It’s the oldest job in the world, discussed endlessly and yet not enough. There are thousands of books out there that will allegedly prepare you for motherhood, but how prepared can you reallybe? The surprises are sundry and inevitable. I’m not even a mom, but as my friends have started to have kids, I’ve been blown away by how much is left out of our sex ed classes. For instance: perineal tearing and bleeding nipples! I managed to go through more than a decade and a half of my childbearing years without any knowledge of these things, and what’s more, it’s been my experience that a lot of men never find out about these things (side note: if you, like me, think the horrified facial expressions of grown men are really funny, passing this knowledge on is a fun party trick).
Thus, in honor of Mother’s Day–a holiday that in some ways is dedicated to the glossing over of how difficult it really is–we talked with six strong mamas about all the things they never knew until it became their reality. Get ready to send some serious gratitude to the favorite mothers in your life, because this is some real talk:
“Two weeks after my first son was born, my husband went back to work. But I could handle it.”
I was twenty-eight years old, college educated, happily married. I had even been teaching for a few years, damn it. Women had been doing this forever!
By the second day, I broke. Exhausted and unshowered, I set my son in his bassinet and cried on the couch. No one warned me how overwhelming and all-consuming motherhood is. So I did what grown women do: I called my mom. She and my sister rescued me. They held the baby while I showered. They let me sleep. It was that day I discovered what author Zora Neale Hurston called “the universal female gospel” of mothers and sisters, aunts and girlfriends. Women are powerful. They know. And the sisterhood that comes with motherhood has saved me on many occasions.
-Kelly Hillesland, 48, is a high-school teacher and the mother of Jackson, 20, and Shawn, 16
“I wish I had known that I might not like being a mother (or myself as a mother) all the time.”
I had heard so much about the clarifying power of maternal instincts and imagined I would be some kind of maternal goddess with a divine aura of grace and patience. I never imagined that I wouldn’t like being a mom. But birth trauma, isolation, months of sleep deprivation, and postpartum anxiety compounded until I was completely miserable and barely recognized myself. I wish someone had told me that it was possible (and normal! and totally OK!) to not enjoy motherhood every day. And that even if you do not love motherhood in the moment, you can still be crazy in love and believe that your child is the most magnificent, magical, wonderful baby in the history of babies.
-Erika Osurman, 28, is an arts administrator and maker, and the mother of Wolf, 17 months
“All the crying. In fact, I have a great solution to droughts: capture all tears shed from mothers.”
Once I had my daughter, I went from being an I-give-zero-fucks woman to whatever the opposite of that is. I am not talking aboutbaby blues or postpartum depression—just your everyday waterworks. Happy tears, sad tears, tired tears, painful tears, wine tears, what-happened-to-all-my-K-Kups tears. My eyes were almost swollen shut after every episode of This is Us. I call it my empathy floodgate. Motherhood opens this within your heart and there is no kill switch. You’re still you, but different—the world is just different. You can’t explain it, you just feel it. This isn’t me, you mutter through your blubbering. You turn to your partner while tears form after watching the new Heineken commercial. Who have I become? A beautiful mother.
-Carly Pomeroy, 30, is an internal communications manager and the mother of Rileigh, 2
“I lost my sense of self when I became a mother.”
I had an identity prior to and during pregnancy; postpartum was a different creature. Suddenly, I was no longer driven by my ego but instead by this alien who demanded my whole being. I couldn’t form a new identity–that of “Mother,” I suppose–for a very long time.
Pregnancy and childbirth form a liminal state, a rite of passage, which, in the U.S., makes “babies appear to have been produced by society,” as the quote by Robbie E. Davis-Floyd goes. My birth experience, which went from being natural and holistic to medical and technological, left me traumatized. I felt as though I were a mere vessel rather than a creator in my own right.
I don’t have the insight even now to describe the process of rebuilding my self-identity. I was bereft of hope and I had postpartum depression that lasted long after the birth. It took years for me to develop a sense of my identities as both individual and mother.
-Merideth Hartsell, 36, is a child development specialist and the mother of Sam, 10
“I learned that I was an asshole.”
A complete and total asshole. I completely neglected to even think about what my sister, my mom, my friends, my coworkers were going through when I asked them to trek all the way to Italy for my wedding, or to stay late for that meeting, or to answer that asinine question that I had to have the answer to. My own mother is a superhuman, but I never knew while it mattered.
I learned that women are an incredible species—giving birth, juggling, parenting, setting examples—this job is not for the faint of heart. And breastfeeding sucks, literally and figuratively. No one warned me that breastfeeding wasn’t the beautiful experience that Giselle made it out to be (cue the pic of her getting her hair blown out with baby on the boob). No one told me that you will be able to fall asleep while standing up after a triple shot of espresso.
Or that life could be this good despite all of the aforementioned bad stuff. And that you could just enjoy sitting at home all day long, listening to your kids. No one told me that your kids’ failures and successes will matter way more than your own. Or that being bored will be fun again (that is, if you ever get the chance to be bored.) No one told me that your world starts over again: that jaded feeling goes out the window (at least for a little while). Vacations are no longer vacations; enjoy sleeping till noon and nursing that all-day hangover while you can, gals!
You hear about this, but you never really know until you know: There is a crazy bond that happens with all the worlds’ mamas; it creates new friendships and connections unlike any you’ve had before. You realize that every person out there is someone’s kid, and the notion of anyone hurting them will break your heart. So treat everyone with kindness and love.
-Alison Wyatt, 34, President of Girlboss Media and mother of Dagny, 2, and Beau, 4 months
“You grow into your role as a mother. Just like any new job, don’t expect to know everything on your first day.”
Learn what you can ahead of time, but know that the books, classes, and advice columns (ahem!) won’t be able to prepare you for every situation. Cut yourself some slack, preferably lots of it.
On one of my first outings with my step kids, my stepdaughter had a massive breakdown. I couldn’t get out of the situation fast enough. What my husband didn’t realize was that I was headed straight to a bookstore to learn everything I could about teenage girls with Asperger’s. While that helped me navigate other situations better, it was the regular interaction with my stepdaughter that helped me realize how to help her—and our family—over time. Expect to learn on the job, make some mistakes, and remember that kids don’t break as easily as you think they will.
You’re a mom for the rest of your life. This is the one job you can’t call in sick. Your kids will rely on you for literally the necessities of life (food! attention! how to tie their shoelaces!). The way you provide that for them will shape what kind of adults they become. Much of the work you put in will go unacknowledged, but you do it anyway, because it’s part of package. You don’t resign that role when your kids turn 18, either. My 20-year old stepson is just now asking me to teach him how to cook. You’re going to be a mom–or in my case, stepmom–for the rest of your life. Luckily, with that kind of responsibility comes influence (and I do love shaping my stepson’s taste in literature!)
-Cynthia Shannon, 32, author marketing specialist at Goodreads and stepmom to Sabrina, 22, and Indy, 20