Jul 24
· Written By
Lindsay Meisel

The Myth of Maternal Transformation

You'll understand when you're a mother.

When I was pregnant, everyone told me that motherhood would transform me. I heard it from my own mother, whenever she was underwhelmed with my reaction to some story she told: “You’ll understand when you’re a mother.” From the various Internet message boards I frequented: “It’s hard, but you will love your baby so much that you won’t mind.” From an interview with Louis CK I listened to when I was pregnant: “I no longer fear death after having kids.” All of this sounded so radical that I pictured falling off a cliff from myself. Would I recognize the person I became?

Then the baby came, and suddenly everything was terrible. I knew that no one enjoyed getting woken up by a crying baby, but I thought a transformative maternal love would buoy me through these efforts—that I would feel tired, but happy. But night after night I rose from bed full of spite. From the outside, I looked exactly like a mother caring for her child, but on the inside, I didn’t feel like one. I felt like the same person I had always been, only now with more responsibilities. It wasn’t a change in my being, in other words; it was a change in my doing.

This might sound like an arbitrary distinction, but when you’re a new mom questioning your lack of the obliterating love that everyone talks about, it’s no small thing. I suspect that many other mothers have also failed to experience this romanticized transformation upon giving birth, yet societal pressure to conform to this narrative is immense. Who wants to say, “Actually, I don’t love my baby yet”? The first time I said these words out loud, to my parents, they gently asked if I was suffering from postpartum depression. I wasn't, but they weren't the only ones to ask me this. It appears that our collective imagination is only expansive enough to accommodate two polar opposites: obliterating maternal love or treatable pathology.

I’m not saying that becoming a parent doesn’t profoundly change you; of course it does. But initially, the changes are superficial: leaving the house takes longer, your sleep is interrupted, the days disappear into three-hour feeding cycles. And as it turned out, acting like a mother was how I eventually came to feel like one: I kept repeating the same routines of care until my resentment morphed into resignation, then tenderness, then, finally, love.

The psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik has written that we don’t care for our children because we love them; we love our children because we care for them. Becoming a mother isn’t a transformation; your form doesn’t change. It’s a transition: like walking from one room to another. Caring is the passageway you take to love.

Gopnik’s line about love has a kind of evil twin of a line in one of my favorite Sylvia Plath poems, ‘Morning Song’:

I’m no more your mother than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand.

Gopnik sees caring as a creative act: caring is literally how a mother is created. Morning Song sees the same acts of care as the dissolution of one’s self. Whose version is accurate?

I suppose there’s no conflict if caring creates a mother and at the same time destroys the self—which is what happens when care travels in only one direction: out. Mothers, too, need to be cared for. And the will to care for them might greater if we didn’t see them as near-mythical creatures but regular human beings with limited capacity. Calling motherhood a transformation is the first breath of a sentence that continues, well, we don’t have much support for you, but it’s fine—you’ve undergone a metamorphosis. Fly away, butterfly! What, you can't fly? Maybe you're just depressed.

My college rhetoric professor once told me that transitions between paragraphs are the most important part of writing. If the transition from one idea to the next feels abrupt or unearned, it reveals that your thinking is shoddy. Now, every time I start a new paragraph, I try to remember the vulnerability of my fragile thread of thought, and my responsibility to carry it through intact.

Maybe if we thought of motherhood as a transition, rather than a transformation, we’d treat mothers this way, too.

Lindsay Meisel
Lindsay Meisel

Lindsay is a mom of 2, writer, and leads Content & Community at Oath Care. She has been supporting mothers for the last 7 years through her work. As she puts it "The normal newborn experience truly shocked me: the lack of sleep, the trouble with breastfeeding, the pumping, just … everything. I’ve always thought of myself as an independent person who likes to do things on my own. But in the weeks and months after giving birth, I found myself longing to live as a tribe with other families."