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The Shape of Motherhood: From expectations to reality

Karen T. Smith
St. Charles IL USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2008, pp. 4-7

We took all the usual steps before our second baby was born. We went to the sibling preparation class our hospital offered with our oldest child, who was just past two when his sister was born. We had a special baby doll for him to take care of. I carefully selected and wrapped presents for him, and then sequestered them in my hospital bag so that he would have something to do while visiting at the hospital. I talked with friends from La Leche League and got suggestions to prepare a "nursing basket" of special toys that were available to him only when I nursed the baby. They offered other suggestions about giving my son a role in helping care for the baby, like handing me wipes during diaper changes. In short, we felt as though we were prepared.

The biggest surprise to me was, and continues to be, that the relationship between my two children blossomed from the start. I was prepared for my son to feel resentful about sharing his parents' attention, to be jealous of his sister, to act out, to become a more regular midnight visitor after having moved into his own room a few months before his sister's birth. I wasn't prepared for the look of love in his eyes when he first met his sister. The tender way he'd brush her hair with his chubby fingers, smelling her baby smell. The way he'd bring her toys when she wasn't yet crawling, and interpret for her when she wasn't yet talking.

Now that they are older, ages six and four, their relationship continues to surprise me on a daily basis -- the way they invent elaborate games to play with their stuffed animals, the way they chatter between themselves in the back of the car. The fact that they have their own relationship, completely separate from their father and me, amazes me.

Parenting holds many surprises. From the moment we first learn of their pending arrivals, we start imagining the future with small ones in our lives. How do those expectations match up with the cold, hard reality of parenting? What fantasies have to be abandoned? What delicious surprises are in store?

The Shape of Family

For Yvette Brunson of Geismar, Louisiana, USA, the reality about the shape of her family was different from her expectations. "I expected my kids to be closer in age. But four years of infertility changed that -- and then bam! Pregnant. I did not plan to have my kids five-and-a-half years apart. But, honestly, I love the age gap -- it's like my kids both were able to get individual attention as toddlers."

Renee Barratt of Salem, Oregon, USA talks openly of the mixed feelings she had about her second pregnancy, when she discovered she was carrying twins. "I was thrown a total parenting curve with the twins." While she wouldn't change a thing, she is honest about the amount of time it took to come to terms with the idea of delivering, nursing, bathing, dressing, diapering, and caring for two rather than one. When the ultrasound technician answered Renee's question, "That's the heartbeat, right?" with "That's one of them," Renee's head started to spin. "I instantly recognized how much more difficult it was going to be to have twins and it freaked me out. Double the diapers, half the sleep, three car seats wouldn't fit in my car, chasing two toddlers around, paying for two more babies...so much flashed through my mind. When I was finally allowed to go to the bathroom to empty my overly filled bladder, I sank to the floor and sat there in hysterical tears for about 15 minutes. I couldn't face the changes we were going to have to make in our vision of what our family was supposed to be."

Now that the twins are almost four, and their sister is almost seven, Renee says: "It was hard at first. I can't lie. It was very hard. Both of them had colic and acid reflux. For the first six months of their lives I thought I was being punished for something. Other moms with twins kept promising me that it would get better. But how could I believe them? Well, now they play constantly. The imaginations of three girls create some of the greatest worlds. Just this weekend I got to be one of the queens of the Amazon, official taster of the three sisters' chocolate factory, the princess neighborhood clubhouse contractor, the dance competition judge, and a swim coach whose team competes in a pool full of maple syrup. You couldn't get me to trade this for the ease of having an only child for anything! Now excuse me while I practice my swan dive."

The Shape of Employment

I thought my return to work would be simple and straightforward. I never expected to find that leaving my baby caused me an almost tangible pain. I remember those managers at work who told me, "We'll see what it's like when you're back" when I assured them I'd be back to my crazy 60-plus hour work weeks and heavy corporate travel when I returned from maternity leave. Much to my surprise (but not those managers' surprise) I found the separations a heavy burden. I found the thought of overnight travel away from my baby to be incompatible with my new identity as a mother. I discovered the joy of leaving work precisely at five o'clock, something I had almost never done in my adult working years, unless it was to catch the latest show or watch the Chicago Cubs play baseball. I remember the leap my heart would take seeing my son after our separation. Nevertheless, I was shocked when it was me who initiated the family discussion about staying home early in my second pregnancy.

For some mothers, giving up a career has been one of the hardest parts of mothering. Lavinia Belli of Oslo, Norway did not want to give up her career. "To be completely honest, I did not stay home because of the children, but because we moved a lot and I found it impossible to develop a career when I had to devote time to learn a new language and establish a network, while living with the uncertainty of moving in the near future. We are fortunate that we do not need my income, but I had very high expectations for myself as a career woman. I never expected to be a stay-at-home mother."

Other mothers find that the work of mothering is more compelling than the work an office or plant environment provides. When asked what surprised her about parenting, Veronica Garea of Bariloche, Argentina replies, "The lack of interest in going back to work. That was a surprise. I did go back, eventually, and enjoyed it. But it was never the same. Mothering is what I prefer, no doubt about it. I was never terribly disappointed with the way things turned out. I just went with the flow for once in my life. I am thankful that motherhood changed me. It made me a better person. I thank my children for that."

Sometimes it takes a creative outlook about the work of parenting to help give meaning to the mundane. Gretchen Scheel of Batavia, Illinois, USA uses an innovative way to gain a feeling of accomplishment while at home raising her three young children. "I write a to-do list each day with all the regular stuff -- grocery shopping, laundry, picking up the toys, taking kids to school. If it needs to get done, I write it on the list. You wouldn't believe what a sense of accomplishment I get from crossing off those to-dos throughout the day!"

The Shape of Parenting

I was surprised at how easy it was to embrace the mundane in mothering. How comforting I would find holding my baby to be. How having a baby would change not only me, but my husband as well. I saw him soften, loosen, relax. We embraced cosleeping as a coping strategy rather than a well-thought-out plan. However, after a few months, I suggested we try to start our son in his crib for the first hour or two each night, bringing him to our bed at the first waking. My husband agreed, and I sent him upstairs with a snoozing baby. Imagine my surprise to find them snuggled in our bed a few minutes later. My husband looked up with a guilty smile and said, "I couldn't just leave him there! He looked so lonely!" And so our family bed has continued to this day. Our six-year-old is a frequent nighttime visitor.

Lavinia says, "Another, more practical aspect of parenting that was very unexpected for me was realizing that it was easier to bring the breastfeeding baby along to all kinds of activities, rather than organize being away from her/him. I always found it easier to just take the baby with me. I have taken my babies on trips, to parties, restaurants, and meetings. They were like an extension of my own body, so I almost did not feel that I was taking a baby along. The baby was just part of me, as when I was pregnant!"

Tondi Greenberg from Los Angeles, California, USA talks about how the "baby" she envisioned while pregnant isn't the same as the one she got. "It is not usually a newborn that you envision, maybe a six-month-old. A baby that is a tad bit more independent. One with a sturdy head and a cute little smile, chubby cheeks and legs. You don't envision a wrinkly, needy, crying little being who wants to be held all the time and needs your attention 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Veronica says, "I am an engineer, so I always had this 'engineer approach' to life: you read the manual, you prepare, you organize, and everything works the way it is supposed to. It had been working reasonably well up to the moment my eldest child was born. But then I did not want to have that approach to being a mother. To me, it felt very similar to the experience of falling in love. That I did not do 'the engineer way.' I just plunged in. The same happened with parenting: I jumped in. And loved it."

The Shape of Your Body

I found my postpartum body shocking, and not in a good way. It was a frustrating experience because I felt as though I hadn't been particularly absorbed with my appearance pre-baby. Why was it now such a big deal? I couldn't stop pinching at the extra skin pooled around my midsection, lamenting my half-size larger feet. Any larger and I'd have to resort to using canoes for shoes. It took a good friend telling me during this time, "You know, as grossed out as I am on a daily basis by my postpartum body, I stop to remind myself that, like all parenting challenges, this too shall pass. And then I remind myself that I grew a human in there! I fed her with milk my body made. My body is a powerhouse."

For Kate Beasley of Houston, Texas, USA, she felt betrayed by her body when breastfeeding didn't get off to as smooth a start as she expected. "I went into pregnancy assuming that I would breastfeed my child. I never doubted this for a second, and never considered any other option. As far as I was concerned (and still am concerned), breastfeeding is just the natural thing to do. However, my little boy had a really, really difficult time nursing." She went on to exclusively pump for her son for a full year, but found that few could understand her decision. "We really tried everything and followed all instructions to the letter. In the long run, I wound up buying a hospital-grade pump. For a year, I pumped the milk and gave it to my son in a bottle. That's quite a feat -- pumping that much milk is a big time commitment, and not nearly as convenient as simply nursing your child."

A positive view on stretch marks is attainable, if you take the time to look at things differently. Renee found this when pregnant with twins. "When I was pregnant with twins I felt as big as a house. I was constantly amazed by my body's ability to accommodate those little people growing inside. I didn't get many stretch marks with my first, but there is no way to avoid them when you've got 14 pounds of baby. I have 'twin skin' now. It's my trophy that my body accomplished what I would have considered impossible nine months before."

Not everyone finds their postpartum body as shocking as I did. Beth Falk of Littleton, Massachusetts, USA says, "As someone who struggled for years with body image, I was really surprised by how good I felt about my postpartum body, even though I certainly didn't look better. For once, especially while nursing, I felt as if my body was doing things it was designed to do, and I felt really powerful."

The Shape of Your Brain

The changes that happen with pregnancy and delivery aren't all physical. Some psychological, cognitive, and emotional changes take place as well. I joke with my husband that upon delivery of our first child, my personal inventory control system broke down. Suddenly when grocery shopping I would get 10 of something we already had a dozen of, and none of something else that we'd been out of for weeks. I'd have no deodorant but three extra shampoos on the shelf. Two pounds of sugar and no flour. How do you run out of flour? I thought I was prepared for the insanity that babies brought. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Dan Robelon of Burgaw, North Carolina, USA knew that postpartum depression (PPD) was one of many things that he and his wife might face when their first child was born. However, it still took their family by surprise. "I had been told about PPD before we had the baby -- we went to the appropriate Lamaze class, we had access to books, and we had plenty of friends to give us all manner of dire warnings about all sorts of things. It was simply one of a thousand other possible hassles, problems, or complications that might happen and might not. There was no particular reason to prepare for that possible problem over any other. Postpartum depression really hit my wife, and I wasn't prepared or equipped to help her deal with it as well as I should have been."

Many parents discover that having a baby isn't just a matter of adding a high chair to the dinner table, but an all-encompassing life change. Veronica learned this the hard way. "I expected parenting to be a set of 'activities' or 'actions' and not much more. I did not expect it to be an 'experience.' I thought the only change would be that I would have more to do, another person in the house. But I realized soon enough that parenting was a new way to live life, not a set of activities or actions."

For me, as much as people told us how wonderful having babies was, nobody told us about, or at least nobody was able to articulate, the blinding love we'd feel. A mother in a postpartum support group I attended said that she was surprised to find that the blinding love sometimes takes a little while. At one month postpartum, she knew what some of the group were talking about when we described the almost instantaneous feeling of overwhelming devotion we felt toward our little ones, but she described that feeling as growing over the weeks since birth. It wasn't instantaneous for her. She felt like a bad mother until she looked around the room and saw few dry eyes and many nodding heads.

Lavinia had a pessimistic expectation about the work of parenting. "I was a reluctant mother. Until I met my husband I had pretty much decided that I was not going to have any kids. I was convinced it was going to be a lot of work and since I really did not like children that much, my expectations were sleepless nights, soiled diapers, tantrums, and years without being able to go out." What came as a complete surprise to Lavinia was the true, deep love that parenting brought to her and her husband. "What I did not expect was falling in love with my baby. At first I fell in love with the face of my husband looking at our first daughter. If love has a face, I saw it in him the day she was born."

No matter what our expectations are before we have children, the realities of parenting often throw us for a loop when our children arrive. The journey of parenting may not be what we expected, but that journey is ours -- as true and as beautiful as the babies we hold in our arms.

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