I Became A Mother, But Lost Myself

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Cate Dicharry was not prepared for the all-encompassing love she’d have for her child that would wipe out any signs of the woman she once was.

I am thoroughbred for Motherlove. My father and mother are each one of eight children, in the case of my maternal grandmother, eight children amid 12 pregnancies. In the case of her sister, my maternal great aunt, one biological child followed by seven miscarriages, several at full-term, and, eventually, two adoptions. I have three brothers and 51 first cousins. There are twins in every generation, on both sides of my family. The women in my bloodline carry, bear, and love their children with greed and verve. They are unapologetic and full in motherhood.

I am no different. I have always known I would want children. Four, five, six children. All the noise and enmeshment of immediate family. When I became pregnant I thought I had an idea of what Motherlove would do to me, what it would feel like to adore my baby. I’d been on the receiving end for 31 years, after all.

During pregnancy I did what I could to prepare for the substantial difficulties of motherhood. I read about sleep training, about how my son’s circadian rhythm would mismatch my own so that he’d be wakeful, likely crying, for long stretches of night. I learned of the real possibility I’d defecate during labor and composed a lengthy apology, just in case. I studied techniques for breastfeeding with an inverted nipple. I read comedy-as-coping-mechanism essays telling me my infant-tyrant would drive me to drink, that motherhood would drain me of time, emotion, and energy unlike anything I’d ever experienced. That it would be grueling but that the moments of joy would be blissful and pure.

I was also deeply concerned with the ongoing debate over maternity and contemporary feminism (à la Marissa Mayer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, and the innumerable responses and arguments), and how I should arrange my life as a self-respecting feminist and ambitious writer/mother.

My son is now 10-months old. The difficulty of motherhood, it turns out, lies not in the logistics—manageable, or at least endurable, are the sleepless nights, breast infections, teething tantrums, untreatable infant congestion, naptime blitzkrieg—neither in feminist posturing which, in the heat of maternity, strikes me as impersonal and irrelevant. No, it is Motherlove that, as my husband says, pummels me. Nothing I read or heard prepared me for what it feels like to live with love at this high a decibel. Nobody explained what it would do to me.

Many writers have captured aspects of Motherlove. Hope Edelman calls it “a love so sudden and huge you [don’t] know how to make it fit.”

Emily Rapp’s dragon-hearted Motherlove is “without limits or expectations…A love that left people speechless, confused, delirious with misunderstanding.”

Cheryl Strayed wrote of her own mother, “We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning.”

Motherlove is not a series of momentary bursts of joy and it is not an abstraction. It is constant and material. It is obsession. I want my son. I want him all the time. I want to be physically with him, preferably holding, touching and/or kissing him but I’ll accept being in the same room, watching him play or babble or crawl or wail. When I am not with him I think of him and ache. I don’t mean “ache” in a romantic, hyperbolic way. I mean corporeal discomfort. Fidgety, inattentive, slightly nauseous, pins-and-needles restless. I want him. All the time.

And I am afraid in Motherlove. I worry over my son growing into a child, a teen, a man, having to make choices and mistakes, feeling confusion, anger, sorrow, regret. I dread his heartbreak. I pre-mourn his future injuries, illnesses, and death. These thoughts, the daymares of the loving, are nearly intolerable.

My son made a home inside my body for nine months and his first worldly contact was with my chest. His existence transformed every part of me: breasts, hips, stomach, hands, ass, vagina, brain. Every day we see one another naked, unabashed. I’ve gone to the bathroom with him on my lap. Nursed him on a crowded airplane. Ingested his saliva, sweat, and urine. Studied his irises and wondered if they are my husband’s or mine. I have held him as he slept. Ours is, by far, the most intimate relationship I have ever had. To call it codependent would be an obscene understatement.

How strange that as this joy and intimacy fill my life, I am hounded by loss.

I was a reader and writer before I became a mother but in the past year I’ve read only five books. I am too ashamed to quantify the very few words I’ve written. And yet when I have the opportunity to make the practicable choice to focus on something else—reading, writing, staring out a window, anything other than my son—I cannot do it.

It’s not guilt over being apart from him, nor is it an issue of control; I don’t always need to be the one caring for him. I am not a practitioner of attachment parenting and I am not an especially overprotective or nervous mother.

It’s not that I need more “me time”—to take an afternoon and get a pedicure, or shop for clothes that flatter my postpartum figure. It’s not about time at all. I have a loving, supportive partner with a flexible work schedule. I can easily carve out the hours.

It’s partly the standard-issue baby-shaped hole in my brain, but mostly I cannot work because I find my son literally irresistible. I cannot not want him, not choose him, his presence, his baby song, his little baby body. I choose him, over everything else, every time.

Now, after nearly a year of making that choice, day in and day out, there is nothing left of me. I am no longer a reader, no longer a writer. No longer a feminist. There is nothing there but Motherlove. I am consumed. I have lost my selfhood. The state or quality of being an individual, particularly of being a person separate from other persons and possessing his or her own needs or goals.

The self. The essential being. The substantial nature of a person.

And so within the tremendous joy of Motherlove, I am unhappy. As unhappy as I have ever been. Incomplete. Flaccid. I knew motherhood would change me, but I am too changed. I am unrecognizable.

I am not saying I suffer. I am not saying, how terrible for me, loving my healthy beautiful son so very very much. I am saying simply, this is what it feels like to be lost.

My circumstance is both extraordinary and banal. Few mothers have the time and egocentricity to indulge in contemplations of selfhood. Then again, every single day selfhood is lost by any number of people through all manner of diversion. Alcohol, video games, haute couture, sex, grief, body weight.

It fits then that the language containing the essence of Motherlove belongs to addicts detailing addiction. Stripped bare by shame and loss, many addicts write without sentimentality or fear of vulnerability. Theirs is the language of destruction and paralysis and weakness and need. It contains the rare combination of truly heavenly highs and crushing, hollowing lows. In this language I find comfort.

For David Carr, “To be an addict is to be something of a cognitive acrobat. You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs—you need, actually—to keep them at a remove.”

This describes who I’ve become in Motherlove. Most days I play a false version of my true depleted self, keeping others at a distance, saying only what is expected from a new mother: “I’m thrilled, it’s amazing, so amazing, such an incredible journey, I’m loving every second of it.” This is the lie of omission I tell again and again and again. To friends, family. To my father, my mother. My husband.

The trouble is Motherlove knows no moderation and there is no rehabilitation. Instead it requires deliberate, hard-won restraint. Because no person, certainly no infant, should be forced to bear the burden of obliterative love. My son didn’t create this situation, I did. He is a victim, not an accomplice. He deserves better. He deserves the fuller, happier version of his mother. His mother the reader. The writer. The feminist.

And so I am tasked: to reclaim focus and brainpower and, somehow, forge the will to put them to work. To choose creative, intellectual engagement over my son. To opt out of a morning of play and fuss and wonky crawling and instead sit alone in a quiet room and write fiction. To finally, if only for a short time, want something else, some piece of my self, as much as I want my own child.

Cate Dicharry is a reader, writer, feminist and mother. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Low Residency Program at the University of California, Riverside, and recently completed her first novel. She lives with her family in Iowa City, IA. Find her on Facebook.

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