard in her hand. She has a no-nonsense demeanor but gushes every time a baby wakes up from a nap ready to be held. I can tell she’s a good snuggler.     

Tears well up in my eyes, and I think how silly it is to be crying on a tour before my baby has even been born. They’re probably wondering what kind of a scene I’ll make the first day I have to actually drop him off. Can they kick us out of the program even after accepting our deposit check?

The teacher senses the fragility of my emotions. She reaches out and gently pats my arm.    

“Honey, remember this, we’re all mommas ourselves. Every teacher here. We’re going to love that baby like he’s our own.”

***

Maternity leave has become a foggy memory. Every morning, I hand my son over to his other momma. His Monday to Friday Momma. And she’s incredible. I’m not jealous of her. But I’m … something.  

On paper, she is exactly what I want for my son. Her warm, welcoming presence each day feels calming and nurturing. She teaches him things I hadn’t thought to try and diagnoses a little red spot on his lip before I even think to Google Hand, Foot & Mouth. Some days, I even exhale a breath of relief as I hand my baby to her, knowing she will figure out a way to finally get him on a regular nap schedule or have a technique to limit the number of blowouts and outfit changes. 

She will gently suggest when it’s time to try solid food for the first time after my son inquisitively studies the other babies as they explore new tastes and textures on their trays. When I arrive on Monday morning, shoulders slumped in defeat as I admit to succumbing to a backsliding weekend of baby bottles and rice cereal, she’ll let out a cheerful “No problem! Solid foods just take some time!”

She’s perfect. I love his Monday to Friday Momma. He loves his Monday to Friday Momma.

Each workday ends with the same rhythm. “Send” is clicked on a few final emails and I walk briskly to my car. The traffic creeps along, and my heel taps eagerly to the beat of the music playing on the radio. I count the minutes until my commute is halfway over, marked by our daycare. The familiar feeling of Christmas-morning anticipation begins as I turn into the parking lot. But instead of a pink Barbie camper, I get a baby. My baby.

I peer in the glass door to his daycare room and watch my son’s tiny arms reach, longing to be picked up as his daycare teacher moves around the room busy with end-of-day tasks. His eyes lock with hers as he lets out a pleading whimper. She scoops him up into her arms, soothing him as he studies her face then rests his head against her shoulder. He looks up at her in a way that he has only looked at me, staring deeply into her eyes and earnestly studying her expression. They both smile at each other, a knowing grin.  

My eyes dart away, as if I’ve intruded on an intimate moment that was meant just for them. I take a deep breath and reach for the handle to open the door to the infant room, a cheerful smile plastered on my face.

“How was everyone’s day?” I chirp.

Hearing my voice, my son lifts his head and his eyes start dancing as he shimmies out of her arms to the floor and makes his way to my legs.

I pull him up and against my chest. He lifts his hand. Suddenly he moves it up and down, a smile spreading across his face as he looks around.  

“Oh my goodness!” I squeal. “You’re waving! That’s it!” I squeeze him and bounce up and down with giddiness.  

“I’ve been practicing with him for a while,” I ramble as I squeeze him. “I see other babies waving hi and bye, some even younger than him, but he hasn’t seemed interested in communication before.”

My eyes cut to the side, and I silently read her expression. This milestone is new just to me. She’s seen him doing it for a while now. Days, maybe even weeks.    

We turn to leave and I thank her for everything today as I open the door. I draw him close to my face, planting kisses on his cheeks and inhaling his scent to search for clues about how he spent his day.  

Unfazed, he gazes into the distance and starts wiggling excitedly in my arms as he sees cars driving around us in the parking lot. I strap him into his seat and stare out at the line of traffic building up in front of us. We wait our turn to pull out and merge into the sea of cars.  

Numbers start involuntarily streaming into my mind. 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. That’s nine and a half hours apart each day. Multiply each hour by 60 minutes. 570 minutes apart.  

Compare that to 45 minutes together in the morning while my husband and I are flying around the house yelling out logistical plans and 60ish minutes at night where we fit in a few minutes of playtime then dinner, bath, and bedtime. And that’s a good day. Not a day where one of us has an early morning meeting or an evening when bedtime gets moved up because naptimes were scarce.  

“I don’t know why you torture yourself counting the minutes like that,” my husband gently says. “You love what you do, he loves where he is. You’re making a difference—at work and at home. And that’s going to influence the man he becomes.”

He’s right.

I force myself to look past the scheduled minutes of today and tomorrow and the day after that.  

Preparation looks much different now. It’s gray and ambiguous, not a linear checklist of to-do’s. I once imagined that I would effortlessly jump back into work while my son embarked on a new journey with interactive learning. The thought of art projects and baby friends seemed like an idyllic childhood.   

It didn’t occur to me that I would watch him linger in his teacher’s arms even after I walk in the classroom door. Or that I would hear a new word at home that someone else had taught him. Feelings of gratitude and excitement swirl around inside, mixing with a sense of loss at my absence during these milestones.  

Through it all, I marvel at the specialness of having a school momma in my son’s life and our blended approach to parenting. There is someone else who loves him, cherishes him, and looks forward to seeing him each morning. Someone else who finds herself saying “I miss that baby!” when extended periods of time go by. It’s a little easier on my heart to trust the way he’s loved and cared for in my absence. They say raising a child takes a village, and I’m grateful to have this other momma in mine.


Guest post written by Amanda Brown. Amanda works full time in marketing and media. Nearly a decade ago, she married the love of her life and they now have one toddler son and two cats.  The Browns live in Raleigh, NC, where the sunshine and sweet tea are plentiful. You can connect with Amanda on Instagram

Photo by Abi Porter.


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When Love Takes Time

I sat in the back, watching the women from her church present my aunt with gift after gift, in celebration of the anticipated arrival of a little boy from across the world. She sat in front of a stone fireplace in a folding chair and opened a box with a framed needlepoint poem. Through tears, she read:  

You are not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously, my own.
Never forget, for a single minute,
You did not grow under my heart,
But in it.

I was 10 years old. A seed of love for a child I didn’t know planted itself, deep and firm, in the soil of my heart that day.

***

She was a thousand pieces of paper, accumulated slowly, piled up in messy stacks on my desk over the course of a year. Then, with one phone call, our fourth child had a name. Hours later, an email gave us her face. After three more months, we flew to China to meet her and bring her home.  

On a chilly Monday morning, she remained a dream, a pulsing in my veins, a knowing, a hope. By the afternoon though, as we sat in a small lobby with black leather chairs and a water cooler by the door, a little girl with a red and blue plaid coat walked in the room and became flesh. The idea of her, a reality. A theory, proven. Existing in the abstract, now tangible.

We were strangers one moment; family the next.

For the remaining 10 days in-country, our daughter preferred to be cared for by my husband, a possibility we were told to expect. What I didn’t expect was the rawness of my hope to be wanted by her and, despite knowing it would be unlikely, the absence of another secret hope: that we’d all fall instantly, helplessly in love.

We traveled with two other couples for the entire 15 days. On our last night in China, the other mom who had kids back home asked how long it would take to love our adopted children like we love our biological ones. I’d been thinking about the same thing earlier in the day and objectively suggested, “A year?”

The adoption literature varies, but we were told to expect our children to need at least three to four months to adjust for every year they spent without a forever family. There’s no making up for lost time. But there is gazing into eyes, wiping away tears, meeting physical and emotional needs consistently and consecutively in order for our children to know that they are safe and we are their parents. At three years old, if they need at least a year to attach to us, why can’t we give ourselves the same amount of time to attach to them?

We finished our dumplings, talked and laughed, lifted our glasses in toasts. All the while realizing that falling in love with a child you just met is easier said than done.

***

I don’t know where the mirror came from. (Was it there the whole time?) Maybe a nurse brought it out during the hours I curled on my side, leaving and returning to my body with the waves of pain as my daughter worked her way through me. From me. To me.

On my rear now, half sitting up with sweat pouring off my face, I see my daughter’s head. With another push, her shoulders. The midwife shifts her attention to my face. “Okay, pull her out.”

What? “Me?”

She, the nurses, everyone in the room looks so pleased. They are grateful, proud even, of a labor culminating with a mother birthing her own child.

“Yes! Pull out your baby.”

I fold over, grab my first child’s torso, feel her leave me as I hold her for the very first time. We were one; then suddenly two. My love immediate—and continuous.

***

After three months at home, I ask my husband, “Do you love Viv like you love our other kids?”

He doesn’t hesitate or feel bad. “Not yet.”

What’s been a weight on my heart for weeks is a simple breakdown of the facts: It’s unlikely we would emotionally love a child we’ve only known for a few months. It’s well documented in adoption circles that even though she’s ours forever, it can take time to love her the way we love our other children.

“But we will,” he continues. “It’ll come.”

I don’t want to say it out loud: I’m afraid it won't.

***

“Did you love all your kids right away?” I ask.  

I’m sitting on a patio under an umbrella holding the handle of a foamy cappuccino. Across from me is a woman from my church. She has grown children and I’m grateful for the opportunity to ask her heavy questions a couple of times a month. I anticipate her saying what I would say: Of course I did!

Instead, she thoughtfully says “No ...” And tells me about her first child, how she had an overwhelming desire to protect, provide, and care for her baby. But love? The kind of love where your heart melts and explodes and dances and drips?

No.

Then she told me about the moment—the moment she’s able to describe in detail even decades later, when her daughter’s smile sent a rush of emotion through her body and she thought, she knew, This. This is it. I love her!

As she spoke, it was as if she reached out her arms to help me put this heaviness I’d carried between my shoulders down on the ground, like a granite rock at our feet. Yes, mine is a story of adoption. But with her words, she taught me love can take time for biological mothers too. I felt lighter. Freer. And more than ever, reassured that it will happen.  

Sometimes love just takes time.

***

We sit in the upholstered red rocker and read one short book. I sing the same songs, say the same prayer. Then I hold her, rock in silence. And wait.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper, but she opens her almond eyes even wider, willing wakefulness (or at least the appearance of it) in an air of defiance. My frustration teeters on the edge of a very long day’s cliff, but my heart grabs it by the waist and pulls me back toward calm.

I kiss her eyebrow, right above those alert eyes, and quietly say “I love you” with a gentle smile.

With her next breath, her eyes close and she releases into sleep. We rock and I hold her longer than necessary.  

Instead of laying her down as I’d done for months—in expectant fear of her waking, in tired desperation to separate her needy body from my own without breaking the spell of sleep; while holding my breath, avoiding the creaks in the floor, anticipating a moment to exhale relief that another day is done—I lay her down slowly. Tenderly. I know I’ll breathe in the quiet air of restoration in a moment. In the calm of the evening I’ll gather pieces of myself up from the floor like toys being returned to their places before starting over again tomorrow.

Instead of leaving, I linger. I tuck. Gaze. Adore.

I kiss her cheek and whisper again, “I love you.”

I’ve said it to her every night since she became ours almost six months ago. But tonight, it’s different.

It feels like I mean it.  

A few weeks later, my husband and I had our first (and only) night away from the kids since the adoption. When I walked in the door the next day, Viv stood in the living room with a toy train in her hand. A blue bow held her jet black hair out of her face and her green dress with bold purple and turquoise flowers radiated against her tan skin. Her tiny frame turned to see me enter and her eyes disappeared with a dimpled smile welcoming us home.   

My heart fluttered with surprise and I caught my breath, because my first (and only) thought as I went to pick her up and give her a hug was I love her!

***

Maybe this is one of a mother’s greatest strengths: loving, making the effort of love, or anticipating love, even when a child isn’t loving you back. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a foster mom, or a step-mom? A mom of a teenager? And I wonder how many first time moms also feel like this.

Is it fear? Lack of confidence? Unfamiliarity?

Maybe.

But even in the most perfect of circumstances, love doesn’t seem like something you can have just because you want it. It’s not an emotion that can be forced or willed into being.  

In my head, I knew I wouldn’t initially feel the same way toward my adopted child as I did with my biological children. In my heart though, I wanted it—for her (and for me). And it broke me to know there was nothing I could do except wait. All the while, fending off the fear that love would never come, with the sharp spear of protectiveness we all seem to possess, as if it’s gifted to us the moment we are born as mothers.  

So is it trust? Knowledge? Grace maybe? A combination of it all that chains our hearts to our children, transcending mere biology? I don’t have the answer. Nor will I pretend that after just six months, I feel the same impenetrable, visceral, covenantal bond that I have with my biological children.

But it’s coming—I can feel it.

All we need is a little more time.

Growing Up Together

We work side-by-side, taking yogurt and peanut butter out of the cart and placing them on the conveyor belt. They roll away towards the counter and we place bananas and almond milk in their empty spots. His dark brown hair is not quite as black as mine, but it is thick and straight. We high-five when the grocery cart is empty and wait on the man in front of us to pay. It is a regular Tuesday afternoon.

The man leaves and we step up. The cashier, an older woman, smiles at us and asks the typical question,“How are ya today?”

“Doing well, thanks,” I reply.

She scans and bags. We wait and smile occasionally.

“You know,” she says. “It’s so sweet you brought your brother with you to the store. Most moms would kill for a daughter who helps out around the house.”

I smile and nod, hoping he hasn’t heard. I look down and casually glance his way. He’s looking at her with a furrowed brow and squinted eyes.

“Who were you talking to?” he asks, real question in his voice.

“Your sister,” she says. I hold my breath.

“I don’t have a sister,” he says. After a pause, he asks, “Do you mean my mom?”

The cashier looks like she wants to crawl under a rock.

“Oh, yes. Your mom,” she corrects herself then looks back up at me. “You know, you must be graced with aging well. I knew you were related because those eyes, but you just look so young.”

She finishes bagging. I pay and my receipt prints.

I smile a sad, apologetic, embarrassed, honest smile. “I am so young,” I say, take the receipt, and walk out of the store while he rides on the back of the cart.

When we get to the car, he recounts the scene and laughs. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard—that someone would think I’m his sister. Of course I’m his mom. What was she thinking?

 I smile and laugh, too. I don’t want to cry about it anymore.

***

My son and I just moved into our first place together four hours away from my parents. I started graduate school, he attended the local kindergarten, and I felt the insecurities and transitions of a new mom all over again, minus cluster feeding and diaper changes. We survived on my school assistantship, barely, but I determined we would make it. So we did.         

Maybe it’s part of living in the deep south, but when you get pregnant at 17, everyone stares at you with wide eyes. People question everything about you and frequently feel they have the right to say, You’re too young to be raising a baby. Most of the time, they don’t even know the whole story.

This grocery store exchange is my story, one that happened more times than I remember.

Later that night after the grocery trip, I wound up in a burst of emotions. I wasn’t even angry at the cashier. I was only 23 and looked like I was 16, never having given up t-shirts and all-stars. I never wore makeup and had my nose pierced. She just assumed what I probably would have as well.

Even though I understood others struggled to understand our journey, I was angry and sad for my boy and the situation I had put him in. I always knew growing up would be much different for him than it was for me. I lived a typical childhood with both parents. And while Ethan’s dad loved him, we never married, and our child never knew us together in one house. Even with the support of all my family and friends, I was the one person who had always been there.

I was Mom.

I figured once we moved out of my parents’ house, things would seem more “normal.” I would be authority and advocate, but things felt just as difficult as before. Truthfully, life was harder. Graduate school and work demanded much of my time, and the same little boy who adamantly declared me to be his mother at the grocery store also adamantly wanted to play or read together. I wanted to succeed in school for our future and be a great mom in the meantime.

I sat on the tiny back patio of our little place after he had gone to bed. I felt defeated, as if the whole charade was up. I could pretend it was easy to balance single-parenthood and school. I could pretend the cashier’s words didn’t sink into my heart. I could pretend I didn’t fear they pierced my son’s heart as well. But it wasn’t true. I drank a glass of wine and prayed. I thought we were going to be fine on our own, but I was questioning, asking God if I could really do it. Was I too young to be Ethan’s mother? Could I pursue my dreams and love my son well?

As I sat there, frustrated and doubting, I got a text from a friend back home who knew life was hard.

This is the only plan He has ever had for your life. Trust Him. You got it!

If I trusted Him, then I had to believe this was exactly where Ethan and I were supposed to be. This four-room house was meant to be our home, and home was a place to grow. And growing was exactly what we needed. I was still in school, still in my early twenties, still trying to figure out a career. He was just starting school, growing inches each year, and learning to let others have a turn.

We ate popsicles together on the front steps and raced down slides at the park. We had dance parties and jumped on the bed. In truth, we were more like siblings than I wanted to admit.

In that moment, I realized every relationship was about growing and learning together. Ethan and I were on the same journey as everyone else, our route just looked a little different.

If I didn’t let the difficulty make me hard, I would be able to give more grace and understanding, and in turn, Ethan would as well.  It was this hard providence, this weird, non-traditional mother-son thing that would enable us to love others in a unique way.

I cried then, my heart broken open with tears of relief, of sorrow, of joy, of hope.

I glanced in his room on my way to bed then stopped to reposition and cover him, his head at the foot of the bed and his blanket in a heap on the floor. He briefly opened his eyes and said, “Mommy, I love you,” and wrapped me in a big hug. Then he drifted off while I pulled him closer, because time did nothing but push us forward so quickly we could barely open our eyes.

“I love you, too,” I whispered, and though he wouldn’t hear me, I spoke the words aloud so I would know they were true, “We’re right where we’re supposed to be.”


Guest post written by Melissa LaCross. Melissa is a wife and mother who spends most of her time chasing three boys and drinking black coffee in Charlotte, NC. She loves a well-prepared meal, red wine,  a real conversation, and can often be found hiding in a corner with the other introverts. Melissa writes to make sense of the world around her and contributes to Darling Magazine.

Photo by Annie.