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I'm not a regular mom. I'm a cool mom.
On Mom and other social roles that (fail to) define us
One hot August afternoon about three weeks before my c-section, a very nice nurse gave Mark and me a tour of the neonatal intensive care unit. He explained how to get in and out, where to wash your hands, where to find the bathrooms, the refrigerator, the microwave, the laundry. It wasn’t until he took us into one of the individual rooms and I saw, sitting there by the wall, one of the tiny incubators where our babies would be spending the first few weeks of their lives that I started crying. He seemed flummoxed. “Are you okay, Mom?”
Mom. It registered but only barely. I was fixated on that empty incubator. It evoked its resident and, along with it, every fear I had about what would happen when my hospital stay ended and the babies’ began. I’d known that my experience of giving birth would be hyper-medicalized and for this reason I had no birth plan, no labor playlist, no romantic visions of serenely lifting an infant to my breast. We would be lucky, I thought, if we were allowed to hold them in the first week.
As I walked back to my room on the antepartum ward, I tried not to glance at the tiles lining the walls. Each had a name, a date, and a birth weight handwritten on its surface. Years ago, I went to visit a friend after her birth and, as I tried to find her room, I examined the tiles along the way. There was one with two names, both weights around three pounds. Twins. Premature. I remember feeling a slight revulsion thinking of such tiny babies. Too small. Too vulnerable. Over the course of a single day, my friend had become a parent, someone familiar to me but also transformed. At the time, I had no interest in that kind of transformation. But here I was seven years later in that same hospital. A stranger was calling me Mom and those tiny preterm babies were about to be mine.
Here’s what I remember about the day they were born: the sound of the first baby crying and then, moments later, the second; the stab of a needle thrust into my shoulder (because, as my midwife put it, “you’re bleeding more than you should be”); and the taste of the apple juice I was finally allowed to drink after I was sewn back up.
Two days before my scheduled c-section I was given steroid shots to help mature the babies’ lungs. We had been warned that they might not be able to breathe on their own; they might need to be intubated or wear CPAP masks. It wasn’t until I heard that first cry that I realized how afraid I’d been of not hearing it. I hadn’t known if they would be able to do that basic human ritual of announcing themselves to the world. It turned out they did need breathing support: almost immediately they were fitted with tiny masks that forced air into their noses. But they could cry. It felt miraculous.
Everything else from the day is a blur. It wasn’t the best day of my life. I wasn’t instantly smitten with the babies. I was exhausted and thirsty (that juice!) and incredibly sore and, more than anything else, relieved to no longer be pregnant. The day did not feel like a beginning, even though I understood that that’s exactly what it was. I was still a patient, still living on the antepartum ward among people who were still pregnant. The babies were out of my body but it would be weeks before they were home and in our care.
Life in the NICU felt like a state of suspended animation. Outside, record breaking summer heat was fading to soggy west coast fall. But inside the days were characterized by a sterile sameness. The babies ate by feeding tube at three, six, nine, and twelve. The doctors did rounds at eleven. The nurses switched shifts at seven. A series of monitors made an amelodic kind of music. Alarms beeped constantly: because a baby’s heart rate was too high or too low, because their blood oxygen had desaturated, because their respiration was irregular. Every time an alarm rang, my adrenaline spiked. A few moments later a nurse would stroll over, check everything, and silence the alarm; these were simply normal fluctuations. It took weeks of this happening before my nervous system stopped responding so intensely.
It is strange to become a parent without actually being responsible for the care of your children, to go home every night to a place where your babies do not live, to wake up before dawn to use a machine to make milk that will be given to your babies with another machine the next day. We were allowed to hold them but we had to ask permission because we needed the nurses’ help to arrange the tubes and wires so the babies could rest safely on our chests. For the first few days, I didn’t even know what their faces looked like under their CPAP masks. What color was their hair, my mom wanted to know. I wasn’t sure. I’d never seen them without hats on.
The same doctors and nurses rotated through our lives day after day, but only a few bothered to learn or use our names. Instead Mark was Dad and I was Mom. Mark seemed to like the novelty of Dad but I felt that I’d gone from being who I’d always been—a whole, complex human—to being an accessory, a stock character, a person I didn’t know.
A day or two after the babies were born, Mark was out running errands while I sat in my hospital gown on a rolling office chair. I could barely walk after my surgery, but I could roll myself from one incubator to the other, gazing at the babies as they slept, which they did almost every minute of every day. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, how to touch them, how to safely change their diapers, how to comfort them if they cried. I longed for a bed to lie in, but I wasn’t willing to return to my room on the other side of the hospital, even though there was nothing to do but keep rolling that chair back and forth. At one point, a few nurses clustered nearby to chat. One had come over from the Rabbit Ward, where mothers got to share a room with their babies as they recovered from birth. I thought about how nice it would be if my bed and my babies were in the same room.
“They’re so demanding, they’re driving me nuts,” the nurse said. “Not the babies; they’re easy. The moms. They think you’re only there to do things for them.” I felt my face burn. I wondered: Had she thought I couldn’t hear her? Or was I just invisible? Or did she think I was a different kind of mom, one who was capable of taking care of others while expecting nothing for herself?
I knew I was not that kind of mom and I felt embarrassed by my exhaustion, by my awkwardness, by the fact that I ever needed anything at all.
All of our nurses were wonderful with the babies. So gentle and affectionate. And they were patient with us, too, teaching us how to give a bottle, how to give a bath. But I often felt their expectations weighing down on me in a way that Mark did not. Once the babies were off the feeding tubes, I was expected to be there as often as possible so we could practice breastfeeding. I needed to pump around the clock to increase my supply in hopes of feeding two babies. No one told me I should exclusively breastfeed, but they often asked leading questions with only one right answer: In an ideal world, how would you like to feed your babies?
In an ideal world? We had two newborns. Ideally Mark, the babies, the dog, and I would have most of our basic needs met most of the time.
When I got mastitis, my body was racked with chills. My temperature spiked and my muscles ached. The midwife gently suggested that I might be overdoing it. She urged me to rest more, to take time for myself away from the hospital while I knew the babies were in good hands. But each day felt like one impossible puzzle stacked on another: get more rest while pumping every two and a half hours; take time to recover from your surgery but don’t expect any special care or attention; avoid driving for six weeks but be at the hospital as often as possible.
Being a dad seemed ideal. No one noticed what time Mark arrived each day or how long he was out getting lunch. It wasn’t strange that he didn’t know how to change diapers; it was charming that he was so keen to learn. Mark was happy to be with the babies at the hospital each day and happy to go home in the evenings. I wanted to be like Mark but instead I was anxious and hormonal. I cried when we left each night while Mark warmly thanked the nurses for taking such good care of our boys. Every time someone called me Mom, I felt the conditions of my gender closing in on me. When they called Mark Dad, he beamed.
Despite all this, those early days were punctuated with bouts of wild euphoria that I’ve never felt before or since. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t quite make out the shape of their noses or identify the color of their eyes. Nothing compared to the sensation of having a sub-four-pound human snoring gently on my chest. I knew that with newborns love sometimes grows slowly, creating attachment takes time. But it didn’t take time for me. I craved their tiny bodies against mine. It was pure intoxication.
What I wanted—but couldn’t yet articulate—was to inhabit that feeling without having it hijacked by the role of Mom. Mom made me feel small and powerless and trapped. But the babies themselves, these people who had once lived inside my body and were now out in the world, alive and growing, were shocking and extraordinary.
When I say that I never really wanted to be a mom, people assume what I mean is that I never wanted to have children. But what I really mean is that I aspired to a genderless version of parenthood. Mom is the keeper of schedules. The maker of Halloween costumes. The daycare contact. The meal planner. Mom shows up in the NICU cheerful, rested, and full of milk. I resented how it all seemed to be laid out in advance. I wanted to get to know my children on my own terms instead of worrying about whether I was performing my role effectively in the eyes of everyone around me.
Now, when I walk around the neighborhood with two chubby babies in my giant double stroller, strangers go out of their way to smile and congratulate me. People love babies. They especially love twins. And they love the idea of my life as one that is short on sleep but long on joy. I fit neatly into our shared story of what makes a meaningful and happy life. And though I am happy, becoming a mom has not made me feel more like myself. Brene Brown draws a useful distinction between fitting in and belonging: “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” I am very good at assessing a situation and becoming who I need to be to fit in.
I’m still figuring out what to do with Mom. I imagine I’ll be figuring it out for a long time. The experience has me thinking about all the social roles we are expected to embody and how small they can make a person feel. They offer a shortcut to fitting in but rarely come with a sense of genuine belonging. I know there’s no real escaping Mom, however much I might like to, and that finding a place within it where I can feel like myself might take a long time. In the meantime, I’m happy that I get to hang out with these weird, funny new people we made. I’m so glad that my reservations about being someone named Mom didn’t get in the way of their arrival in this world.