Motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.
I put the baby down in her seat on the other side of the bathroom door, and she wailed and screamed, wailed and screamed. I remember thinking: What has happened to me. Too exhausted to even put a question mark at the end of that thought. I had just come home from the hospital after giving birth to my first child.
I stood in the shower, looked down and did not recognize my body. It was not just that it did not look like me; it didn’t look like any human person I had seen before. I could not make sense of the shape my body made. Milk ran down my belly and blood ran down my thighs, and through the door, the baby wailed and screamed because I had put her down. What had happened to me.
Now several of my 10 children are adults, and I still don’t know exactly what has happened to me.
I remember thinking: What has happened to me. Too exhausted to even put a question mark at the end of that thought.
Several years ago, fitness guru Jillian Michaels caused a minor spasm in mommy media by saying she would never get pregnant because she could not face ruining her body that way. It eventually emerged that she had not said that, exactly, and her thoughts about pregnancy and her body were more complex and personal than an inflammatory soundbite. But regardless of the details, she had expressed something more honestly than many women are willing to do: She knew that giving birth would disrupt something about herself irrevocably, and it was not a disruption she was willing to endure. Better to find this out about yourself before you get pregnant than after, I thought.
Here is what I have learned since then: Surrendering bodily vanity is only the beginning of what happens to you when you become a mother. First, motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.
It has been a good six years since I have last given birth—and I do mean a good six years. Several of my children are grown and more or less independent. None of them need my care at night, and they do not need my body, in particular, to feed them or hold them, bathe them or dress them or save them from ruin. I am reclaiming some control of my life. I can run five miles; I can hold a plank for a length of time my 6-year-old calls “intense.” I am learning how to use power tools. I am trying to use my regained time and freedom to take control of things that have been out of my grasp for many years. Little by little, things are being restored to me.
Surrendering bodily vanity is only the beginning of what happens to you when you become a mother. First, motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.
But one of the things I am gaining is the knowledge that I have to let go. Let go, let go. Not to let go is vanity, a kind so much worse than fretting over a body that has been tugged and torn and milked and bled dry. The vanity of the will is worse: The vanity that believes we can try hard and use our own powers to save our children, save each other, save ourselves. The vanity that we are a fountain that will not run dry.
We will run dry. Things run out. Things wear down. We pour love into our children to prepare them to leave us. The moment our children leave our bodies is the first in a long series of farewells, some trivial, some tearingly awful. Last night I lost hours and hours of sleep, not to a hungry, colicky baby but to a more fretful presence, less tangible, much harder to quiet: a clamoring panic over my older children, who so often need something I do not know how to give and who do not want any of the things they desperately need.
But I am learning to set all my children down on the other side of the door, and now quietly, secretly, I am the one wailing to myself because I had to put them down. They don’t want the things that only I can provide. They don’t want my blood, my milk, my sleep. What they want is for me to understand they know me and they are not like me.
I am learning to set all my children down on the other side of the door, and now quietly, secretly, I am the one wailing to myself because I had to put them down.
Oh, how tired I am. Oh, I am so tired.
Well, sometimes I wail, but sometimes I rest. Once it felt that what was demanded of me was never-ending. That I must pour and let myself flow out ceaselessly, no matter how tired I was. But that’s not how it is now. I am not an endless fountain. I never was.
So much is transient: our physical beauty and strength, our mental capacity, our relationships, our ability to care for the people we love. Our capacity to fix problems. It will run out. It is a relief that it will run out. What I gave, I gave. What I accomplished, I accomplished. What I failed, I failed. No doubt I am only at a plateau, and soon enough the mindless panic and distress will set in again. But I do feel right now like it is time to rest, the way I used to doze off between contractions.
My sisters, it is not entirely true that there is no endless fountain. It is just that it’s not us.
What has happened to me? The same thing that will happen to all of us, if we allow it: We will be changed. We will learn to work harder than we thought we could, and then we will learn that we cannot accomplish half of what we want. We will learn how transient life is. We will learn how to pour ourselves out, and we will see ourselves run dry. Something new is happening to me. It is hard, but it is not bad.
My sisters, and my brothers if you can hear it: There is only one fountain that does not run dry, and it is Jesus. Blood and water gush from his side, and it does not run dry. This, too, is a birth. I don’t know what kind of birth it is, but I have been told there is rest on the other side.