The Gigantic Task of Motherhood
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 5 of Holl & Lane Magazine.
Words and images by Jenny Williams
In my high school days, I babysat the occasional lone infant and assumed I was getting a small taste of motherhood. I always knew I wanted to have children one day, but the baby stage seemed so… boring. Sitting on the floor with a cooing, chubby baby was adorable for a few minutes, but how could one endure a long succession of such days - staring at a human who could not talk, or even reciprocate affection?
When I became pregnant, I looked forward to being a mom with great anticipation. And while I knew my job would entail more than sitting on the floor, oohing and aahing all day, I still held onto the small fear that the first year of motherhood would be mundane. Since I was planning to stay at home with our little one, I had many questions. Would I miss adult interaction? Would I miss my full-time job? Would I have any time to myself, or is motherhood really about self-sacrifice one hundred percent of the time?
At the heart of all my fears, I think, was the belief that self-sacrifice is boring. As I’m writing this, Violet is six months old. My fear that the first months with Violet would be boring seems laughable now, of course. My days are not, in fact, spent staring at her in silence (although I do my fair share of that). They are, in fact, made up of mountains of laundry formed by miniature clothing, and worrying about the amount of spit up she projects on a daily basis. I tend to a lot of bodily functions.
Taking care of myself has taken on a whole new meaning, knowing I am my baby’s primary source of care and nutrients. I take her on walks through the neighborhood so she can feel the sun on her face. I’ve unintentionally memorized “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” because I love the way her mouth gapes and her eyes follow each turning page as I read it aloud. To most people, this is not an enviable way of life. To outsiders, this life may even look pitiable. I’m only six months into my new role, but so far, rather than feeling narrow, my job continually feels larger and more challenging as the days go by.
A few years ago I was working for a senator in Washington, D.C. I knew the next step in my career would likely mean a position that provided little work/life balance. I dreaded the idea of being always a phone call or text away from being accountable to my boss. And yet, this job I have now is more demanding than any of my jobs before this--requiring more of me than I knew I had to give--and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. In this role, I get to be fully me, and then some.
Most of my daily duties are simple, but my little bundle of joy creates a wonderful diversion from the smallness of everyday life. Not once has the thought, “this is boring” crossed my mind. “I’m too tired for this” and “I need a break” certainly have, but never a temptation to think of this stage of life as dull. My high school-self is relieved.
I came across this quote by G.K. Chesterton before I ever became pregnant, and it stuck with me. Now, I can’t get over the truth of it: “How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
I had a happy and fulfilled life before my daughter entered this world. I don’t believe that not having children means a life of unimportance. But I think what makes motherhood feel so important is the self-sacrifice that sounds so intimidating before it comes into play.
It’s natural to worry that we are too selfish to raise children, or too comfortable in our way of life. But what is also natural, and what I found surprising, is the desire that comes along with having a child: the natural instinct to give your last drop of blood for her well-being, if it should come to that; and since it usually doesn’t come to that, everything less than that has the potential to be pure joy.
The other day I dragged several dusty boxes out of my parents’ shed marked “Jenny’s books”. I was hoping to find a few specific ones when I opened them, and I was not disappointed. Inside, were dozens of the books I read and re-read as a child. They played a big part in shaping my view of the world, and just to hold their faded pages in my hand brought back so many warm memories of reading on rainy days or curled up in bed long past my bedtime.
I took them home and filled the shelf that spans the length of one wall in Violet’s small nursery, and every time I glance at them after changing her diaper, I get a thrill knowing there is so much ahead of us. It’s moments like these when I get a glimpse of the vastness of my role. We still have a few thousand readings of board books to go, but we will eventually get to chapter books. And then what a whole new world will be opened to her! That I serve as a guide is both exhilarating and terrifying.
If the piles of never-ending laundry feel, well, never-ending, they are also a reminder of how quickly good turns to bad and bad to good. How nothing lasts forever, and how short and precious life is. The tiny, simple, monotonous tasks that make up daily existence are a part of life, but they serve a purpose. To outsiders, our world may look small, and some may think moms are wasting their talents. But while being everything to someone is an overwhelming job, it is far from small. It is far from restrictive.
And I think it is because self-sacrifice, in any form, is more liberating than one could ever imagine. Taking care of the thing you love leads more and more to loving what you take care of. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. In that sense, no moment is wasted or too minute. An outpouring of selfless love, then, is an invitation to a life of contentment and satisfaction. It is a goal to always be striving toward. And one that is simultaneously exhausting and hopeful.
I’m a brand new mom. The memories of my long, drawn-out labor are fresh on my mind. My lack of a paycheck is manifested in the length of our to-buy list. I hope I always remember this feeling of “what I’ve given up” down the road, not as an excuse to feel sorry for myself, but to remember how much it is worth it.
I know there will be days when I want to throw in the towel, or run away, or have a mere five minutes to take care of my own needs. But from the first contraction of childbirth, my body started screaming: this is not about you. The world is so much bigger, and our jobs as moms are so much bigger, than we could ever realize. Motherhood is a large career that requires every resource available to us—our creativity, our physical strength, our mental clarity, our literal bodies.
This job that seems overwhelming, to say the least, some days, is overwhelming because it is so gigantic, not because it is minute. In fact, it is even more gigantic than we can ever know. And if we can rest in that truth, and are willing to live up to the challenge, there is comfort to be found in it.