You Want the Truth? You Can’t Handle the Truth — The Relentlessness of Motherhood
An Equally Unrelenting Father’s Day 2019 Tribute
There is a lot of information about becoming a parent readily available: books, posts, podcasts, and professional advice with instructions, tips, and recommendations. You can find a billion lists of what to buy for every stage, and a zillion answers to everything you ever wanted to know and probably shouldn’t ask in the first place, at least not to Google.
Other real-life parents may even tell you the truth, if you ask the right questions. But you don’t know what you don’t know, so you probably won’t ask the right questions. We didn’t.
There’s a lot of discussion about emotional labor too: that’s the unpaid, invisible, mental load, emotional burden, domestic and life management we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. It’s taking care of the details now and planning and facilitating the future as well. Being a parent and emotional labor go hand-in-hand.
My husband and I had relatively realistic expectations about all of it. We thought we knew what we were signing up for. After all, we were late to the party, behind many of our friends, and over-prepared in so many ways.
We trained, took classes, read books, watched videos, interviewed other parents, and joined mothers of multiples. And still, it turns out we were so embarrassingly clueless in so many vital ways. As it turns out, life before kids (BK) not only bared no resemblance to life after kids (AK). It’s shocking really, how different our lives have become, in good ways and in bad. But do you know what caught me most by surprise? The relentlessness.
No one mentioned the merciless all-consuming pace. Motherhood, fatherhood, parenthood — it never lets up.
The constant intensity begins in pregnancy, or even earlier for those actively trying to conceive. Everything shifts when you can no longer view sex as pleasure, then an answered prayer turns into a frenzy of preparation, which morphs into having to pee a thousand times a day, and more each night.
Then more prayers, with every breath, please God a healthy baby, mixed with the theatrics of watching your body change in ways you anticipated, ways that surprise you, and sometimes in ways that freak you out. It’s unnerving really, how it takes over your life before it even happens.
And then the baby shows up, or babies in our case, twins. Then the babies show up and demand all of your time, energy, and emotion for 24 hours a day before you even know them, before you know what to do with them, before you’re sure of anything, with no regard for your healing, your exhaustion, your sanity, or your marriage.
At about the 2 or 3-week mark, I ran into my favorite neighbor at the mailbox while leaving my house for the first time. She asked how the babies were, and I raved about how perfect and amazing and beyond words they were. She asked how my husband was, and I started to cry as I realized that for the previous five years, after spending nearly every moment together, my husband and I hadn’t seen each other.
Since the babies invaded, we tagged each other in. One slept while the other cared for the babies. One fed the babies while the other attended to other aspects of adulting. When we did talk, we were pissed. Tired, hungry, delirious, and so far out of our element that we blamed each other. When I started to sob uncontrollably, she hugged me and backed away slowly. I don’t blame her. I’m pretty sure I forgot the mail too.
The irony of it was we knew what was coming! At least we thought we knew…
For the next few months, the babies became even more demanding if you can believe it, they slept less, ate more, needed more attention, affection, and burps. So many burps, so many diapers. We sacrificed showers, dog time, sleep, and pretty much every other (optional) activity to serve them.
When we felt like we were drowning, we reached out for a life raft, and others laughed and said, “you’ll survive.” Or surely, they must have offered to come over for an hour or two, but we probably passed because we couldn’t get ourselves, the babies, and the house presentable enough to receive visitors. Or maybe we declined because we didn’t have the energy to converse, forgot about the invitation, or couldn’t remember the date. Everything was a blur.
We had two sets of parents to help too, but to say they forgot what it was to have newborns in the house is an understatement. It was so many years ago, and, without any prior knowledge of twins, they volunteered early on, came out with scars, and asked us to wait a while before we asked for help again. It was too much for everyone.
I wanted, we wanted, help, but when it came time to allow anyone else to hold, change, or feed the babies, we couldn’t let go. I can’t remember if it was a trust issue, timing, instinct or what, but I would find myself holding the babies while someone came over to help, nearly falling asleep while we chatted.
When I finally relented, I would watch them like a hawk as they held my babies an arms-length away, but the minute the babies would cry, I’d grab them back and resume my martyrdom. I wanted help, but I didn’t know what I could give up, and I was too exhausted to figure it out.
And my body hurt, in places too personal to mention. I was embarrassed to discuss all the stuff going on with my husband, girlfriends, or medical team, so I suffered alone until I was past the breaking point. Again, help seemed like too much work.
You want me to come in for an examination? With two babies? With two car seats? What if they get hungry? What if they scream the entire time in the car? How long will it take? Ok, 2 hours round trip. That’s 4–6 diapers and wipes, 2 bottles, 2 backup bottles, and I’ll have to find some place and some time to nurse or pump too, so we’ll have to allow for that. But what if I can’t figure out the car sets or the strollers or something else? And if traffic is terrible, that’s probably 3–4 hours which will put us past our sleep schedule, which will make the rest of the day and night a nightmare, so I’ll just tough it out for a few more days instead. Thanks anyway.
The what-ifs compounded because we were in the steepest learning curves of our lives, and too exhausted to process anything. When someone texted to visit the babies for example, it was a spiral of questions and implications: Were they contagious? Where had they recently traveled? Were their vaccinations current? Could I summon the effort to shower first? Could I find the number to call the cleaning lady to do something about my house? Could I find my phone? Could I remember her name? Was there enough clean laundry to cover the tops and bottoms of all the bodies in the house if we did get clean? What if? What if?!
When my husband went away for a couple of days on business the first time, we called in backup. His sister and sister-in-law came and admittedly, I didn’t use them as much or as effectively as I should have, but all four of us were comforted knowing I wasn’t home alone with twins.
The next time he left on a biz trip, I had the hang of it a little more, but the twins always wanted the same thing at the same time — eat, sleep, play, poop, burp. It was by design, we were training them as directed, but I was outnumbered, and it left me feeling unqualified. I wanted to be good at motherhood from day one and foolishly thought it was possible.
When my husband left the third time, I wore one baby in the Bjorn and held the other one and danced in the kitchen to French café music each night until they slept. I was finding my way and each victory made me feel like a Rockstar.
By the way, I think they make double Bjorns now, and you wear one baby on the front, one on the back. Genius!
I slept when they slept, also as instructed, but no one told me that patching an hour here with two hours there, and startling awake with the smallest sound never amounts to anything. My eyes hurt. Have you ever been so tired that your eyes hurt from not closing?
When I couldn’t wait any longer for a shower, I would put them both in their Rock’n’Plays (which were great for baby acid reflux, but alas, have since been recalled) and set them outside the glass where they could see me, and I could see them.
I’d wash my body, wash and condition my hair, and shave my legs as fast as possible. Or rather as quickly as possible for a person who never slept, which is to say it probably felt fast, but didn’t look it. I’d jump out for every sound, check on them, then jump back in. Occasionally, they’d fall asleep, and instead of enjoying the shower, I’d use the bonus time to put on lotion or look at myself in the mirror. I didn’t recognize the person looking back at me.
Think back to the amount of time you looked in the mirror BK. You might have inspected pimples, lines, or a stray gray hair. Maybe you tweezed, exfoliated, or moisturized. Perhaps you stared at your reflection, practiced your smile, discovered your good side, or rehearsed delivering news. I used to contemplate new hair colors or watch as I received a perfect blowout. Imagine the luxury of that time! I’m both grateful that I had it and disappointed that I squandered it.
If you’ve ever wondered why parents of newborns look like shit, it’s not just that only survival skills become essential, it’s that they haven’t seen themselves in a mirror for days or weeks or longer. And then when they sneak a peek, they are caught off guard to such a degree that they can’t deal. When I tried to fix it, I was met with the abrupt reminder that the real world exists and in fact is heavily scheduled.
How long must I wait to get an appointment? But I haven’t had a massage/hair color/mani/pedi since I was 32 weeks pregnant and the baby is 16 weeks! You don’t speak weeks?! Well neither did I 48 weeks ago, but now I know everything! So many things I never thought I would need to know and now I apparently must learn everything there is to know about babies and development and life … (cries until they hang up).
Thank god for texting and booking online, right? What did parents do before Amazon subscribe-and-save and Target next-day delivery?
And there are so many appointments: follow up exams for both babies, vaccinations, post-partum exams for mom. Furthermore, if you need a specialist for any reason, from sleep-training, to lactation, you must first abide by the normal process of selecting a provider, determining insurance eligibility, evaluating their fit, etc.; all while not sleeping, not trusting anyone, and with two screaming babies demanding your attention.
Then, you must endure the appointment with two screaming babies demanding your attention. Ok, they didn’t scream all the time, but imagine they did, for effect. Sometimes it was a little whimper, but the effect was the same. My boobs would leak, and my full self would lose track of everything else until they were taken care of.
Oh, and when/if your baby has a complication, like a heart murmur at 3 days discovered during routine pediatric rounds that turns into a congenital heart diagnosis at two weeks? Then plan to add in cardiologist appointments.
Imagine trying to stay up for two weeks, on the biggest bender of your life, in Las Vegas, then hearing devastating news as you are about to board your return flight. Landing, feigning attentiveness, consciousness, and enough poise to choose a cardiologist. Then learning enough about a condition (that you didn’t previously know existed) to navigate the care, treatment, and follow-up for your brand-new baby.
That’s what it felt like. Of course, we weren’t on a bender, but the experience did reinforce another realm of cluelessness we didn’t know existed. We had no choice but to rally. Let’s rally is the parenthood motto. Making life-altering decisions, with potentially life-altering outcomes will sober you up real fast.
Before long, weeks turn into months, and it was time to return to work for me and real life resumed in some ways for me, but not exactly my husband, who became at SAHD. For all of us though, 1–2-hour blocks of sleep turn into 3–4-hour blocks, which was a dramatic increase for our health. Then, one day I saw my husband in the shower and didn’t hate him for getting clean; I actually noticed he was naked and felt the possibility of a stirring of something that once upon a time led to this mess.
All the while, still healing, adapting, and getting to know our babies, while working, traveling, and leading a team. It was a lot. It felt like my old life in some ways, but I also began to grasp that I had fallen so far, fast, and deeply in love with my babies that the rest of the world ceased to exist. I was swallowed up whole by their needs, their demands, and their pace. It was breathtaking, and relentless.
And I wanted to take a breath, and I imagined we would, so I kept setting goals and moving the goal posts. If we can just make it until we get the hang of nursing, until grandma gets here, until their 6-week appointment, until they can hold their heads up, until they can crawl, until they walk, until they can sleep through the night, until they can talk…
And then it had been a year, and then 18 months, and we were pregnant again, and I thought, I had convinced myself in fact, that this time it will be different. With baby number three, it won’t be such a production. There won’t be two babies to feed, nurse, change, and rock to sleep. Nope, this time will be like the movies, and we’ll snuggle all day and stare into our newborn’s eyes and take cute posed IG photos like the mom down the street.
And instead, as I nursed our third at home the first week, I looked down and saw my foot pushing the other rocker, rocking the invisible fourth baby, because I don’t know how to care for just one. Which turned out to be a blessing because we still had the twins, now demanding toddlers, that still needed us every second of every day anyway.
Three was our lucky number, but enormously more complicated. We had to buy a new vehicle that could accommodate three car seats, two parents, and a 100-lb dog, plus cargo room. Enter the minivan. We became minivan people.
Then we had to find strollers that would accommodate two 20-something- pounders and one teeny tiny baby that couldn’t yet hold up her head. Was that a triple? Or maybe we could push a double and wear the baby? Or maybe we should just give up the dog walks completely? Gratefully, we didn’t give anything up. We just figured out our new normal (again).
And this brand of relentlessness wasn’t new, but it was different. It was healing from a c-section this time and not knowing which baby would need us each night, but banking that we were still a couple of years away from sleeping through the night. Our longest streak is still less than a week.
We left the house earlier this go’ round too though because we knew how to do it. And we had the gear. So much gear. And I could time my boobs down to the minute, which if you’re a mom, is pretty cool. Unless someone cried at the grocery store. In that case, it didn’t matter if it was my baby or not, it meant game over. Time to go home and nurse the babies. So, we got out of the house, but didn’t go far.
And there were new logistics to sort out, like a part-time nanny so we both could continue to invest in our careers and get a breather. Luckily, we poached one from dear friends, because we would have never had the courage/time/diligence to hire our own.
I had developed so many new skills, like epic levels of empathy and compassion, the ability to successfully multi-task even with three kids screaming, and I knew how to nurse and walk the dog at the same time without offending the neighbors, but most of my new skills weren’t resume-worthy.
When asked about problem-solving for example, the first thing that I thought of was the time I figured out what to do when I found myself on the toilet in a public restroom, with my three children watching, then realizing I needed to change my tampon.
If that got you squeamish, you can’t handle motherhood. Because motherhood is not for wimps and there is absolutely no privacy. Did I mention it’s relentless? F*ing relentless. And perfect (I thought as I typed that, because it was also true, but it undermines my position, so I won’t elaborate).
It happens so fast. Suddenly six years have flown by and the first two graduated from kindergarten and the third completed pre-school and what do you mean I have to let someone else influence, teach, and care for them for 7 hours each weekday going forward? I’m not ready! I don’t want to give them up yet.
Every moment of the last six years was not enough, as it turns out.
Every moment for the next 60 years will not be enough. What do you mean we only get one lifetime together? These are our babies! My everything.
Please let me do it again, let me do the first six years again now that I know what I’m doing. I promise not to mess up so often or complain so much or crave sleep. Now that I know how fast it goes, please, please, let me just have a few more hours each day before friends and teachers, bullies and besties, new words and new ideas, infiltrate our lives. I’ll take more pictures, make more videos, be more attentive, more patient, gentler, and love them harder. Why is it happening so quickly?
This is the part of the story were surely motherhood gets less relentless, right? You’d think that if you aren’t living it. And on paper it does. On paper, there are hours that they are at school each weekday, not in my care, but it doesn’t make it any easier or make me less busy. It just condenses their neediness into shorter periods and amps up the intensity. And that’s the best-case scenario. If they have learning disabilities or other challenges to navigate, then all bets are off.
In the mornings (or the night before when I’m feeling on my A-game), there’s prepping three lunches and snacks and backpacks, signing notes and checking homework, and washing and drying and laying out uniforms. There’s making sure the right shoes are ready and knowing that the right shoes change every day.
And to anyone outside this house, I promise, you couldn’t figure out the pattern of which shoes are right, even if it was your job. But it is my job and I know. I know these children inside and out, upside and down, and their happiness and sorrow are my happiness and sorrow. We are more connected than I ever even knew to wish for.
There’s a workout at 5:15am, so I can be back at 6:15am before they are awake, and then waking them up just so, so they have time to adjust and start their day with a happy heart, so they don’t feel rushed, overwhelmed, or groggy.
There’s preparing breakfast and trying to make time to eat something myself. Even though many times, it’s eat vs. clean up and I don’t want to come back to a disaster, so a clean kitchen and a late breakfast usually win. Then there’s the commute to school, conversations about the little things and the big things, and downplaying my reaction when it gets unexpectedly heavy, serious, or becomes a teaching moment.
Then it’s dropping off two kids at one school, squeezing in a 30-minute dog walk, then dropping off the third kid too. Then I have 2.5 hours to shower, clean, grocery shop, make and take conference calls or meetings, schedule appointments, make progress on projects or assignments, and prepare lunch for the little one.
She typically has a 15-minute window after pickup before she melts down in a puddle of exhaustion because pre-school is hard ladies and gentlemen. And, if there’s anything else — like a dishwasher that needs fixed or a car that needs serviced or a dentist appointment to squeeze in — my 2.5 hours turns into minutes before pickup.
And then, and then! It’s only noon-ish and I have a few minutes to feed her, and she wants to tell me everything there is to know about pre-school between bites. And even though emails, work, projects and commitments are calling, I know that if I don’t pay attention right now, right here, she won’t come to me later, when she’s a pre-teen and teen, and therein lies the new relentlessness.
The relentlessness of being present, ignoring the feeling of being pulled in two directions, and surrendering to the moment, knowing my children already don’t physically need us every minute anymore, but emotionally, they need us even more. They need our promise, our attention, and our trust.
They are studying us, watching our words, actions, and responses, taking it all in. Our marriage informs their beliefs about love and affection, our patience builds up their reservoirs of resilience and strength, our interest in them fuels their worthiness and courage for a lifetime.
So, I stay present, against my instincts to eat, sleep, or take a moment for myself and my business. I listen to the story again, or snuggle a little longer, or watch Frozen together one more time. I postpone my work and reschedule my thing and let go of my agenda. And when I don’t, I regret it. I give all of myself, as often as I can, and then I hop in the car and we commute to the other school to pick up the other two children.
I try get there 20 minutes early, so the poor dog gets another walk that she’s been waiting all day for. I pick up the twins and listen to the stories and struggles, because kindergarten is also hard ladies and gentlemen.
They lead real conversations, with interesting observations, and important questions, already wise beyond their years, and I focus and listen for the things they say and the things they aren’t telling me too. Like when a boy tried to kiss our daughter, and when our son wasn’t picked for the soccer team.
I try to remember their exact words and feelings, in part because I want to make sure I get it right when I tell my husband (and probably my mother) later, and in part, because it’s the payoff — they are becoming, and it is glorious to behold. In fact, it’s the best thing in the whole world and I want to savor the details.
When we walk in the door after school, I usually attempt to mitigate the exploding backpacks, the three stacks of schoolwork, all of which must be hung immediately on the gallery wall or at least analyzed at length, leftover food and snack containers, and leaky water bottles.
They dive into all the things they must do right now, like play with their friends, eat a snack because they’re starving, show me their bug bite from recess, or look for their other shoes. I know just the ones they are looking for.
And then I can choose to play with them, or write some more, or listen to them, or jump on a webinar, but all the choices have opportunity costs and consequences. I can give them my time and my energy, or I can give it to my career or my clients, or to my husband or my health, but I will run out eventually. There is only so much of me to go around.
And then, daddy is home! I instantly perk up. And there’s kisses and wrestles and snugs and everyone talking over everyone while I make dinner. And we eat and take the dog for a short one to poop one more time. And wait, did we do homework? Or was that yesterday? Did we clean our rooms or throw our laundry in the dryer? Or is it still sitting wet in the wash?
How old can they be and still fit in the tub at the same time? When does it become inappropriate? Surely whatever water is wasted by three kiddos splashing it over the edge is more than made up by time, efficiency, and giggles, right? Are giggles a metric of success in your house too?
And then, my friends, the pièce de résistance, tuck time, aka, bedtime routines. Everyone wants the first tuck. They run upstairs to find their favorite blankets, stufties, and pjs. I scramble around like someone with my hair on fire, loading the dishwasher, packing the backpacks, sweeping for the 11th time today.
Or maybe I just sit for 7 minutes and absentmindedly scroll through Instagram, my other happy place. Did I poop today? Shit. Literally. There’s my tea mug still full since 6:20am, not even a little bit warm 12+ hours later. Shall I drink it anyway? Nah, no time. Maybe tomorrow. Dump it out. Throw it in the dishwasher. Run upstairs, lay out my workout clothes, grab warm towels, rinse them, dry them, brush their hair, and then the battle begins.
Exhausted, they all want a bedtime snack or anything really to stay awake. They want to spend time with mom and dad, and we crave it too, and all of us are trying to push through, but we can’t fight it anymore. We all hit our wall at about the same time, and when that happens, they need us again. They want us in their room for snuggles and stories. We get the lights, temperature, and the covers just right, and for one child, it’s pure bliss as they drift off to dreamland warm and snuggly with mama right there.
And most nights dad tucks one and mom tucks another, and then we switch, rotating in the third. But sometimes, because we are outnumbered, the third falls asleep before we make it to their room. It’s harder on me than it is on them.
See, I want to hug them every night and tell them I love them every morning. I want them to ask me to continue the story I made up from the night before. I want them to tell me “just one more thing about my day mama” because I know this thing will be the real thing, the thing they most wanted to say that they had to work up the courage all day to share. This is when I see glimpses of who they will become and what matters to them.
So, it’s that, the relentlessness of the day, every day, contrasted with the fleetingness of the years. It’s the relentlessness of always being on, always being a role model, always modeling what you want them to know, see, and be, always opening the door to the incredible possibilities of the future, all the while savoring motherhood, living your own best life. It’s so life-affirming and practically impossible to do it all. Yet rally, we must.
It’s three hours of research after they drift off to sleep to discover which swimming school has six-year-olds in one pool near-ish the four-year-olds in another, so that you can keep an eye on both pools at the same time, and be in compliance with the parent-in-the-room rule.
Also, you know there’s no chance one can sit on the sidelines for 45 minutes and wait while watching brother and/or sister swim. Plus, all three of them want to see me watching every time they look up, to make sure I clap and cheer and wave for their bobs, dives, and good strong kicks. And I wouldn’t miss it.
It’s choosing the right hikes that test the twins but don’t push the little one so much that she can’t keep up or last until the end. It’s choosing trips where you don’t all have to be 40" to ride the rides.
It’s letting them each be who they are and who they want to be, while encouraging them to conform and compromise just enough that they all get their needs met, because we are a family and sometimes it’s about the collective too. And it often means sacrificing 1:1 time between parent and child for the blossoming relationship between siblings. In some ways, their sibling relationships are already more critical, and I have mixed feelings about that.
My husband had cancer, which is not so much a footnote as it is the reason that we waited so long to have children, and why we had them so close together, and context for why I pay such close attention to all of them, loving so fiercely every day. I don’t know what it is to have a gap between kids, or to have only girls or only boys, to have my first pregnancy be easy, or to truly enjoy the newborn stage. I don’t know what it is to not feel the threat of cancer. I’ll never know.
I wrote this for my husband as a Father’s Day tribute (of sorts). I’m glad we are in it together husband of mine. I look ahead and I can’t imagine it gets easier though. Dating? Driving? College? I can’t even.
And hey mamas, for those of you who didn’t tell me the truth about the relentlessness before I asked? Thank you. Now I know you didn’t share because you were living it — too busy to see it, too tired to explain it, too happy to warn me. I get it now. Thank you for not talking me out of this crazy relentless amazing thing called motherhood. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.