On one afternoon in late April, I stepped through the portal into another dimension. Without ceremony. I was greeted by blinding sun and birds chirping in a cadence I found unfamiliar. The birth center where I had just delivered my son lay behind me, along with the woman I would never be again. My son and I both emerged from the womb disoriented and deliciously exhausted. Skin to skin, and I was made new. I hardly recognized the earth because it did not appear shattered, and the aftershocks undulating from my every limb told me I had, indeed, survived a seismic transformation.
Within four hours of meeting my son, I was sent home to convalesce. I wrapped my baby in a cocoon of swaddles and strapped him into an infant rocking chair so he wouldn’t flutter away. My husband and I sat down to finish the meal the midwives had ordered for us, and we stared in near silence at the one who had already changed us forevermore. “Who are you?” we’d ask him occasionally. But even at 6 pounds 2 ounces the weight of his presence was almost too grand for words. “Milo” kept spilling out from our lips again and again, the momentous occasion fit for a ceremony that never came.
I remember we tried to nap together as a family of three before the first visitor arrived. Over 24 hours without sleep, and I was in a stupor thick with surreality. Every cell in my body was whirring with electricity and even though I was in bed, I couldn’t get settled. Not yet. Not then. So, I gazed at my husband on the other side of my sleeping son, in awe of how quickly time seemed to be whistling past us.
Over the next few weeks, a procession of family and friends flowed in and out of our home to welcome our son and bask in his babyhood. I observed as their stream of consciousness began to focus more and more on his progress. The periodic check-ins and friendly advice that I was showered with before his birth had begun to dry up. I wore my pregnant belly like a Medal of Honor only to have my rank dissolve into the ether as soon as my tummy deflated. That round belly brimming with life used to set me apart. But the actual emergence into motherhood didn’t seem as noteworthy without its own celebration.
When I returned to work six weeks after Milo was born, I remember chatting with coworkers in the break room. Except… they all seemed to be addressing the old me, the shell that I had left behind in the previous dimension. And I would find myself screaming inside my head. “I just had a baby! Don’t you understand?” hoping that my silent exclamations would alert those around me to the fact that I could never again return to who I once was.
As a nursing mother with a full-time office job, I pumped three times a day. Like clockwork. Those thirty-minute time slots spent in “The Mother’s Room” were the only time I let my thoughts drift to the baby I had left at home. I’d scroll through pictures I had snapped the night before, and my swollen breasts would relieve themselves into the little milk pouches I’d carry home that evening. Before I knew it, my alarm would sound, and I would swiftly shed my motherhood along with all my pumping accessories as I shuffled out of the room.
When the door locked behind me, it was back to deadlines and meetings and projects. Trivialities. My flesh and blood, plucked from my womb, was at home without me. How could I think of anything else? I am a mother and all other roles follow suit. I can’t help it; his being compels me. To do more. Say more. Be more. He shifted my center of gravity, and it is my love for him that holds this new universe together. I knew it was over, but breaking up with the best job I’d ever had didn’t come easy. It’s just that, ultimately, I couldn’t stomach the thought of compartmentalizing such a life-altering experience.
You know, it’s funny. I am expanding far beyond my pregnant self and yet my stomach remains flat. 11 months postpartum, and my growth is no longer visible, no longer a topic of conversation. I have crossed over, don’t you see me? My husband tells me that I matter more. There’s more substance to me, a little more to grab onto. I’m somebody’s first essential love; no one has ever needed me the way my son does. And to be honest, I’m still coming to terms with my growing responsibility as a parent.
But it’s been almost a year and I’m still reeling. When a PhD candidate graduates, they attend a special ceremony where they are bestowed with a prefix denoting their rank: Dr. It’s not so much perpetual praise as it is everlasting recognition of the journey one has had to take in order to get to where they are standing now.Why don’t we have a sacred ceremony to usher women into motherhood? I long to be recognized publicly, formally, ceremonially by my new title. I’ve taken my vows. So, why is it that only the religiously chaste and decidedly childless are given the title to wear? Mother. I added it to my LinkedIn headline in an attempt to commemorate my new status.
A Future Calling
Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s modern lifestyle brand, just launched a new Podcast. And psychiatrist Catherine Birndorf’s message from episode 3 resonated with me so deeply: we need to mother the mothers. America is missing a vital rite of passage that still exists and supports women in other cultures around the world. We expect new mothers to be able to take care of their homes, themselves and their newly expanded family without missing a beat. It’s no surprise that researchers Stern, G. & Kruckman, L. (1983) have pinpointed that “the experience of ‘depression’ in the U.S. may represent a culture bound syndrome resulting from the lack of social structuring of the post-partum events, social recognition of the role transition for the new mother and instrumental support and aid for the new mother.”
It wasn’t always this way in America. In the 19th century, new mothers endured a period of “lying in” in which more experienced mothers organized a postpartum apprenticeship. But somehow we’ve allowed this tradition of protective structures supporting new motherhood to crumble away. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why. Listening to that podcast episode lit a fire in my soul. I feel called to stand up and re-establish supportive postpartum patterns for new mothers. I feel compelled to recognize mothers for the work that they do. I’m not yet sure how this’ll all come together. But I’m working on arranging all the puzzle pieces into position.
What was you experience into new motherhood like? How could you have used more support?