The Good Mom
I started going to a weekly postpartum depression group when my daughter, Elsa, was about four months old, it having taken four months for me to convince myself that I wouldn’t be shunned by my motherhood peers. My mind had begun to fall apart midway through the pregnancy, and my latent procrastinating tendencies had become full fledged. The meetings were something to look forward to and mark the weeks by; I felt triumphant when I could share my struggles without sobbing and encouraged by the variety of mamas that sat in a circle beside me. Some felt desperately unequipped to face the days and weeks ahead, some were weepily apathetic about the overwhelming daily routine of childcare. Others, like me, felt they couldn’t quite get their chin above water emotionally. I could face the nap/nurse/feed/change of the afternoon, but the week? The month? All of us were surprised by the change having a baby affected in our marriages. All of us found it difficult to care for ourselves well while caring for our babies. We sat in various combinations of sweats and nursing tanks and baby slings, relieved to be told we were not alone and vaguely irritated that our grief was not original. The therapist that led our meetings would ask, “What have you done this week to care for yourself? What are you going to do next week to care for yourself?”
“Brush my teeth at night.” “Put the baby bouncer in the bathroom so I can take a shower and wash my hair.” “Go for a walk.” “Remember to take my vitamins.”
I usually said something about exercise, my old nemesis, or giving up Netflix to repair my mind. I watched as women left the group over time and hoped that they had found a way to see themselves as mothers in a new light. Weeks went by, and months, and suddenly the group was full of four and sixweekold babies. My enormous nine-month old who stood and chattered didn’t fit in with these newly made creatures. I projected unwelcoming and disdain into the eyes of the new mothers as they looked at me and my child, and imagined them wondering why I was there. It seemed that I was supposed to have figured out my emotions as my daughter figured out crawling. I took my cod liver oil and walked and grew enormously in my love for Elsa, but bleak days still appeared out of nowhere and pushed me back to those first weeks of overwhelming confusion. Eventually, I stopped going to the group. We moved from Santa Cruz in Northern California to Orange County, Elsa turned one, and suddenly I had a toddler.
I follow Instagram accounts of mamas with four and five children, beamingly pregnant with their next, who gush in their captions about the joy of babies and the beauty of nesting. They may have dark circles under their eyes in their selfies, but they don’t post anything about sitting down and staring blankly at the wall while their kids play. Or about those occasional to frequent thoughts of “How will I last through the hour?” I sit with my sleeping daughter dropping off my breast, scrolling through pictures of white on white nurseries with hardwood floors and crying, picturing the oatmeal and pepper colored generic apartment carpet in the bedroom behind me. I feel so strongly some days that the attractiveness of my living space is linked to my effectiveness as a parent good moms can keep the house clean, the toddler fed without dairy or wheat. How could I not feel happy while nursing my laughing, patting, bumblingly bright child?
Despite the helpful months at a postpartum group and occasional visits to a counselor, the specter of anxiety has started biting into my perspective on motherhood hard in recent months. These days it tells me I can’t raise a happy child in a city full of pollution and without a big, forested backyard. It whispers that in fifty years, our natural resources will be so dwindled that my children will take out loans to pay for drinking water. Worst of all, the anxiety keeps shaking up my inner knowledge that my daughter is loved, active, happy, and well fed and that means I am a good mom. I transitioned straight from college, where productivity is measured in hours spent studying, papers written and coffee drank, to wife and motherhood, where the fruit of your labor is much less quantifiable, though no less tangible if you pay attention. I don’t give myself any grace for the suddenness of this transition, for the immensity of the task that is parenthood.
Our days as toddler mothers are spent repeating the same crazy cycle of cleaning and feeding and playing and shouting without all the snuggly hormone balancing breastfeeding of newborn days. We are staying up late talking about having another child, and I am nervous. I spend most of my time at home, in charge of food and laundry and tidying, and when it all slows down during an afternoon nap I rate myself on the day’s “productivity.” For me, this has meant comparing our small apartment to the beautifully staged squares on my phone of wooden toys next to a freshly baked pie, freshly clipped lavender in a bouquet on the baby’s toy kitchen shelf. It’s hard to feel accomplished when there is a tiny person squishing raisins into the corners the minute after I vacuum, or when pig stickers litter the freshly sponged table. When do the moms on Instagram take these perfect pictures? No one grades me, and nothing is due except vaccinations, but a sense that I am falling short of the curve prevails.
There is a list in my head, if I quiet down and look for it, of what I am doing well as a mother. I take Elsa to the library to check out new books, even though she sometimes makes a mess of the children’s department. I sit down patiently and eat meals with her so she doesn’t eat alone. I sing her songs and play her music, I drive to places we can hike and swim and be in nature. I ought to write the whole thing down so I can look at a postit or five on the microwave and see with my eyes the ways in which I am a good, competent mother. Reading this list out loud to my cluttered kitchen, I think I could even do these things for another child, too. I can see myself sitting on the couch with a newborn while Elsa rocks on her horse, and I can imagine that I am happier than I am frightened of the future. I wish I could picture whether we still lived in the apartment we do now, and whether the pregnancy was easy, and whether I have managed to do the laundry in this envisioning. If I could know these things, I would find others to ask about in my uncertain mind. Are we making enough money? Will Elsa be sleeping in her own bed now? Do we need a second bedroom? You are a good, competent mother. Ok.
Torunn Kim is a stay at home writer and mother to an almost two-year-old daughter, currently in the process of becoming a good example to her family by pursuing her creative gifts and submitting written work again. She has published poetry and short essay in Kodon, the Wheaton Pub, Prairie Light Review, and Kinfolk Magazine.