What I’ve Learned in My 21 Years as a Mom

I wrote this essay last year in honor of my oldest child’s 20th birthday but aside from the additional year, all of the sentiments remain the same. 

0511-1010-0812-3638_Compass_Rose_Boating_Navigation_Equipment_clipart_imageTwenty-one years ago today, I bought a car. Or at least, I started the day buying a car and ending it having a baby. It all happened so fast.

My husband at the time and I, babies ourselves, were about to have one and having just moved to the suburbs, were in the market for a second car. I had already started my maternity leave – unable to cope with the long train ride in and out of the city each day – and he was off for the Columbus Day holiday.

And so, much like Columbus whose journey brought him to an unexpected destination, we set sail in search of an extra set of wheels and ended up with me barfing up a giant meal in the hospital before giving birth.

Here’s what I discovered on that day all those years ago: Being a mom is hard.

For months, I had envisioned all sorts of happy scenarios as I rubbed my growing belly and religiously devoured “What to Expect,” but none of it prepared me for the reality of actually having the baby. I had been so focused on the actual birth that I was not prepared for the day-to-day slog of parenting.

And so I had my truly excellent natural childbirth, bringing my 7-pound son easily into the world, and then everything went off script. He couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t expel the pesky placenta. We both labored until he was whisked off to the neonatal unit and I was wheeled into the operating room.

I ended up on the sad-mommy floor, the section of the maternity ward that shielded moms whose pregnancies had gone awry from all the happy families cooing over their newborns with rooms overflowing with balloons and doting grandparents. It was like being in the Land of Misfit Toys, where for one reason or another, our square-wheeled babies couldn’t come join us for a snuggle in our hospital beds.

The baby’s health was so unstable that the hospital had a nun come and perform an emergency baptism on Day 2. Talk about grim.

For many years afterwards – long before I had to end my marriage or had a child slip into the darkness of depression – the hardest thing I ever had to do was leave that hospital five days later without my baby. I had to leave him there, alone in an incubator with tubes running down his throat and wires attached to a shaved patch on his tiny head, and that, my friends, sucked.

I remember standing on the curb in front of the hospital with my mom and my mother-in-law waiting for my husband to come pull the car around and trying not to totally lose it, when the mother-in-law, probably trying to help take my mind off the dire situation, asked me how much weight I needed to lose.


And of course, the rest happened so fast. The baby quickly recovered and in less than a week, he was home and crying all the time, making me wonder what the hurry was getting him out of the hospital in the first place. While he was there, I had been religiously pumping breast milk at home so that when he could finally be fed, I would be more than ready to accommodate his little thirst. We immediately began passing thrush back and forth to each other, which for him meant a little yeasty white patches inside his pink mouth and for me it meant searing pain across my left breast. Like it was on fire.

So, here’s what I learned 21 years, three more kids and one less husband later: I was reading the wrong manual all those years ago. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”? That’s completely misleading. Moms-to-be should read something like, “You’ll Never Know What to Expect Parenting” or “Never-Say-Never as a Mom.”

Because we all set sail into unchartered waters when we become parents. We think we are clever, with our course clearly mapped and plugged into the GPS of our lives. But kids are tricky and bring with them lots of variables, their insecurities and emotions are the winds and tides that can blow you off course in a heartbeat. So we often end up standing on the shores of some strange land, not where we expected to be, much like Columbus ending up in the Bahamas rather than Asia.

But here’s the thing: as much as I was sure 21 years ago that my life would follow a certain trajectory, I’ve discovered that it’s better in the Bahamas.

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7 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned in My 21 Years as a Mom

  1. Love this. I laughed, I cried… So true! You should write the new manual! Happy birthday to your oldest babe!

  2. You look like a teenager in that photo… I agree with Susan. Start working on that revised Parenting Manual!

  3. I had a similarly traumatic beginning with Lindy and I know that the worst possible feeling in the world is leaving the hospital without your baby. Aside from that, I love the rest of this story. Happy Birthday Max!

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