Before crossing the threshold of motherhood, I was on a postnuptial pregnancy high. I honeymooned in a tiny chartreuse bikini illuminating my bump like the holy grail, I drank kale smoothies, and I smiled at my visible glow in the mirror. I was more interested in having my belly painted than in having real conversations about what life might be like with a child. Then came 40-plus-hours of labor, which led to an unexpected C-section, which led to delayed milk production, which led to my partner feeding the baby breast milk through a finger tube because she lost too much weight. The volume on my Bay Area lifestyle suddenly got turned way down. The dirty diaper dial turned way up. The other side of birth was a wrenchingly different experience than I’d imagined.
Why hadn’t somebody warned me?
I am thrilled that moms are finally getting real with one another about the experience of motherhood. Comedians such as Ali Wong, celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and writers such as Angela Garbes are just a few examples of moms sharing some of the darker aspects of motherhood — from postpartum body changes to identity torques to gender expectations. Mothers-to-be need to hear this. I sure wish I had.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first, nearly four years ago, my partner and I could barely contain our excitement. We were in the midst of wedding planning and settling into our new life as homeowners, and this completed our trifecta. Although the overlapped timing was anything but ideal, I was approaching my mid-30s, and the idea of motherhood had been fermenting deep in my bones since I was a little girl. Friends and family rejoiced around us, and strangers offered congratulations.
As the baby grew inside of me, I began to connect with it abstractly — devising a nickname, tracking its size on an app and tuning into its hiccups and kicks. Around me swirled talk of labor and birth plans, which seemed to offer a glimpse into what kind of mother you would be. I envisioned images of my ideal home birth: in a secluded cabin in the mountains next to a lake with a wood-burning stove, sheepskin rug, hot tub and personal chef. (Never mind that I was not actually planning a home birth.)
No one warned me that becoming a mother would be such a mind-blowing, identity-shattering, life-altering adjustment. As I over-prepared for labor, I underprepared to become a mom. While I admit that I wasn’t asking enough questions about what life is like with a baby in the house, mothers weren’t exactly volunteering that information, either. Instead of a dose of reality (or even a hint of it, really), I heard words like:
“You are going to love being a mom.”
“It is such an awesome experience.”
“There is so much joy.”
While I don’t doubt that there was truth to these words, it painted a lopsided picture, one filled with harmony, hearts and happily-ever-afters. At any time during those nine months, I could have used a mama friend to help shake me out of my birth trance by saying: “Wake up and smell the diapers! You are about to have a child who is about to depend on you. Of course there will be joy, but there will also be a lot of responsibility. You will be pushed in new ways, and you will be forever changed by this experience.” I could have used the sage words of mothers speaking to me from the other side of birth about how they navigated this transition.
Exactly nothing was as I had expected. For starters, maternity leave was not some magical month off work filled with creative endeavors. Instead, I lay like a sloth on the couch for 10 days past my due date. After trying every trick possible to get baby moving, the day finally arrived.
I’d imagined that birth would be a gloriously empowering experience and that trusting my body’s natural inclinations would bring me where I needed to go. I’d imagined an intimate scene at the hospital, with my doula and partner, and few interventions.
Here’s the reality: I didn’t feel remotely like a strong mama warrior; my birth plan went up in flames; I was cranked up with drugs, administered two epidurals, pressured repeatedly by a nurse to “just take the epidural”; and subjected to large hospital audiences during my most vulnerable moments. When it came to pushing time, I was too drugged to feel any sense of connection to my body. I was told that I needed a C-section. The curtain finally came crashing down over the table of the operating room.
I had assumed that breast-feeding would happen intuitively. I’d seen plenty of “Madonna and Child” scenes in Renaissance art collections, after all. As it turned out, breast-feeding was more of a wrestling match with the baby, trying to find perfect angles, positions and latches. My baby’s weight dropped, my anxiety soared, and I felt like an epic mom-failure. It took several trips to a lactation specialist to figure it out.
The media often portrays the post-baby body as easily restored to its former condition. But I woke up to a frail, bandaged body, with reshuffled organs and an empty abdomen with no core. I still looked pregnant and hardly recognized myself in the mirror. My postpartum body bore no resemblance to the one I’d inhabited all of my life.
Some women dream about the “fourth trimester” as sweet bonding time with their babies. For me, as rich as the time was with love and joy, there were also moments of despair and ambivalence about my new responsibilities. While my heart swelled with the new pride of mama-love, it also burned with a strong desire to run for the hills and build a hermit hut. Quite suddenly, I was not the same woman I once was. Gone were those weekends of lazy brunches with friends or road trips along the Pacific with my partner. Gone were the days of basic hygiene and full sleep cycles, for that matter. A new order was in town. The parts of me felt rearranged like a puzzle: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It was on me to figure out how to put myself back together.
For some reason, mothers often choose to keep mum about the challenges of motherhood. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is denial, shame, evolutionary wiring (to ensure procreation) or a protective tendency. Whatever the case, this gesture of ignoring some of the more difficult emotions that mothers experience, while conveying the illusion of total joy, can be damaging to new moms, who may feel isolated, inadequate or blindsided as a result of one-sided depictions of motherhood. I felt raw, ragged, shocked, anxious, trapped, sad and angry about this new phase of my life. It took a good year to get a handle on my emotions and gain perspective.
Labor begins and ends. But motherhood, if you are so blessed, can be for a lifetime. Although nothing or nobody can totally prepare you, I think that we mothers owe it to each other to at least try. Sharing our stories can create more texture and nuance in a historically one-dimensional portrayal of motherhood. And providing realistic glimpses into the true experience will help mothers to devise more realistic expectations.
To all you new mamas out there, I’d like to say: “Congratulations!” But, most of all, I’d like to say: “You are not alone.”
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a psychotherapist, art therapist and mother of two daughters living in the San Francisco Bay area. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Skidmore College.