by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
Remember this clip from An Officer and a Gentleman?
Initiation seems to belong to the realm of men, with the exception of a few tough women that fight to be in their ranks. Go G.I. Jane.
But what if I told you that initiations like these happen to far fewer men than they do to women. Mothers in the room, please raise your hand. Look at all of those hands. Mothers everywhere can look at this video and pinpoint a moment in those early weeks of motherhood when they felt like Richard Gere in this clip.
In the first days and weeks of motherhood, you start to feel that everything defies logic. New motherhood forces you to
1) become a living paradox
2) experience counterintuitive physical and emotional reactions
3) occupy your world upside-down.
Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) refers to these types of experiences as a specific technique in rituals, known as “strange-making.” Consider these brief examples—and if you’ve had a baby, mentally check off the ones that you experienced (probably all of them).
A Living Paradox
Motherhood is full of paradoxes that bend and break your previous expectations and prepare you for accepting everything that is coming down the line.
- In pregnancy, you are single, but double.
- In labor, you go to a hospital, but you’re not sick.
- In recovery, you become a source of nourishment, while you are a convalescent.
- In the postpartum period, you are not “you” anymore, and you don’t know who you are becoming.
Throughout that first year of motherhood, you find yourself occupying all sorts of strange mental, physical, and emotional spaces. In these new and strange situations, you find yourself stretching beyond your previous capacity and behaving in ways that you never expected.
- You’re so tired that you’re awake again.
I haven’t slept in 26 hours, but I’ve got my second wind.
- You’re in so much pain that you’re numb.
I missed a dose? I must have gotten used to it.
- You’re so happy that you’re sad.
(while sobbing) This is so wonderful! I don’t want it to end!
- You’re so thankful that you’re afraid.
This child is the greatest gift that I’ve ever received. What if something happens to him?
- You’re so frustrated that you’re laughing.
(while laughing) Can this day possibly get any worse? No way in hell!
Your World Upside Down
Finally, you encounter situations in which the world seems to have been turned upside-down. Incredible new sites, sounds, and experiences become “the new normal” and help reshape what your life is becoming—and in fact, who you are becoming.
- Before: You never really used your arms for anything, except maybe lugging groceries and bags.
- After: Your arms are prime real estate—the site of constant cradling and rocking.
- Before: You knew what time it was when you looked at the clock.
- After: When you wake up, you wonder if “2:00” means 2:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m.
- Before: You and your partner spend your days working, having conversations, and making future plans.
- After: You and your partner spend your days changing diapers, learning how to swaddle, and googling information about how to give a newborn a bath.
All of these types of “strange-making” shatter our previous mental categories into pieces. They create a new reality and new norms. And in the wake of all this time, both parents are able to throw their hands into the air and say, “Oh, what-the-hell-ever” or “I give up on things being perfect.” “Nothing makes sense anymore” or “Everything that I thought I knew is completely backward.”
And this—is a wonderful realization.
That’s just the point.
Take a look at Richard Gere again—that is a broken man. That is a man who went into basic training expecting that he needed to “take it like a man,” but was only able to fully prove himself worthy by surrendering and telling the truth: “I got nowhere else to go.”
Reaching this point of surrender is so, so necessary for what comes next—the mapping of a new identity as mother onto your current identity of woman. And over and over again throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, you experience so many situations that crush all your previous reasoning and logic. And if you are a person that holds strongly to logic and order, this can be especially difficult to accept.
Because the first year of motherhood is full of experiences and emotions that defy all logic—and for good reason. They help you recreate new expectations and new standards for your life. It pulls you in all directions until you are doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Like the physical stretching of pregnancy, the first year of motherhood stretches your mental and emotional capacity. But growth is hard. It is painful. And with each doubling of yourself, you are prone to self-doubt and a total re-examination of who you are. You may feel that you have totally lost control.
But over time, you begin to accept that, sometimes, what seems paradoxical is really just the tension between who you were and who you are becoming.
Angry, but in love.
Selfish, but sacrificial.
Desperate, but confident.
Afraid, but courageous.
And if you can find comfort in being a fluid self and allowing yourself to be swept away on the winds that have caught your sails, you can stop worrying so much about the irrationality of the whole process. You can stop agonizing about how beaten down you feel every day. Because you understand that all of these emotions can co-exist in the same mind. And so the impossible and illogical not only become possible, but true.
And if you’re on the verge of new motherhood, I guarantee you—you will reach this point of surrender, too. You may completely flip out—as I did (read more about this in my forthcoming book). Or you may have a less dramatic—but equally powerful—moment of clarity, when everything is boiled down into a single truth: as long as we’re all alive, nothing else matters.
Forget the way that you expected this whole experience of new motherhood to be. And embrace what it actually is. Dirty laundry, paper plates, a water bottle that needs to be refilled (again), hair ties, granola bars, and the smell of spit-up from just about everywhere. One unfinished day after another. Uncertainty about what tomorrow will be like. Hell, uncertainty about what the next hour will look like.
Hang tight, future mother. And when you hit your breaking point, remember that this is the tension between who you once were and who you are not quite yet.
Davis-Floyd, Robbie. (2003). Birth as an American Rite of Passage. (2nd ed.) Berkeley: University of California Press.