It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Tucked away in the corner of a gray, nondescript office space, I laid on my hospital cart sobbing. I kept replaying in my head the first moments of my son’s life – my failure to give birth vaginally, my emergency cesarean section, his failure to breathe, his emergency trip to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I blinked through a wall of tears and noticed two nurses, heads bowed over their charts, chattering. I wanted to barge across the room and demand some answers: Is my baby OK? When can I see him? What went wrong? Why does it hurt so much?
Instead, I stayed in my bed and said nothing. Already, day one of motherhood and I was failing.
If you were to ask pregnant me if I believed in the “perfect mom,” I would have rolled my eyes and laughed. As a recovering perfectionist, I thought I knew myself well enough to avoid setting any unrealistic motherly expectations. I was so consumed with checking boxes off my pre-baby to-do list – pack my hospital bag, wash all his baby clothes, read that book on baby sleep, finish the nursery (always the nursery) – I didn’t see it.
The baby hadn’t even arrived, and I was trying to ace motherhood.
Weeks later, I laid in my own bed, dreading my next feeding session. My entire body screamed for sleep, but I was wide awake. My newborn would be up soon, and breastfeeding was going poorly. Over and over we’d try football hold and crossover hold and cradle hold — each left my nipples raw. How was something that was supposed to be natural so hard? Why did it hurt so much? I rolled over and looked at the clock: 3 am. Less than a minute later, my son’s soft cries drove me out of bed.
Wrestling my son to my breast in the darkness, I blinked back tears. The mama I’d hoped to become had no trouble breastfeeding. In fact, now that I was really thinking about it, I’d also envisioned her labor would be painful but complication-free. The mama of my dreams enjoyed skin-to-skin contact with her newborn immediately – crying tears of joy, not fear, post-birth. She loved being a mom, she didn’t resent it as I did sometimes. She changed diapers and handled sleep deprivation with ease and grace.
She was perfect.
I looked down: my son had latched, sort of, and I felt a mix of pain and relief. I wasn’t the perfect mom – far from it — and I hated it. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, willing myself to rest.
“Hey,” she whispers into the phone.
“Hey. It’s good to hear your voice,” I answer. “Is now still a good time?”
“Yes, we just put her down, let me move into another room,” my friend says, her voice growing in volume. “Oh, Erin, I just had no idea how hard this would be. It’s not working, breastfeeding. She prefers the bottle to my breast. Then, when I pump, I’m barely producing any milk. I’m so tired, I’ve barely slept. Was this what it was like for you?”
I think carefully before answering her question. It’s been over two years since my son was born, but the pain of that season still feels fresh. Now, we’re dealing with tantrums and potty training and testing boundaries — different problems — yet something I hear in her voice reminds me of myself now.
I cradle my phone in my ear and say, “Our breastfeeding issues were slightly different, but I know this is so hard. In the beginning, I hated it. The newborn phase is exhausting and overwhelming. You are in the trenches. I’m sorry, girl.” I want to add that it never gets easier, that shaky feeling of bewilderment and “Am I doing it all wrong?” continues to resurface. But I don’t.
“I feel like I’m doing an awful job as a mother,” she confesses, close to tears. “I’m failing.”
“That’s not true at all,” I rush to say. “The fact that you care so much means you’re doing an amazing job, Mama.” The words come tumbling out and even after two years, I recognize I need to hear them too.
“And it sounds like you could really use some sleep,” I add. “Is there a way for you to get some extra sleep?”
The perfect mom lives in the frames of Instagram. Smiling at her child, blissfully breastfeeding, beautiful and slim. Perfect clothes, perfect hair, probably has a perfect sleeper, I think, and I catch myself feeling jealous again as I scroll through my Instagram feed.
The perfect mom lives in my head. She never yells, and she always makes healthy organic meals. She potty-trained her child in three days with that no pants method. She doesn’t choose work over her kids. Her home is spotless.
Just writing this out makes me realize how ridiculous the perfect mom is – I’m not sure she’s actually real.
This past week, I stood in front of the mirror picking apart my body. My faded C-section scar still peeked above the top of my lace underwear. Perfect mom was there in my head, judging me: Looks like you’ve put on a few pounds in time for swimsuit season. Why can’t you be a better mom and lose some weight? And another thing, you should have caught your son’s ear infection sooner. You should have taken him to the doctor sooner. You’re failing.
Perfect mom’s voice didn’t sound so nice. She was actually kind of mean. This wasn’t the first time she’d gotten obsessed with how everything was “supposed” to go – labor, my son’s second birthday party, handling tantrums, Tuesday’s disastrous fish dinner – making herself miserable.
Perfect mom was unforgiving.
I think perfect mom is trying to help me, but what she can’t see is that, just like my own breastfeeding struggles, there are aspects of motherhood she can’t conquer or control.
As I turned away from the mirror and dressed for the day, I thought of what I told my friend. The fact that I was trying so hard, that I wanted to be better, perhaps was reason enough to believe I wasn’t failing. After all, I did take my son to the pediatrician, and I learned a valuable lesson. Plus, there’s no report card for mothering, even if it looks like it exists on Instagram.
Motherhood is too unpredictable to be measured.
If anything, I’d rather dwell on my perfectly imperfect memories with my son: that day in April I let go of my perfect vision for our walk in the park and romped right alongside him through a giant mud puddle, the time last summer we had ice cream for dinner and he couldn’t stop giggling, the night I let him stay up past his bedtime so we could have extra time with grandma and grandpa.
I looked back at myself in the mirror and grinned. I’m not perfect mom – far from it.
And I love myself for it.