The first moment our children physically exert themselves involves kicking us where it counts—right in the gut, the place of vulnerability—the underbelly. While they’re still hibernating in the dark warmth of our embrace and we’re still imagining the curve of their nose and the pinkness of their fingernails, they are capable of sending us to our knees.
One of the definitions of underbelly is an area vulnerable to attack—it is a tender area, open to being inflicted with pain. It’s almost as if our kiddos know from the get-go they are always going to have the power to hurt us most, that our greatest love has made us vulnerable to great pain.
In The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp says, “It’s a strange thing to find out your heart can explode with love and suffering and find out they’re kin in ways we don’t care to admit.”
The final days of my first pregnancy felt like watching someone puff up a balloon closer and closer to the brink of bursting. We had named the growing baby boy, and I was madly in love, awaiting his arrival.
At 39w5d, the little guy kept me up late into the night. I’m not sure if it was his first foot-stomping tantrum or if he had a beat in his head that begged him to move, but he kicked vigorously, demanding my attention and making it impossible for me to sleep. At midnight, my water broke.
With multiple doses of Pitocin, I labored for nearly two whole days. I pushed for four full hours before they suctioned him out of my body. And with that, I held the most tangible example of the way love and suffering co-exist.
The purest form of love—a mother and child—arrives after the suffering of labor.
Motherhood unfolds in the underbelly.
While there are books upon books on laboring well, there’s little preparation for the way a mother’s suffering continues. It’s not just the body’s recovery time or the challenges of breastfeeding; it’s the weary, daily suffering of laying down my own life for the benefit of theirs.
Several months later, with two under two, my one-year-old stayed awake nearly all day, my one-month-old nearly all night. To choose to love my children—which requires being awake around them—was to sacrifice sleep, to choose to suffer my own unending exhaustion. I loved one in the daytime and one in the nighttime until the youngest discovered he liked life in the light after all.
The natural consequence of my love was suffering—like stretch marks or C-section scars, motherhood lingers in the underbelly.
When my youngest got a little older, he went through a “phase” of hobbling awkwardly on the heel of his foot—or so we thought. One night, while we were away at a camp, my husband and I spent the dark hours holding our weeping and wailing boy who complained of his toe.
The following morning, we realized his toe was red and swollen.It was a Sunday (of course), so we ended up in the ER, where doctors became concerned he had a bone infection.
He was admitted, so as far as I was concerned, I was too. My husband and I never left his side, as the nurses and doctors struggled repeatedly to place an IV in his arm. He begged us to make the doctors stop hurting him, and we held him tight while all our tears pooled together.
Anytime we watch our babies suffer, motherhood jabs us in the underbelly.
As my children age, I’ve realized their suffering is less physical, more emotional and relational.
My son hates himself when his homemade forts fall down. He spent a full 30 minutes one day inches from my face screaming with every pained fiber in his being that he wasn’t the perfect builder. He was too young to handle his failure, so I endured it with him.
Months later, we were in a heated debacle, though I don’t remember why. But I remember the yelling, the door slamming, the piercing, painful words.
“I wish you weren’t my mom.”
I suffered that pain, too (more than once), and reminded him I love him too much to ever wish I wasn’t his mom. Love bears all things.
And recently, boys have been picking on him at school. They’ve put him down because he’s short, made fun of his creations, even threatened him. And my hot tears—part fear, part anger, but all love—run down my cheeks as we co-labor through that, too.
He’s suffering. And I love him. So I suffer, too.
There’s a constant ache in motherhood. A stabbing pain from having your heart run barefoot and wild in child form. Their suffering is like a sucker punch, aching in the belly, knocking us to our knees, where all that’s left to do is lament and pray to a God who suffers for us and with us, too.
Long after we’ve birthed our babies, motherhood remains in the underbelly.
Being a mom is defined by an unequivocal love, and yet, the daily grind of motherhood is often expressed in a selfless suffering, a grit not unlike a boxer who has been hit in the underbelly but still stands tall, ready to bear more.
It seems to me that the suffering and vulnerability of motherhood—the way it begins in our tenderest places—is the very reason it is one of the clearest forms of love. True love is sacrificial.
To love them means to lean into their pain, bending down to push up against the yoke of their burden with them. We suffer with them to make it less exacting on them; and the more we undergo with them, the deeper we dig our bond of love.
If part of the package of parenting is being vulnerable to attack because of how attached I am, then so be it. I’d choose to love them every time, no matter the cost, no matter the suffering.