Published on July 12th, 2022 | by Bethany Bruno0
As soon as I return home from my first day back at the office, post-parental leave, my sleep-deprived husband hands me our wailing baby girl. She’s my mini-me, with thick brown hair and round chin. I take her, begrudgingly. Holding her, I can’t help but cry internally. Every scream, howl, or noise sends shocks of anxiety through my already fragile body.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve discovered a truly shameful part of myself, a remorse that eats away at me every second that I hold my daughter. My expectation of being a selfless mother had transformed into a foreign desire of selfishness. I wasn’t a codependent mother who wanted her baby attached at the hip.
My need for distance threw a rusty wrench into my super-mom belief system. The seeds of expectation that I would blossom into a devoted mother were planted many years ago by my own mom’s beliefs. She would tell me stories of my birth, which always included detailing my broken collarbone from her intense labor. “I had to go back to work two weeks after you were born,” my mom stated numerous times, always with a look of regret. She wanted, more than anything, to be a stay-at-home mom, but poverty and a growing pile of bills forced her to return to late night shifts as a nurse in Miami. Her regret over not being home with her baby solidified my expectations of how a mother should love her child: unconditionally and with as much time spent together as possible.
Before pregnancy, I criticized complete strangers who were excited to return to work, who left their vulnerable infants in the hands of unfamiliar faces. When I was almost eight months pregnant, a coworker sat down beside me as I ate my lunch in the breakroom. I told her how scared I was to eventually return to work following the twelve weeks of leave I was allotted. She laughed, then said “Trust me, you’ll want to come back by then!” I thought to myself, Why have children if you don’t want to dedicate your every day to them?
Then preeclampsia wreaked havoc five weeks before my due date. I was rushed to the hospital, where they poked at my body like a pin cushion. Large purplish bruises covered my arms, as if an artist were throwing blobs of plum paint around a once pristine canvas. It will all be worth it to get my baby, I repeatedly assured myself while being wheeled into the freezing operating theater, a room so cold that you could almost see a thin layer of frost glazed over the metal surgery table. I held onto a young nurse as the anesthesiologist slowly pierced my spine with a long needle. In that moment, what soared through my body wasn’t screaming pain or the disorienting freeze, but raw panic. Without a single moment to allow my unnerved mind to wander down dark depths, my daughter was pulled from my abdomen.
I’d always assumed that once I saw my baby, in all her naked gooey glory, tears of pure happiness would burst forth. Instead, I laid there on the table, emotionally and physically numb. The abruptness of her arrival and feeling unprepared to take care of a frail five pound baby shocked my system into complete shutdown. It was as if I was stuck in the upside down, unable to make sense of the world around me. All I felt was dread.
I was sewn back together, then wheeled into a recovery room. Relief washed over me at being officially done with pregnancy. Liberation came with many strings attached to my heart, which pulled it in numerous directions. I was elated that my baby was finally here, but with that happiness came the fear that my simple life would be forever altered. I could no longer solely focus on my needs and wants. My vulnerable baby girl would depend on me to keep her safe, healthy, and happy. Could I keep such a weighty promise? Or was I bound to fail?
When I discovered that I was pregnant, my little gummy bear fetus seemed imaginary. As time passed, she grew into the size of a pineapple, but picturing an actual baby about to be born still seemed implausible. It wasn’t until she was laid against my chest that it felt real.
The first time I held my baby girl, I felt out of my element. What did I know about caring for a baby? Every night, for eight months, I read the bible of pregnancy, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. But I still didn’t know what to expect. Despite coming from a large Italian/Irish family, with a new baby born every few years, I never held those babies for longer than a few minutes. When I did, I was terrified that the baby would wiggle out of my arms and flop onto the floor. I was relieved to pass that baby along to the next eager family member. Until I had my daughter, I never had a reason to conquer my uneasiness about handling babies.
When my daughter was born, instead of facing the music of my anxiety, I passed her off to our visitors. Every fiber of my being screamed to let anyone but me hold her. Later that same night, the nurse offered to let us have our baby overnight in our room. My husband was eager to hold her, but at only five pounds, we were afraid of accidentally breaking one of her fragile bones.
Reality set in once we returned to our once quiet apartment. Within an hour, our baby turned bright red all over from screaming her lungs out. We tried all the usual things throughout the night and into the early morning hours, like swaddling and rocking. Nothing worked. Though I was already exhausted, both physically and mentally, my body decided to also throw in some severe anxiety. The phrase Maybe you shouldn’t be a mother played on repeat internally. Eventually, my daughter’s screams turned into gasps for air, then silence, in my husband’s embrace. She’d immediately passed out in his arms, not mine. Though I was relieved when she finally fell asleep, my inability to calm her down only solidified my anxious fear that I was a bad mother. It was my ultimate catch-22: I wanted her to go to sleep, but if I wasn’t the one to help her drift off, I was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. This stress caused me to lose the little bit of sleep I could obtain. It was a vicious cycle which dragged on for five weeks.
As week six approached, I was eager to return to work. I was, unexpectedly, looking forward to going back, and to eight hours a day where I didn’t have to hear our baby scream or focus my attention solely on her. To use the bathroom any time without worry of being depended on mid-stream seemed like a luxury. I longed for the pre-motherhood days I had spent being bored, and thought longingly of an afternoon where I sat in a quiet room, with a warm cup of coffee, and listened to the rain as it fell softly upon the roof.
I wanted my life back again. Since the moment my daughter was pulled out of me, my world revolved around her comfort and needs. Whether wailing like a banshee or sleeping peacefully in her bassinet beside me, she’d taken over every aspect of my life. My independence no longer existed. I was now chained to the role of caretaker, guardian, and twenty-four-hour nurse.
I’d heard stories of mothers sobbing upon their first day back at work postpartum; for them, finally leaving their baby in someone else’s hands was a heartbreaking moment. On the morning of my first day back in the office, my baby screamed in the living room while I was getting ready as my husband frantically raced to make a warm bottle. I quickly grabbed my keys, kissed him, and glanced at my baby before running out the door. When I reached my car, I let out a huge breath of relief. For the first time in weeks, I had this space all to myself. I turned up the radio, blasted the A/C, and relished in the long commute.
At work, after all the congratulations and welcome backs, every single woman came up to me with a concerned face. “Are you okay?” they asked. “It must be hard to leave that precious baby at home.” Perhaps they were waiting for me to break down into tears. Instead, I nodded, plastered a frown onto my face and said, “It’s been hard, but I’m getting through.”
Since becoming a mother, my early mornings resemble the end of a bloody horror movie, when all the screaming and terror comes to a halt in time for dawn to spread its warm yellow light. I wake up, having only slept a few hours if lucky, to my baby’s piercing cry. I rush out of bed and race to her bassinet, then peer over quietly to see her arms stretched out like a Barbie doll high above her head. Sometimes she laughs as if to say, “See, you’re not so bad.” I pick her up, then carry her to the couch, where we gaze into each other’s eyes as her little hand holds onto my finger. The big, goofy smiles that cross her face help to ease my doubts about being a good mother. I’m her mother, and while it may not look perfect to others, it works for us.
One day, when she’s older, my daughter will conjure up her own expectations of what a good mother should be. What I want to instill in her above all else, if she decides to become a mother, is to have patience. We all learn by experience, and no one is perfect. A good mother doesn’t need to sacrifice herself emotionally and physically for her child. A good mother knows her limits and takes care of her mental health.
I continue to have moments of self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt over enjoying time spent away from my baby. But there are also moments of pure elation, silliness, and love. I’ve learned that it’s okay to question my capability as a mother; this doesn’t mean that I’m not a good mom.
A woman’s expectations for motherhood, whether her own or others, are never fully met. We’re judged all the time and can’t appease everyone, which sometimes includes ourselves. I’m not the mom I imagined myself to be, and that’s okay. There are some moments when I’m sitting at my desk, grateful to have work that doesn’t include having to watch the Super Simple Songs videos on repeat while my baby contorts like The Exorcist in my lap. And there are other moments when I find myself staring at her adorable gummy smile photo on my desk and eagerly counting down the hours until I arrive home, where I’ll be greeted with small eyes that instantly light up upon recognition.
When imagining your life as a mother, life will always throw in some twists and turns, forcing you to accept the wild ride while holding onto the handlebars. You can ask the magic eight-ball of life, Will I be a good mother? Maybe you’ll get a YES on the first try, but for moms like myself, I had to shake away the ASK AGAIN LATER and throw out that damn ball.