Motherhood, a crash course in vulnerability

The first time I ventured out without my son, I had the most perverse sensation of power. Sporting neither a huge baby bump, nor a baby, it was the first time in six months where no one could tell I was a mother. No strangers asked when I was due, no parents regaled me with tales of their own children, no one demanded boy or girl?”

Motherhood is an easier secret to keep than Asian American, or Woman in Tech. Any permanent marks can be hidden, unlike my face or stature. I have wanted to write about motherhood since I found out I was pregnant, but I have been afraid. I am afraid that if I write about motherhood, people will define me solely as a mother.

Understandable after years of, do you speak English, do your parents know you’re designing and not doctoring, are you suuuure you can handle editing that Javascript file?

Motherhood has changed me, but not in the ways I thought it would. I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to hide. I’ve always felt catharsis by making myself visible, every part, a relief in leaving an account of my own. I want lay it bare and mold my fear into something meaningful, for the women who are curious about motherhood, but hesitant to say it aloud.

I’ve always enjoyed good health. If I was ever sick or injured, it felt like I had control over the situation. I believed I had this control over almost all of my life, if I only journaled, tarot’d and vision boarded hard enough.

Pregnancy destroyed that illusion immediately.

I found out I was pregnant pretty much as soon as possible, at five weeks. I promptly called my general practitioner to see if they could admit me into their OB/GYN program, but I was told that they were already full up for my birth date. When I did finally get an appointment elsewhere, they couldn’t see me until I was eleven weeks along.

All of my consults with Dr. Google had me prepared for an eight week first visit at the latest, but the receptionist seemed entirely non-plussed by my worried stammering. I got off the phone in a panic, wondering, what the hell do I do for six more weeks?

Another round with Dr. Google and I realized: Absolutely nothing. Most miscarriages happen in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, and there was little I could do about it. I was not going to have control over my pregnancy like a design system or product strategy. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to control every part of my future little’s life; I’d never be able to protect them from every danger on this very dangerous planet.

I found such a terrifying beauty in this state of being. Every ultrasound was a feat of magic. I was miraculously present, even though my body was doing Very Strange Things. Every month, another set of alien physical ailments.

The pressure on my hips felt like I was a wishbone and two young cousins were desperately trying to wrench me apart. My belly became a constellation of stretch marks, despite my regimens of cocoa butter and other potions. Close to birth, my stretch marks raised up like earthworms, with an itch-like-fire burn worse than any rash I’d ever had. I remained at peace as each of them came my way, because I had given up that illusion of control.

For the first time, I wore whatever I liked and dressed to highlight my bump, where I’d previously tried to hide any fat or dimple. Instead of crash dieting, which I’d been doing since I was 11, I ate entirely for health, and pleasure where I was able.

My mind, however, did not hold up so well.

I was starting to accept that I might flourish with a child when the anxiety hit. I had to miss work when the merest idea of conflict or doing a bad job sent me into panic attacks. I would find myself unable to cross overpass bridges because I was afraid my body would betray me, and I’d accidentally leap over the twelve foot tall fence into the traffic below.

I am familiar with anxiety. I have reasoned with it, pushed against it since I was a small child. This new anxiety was a train I could not stop with mindful breathing, cognitive behavioral gymnastics, or ASMR.

With professional help and medication, I got my anxiety down to a high, but manageable level. I cancelled a crowdfunding campaign, dutifully went to my job, reduced my public presence to almost nothing, and focused on my novel instead of writing my usual shit-post design essays. I binged on television while counting my son’s increasingly strong kicks.

My anxiety was punctuated by ecstasy after my son was born. Though I was terrified he would hate me (a common symptom of postpartum depression), at my highest highs and lowest lows, the love and possessiveness I felt for my child never wavered. But it was still a long process of evening out.

I have built my adult life around the fantasy that I don’t need anyone, and that no one needs me. The vulnerability of a healing body, of not being able to lift things on my own, and how quickly society goes from doting to dusting its hands of women after birth is astounding. I had heaps of information on how to keep a fetus healthy, and a newborn, but beyond here are the signs of postpartum depression, please come see us about it, I was largely left to find my own way.

The body I’d loved while pregnant suddenly felt gross, bloody and bloated. So I pulled myself from the brink of a teenage era starvation, hid all my tape measures to keep from measuring my waist after diaper changes. Even now, I have to remind myself that we are a gentle household, whether it be baby not pulling mommy’s hair, or mommy not pinching her fat accusingly in the mirror.

Sex inequity hit me, a new and biological hurdle. Before birth, I was accustomed to dealing with gender inequality on the daily, and had put a limit on the extra tasks women of color in tech are asked to perform—recruiting, visibility for younger folks, speaking up and educating. Now I was trying to squeeze in pumping sessions between meetings, healing my battered body, and dealing with broken sleep because my son often only wanted me and my comforting body at night. I took on a new purpose, a husked out palanquin he hugged and sat on.

Meanwhile, my husband was practically carried through the streets for changing diapers or going out alone with a baby in public. For fathers, childcare is still seen as extracurricular, not primary work. If it pleased my husband, he could resume a pre-baby schedule with no societal consequence, no mandated time away. There would be no career hit, no biology holding him back from an uninterrupted march towards the next promotion.

There was so much I hadn’t accomplished professionally yet, even though I had accomplished quite a lot. Before I got back to work, I felt like I had missed my chance, that I’d hit a plateau, that I’d never advance again. I was ravenous for accounts of artists, designers and writers with children, and found so little towards the positive.

I keep trying to think of advice or comfort for that fierce independent woman who is curious about motherhood, but my heart breaks a little because there’s nothing universal I can offer. The positives of my experience are so rooted in the privilege I enjoy. Despite any of my fears, I was at a point in my career where I held power, and could choose the specific job I wanted. I had access to quality health care and had a secure partner to start a family with.

Most of all, my company is an oasis for parents, an anomaly in Silicon Valley let alone the US. I knew I would enjoy a six month maternity leave and I wouldn’t be punished for taking it. I felt so safe at work that I told my manager I was pregnant in my first trimester so he would understand if I couldn’t make rare late night meetings with India.

Birth is an extremely physical feat, so it’s not a surprise that the support is so unlike any advice I’ve offered in the past. We cannot talk about challenging our own perspective when American women aren’t even offered a humane leave. We cannot talk strategy when it’s exclusively mothers’ careers at stake.

The only thing I could cling to was my coworkers telling me over and over again, you’ll have such a good time, you’ll be a fun mom, something I’d never even considered. So much of what’s out there veers towards, you’ll never sleep again. Say goodbye to your free time and vacations. It’s all about sacrifice. Birth is the easy part, raising kids is hell.

I suppose that is all I can offer, a glimpse into the unknown. A reassurance that motherhood is a different place, one that is revealed slowly, slowly, and then all at once. A long gestation that ends in birth, a small baby who suddenly learns how to laugh.

It is a mystery for the ages, but one that is as mundane as it is miraculous. It’s typing this essay and others as my baby sleeps. It’s learning the new depths of power of a body that’s done more than I could have imagined. It’s letting the dishes and mail pile up, because I’d rather read another book to my son. It’s trying to be eloquent and meaningful while your mind is playing baby shark doo doo doo doo doo doot on loop.

Aside from toting around my actual child, I still present as the same woman I was two Octobers ago. I’m grateful for my stretch marks, they’re a physical reminder, but secret. No matter how public I choose to be, no matter how many videos I post, there is a private thrill in raising this little human. Of him being both his and mine, of me being both mine and his. There’s a sense of something permanent, something indestructible that I’ve never had before, something so true that I don’t care if others understand.

February 24, 2019   life  

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