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Defining motherhood in college

Defining motherhood in college

Just a few weeks into the summer after my sophomore year at Hope College I began to feel sick. “Nothing serious!” I reassured myself. I was just tired, a bit crampy, a tad achy here and there. Nothing I couldn’t handle! Unbeknownst to me, my body was already pushing forward into a life-changing experience: I was pregnant, nine short months away from becoming a mother. Fast forward to now and I have a beautiful son named Theodore (we call him Teddy). He’s seven-and-a-half months old, has the sweetest smile (with his father’s dimples), two little teeth and a giggle that melts my heart. In other words, he has me completely wrapped around his tiny little finger. Just look at him! 

But don’t for one second think that getting here was easy. In the spirit of the page, this lifestyle was something I was hardly prepared for, not one that I began all that purposefully. Despite all that, it’s also the best thing that has ever happened to me. What a cliche, right? 

People often disregard the extreme changes a woman goes through in pregnancy and in becoming a mother. There’s actually a term for these hormonal and physical changes: matresence. The shifts a woman’s body goes through during and after pregnancy, in roughly the span of one year, is comparable to the entirety of hormonal and physical shifts that occur during adolescence. 

One of the many key differences between motherhood and puberty is that, as Dr. Alexandra Sacks puts it: “During matrescence, people expect you to be happy while you’re losing control over the way you look and feel” (medium.com/@alexandrasacks/matrescence-what-is-it-bea6aa0450d0). Imagine being back in your early teenage years, with a changing body and a changing mind, but instead of everyone expecting you to behave awkwardly (and look it too), you’re expected to have it together, all the time, in every new bodily change, in every new feeling and experience. 

“Oh, but it’s so worth it!” people will chime in. “You get a beautiful baby in the end!” I won’t deny it. It is so worth it. But you don’t just get a baby in the end: you also get a bloated belly, stretch marks, 2.5 hours of sleep a day (in five different chunks of time, of course) and a complete identity shift. And if you get a C-section, like I needed to, you get cut open and then are expected to walk (it’s really a hobble, clutching the incision where it seems like your stomach is about to fall out) just 24 hours later! Yet some people call that the “easy way out.” 

Motherhood doesn’t have an “easy way out.” Growing a baby is hard work, and keeping a baby alive is even harder! Finding a new identity as a mother is a challenge in itself, and doing it as a junior in college with no peers makes it even more difficult. To add to it, there’s the culture of perfection on social media: the mom who has it all together, with adorable children, a clean house, a happy smile, skinny a week after giving birth… the list goes on. You can find these kinds of projected images everywhere online, but let me share a tip: you don’t have to have an Instagram-worthy life to be a good mom, or a good friend, a good college student or anything else. But it can make it more challenging to feel like you live your most satisfying life when the inevitable comparison occurs. 

If you’re feeling a little nervous right now about your own plans to have children, don’t let me scare you off. Teddy is the biggest blessing and has made my life so much better—it’s just been hard work to find myself in it all. 

What mothers need most, or at least what I needed most, wasn’t just help with the baby, a break or the much acclaimed solution of self-care. I needed someone to talk to me who understood how I felt. As much as I tried to explain what being pregnant or caring for a newborn was like, no other junior in college could truly understand what I was going through. The only person who came close was Teddy’s father—but he wasn’t the one with leaking breasts, a wildly anxious mind and a body that was still 25 pounds away from “normal.” We were on our separate paths of coming to terms with being parents in college

I wanted to share a story about my sleepless night, feeding Teddy every two hours on the dot, and be met with a knowing look and a nod that didn’t come from my own mother. I wanted (and still want) mom friends! Bridging the gap between college life and parenting has been a huge challenge, one that has to be faced daily but also lets me discover so much more about myself than I ever could have imagined. While it has been incredibly difficult, I wouldn’t change it for the world

Yes, I didn’t sleep longer than three hours straight for almost three months. My stomach sags—of course it does, it grew an eight pound, nine ounce baby! I still struggle with anxiety; I want to protect my new family from harm and all the things that can tear it apart. When Teddy was a newborn, sometimes I would lie in bed at night holding my breath just waiting for the relief of hearing him breathe. 

While sometimes I wish that parts of this journey could have been easier, I also know that they served a purpose in building my new identity and making me strong in the decisions I make as the mother I am working to be. Even though motherhood wasn’t something I expected, it’s something I choose again and again everyday. The pain and the effort it takes to manage motherhood, college, taking care of myself and all the other things that go into creating a healthy life are inconsequential compared to the love a mother feels. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t feel all that loving at 3 a.m. with a screaming baby, and not everyone feels an immediate connection with their newborn. But I can attest to this: getting through the pain and the difficult situations life throws at you can bring such amazing joy. 

Even after exceptionally trying days with Teddy, I still put him down at night and find myself missing him. Maybe he’s been crying for hours because those two little teeth just won’t pop through his gums, or maybe he couldn’t nap well and needed me to hold him so he could sleep—whatever it is that leaves me frustrated and angry. It’s a constant, demanding job to have someone so dependent on you. Sometimes all I want is a break, but it’s hard to take a break when I still think about my sweet boy at home and what I might be missing. 

Managing motherhood in college has taught me how to completely give myself up for someone else, and I’m still learning how to find myself again. I think of it as making my own normal. What may seem impossible to you could be someone else’s average day; what you do on an average day could be someone else’s biggest challenge. When it comes down to it, you have to be happy with the life you’re living. While it may take time and suffering to reach that point, it’s incredibly rewarding to get there. 

And next time you see your mom, give her a hug for everything she’s been through for you.