Becoming The Mother I Never Had

I promised myself I would be the opposite of everything my mother had been.

It was 7am on a Saturday. I was standing in the bathroom, holding a stick and waiting for a word to appear. A little suspicion in the back of my mind had grown into a giant bubble of hope, and so I tried to breathe as the word slowly formed—pregnant.

I stared at it, the blood pounding in my ears, and then I screamed. It was happening! The year of hormone tests, acupuncture, ovulation calendars, and temperature charts was finally over. And the baby I had dreamed about and longed for with a kind of physical ache was going to come into my life.

My sleepy husband was waiting in bed. He smiled at my ecstatic face and pulled me into his arms as I said over and over, “We’re having a baby!” “I’m so happy,” he whispered. And then he said the one thing I had been dreading, the thing I desperately wanted him not to say. “Please don’t make this into a bad thing.”

I went cold for a second. But I couldn’t blame him. I had struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, and I had a talent for turning wonderful things into parts of a dark inner narrative about how I was broken, abandoned, a failure, alone. Despite years of therapy, no matter how many times I reminded myself that these were the lies of depression, I still couldn’t stop myself from going into that bleak, painful place where no one could reach me.

At 20 weeks, I shivered while my obstetrician smeared cold gel over my belly. I focused on the blurry shape of my developing child on the monitor. The curve of the head. The angle of an elbow. Already the image of the strong little heart beating rapidly made me teary with emotion. “So, do you want to know?” my doctor asked. We definitely wanted to know. “I think it’s a little girl.” My heart stopped. “Are you sure?” I gasped. He smiled and glanced at the monitor again. “Pretty sure.” I was stunned. I had spent the last four months completely, absurdly convinced the baby would be a boy. A boy would be different from me, something unknown, deeply loved, but slightly foreign. I could handle that. It had to be a boy. Because the last thing I wanted was a relationship with a daughter that might remotely, in any way, resemble my relationship with my own mother.

My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mother’s career as a singer demanded that she travel in Europe for months at a time during my childhood. My father soon had a new family that I couldn’t seem to blend into, so I was raised by a series of relatives, au pairs, and family friends, women who tried with varying degrees of love and compassion to fill the empty space my mother had left. It was a confusing way to grow up. And while I managed to emerge with my empathy and my sense of humor mostly intact, I had no idea what a mother-daughter relationship was supposed to look like. I had no experience of family that wasn’t full of resentment, loneliness, manipulation, guilt, and a suppressed rage that I hadn’t even begun to address.

I promised myself I would be the opposite of everything my mother had been. Where she had been absent, I would be present. Where she had been unreliable, I would be nurturing, dedicated. Where she had put her career first, I would sacrifice anything that came between me and my child—the tiny creature growing inside me, who was, undeniably, a girl. The image on the screen wriggled and waved her hand across her face, as if saying, “Are you guys done bothering me yet?” I wiped my eyes and repeated my husband’s words to myself. Don’t make this into a bad thing. Don’t make this into a bad thing.

Our daughter was born at 4pm on Valentine’s Day. She came into the world, healthy and beautiful, with a little birthmark on her left cheek that looked just like a tiny heart. Determined to give birth drug-free, the pain of labor had been more extreme than I ever imagined. My joy at meeting our perfect baby was mixed with a deep physical shock, exhaustion, and fear that were almost overwhelming. Holding our tiny newborn in my arms, I wondered vaguely if this was a sign of things to come. Was it all going to be much, much harder than I had expected?

Of course, it was. And it wasn’t. Well, no harder than any other experience that transforms your life. It was just that all my old methods of coping were suddenly useless. Instead of fending off depression, I was struggling to breastfeed. Instead of connecting with my husband, I was in a sleep-deprived fog. Instead of reaching out to friends, exercising, doing yoga, baking, reading or doing any of the things that gave me solace and perspective, I was spending every minute of every day trying to keep this precious, amazing, demanding, infuriating infant alive.

My depression and anxiety returned with a vengeance. Every cry from the baby sounded like an indictment of me as a mother and filled me with shame. I lashed out at my husband, who, I imagined, blamed me for my struggles, for my sadness, for neglecting him. There were times when it felt like I barely existed. Was this what motherhood was supposed to be? Somehow, I knew it was not.

And so gradually, painfully, I began to change. I learned that I could be a mother and also a person. I learned to ask for help. I learned that taking time for myself wasn’t the same as abandoning my child. And I found ways to express the anger at my own parents that I had pushed away for so many years. I have a daughter now who shows me every day what happiness, resilience, and delight in oneself look like. And I know that if I couldn’t learn what a family is from my own mother, my daughter is teaching me now.

Sarah Yahr Tucker is a freelance writer, producer and creative consultant. She lives in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and daughter. 

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