By Erin O’Loughlin
I never knew I could be nurturing. I never knew I had such boundless depths of irritation in my soul. I never knew that I could care about another human being so much that my own welfare would come second. And I never knew how much my life would deviate from the path I planned out for it, how “go-with-the-flow” would become my mantra, and patience was something I’d have to practice.
I knew who I was. I thought that personality set somewhere around late adolescence. Set like jello—a certain amount of give and wobble—but I thought the basic shape was there. But adolescence was only early-onset personality. The passage from childless, inherently selfish being, into mother, has been the far greater upheaval. Perhaps the moment that the blue line appears on the stick, things start to change. But by the time baby arrives, identity is suddenly thrown into disarray—features of your personality that you thought were fixed are actually just passing quirks.
Firstly there’s the sheer physical challenge of being a mother, beyond the birth and the breastfeeding and the stuff you expect. I remember suddenly being able to pull myself out of a swimming pool in one movement—hey, mummy muscles! Who knew constantly lifting a baby would be like a gym workout? But in contrast, there was the shock of my first post-baby ski trip. Turns out snowboarding requires abs, and I didn’t have them anymore.
I never knew that motherhood would make you think so much about your own mother. Would suddenly help you to see her as a young woman, someone who rocked an infant in her arms, breathed in the new baby smell, and dreamed of what you might grow to be. Make you wonder if this is what she hoped for you.
I never knew how grateful I would be for my own mother and father, both as doting grandparents in the here and now, and in a retrospective montage of memories of all things they’d done for me that I hadn’t understood or known how to appreciate at the time. When I sat and cried on the sofa, squalling baby on my lap, cracked nipples out, it was my mother who sat next to me and told me I could do it, told me experiences she’d never told me before, about pregnancy, breastfeeding, motherhood, all of the times she’d sat and cried together with baby. She made me believe that it really would be easier after those first few weeks. When she flew back to Australia, me with a six-week-old in full colicky phase, I was struck with the sensation that I was mummy now, whether I knew how to do it or not.
I never knew that being adventurous was just a phase. When I river-rafted down African rapids, snowboarded on the white flanks of a Japanese volcano, and paid good money to have someone fly me over Victoria Falls in a microlite, my eyes tightly shut the entire time, I didn’t know that I would one day wince at tall playground slides. That I would be afraid of sharp corners, terrified of cold germs, fevers and rashes, and go into strange, breathless panic attacks the first few times my schoolboy rode the subway alone.
I never knew I would melt, from someone who icily disliked children into someone who makes faces at babies on the subway. Me, the same person who once bet a girl at school $100 that I’d never have children (hey Narelle, if you’re reading, tell me where to send the check)! These days I look for opportunities to hold other people’s babies, and have to remind myself that I really, really don’t want another one.
I had no idea how fiercely I would love my children, and definitely no idea that love coexists with absolute irritation and frustration with them. No idea how much I would nag, disliking that scolding tone in my voice, even while I did it. I had no idea how hard it would be to give up swearing—how much I would blush when my four-year-old innocently asked “How long till this fuckin’ train gets here?” I had no idea how hard it would be to give your children age-appropriate advice, trying to save them from every hurt you ever suffered and every mistake you ever made.
Thank goodness that our personalities are a work in progress, even in our thirties. That’s the thing about growing older, you get to keep changing. None of it’s fixed. And I’m feeling around the edge of all the other identities I’ll have to take on, as I continue to age. I’m going to be that woman with wrinkles. That woman whose kids move out. Maybe I’ll be someone who isn’t too tired to read in the evening, someone who has time to rediscover old hobbies, maybe learn to draw. Probably I’ll be that woman who complains that her kids don’t call often enough, to make up for all those times I’ve told them that they never stop talking. And eventually, maybe I’ll get to be a grandmother, and have the perfect excuse to hold my children’s babies, and feel that unexpected sweep of nostalgia, love and motherhood.
For more great Wild Word essays see:
Please Don’t Call Me A “Mother” by Annie Mark-Westfall
Why Autistic Children Are the Opposite of Snowflakes by Jami Ingledue
Is Trump Toying With The Presidency? by Maria Behan
The Love Lessons I’ve Learned as a Stepfather by James Prenatt