I've often heard it said of motherhood that it is exactly that: "the best/hardest/most important job in the world." I heard it well before motherhood was a reality or even a possibility for me. I wanted to believe it, but oftentimes got the sneaking suspicion that the people saying it (and maybe even the people hearing it) were merely paying lip service to the idea, trying so hard to believe it because they wanted rather than believed it to be true. It was something nice and motivating to say so that the lady who graduated at the top of her class with a shiny degree wouldn't feel badly for having traded in black pencil skirts, slick pumps, and an impressive resume for diaper duty and a squishy, sagging mommy middle. And let's be honest: when you've got spit-up on your shoulder or have been peed on for the fourth time that day, it can be hard to wonder why you ever bothered taking out student loans, not to mention why you gave up on the nine-to-five life that, for all its associated sacrifices and frustrations, at least came with a paycheck.
Since quitting the job I had for eleven years nearly nine months ago, I've most definitely had my moments of insecurity -- especially before the baby came. I struggled with feeling valuable and like I was contributing. I felt like that as I was no longer adding an income, I had to prove my worth with how much I accomplished during the day. None of this came from my husband -- the further I progressed in my pregnancy, he was encouraging me all the more to take as many naps as I could during the day, to have the relaxing and normal pregnancy I had dreamed of but didn't get the first time around. But I had a difficult time letting go. I was task-oriented, oftentimes to a fault.
Now that Austen is here, those feelings are still there. Most days they exist to a much lesser degree than they did when I was pregnant, seeing as I'm almost always dealing with the needs of the moment immediately before me: feeding her, changing her, soothing her. Most of the time, I'm pushing through my own crankiness, induced primarily by a chronic deprivation of good sleep and sometimes, by just wanting an hour to myself where I'm not responsible for such a tiny, needy being. Sometimes, it's because caring for her requires more of me than I want to give: a shirt that doesn't smell like sour breastmilk, a shoulder not slick and shiny with drool, and a changing table that hasn't been pooped or peed on in the last five minutes. The tasks associated with caring for a baby seem both small and mundane, and the reality acknowledged universally among all the mothers I know is that most of them are incredibly messy.
And just when you've finished, you have to start all over again.
But here's the thing: the longer I spend caring for this little munchkin, the less I mind giving up sleep and clean shirts for her, and the more I'm convinced that the notion of motherhood being the best/hardest/most important job in the world is exactly right. Though caring for her is a daily and hourly exercise in a variety of self-sacrifice I've never before experienced, I feel as though I've gotten good, clean glimpses at the broader picture. Raising human beings from infancy and into mature adults is no small task, and it's one in which (I am convinced) you must take the long view in order to retain your sanity, remembering what these drool-soaked realities are all about. I'm only at the very beginning of this journey with Austen, but the things I'm doing for her now are laying a foundation. I'm learning to know and understand her, to make decisions in her best interests, and to demonstrate for her every day just how very much she is loved -- even if, at the moment, she appears to be communicating that I am doing anything but.
Sending her out into this world terrifies me some days. I've glimpsed enough of recent headlines to have a view that is decidedly sober when it comes to the realities that she will one day face. I look at her and want so much for her to retain for as long as possible the guileless innocence that marks this stage of her life, but I know the day where that starts to slip away will come much sooner than I want it to. What keeps me from adopting a mindset that is overly guarded and sheltering is this: I can raise a child who will make a mark on this world that is compassionate and loving. There are no guarantees, I know, but (without citing any experts) I'm guessing the best way to do this is to be compassionate and loving in my parenting (even when this means she thinks we're being mean or restrictive). People who have received love are in a much better position to offer it. A child who is disciplined appropriately and doesn't get everything she wants is (again, I'm guessing) more likely to be unselfish in adulthood.
There are still things I want to do to make my own mark on the world. I want to write books. I want to launch a photography business. I want to volunteer, get involved in our parish community, and socialize with other couples. I want to travel. By the time I die, I want to be able to say I lived a good life: that I was loving, kind, and generous.
When it comes to parenting, that is exactly the kind of person I want to send into the world because I believe that's what the world needs. (I think we can all agree there is no need for any extra selfishness or hate). It's a big task. Huge -- momentous, even. I want to make my own mark on the world, and I do hope that where I do touch it, I leave it at least a little bit better than I found it. But I don't want it to end with me -- my hope is that Ewan, Austen, and any other children we may have will accomplish that in their own unique ways.
So if I have to wear a little spit-up and change a few poopy diapers along the way to meet that goal, I guess that that is a price I'm willing to pay. Some might think it a sad thing that this "job" of parenting costs so much and find people like me delusional for taking on the task. Heck, there are moments I find myself thinking the same thing. But every time I remember that someone did the same for me -- every time I see that toothless, drooly smile or hear that unreserved baby laughter, I'm reminded that parenthood is not without its rewards, and that the long-term benefits will be manifesting themselves for years to come.