I had an interesting epiphany recently, the kind of realization that can only hit you after a particularly toddler-heavy afternoon, when you’re curled up on a sticky couch like some kind of pathetic, world-weary fetus. It had been a rough day. I had been forced to listen to more of Elmo’s cloying, deranged voice than was ideal for maintaining an optimum level of sanity. My two-year-old Penelope was in the grips of a severe case of I-Do-It-Myself-Itis, for which there is no known cure. I had already taken all of the sweet, sweet Tylenol allotted to me for the day, and was trying to persuade myself that I’m not really all that attached to healthy liver function. And then it hit me: an epiphany. My own personal, life-altering epiphany. “Hey,” I called over to Dustin, who was lounging next to me in similar, stupefied daze, deeply engrossed in a game of Robot Unicorn, “having kids is better and worse than I ever thought possible. A LOT better. And a LOT worse.”
It’s true. Anything worth doing ends up feeling much different than you once imagined – far more affirming and exciting, certainly, and far more wonderful. But most worthwhile things also seem to be far more terrifying and disappointing and boring than promised. Far more…imperfect. For me, bearing and raising children has been the most surprising experience of my existence. I didn’t expect to become so vulnerable or exposed. I didn’t anticipate the hours of loneliness that would await me, or the intense, almost violent longing for uninterrupted sleep. I didn’t know that a skinny, squirmy, vomit-y little specimen of humanity would be able to twist my heart like damp washcloth and squeeze out hidden stores of anger, and joy, and deep, primal love. Nobody tells you this stuff when you get pregnant. There is no chapter in What to Expect When You’re Expecting about the profound, sometimes messy and disturbing alterations of mind, body, and soul brought about by parenthood. I know. I’ve checked. If I ever write a book on parenting, it will be entitled Warning: There is No Turning Back. Because – you know what? – there isn’t. No one is ever the same again after the first time they leave the hospital or sign those final adoption papers, scared and sore and sometimes blissed-out, clutching their own little precious bundle of bones and skins.
For my part, I was blind-sided by the hairy reality of motherhood. I guess I thought parenting would be pleasantly comparable to babysitting. Y’know, you show up, boil a few hotdogs, play hide-and-seek for an hour, and then stick a Disney flick in the ol’ VCR and collapse on the couch with a handful of fruit-roll-ups. Oddly enough, while I do plenty of collapsing in my official mom role, it turns out that I don’t get to walk home with a pocket full of cash after a full night’s work and watch Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Family Matters with my best friend (in fact, there is a shocking lack of 90s-era prime time T.V. in my life right now). The reality of day-in-day-out parenting is that there is no vacation, and there are no breaks. I had plenty of energy in my babysitting days to construct mobiles and orchestrate elaborate games of Sardines, and I envisioned my future parenting style in much the same way. I fully expected to sit down with my kids and string necklaces of macaroni or take nature walks. I planned to generally blow everyone away by being the greatest, most involved mom in the history of the world. Real life, unfortunately, is much more complicated. Real life is not an episode of the Donna Reed Show, however much we all may wish for Donna’s neat, golden hair and crisp white apron. In real life, I am an extremely flawed human being, struggling daily with depression and chronic pain, doing my best to raise a kind, intelligent daughter and failing about half the time. My pre-child self would have been disappointed and a trifle disgusted if she could see me now – greasy, tired, un-showered and unshaved, slowly picking Cheerios off the floor one-by-one. But I know something now that past-Julie could not have possibly understood: parenting stinks, parenting hurts, and parenting is 100% worth-it.
I have felt silently guilty about this somewhat ambivalent attitude toward motherhood for a long time. Everyone talks so much about the new mother glow. You know, saying stuff like “you’ll never forget how you feel when you hold your baby for the first time.” Well, I remember exactly how I felt when I held my baby for the first time: panicky, sore, and hungry. Weepy. Hopeless. Scared.
Sometime during my pregnancy I had developed a rare condition called idiopathic condial hyperplasia, which roughly translated, means that one side of my jaw grew larger than the other side for unexplained reasons. It is an extremely rare condition – so rare, in fact, that I saw about 15 different specialists over a period of a year-and-a-half before someone even figured out what the heck had happened. The unfortunate effect of this random bone growth was that my teeth began to shift, ache, and break. I remember weeping a few days before my scheduled induction, telling Dustin it’s not fair. In my mind, my first childbirth experience was supposed to be magical, and now I felt sure it would be horrible. Anxious, hormonal, and suffering a great deal of pain, I spent the first few days of my baby’s life crying hopelessly into a lumpy, hospital-issue pillow. Needless to say, it was not the spiritual bonding experience I had expected. And things went pretty much downhill from there.
The first year of Penelope’s life – a year I had hoped would be filled with cuddles, songs, and fun new experiences – was the worst time of my entire life. I may have had just the teensiest bit of post-partum psychosis (don’t tell anyone, but I did ask Dustin if we could give her up for adoption). Baby-blues are not uncommon, I know, but they were amplified in me by the fact that any eating and talking I attempted was excruciating. I dropped down to skeletal 98 pounds, and we spent every penny of our savings trying to find answers or a solution for my chronic pain. I wanted to die.
The worst part of the whole experience, however, was the enormous guilt that I carried around every day. Here I had this adorable, loving little spit-up machine, trusting me to develop her language skills and nurture her ability to make emotional connections, and I could not engage with her. Oh, I went through the motions. I scrupulously made sure that her physical needs were met. But I – Julie – had completely checked out. The lights were on, but nobody was home, folks. It took me a very long time and almost unendurable heartache to creep and crawl my way back up to the surface world and join the rest of the living, and it is a process I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I don’t know how I survived that year. I don’t know how Penelope survived it, either. But you know what? I did. And she did too. We made it through by the grace of God and the skin of our teeth. Penelope is now two-years-old, and the craziest, sweetest, smartest little kid that has ever walked the earth. She is resilient and independent – good skills to have on hand when you have a basket-case for a mom. And yes, I’m still in constant pain, and yes she drives me absolutely crazy. There are days when my heart is full of love and sunshine and I dance around like freakin’ Maria from the Sound of Music, but there are far more days when I feel like I absolutely must relocate to Alaska or check into a nunnery for a while. This wide disparity has often troubled me, and I think that’s why I was so blown away by my recent epiphany. The truth is, nothing worth having in life is easy, and imperfection is par for the course. Parenting is both the worst thing ever and the best institution known to man, and that’s okay. I had to have a full-blown, two-by-four-to-the-head realization to understand that this paradox is acceptable – normal, even – and to give myself a little grace on the hard days.
Sure, Penelope didn’t have an ideal first year, and her toddler-hood hasn’t exactly been textbook-perfect either. But – even though I may not take my daughter to story time at the Library as often as I should, have never once offered her two different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and leave all forms of craft-making strictly to the good folks at Sunday school – she is turning out to be a pretty great person. I love that little girl to pieces, and she loves me back. Love is all we need right now. Lots of love and hugs. And a well-regulated dose of Xanax now and then.