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04 Feb, Saturday
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Montreal Families

Motherhood – A Mesh of Happiness and Helplessness

I learned a lesson about the skewed realities of motherhood a number of years ago when my twins were preschoolers and I was pregnant with my third daughter. I was teaching at a Montreal university and meeting with a student in my office. As our discussion progressed, I noticed her looking at me in an odd way.

Finally, after yet another glance at the side of my head, she announced, “You have something in your hair.”

What could I possibly have in there, I wondered with mounting horror. A parting gift from that morning’s snotty goodbye hugs? A piece of banana from my girls’ sticky breakfast? I reached up with some trepidation and pulled out a Cheerio. Part of a Cheerio, actually. I was relieved. This was so much better than snot.

My student, however, did not seem to share my relief, continuing to stare at me with all the world-weary condescension a 19-year-old can muster. “It’s a Cheerio,” I announced cheerfully, as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a university professor to pull cereal out of her hair.

And then, partly because the pained look on her face suddenly irritated me, I was sleep deprived, seven months pregnant (and aware I would probably never again fit into the kind of size 6 jeans she was wearing so well), I decided to pop the Cheerio fragment into my mouth, without comment.

She raised her eyebrows slightly and her mouth made a silent ‘o’. I returned to our discussion of her assignment and then she hurriedly gathered her papers and left my office.

I spent the rest of the day imagining with a smile the text messages she was firing off to her fellow classmates about their deranged and decidedly uncool instructor. One day, in a few short years, I knew those young women would be pushing their own strollers through a park, their hair adorned with Cheerios (or other food bits), exhausted, a bit frazzled and hopefully as happy as I was.

The truth is, before I became a mother, I was a little afraid of babies. Toddlers too. Actually, all children under the age of 8. I had never babysat very young children or even changed a diaper, and my few experiences holding an infant invariably led to them crying. It was like they knew I had no idea what I was doing with them in my arms and they wanted to humiliate me. I took it personally. I was really more of a dog person.

Despite this, upon learning I was pregnant (with not just one baby, but two), I felt strangely confident that my husband and I would figure it out. Sure, I was nervous about sleepless nights and how we’d manage two newborns, but I felt that a combination of deeply buried primordial parenting instincts and my extensive library and Internet research would somehow make it all OK.

It also helped that my own mother seemed completely confident in my transformation into a mother. A successful and accomplished career woman, she nevertheless always talked about mine and my brother’s earliest years as a kind of golden age. “Those are going to be some of the best years of your life,” she’d enthuse in a sepia-toned sort of way. This Kodak-moment kind of reflection always made me think of the daisy chains she’d helped me make in our backyard when I was little. Of course my new little family was going to be OK. We were going to make a LOT of daisy chains. And artwork with pieces of dried macaroni noodles stuck on with white glue. And chocolate chip cookies.

Some of this turned out to be true. My three daughters and I have made the odd daisy chain (do dandelions count?) and many, many chocolate chip cookies. And I’ve also tacked my fair share of their drawings to the kitchen message board.

But I learned there was a lot of other stuff too; the things that never make it onto the cover of Mother’s Day greeting cards. And I’m not just talking about the regular contact with a colourful array of body fluids, the hundreds and hundreds of hours of lost sleep, the bickering with my husband, the rising level of clutter and disarray in the house and the serious challenges motherhood posed to my career. I’m also referring to the anxiety, guilt and worry of parenthood, and the many, many questions that have no one right answer. The completely illogical and irrational feelings associated with motherhood that no amount of research can prepare you for.

It may take different forms for all of us, but the underlying anxiety it provokes is familiar to all: Stay home or go back to work? Let them cry themselves to sleep or go to them AGAIN? Is a fever that high normal? Put up with another fruit-free, veggie-free day because you’re tired of fighting? Switch schools or hire a tutor and stick it out?

I’ve learned that parenting (especially the first time around) is five per cent primordial instinct (as in tread carefully when carrying two newborns down the stairs and feed them when they’re hungry), 10 per cent advice from family and friends (asked for and otherwise) and 90 per cent making it up as you go along (are they crying because they’re hungry, tired, need to be changed, uncomfortable or just messing with my mind?). If that doesn’t add up to 100, chalk it up to a couple of weeks of nights spent cleaning up three rounds of stomach flu before heading each day to work for my PAID employment.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you. Enjoy your day of pre-dawn awakenings from warm, soft, slightly sticky little creatures and homemade gifts. And if the breakfast in bed doesn’t work out, perhaps you can pull something out of your hair from the day before.

Feeling overwhelmed? You are not alone.
On April 6, Oprah did a show bringing together mothers who shared stories about ‘things no one told you about motherhood,’ like haemorrhoids, feelings of inadequacy, losing a sense of who you are, your sex drive, etc…

Two of her guests have written books about some of these challenges. Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile recently wrote a book called I’d Trade my Husband for a Housekeeper: Loving Your Marriage after the Baby Carriage. They have also written I was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood and Dirty Little Secrets from Otherwise Perfect Moms. Mothers who are feeling overwhelmed and/or inadequate might find some comfort, and laughter reading these books.

There is also a new television show called In the Motherhood on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) star in this new comedy, which takes a look at the importance of family and friends while trying to juggle motherhood, work and love lives in an overly complicated modern world. The show is based on a series, shown on the web in 2007, in which real mothers submitted their stories of raising kids.

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