I write a lot about the difficulties of motherhood. I do this because writing helps me to process my emotions, because other mothers (and non-mothers) connect with this work, and because I am repeatedly floored by how arduous it is. Reflecting on some of my writing today, however, I was overcome by the impulse to apologize, to feel something like shame or regret, to say that it isn’t really as hard as I’ve made it seem, to verify that I am a good mother.
There are always good parts, of course. There are heart-wrenchingly beautiful parts. There are moments that snap you into the present; that hold you there; that halt the anxiety of yesterday and the worry of tomorrow; that generate a millisecond of tearful beauty so ancient and complete that it evaporates up out of language.
There is the way she throws her hands up high and tosses the full weight of her body down onto my bed with a shout and a giggle. There is the desperation in her voice as she cries “Mama!” into the dark, and then the satisfied sniffle as she collapses into my arms—all worries abated and monsters kept at bay, simply by my smell and my warmth. There is the way she waddles down the sidewalk—gaining velocity and conviction—cheering for freedom, soaking up the sun, championing the bittersweet passage of growth.
Reflecting on the joy feels important and true, but this is not meant to be an apology, or a feeble attempt at compensation. I can’t let my fears and shame gain a foothold. For reflecting on the pain and the stiffness of becoming something new—a mother—feels right and important, too.
The experience of motherhood is a roller coaster, a pendulum, an incessant emotional inertia. The way weather in the mountains can swing from snowing to sunny so quickly that you can watch the snow evaporate into mist, my heart races from worry to joy, from gratitude to resentment, with such speed and agility that I find myself dizzy and confused.
Motherhood is both resounding joy and ceaseless fear, both dank exhaustion and infinite energy, both newfound weakness and ancient strength. It can only ever be both.
We place such value on the butterfly’s unveiling, on her becoming something flamboyantly new. We have forgotten to ask the caterpillar what it felt like to change so intensely, so drastically, so fast. No one wonders what it felt like to first spread those colorful wings and take flight. It must have been so awkward, so painful, and perhaps even a little sad: a new body, a new perspective, and a new approach to your every day life. Even a sudden transformation doesn’t happen all at once, there were long moments of becoming-butterfly that went unseen, even after her wings first unfurled.
It is important to talk about the hard parts without succumbing to shame. Words have been my resilient chrysalis of change.
When I see images of myself holding her, I can’t believe how natural I look. I look like an experienced butterfly. But my wings, as ever, are shaky and stiff. To talk through the pain is to chart my growth. To speak of the joy is to see that growth revealed.
I’ll never forget what it felt like to be a caterpillar, but I am learning to love flight.