On Balance A Chinese woman wearing a purple jacket holds her infant daughter, gazing down at the baby

Published on January 25th, 2024 | by Xinran Maria Xiang


Accepted, Not Earned

After my daughter was born, I noticed a loose softness and a shapeless panic in myself where muscles and hardness used to be. The first night we took her home, she cried incessantly for hours while desperately suckling my nipples, swallowing no more than drops of milk. After we both finally fell asleep, I woke up to find her swaddle blanket unraveled and her extremities frigid under the blast of Southern air conditioning. I couldn’t wake her up to feed, and I spent the next thirty minutes trying to warm her tiny body skin-to-skin, terrified she had slipped into a hypothermic coma but too paralyzed with fear to do anything else. I wanted my own dead mother to warm both of us. I later learned newborns slept a lot during the first few days, but it didn’t change the fact I had suddenly become so vulnerable. I was vulnerable because she was vulnerable. Friends reassured me babies were not as fragile as they appeared, because humans, apparently, had procreated for eons and survived. Then why did I still feel so utterly exposed?  

I tabulated the possibilities: sleep deprivation, the baby blues, postpartum anxiety and depression, adjustment disorder, perfectionism, being human, and any combination of the above. I wanted to talk about it all at a therapist’s office, or maybe take a nap, but my vulva still hurt every time I sat down, and I was breastfeeding every hour around the clock. Instead, I spent those endless feedings attempting to bulletproof motherhood on the Internet. I browsed Instagram diaper hacks and took a newborn sleep course. I clocked my daughter’s tummy time and followed an algorithm to lay her down for naps. I desperately needed that marketed control to distract me from a vague terror I couldn’t articulate. I needed expensive gadgets and expert mommy Reels to remind me that I was not the first person to coexist with this raw new life. 

Two baby bottles
Photo by Jaye Haych on Unsplash

I tried to dump the panic onto my supportive husband (“How could you just fall asleep when we don’t even know the right way to wash her bottles?”). I talked about it with friends who were mothers, friends who were single, and friends who were psychiatrists. “You’re doing a great job,” everyone from my daughter’s pediatrician to close friends encouraged me, but the reliable boost of confidence I typically got from external validation never materialized. This time, even the compliments rattled me. If this was what “great” felt like, I never wanted to feel mediocre. 

When I returned to my job as a physician, I tried to maximize every second away from the baby to work off the panic. If only I could embody the self-assured person I once identified with, then I would be okay again. I jumped back in full-time, took overnight calls, and started two research projects, all while getting through COVID-19 and a slew of other daycare viruses. I rushed through every moment of seeing patients, doing paperwork, pumping, washing pump parts, making dinner, prepping my daughter’s meals, breastfeeding, texting, and compulsively scrolling through social media. I developed an allergy to doing less than two things at the same time. Taking even ten seconds to say one sentence to my husband without simultaneously doing something else infused me with restlessness. How dare I dawdle when I needed to prove my usefulness to society? 

Despite deep, meditative breaths, I couldn’t give myself permission to slow down. Who would I be if I paralleled the pace of my infant? Having hundreds of patients depend on me for serious medical needs made me feel competent; having one breathing, crying, tiny human depend on me for all their bodily functions made me feel like an imperfect mess. I stopped trying to talk about how I was doing because details seemed pointless: life as a working mother with a baby was supposed to be hard. Complaining to other physician mothers, who were trudging through the same terrain,  felt self-absorbed. Complaining to friends without kids, on the other hand, felt isolating and futile. 

My daughter soon outgrew the around-the-clock eating, sleeping, and pooping stage, and the next stage sounded straightforward: I would support her own journey with both emotional validation and age-appropriate boundaries to help her find calm even when the world appeared to fall apart. But putting theory into practice proved awkward and humbling. I practically sat on my hands to resist the urge to help her “do it right” when she was focused on a toy. If she hit her head while learning to sit up, I wanted to do everything – distract, suppress, ignore, and bribe – except hold a safe space for her to cry. When I forced myself to make eye contact with her, she cried even harder, as if she’d just realized I understood her anguish. It took everything I had to stay calm—but then she inexplicably stopped crying and began laughing with abandon. I witnessed her process difficult moments on repeat, in awe and envy. I was now there for my daughter, but who was going to be there for me? 

A Chinese woman wearing a purple jacket holds her infant daughter, gazing down at the baby

After my mother died following a long struggle with cancer, I clung to the relief of knowing she no longer suffered. I was free to embrace my own being, even the parts she wouldn’t have approved of. I needed to be able to show up to work, laugh with friends, and continue to grow without her. I got used to doing all these things, and almost three years had passed. Just when I thought I was fine without her, my daughter came along. I realized I was only beginning to recognize the depth of this loss – the loss of one who was connected to me the way I was now connected to my daughter. The closest family I had left were men who loved me generously, but no connection rivaled the one I shared with my daughter and the one I could have shared with my mother.

I breathed the singular loneliness of this fact and the decades of loneliness I hadn’t recognized I carried. The type that almost couldn’t have been real, because how could I have felt unseen as a child when my mother dedicated her life molding mine so I never had to question where her joy and sorrows ended and mine began? She and I perfected our own love language: love meant work, and I worked hard. I achieved goals that made her proud. I expertly maintained our enmeshed connection through sharing only my positive emotions (hope, gratitude) while hiding difficult ones (anger, despair) that would have triggered her own and threatened her affection. I renounced my own emotions because managing hers kept us close. 

A mother and toddler daughter on the beach. Their backs face the camera, and they wear windbreaker jackets.

I imagined judging my daughter because she couldn’t play with a toy the way it was marketed or rejecting her when she couldn’t calm herself. It would be comical and heartbreaking. Yet, it felt like cheating to afford myself the same unconditional grace. I was so tired of being strong. I wanted to melt down and have someone else pick up my pieces, then move on like it was the most natural rhythm of life. Which it was, as my daughter had repeatedly shown me. I thought I had lived vulnerably because I dared to fall in love, pursue my goals, and share my feelings with a therapist, but even those actions masked my biggest fear: accepting all of myself even if those closest to me couldn’t. Even my mother.

Before my mother became ill, I had that inkling her view of me didn’t need to determine my view of me. I moved thousands of miles away from home and vowed to keep my innards safe from her judgment. I said words she wanted to hear while living a separate life I supposed most adult children did. Nevertheless, in the end, I wanted to be where she was, that primal instinct inside me. I craved her presence to show me I was okay even when her words couldn’t. 

When my daughter was ten months old, on a travel day when nothing went according to plan and I held it together just long enough to help her fall asleep on a plane, I envied her napping presence next to my deflated body, pierced once again by panic. Because I had gotten so used to saying the words to my daughter, I automatically started to recite, “I know it’s been a tough day, and you feel frustrated and defeated. It’s okay to feel this way. I’m here with you, and I will always love you no matter what.” 

I imagined feeling worthy and content in our new season instead of inadequate and weak. I imagined savoring the joyous moments playing peekaboo instead of treating them as stolen from everything else I assumed I must do to deserve these moments. Even as I already began to catch myself in the illusion, I visualized my own soul as my daughter, and the envy transformed into a desire to hold and cherish them both. In that moment, she and I were together in this, and I could be there for both of us.

Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author

Xinran Maria Xiang is a Chinese-American immigrant mother, writer, physician, and artist. Her literary work and medical humanities/opinion pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Defenestration, Glint Literary Journal, and JAMA Neurology.

Leave a Reply

Any comments left on this article will be sent directly to its author. We do not at this time publicly display comments. (If you want to write a public post about this article, we encourage you to do so on social media). We love comments, feedback and critique but mean or snarky comments will not be shared and will be deleted.  

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency