We Are Mothers

Episode 8 essay


A new kind of confidence
how motherhood changes us
by emma woodhouse

It was a stunning July day when I bumped into a girl I know from high school, next to Tower Bridge in London. “So,” she asked me, swishing her blow-dry around and placing her perfectly-manicured hand on my shoulder, “are you just a mom now?”

It was the way she said “just,” like it was Vietnamese or Thai; a tonal word. If she hadn’t lingered over it a second too long, it would be a simple conjunction. Instead it sounded to my self-critical ear, like a word loaded with judgement, disgust even.

I searched my cotton wool brain for a response.

Jesus. How do I reply?  

My new baby hadn’t let me sleep the night before. I had the complexion of a re-animated corpse and unlike her, only two of my fingernails were painted (I thought I’d make a start during his nap).

Should I tell her about the e-commerce empire I was starting or the book I was writing? Since the birth, I had gotten as far as writing a fake Wikipedia page about my future self, after watching a YouTube video on manifestation.

I didn’t.

Instead – because sleep deprivation takes with it, volume control and gross motor skills – I jerked my head back in the manner of the Swedish Chef from Sesame Street and barked: “Yeah. Ahahaha!”

After she left, I sat on a bench and cried.  

I felt invisible and inadequate. I had wanted this baby more than anything I had ever wanted before, but I felt like a shell.  

So, like any good navel-gazing metro mama, I called a life coach. I told him that in the time since my son was born, I was unable to make anything of myself and he asked, “what if you already have?”

That hadn’t occurred to me. Making a baby isn’t an achievement society recognises, and the time I was spending caring for my son didn’t feature in my fake Wikipedia page.

But. In the dichotomy of extremes that is motherhood, on one hand I felt lost and on the other, an unwavering warrior so completely sure of her position in the world. It was hard to articulate.

Before my son, women who were confident were (hash tag) girl boss-es, they were ‘30-under-30,’ they were women whose TED talks went viral. If they were mothers, they were Kate Middleton, emerging from the maternity ward in perfect make-up.

They were not like me. They were not women who were so tired they said “excuse me” to mannequins, and who spent the first hours following childbirth, with heroin addicts awaiting methodone prescriptions, because the maternity ward was full.  

Maternal confidence is something else. It’s a shift in the axis of Universe.

The word confidence means “a feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something”

That something was my love for my son. He was my heart. It’s not particularly convenient, giving birth. It means your heart now lives outside of your body and your job is to keep it alive and well. Even if that means leaking breast milk through your t-shirt, in public.

That’s the first priority and that will never change. I’ve never had more faith in anything.

Around that time of rock-bottom self-esteem and while the life coach’s question lingered in my mind, I read a passage by the author Dorothy Day. She wrote “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.”

I let the words sink in. The old me is gone. This new confidence is much more fun. It’s loaded with mischief and wisdom, a knowing.

It’s the confidence of those old ladies that dress like Iris Apfel and pinch waiter’s butts. It’s my confidence – of a birth so complicated that I was convinced my son, or myself, would die and then, not.  

It’s the confidence of not taking myself seriously. It’s not about how the world sees me anymore.

It’s about how much I love him; a love so intense it borders on grief, so enormous that there’s room for the whole world, and all the answers in it – all the unwavering faith.

In the UK where I live, pregnant women get free dental care, because growing a baby can take the nutrients out of you. It can make your teeth crumble and your gums bleed. Pregnancy breaks you.  

These days, my two year-old son has taken to saying, “Very nice to meet you, mummy.”

He rearranged my vital organs, busted through layers of abdominal muscle, shattered my fundamental sense of self, and he greets me like we just connected on LinkedIn.  

One day he’ll know. He’ll know that he broke me first, and then he made me.  Nice to meet you too, kid.