Life after giving birth is a lot like returning home from a long trip. Everything looks different. An old throw blanket might look like something you’ve never seen before. A vase catches the window light in an unfamiliar way. Everything looks too old or too new. Nothing quite fits and there is an unsettling feeling that nothing will ever be the same again.
But, it is not the room that has changed. It is you.
And of course, that means your body; the way that your bones shift and ligaments pop and your skin lags and your eyes bag and everything looks kind of like you, but like a different you. Like when you see a stranger on the street, but swear you’ve met somewhere before.
I hated the softness of my new body after birth, the vulnerability and primal acquiescence of it. The feeling that I no longer had control of anything, like it didn’t belong to me at all, the way I couldn’t control the milk flow and walked around like I was in a 24/7 wet t-shirt contest, the way my hips tilted at a new angle and tummy sagged and now high-hipped “mom jeans” made total sense. There were dull pains, shooting pains, long and short pains, muscle pains, internal, external, physical, and emotional.
Nothing about my new mind or body felt normal. I felt wrecked, damaged, and wanted so badly to put my body back together, to put myself back together, because it wasn’t just my body that had changed. The insides felt different too, and not just the sloshing around of your innards, but more deeply, I faced a more existential question… who am I now?
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t locate myself in this new body, this new life. Who was this woman who regularly forgot to pluck her eyebrows? Who traded in her platforms for ergonomic comfort sandals? Who doesn’t have the energy or brainpower to finish a book or recall basic vocabulary? I couldn’t plan my next trip. I had no career outlook. I scrolled through past lives on Facebook and Instagram, unable to recognize this earlier version of myself. I was so youthful, free, and yet somehow directed. Why did this younger version of myself seem to have things figured out and I couldn’t even remember my grocery list?
I worried that not only had I shifted, I had shrunk.
While I wanted to be a mother, I hated the idea of becoming a “Mom.” It wasn’t just the soft, rounded body or plummeting sense of style. In my view, there was a total loss of self. There was so much I couldn’t handle about the caricature: the perceived lack of ambition, a loss of independence, the way that your being and life is totally encumbered and mothers seemed to lose all interest in the world at large, cornered in their domestic sphere, biologically predisposed not to give a shit about anything, but those demanding little extensions of DNA.
For the two years after my daughter was born, I fought against this identity with everything I had. I fought the body changes. I shamelessly did a YouTube workout called 10 Minute Muffin Top. I started running again within 6 weeks despite the injuries it caused. I went back to work. I went back to writing. I started a podcast. I was creative. I was independent. When my daughter was only 18 months, I even traveled alone to a foreign country. I was still me. Right? RIGHT!? And wasn’t this always the goal—whatever it takes, do not lose yourself to motherhood!
I knew that having a second child would catapult me into new realm of parenting and motherhood identity. I can’t just say, “Oh yeah, I have a kid,” casually and off the cuff like, if you didn’t know me, I could imply it was just a wild one-night stand. Having one kid sounds casual, edgy and cool, a side adventure… but two children? That’s serious. That’s intentional. You planned it. You knew about the fuckery that is childbirth, the weird leaky boobs, those newborn diapers that oddly smell of buttered popcorn, the Play-Doh and Legos, kitschy kids furniture and confusing parenting books. All of it. You’re doing it, not once, but twice and this time, you meant it.
And more—you liked it.
I knew that stepping into, “I have kids. Yes, plural,” was going to be different. It wasn’t just about what other people thought of me or how they saw me, it was what I thought about myself, how I saw myself in the world, my priorities, my value and my worth. What if I was only to become mother? Would this eclipse me to the point of non-recognition? What would I be then? Who would I be then? Would I see myself at all? And more, would I like what I see?
Two weeks before our son was born, my husband and I were lying on the couch — me immobile, my body heavy and recalcitrant. Him, exhausted and wired, scanning Neflix to distract us for just a little longer. Together, we recounted the first year with our daughter—the sleepless nights, stress, fights we couldn’t remember starting or finishing or what they were even about. There was fear, the first time she got sick, midnight trips to the ER. We talked about the phases, the things only parents talk about like the “Wonder Weeks” chart and the “Four Month Sleep Regression,” and all of the tools and warnings you’re given to ease you through. My husband said, “Yeah, this year is going to be rough,” and I said, “Yep. It’s going to suck.”
But, in all of the fear and anticipation, I had forgotten the thing. The big thing. The thing that got us through the first year with my daughter. The thing that survived all of my thoughts and anxieties and overanalyzing about motherhood. There was this one truth and, somehow, I had been nearly unprepared to feel it a second time, but when it came, I recognized it immediately.
I was madly, desperately in love with my son.
For three days in the hospital, we were cocooned in a sea of bedsheets, our hands and fingers entwined, eyes locked, the heat between us, skin on skin all day, all night. My heart swelled, but literally, I never knew that the feeling of love could actually be physical, that it could actually wave through your entire body.
About a month after my son was born, I caught my reflection in a store window—I had a newborn strapped to my chest and a toddler in a stroller in front of me. I was tired and makeup-less. I couldn’t have been more encumbered or more the exact image of those poor mothers I had always pitied for their tiresome, self-sacrificing, and boring lives. The ones who looked like they had so completely lost themselves.
But, actually, I didn’t see that at all. I saw myself with compassion, strength and stability. I saw kindness, patience, and generosity. I saw presence. In those moments, I wasn’t thinking about what I should be doing or who I need to be. I wasn’t worried about what anyone thought. I wasn’t even thinking about me at all.
This second time around taught me… all of those things I thought I was losing as a mother, were never real anyway. I didn’t see what I was trying so hard to be, or what I wanted others to see. I saw myself the way that my children saw me. I was not my accomplishments, my feminism or my politics, I was not a lawyer or writer, successful or ambitious. I was not artsy, or cool or pretty or well-traveled. Who was I now? I was this most basic thing.
I was love. And I was good at it.