What I didn't expect was the power of the wave that overtook me, or the direction from which it came. Turns out, I had sighted danger in all the wrong places. When the surge hit -- salt water, blood, breath of my sons -- mother love overtook me like a drug. I didn't even notice as my self-centeredness slipped away in the current. I nursed my sons and became lost in their gaze. What was giving up a few triathlons? So I wouldn't read anything but child development books for a while. What were a few years without a career?
It wasn't until my sons began taking steps away from me -- eating solids, spending a day at the sitter's, walking across the floor -- that I began sensing that something was wrong. I wasn't sure where I stopped and my sons began. As they tottered out the back door to the sandbox, I was left with a dull ache, a low-grade depression, a question: Who am I?
A friend once said, "Sometimes when I go with the flow, I end up circling the drain." In retrospect I realize that my willingness to ignore important aspects of myself had more to do with cultural expectations of mothers than with necessity. In our culture, mothers are supposed to be emotional, not intellectual; nurturing, not creative; chaste, not sexy; soft, not strong.
In reality, I am all of the above, or I am when I am at my best. And what I learned, as I began reintroducing myself to myself, is that motherhood enhances these other aspects of my identity quite nicely. Even more important, in the process of reclaiming myself, I didn't have to give up one bit of the love I devoted to my children.
Laura Stavoe Harm is a writer in Boise, ID.
Your IntellectI once read a report that said women became smarter after childbirth. This seems like a no-brainer for anyone who has toddlers: We have to outthink them. But this article was talking about the postpartum mom, saying that pregnancy hormones increase intelligence and that the changes apparently are long-term. So much for the stereotype of mothers as brainless wonders babbling goo-goo all day.
Mothers can think. Whether we feed our intellect or not, of course, is another story. I found that something about spending my days with sublingual humans caused me to space out. The hours I gazed into their eyes weren't the problem, but the ones I spent watching bad TV because it was so easy to do while nursing twins were.
In addition to general exhaustion, another motive kept me from facing some of society's more complex issues. I often associated intellect with a degree of cynicism. Painful things go on in the world -- war, poverty, AIDS. Some of my resistance to reading about and discussing current events was that the birth of my twins was such a miraculous, life-affirming experience. I didn't want to be reminded that some lives aren't always so sweet, and I didn't want to gain that edge I had always associated with coping with harsher realities.
But one day when I met a couple of former colleagues for coffee and they began talking about world issues, all I had to add to the conversation was "Did you see that gymnast in the Olympics, how she finished the floor exercise with a broken ankle?" My friend stared for a minute and said, "Laura, they showed that on TV ten thousand times." I began to realize I was a bit out of balance.
I began searching for easy ways to stimulate my brain. I turned off the TV and turned on NPR. At least it reminded me that there were boundaries beyond my living room. My mom ordered me subscriptions to magazines covering news and culture. To be honest, sometimes all I got to were the letters to the editor, but at least I had a clue as to what other people were discussing. I made a point of having some book (not childcare) on my nightstand even if the bookmark moved at a snail's pace. I even started teaching prep courses for college entrance exams. It only required two Saturdays a month of my time, but it gave me an opportunity to stay in touch with former colleagues and my teaching career.
Eventually I started feeling more like myself again, with one major difference. That quality of cynicism and distance I used to associate with "thinking people," never reared its head. With two beautiful babies in my life, I had good reason to be optimistic and hopeful. My more vulnerable perspective did mean I felt sadder when I heard about loss in the world. But it also helped me face these difficult issues with more heart and less hardness.
Your SexualityThere came a time after the birth of my sons when I became just a little too comfortable wearing my husband's shirts over stretchy pants. In fact, one day while I was dressing, my husband noticed that I was wearing a pair of white cotton underwear I had purchased during my pregnancy. They came way up over my shrinking belly and the elastic was sagging sadly around my legs. He said, "Why are you wearing old lady underwear?" I was just thrilled that he noticed. I went lingerie shopping, then dress shopping, then bathing suit shopping. Though I had planned to cut my long hair (into something practical and matronly), I changed my mind at the appointment and instead opted for a trim and highlights. I wanted to look and feel beautiful and even sexy again.
I always had a small, athletic build, and I initially made the mistake of thinking I had to wait until I returned to my previous size and shape before I felt attractive. But I had gained 60 pounds during my pregnancy, and afterward I was nursing twins. It would be a long wait. So instead, I began looking for positive things about my new, albeit temporary, full figure. I bought a red lace push-up bra (I'd never had anything to push up before). When my husband and I went out at night, I wore black heels and dresses that accentuated curves. Hey, if post-baby Madonna could bridge the gap between sex goddess and good mom, why couldn't I? Giving in to a new look and accentuating the positive made my postpartum self much more me.
Your CreativityEver since I wrote three (unpublished) books of poetry in the third grade, writing has been my primary creative outlet. At a writing conference I attended before I had children, a poet and visual artist told the audience that she had to give up two years of her art for each child she had. The thought scared me, but it didn't surprise me; I knew that most female authors and artists were childless and often unmarried. I figured I would have to sacrifice my creativity during the first years of my children's lives.
During the early days of motherhood, my schedule did suffer. How could I wake up early to write when I didn't even know when my night started and ended? But when my twins were a year old, barely weaned, I attended that conference again. This time, I listened to Pulitzer-nominee Kim Barnes read from her second memoir. I knew that she had two children, so I cornered her afterward. "Did you write when your children were young?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "Sometimes I locked the bathroom door and wrote on the roll of toilet paper, but I wrote."
Hearing that it was possible gave me the encouragement I needed to try writing again in the small corners of my day. The style of my writing changed to fit my schedule; the topic of my writing changed to reflect my heart; and two years after my sons' birth the story of my pregnancy in diary format appeared in a national publication. It was my first.
I have since become convinced that not only is creativity good for mothers, but motherhood is very good for art. It changes perception, and nothing feeds the creative process like a shift of vision (except, possibly, emotional intensity, another abundant quality of motherhood). Our culture may not promote images of mothers in their pursuit of art, but many women find that they have more to paint and sing and write about once they become moms.
Your StrengthSo often motherhood is associated with softness: cushy bodies that cuddle newborns, pastel colors, cooing words into tiny curved ears. I relate to the softness of motherhood. I revel in it, celebrate it. But I also consider myself a strong woman, physically and mentally. Pre-babies, athletics offered me an outlet during difficult times. Competition gave me confidence, and training made me feel strong.
True, I couldn't go on hours-long bike rides while I was nursing and caring for twin infants. But I learned that I needed strength more than ever, and so I found simpler ways to work out, like entering short "fun runs." Sometimes I pushed the boys in a jogging stroller and finished in the middle of the pack, but the race lived up to its name and gave me confidence to start entering other events.
Something surprising happened over the long haul. After my sons turned 2, I entered a 10K and decided to race it solo. At about the four-mile mark of the race, I trailed a college-age woman with a long dark braid that swung like a pendulum. People along the sidelines let us know we were in second and third place. She was about a quarter mile ahead, and I was already hurting. My lungs burned with each breath of July heat; my stomach felt the beginnings of nausea.
But then I thought about the pain of childbirth, and about the reservoir of strength my body contained, and I knew I could race to the finish. For the next mile I watched the braid swing in front of me, then, at the five-mile mark, I leaned forward and allowed my legs to turn over faster as I slowly closed the gap. With about a quarter mile to go, I passed her. I heard spectators at the finish shouting her name, and I knew she was still right behind me. I surged one more time, this time through flags in primary colors that lined the finish chute. In fifteen years of competition, I had never felt so strong at the end of a race. I shaved four minutes off my 10K time and took second place. And the first place finisher? During the awards ceremony she held her 1-year-old son in her arms.
Your SelfHow does a mom fit all of these selves into a day already packed with too many feedings and not enough sleep? For me, the trick has been to take it easy, take it slow. Certainly, the bulk of my time and energy during the first two years of my sons' lives went to caring for them. I did not create a masterpiece or complete an Ironman while they were newborns. I didn't even want to. But it was important that I remind myself in some small way that these other aspects remained part of me.
Mother love still overwhelms me. Even now when my sons are 6 years old, I look at them asleep in their bunk beds and tap into a deep core of emotion that is gratitude and love as pure as I've ever known. I wouldn't trade it for anything, and Gabe and Dylan know this. But they are also proud of their mom who races and is writing a novel. Too often women mistake being themselves for selfishness. In reality, of course, being ourselves helps our children, too. And self care is as unselfish as any act of love. Today I know I am a better mom because I am more whole.