Short version: Yes.
Long version: It’s complicated and by no means universal. Let me try to explain.
I would never make the claim that being a mother somehow makes you a better person. You are neither better than you were before nor better than others. If anything, the act of becoming a mother does the very opposite: it lays bare the worst parts of yourself. If you allow it, it forces you to confront some ugly truths about who you are and what you want (and don’t want) in the world. And that’s a really powerful force that can ultimately make you a better person, but it is by no means a guarantee.
I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about the decision to have a baby. I was in my early 30s, married for a few years, doing the 9-to-5 thing, comfortably numb. My ex-husband was the one who suggested it, and I suspect his reasons were the same as mine: it was time. It was what you did at that point in your marriage and life. We weren’t getting any younger. Given that I am the kind of person who sweats the small stuff but impetuously makes life decisions on a whim, I was on board from the beginning. It didn’t take long for us to conceive – maybe too short a time, because I did not even passively reflect upon how I personally would be affected by having a child. I knew it would suck (the act of giving birth) and I knew having a baby around would change things, but I honestly thought we could just go about our business as before (staying in most nights watching Poirot reruns) or even better – become better versions of ourselves. I’d get out of the house more. Ozan would get into exercising. We’d connect on a deeper level, become more intimate, really talk. Having a baby would be like applying an Instragram filter over real life, in real time.
I would never make the claim that being a mother somehow makes you a better person.
Getting pregnant made me truly care about my body for the first time in my life. Only when there was the prospect of a helpless living creature growing inside of it did it occur to me that I had to take care of the vessel. I had been a smoker struggling to quit for years; I drank too much and rarely exercised. I was riding on a decent metabolism and youth, two attributes I have since lost (and subsequently now weigh a solid 20 extra pounds). But the rules were harsh: no caffeine, no diet soda, (obviously) no alcohol, no raw fish, deli meat, salad bars, funky cheeses, etc. Pregnancy was a cornucopia of don’ts, and the whole thing scared me straight. Ozan and I were incredibly superstitious about the health of the child and didn’t even tell our family about the pregnancy until late in the second trimester. (My mom will never let me live this down.) Anyway, the extreme detox of pregnancy resulted in me feeling better than I had my whole life. Since adolescence, I have suffered from anxiety and depression and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt light. The about-face of hormones inside my little baby factory had me practically euphoric. I still miss the feeling of being pregnant. For some, it’s torture. For me, it was a reprieve.
On the social side, it wasn’t so great. I had no friends in the same boat as me. Everyone we knew still engaged in the official pastime of NYC: drinking. My conspicuous glasses of cranberry and seltzer made everyone suspicious. One of my most vivid memories during that time took place at a bar called The Library, a dark, stale-smelling hole in the ground on the Lower East Side. I remember having this out of body moment whereupon I floated up to the ceiling and looked down at our gathering, observing that for everyone else, this was just another Thursday night. But there was no going back for me – in fact, the no-going-back had already happened and there was nothing I could do about it. It’s not that I wished I weren’t pregnant – on the contrary, I was super-pumped about it. I didn’t mean it insultingly to my friends, but they just couldn’t understand where I was in my life. I was irrevocably unlike the others now, and no one knew. (Ok, they suspected.) The prospect didn’t fill me entirely with joy. I felt such a deep sense of alienation. At the time I couldn’t quite process it fully, but of course what I was really mourning was the fact that I would never be able to be spontaneous ever again. For the rest of my life, I would be responsible for someone and something other than myself. There was no flaking out on life. No more half-assing it. I was no longer (just) someone’s child. I was (also) someone’s mother. Shit got real, and that was only the preamble.
I gave birth to Aydin in 2007, the height of the Uber-Mommy movement in which staying at home was valued over working and making Halloween costumes and baby food from scratch were prerequisites for successful motherhood. Having followed all the rules of pregnancy to the letter (I do so love rules), I was in no rush to subscribe wholeheartedly to the Uber-Mommy code of conduct. (I was also suffering from PTSD from childbirth, an I-Shit-You-Not story I’ll write about some other time.) When Aydin turned out to have dairy and egg allergies, I had no choice but to make a lot of baby food from scratch, and I religiously documented every single phase of her first year. I was ambivalent about staying at home (in reality working part time would have been better for me psychologically) but in the end, the financial mind fuck that is NYC meant that it was cheaper for me to quit my job than to hire a full-time nanny. In terms of being a mom, there’s no way to write about it in a way that doesn’t read like a Hallmark card. I mean, seriously, there are NO WORDS. All those feelings of otherness I felt as a pregnant woman became fierce feelings of pride as a mother. I felt like a freaking superhero of love. Everything I had I emotionally channeled directly into Aydin and our bond was ironclad from the beginning. (We are still almost psychically in tune with one another.)
But just like during my pregnancy, I was all alone. None of my former friends in town had kids and the prospect of that changing seemed grim. I had a mysterious full-body rash that cropped up post-delivery, full sleeves of red patches that amped my preexisting social anxiety up to about a million. This was the era just before Facebook and the iPhone; I channeled my loneliness into a mommy blog, charting Aydin’s every burp and fart and entertained the possibility of writing creatively again. (My lack of discipline ensured that didn’t get very far… I was also really, really tired, ALL THE TIME.) Aydin was a sensitive baby and ended up napping best at home in a dark room with a white noise machine going full blast, which meant that during the first few years, she and I spent a lot of time in the apartment, something I didn’t particularly mind, being a hardcore homebody. But I was a solitary soul in the era before social media and my long days were so different than Ozan’s; by the end of a 12-hour parenting shift, I was desperate for adult company. Ozan did his best, but, being the co-parent, it was impossible for him to play every part. I needed friends. It was such a contradictory time: I was utterly alienated as a person, utterly shattered physically as a woman (thanks to my childbirthing nightmare), yet utterly enriched and fulfilled as a mother. In that regard, becoming a mom taught me that you can feel really shitty and insanely happy at the exact same time.
Things changed once I sucked it up and, long-sleeved to hide my rash, started venturing to Carroll Park with Aydin. Carroll Park was and still is the epicenter of young, hip parenting in the now-tony (then affordable) neighborhood known as Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. It took me weeks to get the nerve to go to Carroll Park. I built it up by practicing on lesser-known parks in the neighborhood, honing my skills in packing snacks and changing diapers on park benches.
The morning I broached Carroll Park I wore Aydin in the Baby Bjorn. She bobbed up and down as I walked the few blocks to the park. I ran into a couple I knew before I became a parent, a couple I incidentally knew to be fighting over starting a family. Seeing them made me break out into an anxious sweat: it was as though the universe were telling me that there was no turning back. It had been so long since I had conversed with other human beings, I actually struggled to appear and sound normal.
After floundering through a few minutes of chatter I crossed the threshold into the toddler play area, unsnapped Aydin from the Bjorn, and encouraged her to climb, crawl, and jump around on the play equipment. I applied a laser focus upon my child to prevent myself from showing any signs of terror. It was a warm late spring day and I desperately wanted to roll up my sleeves.
I don’t recall exactly what I was doing when another mother approached me and introduced herself. I was so nervous. I remember feeling like I had a horn coming out of my head. Who was this unique breed of human, a fellow mother? She had strawberry blond hair, freckles, and a kid named Axel. She was quiet, smart, wry and artistic. She asked me if I’d like to have a playdate – maybe we could take the kids to the Brooklyn Zoo.
I don’t remember how I sounded when I said yes, but I can tell you that the gratitude I felt overwhelms me to this day. I was a lost mother, swimming in a great big scary ocean, and Kacy, as she introduced herself, threw me a floatie. I remember the turkey and apple sandwiches she made for us during our subsequent outing, and I remember Aydin being too afraid to feed the goats at the petting zoo. We got to know each other as we pushed our Maclarens around and learned that we both wore Doc Martens as teenagers.
Right around the same time, Jen and I found each other and our mommy trio was born. That friendship changed me forever, just as getting pregnant changed me. The bond we formed was essential to my growth as a mother and as a person during those early years of parenthood. We weren’t like the stay-at-home moms who abandoned their lives prior to childbirth, swapping flow charts to become human helicopters. We cherished our past selves and brought all the good stuff into the present with us, giving the bad stuff the finger and laughing about everything in between. We let ourselves be women, mothers, humans all at the same time. No lines drawn around any one identity. It felt amazing to be seen as a whole person and to fully see them as well.
Jen was the one who saved me all over again when she told me that it was ok to treat depression with medication. I had been quietly suffering from my perceived stigma of this illness; only with Jen did I feel safe enough to broach the subject. By sharing her own struggles with anxiety, she helped me in a way that no therapist alone ever could have.
When Ozan and I realized our marriage was likely over, it was Kacy who offered up a place for me to sleep so that we could have a trial separation; she later rented Ozan a spare apartment in her building after he and I split up for good. I went to hell and back during that period. But the tribe stood firm and supported me. I wouldn’t be where I am without them, and I haven’t done nearly enough to let them know how much I love them and appreciate them. Our kids are almost pre-teens now and they all go to different schools; we rarely see each other but I know we’ll always have each other’s backs. Jen and Kacy even went to the Women’s March together in DC. Their kids are boys and Aydin’s a girl, so we’re in that phase where activities don’t exactly mesh to form successful play dates, but even the kids remember their early days together as a terribly awesome trio. We had way too many good times.
I always personally feel a little awkward on Mother’s Day, being honored and all. (Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and the fact that I slept in till 9 and got flowers, an original poem, and a dystopian novel about NYC in 2140.) It’s just that on Mother’s Day, it’s about your own mother, not you. So I’ll end this post with a direct thank you to my mom (who lives in fear of being written about):
Mom, thanks to you, I am strong, independent (even when I don’t want to be), and passionate about what I say and do. I care deeply about the future of those around me and this country because of you, and dad, and your lifelong commitment to social justice, put into practice in countless small acts of kindness. I’m so proud to be your daughter and I continue to be inspired by you.
Thank you, I love you, and Happy Mother’s Day, to you, Jen, Kacy, and all the other fierce, kick-ass mommies out there. May you ride eternal, shiny, and chrome.