It is 11 a.m. and I am laying on the floor of my newborn’s room, covered in a cold sweat. My teeth chatter as I wrap my oversized bathrobe tight around my body and watch my baby play. He is well but I am not. I am overtired and running a fever and the only thing keeping me awake in this particular moment is adrenaline. My lips move but my voice fails me as I let out a silent one-word prayer: “Help.”
That morning, on the floor of my son’s room, I experience my first panic attack. I am so sick I can barely care for myself and I am scared sick that I don’t have the stamina to continue caring for my three-month-old son. To top it off my husband is out of town for a week-long work trip and it is only Wednesday.
Sick. Scared. Alone.
This is not how I pictured my first week of solo-parenting to go.
I am in the middle of my maternity leave but my husband is back at work and on the road. He is a consultant, so travel is a regular part of the gig. After Jack was born we’d spent six stressful/blissful weeks together learning how to care for an infant. Now I’m on my own and feeling terrible and I am terrified. I fight back tears as I call my husband and he immediately insists I call my mother and ask for help.
“Mom,” I croak when she answers the phone, “I need you right now. I’m sick and can’t take care of Jack. Can you come help me?”
“Of course,” she says, “I’ll come as soon as I can tonight.”
A fresh crop of tears spill from my eyes as I hang up the phone. My mom is coming to help. I am relieved. I just have to hang on until she can finish up at work and make the drive from Chicago suburbs to the city proper where we live.
Jack’s starting to get hungry so I pick him up and take him to the rocking chair. My head pounds as I hold him in my arms and feed him. His 11-pound body feels surprisingly heavy in my arms but I will myself to stay awake. In my head, I count the hours until my mother will arrive. Then I try to channel positive thoughts: I am strong. I can do hard things. I can do this.
There is something about motherhood that is incredibly physical, but we often fail to acknowledge it after our babies are born. Labor is taxing, yes, but long after children leave the safety of the womb, we continue to mother them with our bodies: our breasts a source of nourishment, arms a sanctuary place, sheer physical presence a comfort.
So what happens when mom gets sick? On this day when I feel like the walking dead, I draw a deep strength from within me and become a warrior. I get up, and I keep moving. I have to do this for my son.
Every day we sleep-deprived, exhausted mothers summon the power inside to persist, to endure hard things we’d never faced before we had children. We do it for them. We become stronger for our children.
Hours pass. When the doorbell finally rings, I rush to let my mom inside, holding Jack in my arms. When I open it I see my mom, arms full of a handful of bags and smiling at us and immediately I feel self conscious. My hair is dirty, my bathrobe sticky with sweat and I can’t remember if I’ve brushed my teeth. I am a mess, the house is a mess.
“Mom, you’re here!” I almost shout as I hand her the baby and take the bags she’s set gingerly on the ground. She’s brought Lipton soup and throat lozenges and ginger ale–all the things that she used to give me when I was sick as a child–and my heart just melts.
“I am so sorry but I just need to lie down right now…” I say, trailing off. “Are you OK watching Jack for a bit?”
I retreat back to my room and flop down on the bed. My mom is here and I am safe and loved and so is Jack.
She rocks the baby, cleans the dishes and folds the laundry–she helps clean up my mess. She mothers me and my infant child.
I now understand what people meant when they told me becoming a parent is a lifetime commitment, because now that I’m a mom, I need my mom more than ever before and I’m so grateful to her for the ways she’s kept showing up in my life and mothering me, long after I left the nest.
Before becoming a mother, I had this idealized version of motherhood stuck in my head. I loved following The Bump’s instagram account and looking at perfectly stylized family portraits paired with witty captions. Motherhood seemed so fun and easy! And, certainly it is fun, especially seeing baby develop over time. Easy? Not so much.
What I’ve come to realize is that most days motherhood doesn’t look anything like the photos The Bump highlights.
Most days, motherhood is MESSY. And motherhood is about showing up amid the mess.
Motherhood on the internet is so often a performance, it’s putting our best foot forward for our friends and family and other strangers online. The images we love to share so often capture our parenting highs but don’t show the lows, the sick days, tears, tantrums or tremendous mounds of laundry and dishes waiting to be cleaned in the background.
Let me repeat: Motherhood is messy. In fact, as a default it’s messy and hard and infuriating at times, so why is everyone on the Internet so hellbent on making it seem otherwise?
Yes, motherhood is fun and rewarding and joyful, but it’s also: milk-stained shirts and dirty diapers and dishes piled up in the sink and three-day-old-hair and dark circles under your eyes and sometimes getting bailed out by your mom when you’re sick so you can just get some rest.
I have a request for all the mothers out there: Can we start talking more about this? About the messy stuff that happens in between our pretty family portraits? Can we honor mothers with more than words of gratitude in a card or Facebook post but with a heartfelt word of thanks for your incredible service, too?
Let’s stop pretending! Let’s embrace the joy and the beauty and the mess that comes with motherhood.
Maybe if we start talking more about how hard women work in the home, maybe our politicians will start working for women instead of against us (see: the war on women’s bodies, on women in the workplace, etc.).
Better yet, let’s just start electing more moms into office. Why? Because they understand what it takes to raise good citizens, they are experts at dealing with messes and also–they’re strong as hell.