I have long believed that the whole game of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting holds at least one bad card for all women. For some, getting pregnant is the hard part. Other women have traumatic childbirth experiences that require years of recovery. And there are those for who pregnancy is a breeze, birth is nothing complicated, but parenting doesn’t come so easily. I have yet to meet even one woman who hasn’t struggled somewhere along the way.
When you struggle in the early stages—with getting pregnant, with staying pregnant, with a difficult pregnancy or a difficult childbirth or with breastfeeding or a difficult newborn—it’s hard not to see it as a sign of something. That you shouldn’t be a mom. That you’re a bad mom. That motherhood doesn’t come easy to you.
I’ve held my fair share of bad cards.
I have two kids, but have been pregnant four times. My first was at 19 and ended with an abortion. Even as an ardent pro-choice woman, that decision still colored me, felt like a failing. I had thought of abortion as something fine for other people, but not something for me. Until I was there.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I wanted to be pregnant, that I realized how much meaning I had assigned my earlier experience. All of a sudden, it was a punishment well-deserved (so I harshly thought to myself) that I didn’t get pregnant the moment the intention popped into my head. In retrospect, it didn’t take long. But for those few months of “trying” (a euphemism if ever there was one), I was worried. Worried that I missed my chance, that I wouldn’t get a second one.
When my second conception ended in a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, that feeling deepened. I was being punished. I wasn’t meant to be a mother. There was something wrong with my body. That experience, complete with the loss of a third of my body’s blood, surgery and a complicated healing process, left me scarred. The scar on my body was deep and made it look like I’ve had a c-section.
The internal scars were more painful, and that awful feeling was deepened by the mystery about when or whether I would ever get pregnant again. The months between my second and third conceptions were sad. It was hard to be around anyone that reminded me of pregnancy or babies or moms.
The third time around, I was much luckier.
That pregnancy brought me my daughter. While pregnancy was fraught with things that felt worth complaining about at the time, it turned out that all of it was a “normal” part of the process. A happy pregnancy in retrospect, even if it felt awkward to live through.
My labor, though, wasn’t normal. It was a 4-day prodromal affair, a possibility I’d hardly paid attention to in my childbirth class. Kind of like the possibility of the ectopic pregnancy before it.
Again, I saw myself as someone who drew hard cards.
Motherhood had a way of easing me out of the feeling that I was being followed by a dark cloud, even as it had plenty of storms of its own.
But I finally felt lucky. I’d made it to motherhood. From early days, my daughter was easy—smart, beautiful, healthy, happier than I could even understand, a pure blessing. Being a mom was hard, but she was easy. Luck of the draw.
Then we gambled again. My second full-term pregnancy wasn’t nearly as cute as the first one. All those “normal” symptoms were even less fun that time around. But I made it through and wound up with a second birth that made me feel strong and capable and blessed. Another lucky card.
And then came nursing. With my second baby, I got mastitis five times before I gave up nursing. I also suffered some pretty terrible postpartum depression and anxiety. Quitting breastfeeding to return to the antidepressants I needed was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
When I was agonizing over the choice to stop nursing, I felt so judged. I’d nursed my first baby a few months beyond the one-year ideal. And I made it to nine months the second time around—farther than a lot of women can manage. I should have been happy, but it wasn’t my timetable. I was failing in my own mind, and again, my body was failing me. Failing to be able to do this womanly thing it was meant to do. I wasn’t strong enough to give my second child what I gave my first.
With all of that weighing down, I sent an email to our local parenting list-serv about my struggle to stop nursing. I live in a crunchy, hippy kind of town, where midwives and La Leche League rule the roost. I thought I would be attacked from all sides and encouraged to nurse through anything, no matter the cost to me. I secretly wanted to be told to keep nursing, so my contrarian self could somehow feel vindicated in quitting.
Instead, I got nothing but support. Dozens of emails encouraged me to do what was best for me, congratulated me for what I’d already done, sympathized with my struggle with mastitis, empathized with the guilt and the feelings of failure. Not one person told me to keep nursing through the pain—both physical and emotional. Not one woman said the slightest thing to make me feel bad about my body or what it was capable of doing. Not one.
I can’t explain how meaningful their camaraderie was to me.
Those early years of failed pregnancy, pregnancy and mothering of infants felt so fragile. I was so quick to think: Is there something wrong with me as a woman that I can’t do this pregnancy thing easily? Does the fact that I can’t keep nursing mean that I am less of a woman? Some kind of weaker mother?
Looking back now, I think: Those were my cards. That was the hand I was dealt.
Everyone holds different cards and no one has a perfect hand. Just because we can’t see that someone else has struggled—with fertility, with pregnancy, with depression, with nursing… with motherhood—doesn’t mean they’re winning some game we are losing. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s just not easy. At least, all of it isn’t easy. Not for anyone.
Motherhood is a stacked deck. We’re dealt the hand we’re dealt. I think it helps to think that every woman around has had at least one bad card, something she would discard is she could. And we all have our best card, too. Something to hold on to, to build a hand around.
The best part is—we get to discard what doesn’t serve us well. And we get new cards all the time.