Better Than Perfect
I had always imagined that when I brought my first baby home from the hospital, it would be to a handmade winter-white layette in a nursery dappled in sunlight pouring through the trees on the property of my rustic home in the woods with my loving husband.
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Instead, my boyfriend and I moved into a small, old, and noisy apartment when we got the news I was pregnant. My OB considered my pregnancy high risk because I was of “advanced maternal age” (my due date was well after my thirty-seventh birthday). And, in the unrelenting heat of August, there was no need for much of a layette; in fact, the first time we dressed our daughter in anything, she broke out in horrible hives from head to toe (which we later found out was caused by dryer sheets). She never slept in a crib, let alone a nursery; instead, she slept—or, rather, didn’t sleep—curled under my armpit, in bed with me, like a small orangutan and nursed all night, every night, for at least the first 365 days of her life. If dappled light did ever shine through our windows, I either wasn’t awake to see it or was too blinded with exhaustion to notice.
The hormones from nursing kept me from losing weight and made me alternately irritable and weepy, often both extremes occurring in the same hour. I had to buy a new wardrobe, including new shoes, since my foot size mysteriously grew half an inch. And by the time our first Thanksgiving rolled around—where I’d had visions of bringing my daughter to her grandparents, their home aromatic with cinnamon and apple pie and them encircling their first grandchild with love—my whole family ended up sick with colds and my new-found germaphobia made it so I didn’t want my three-month-old daughter around them. So my boyfriend, my daughter, and I stayed home instead, eating warmed-over, precooked turkey breast, me huddled over my plate, rocking and nursing.
I always figured I’d be a “natural” at motherhood. Since I was a little girl, I had an overdeveloped sense of nurturing. My maternal side had me caring for dozens of baby dolls and stuffed animals. I babysat from the time I was a mere tween and nannied all through college, when I began studying yoga and meditation and reading mountains of books on self-help and spirituality. I’d helped friends get their newborns to latch. I was an advocate of natural childbirth. Giving birth, I relished every moment of those excruciating otherworldly labor pains as a rite of passage to a place I’d longed for all my life. If I could get through that, little stresses and setbacks—a few nights without sleep, a clogged duct in my breast, a cramped apartment, and a partner who worked sixteen-hour days—weren’t beyond my capacity. Right?
My daughter was just this tiny being, one I’d eagerly anticipated coming into my world for years. How could she, with her moonbeam skin and her beautiful dark eyes, wreak havoc on my life?
What was my problem?
It was as if my other self—the me who was indisputably ready for the task of motherhood—had gotten up and left without a trace. When my milk finally came in, and I attempted to nurse my own newborn, things didn’t quite look the way I had imagined. She fussed, and I wanted sleep. It took me weeks to get into the swing of coordinating the gathering of supplies—my pump, bottles of water, a book, a burp cloth—and sitting down to nurse. Just that alone was a feat. I couldn’t make heads or tails of those mothers I saw made up and in high-heeled boots, their babies in a neat football hold, ordering chai lattes and chatting brightly into their cell phones.
In the early days of my daughter’s life, when I struggled through afternoons, unable to pull it together, feeling overwhelmed and confused, my best spirituality came in the form of biting my tongue while my boyfriend took a long hot shower whenever he wanted, instead, I suppose, of biting his head off. It’s silly to think about now, but, back then, I envied his free minutes. He seemed to have so many of them. Way more than I did. And, hey, she was his kid too. Why did it seem like such a luxury for me to both put toothpaste on my toothbrush and brush my teeth?
I’d even tried to force myself into a better place by listing the things I was grateful for, all the while, staring deeply into my baby’s big brown searching eyes and absorbing the beauty of the moment, letting it sink into my being, satisfying my years of anticipation of this moment I’d been waiting for. And yet. No matter what I did, I was plagued with the nagging sensation that things should be different. Something wasn’t quite right.
I begged my partner for us to move into a house. Maybe I could recapture that lost sense of how this “mother thing” was supposed to be—the sleep, the nursery, the organic home-cooked meals together at five pm. If we could just find that perfect house in the woods, then I could get things just so.
There was nothing yogic, nothing graceful, nothing composed about me that first year. I came apart at the seams in every way. Not only didn’t I have my house or wedding band, now I didn’t even have myself. That was not something I’d prepared for, losing me. Motherhood wasn’t about falling apart.
Or was it?
At night, throughout the night, when everyone else was long asleep, I’d rock my daughter and nurse her, keeping her upright after feedings to allay her reflux … and I’d fantasize about what it would feel like to sleep.
I stared off into the windows of my neighbors’ kitchen—they owned the pretty brick house next door with the green and maroon trim. Their son was older. Only the sound of him playing piano streamed through their open windows in the evenings. They had a solitary orchid on their kitchen windowsill, and I envisioned the order that must have reigned over their house. The grandparents lived upstairs and were around for ongoing childcare. The husband and wife would pull into the driveway a few minutes after five. Just looking into their kitchen window gave me comfort.
What is it about motherhood that can trigger such an intense affair with the illusion of perfection? And what was it that my failed rendezvous was covering up?
From what I can tell now, I was in a grieving process: my world falling apart around me, bargaining with my partner to make things as I wanted, angry at my unsuspecting neighbors for having something I thought I needed. If there’s one thing having a baby can guarantee a person who thrives on order and predictability, it’s not that. Babies are not type-A friendly. They don’t come with warnings, instructions, diplomacy, or refunds. They change your life forever.
And it was this bit of information, which, I suppose I’d tried to digest all at once, that sent me spiraling into despair. Would I ever lose the baby weight? Return to work? Stop inhaling my food between nursing sessions and eat like a human again? Sleep an entire night through?
When you’re in it, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps in that stage, you’re not even sure what that light may mean. I once had a friend describe those early months of mothering as being in a cave. “It’s a beautiful cave,” she said, almost apologetically, “but how did I get here?” I knew the walls of the cave she spoke of well. Loss, confusion, sadness, grief, being overwhelmed had taken up residence. The thing was, though, those feelings had taken up residence inside me. The problem wasn’t my house. Not my partner or my mother or neighborhood. Those were all outside me. And, at some point, after exhausting myself trying to change them, I hit the proverbially wall; that is, I knew I had to face the inevitable—change me … or end up pumping breast milk from the local mental clinic.
Having my first daughter at thirty-seven, after years of being an independent, type A, business owner, and a lover of sleep my whole life, was a blessing and also a shock to my system. I went from skinny, intelligent traveling filmmaker and editor to chubby, sweat-pants wearing, mostly incoherent, spit-up receptacle. I was used to having things go my way. Not in a bratty sense, but just because that’s how I’d designed my life—with predictability and order.
Perhaps if anyone had warned me, I’d have penciled in “two years of feeling like absolute muck” on my calendar and headed the head’s up a bit more gracefully than I had.
Not only was I grieving the loss of the person I once was, but I realized I had the mother fairytale all wrong. I had to begin giving myself permission to have my own experience—through the support of a local new mom’s group, friends who’d been there/done that and were willing to admit that mothering was not the bed of roses we’d all expected, therapy, and my own soul-searching. I stopped buying into the portraits of motherhood that appeared in the photos of parenting magazines, on mothering websites, and inside the pages of the Pottery Barn catalog, or the version of things I had cued up in my mind for so long, and the letting go of all that, all those expectations, delivered its own grace and ease. What a relief. Permission to have my own story … and my own creative license to make it an okay one. Hell, even a great one.
I started paying attention. I started being in the moment. My daughter was great at helping me with that. So this was it, everything I had been preparing for, all those skills … I didn’t have to breathe just through yoga class; I had to breathe through each and every moment of my life. And, in doing so, that fierce resistance finally fell away. I could literally have a little breathing room for something other than thoughts of perfection. For something more like joy.
I started by loving what was right in front of me—my boyfriend, my amazing body that had grown and birthed an abominably gorgeous baby, my gorgeous baby, my health. Even my wood floors of my apartment, the same apartment that had brought me so much heartache.
Ahh … the wood floors.
I spent a lot of time on those floors with my daughter, either lying down and playing or watching her learn to roll over. I watched her crawl their length and take her first steps on the knotty, unpolished surface of them. They graciously hid the crumbs and dirt that come with a toddler underfoot. I love earthy rustic interiors and, while our apartment was anything but Elle-Décor material, it did have way of grounding me. When we first moved in, I’d painted the walls caramel, linen, and sage. A few of the rooms even had some nice wood trim, which I’d forgotten to notice in my rampage against all that wasn’t perfect.
And, yes, my boyfriend worked long hours, but when he was finally home, he washed dishes, helped get our daughter to bed, and would often bring me flowers. Certainly those were things to be thankful for. And for all the complaints I’d had about the stuffy neighborhood we lived in, I could walk to the local YMCA, the library with its life-saving morning story time, and the town center. I regularly met other moms and saw familiar faces at the playground and post office.
The more I felt filled with the kind of love and wonder I’d been longing for, the kind I mistakenly thought came with things like a new house or a set of conditions, the more grateful I became. All I had to do was find what I liked.
Once I gathered my own cornucopia of reasons to be okay with my life and the things that were in it, I was free to drop the lack mentality. While I knew partners who escaped into their work and babies who never slept more than ninety minutes at a stretch could drive anyone loony, I also finally realized, I was the one with the power to create my own happiness.
And it wasn’t just about lowering my expectations. It was more about aligning myself with who I was and what I wanted and not trying to fit into the pages of a magazine. In the end, the winter-white layette and nursery didn’t fit my parenting philosophy. My daughter is two and a half now and still sleeping in bed with me. Not for any reason other than it’s who she is, who I am, and it’s what works for us. I can take pleasure in five consecutive bites of food at any meal. In this season of my life, that’s a victory. But also because I now know it won’t always be this way. And when it comes down to it, the apartment we’re in suits us just fine. My homeowner friends haven’t told me anything about homeownership that leads me to believe I’m missing out.
In the end, I have what I most want—work I love, simplicity, focus on the real things that matter to me. Largely motherhood grew me up, and I like who I am becoming. I like my story.
Perfect? Not an iota of it. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.