This morning I could not get my two-year-old daughter dressed. She lay on the floor, having made herself so completely limp that I could barely pick her up. When I finally got her onto the bed, she pivoted her feet every which way, by turns screaming and giggling, making it impossible to put on her socks. My husband and I finally asked our four-year-old son to distract her, and he sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” as we wiggled her into her clothes. I was desperate for my husband to deliver the kids to daycare so I could make it to my early meeting. As the door finally closed behind them and left me alone on the other side, a rush of relief, amusement, guilt, sadness, and longing overcame me.

Before I became a mother I felt things one at a time. I was irritated or drained or sad or happy or angry, one mood transforming into another as circumstances changed. But motherhood has brought with it a roiling ocean of feeling.

When I held my son for the first time, what I felt was not immediately recognizable to me as love—it was much closer to simmering terror or frenzy. I had supposed new motherhood would feel like falling in love and used to imagine hours spent contentedly holding my children while we gazed at one another in mutual adoration. There are those moments. But they punctuate something much deeper and more complex, something honed by days filled with exhaustion, self-doubt, disappointment, awe, joy, and the utter certainty that I am doing everything horribly wrong and nothing is in my control.

***

After my son was born, he cried for six weeks and slept only in tiny spurts. My milk poured right through him, and he screamed whenever I wasn’t nursing him. I had not realized that his crying would cut through me with such visceral pain, leaving me in a state of unrelenting urgency. I didn’t leave my house for weeks except to take him to the doctor. Everything was exhaustion and fear. I feared falling asleep while he nursed in the chair and dropping him, feared falling asleep while he nursed in the bed and smothering him. He screamed if my husband took him from me, so I simply did not sleep.

I thought constantly in those days of my maternal grandmother, who gave birth to her first child, a little boy named David, during the late 1940s in a sharecropper’s cabin in west Tennessee. My grandfather was a carpenter and cotton tenant—they were poor. She had no maternal or pediatric care, and the baby cried nonstop. Keeping the small, freezing house habitable while tending to a wailing newborn was grueling labor for my grandmother. One night she collapsed on her bed after finally getting the baby to sleep, and she slept all night—no cries disturbed her. She woke in the morning to find the baby dead. She never knew why.

My mother was the oldest of the seven children that survived birth and infancy. She’d been around babies her whole life and suspected something was amiss with my milk. One afternoon, I fed my son as much as I could manage and then asked my husband to watch him for an hour—he’d just have to endure the cries. It was a warm, sun-drenched April day, and I drove my car to a scenic view from one of the bluffs on the mountaintop where we live. It was the first time I’d been really alone since my son was born. I wept throughout my entire body, which was not yet recovered from childbirth. I looked in awe at the world below, not quite understanding how it continued on in glorious indifference.

My son, we discovered, had a milk protein allergy, and changing my diet had no effect. One morning, my mother showed up on my doorstep after I’d had yet another sleepless night. She had set out before sunrise and driven three hours to bring me a canister of hypoallergenic formula, which I’d been reluctant to try. I’d spent hours prior to birth studying La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which warned of a diminished bond between mothers and their bottle-fed babies:

This isn’t to say that mothers who are bottle-feeding don’t love and value their babies. But there’s a difference. When a formula-feeding mother hears her baby fuss or cry, she responds using her mind. When a breastfeeding mother hears her baby make the little sounds that mean he wants to nurse, her whole body chemistry responds.

The memory of this passage pained me with guilt and fear. I had been responding to my son’s cries on what felt like a cellular level—would that change? Would I rupture something irrevocably?

Too depleted to protest, I relented. He eagerly drained the bottle of formula, closed his eyes with a milk-drunk smirk of contentment, and napped for four hours. He was as tired as I was. I had planned to nurse until he turned two but didn’t make it to two months. For the first time since his birth, though, I felt relief. I knew our bond was not in danger, and in short order the breastfeeding books went into the trash. We slept, and my rested heart was finally able to well up with something recognizable as love, fierce and tightly bound to every other thing I was feeling. I realized that this love had been there all along, pulling me through.

***

My daughter was born when my son was two, amid my worries that he would take her arrival as an indication that he had not been enough for us. Now, of course, he has no recollection of life without her, and they hug and fight one another with equal ardor. I was intensely afraid she would repeat his long, sleepless crying—and intensely anxious that loving her would somehow be a betrayal to him.

She was the tiniest human I’d ever seen when she was born, barely 6 pounds and even lighter when I took her home. Her legs looked like bone covered in thin skin, but they quickly grew plump and strong. She slept throughout the first six weeks in long, decadent stretches and then stopped—now, at almost three, she still refuses to sleep through the night. She cried, of course, but never in the desperate, exhausted, hungry way my son had.

One morning, when she was four-weeks-old, I picked her up and thought she felt warm. The pediatrician had told us to call if she showed any signs of fever, which I dutifully did, unaware that my daughter and I would immediately be rushing via ambulance to a large children’s hospital in our nearby city, leaving my husband to stay with our son at home. A fever in a four-week-old, I quickly learned, is a medical emergency. We would be admitted to the hospital for at least 48 hours “out of an abundance of caution.”

I watched helplessly as several nurses failed to insert an IV into her little body so they could administer antibiotics intravenously. Otherwise, they would have to give her shot after shot multiple times a day. I steeled myself, pushing down the furious panic rising in my throat. They stuck her seven times before calling in a venipuncture specialist, a young woman who looked like she could be one of my college students. She studied my baby’s tiny body for a full fifteen minutes before making her attempt, delicately pressing down on the narrow veins with gloved fingers. On her first try she successfully inserted the IV into the top of my daughter’s thickly brunette head.

The nurse told me I’d need to leave the room so they could do a spinal tap to check for signs of meningitis. She took me to a small waiting room two doors down, where I discovered that my own fretting mother had arrived. “She won’t remember it,” the nurse assured me. But I’ll not forget. Every pealing scream that made its way from her chest to my ears became daggers stabbing through me, all of them telling me how deeply I loved my daughter, how bottomless my capacity had become.

***

These experiences with my children as newborns taught me what loving them would mean, the demands it would make of me, how utterly scared and powerless and spent it would make me feel.

The truth is that I’ve expended a great deal of effort in my life trying to mute the emotions that incessantly needle at my skin. I’ve been beleaguered by periods of melancholy, nagging feelings of worthlessness, and chronic self-doubt. I’d often looked forward to a day when such feelings could be packed away, replaced at last by contented wellbeing. In some unspoken way, I hoped that motherhood would bring this. But of course in its hardest moments it only amplifies the chorus of worry and insecurity echoing through my head. Motherhood made me acutely aware such a day would never come, but it also at last convinced me that I have no desire for it, that being alive, like anything worthwhile and beautiful, is very often just hard.

And yet, I cannot articulate in any adequate way the joy and happiness motherhood has given to me. These feel nothing like I expected them to—they are not simple. They require me each day to confront some new stretch of difficult emotion, some novel challenge that does not admit of an easy solution. I now understand that emotion is a tightly woven net, and loving my children has entangled me in every knotty inch of it.

Not long ago, we all sat down to dinner, spaghetti with a canned sauce of the sort I swore I’d never feed my kids before I had any. My daughter, resentful of being taken away from her play, picked at the plate and glowered. I impatiently urged her to eat, resorted to bribing her with the promise of a treat. “No, Stephanie!” she yelled as she threw the entire plate of food onto the floor. I wasn’t supposed to laugh—I have no idea what I was supposed to do—but I guffawed until my eyes ran with tears. I utterly adored her in that moment and never wanted to lose that girl there before me, just as she was.

The joy that motherhood can bring is nearly overwhelming in its intensity, making me ache at times with a feeling close to nostalgia. Moments are always passing by, irrevocable. The baby boy whose cries ripped me to shreds those first six weeks is gone, transformed into the boy who loved balls, the boy who loved fire engines, the boy who loved dinosaurs, and the boy who now loves wild animals. He no longer wants the songs he asked me to sing to him as a toddler, and one day soon he won’t want the stories I tell him now each night. Before long he will read books to himself instead of listening to them upon my lap.

It is this recurrent loss that, even if what comes next is welcome, makes the present moment precious but adds a sharp edge of sorrow to the joy it brings.

***

Sometimes a friend will ask, “How are the kids?”

“Utterly feral! Last night we thought we had our son settled into bed, but half an hour later he appeared in our doorway dressed as Batman. It took to nearly midnight to coax him to sleep. And our daughter has the stomach bug going around the daycare. I was rocking her a couple nights ago and she literally covered me from head to toe in vomit.”

It only strikes me after these words have left my mouth that they sound like complaints—and I suppose they are. I usually offer a corrective, “But, really, they’re wonderful!” I exit these conversations worried people are wondering what kind of mother I am. But what I’m saying beneath the surface of these words is how deeply I love my children. Exasperation is part and parcel of this love.

At the end of most days, it feels as if they have plugged themselves into me and drained out every single superfluous thing, leaving behind only the inmost core of who I am, a mass of raw feeling. I negotiate a tantrum, a property dispute, a bath-time squabble. I read books and tell stories and bandage skinned elbows. I cut off bread crusts and slice apple and pick up toys. I tend to fevers and nightmares and sleepless nights. I dance with them and give piggyback rides and let their giggles wash over me. I soothe hurt feelings and flesh. I negotiate the different parts of who I am and try to make them fit together. I learn how to live in a moment, to wring it dry. And yet sometimes I tell myself, “This, too, shall pass.” Through it all I worry and fear and laugh and cry and relish, chanting silently the refrain, “This is love, this is love, this is what love is.”  

© Stephanie McCarter
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Stephanie’s interview]