Becoming a mother is both hard and delightful in all of the expected ways. I expected to sleep less, for my body to change, and when I was pregnant, I even had the distinct feeling that my second baby would hate the 20-minute drive back and forth to town. He did, screaming bloody murder for months, until we stumbled upon the solution of singing "The Wheels on the Bus" to him, with infinite variations (a lesser strain on the system). Delight was found in waking to see my baby daughter's eyes trained on mine, as she grinned adoringly, or the sensation of my son playing with my hair as gently as if it were a strand of cotton candy he didn't want to break.
One unexpectedly hard thing was noticing how the entire population (except for most other moms) stopped seeing me as an individual, a vector in space. I became a coiled rug, the kind that's oval and spirals inward and outward. When that rug is in a room, it makes the room seem cozier, more homey and comforting -- or maybe it just seems dowdy and passé. People saw me -- or rather, the silhouette of a woman with a child, and their thoughts turned to their associations of all mothers, their eyes got soft and unfocused, or hard and snide, depending on their issues.
It wasn't just people who didn't know the old me. I was at a wedding when my daughter was 6 months old, around all of these people I used to party with in New York City, and one guy was talking about some edgy sexual practice, trying to turn on a girl much younger than him. I said something jokey and irreverent, and he looked at me balefully.
"OK, mom," he sneered.
How did he think I got pregnant?
As my children grew older and more independent, I noticed that I was rebirthed in others' eyes as an individual. I also spent more time with other parents, who didn't cleave the world so neatly into parents/people worth paying attention to. The feeling of being dismissed and unseen faded away.
Until I was waiting in line for the restroom at Trader Joe's. On the wall was a bulletin board with photographs of happy customers. One showed a vaguely familiar mother with a baby in a sling, wearing an ugly calico nursing shirt. The baby was pulling her hair. Her toddler was doing her best to fall out of the wagon as she reached for a glass jar. The woman looked run-down and frumpy, but she was smiling gamely for the camera.
Oh. My. God.
That woman was me.
The memories came flooding back -- I'd made sure to come to Trader Joe's on its opening day. Despite what I'm about to tell you, I love that place. My lifelong passion for cooking and baking, (shared in Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity), not to mention keeping everyone fed, demanded regular trips to the grocery store. Without dolling myself up, I finger-combed my short sensible hair, I piled the kids into the car (my son screamed, we sang "The Wheels on the Bus"), parked, plopped my daughter in the shopping cart seat, put on the sling, slid my son into it, grabbed my big, lumpy mom purse and entered the store, hoping not to run into anyone. As we walked down aisle three, some happy-clappy staffer in a Hawaiian shirt told me to smile, because he was taking pictures on their opening day. He caught me mid-pose, my mouth kind of open as it smiled, half a "you've got to be kidding me" grimace.
And now I stood looking at the photo. No one would think we were the same person. My hair was long again, my figure was trim and my kids were tall and lanky, bounding around the store. There was the ghost of motherhood past, staring back at me with bleary eyes. And then I saw something else. To the right of my face, someone had drawn a crude anatomical sketch next to my mouth.
For years, my maternal likeness had been hanging there, vandalized for all to see. Not one customer took it down. Not one team member thought to remove the impugned mother of two from the bulletin board.
It reminded me of how vulnerable young motherhood is, how it oddly makes you public property, visible, a tableau to judge, a person to advise or criticize, well-meaningly or not. It reminded me of how my formerly predictable life became startlingly unpredictable: My children had minds and bodies of their own, screaming, laughing, sleeping, waking, pooping, regardless of when it was convenient for me. And it reminded me of how submerged I used to feel, as lumpy as my mom purse, breasts swollen with milk, baby weight riding along on my back, my thighs.
It was so shocking that I continued on into the bathroom. My first impulse was to leave the image there on the bulletin board for another five years. I didn't want to claim it, emblazoned with evidence of the lack of respect -- beyond lip service, pardon the pun -- motherhood is afforded. And then I began to laugh. Vulgar or not, the image was both funny and true. Despite our best intentions and expectations, hopes, dreams and efforts, between the repetitive drudgeries and society's condescensions, motherhood can really suck.
On the way out, I took the photo down, not sure what I would do with it. But I ended up saving it, along with photos and other mementos (lock of hair, hospital bracelet, first crayoned portraits), a time capsule with items representing the full spectrum of my experience. Along with the sweetness of early motherhood -- the kissing of a belly peeking out from a duckie undershirt, the shampoo horns I formed as my son sat in the sink with room to spare, the glee my daughter felt throwing her spoon from the high chair for the umpteenth time -- there were the countless sleep-deprived bendings down to get it, the dashes of bitter.