After my first son was born, I learned there was another big hurdle to cross.
I wasn’t ready to be a mother when my first son was born. I wanted to be a mother; I’d taken a course on obstetrics, and I’d listened to advice from my mother, my mother-in-law, and my grandmother, but nothing could cushion the impact of the tsunami that struck me. You become a mother the moment your child starts to grow in your womb, and you’re a mother in an even newer and more visible way when your child is born—and yet, you’re still just at the beginning of becoming a mother. You’re undeniably a mother when you’re changing diapers, breastfeeding, cuddling, and loving, and yet, deep down, there’s another sort of pregnancy going on: a painful, necessary, and infinitely blessed one.
Going through another kind of labor
That is the sense in which I say that I was not prepared, and perhaps one shouldn’t be … But it should be said out loud that there’s this hurdle to cross: for all intents and purposes, another full-fledged labor. It’s longer and less visible. It happened again with the birth of my children who came afterwards, but with the firstborn, it was an experience that had an incredible impact on me.
I could summarize all of this with an event I remember very clearly, although I would prefer to recall better things about myself. My son Michael was just a month old, and I was just getting the measure of all the new things that came with his birth, so I was, frankly, tired and preoccupied. One night, he started to cry after I had breastfed him and left him perfectly clean. I couldn’t understand why he was so inconsolable. I was holding him in my arms, and with a brusque tone of voice, I eventually said, “Who are you, really? What do you want?” In retrospect, looking at it with 13 years of distance, I see I was asking myself those same questions.
Suffering: A path of transformation
It took me a long time to name what happened to me after Michael’s birth, and even more time to reassure myself that the fragility I’d experienced wasn’t the inability to be a mother — it was postpartum depression. But I only realized that many years later. That difficult and frustrating time wasn’t a black mark on my history as a mother, but rather the inevitable dark side of the light. From a Christian perspective, it was the Cross that I needed to bear to fulfill my vocation as a mother.
For human beings, it’s not sufficient consolation to know that pain and suffering can be overcome, because that would be like saying that the part of our life that is suffering can simply be thrown away or discarded. What really speaks to us is that suffering can be part of the “gestation” of something good. Just as a baby must go through the darkness of the birth canal, so also many mothers must go through periods of darkness.
Becoming a mother is a transformation akin to a conversion. It’s not just a matter of willpower; conversion happens when we are faced with the presence of someone outside ourselves. It reminds me of Jacob and his nocturnal struggle with the angel in Genesis 32.
You can truly change and arrive at a new place in your life only if you struggle with this Presence. Allow me to say that the arrival of a child is similar to the angel whose presence gives rise to a struggle. Certainly, a mother doesn’t struggle with her own child, but the baby is the spokesperson of the Presence who creates all things and who challenges us to grow.
In the presence of a new life that grows in your womb and that you then cradle in your arms, a mother’s “I” is broken, so that she can open herself to a “you.” She comes out on the other side both wounded and blessed like Jacob. None of that struggle is meaningless or in vain, exactly as every push during labor brings the baby a centimeter closer to the light.
Every path in a person’s life, in whatever direction it may go, or better, whatever vocation it may follow, is a constant education that teaches us to shape who we are and who we will become. I think that the educator is God the Father. On my path, this Teacher has put maternity in my path, probably because it was the best thing for me so I could deepen my relationship with Him. I’ve given birth to a child, but in the long run that same event was a birth for me.
The mother-child relationship threw my everyday egocentrism into crisis. When I put someone else at the center of my life, it also brought into focus part of me that had been hidden by the idol of my own desires. But that’s not all. This experience forced me to look beyond maternity. How easy it is for us end up repeating that phrase from the Our Father that says “Thy will be done.” We can comfortably say it and spend our days centered on our countless personal desires. It took motherhood and the long period of labor that I experienced well beyond the births of my children to welcome the will of Another in my life.