There was a series that came out when I was in college called Planet Earth. It was several segments of video footage shot all over the globe over the course of years showing the most awesome scenes in the natural world that more than 99.9% of humans would never see. They sent these videographers and scouts and climbers and divers to the remotest corners to capture bats, fish, whales, mountains, ice, the aurora borealis. We got the DVDs when they came out and watched them over the course of a few months.
I don’t know if this one scene that I can recall very clearly was from that series in particular, or if it was from one of the knock-offs that came after. The footage shows a mother polar bear holed up, pregnant, buried in ice and snow for a few months. Then she’s giving birth to the twin cubs in that hole, and staying there for a few more months. Then this amazing thing happens: she travels across the snowy Arctic to find water for food and swimming lessons, etc. She pushes, carries, follows, protects these baby cubs for something like two years. I can remember so many images from that segment. There was one part when an animal tried to get one of her babies and she went crazy. She was bloody and beat up, but her kids were a-ok.
When I was pregnant I got a lot of advice. We’re talking, enough advice to ground a helicopter. Some of it was helpful, some wasn’t. Some was solicited, most was not. A pregnant woman is seen as a “wisdom” dumping ground. I’ve done it too, so I’m not pointing fingers. But it seems like most of the counsel I received was in the vain of preparing me for the mental and emotional strain of having a baby – the impact it would have on my marriage, both good and bad. The identity shift. The depression I might feel. The way sleep deprivation would make me mean. The joy of having a babe. It goes on.
As it turns out, while some of those warnings were fair prep for things to come, nothing prepared me for this: the unalloyed physical gauntlet that is being a mom.
From the second Jack’s first strand of DNA was in my body I felt sick. It actually didn’t bother me because it had taken a lot to even get that far, but I thought so many times, “how is it possible for something so microscopic to have this kind of power over my whole body?” For nine months I was on the brink of throwing up, eating a preposterous amount of meat when the waves of nausea would subside. The day a child is born a woman’s body basically does this unearthly separation thing – all of these muscles loosen and organs move and all the things that have always been knit together with the taut precision of linen go slack. Then it – that mom body – moves a baby from out of the world to into the world in an inexplicable breath of holy power. Then I thought, I have done this thing. I have given birth. Now my body is off the hook.
But you know what, for the past fifteen months, whenever someone asks me what the most surprising or challenging thing about being a mother is, I always answer the same: the physical demand is the hardest thing. It’s harder than training for a half-marathon, harder than hiking up a steep mountain, harder than any form of exercise because it simply does.not.stop.
You hold the baby, you carry him around the house, squatting down to pick up his toys from the floor. You rock him back and forth for hours, every day, and if he doesn’t want to sit, you sway and bounce him. I remember feeling my abs contract as I swayed that baby back and forth, back and forth. You nurse him so many times a day and in the middle of the night, and they you’re up at 3 am swaying again. He grows and you keep on carrying him, out to the car, into the grocery store, out to the car, to his seat, to his bed, stand up with him in your arms, sit down to play, up, down, up, down. All the time he is growing! And you don’t even realize that you’re getting stronger because he’s getting heavier. It’s hot outside, but you chase him anyway, and climb the jungle gym so he can sit on your lap down the slide, and run in the house for juice, and back out, and back in for sunscreen, and back out, and scoop him when he falls and throw him up in the air over your head to distract him from his skinned knee so he laughs. You’ll do anything for that evasive belly laugh, so you throw him until your shoulders are made of jell-o. When he falls asleep for his nap you realize you fell asleep too because your body was completely exhausted from the never-sitting, never-stopping.
There is a body of universal qualities that span moms of every species. The animal protectiveness, a drive to sustain young, the obvious express misery/wonder of childbirth itself. The unifying element is the physicality of the whole things. Humans can uniquely love, cherish, worry, mourn, comfort, educate, empathize, but every single mother is united in the physical branding that comes from bringing up young.
One bit of advice I remember was this: “It’s physically exhausting when they’re little, and it’s emotionally exhausting when they’re older.” So for now, while we’re here on the little side of things, we’ll be feeling the burn.