My husband and I thought it was a genius idea to watch a documentary about rats last night. We stayed up until the “wee hours” of 11:00pm (over an hour past our usual bedtime), in order to eat a whole box of chocolate brownie cookies, and learn more about the hairy, diseased rodents that move secretly among us. Surprisingly, I fell right asleep and slept like a baby. Until my actual “baby” woke me up an hour before his typical wake up time, because somehow he always knows when mama’s had a late night. So that was cool…
In my entire life, I have never fought for anything harder than I fight for my precious eight-plus hours of sleep. I’m one of those unfortunate weirdos who feels like I’ve been hit by a semi when I try to operate on anything less than eight hours. My senior year college roommate survived on five hours each night. I think of her often, and try to will her superpowers into my psyche. It never works.
When I became pregnant with my first child, my biggest fear about motherhood wasn’t labor and delivery – it was the amount of sleep I’d surely lose once baby arrived. I figured the first few months would absolutely suck, and then the kid would learn to sleep as long as I did, for the rest of our lives together. I took every precaution, and tried every possibly tactic to teach my children to sleep (apparently, you have to teach that sort of thing to small humans).
I co-slept (*GASP*) for over six months with my son, as I found that keeping him near me to breastfeed allowed him (and most importantly, me) to sleep longer. I swaddled him in SO. MANY. BLANKETS to keep him nice and toasty, and forgetful of his incessant need to eat. I finally sleep trained him at eight months – meaning I chose the controversial “cry it out” method – and I stand by my choice. Did it feel selfish and a tad insensitive? Okay, sure, it did a little bit. But it gave me back the most important thing in my life: SLEEP.
So now you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, this gal loves her sleep more than her own kids!” And you’re not entirely wrong. The love I have for my kids is so much more complicated and complex than I’d anticipated, and it often demands my own discomfort. Part of the reason I wanted to have kids in the first place was to experience parental love. I wanted to know what it felt like to create an entire human (whoa, I can’t believe that’s a thing we get to do with our bodies), and to automatically love that human more unconditionally than anyone I’d ever before loved. I’d heard enough about motherhood to know that moms love their kids, no matter what. They just do. We’re hard-wired to feel that way, so I figured that’s how it would go.
But that’s not exactly how it feels to love my children. I’m still learning what it even means to love my children, but I can tell you that the whole mess of raising my kids involves a lot more feelings than just warm, glowing love. The truth is, I didn’t love my children from Day One, at least not how I thought I was supposed to. My babies popped out and I felt attached to them, sure. But I also felt scared, confused, and uncertain about how to interact with these total, complete strangers.
Yes, they were technically a part of me, genetically speaking. But once they emerged from my womb, my kids were entirely separate from me. I thought having a baby would feel sort of like meeting an old, dear friend – someone you hadn’t seen in a long time, but whom you instantly recognized, and with whom you felt a companionship. I’m telling you, the nurses could have placed somebody else’s baby on my chest, and I’d have absolutely no clue. These kids were enigmas to me, strange and mysterious.
Throughout each of their first years of life, I cared for them, fed them, and cradled them. I felt concerned for their safety, and deeply invested in their wellbeing, and that felt like love. But it really wasn’t until they spoke their first words and exhibited the first tiny glimpses of their uniquely wonderful personalities that I actually thought, “Wow, I love this little person!” I finally caught a glimpse of who they were, what sorts of things made them laugh, or cry, the activities they enjoyed – I was finally getting to know them, and they were no longer strangers. I finally felt like I could really love them, because I intimately knew them.
Now that my son is three, and my daughter almost two, I’m learning far more about that love than I’d imagined possible. I’m learning that the love I have for my children is both feeling AND action, and they aren’t always level with one another. The love that I feel is deeply nuanced, it shifts and changes, and it isn’t always a given. When my son flushed my wedding rings down the toilet, I didn’t feel love. I felt a lot of other heated emotions, but I chose to act lovingly, because he is my son, and I want the very best for him.
I’m also learning that giving love to my children isn’t so straightforward – that the way I’d prefer to give them love isn’t always the way they’d prefer to receive it. My daughter loves cuddling, hugs, and being held. For me, that feels natural, and far easier than playing dinosaurs and wrestling on the floor for hoooooouuuuuurs, which is the love my son wants to see. I’m realizing that, even if I feel love for my kids, they might not always feel that love unless I choose to put it into terms they understand, to speak their language, and show it through intentioned action.
It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s almost never easy, and it’s exhausting, and it sucks. I wish I could just be a mom the way I want to be a mom, keep things simple, effortless. I wish I could sleep nine hours a night. IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK?!?! But I chose to have kids, so now I get to choose how to be “Mom.” More than anything, I desperately want my kids to know, without a doubt, that they are loved. So I choose to play dinosaurs, argue patiently about whether or not pants are required for outdoor play, and yes, I choose to give up my sweet, sweet sleep and try to keep a smile plastered on my face. I get one shot at loving these kids into adulthood, and I want my actions to show that, no matter what, I do.