This essay originally appeared on BlogHer.
Eighteen years ago this month, my first child arrived six weeks ahead of schedule. While he was hooked up to tubes and toasting away in the ICU’s isolette, I spent those first days as a mother praying for him and reading Annie Lamott’s memoir, Operating Instructions. Between the laughter and the tears, I was hoping to find that elusive “how-to” manual for mothering.
Well, my first born is heading off to college this fall and I am still looking for my very own set of operating instructions. Not the ones that will tell me all the things they think I need to do; I want the ones that help me navigate the uncharted territory of my own heart.
Back then, before the Internet and mommy blogs, we only had two sources for information: books (written by experts) and our mothers (who were clearly not). I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned a lot about what various experts believed I needed to do to be the best mother I could be. But, I rarely read anything about how it would feel to be a mother.
No one told me about the deep, surprising leonine protectiveness, the love so different from any felt before, the frustration and the constant sense of fear, the worry, the anger, the disappointment, the jealousy, the joy so profound it brings tears, the calm, the confusion, the guilt. I needed guidance for all of these unfamiliar feelings and the one person who could have helped me navigate this moonscape, my mother, was strangely silent.
My Norwegian mother married my American father at the age of nineteen. She gave birth to me at the age of twenty. She had my brother two years later, and my sister just before she turned thirty. To my mother, biology was destiny and she fulfilled it accordingly.
She worked hard to be a good mother. She made us lunches that included surprises and sang songs and painted our rooms. She was affectionate and funny and optimistic. To my mother, the glass was always half full.
But it wasn’t easy. She had no family nearby to offer support or relief or guidance. My mother is not a complainer by nature. She believed it was up to her to find her way, and she did.
As I grew up, my mother made it clear she expected me to go to college (unlike her) and have a career (unlike her). “Make your own way,” she encouraged. “Earn your own money.” Our discussions always focused on work and careers, and later marriages. Motherhood? Not so much.
When I gave birth to my son, and then later my two other children, my mother kindly shared all of her tricks. How to prevent diaper rash, how to calm a crying baby, how to deal with teething, how to deal with sibling rivalry. However, when I consider all the things my mother taught me, the one thing I wish she had been more open about was her own experience as a mother.
What did she love? What did she hate? What moved her to tears and bent her over with laughter? Did she wake in the middle of the night, tip-toe to our rooms, and stare at us as we slept in the moonlight, her heart beating with wonder? Did she bury her face in our pillows hoping to catch our lingering scent as we went off to camp and then, later, college. Did she cry at the thought that one day the one thing that brought her more joy and fulfillment would end, or rather change and evolve, leaving a nest so wide and empty a lifetime of tears couldn’t fill it?
My mother explains herself by saying, “Things are different now. Back then it wasn’t talked about because motherhood was just taken for granted.” The limited access to birth control and the lack of abortion as a real option meant that biology was destiny. Pondering the emotions of motherhood were, frankly, an effort in futility. “It was what it was,” she tells me.
But I know there is more to it than that. I am guessing, my immigrant mother struggled to reconcile her love of mothering and housewifery with the feminist expectations that pervaded our culture during my childhood years.
How could she admit that her greatest satisfaction came from cooking a gourmet meal, sewing her children’s Halloween costumes, or decorating our home when the world around her said these things were simply examples of oppression she had internalized under patriarchy? To fit in, my mother dutifully read The Feminist Mystique and was committed to ensuring her daughter would not be “trapped” as she was. In her heart, I don’t think she valued her role as a mother and so to her, what advice was there to give?
It seems she was not alone. I asked friends, acquaintances, and even a few strangers, “How did your mother prepare you for motherhood?” They all spoke of the myriad of ways they were prepared for their careers and marriages. From advice on being fiscally responsible, to how to move up the corporate ladder, to what makes a happy marriage. But not a single daughter I spoke to felt their mother had truly prepared them for the emotional weight of motherhood.
For my generation, thanks to those early feminists who helped usher in reproductive freedom, mothering is a choice and the very nature of that choice means we must make peace with it. In some ways this is the ultimate empowerment and in others it is scary as hell. If I have a choice, then I have to be responsible for that choice. Unlike the long line of mothers before me, I can no longer blame nature or men or God. The storm of emotions that accompanies the role of motherhood are mine, fully.
My mother didn’t prepare me because she was taught motherhood was destiny, motherhood was natural, and (sadly) motherhood was not all that important. She’s right, things are different now. We still debate whether motherhood is a biological imperative, but we know it isn’t predetermined.
The good news is things will be different for our daughters (and our sons). If for no other reason than our generation deeply values motherhood (some would argue at the expense of themselves. The pendulum swings…). And, unlike our mothers, we are not alone. Thanks to the rise of mothering blogs, we have someone who can help put words to how we feel.
These strangers I turn to for advice and succor offer me wisdom and guidance, and confirm that this mothering job is just not that easy. Through them, I may not have found that elusive set of operating instructions, but at least I have place to turn to when how I feel about mothering overwhelms me.
Or, as my mother has gently suggested, perhaps we can’t be fully prepared for the emotions of motherhood because, just like all good advice, you only hear it when you are ready. Maybe my mother didn’t talk about mothering because she saw that I had absorbed the lessons of my youth and didn’t value motherhood as deeply as I did having a career. Now, as my first born prepares to move into his own future, I can look back and see motherhood as the deeply rewarding and fulfilling and frustrating job that it is. Perhaps, all this time, I didn’t need to look elsewhere for those elusive operating instructions, I just needed to listen to my mother.