A Letter to My Younger Sister: The Amazing and Horrible Truth About Becoming a Mother

[Photo Copyright: M. Dunn]
My sister is in town from Chicago this week, for a last visit to Connecticut before moving to California to take a tenure-track assistant professor position.  She is dissertating (is that a verb?) this summer to get her Ph.D. in political science.  She is 29, and I am 34.  At 29, I was getting married and had my sights set on a house and kids.  At 29, my sister is moving across the country with her boyfriend who works on motorcycles for a living, starting an exciting career in which she will be referred to as “Doctor,” and generally being fabulous while also working her tail off to obtain tenure.

She was over here the other day.  “So,” she said, “it’s not like . . . you’re not completely miserable everyday, right?”  We were talking about what it is like to have children.  I stopped to think about it, but only for a moment.  “Oh, no, of course not,” I said, and then I gave her some line about fulfillment.

So Marissa, this post is for you, to more accurately and completely answer your question.

First, the answer should have been yes, yes I am completely miserable everyday, but just not for the entire day.  Having children works a unique sort of misery into your system.  The misery springs from feeling helpless.

For example, my kids’ joint birthday party is tomorrow (I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old who share summer birthdays), and today was not completely horrendous, but it was pretty bad.  Things were going to be stressful enough with a project for work hanging over my head, a grocery list untouched, and the sinking realization that the yard and our house is still not in shape to have 20-something people and their kids over.  Then the baby came down with a 103.8 fever, meaning that I could not bring her to daycare today, meaning that the work project required an extension, and various family members had to come over today just so I could barely scratch the surface of what I need to do before people start arriving at noon tomorrow.  Also, I am supposed to publish this blog post on Friday nights between 5:00 and 8:00 PM, but just because of the sheer enormity of the tasks at hand and the neediness of my young children … bam, helplessness, and thus, misery.

So yes, I am completely miserable everyday these days, due to the overwhelming exhaustion and hardship caused by having children.  I also have a third baby, my start-up law firm, which requires me to put my clients before my children (sorry, but it’s true), except when, you know, the baby has a 103.8 fever.  In that case, the kids come first, and I just hope and pray that the clients don’t pick up on it.  And they won’t, because I’m damn good at what I do and will move heaven and earth to avoid letting a client down, or my family, for that matter.  But all of this means that, yes, I am completely miserable every day, for at least part of the day.

The flip side to this is that, the rest of the day, I am NOT completely miserable.  Woohoo!  In fact, at times, I am completely blissed out and elated.  This means that I am either bipolar, or that my children provoke such a strong emotional response that I am prevented from completely going off the deep end.  Tonight, I flew into the daycare to pick up my older daughter right before closing, and then whisked her away to Panera Bread for a quick, dubiously healthy dinner before hitting the store for all the food and crap we need for tomorrow’s party.  I just sat there watching her eat macaroni and cheese, thinking about how amazing she is and how much I love her.  She makes me so happy I could barf up rainbows.  When she randomly looks up and says she loves her mommy, I could just die from the sweetness.

I don’t mean to make light of such heavy subjects as bipolar disorder, or the serious concerns about my, um, emotionality, let’s call it, that some people have expressed to me lately.  The comments are always along the lines of how I have changed since having kids, or how I’m “doing a lot right now.”  But I have spent my entire life doing a lot.  In fact, I can’t think of any point in my life when I was doing just a little.  I think it’s just that having children is so incredibly different from the things I have done in the past, so maybe it has changed me.  I like to think I have changed for the better.  Ok, so I will admit that when I lie on the post partum depression questionnaire in order to avoid having to talk to some white coat about my feelings, I feel a tad guilty.  And when my husband reminds me that I “need to talk to someone,” and I shrug it off because (a) it won’t help, or (b) I’m too busy, or (c) I’m not sure I care anymore, that yes, I understand that I am probably neglecting a major aspect of my health.

But I can’t really talk out loud about these things, because then they seem … true.  It’s like, if I just blog about being unhappy, the knowledge that an entire online community is going to see this will cause me to gradually shift my writing tone of voice, so that by the end of the post, I’m talking about how cute and awesome my kids are and how happy they make me, instead of how I scared I am when I hit those lowest of lows and don’t feel like I can ask for help.  See what I did right there?  I can write a post about motherhood being both horrible and amazing, and it will make sense to most other parents out there, and maybe even parents-to-be, and I have once again sidestepped what is probably the real issue of what I need to do to feel ok about myself.

So that’s why I didn’t really go into all of this when you asked me the question in person.  What could I say out loud that wouldn’t sound either frightening or hilarious, depending on the listener’s relative levels of sensitivity and sadism?  I want to say that, for you, everything will just work out and be ok when you have your own kids.  But I can’t really say that either, because it may not be true.


10 thoughts on “A Letter to My Younger Sister: The Amazing and Horrible Truth About Becoming a Mother

  1. Thank you for the positive feedback. I have decided I’m going to write a follow-up to this post, based on some thoughts I have received on the benefits of therapy, as well as the fact that very young children do grow up, and that this may be the hardest part. For those who have not yet had their children, especially, I feel like the message needs to be refined even more. It’s more like, since having babies is so incredibly different than anything else you’ve ever done in life (at least for me), it is easy to get thrown off your guard … but I’m hoping by writing these posts, I can help someone find their way back on track. Does that make sense?


  2. Thank you for writing this, my first is due in only a few months and I can’t help but. think I should be happier. The fact is I’m terrified of how I am going to balance a career and a baby and still try to keep my sanity through it all. ..


  3. Thank you all for your comments. I am really glad that this resonated with you, and I hope there are others who perhaps have not commented but found this helpful, not completely freaking scary! Lately, I have been trying to take a deep breath and remember that feeling helpless and BEING helpless are not at all the same thing. There is always something that can be done, even when it feels like there is nothing.


  4. thank you! it was great, I have 2 little ones 3 and 5 and work in a tenure line faculty position, that is a hour long commute away…ahah for me, it sounds worse when i explain it to people, when i just stay in my madnesss, it works.


  5. Mel, like the others who have already commented, I really enjoyed reading this. I appreciate how honest you are. I’m always here for you if you need anything. xo


  6. I’m having my baby in 3 days and I’m wondering how I’m going to balance work and parenting. Thank you so much for sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly with us.


  7. Melanie, this was beautifully written! Thank you for your honesty and courage in writing this, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I have been feeling kind of helpless myself, with a toddler and baby on the way, this post made me feel less alone. Thank you and hang in there!


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