Mother’s Day feels so strange this year. That initial drop into motherhood feels so far away. It’s been almost four years, I barely remember what it feels like to be swollen and full, to feel tiny feet pushing against my belly from the inside. I’m starting to forget the tingly whoosh of my milk letting down, I can barely remember the feeling of a tiny weight against my chest, milky breath against my cheek.
That part of motherhood feels like another life.
It’s so different than I thought it would be. It challenges me and makes me stretch and dig and grow deeper. Olive is so different than I thought she would be. She’s louder and more vibrant and more real than I ever thought possible.
She came out exactly as I’d imagined. Small, dark-haired, sleepy. She was familiar because she was so much like me. I was comfortable because she was so much like me.
Each day since has been a slow step away – sometimes literally, as she learned to roll and crawl and walk and run – and sometimes in a more figurative sense. She’s not shy about distinguishing herself. She’s bolder than me. Braver. She speaks louder and doesn’t mind demanding what she needs. She’s bright and strong and kind. She’s shy and smart. So smart. It always surprises me how different she is, how much her own person she is. Unabashedly so. From her, I learn to open and ask for what I need. I learn to be strong and soft and inhabit each emotion fully, even when it hurts.
“How did you make me?” she asks. “How did you do it, inside your tummy?”
I flash back to those hundreds of days. Those nine happiest months of my life, those thousands of hours with my hand on my belly feeling the thumping kicks and the slippery roller-coaster feeling of her turning over inside of me. The unbearable mixture of fear and anticipation at the thought of finally meeting her. How did I do it? How did I create this beautiful creature, this girl who is of me but not me?
I don’t know, I reply, But I’m so glad I did.
Her hair is wild like she is. A dozen times a day I absent-mindedly tuck it behind her ears. A dozen times a day she hurriedly untucks it. Shakes her head and musses it up again.
Some days I think I’m a good mother. I speak calmly and I solve problems, we walk hand in hand and I am patient when she climbs rocks and plays with sticks and examines bugs. We laugh and she eats what I make for dinner and at bedtime we lie together, heads touching, and talk about our dreams.
More often than not I see the glaring ways I come up short. I see the times she watches more movies than I’d like – when I’m working or sidelined by my kidney condition. I note the times I raise my voice, the times I say hurry up hurry up let’s go let’s GO. I wonder what she’ll remember more, the times I pulled her close or the times I pushed her off of me, suffocated by her clingy need. The insatiable desire to possess me, inhabit me. Sometimes, being that person for her all day every day, it’s too much. I hope she doesn’t remember that, but I think she will.
Some of my most vivid memories of my mom are the times she lost it. The times she boiled over and yelled, precisely because they were in stark contrast to the firm, gentle way she usually parented. How unfair is that? How cruel that 364 days in a year she took deep breaths and gave herself to us, this horde of six voracious children, yet the days I remember most are the days she had nothing else to give. The days she ran out, the days she said no. The days she closed the door or resisted. They stand out and I remember still the shock, the crushing knowledge that mom was human. I’ve never had more of an understanding for what raising us must have taken until I began doing it myself.
There is nothing like motherhood. No one is needier than a child. They don’t moderate or apologize for their need, there’s no rationing here. They yell and insist, they pull and yank and whine for you, they demand your time and your energy and your help and your attention. Everything you have becomes theirs – each hour in your day and each half-finished sentence and each plate of food and even your favourite funny little misshapen vase, now smashed into smithereens on the floor as you try to hide the hot, angry tears welling up in your eyes.
Their cells continue to inhabit your body long after they’ve left it so you’re never truly alone ever again. Little colonialists. Whatever they need, you give. More and more and more because you feel happy seeing them grow stronger even as your own strength is sapped. I’ve never experienced anything like it. This beautiful, parasitic relationship.
Motherhood is unique when you’re on your own. This last year has been the toughest so far. Three can be an utterly hellish age and when I hit the wall there’s no one there to take over. When I feel like I’m failing, the feeling lingers longer with no one to contradict it. Most of the time, it’s just me and her. We’re a pair, partners. It demands more of me than it would have. It demands more from her than it should. It’s not how I pictured it. Sometimes, though, I think it’s so much easier than it would have been. Sometimes it seems like it really couldn’t have been any other way. It’s hard and sweet and it fills me up and drains me in equal measure.
This morning I thought about the other mothers in my life and I wrote to them, these women who give in the same ways I’ve learned to, some for decades now. I think of the collective gifts I’ve received from them. Gifts of knowledge and learning and understanding – how to turn a tantrum around, how to be firm and strict and loving and respectful. I’ve sat at their feet for years watching them and letting this teaching sink deep into my bones, it saves me daily.
Their confessions – about mistakes, ordering takeout, losing it, getting touched out, being completely caught off guard – they bolster me. Their stories surround me and strengthen me, together they make me feel less like a ship unmoored, trying to navigate this strange sea without a compass.
You’re my best mummy she whispers before she falls asleep.
I ignore the obvious fact that I’m her only mummy and I think she’s right. I’m her best, yes, but her worst, too. And vice versa. We mirror each other like this: I’m the one she clings to most fiercely and pushes away from most savagely. I’m the safe harbour she comes back to after stepping out and trying something new. Falling. Fearing.
I get her worst behaviour, the loudest tantrums, the rudest voice. She pushes me the farthest, knowing I’ll still be here when the storm passes. Yet as the days pass, I see that she is, slowly, learning what I’m trying so hard to teach:
You can be grumpy but you can not be rude.
I’m angry at your behaviour, not at you.
You shouldn’t hurt the people you love.
I’ll be here when you need me.
I love you more than anything.
I’m so glad I’m your mummy.
More than anything else, mothers teach you the push and pull of intimate relationships. They teach you how to give of yourself, even when you don’t feel you have enough. They teach you how to care for those you love. How to look someone in the eye and apologize (and mean it). How to trust.How to stand up straight and carry yourself with pride. Ask for what you need. Speak confidently. Shake hands. Take deep breaths. Pick yourself up again and again and again. How to love.
Inexplicably, this year Mother’s Day feels different, like it’s tinged with a sense of nameless lingering loss. Olive wakes me up by sneezing directly into my face. I miss my own mom. Facebook is awash with doting husbands coordinating excursions and flowers and scribbled cards. I linger over pregnancy photos and think about the boxes of baby clothes stacked high in the closet of my old house. I wonder if the first time was also the last time. I think of the day Olive cried because she wanted a sister. I think of the night she told me she wanted it to be just me and her forever. Either way, she’ll get what she wants, and so will I.
Either way, I’m a mother. Her best one.
Here’s to us.