I became a mother on March 5, 2010, nine weeks earlier than expected. I gave birth via emergency caesarean section to a two pound baby girl who did not cry at birth. Who the NICU doctors who stand darkly around my bed say might not make it through the night.
Exclusive: #IMOMSOHARD’s Kristin and Jen talk things no one else will admit out loud
She survived the night, and when she was stable the next morning, a lactation consultant encouraged me to go to a meeting for new moms. I went. I went there because I was a new mom and I thought that was what new moms were supposed to do.
Being in that room was like scraping gravel over an open wound. The other three new mothers in the room had their babies next to them. Their babies were breathing on their own. Mine was in the NICU, hooked up to machines that served as a lifeline. Instantly I knew I had made a mistake. I wasn’t just a new mom. I was something else, and trying to pretend I wasn’t broke my heart.
Going to that meeting didn’t teach me how to breastfeed my baby – in retrospect, I shouldn’t have gone. But going made me realize that “mom” is just the beginning. Under Mom’s umbrella, there are an endless number of subgroups, and acknowledging their differences can be an act of kindness — or at least validation.
The next tag I wore is more common than premature mom, but also more easily written off. For a time I was even guilty of sending the mother home.
The end of my maternity leave coincided with the end of my daughter’s NICU stay. When my company called me back, I didn’t go as planned. How could I when she had finally come home? (I recognize how lucky I was to stay home and am forever grateful.) The moment I swapped blazers for leggings, I found myself justifying my choice to quit my legal job. and answer questions about what I’ve been doing all day. in a way that I never had to do when walking into an office every day – like my day was suddenly all TV and candy. As if I had to prove something. As if I was something less now that my hours were no longer billable.
The person to whom I justified myself the most? Myself.
Somewhere on the road to adulthood, I had learned that work only has value if it is paid, that success only counts if it is validated from the outside. Somehow I got the message that staying home to raise kids wasn’t enough. But caring for my daughter who was struggling to breastfeed, nap, sleep through the night, reach milestones, seemed like nothing to me. I felt like I was giving more of myself than I ever had to before, and being able to give that, give what she needed, felt like success. As a stay-at-home mom, I learned a new definition of success. More importantly, I learned that there was no hierarchy in motherhood, no title that commanded more respect than another.
Just a few years into my time as a stay-at-home mom, when the fog of infant and toddler exhaustion began to lift, my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. A year and a half later, he passed away and I was quietly and darkly introduced to a moms club very few (thankfully) see: the single widowed moms club. The price of admission to this club is high, the stakes high, the heartbreak immeasurable.
In the role of single mom, I was called upon to fill a space that had been built for two. As a single parent, my relationship with the word “strength” has changed. I learned that strength had nothing to do with being or feeling strong. Lifting heavy objects or even standing under pressure. I learned that strength is something much calmer. It’s sitting in a dark room trying to put a child’s heart back together while your heart is in pieces. It’s making room in the storm of your own grief to absorb some of your child’s. It’s sitting alone at the parent-teacher conference and at the graduation and dinner table and being brave enough to take up all the space.
As a widowed, single mother, I also learned the strength of wearing a label and seeking out others with the same label. This lesson was invaluable. The community of widowed single mothers, I found normalized thoughts and feelings that seemed quite abnormal. They couldn’t rebuild what was broken, but I found that sometimes all we need to know is that we’re not rebuilding alone.
I never planned on wearing the labels of premature mom or stay-at-home mom or single mom. I thought I would just be “Mom”. While I can’t say I’m grateful to have carried any of these labels – that of widow and single mother in particular – I’m grateful to have learned this: there is power in carrying. a label, to give yourself the grace to be the version of “Mom” that you are today.
But also, there is power in saying that the label doesn’t matter. What matters most is to remember that you are not defined by the single title that shines brightest at the moment. Because motherhood is more than a title, a role, a label. It’s a journey, almost always littered with difficult parts, almost always littered with incredible parts.
What I learned is that motherhood is visceral and the only constant is the light and love that drives it all.