The realities of motherhood are many. Some, the infants in our arms for example, are concrete: easy to see, touch, feel…but others, less so.
In November, I welcomed my second child: a daughter. As I relearn, an learn anew, what it means to have an infant, I am struck repeatedly by one very potent reality of motherhood—that once we give birth, we are never again ever truly alone and that the experience of time itself is forever altered.
As a mother, I measure minutes in how they relate to my children—feedings, naps, play dates, school days; weeks, months and years of growth. But beyond that, there is an overriding relationship to time that has been entirely transformed for me. No matter where I am, or what I am doing, my children are there—at the back or front of my mind. Time away from them feels borrowed. Borrowed from my role as their mother.
In the moments they sleep or I am physically away from them, I steal away into myself —the self that existed before them and exists apart from them (in theory). When I do, I can’t seem to shake the feeling of temporality. It is all too clear that this experience of me, the pre-mother me, the “alone” me, is no longer the grounded truth but rather a short visit to a once loved place that is now extremely hard to get to.
I covet these moments as the only chance I have to try to dip into the woman I once was and to be totally alone with my thoughts. Not only do our children occupy our physical space, they take residence in our hearts…and in our minds.
I wouldn’t change my circumstances, but I do miss myself immensely. Weathering these years of young children is tough and we don’t, collectively, talk about the grief that comes when mothers birth a new being and, whether or not we want to admit it, lose easy access to the territory of “me.”
It is healthy to spend time on and with ourselves, I think we all agree on that, but what is not spoken about is the struggle to do that and what the lived experience of that struggle is like—the difficulties trusting other caregivers; the guilt over missing an experience or milestone; the worry of what might happen when we’re away; the physical longing to hold them; the struggle to turn off my mother self and embody another part of me.
I fear talking about all of this in case it is labeled “anxiety.” Because, while it is in part anxiety, it is also just a fundamental truth of mothering. I am most comfortable when my kids are in my sight and when they are not, I hold them closely in my mind. When I forget I am a mother, I smile and wince a little watching the walk back to my new truth…my new identity. I am no longer one…I am three.
The fact of motherhood supersedes even death…ours, and God forbid, theirs. The link that ties is eternal. We need more ritual in our culture to highlight and celebrate this fact, as well as help women transition and grieve the lost space of self that existed in the decades before she gave birth.
For me, the experience of self that existed before motherhood is longed for, and yet unfamiliar. I can experience the old me but it’s bittersweet. It feel like I can only “check out” this part, knowing all the while I am only borrowing it, and it must—sooner rather than later—be returned to the library of my life.
As our bodies grow and expand in pregnancy to make room for a growing being, our minds and realities must grow to make room for our babies, toddlers, children and teens…that expansion never ends. We are altered—body mind and spirit, forever.
Claire R. Colaço is a mother, practicing psychotherapist, and co-creator of HonestMamas.com.
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