The night my first child was born the nurse handed him to me, pointed to a call button on the wall, and left the room. I was in a foreign country, recovering from an emergency c-section, with a strange creature in my arms and painful nipples. I could barely manage to drink from a glass of water and hold my baby at the same time. This did not feel natural. It felt difficult.
I used to revel in awkward experiences. I traveled to cities solo, ate alone in fine restaurants while staring self-consciously at the wall, and after marriage, moved with my husband to Iceland to start a new adventure in not-fitting-in. Motherhood, I found, is much the same, but a million times more emotionally taxing, and a lot more at stake. I’m not a ‘natural’ mother. I never held a baby before I was handed my own. The midwife’s urging to constantly talk with my child felt undoable: only crazy people talk to things that can’t respond. The baby lived in pajamas, I counted the minutes between naps, and our apartment was in constant chaos.
Gradually, the foreign experience of having a new little being clinging to me day-in and day-out started to feel thrilling. I wore the baby while making dinner, I made up ridiculous rhyming songs, and discovered my son could spend an hour playing in our recycling bin. Being a mother was a lot like traveling to a strange, new place. I was learning to speak the language, I was savoring the local delicacies, I was becoming more myself.
I also discovered that a baby is a fantastic social crutch, allowing me the freedom to dance in public and expose vulnerabilities to strangers. The biggest help was getting out and joining other first-time mothers who were in similar states of self-doubt. We met at coffee shops and discussed how difficult nursing was, what little sleep we were getting, and the tiny, daily miracles of our babies growing. I learned that nobody had the answers, and that I didn’t really want to hang with the mothers who ‘had it all figured out’ anyways. I enrolled my baby in swim and gym classes, and took him to playgroups where I sung songs in a language I couldn’t understand. I felt like I had a partner and we were discovering the world together.
When Marcus was 18 months old, we returned stateside. I knew a large part of our venturing abroad was over; we were going to be firmly entrenched in parent life, and there would be no jetting off with minimal baggage. Perhaps after traveling all over, and spending a few years living abroad, I was ready to feel comfortable, and really belong somewhere.
With the birth of my second child I felt like a native in motherhood. I let go of the rules a bit. I posted my toddler up with pretzels in front of a tv show while I cooked dinner over a hot stove with the baby in my arms. I knew I was lucky to have one of those ‘easy’ babies, and I had to hold myself back a bit from being the annoying mother with all the answers. Not that everything was smooth and natural. We struggled a lot during the pregnancy with possible diagnosis of microcephaly and growth restriction. I think this glimpse into the difficulties that exist beyond parenting a healthy child made us appreciate even the early exhaustion of parenting our infant.
In traveling, and in parent life, I often think of the parable of a lobster who, in order to grow, must get cramped in his shell. He feels uncomfortable, so he hides in order to discard his casing and grow a new one. There’s always a new struggle to face while parenting or pregnant, and always room to grow.
Casady Monroe moved to Portland in 2014 from Iceland. She is a former teacher, now stay-at-home mom, a wife to a software engineer, and mother to two children, ages 3 and 1. She spends her free moments sewing, knitting, baking, and volunteering for social justice nonprofits.