There are moments when I can't stand being a mother. There, I said it. Just because I wanted two children and now have them doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy each and every part of parenting them.
I mean, how can we not feel dragged down by some of the mind-numbing moments that accompany infancy, the anxiety-filled times when we feel we have no idea what we’re doing, or those days that seem so long, they could stretch into years?
My first pregnancy was uneventful, and I took becoming a mother in stride. It suited me. Though monotony played its role, an attachment to my son sprouted imminently, and I was madly in love with our connection. Our cuddles were everything, and witnessing his incremental changes — in body and mind — still enrapture me, even now that he’s a rambunctious 8-year-old.
I wondered about having a second, but mostly with the kind of curiosity clouded with a “uh-uh, no way.” Just the one was already all-consuming, and when I’d see moms at the playground with kids literally running in two different directions, my first thought was always why or that must be so hard. At work as a psychologist, I was giving and giving to my patients all day, then giving to my son at home all night. I couldn’t imagine I’d have any more to give to another child. How could I have the stamina? But it was still a what-if I returned to over the years.
With much consideration and a few years of parenting under our belts, my husband and I decided to expand our family. At 39, I felt like it was now or never. And it was “now” — pregnancy came quickly, but what a different outcome this was.
At first, I was energised by finding out I was expecting a daughter, but I was so flattened by “morning” sickness, I struggled to access my excitement. The version of me that my son got then could be best illustrated by the times I invited him to bring toys into my bed: I wanted to continue being present for him, but couldn’t muster much more than lying still.
Then, at 16 weeks, I began spotting. Two days later, the foetus fell from my body while I was home alone. I had to cut the umbilical cord myself, began to haemorrhage, and went on to have an emergency unmedicated D&C.
It goes without saying that this experience marked me in ways only trauma can. I lived out of body for a while. For a moment I thought I’d just go on living as usual; call it adrenaline or survival mode, but I wasn’t understanding the intensity of what had happened. It took my sister telling me that I should probably cancel the patients I was supposed to see that week.
Three days later, I thought I could go into the world, to my son’s art class which I had been attending pregnant up until that point. I was wrong. I had to run home, screaming more primally than I had in the moment I lost the baby. That had happened. I could picture it — those scenes in my head like a gruesome documentary. Trauma is like tar in that it makes physical and psychological movement daunting.
It’s beyond comprehension sometimes how women get through these things, and yet we do. I decided to try again. Maybe my miscarriage rendered me dead set on having another child, as if I had something to prove. On the fourth month — or our first try once I stopped bleeding, and my doctor gave us the go-ahead — I became pregnant again.
My daughter came into the world gently. I hadn't allowed myself to sink into the pain of my loss and the fear of going through it again up until that moment — as if she wasn't real to me until she was in my arms, and then I no longer had a choice. That disbelief was one way in which it reared its head, but there are others.
Parenting after loss brings unique complications. My anxiety level in getting to know my daughter and love her was so completely different from what it was with my son, and that was wholly based on what I went through to get there.
Once, when she had just started trying foods, my daughter woke up from a nap spitting up in a different way than I had seen before. Instead of just cleaning her up and moving forward — as I’d done so many times with my son — I became untethered: I was sure this was the end; that she’d throw up again, and again, and then be gone. Because of my work, I knew the way little things like this set me off was emblematic of PTSD. I also knew it was changing the kind of mother I had been to a more hesitant and worrying kind.
I would once in a while realise how vulnerable everyone is, just moving around in the world. I often took L.A.’s famously curvy Mulholland Drive to get to work, and I’d find myself overly attuned to the lack of a guardrail on its steeper edges. Trauma set that heightened awareness into my bones, and as a result alarm bells were just constantly going off, whether I was near my kids or not. Imagine feeling confident as a parent when you’re consumed by the worst what-ifs in any given moment. You can’t. Or, I couldn’t always.
Trauma, loss, or not, does anyone love parenting all the time? Is that even possible?
Sometimes while my kids played, a “watch out!” would burst forth from me before I'd considered if it really fit the action. A reactionary hyper-vigilance could put a stop to their fun like a record scratch. Maybe before I would’ve been rough-and-tumble on the floor, too, instead of being a worrying onlooker.
The grating on my nerves makes it hard to love anything all the time — but trauma, loss, or not, does anyone love parenting all the time? Is that even possible? I don't think so, but the pressure to appear as if I do feels heightened as a mom who has welcomed her "rainbow baby."
Am I expected to cherish moments with my two kids all the more because of how much I went through to get here? I’m not so sure it works that way. Even if loss mars the scene with additional complexity, having another baby surely doesn’t erase that history. In fact, the heightened awareness of vulnerability parenting after loss yields can make some of those moments harder to cherish, because it’s hard to come down to Earth and experience them.
Can we acknowledge that immense gratitude and love often live alongside frustration, overwhelm, and even anger? We sure can. And we must. Because the reality is, this mothering stuff can be challenging beyond words, no matter how much we yearned for the role.
My daughter will be three and a half this month, and I am still in awe of her as if she just arrived. The way I study her feet, her birthmark; the anxiety has lessened, and maybe this is what has replaced it: this careful noticing of what I have. If I didn’t have my miscarriage, then this girl wouldn’t be here. And I wouldn’t be here with her and my son in the same way. I know that now, and I love it, and it's okay to say that sometimes I also don't.
Jessica Zucker, PhD, is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and writer specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. She is the creator of the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign.