It’s Christmas: the season during which we mail cards decked with professional family portraits and also disparage said portraits for not portraying “real life.” As my friend Julie Rodgers said in a caption of a merry group photo of her and her friends on Instagram, “Merry Christmas from our family to yours! (Not pictured here: all of the fears, insecurities, meltdowns, and pints of ice cream that make us human and don’t show up in Christmas cards).” Similarly, a mother I follow posted a picture of herself laying on the couch while her toddler nursed and her older daughter caressed her mom’s leg and in the caption she told of what a stressful day the three of them had had together and that all she had wanted was to be alone at that moment.
It seems many of us feel compelled to call attention to the cracks and flaws in the gloriously happy texture of our lives. We desire an authentic life both on- and off-line so we pair beautiful images with stories of failure and “humanness.” “Human” has become code for flawed. “Reality” supposedly only includes the nitty-gritty and not the smiles and sunsets and certainly not the latte art. Perhaps we are bewildered at how we can feel so good and be so blessed when life is hard and unjust and we are capable of such unbeautiful thoughts and actions.
At first glance, it seems that we’re contrasting our happiness with our humanness but I do not believe that such a dichotomy exists. I marvel at our species’ ability to revel in joy and beauty despite the pain, suffering, and shame we experience and see around us but I don’t believe we have some sort of dual nature or that feeling (and looking!) good is a betrayal of all that is painful and human.
I believe this is part of our genius design. We have the capacity to feel a wide range of emotions and to layer those feelings and feel them all at once. A spectrum of experiences, perspectives, and perceptions is ours to build, live and breathe in. To be human is to be able to be both broken and complete, both anxious and content—and all of those in-between places, too—like feeling bored or pensive or amused. We are not simple creatures focused only on pleasure or survival. We have multi-faceted experiences that sometimes feel like they conflict with each other, and it is difficult to reconcile them. Hence our struggle to present a complete picture of our complex lives on a simple medium such as Instagram or a Christmas card.
All that to say that motherhood is like that for me. Since we have hit the one-year mark, we’ve entered into what I assume is a never-ending phase of remembering. This is Belle’s second flu season, her second Christmas. In every present moment, I feel the ghost of who we were this time last year. I remember feeling emotionally and physically raw post-birth. When I had Bell’s Palsy, I remember the sadness of being unable to smile at our newborn. Because I couldn’t demonstrate happiness, at times I couldn’t feel it, and that was hard. We were exhausted. My brain was mush. I prepared an entire Christmas dinner one day too early. I got so many plugged ducts and Anabelle wanted to nurse every hour or two. Four or five people cancelled trips to see us, and each was more disappointing than usual. It was a season of rough spots.
But, of course, it was also Christmas with a beautiful new baby. I got to watch Mitch transform into a father and each day slip into his role more naturally than the day before. Breastfeeding allowed me to express to Anabelle what my face could not. It comforted both of us as she grew and I healed. When the nerves in my face were regenerating with sharp cracks of electric pain, I would hold her warm little head to my cheek and it felt so, so good. I wore her everywhere and she could never resist a snoozie in the sling. There were coos and smiles and tiny Christmas dresses. There was a feeling of belonging, a feeling of home and purpose, layered above and below those feelings of exhaustion, despair, fear, and failure.
Motherhood has expanded and deepened the spectrum of what I feel and experience in and out of each day. The highs are intoxicating and the lows—being scared for the safety of your child, being ashamed of what you perceive as failure—are crippling.
Motherhood has taught me that those experiences exist together and that Christmas card joy can be just as real and authentic as moments of anguish, moments when you cry that you are broken and that you just want to disappear. To be human is not just to be flawed or to be irritated with your kids or to stress-eat or breakdown. It is those things, and it is the best things, too. Motherhood has also taught me what a wonderful thing it is to be human, to be complex and to nurture a complex being, to be able to relate a little to every person I see because I know we exist in the same spectrum of experiences, to feel so much joy that I forget injustice for a second, and to feel so much pain that I wonder if happiness will ever return.
Contentment in motherhood comes from embracing how happy we are, accepting that as humans we get to feel debilitatingly good and bad, appreciating our design, reflecting on our ghosts, melting into the present, anticipating the future with hope and fear.