By the time I gave birth to my son, I had seen over 150 babies born. I am a doula: which is a Greek word meaning one who will clean up your puke while you’re having a baby, and love every minute of it. I am the crazy birth lady. I can be with a wild laboring woman as she screams, “I think the baby’s coming out my butt!” like I’m having tea on a Sunday afternoon.
I’m the pregnant woman’s BFF. I opened a yoga studio just for moms and I created my own childbirth education program. I stand by women’s sides as they give birth. I swaddle up their newborns, and say to them proudly “Welcome to Motherhood.”
I did all of that for ten years before I became a mother.
Each time I witnessed a woman stepping into motherhood, I’d think- Someday that will be me. Someday I will walk across those coals, and everything I’ve learned will pay off. Me and my babies (tons of them) will thrive because of my years of becoming an expert.
So you can imagine my shock when motherhood slapped me in the face.
In pregnancy, instead of barefoot and blissed-out, I was needy and neurotic. When labor came, I felt terror. Here I stood, the expert who should’ve known better. I could describe cervical dilation in many different metaphors: A flower opening, a cashmere turtleneck slipping over the babies head, sucking on a lifesaver till it melts away. I had spent many hours demonstrating how a ripe cervix is like your cheek and an unripe cervix is like your nose. (I know you want to try that now, it’s okay, you can) But all my expertise was doing nothing for my stubborn, first-time-mama cervix. I could describe labor, but I couldn’t do it.
The first day of labor, I chanted, meditated, hugged a few trees. I felt so proud of myself, thinking “I knew I’d be good at this!” The next day was Mother’s Day. Of course, I would give birth on Mother’s day! I paged my midwife, knowing she’d rush right over, and catch my baby as the sun set over the flatirons.
Her voice was distant on the phone line: “tell me what exactly you’re calling contractions?”
My heart sank. We talked about my “labor” in quotes now, and I felt like a big fat newbie. I was physically and emotionally drained, and I was only at the beginning. I’d been dancing all around base camp like a moron, wearing myself out before the actual climb began. And I’d told women the exact same things she was telling me! “Have a glass of wine, take a bath, sleep is so important.” I wanted to throw the phone into the birth tub. I wasn’t having a baby by sunset, I wasn’t even having a baby that weekend.
I spent a few hours resting, and then the next 36 hours grunting and clawing my way towards motherhood. I was in the tub, out of the tub, scaring my neighbors, scaring myself, and dropping choice phrases like ‘Jiminy Crimminy” and the occasional F-bomb.
After the birth, I felt a deep triumph, but I also felt trauma and betrayal. To add a little salt to my wounded pride, my baby girl- we didn’t check, but I was about 80% right in guessing the gender of my client’s babies, so I just knew she was a girl- until she came out with a penis. She- was no she. And I- was no expert.
If birth was a slap in the face, new motherhood was a knock out. My career and expectations stood over me waving their fist, as I lay on the floor- in a fog of depression and anxiety.
My husband would ask me questions like “when should his umbilical cord fall off?” or “why do you think he’s crying so much?” And I would stare at him wildly, and say, “I don’t know! I’ve never had a baby before!” I knew how to reassure mothers, but I had no idea it would rip out my heart every time my baby cried.
I didn’t know who to ask for help. If I was struggling, I would lose street cred. When my husband gently suggested that I call a therapist, I felt like a failure. So I just muscled through each day. I’d show up for my students, with all the answers, and I’d go back home and sink into my sea of self–doubt.
One afternoon a man, looking like Fabio, pulled up in front of my yoga studio on a Harley. I had my diaper bag in one hand, and my six-month-old in his car seat in the other. I wanted to drop both, hop on the back of that hog, and whisper into Fabio’s scruffy cheek: “Take me away, take me far away from here.”
But I stayed. Even though, I felt that motherhood might be killing me slowly, shaving years off my life with every 4 am feed- I wasn’t going anywhere. I was completely in love with this baby.
And I did get better. By the time my son turned two, I was back. My sense of humor, delight in life. And I could actually smile when someone told me they were pregnant with their second child. One January morning, I told my son to go wake up daddy and tell him we were having another baby! As he ran out of the bathroom, my knees buckled. Didn’t I learn my lesson the first time?
I started to prepare, for a hurricane, more than for a baby. I didn’t want cute fuzzy booties. I wanted sandbags of support. I hired postpartum doulas (2 of them), midwives (3 or them), birth doulas (four of them- because clearly you can never have too many doulas). I hired a massage therapist, a hypnotherapist, a psychotherapist, and a psychiatrist, just in case. I was going to be ready this time, when this freaking baby arrived.
I expected to fail, and I had support in place to hold me up as I did.
If my first birth was a slap, my second was a cool cloth, easing the sting. I gave birth not from a place of knowing, but from the deepest surrender I had ever known. In six hours of easy labor, on international peace day, my baby girl swam into my arms, surrounded by a powerful circle of love. Outside, in the warm autumn sunset, neighborhood kids wrote out in chalk, Welcome Baby.
With surrender and support, I’m starting to feel the sweetness of being a mother. I know my second is only seven months old, and it’s a tight rope I’m walking, a balance of yoga, self-care, and therapy. And I certainly have days that I fall off the rope.
But I know this now: that being an expert is baloney. As a mother, I’m always going to be a beginner, as my children change and grow. And I know I need help. From maybe not just one, but two or three villages.
And still I am grateful for the opportunity to constantly be learning. Forever blessed that these two sweet souls picked me as their mother, and I said yes.
I remember meeting a guru back in my pre-motherhood days. My friend said, just approach him with the humility of a child. I walked up and said proudly, “I know nothing.” He smacked me across the face. Twice. After the second slap, I got it. He was calling my lie. I said I knew nothing, but I thought I knew everything. “Do you know that hurt?” he said to me with kind eyes. “Yes,” I said, truly speechless. “Okay,” he nodded, “start there.”
So maybe that slap of my initiation into motherhood, was more like the hand of a loving guru saying: You don’t need to know what you are doing. That’s not what motherhood is about. Start with how much you love this baby. That’s all your baby needs. Just love. Nothing more. Stop trying to do it right, you just might miss it. All the books in the world mean nothing when you look into the eyes of your newborn child. Forget your expertise, and remember that every mother begins on day one.
And being a mother is a whole lot more powerful than being an expert.