Ironically, a few hours after I published this breastfeeding post I discovered a huge, hot lump on my breast. Not long after, I felt as if a Mack truck had plowed over me, and a part of me was regretting I was still a nursing mama. I had the chills, nausea, and I ached all over. While I’ve had clogged milk ducts before, this was my first experience with full-blown mastitis. I’m on antibiotics now and am feeling much better, but I’m still supposed to be taking it easy. Thankfully, we have a great babysitter and a generous Pop who is outside playing with my kids as I write. (If you’re reading this, Nana, don’t worry. I’m resting on my side while typing.)
Mastitis is no fun. My breast is inflamed and when I nurse on the infected side, it feels like fire is leaking through my nipple. The slightest bump or touch sends shooting pain through my body, and yesterday it hurt to lift my right arm.
A probable cause of the infection involves a blow to my chest. My 3-year-old accidentally elbowed me hard in the right breast on Monday. I had a lump there, which likely led to a clogged duct and it all kind of snowballed from there.
As I rested in bed yesterday with a hot compress, I received an email from a friend who is a new mom to multiples. Reading her honest words pierced my heart because I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed and to find yourself in a dark place instead of basking in baby bliss. Postpartum depression robs you of the joy of those sweet early weeks of motherhood. Yet, even when you don’t have to deal with depression or even the baby blues, if you expect to be happy every day during those early weeks of motherhood – or during any phase of motherhood – you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
“Being a mom is so hard,” my friend confided.
No doubt about that, thinks the mom with the achy body and hot breast.
We’re fooling ourselves if we try to make being a mom out to be all sepia-toned all of the time.
I had another new-mom friend ask me a few years back why no one had ever told her how hard those first few months would be. She felt like she was on a never-ending cycle of feeding, sleeping, and changing diapers, and she felt cut off from the rest of the world.
Then there’s a friend of mine who is way beyond the baby stage and is actually pining for those sleepless nights because at least she could comfort her whimpering wee ones by holding them close. Now that her kids are teens they’re often aloof, and she feels like she can’t connect with them.
Finally, one of my friends is pregnant with her first and is due any day now. (Please keep her in your prayers. She really wants to avoid induction, but she may be induced if she doesn’t go in to labor by tomorrow morning.) This pregnancy has worn her out, partly because she’s been working long shifts as a physician. She has this week off and what she really wants to do is rest, but everyone keeps telling her to have fun and to do things she won’t be able to do after she has a baby. “They say I’ll never be able to go to the store again,” she says.
Recently, another dear friend confessed to me that she just seesaws between feeling listless and angry when she’s dealing with her boys.
I ache for all these moms. And it’s not a physical, mastitis ache, but a visceral one. No one had to tell me how hard motherhood was going to be. I discovered it all my own.
It’s a different kind of hard, too. It’s not brain surgery hard, though I’ve obviously never performed brain surgery. But motherhood isn’t about perfect precision or highly-specialized training or expertise, although the way so many of us moms are as focused on our children as a laser beam you might have you think differently.
It’s not marathon hard either. I do speak from experience here. Running a marathon is hard, but you can train for covering all those miles. Your body miraculously adapts, and it’s only yourself you have to convince to move forward. You’re not dealing with one or more humans with purpose who frequently offer nothing but maddening defiance to thwart your every move. And, yes, 26.2 miles is long, but after a little less than four hours you’ve crossed the finish line. It’s time to celebrate. You finished the race. Labor might be like a marathon but not day-to-day mothering. That’s different. Harder.
Is there ever a finish line to cross as a mother? My mom says even though her children are grown and all on their own, she thinks about them throughout her day. When one of us is hurt or faces a disappointment or a health scare, her mama bear instinct kicks in. She wants to protect and heal, but she’s often powerless to do anything. That’s an altogether different kind of hard than the sheer exhaustion I face being a mother to little ones.
I thought about my post that denounced People magazine sensationalizing extended breastfeeding by labeling it as “extreme” along with the practice of pre-mastication and encapsulating your placenta, and I realized something.
We’re all extreme parents.
Motherhood is the ultimate extreme sport. There’s potential for danger. Toddlers constantly trying to kill themselves. Babies scratching your eye in the middle of the night resulting in a corneal abrasion (one of the many casualties I have suffered as a mama). There’s the risk of loving and not getting much or anything in return.
But there’s a different kind of danger, too. There’s the danger in telling yourself being a mom is only hard for you. Or worse, that this mothering business is tough work because there’s something wrong with you. Don’t believe you possess some personal defect because you’re feeling alone, sad, angry, frustrated, frazzled, burned out or because your kids sometimes get on your nerves or because you didn’t instantly bond with your baby or your teens roll their eyes at you.
Being a mother is hard for us all. In different ways perhaps, but it’s not all roses and sunshine for any of us. Not all of the time anyhow. Being a new mother is hard. Being a mom of one or three or seven is hard. Being a mom of tiny tyrants is hard, but so is mothering teens and even young adults (and older adults, too, I imagine!).
Sacrificial love doesn’t come easy for any of us. Neither does letting go of our own power, our own agenda as well as our old life. Mothering requires us to do all of these things and to do them when we’re often skimping on sleep or even good nutrition (surely our bodies deserve more than grazing on our children’s leftover bread crusts).
Motherhood also requires a hopeful heart. A heart that harvests hope that our children will grow up in spite of us. And they will. Bet on it.
Clinging to shreds of hope helps us hold onto our sanity. There’s hope that we can find healing for our depression. There’s hope our children will one day sleep through the night. There’s hope we can get some help and have a break when we feel ready to call it quits.
Staying in the moment will help worn out mamas, too. When we’re suffering, we can’t start to wonder if things will always be this bad. That would crush us. Nor can we dream about when things were easier. We have to look at the now. We have to figure out a way to seek out joy right where we’re at. It’s there. I promise.
Sometimes it shows up in the most unexpected places like when you inform your 3-year-old that she is not the queen of the world, and she says emphatically clearly not believing you, “Don’t tell me that!” You can’t help but chuckle.
Or, when you have to will yourself out of bed so you can go pick up your oldest child from an activity, and you’re sitting at a red light and it feels like your breast is on fire and you’re shivering with the chills despite the spring sunshine, and you hear the loud blast of a car horn and look over to see an adorable, old man who is sitting in a low-riding red sports car. He looks over at you, waves, and smiles a gummy smile that’s clearly missing a few teeth, and you find yourself thanking God for that sweet, old man and that if you hadn’t had to go pick up your daughter you would have missed someone who clearly sees age as a meaningless number.
So to all moms, I’ll say this. What you’re doing is extreme, and it demands exceptional energy, love, and faith.
And to brand-spankin’ moms who feel hopelessly overwhelmed. This too shall pass. To the moms of twins, I’ve never had two babies and I can’t imagine the juggling act it requires. But they won’t always be feeding constantly or always in need of mama’s soothing arms. I use this adage a lot when I’m feeling like I can’t endure a certain stage one day longer like how ever since turning 3, my Mary Elizabeth has started throwing titanic tantrums daily. This too shall pass. This too shall pass.
But if you’re waiting for something that doesn’t feel right to pass or there’s something sucking every ounce of happiness out of you, or if you’re really hurting and unable to climb out of a dark pit, seek help. Now. Don’t be ashamed. This doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or that you’re not a super mom. You just may need some help to feel super again.
This goes for my mama friend who is tired of her “crazy emotions” (her words, not mine). Jesus – God Himself – cried out to his Father and begged, “Take this cup away from me.” In my life, it’s more like me crying out, “Please let me sleep for more than five fragmented hours!”
When we’re faced with mastitis, when we’re suffering from the blues or full-blown depression, when we feel alone and unsupported in our roles as mothers, when we feel hopeless and like we’ve ruined our children for life, when we lose a child to miscarriage, sickness, or an accident, remember this: You are in a passion. Don’t feel any need to apologize for bleeding. God doesn’t ask that of you. Neither should anyone else. Like Jesus, you are in a position of powerlessness that you did not choose but in which God asks you to be faithful. Jesus fell physically. As a mother, you’re going to fall, too. He yelled, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You will, too. But when you do, that’s when Simon of Cyrenes and Veronicas will step forward to help you. When they do, let them help you.
Mothers must give, but you do not have to live a martyr’s life day after day.
As for my friend and mama -to-be who is eagerly anticipating the birth of her child but who is also just a little fearful of what’s to come, here’s the honest truth: Everything you’re so afraid of about having a baby is probably true. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to stretch you (in more ways than one, I’m afraid). Your life will be different, but different isn’t always bad.
Yes, you will lose a little. But you’ll gain a lot. Not just a sweet baby, a child to nurture and love, a vessel of hopes and dreams, but you will gain a new life, a new purpose, a new joy.
“When she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world.” John 16:21
Oh, and you will go to a store again. Young babies are actually very portable. Tote them everywhere with you while they’ll still fall asleep surrounded by noise and activity.
Everything won’t always be peachy. As a mom, you’re certain to acquire some hurt, some aches, and bruises.
There will be tears, tantrums, wayward children, and crying jags (from you and your child). There will be days you wish you could erase. There will be holes in your children’s lives – some of them gaping – that you alone cannot fill.
But like a seed buried beneath the wintertime earth, it in the dark spaces where the growth begins to happen.
You will never be the same. Loving your children will cost you.
It’s okay to be afraid, but it’s also necessary to recognize this giving and changing and becoming as a good thing, a beautiful thing.
We become parents not only because we are creatures of love who possess an innate desire to love and to be loved, but because we need to be taught how to love. And learning lessons in love is not easy. Growing into our mothering shoes is hard because this love does not always come naturally. It’s messy. It hurts. It’s terrifying. It is indeed extreme. It breaks you only to build you into the woman you were meant to become. A woman who is neither too hard nor too soft. An exceptional woman who is strong without having sharp edges. A woman who will always be called a mother.