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Psychology Today

The Power and the Pain of Motherhood

A Personal Perspective: Reflections on the “radiant agony” of mothering.

It’s late when she crawls into my bed. “Where did you come from?” I whisper.

“It’s a secret,” she giggles.

“Tell me?” I ask.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she replies.

She’s probably right.

It’s been a few years, but I still have no idea where these children—the ones who destroyed my flesh only to emerge from it—came from.

One appeared when she fell from me on a snowy winter night, and the other was traumatically torn on a hot summer day. Though they stand right before me, I know they are still very much inside.

The shredding of my flesh merely reflects the shredding of my soul. Over and over again, motherhood has shattered me with its radiant agony, taking from me so much that I deeply loved: My freedom, my solitude, my spontaneity, my body, and, on plenty of days, my sanity, too.

All it has returned is the fiercest bond and the most healing love I have ever known.

It turns out it’s not just the trauma that’s painful; it’s the healing, too.

But as our children undergo their great becoming, it can often feel like our own sacred undoing.

As a neuropsychologist, I’ve worked with many mothers and fathers who, while steadfastly devoted to these tiny humans, become unmoored, confused by a life that seemed so certain only moments ago.

And in the early days of their lives, I experienced this, too. I was overwhelmed by the unrelenting relentless of it all. Motherhood lit anew ancient wounds from my early life as I remembered the endless needs of people I could never really satisfy.

But motherhood is itself evidence of the impossible made possible. I figured, if my body could figure out how to convert cytoplasmic goop into one child who talks endlessly about Spiderman and another who never gets tired of my lap, I could figure out how to bring myself back to life.

And so the rising began.

Occasionally, my mind is still overwhelmed by the task of teaching so many lessons in such little time: How many playdates is enough playdates? How much sharing is enough sharing? How many times can a person be asked to get in the car and what in the world is now wrong with broccoli?

Each night, after I tuck small children into tiny beds, I leave the brittleness of my mind and flow into the brilliance of my body. From the primordial sounds of my own breathing arises the most powerful Knowing of my life: I can only give what I already have.

And now I know.

I really know.

I know I can only trust you to the degree I trust myself. I know I can only believe in you to the degree I believe in myself. I know I can only protect your sacred individuality to the degree I express my own. I know that every time I abandon myself, I show you how to betray yours.

Parenting is the greatest paradox of my life—a bond so deep it suffocates as it expands. These children who destroyed me with their coming will soon devastate with their leaving. Although it seems like years away, the future always comes too soon. And at the moment when they leave me again, only one question will matter: Did I teach you to love yourself?

Fortified by this Knowing, I bear down like a Mother and rise more powerfully than ever because I know, sweet child, it will be how I love my life that teaches you how to love your own.


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