Motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The constant needs of a 0, 1, and now 2 year old are overwhelming to the point of absolute exhaustion. I often fight with the desire to get away. I just need a week to myself, I think. Just one full night of sleep. The truth is, I haven’t had a full night of sleep since Mac was born and up till now haven’t been away from her for even a full day. Not that I haven’t wanted to, I have. I do. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I feel that if anyone tries to touch me I’m going to scream. And sometimes, at the end of the day, I feel so alone that I find myself staring into a dark, familiar hole of loneliness and despair. But most of the time, at the end of the day, I am dozing next to a sleepy, milk-drunk toddler with a contented smile on her face and her arms wound around my neck. And I’m so grateful for this unexpected gift of my life- that I am learning surrender.
I don’t think in this day and age that surrender is something easily learned. We don’t really need to surrender often or to anything if we don’t want to. For the most part, we go where we want and do what we want. And when we can’t do that we build pinterest boards of where we want to go and what we want to do, which is it’s own form of possession. But motherhood, at it’s depth, requires surrender. Surrender of where we want to go, surrender of what we want to do, surrender of our time, our body, our heart.
Surrender is not a popular concept in our culture of easy gratification. We’ve adopted the standard of convenience in its place. We’ve managed to make motherhood incredibly convenient. Car seats allow us to take our babies wherever we want to go. Bottles allow us to feed them on the way. Formula allows us to not even breastfeed if we don’t want to. There’s bouncers, and strollers, and swings, and pacifiers, and toys that make noise— a lot of noise. But what we are missing out on in this sea of convenience is the quiet call that beckons us deeper into motherhood. What I’m getting at is this— for every convenient parenting hack that we have created, there also exists an opportunity for surrender. What if, instead of trying to control, fix, change, and pacify our children, we chose to surrender to the exhausting, inconvenient, constant demands of motherhood? What would it mean for us and for our babies?
I’ve been breastfeeding Mac for two years now. For some, that seems like a long time. For others, no time at all. For me, borrowing from Hemingway, it happened gradually and then suddenly. But along the way there have been many, many weeks where all I wanted to do was have my body back to myself. I wanted to sleep through the night, without nursing our hungry milk hog multiple times. That’s what babies want: they want to nurse and be close to mama. All the time. There are a lot of so-called parenting experts giving terrible advice that these little ones need to be put on a schedule, their cries ignored, their needs unmet. Mamas, if your baby is crying from hunger or from fear, sadness, longing, or for any reason at all, I promise you they are not trying to manipulate you. They are crying, as all children have cried throughout history, because they were made to be utterly dependent on their mothers and in constant connection to them. The fact that we have tried to move away from this innate primal connection is hubris at best and incredible selfishness at worst. We force small babies onto feeding schedules thinking that they should be governed by our self-centered addiction to scheduling. I will never forget listening to the small baby of a family member crying relentlessly with hunger while the mother insisted that feeding time wasn’t for another 45 minutes. The cries were stressful for both the parents and the baby, but the dictatorship of the schedule had to be obeyed. How far from our mama intuitions have we gotten when we let the ridiculous parenting advice of a disconnected culture influence our decisions with our own little ones? Mamas, feed your babies! Hold them. Sleep with them. Keep them near you! It’s where they were literally born to be. Not just for 8 weeks or 3 months or even 6 months. In most of the world and for all of history, babies have been with their mamas until 4, 5, 6, even 7 years of age. Sleeping next to them, nursing when desired, enjoying constant secure attachment to the person who gave them life.
But what have we done? We’ve taken away our arms and given motorized swinging chairs. We’ve taken away our breasts and given plastic pacifiers and false nipples. We’ve taken away our warmth in the night and given instead the cold darkness of a solitary crib. We, as mothers, have given away our sacred place in our children’s lives and left them with false substitutions or worse, without substitution at all but with the only recourse being to cry themselves into exhaustion. Is it any wonder that rates of depression, suicide, personality disorders and mass shootings are skyrocketing? When our earliest needs for connection are being ignored?
And it’s not just the cost to our children but also the cost to ourselves that comes to bear. Each time I fight against the desire to run away from the weight of motherhood, I become a deeper, truer version of myself. I’ve been learning how to stay put, how to wait quietly in spite of the inevitable pain, loneliness and exhaustion of motherhood. Sometimes I just want to stick Mac in a crib and have my bed and my husband’s arms back. Sometimes I want to take a weeklong vacation and stop nursing. Sometimes. But the thing that our culture never taught me, the thing that I’m learning, is that it is okay to want those things and not act on them. It is okay to be utterly exhausted but choose not to sleep train. It is okay to feel totally depleted but to keep nursing anyway. It’s okay because my child’s needs are more important than my desire for my own convenience. And man, do I desire convenience. But the journey of motherhood for me has been one of letting the layers drop gradually away until I am totally exposed and raw and undone, until the only reality to me is her heart beating against mine as she burrows her hot, aching head into my chest while teething. Or as she clenches her fist in my hair and falls asleep in my arms.
And I know that something is working. Mac is confident, happy, healthy. She doesn’t cling to her toys, suck on anything relentlessly (except me), or cry hysterically when we leave her with someone else. She is absolutely secure in her world, secure in me. And that is so worth the cost of my time and my plans and my desires. At every inconvenient juncture along the way as a parent, there is a choice. Do we pacify, contain, control, fix our child’s need of us or do we enter it, wait with them, show up for them? This constant surrender is the hardest and most beautiful road available to us in our sacred role as mothers. It has the power to shape our children into secure, peaceful beings who desire connection with others. It has the power to shape us into slower, more generous, wiser versions of the women we were created to be.