In the last eight years I have moved five times to and from three different states. With each of these five moves, I have unapologetically lugged along two heavy containers of old class notes, binders, and textbooks. These things are like that jacket we haven’t worn in two years but cannot seem to give to Goodwill because we might still wear it; we can picture that hypothetical outfit in our minds and the possibility alone keeps the jacket in the closet. That’s my relationship with my old schoolwork. I might need it. I can picture that hypothetical dinner party where a conversation on educational theory arises and someone will certainly want to read my sociology paper, right? (No. No one will ever want to read that.) The truth is that these heavy, cumbersome items travel with me all over the country because they represent something I know. In the strangest way, they embody a sort of subject knowledge mastery that I take an unhealthy amount of pride in. I take comfort believing that I know something about something. I studied it, learned it, synthesized it, then packed it up in a (literal) box and will keep it with me forever and ever. Amen.
I used to know everything about raising babies. I knew how to breathe through a contraction for a completely natural birth. I knew how to shhhh, swing and swaddle so that I could always have the happiest baby on the block. I knew I would take my twelve weeks of maternity leave and go back to a job that I loved. I knew how to keep my milk supply strong and steady to ensure I could breastfeed for a full year. And I knew that I knew that I knew that my child would never be allowed to throw a fit like the one I saw in the grocery store. Unacceptable. I knew all about time-outs and teaching respect. And I had all of this knowledge safely in a box, confidence building with each new addition that I filed away.
Then I had a baby.
And I realized that most everything I knew about raising babies, I knew before I had to raise any.
Because the contractions came, my pain tolerance fell apart, I cried mercy and happily got the epidural. Then the sleep deprivation came, and sometimes all the shhhh, swinging, swaddling and re-swaddling in the world could not calm a crying baby. And try as I might -- add fenugreek, lactation tea, and all the desire in the world to nurse a full year like all the good moms do -- my milk dried out at seven months. Two times around.
I knew everything. And then real motherhood stopped fitting in my boxes.
I knew the newborn stage would be exhausting and that sleep deprivation would be no joke. What I did not know is that even when those newborns become toddlers and I would sleep for eight hours almost every night that I would still be exhausted. Every day, with two little ones, I’m tired. I always feel somewhere between a little bit and a whole lot tired. (That’s poor grammar, but it’s also accurate. Carry on).
I knew I would learn a lot from other mamas, but what I did not know is that I would cripple myself with comparison. From day one, friends, I would compare myself to you. Did you get an epidural? Every time I ask that question I am secretly hoping you did because then I won’t feel like you are a stronger, tougher woman right off the bat. And oh, you’re still nursing at fifteen months? You go ahead and do that and please excuse me while I discretely make a bottle of Similac for my little guy and tell you how hard I tried to keep nursing. You probably are not thinking anything of it. It’s my insecurity screaming judgment at me.
I knew I had two degrees and I would most definitely be putting them to use outside of my home. But what I did not know is that I would go back to work and cry every day for two weeks, and just like that seven years of school and those degrees would mean nothing to me compared to my little girl. But the story does not stop there. I knew I made the right decision for my family to stay home, but what I did not know is that I would miss working, talking to adults, feeling “accomplished” every day, and that I would struggle with jealousy toward my friends who stayed the course of their career.
I knew parenting would be hard. But what I did not know was how very hard it would be. I did not know that some days there would be so many timeouts and so many “say you’re sorry!” moments and so many tantrums and just so many messes that the end of the day cannot come fast enough.
And I knew I would love being a mama. But I had no idea I would love it so much it hurt. And then the very next day I would need a break so much it hurt. I did not know a baby’s laugh would be the very best soundtrack of the day and could cover a multitude of diaper changes. I also did not know a baby’s incessant cry could make me a crazy person and beg my own mom to fly into town and rescue us all.
I think it is certainly safe to say at this point that almost everything I knew about motherhood, I knew before I was a mother, when knowledge and theories worked on paper and fit nicely in boxes. It got really gray and hard and awesome and exhausting after that.
But there are still plenty of good places to land. I do know some things, some techniques that do work and some disciplines that are helping both me and my babies learn how to do this thing… for now, anyway. But mostly, I hold what I know loosely. Because kids are kids and not robots. And moms are moms and not superheroes. And we all cry and worry and pray like our lives depend on it. We all have days of victory and days where the white flag gets raised at 8:30am. And what I know about motherhood now, the only words that really belong in my box, can be summed up with the oft-quoted adage: be kind, work hard, stay humble. Oh, and don’t compare. If I do those things, if I teach my babies to be kind and model it myself and to myself, if I give these little faces my very best every day, if I stay humble and teachable enough to change as they change, and if I stop walking through motherhood with a measuring stick of other kids and other mamas and other styles of parenting, I think we will be alright. I think we will find that the pile of things that we know grows smaller as our experiences in motherhood grow deeper, and that is perfectly ok.
We are all learning here. And one lesson I keep learning again and again is that motherhood does not belong in a box.