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Just the headline of Jody Pelatson’s piece for the Atlantic was enough to give me chills: “Before I Forget: What Nobody Remembers About New Motherhood.” In this essay, Pelatson recounts one those universally frustrating experiences of new motherhood—when, in a frazzled, sleep-deprived moment, some older woman says to you (meaning well, of course) “You must be on cloud 9,” or else, “Enjoy every moment!”
These well-wishes inevitably come as the baby is unleashing an earth-shaking poop into the carrier pressed against your chest, or after a night of such screaming as you never thought possible from such a small person, or as some part of your body is excreting a fluid you never imagined it would.
Pelatson writes that she is able to remember how awful this moment felt only because she made some notes to herself right afterwards and saved them on her computer. Years later, she is having a hard time remembering the feeling, because, like the old woman, she’s already started to convert her memories of New Motherhood into the “New Motherhood Montage.”
I can relate. I just wrote an entire novel, after all, dedicated in part to telling difficult truths about new motherhood, and already I’m giving newborns the goony stare. I sniff their heads and exclaim over their onesies and I remember strictly the good times of having a baby: the strolls through the park with kids too little to insist on going another direction or stopping to eat sticks; the guileless gummy smiles; the sweetness of nursing a dozy infant. Like Pelatson, I’ve already smoothed things into a New Motherhood Montage. And like her, I feel a certain degree of urgency to nevertheless remember. I truly want to recall how hard it was, how tiring, how miserable and half-me I felt when seriously sleep-deprived. But why? What is the value in remembering the hard parts, when you could submit to the cozy delirium of a rose-tinted montage?
Motherhood is a great and fearsome adventure, one that tests you to your limits every day; an adventure so many women experience that you’d think our culture’s literature and films would be chock full of it. And yet honest stories of new motherhood are few and far between. I think part of it is that many new mothers are understandably too tapped out to record it all before the montage takes over. And then there’s the strange fact that, though people will happily devour stories of war or teenagers murdering each other, the daily inner battles of motherhood are thought to be too unpleasant to bother with.
I think part of why I fight to remember the hard work of new motherhood is that I feel a responsibility to other new mothers, those ones who have not made it out of the diaper-marathon-montages yet. There is in many ways only a pretend conversation going on in our culture about what motherhood is like, and we owe it to those who are just starting out on this whole endeavor to be real with them. When I had only been a mother for a few months, I was starved for stories of others like me, seeking out narratives that would both explain and justify my own experience. By recording and sharing our stories, by being real with each other about how ecstatically wonderful and really really not fun new motherhood is, we help a whole new crop of mothers through difficult times.