I leapt into motherhood the same way I leapt into countless other things: with reckless abandon and a kind of certainty rooted in blissful ignorance.
At the time, in the beginning, I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I was actually getting myself into. I had observed what motherhood looked like from the outside, watching friends and colleagues. I had a good relationship with my own mother, for whom motherhood was a central life story. From that, I had clear images in my mind of the experience would look like.
And I wanted to be a mother. Surely all of that was enough preparation. The rest I could learn as I went.
When my son was not quite two and I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a client whose focus was building community awareness of the importance of early childhood development. As the hired PR help, I was the group’s first disciple. I read Ghosts from the Nursery and Neurons to Neighborhoods and countless research articles as part of my mission to share the gospel of how a child’s first years last a lifetime.
As a result, I worried obsessively about how much I’d done to screw up my son’s first 18 months. I raced out to buy developmentally appropriate books and toys. Once, when I picked him up from my mother’s house, I lectured her for sitting on the kitchen floor, playing with measuring cups and bowls of water instead of working with the slew of brain-stimulating gadgets I’d left for her.
“Don’t you know, Mother? His first three years are the most important of his entire life! His brain is developing faster than it ever will!”
My patient mother replied that she hoped those people at Princeton never found out that all I had as a child were measuring cups and bowls of water.
When my son was four and my daughter two, we sat in a room at the pediatrician’s office waiting for the doctor to come in for their annual checkups. When the doctor walked into the room, my son was trying to climb the inside of the window while my daughter was sitting at a table looking at a picture book.
“Please tell me this is classic boy-girl behavior difference,” I begged.
“Maybe,” he replied, with a look of calm understanding. “Or maybe we just are who we are from the moment we pop out, some of us quiet and others a bit more energetic.”
It took several years to consider that he might have been right, that these little people I’d birthed might have been endowed with their own individual natures from birth, and that my job might be to coach them into being the best versions of themselves instead of steering them toward the image in my mind, toward my idea of what they should be.
Since my own mother died when my daughter was barely walking, I navigated motherhood with the help of friends, colleagues, teachers, books, and that same pediatrician. I also had my own memories from childhood and from hearing my mother talk about the things she did to help my sister and me step into ourselves.
And, of course, I lucked into the spectacular benefit of working with a team of family therapists during the critical years when my teenage children have been doing the necessary work of forming their own identities, separate from mine or their father’s.
What I’m still learning, after 21 years of motherhood, is that healthy attachment requires release, learning how to hold dear and let go at the same time.