'Each Moment Is New': Lessons from the Front Lines of Motherhood

Before motherhood I had no idea what real sacrifice looked like, which is saying something when you consider that I spent time in Chinese detention, was kidnapped in Sri Lanka and held at gunpoint by rebels in the Congo.
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I have no idea how to do this.

I realize this truth at some point every day. When it hits me, I get roller-coaster belly and jelly knees, as the ground I thought I was standing on is suddenly gone. All that I had so proudly figured out yesterday no longer applies today. The knowledge that I'm flying blind, winging it, somehow left in charge of the entire well-being of this tiny human, is petrifying.

Before I had a baby I was barely able to keep plants alive. In fact, I prided myself on it. I was too full of myself, my work, to attend to the needs of dependents. I never babysat, didn't have any aspirations for spending large amounts of time with kids and was uncomfortable holding newborns.

But now I have a daughter, a baby girl who is hungry, tired and screaming in the back seat because I still can't figure out how to run errands, take care of the dog, see friends and get home in time for dinner and a bath before she passes out with tear-streaked cheeks squished against the car seat. At those moments, I close my eyes and tell myself (out loud) that I am not failing at this -- but I usually don't believe it.

This is the terrifying side of motherhood, the underbelly that no one talks about, or at least not in public circles. Sister-to-sister, we share our ugly truths and our deepest fears in our own private confessionals, reserved for those of us who have seen the shadowy side of "perfect mommy." I liken us to shipwrecked survivors, each struggling on our own private islands, waving to each other as we float by or perhaps calling out a word or two of advice that helped us once.

We send our messages-in-a-bottle out to sea, but there is no real help in sight. It's completely up to us to either sink or swim.

Then there is the unconscious side of motherhood, or the other 90 percent of the day, when I am just reacting. I don't have time to consider the bigger picture, to mourn my old boobs or pine for a night out dancing, or to wallow in yesterday's mistakes. I am unshowered and covered with remnants of quinoa/blueberry mush, and I hardly notice because my child won't sit still for more than five seconds. Desperate to walk at only 9 months, she hurls herself into the unknown and bumps her head several times a day. With each blow my confidence as a mom drops: Could I have prevented that? Should I be baby-proofing the whole world? Watching her more closely? I can't even answer my own questions because I am too exhausted to think straight. To be honest, I am so sleep-deprived that I forget really important things, like paying bills and turning off the stove. This short blog has taken me weeks to write.

But I count myself lucky that I have some training for this. I had an early career that prepared me for thinking on my feet and sleeping in short bursts. After years of promoting human rights in areas of armed conflict, those skills alone, honed on the actual battlefield, are helping me survive the unfamiliar landscape of motherhood.

I am doing my best to tread water and stay afloat, but there are many days when I wake up wondering where I'm going to find the strength to keep kicking.

And then there are occasional moments of public shame when I run into a smiling supermom who has somehow lost all of her baby weight, looks like she got eight hours of sleep last night and thinks being a mom is just the greatest job in the world.

"Oh, hi!" she yells loudly across the parking lot. And then, in one quick burst, "Oh my gosh, it's been forever! How are you? Wow, is this your little girl? How do you like being a mom? Don't you just love it?"

I throw out my best fake grin (the one that never touches my eyes) and mutter something about how I think I do love it... I mean, I love her... I mean, yeah I like it... a lot... mostly. Then I change the subject, because no one wants to hear about the hard stuff.

And yet when I talk honestly with fellow moms, the truth always comes out. They too are having a difficult time; they too have lost themselves. Lonely and isolated, they too had no idea it would be this hard. In the past few weeks alone, three other moms have asked me to write about it, to reveal the truth behind the mask we so bravely put on each morning. And I am nothing if not a truth-teller, have risked my life several times over to bring information to light, and I suppose this is no different.

Let me put it into perspective:

I once spent five weeks sleeping in three- to five-hour shifts, barely eating or bathing, while monitoring the whereabouts of 70 human rights activists risking their lives on the ground at the Beijing Olympics, protesting for Tibetan independence. Now after nine months of full-time motherhood, I find myself longing for the personal freedoms I had during that Olympic Campaign.

Before motherhood I had no idea what real sacrifice looked like, which is saying something when you consider that I spent time in Chinese detention, was kidnapped in Sri Lanka and held at gunpoint by rebels in the Congo. From my unique point of view, three sleepless days of interrogation by the Chinese police was much, much easier than this.

As an activist, I got to choose when and where I offered my help and my time. When I felt spent, I would tag-out, taking my turn to rest and recuperate. My life was full of new and exciting experiences, traveling to places few people have seen, making choices and decisions on a whim, exploring, activating, accomplishing big goals. I was the destroyer of routine, determined not to fall asleep at the wheel of life.

But now I reign queen in the land of routine. Cultivating plans weeks in advance, thinking about dinner at 10:30 in the morning, rushing home for a 5:30 bath like the world depended on it. I do it because my daughter needs it, because her world does depend on it. She laughs and flaps her arms with joy when she recognizes people and places; she feels safe and sleeps better when we go through our pre-bedtime ritual. She loves doing the same thing over and over again.

The more I surrender to this merry-go-round existence, the easier the whole parenthood thing becomes -- but the foggier my life becomes.

People used to ask me if I was scared to do the work I do, traveling in and out of war zones, tempting fate. And I would say, "Yeah, of course I'm scared. But I'm more afraid not to do it, to fall asleep and miss my life while doing the same thing everyday just because it's safe."

In her excellent book "Making Space for Children," Virginia Hilliker writes to parents, "Good news: Each moment is new," meaning that as parents we have the opportunity to relate to the world through our children, with fresh eyes, from moment to moment. Regardless of yesterday's missteps, we can start fresh each day, each moment. People spend years in meditation trying to gain this very view of the world.

And this, I'm learning, is the difference.

My fear of routine, of each day resembling the next, is obliterated by the wondrous beginner's mind that my baby exhibits. After months of taking a bath in the same tub, she suddenly discovers the drain and learns that she can pull the plug and become the master of water! This realization manifests as a wide-eyed, two-tooth smile that quickly becomes a raucous laughter that shakes her entire being. Tonight's bath is new.

This is why I fell in love with traveling. Waking up each day in a different place, with new sounds and new tastes, makes you feel alive as the world around you suddenly appears in Technicolor. It is addicting and exciting to surround yourself with the unknown.

I would often experience culture shock upon retuning home to the U.S., falling into a depression at the complete lack of luster I felt in familiar surroundings. I longed to be tested, to grow with each new sight, to expand my understanding of the world and my place in it... to become the master of water again.

With each new achievement, my daughter is teaching me to remember the wonder that surrounds us. The fact that one surface is hard while the other one is squishy is magical, when you really think about it. The very first taste of mango is divine, and flowers can pop up anywhere, even in the middle of concrete fields. And even though from the outside today looks exactly like yesterday, nothing is the same in her eyes. In fact, everything, everyday, is brand new again.

So for now, this is how I will travel. I will get down on all fours and crawl above her, seeing the world from her perspective, finding amazement in a springy doorstop or the sound of Tupperware on tile. I will strive to approach each bath-time with the anticipation of an early explorer diving into uncharted waters.

This has become my meditation, my practice, as a new mom. I hope it will bring some relief to the other not-so-in-love-with-this moms out there, struggling to find joy amidst the mundane. This is the mantra that I chant through the sleep-deprived haze of my days, trying to remain fascinated about what tomorrow will bring:

"Each moment is new... Each moment is new... Each moment is new."

Do you have an ugly truth to share? What strategies do you use to transform routine into awakened mind? Let's start talking about it. Please comment below.


Kiri Westby