Since becoming a new mom, Dana Norris has learned that motherhood isn’t a job. It’s a state of being.
It’s 6:30am and I am covered in bodily fluids, none of which are my own. In the past 20 minutes my 4-month-old son has peed, vomited, cried, and pooped on me. He is in his second crib sheet, third outfit, and fourth diaper of the day. And really, I should change his crib sheet again but wrestling the mattress around his mobile isn’t something I want to do twice before 7am.
Motherhood is unlike anything else I’ve ever done before. In that it doesn’t end. You change a diaper just so you can change a diaper and then change a diaper and, oh yes, it’s time for a diaper change. I’ve never had a job before that was so rigorous and encompassing and tedious.
And yet, when I’m away from my son, when I drive to the grocery store by myself—a previously routine errand that has now transformed into an elegant luxury—after about 30 minutes I start to get itchy. I find myself daydreaming about my son as I wander the aisles. I wonder what he’s doing. Is he smiling? Laughing? Drooling on himself? I’m overcome with the urge to abandon my half-full cart of groceries and rush home to smell his head.
So far my tiny, chubby, bouncy, giggly son has been the catalyst for the absolute best and the absolute worst moments of my life. Giving birth to him was like living inside of a miracle, but then there was the time that he, just a week old, started crying for the 67th time that day and I responded by sinking to the floor, crawling underneath the kitchen table, and sobbing while telling my husband, “No. No. I can’t. No.”
There were so many moments in those first few weeks when I thought that I wouldn’t be able to go on—that this was it, I had used up every ounce of patience and kindness and motherly affection and now my only option was to run out of the house and stow away on a train headed for Nebraska. I thought that I had made a terrible mistake in becoming a mother because clearly I was not suited for it. Clearly a mother wouldn’t feel this way about her child—she wouldn’t resent the way he had affected her life or demanded her time or made it impossible for her to wear clothes without fresh spit stains on them.
I realized that thinking about being a mom is as wholly different from actually being one as thinking about flying for the first time is wholly different from being on the runway, doors sealed shut, engines screaming as the jet accelerates to 180 miles an hour and the nose lifts up and the wheels aren’t touching anymore and there is no getting off of this speeding, roaring metal projectile as it careens away from the Earth, so, girl, you are flying whether you want to or not.
My mother often quotes Elizabeth Stone: “Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” I used to think that quote was lovely. But now I know that it isn’t just lovely, it’s also deeply, painfully true. Because your heart walking around outside of your body hurts. The heart is a squishy, fragile, vitally important organ and now you’ve had a child so there it is, your heart, waking you up five times a night, or trying to throw itself off of the changing table, or screaming directly into your face because you’re attempting to put it in a car seat again.
But I have learned something else about what it is to be a mother. Mothers don’t just take care of their own children—they also take care of each other. My mother came to help me and my husband adjust to life with our new baby. She lived with us for two weeks and showed us how to bathe our baby, how to wash bottles, and how to properly organize dozens of tiny onesies. She cooked us dinner, washed our dishes, did our laundry, and soothed us all. My son is my heart beating outside of my body and I now truly, finally, fully realize for the first time that I am hers.
Other mothers also helped us enormously. I have been given generous gifts of gently used baby gear, bags of clothes, breast pump recommendations, lasagnas, lactation consultant contact info, late night phone calls, and the constant, soft chant that, yes, this is very hard, but no, I am not alone. Others have done it and I can do it too.
And now, in the rare moments when motherhood seems impossible, when my son is refusing to take a nap and crying no matter what I do, I know that I can get through it. Because other mothers did. Because my mother did. So I call my mother on the phone and she answers and gives me sound advice such as, “You probably can’t hear him crying himself to sleep from the front porch.” I hang up and breathe and thank God for my mother.
And I realize that motherhood isn’t a job—it’s a state of being. And motherhood is never done.
Dana Norris is the founder and host of Story Club, a monthly show for stories in Chicago. She has been published in Tampa Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Rumpus. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University. She performs around Chicago—you may find a list of upcoming shows at www.dananorris.net.