A year ago, the label mom meant something very different to me. For whatever reason, it conjured images of a woman defined solely by her role caring for another, and that meant messy hair, unflattering mom jeans, and sunken eyes from constant fatigue. I had known for years I wanted to have a baby. But to become a mom – I wasn’t so sure, or frankly excited, to assume that title and everything that I figured came with it. When friends asked me how I felt about the transition to becoming a mom, I shied away – it didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel like me, and it didn’t feel like something to be desired. I couldn’t quite identify why I had this reaction, and so I brushed it aside and focused on what I was looking forward to – how I was excited to be having a baby!
This perspective influenced the way I prepared for 39 weeks, reading books and taking classes on everything from prenatal yoga to mindful birthing, massage in labor, and medical pain management. I felt ready for the physical ordeal I knew would come with having a baby – but not much beyond that. I had not prepared for the fundamental shift to my identity that would take place when I became a mother on February 24, 2018.
As I changed from my clothes to the hospital gown, I realized that I knew I could get through whatever was to come. Not because of all the classes I took (although those helped), but because I wasn’t going to be in it alone. My baby was also going to go through labor with me – we were going to be a team, working through the process together. I learned that being a mom meant that I did not need to have everything figured out but rather, my baby and I would be learning together. This was reinforced minutes after she was born, when she breastfed for the first time. We were both learning and we were doing it together (though breastfeeding would take a few more weeks to master).
After we got home from the hospital, my first few days and weeks were overwhelming, and not only from the all-encompassing responsibility of caring for my newborn – that part I had expected to some degree. What I did not expect was that I needed to be cared for at the same time. My daughter needed to be fed every one to two hours throughout the day and night, but at the same my body needed to recover from labor and catch a few minutes of much-needed sleep between feedings. The two needs seemed to be at odds with one another.
During the constant cycle of feedings and diaper changes, it was easy for me to ignore my own needs. While I could get away with this before I had a baby, for example skipping a meal to focus on work, it became physically impossible now. I had to quickly learn that to care for my daughter, I needed to take better care of myself. Like they say on the airplane safety video, I needed to put my oxygen mask on first before helping others around me. The postpartum doula I was working with outlined a daily schedule that brought structure to my day and helped me plan for my needs, even (especially) the most basic ones like eating, drinking, and sleeping. I prioritized a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of water over cleaning bottles, and found that a thirty-minute bath or nap gave me the energy to keep going and be a stronger provider for my daughter.
I spent the first couple weeks back from the hospital mostly holed up in my apartment, living on an hour-by-hour basis, and I was eager to venture outside. After learning to wrap and strap my baby to me with a long piece of cloth that held her close to my chest, we were out the door. This felt like a huge accomplishment! Walking through my neighborhood we passed the hipster coffee shop and the trendy clothing boutique – places that reminded me of my pre-baby life. The places were the same but I was different.
On the sunny sidewalk, I felt oddly exposed. I had just been through an experience unlike any I’ve had before. The juxtaposition of my new self with my baby, standing on my old street, magnified the change in my identity. I was self-conscious that society now identified me solely as a mom, because that was what was visually there – my baby, strapped to my chest. It felt like my individual self – the various and unique parts of Lisa that were pre-baby, were no longer visible. It felt like being a mom was my new identity, with little room left for the rest of me.
However, I also realized that I am not the only one who has gone through this experience, and I felt connected to a network of strong women who are also moms. I was crossing the street with my daughter one day, and a woman with a new baby passed me. We didn’t know each other but we both smiled, and gave a nod that said Hi, I see you, we’ve both gone through a lot and it is wonderful, I get it. I also see how the experience of motherhood has strengthened my friends, relatives and colleagues. This gives me pride and confidence to assume my identity of what it means to be a mother. I am navigating this challenging and wonderful experience alongside many others and this makes me stronger.
Of course, my own mom is part of this network too. I realize that I had not previously been able to comprehend how much she loves me, until I had my own daughter. It is cliché, but true – I had not known my capacity for loving someone else this much until I had my daughter. My heart is full and I will spend my life trying to share that with her. I now recognize that when my mom says I love you, there is so much more behind those words.
Over the course of a few weeks, my daughter and I both grew stronger, and in our walks around the neighborhood we ventured further from my apartment and further back into my old life. With each additional block, I felt my old self merging into my new life. Growing into this new identity, I finally came to terms with how I felt about becoming a mom. I learned that being a mom does not define me, but rather, I define what being a mom is. I am still the Lisa who focuses on her career, likes to travel, do yoga, and think about what the future holds. I still go to the same hipster coffee shop, only now I go much earlier in the morning than ever before. And that boutique is where I still find clothes that reflect my style, but that also work for breastfeeding. I’m the same, but different – I am a proud mother, a new identity layered over the old.
Image: Suzanne Valadon, Woman Reclining on a Sofa