Days after the birth of my first daughter, I lay in bed swollen, bandaged, bruised, and confused. While recuperating from a traumatic birth, I heard my husband cooing at our daughter and cheerfully changing diapers in the next room. It filled me with love, but to be honest, also with shame. He was a "natural," and I felt like an awkward accessory.
Wasn’t this the reverse of how it was supposed to go? Weren’t mothers supposed to be guided by their intuition, naturally morphing into nurturing goddesses overnight?
As I carried my daughter through pregnancy, I was also carrying some seriously misguided assumptions. Growing up, I loved home ec classes (dated, I know): the baking, the sewing, the "DIY" craft projects. I coddled my two guinea pigs, and then my two kittens, and later their offspring. I started cooking wholesome dinners for myself in ninth grade when I became the only vegetarian in the house. I was the most sought-after babysitter in the neighborhood.
When it came to all the ingredients I was sure made a mother, I was a natural. Which is why I wasn’t fazed when the word “natural” popped up at just about every point in pregnancy: Was I planning to have a natural birth? Was I eating natural organic foods? Would I be breastfeeding naturally?
Our bond was not instantaneous—it took time for me to get to know my baby, to feel into our connection, to experience a new depth of love.
But after 40 hours of labor, two epidurals, a cocktail of drugs administered at the hospital, and an unplanned C-section, it seemed that, by some definitions, "natural" was off the table. I stared in woozy, adoring wonder at my wriggling baby as she rooted for milk against my chest. My body craved sleep, but the nurses kept waking me up at two hour intervals, coaxing me to nurse. I kept waiting for instinct to kick in, but breastfeeding felt foreign and clumsy. Wasn't I supposed to know just what to do? Cheerful lactation specialists arrived and departed, but my confidence in my natural abilities was already eroding.
In the weeks that followed, I cried often, staring both tenderly and fearfully at the little being I was now tethered to. Our bond was not instantaneous, but gradual. It took time for me to get to know her, to feel into our connection, to experience a new depth of love.
During his three short weeks of paternity leave, my husband was the active partner that most women dream of. He could easily comfort our daughter by making faces, remain calm during her crying and medical scares, change diapers like a pro. It was beautiful to behold his confidence, but it only highlighted my own lack thereof in the motherhood department. When my husband returned to work, I was left to fend for myself—plus one. It felt like everything at once: a golden opportunity, a void, a question mark. Who was I to become as a mother? Would I ever feel like myself again? Would anything about this ever feel natural?
On my best days, I felt attuned and productive. I bonded with my baby on neighborhood walks or by playing little tickling games to make her smile. I cooked, cleaned, and folded laundry while she napped. At the end of the day, like a scene out of Mad Men, I wiped my hands on my apron and kissed my husband when he came home from work.
On my worst days, motherhood felt like a lifetime sentence to domestic drudgery: feed, diaper, repeat. I felt drained and isolated, and kept comparing myself to the other mommies I was swapping baby food recipes with. I resented my husband when he returned home, brimming with big smiles and exciting news about important grants, research, conferences, and intellectual conversations.
“I’m fine,” I would say while poking at steaming broccoli or carrots. Then I'd flee to the bedroom—too ashamed to admit that motherhood wasn't fitting me like a glove.
Just because you’re not a “natural” at the job doesn’t mean you can’t still excel.
Psychiatrist and author Alexandra Sacks has helped reignite a conversation on matrescence—the transition to becoming a mother. Talking about the challenges of this transition—ambivalence, guilt, shame, identity whiplash—she says, may help soften the blow by creating more realistic expectations. Somehow, amidst all the talk about the otherworldly glow of pregnancy and the miracle of a newborn, I forgot to talk about the realities of what it actually means to become a mother.
When my aunt came to visit when my daughter was around one years old, she informed me matter-of-factly: “I was not a natural mother.” I felt a weight slip off my chest. To have someone say it out loud, to know that being an unnatural mother didn’t make you a bad mother, was the most relief I’d felt in months.
As the years have passed, my relationship with my daughter has deepened, and our bond is now stronger than ever. In a way, we have grown up together. When she turned two, I nodded at my husband, who had been ready for some time to start trying again. “I’m ready now!" I declared, without any hesitation.
The second-time-around, I navigated all of the same transitions, but with different results: a drug-free V-BAC, few nursing challenges, and an established business to return to after maternity leave. It taught me that every mother's journey, despite similar threads, is different. Just because you’re not a “natural” at the job doesn’t mean you can’t still excel.
In many ways, my second foray into motherhood felt more “natural”—but perhaps it was simply just more familiar.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a freelance writer and licensed psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, covering motherhood, mental health, and culture. Follow her on Facebook.
Originally Appeared on Glamour