Almost four years ago my first baby was born, and while I was overwhelmed by the love, beauty, and tenderness of it all, intro to parenthood totally turned my world upside down. I knew to expect sleepless nights, anxiety, exhaustion, etc. What I didn’t expect was the loneliness. At the time, I was the only one of all my friends to have a baby. I quickly began to feel like “nobody understood” what I was going through, and I soon concluded that nobody could possibly understand until they had kids of their own.
Now that I’m more confident and accustomed to parenting, and now that I do have more friends with babies and actually don’t feel lonely at all, I’m reminded of something else: There’s a whole lot I don’t understand either.
What I mean is this: The deeper I get into married life with kids, the further away I get from unmarried life or married life without kids. And just as I have so often felt like the world is blind to the plight of the parent, I have to remind myself that a parent can so easily be blind to the rest of the world.
There is a certain binding together of parents— mothers in particular— in our current culture. I think it happens for some very understandable and natural reasons and it’s mostly a good thing. Fetuses, young motherhood, large families— all these things have become controversial. Motherhood used to be an expected norm (which was not exactly a good thing!) but it is now much more of a lifestyle choice. Many mothers who, in another time, might walk next door to socialize with other mothers, now feel quite isolated and unsure of how to form communities for themselves and their children. They quickly realize the necessity of proactively seeking out people who share their experiences and priorities. And they quickly learn how exhausting and impossible it is to go on pretending like life doesn’t change after parenthood. I spent way too many months trying to take my colicky first baby places where we were both miserable in the name of keeping up appearances. Once I finally burned out, I found it highly tempting to cocoon myself away from the rest of the world and from those who, I felt, couldn’t understand.
But this temptation is so dangerous. Mothers have to be careful not to bind together so tightly that they become a clique. They also have to be careful not to canonize themselves. Motherhood requires sacrifice like no other type of sacrifice. But motherhood is obviously by no means the only or highest sacrifice. Motherhood will change you like nothing else has ever changed you. But it is by no means the only human experience that can change you. It will make you grow. But all sacrifice and suffering and love will make you grow.
Certainly, someone who is not a mother cannot fully understand what it’s like to be one. But someone who is a mother can never again fully understand what it was like to not be one. Someone who easily gets pregnant cannot ever understand what it’s like to struggle with infertility. Single people can’t really understand married life and vice versa. People who have never experienced the death of a close loved one can never understand that pain. Only parents and children of divorce can understand its unique suffering. Veterans can never really convey to ordinary civilians the realities of war. The healthy can never understand what it’s like to be chronically ill. None of us can fully shoulder each others’ greatest burdens, nor can we fully fathom each others’ greatest joys. All we can do is try our best to be humble, empathetic, vulnerable, and authentic with each other.
So, young/new/millennial mothers, if someone doesn’t understand your life and your challenges, chances are that you don’t really understand theirs. If they seem like they have all the time in the world to socialize while you scramble to get a babysitter, keep in mind that you may seem like you have no time at all. And while that may seem totally reasonable— just try for a moment to imagine how that might also feel incredibly insulting. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be honest about our time and resources during busy seasons like early parenting— quite the opposite. I think we need to be more honest. I think mothers need to be more ready to say, “Look– I’m so sorry. I’m sort of totally overwhelmed right now and I may not be able to meet up for awhile. But I really care about you and our friendship. And when I get things sorted out I want to spend more time on it.” Some people may not stand for that. But the good friends will.
There’s no need to pretend that your life hasn’t changed, or that you don’t need your cocoon sometimes. But be wary of becoming too narrow-focused or thinking that only you have found the path to salvation. The lives you raise consume you, and rightfully so, but there are lives outside of them. The world still needs you, the world needs your children, the world needs your family. And, believe it or not, you still need that world too.