When I was pregnant with my son, I used to talk to him as I took the family dog for a walk.
I started this early on in my pregnancy, well before I was showing, so I’m certain the neighborhood thought I had made a habit of talking out loud to my dog as we walked. Most often, my monologues were some combination of the following topics: which physical features or personality traits I hoped my son would get from me or his father, and my hopes that we would find a really good daycare (as this was a giant stressor throughout 90% of my pregnancy). I also had vigorous internal dialogues, begging my son to please not come too much past his due date and or be too hard on me when it’s time for delivery. I asked him to forgive me if I turned into a crazy person when sleep deprived and if I quit breastfeeding after just a few weeks. In short, motherhood boiled down to worrying about my baby’s physical features, my physical pain, and his physical care.
I knew I wanted to be loving and supportive. These aren’t bad things by any means, but they aren’t specific either. Consciously defining how I wanted to be as a mom or what motherhood meant to me was vague at best.
As it goes, hindsight is 20-20. I think back on these in-utero conversations and see them as superficial hopes. I don’t think that they were wrong or ill-intended or ill-placed. I doubt that they are unusual or atypical – certainly, lots of moms (and dads) imagine what their children will look like, what labor will be like, whether their child will sleep, etc. before they are born. And when they are your first – as my son is mine – you don’t know yet what motherhood means, how it will change you, what you’ll come to learn or believe or what your wishes and hopes will be for your child or for yourself. It doesn’t matter how many nieces or nephews you have, or how many pregnant people have gone before you and bestowed their wisdom upon you, or what Parents magazine says. Until you step into that parent role, until you hold your baby, see their personality unfold, see yourself with them, constantly evaluate your parenting decisions, you don’t really have a clue about anything, let alone the type of parent you want to be.
So, what’s motherhood? Like everything else, you figure it out as you go.
But that first year or so happens, and it just whizzes by. You’re figuring out all the basics: sleeping schedule (assuming they sleep), bottle schedule, tummy time, when was the last time I showered, when do we have doctors’ appointments coming up, is there enough breast milk stock left in the freezer, am I swaddling him too tightly, what needs to be in the diaper bag for tomorrow, am I holding him too much, should I have another cup of coffee, when will he sleep through the night, and who knows what else. There is no shortage of information – sensory and otherwise – that’s crammed into any mama’s brain. For me, “Am I doing the right things? Am I being a good mom? Will he turn out ok?” were mostly questions having to do with my son’s basic human needs. (Notice the last sentence in my first paragraph, which also happens to be in parentheses, all about ‘physical’ worries.) Defining motherhood conceptually, well, there was no time, energy, or brain capacity for that.
Blink! Now my son is 2.5 years old.
He has new phrases by the day which he uses in appropriate contexts. He’s beginning to assert himself and his feelings – in a variety of ways, including finger pointing (which I’m sad to say he’s learned from me and I’m now trying to determine who I learned it from). He knows when to say, “I’m sorry.” He explores the world through climbing and jumping and touching things he’s not supposed to. And asks questions. A lot. And he laughs. His laughter is the greatest sound in the world. He laughs at himself, at others, at parts of songs, at parts of TV shows. Everyday I look at him and think, “Oh, man, we’re here.”
We have reached this point where parenting is not just about basic physical needs (food, drink, sleep, bath time). Parenting is now about who my son will become. Because he’s ‘becoming’ all the time. Now is the time to evaluate motherhood.
I watch him and listen to him, and I attempt to figure out how to respond in a variety of situations and I realize I better know what my aims as a mom are. For me, motherhood is about what I hope to achieve in raising him. Who he becomes to some (large) extent is on me. Of course, nature comes into play, too, but who knows how much influence that has, really. We don’t really know how much nurture influences the outcome either, but let’s just say it’s 50%. If I’m responsible for 50%, I better know what I want to offer him. I better know what kind of mom I want to be. He may be only 2.5 now, but tomorrow he’ll be 18 and I’ll be kissing him goodbye for his first semester at college or trade school or boot camp (or whatever path he chooses) and I will be able to reflect on the true testament of, “How I did,” in my part of raising my son.
So, I finally said to myself, “Define motherhood as the kind of mom you want to be. Ask yourself, ‘When your son is older and out of the house, how do you want him to describe his childhood and you?'” I was amazed at the answer to my own question.
Motherhood for me is being the kind of mom whose son looks back on his childhood and remembers that there was always a hug, kiss and, “I love you” when he woke up, left for school, got off the bus, and before he went to bed. I want him to remember that during dinner he could sit on my lap and eat off my plate and hug me with messy hands in between bites; the dishes always waited so that there was more time to play. I would make up extra words and silly dance moves to his favorite songs just to hear him laugh. I jumped in the puddles with him, built snow forts, and buried him in leaves. I took him fun places but also made fun out of the normal-everyday errands, too; when he wanted to dress up like a superhero and go out in public, I wore a cape, too. Reading was one of the most important activities for us to do together. I apologized when I made a mistake. Prayer was a staple of bedtime routine and Church was on Sunday. Every day we laughed and laughed and laughed some more; and, most importantly, no matter what, he could tell me anything.
Motherhood for me is being the kind of mom whose son tells a future partner that from his mother he learned how to find humor and hope in anything that life threw his way, to honor his feelings and follow his heart, to reach for the stars and go after his dreams, to stay true to himself and never be ashamed of who he is, to persevere during challenging times, to treat everyone with respect and accept all people from all walks of life, to communicate and assert his own boundaries and needs, to question and explore and not just take things at face value, to love and cherish family and friends, to give back to others, to appreciate the small things but not sweat the small stuff, to be optimistic even in the face of adversity, to be a leader, to hold himself accountable, apologize when necessary, and forgive himself or others when needed, and that life was too short so make every moment count.
The kind of mom I want to be is one whose son becomes a man who is loving and kind, confident, resilient, compassionate, hardworking, genuine, assertive, and spirited. I want him to be able to make his own choices and know that whatever choice he makes, there I will be beside him. As it was from the very beginning and as it always will be. This is motherhood for me.
1-2-3 Reader Challenge: 1. Define motherhood for yourself. 2. Each day set an intention to do one active thing that illustrates the definition of motherhood you’ve created for yourself. 3. Let us know how it goes.