Standing in line at the market I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. I watched intently as she negotiated the checkout, toddler at her side, young baby in her arms. What was it like, I wondered, having two? I was filled with curiosity, much as I once had been about pregnancy itself. Now, standing in line with my own young son, something inside me compelled me to ask this stranger what it was like to mother two children. The woman did not seem surprised either by the question or the asking of it. She looked at me, then my little boy, her demeanor quiet and thoughtful. And then she offered this: “The first child teaches you the depth of love and the second teaches you the breadth of love.”
I began to contemplate having a second child when my firstborn was two. The idea came out of nowhere; it was not my own. My husband and I were settled into our new roles as parents, happy and comfortable in our routine. Our son, Aidan, was at last sleeping through the night; I had time to read and to rest and had even begun Argentine tango classes. When people asked if Aidan were my first I was quick to reply that he was our first and our last. Why mess with a good thing? I was happy to have been able to conceive him at a relatively late age, happier still that he was such an easy and contented creature: a buddha baby.
But then the thought of having another baby began to invade my consciousness, unbidden and unexpected. I protested, sometimes out loud, to no one, to nothing. “Everything is finally evening out, I’m perfectly happy,” I insisted to the formless presence that had begun following me on a daily basis, harping in my ear, pointing out pairs of children everywhere I went.
It was to my own chagrin that I began to notice small families everywhere, began to read articles about second children and fastidiously research the optimal age differentials between siblings. Finally, completely overtaken by irrational desire, I tentatively brought the idea of a second child to my husband. “I always imagined we would have two children,” he said. I seemed late to the game, the last to know that I wanted another baby. The real surprise was that I did. I was just scared. Given what was about to happen, I had good reason to be.
For years I have kept journals. There is, therefore, no way to feign a convenient lapse in memory for the difficult days and months that followed the birth of my daughter. My pregnancy, at age 42, was not an easy one and was further complicated by the death of my husband’s mother and the erroneous diagnosis of HIV during my first trimester. The medical establishment deemed me “high risk,” the result of having had a placenta acreta–a life-threatening occurrence–in my prior pregnancy. I had morning sickness, mood swings, disabling fatigue and bouts of sciatica. The baby’s positioning in utero was such that I was compelled to eat dinner on all fours, cow-like, in my last trimester.
Labor and delivery went no better: twenty-four hours of back labor, including eighteen hours of urge-less, fruitless pushing. At hour ten of my labor I heard a voice in my head that whispered: “compassionate use of epidural,” a phrase from a book on natural birth intended to remind that there is a time and place for medical intervention. But I ignored the voice, desperate to bring my daughter into the world at home. I wanted to prove to myself, and to everyone who doubted my sanity for trying a second home birth after major complications with the first, that I could do this. At hour twenty-three it became clear to me that this baby, like my first, would have to be delivered via C-section. All this was but a prelude to what was yet to come.
The first months—actually the first year of life with two children—was a blur of epic, sleepless, tearful proportions. Sophia was an unhappy baby. She was fussy and fitful and slow to sleep. I would rock her for long hours past my own body’s urgings to rest, weeping from exhaustion and frustration. I was flummoxed that I could not seem to sooth her, or even understand what she needed; she would open her mouth in long, silent screams, her eyes wild and frightened; thirty seconds would pass before she took a breath, and then she would emit a piercing, horrific cry that would persist through all known efforts to quell her upset. I had no idea what was happening: I only knew that she was scared and in pain and I was helpless and frustrated.
My three-year old was equally distressed, though at least I understood the root of his particular unhappiness. A highly sensitive child, Aidan fell to pieces every time Sophia cried, which was frequently. He threw himself screaming onto the floor, tears rolling, hands clasped tightly over his ears, overwhelmed by the noise and the interruption of what had been his peaceful world. Aidan’s outer expression of my inner experience was unnerving.
When I could steal the time, I would pour out my heart in my journal. “I am consumed,” I wrote over and over, “literally and figuratively. There is nothing left of me.” Overwhelmed and undone by the constant demands of two small children, I mourned the loss of my simple, easy life. What was worse, however, was the fact that I was secretly filled with remorse for having had a second child, and simultaneously tortured with guilt for feeling this way. I lay in bed at night with my secret sorrow, exhausted from the long days of tedium, of breast-feeding and shuttle diplomacy. Tears rolled down my face as I lay in a dark depression. I saw nothing ahead of me but endless months of mothering with no sign of relief. “What have I done?” I lamented. I wondered if Sophia could sense my terrible thoughts, if she intuited all the secret misgivings I had about her presence in our lives, if I were carving psychic scars into her soul. These thoughts served only to exacerbate my grief and guilt.
Such dark musings are not what a new mother wants or expects to have, and certainly not something she readily shares. When I ventured out and revealed my angst to my own mother, her response was singularly unhelpful: “Well, you wanted this.” Her retort sent me scuttling back into hiding, intensifying my shame for not having the experience that I wanted, that people expected, that other mothers appeared to be having.
How did everyone else appear to juggle it all with such apparent ease? Were they all truly so deliriously happy? Was it really fun to travel to Europe with infant and toddler in tow? Where did they find the energy? How did they have the wherewithal to send beautiful birth announcements complete with Anne Geddes style photography of their naked babies, adorned with ribbons, lying in nests? I oscillated between resenting them and feeling guilty for not being them. What’s wrong with me? was my constant internal refrain.
I found myself slipping into an abyss, ruminating daily about the difficulty of my days and despairing my lovely, lost life. I could sense depression beginning to overtake me, it’s blackness slowly encapsulating me, a dark paint slowly flowing over my once-bright life. I desperately desired to climb out of my mental morass before I disappeared entirely. I was anxious to the point of panic that I was missing a profound experience with my children, even as I cared for them 24/7. “This is not what I want!” I cried to an invisible presence one day as I lay curled in a chair in my office, trying to regroup during Sophia’s morning nap. “I hate this!”
I was awash in despair, floating in a sea of exhaustion, self-recrimination, and shame. Hearing only silence in response to my lamentation, I glanced up and stared at my bookshelf full of spiritual and psychological titles. For someone with a Master’s degree in psychology and a self-proclaimed spiritual person, I thought glumly, I certainly don’t feel very spiritual. I was a fraud.
It’s easy to feel spiritual when life is moving along smoothly; it’s another thing to maintain this feeling when you are smack in the middle of a trial by fire, whether that fire takes the form of illness or loss or a new baby. The unspoken difficulty inherent with the latter, however, is that people assume that the arrival of a child will be joyous and celebratory occasion; that’s the cultural mythology under which we labor (pun intended). So what happens to the mother who feels neither joyful nor celebratory but depressed, overwhelmed and haunted by negative thoughts? Is there room for her experience in the Halls of Motherhood?
As I drifted in these thoughts, lost in a tormented sea, something very strange happened. It happened quietly and instantaneously. The only way I can describe it is to say that it was an experience satori, or sudden spiritual enlightenment. Because sitting there in my favorite chair, a tired, miserable, milky mess, a completely unexpected awareness arose, as though a switch had been flipped by unseen fingers illuminating both my predicament and the doorway leading me out of it with complete clarity.
What if…I cautiously wondered…what if motherhood is a crucible for spiritual transformation? What if my regret and depression and fear were opportunities to move beyond my dreary, bleary-eyed thinking? What if, like the labor and delivery I wanted but did not get, this painful experience of mothering were offering me a gift in disguise, an opportunity to be courageous and to find my own strength?
I felt a smile begin to spread across my face, the occurrence of which was itself nothing short of miraculous. I had not felt this particular sort of calm happiness for many months, not since the morning Sophia was born after twenty-four hours of epic struggle. As we lay together in the darkened hospital room that early summer morning, her bare body warm on top of mine, I found myself not exhausted, not sad that the delivery had ended in surgery, but calm and strong and deeply happy. I felt the same way now. Just as in labor, it was when I stopped fighting against what was and accepted the full reality of my situation that I could move through it.
My breakdown suddenly became a breakthrough. All at once everything took on a new perspective, one that placed my small, mundane life within a much larger context. Suddenly it wasn’t simply about the tiredness, the monotony, the ceaseless demands: it was more than that. Much more.
There is a dissolution of self that transpires with the birth of a child, be it the first baby, second or fifth; everything changes, everything is reconfigured and thrown into flux until a new normal emerges. With each arrival a mother is pushed to expand into a completely new experience of herself even as she retains her essential nature.
My dissolution took place in the midst of trying circumstances and, in part, because of them. The recovery from both birth and surgery had unleashed a frightening hormonal upheaval, reminiscent of the wildly terrifying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. I was sorely lacking in the support and nurturance department, having neither family nor close friends nearby. And, less obvious but equally deleterious, I was harboring an irrational expectation that I ought to be completely and totally happy. All these elements conspired in my breakdown. Just listing the reality of what I was dealing with helped me to see that it is crazy hard, this mothering business, made all the harder for the involuntary solitude imposed by circumstance and culture.
In fact, the lack of community, the lack of elders offering their wisdom and tending to this momentous process, was a big part of the problem. A transformation as powerful as motherhood should not be undertaken alone. In many tribal cultures mothers are set apart for a number of weeks and cared for by the women of the village who bring her food and watch over her other children—mothering the mother. Absent the communal life of village or extended family, motherhood becomes a lonely, fragile and perilous journey.
Having had a relatively easy go the first time around, I was unprepared for the tribulation that Sophia’s arrival precipitated. I was overwhelmed by the exponential efforts that an additional child engenders–two children does not double the work, it quadruples it. (No one tells you this until after you have baby number two, at which point heads nod and shake in unison: “Oh yes, much different, far more work.”) The energetic requirements were hard enough, but it was my secret and terrible internal disruption that was the most unsettling aspect of my journey. I was completely unprepared for my night visitors—Fear, Regret, Mourning and Resentment—and terrified at their arrival.
Such internal conflict is what brings clients to my office. They come to see me accompanied by these same dark visitors, and others: Anger, Sorrow, Depression. They sit in the very chair where I now found myself and they slowly, carefully disclose each torturer, each nemesis. The work of the healing relationship—indeed the work of spiritual growth—begins by taking what is unspeakable and unbearable and giving it voice, holding it with compassionate interest. The darkest of experiences are also the most potent: a word related to “potential.” Shadow and light are companions in a perpetual dance, a sort of soulful chiaroscuro, beautiful and whole and true.
And the truth is that mothering, like every other thing in life, is comprised of this internal dance between dark and light. It’s normal, if dismaying, to think and feel more like Mommy Dearest than Dearest Mommy. It’s normal, but it’s not discussed. Our culture idealizes motherhood even as it devalues it. A mother who experiences a dark night of the soul is not offered compassionate understanding and loving support; instead she is labeled with a diagnosis of “Postpartum Depression,” and medicated. Such a broad-brush dismissal serves only to further marginalize and isolate a woman who is going through a complex and non-clinical experience. (I am speaking here not about the most severe and life-threatening cases of postpartum depression, but the expected, normal consequence born from the lack of sleep, care and help that a new mother needs in the first months after giving birth. In other words, a normal depression.)
I was ashamed of the way I felt after Sophia arrived largely because I felt so alone. The thoughts and feelings were themselves not the problem: it was what I believed about the thoughts and feelings that created my suffering. I believed that I was lacking, that there was something wrong and insufficient about me. “The Talking Cure,” that is a therapeutic or healing relationship—works because acknowledging and accepting our unpleasant thoughts and feelings depotentiates and normalizes them, shrinking them down to a manageable size. It works because we cease carrying our suffering alone. And it works because it illuminates the meaning contained in our struggle. In doing all this, pointless suffering is transformed into meaningful sacrifice.
And motherhood is sacrifice with a capital “S”; a woman’s body, her time, her freedom and her energy are all placed on the altar of motherhood, a sacrifice in the service of growth and love—not just the baby’s, but the mother’s as well. Sacrifice is not just about giving up something; at it’s root “to sacrifice” means “to make sacred.” What I realized that day in my chair in my office was that I had to value and respect what I was going through, even if no one else did. I had to champion my multitudinous feelings, even the dark ugly ones, especially the dark ugly ones. If I could place this tiring, difficult and largely invisible work of mothering in the larger context of sacred offering, it could become an opening to insight and growth.
There is a Zen phrase: “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Having my satori experience did not somehow magically transform the mind-numbing drudgery that comprises much of this period of acute mothering. I was not ensorcelled into being the contented, chirpy mother I wished I could be. I still had long, tedious days to navigate. I was still tired and bored and pushed past my limits. But I did stop hating myself for my imperfections; I had more compassion for myself, more forgiveness. I slowly began to accept, if not embrace, the dark mother in me, seeing her as legitimate and perhaps even important in her role of protecting my sovereignty of self in the midst of having to give so much of that self away. And I realized that it was in the midst of this trying experience that grace might grow if I could step into it, if I could choose, on more days than not, to practice letting go, practice, as a friend of mine says, making the good count for more than the bad.
Acceptance is a life-long practice; at least it is for me. It is a practice to look for the opportunity in difficulty without hiding behind rose-colored glasses or becoming a martyr. It is a practice to acknowledge and embrace the light and the dark and to act from that place of wholeness with grace and compassion and even a sense of humor. I try, however fitfully, to accept the dark things I find in myself, to say, “This, too, fits. It belongs. It serves.”
The circumference of love is not confined to that which is beautiful and bright; love can only truly display it’s limitless depth and breadth when it encompasses that which is terrible and unspeakable; only then is it whole and true. My son took me into the deep depths of love, but it was Sophia who showed me its vast breadth: wide enough to encompass not just a second child but also her mother.