Unlearning What it Means to be a Mother

Unlearning What it Means to be a Mother | Kimberly Hetherington

As I’m pushing my pram down a busy street to get my baby daughter to nap, I come across a group of teenagers. They barely glance at me before walking off the sidewalk to give me extra space. How kind of them, I think. “Thank you!” I say hurriedly.

They don’t look at me, their conversation doesn’t stop. To them I’m just another mother and her baby, nothing worth noting. I used to think the same until I became a mother myself. I never used to look at a mother with a young baby and wonder how her body might be healing from birth, how exhausted she might be, or if she’s had any real food today. The label “mother” is an instant categorisation that takes away any shreds of who a person is beyond that. While I’m certainly proud and grateful to have a child, I’m also more than a mum. I suppose I never spent much time thinking about how it might feel to have my place in the world change with this role. My priorities have certainly shifted, and my time is fully absorbed by this small (incredibly cute) human whom I love with all my heart. But I’m still, strangely, me. I sort of expected that the day I would become a mother, a newer, stronger version of myself would be born too.

While I was pregnant, I consumed all the inspiring posts on Instagram that had me thinking I would be reborn into a warrior. My old self would be incinerated by the intensity of childbirth. I waited as eagerly for my own ‘rebirth’ as I did to meet my own child. I was curious and excited to meet this new ‘me’. A mother. A strong, fierce, badass lioness.

However, the birth of my daughter was not quite the epic story I envisioned. I found myself feeling disappointed for not being stronger, more in tune with my body, and more heroic in the face of extraordinary pain. Instead, I was derailed and squashed by it. I felt like I was drowning in a stormy ocean, being knocked back again and again by the waves and on the verge of passing out from lack of literal oxygen. I felt powerless. There was a point I genuinely wanted to have someone knock me out. I couldn’t take it anymore. Where was my strength in these moments? Where was my inner lioness? In the end, my baby girl did eventually come out happy and healthy. I suppose that’s all that matter, right?

I know many people didn’t have the births they planned and expected. It seems there are some pretty high expectations around birth and what it means to be a strong woman. There are some amazing stories that are meant to reframe birth as a powerful and life-affirming event that only the strongest of women can do effectively in a tub, with candles, and with zero pain relief. At least that’s the message I got. I know women who have had these wonderful Instagrammable births, and I know others who have definitely not. I think I’m somewhere in the middle of it all and yet I still feel disappointed. I wonder if I had unrealistic expectations on what it meant to birth a baby and become a mother. It was so inspiring during my pregnancy to read about rebirths and triumphant stories of strong mothers. Maybe I needed that type of content to pump me up. In all honesty I don’t think anything could have properly prepared me for birth, let alone becoming a mother. I was entering into completely new territory, like preparing to visit a planet I had only just learned about.

My daughter is almost 4 months old now and I am still waiting for the fierce lioness to kick-in. But it’s like parts of my old self are sneaking back in instead. Or maybe I am just rearranging. Maybe I am still in process. I’m starting to veer away from content around what it means to be a mum. Even those with the best intention. Mostly because I don’t know if I identify with the typical, or modern ideals of being a mum. I certainly don’t see myself as the traditional apron wearing stay at home mum who kisses her husband goodbye as he goes off to work, nor do I identify as the career-minded mum who picks up her kid from daycare with a glamorous outfit and her arms stretched out wide. I still feel like me except now I have a cute baby on my hip.

It’s made me question what motherhood means to me. Not what society expects of me, or what the traditional role looks like. Maybe becoming a mother is a role that doesn’t automatically happen the surreal moment when your child is in your arms. There are so many other ways to becoming a mum anyway – whether through adoption, fostering, surrogacy, or step parenting. Maybe the process of becoming a mother is a slow reconstruction of self; of learning to put another’s needs before your own while still finding ways to honour yourself. Of nurturing your child to your best ability but also making sure to tend to your own dreams and visions. Of giving compassion and patience to your children but also, more importantly, to yourself. Of seeing how simultaneously unimportant and insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things and yet the entire world of your baby. Of feeling time fall between our fingers, wishing it could slow down so we could catch our breath as we watch our baby grow and change before our very eyes.

Maybe it’s learning to tune into our own innate intelligence and intuition rather than seeing what else is out there demanding our attention. Maybe it’s simply unlearning all that it means to be a mother and just being our own version. Finding peace with that. Whatever that might be.

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