By Meredith Burns
As the older sister of two brothers nearly a decade younger than me, I was supposed to be prepared for motherhood. I remember them as cute newborns when I’d just hold them and they’d coo. I remember taking them to school for show and tell, and jubilantly watching them roll over, crawl, and take their first steps.
I refereed their early childhood years full of brotherly competition and bruises and bites, and I picked up their phone calls as they grew up to support them through first loves, heartbreaks, stressful tennis matches, and getting into college.
And through all of this I watched my own mom. I saw how she resiliently handled my brother’s diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease, the death of her mother, and even how she cultivated and maintained a beautiful marriage, friendships, and built a small business. I observed the way she got ready for each day with ease and grace, outfitted with a bob, red lips, and tennis skirt. I had studied every moment of our life.
So, when I had two boys in the span of 20 months, nearly the same age difference as my brothers, I was certain it was the universe’s way of giving me something I already knew all about. But what I learned instead is that motherhood isn’t something that can be studied from the outside in. It was something I’d have to live through myself—without the help of my mother who at that point was suffering from severe dementia. From the very moment I met my first son, not only did I birth a human and learn next-level love, but I also entered an infinite sea of doubt and uncertainty.
There was simply no amount of preparation that could have readied me for motherhood. And as someone who scaffolded a life of experiences in an effort to be totally prepared for each huge milestone, this was unnerving. I didn’t know how to handle a C-section recovery full of gas pain and singed skin. I just remember seeing my mom smile at her babies in the nursery from the wheelchair. I wasn’t ready for cracked nipples or a latch that felt like binder clips in those early days of nursing. I just remember my mother showing me how it all worked without so much as a wince. I wasn’t ready for the exhaustion that nobody can relieve. Because even if someone else holds your baby, they can’t hold the load of the 1 million micro choices we make in a day for them.
The view of motherhood from the perch of a child is too obstructed by youth to see the moments in between the moments—the silent ones where mothers carry the weight of their children’s existence.
And I was most certainly not ready for the moments when it was time to go back to work, or when I decided not to and then realized how much I deeply wanted to. I was simply not prepared to understand the metamorphosis that happens when becoming a mother. Or the dichotomy that can exist between loving it so much and also having it be the thing that pushes you to the brink.
Right after a recent snowstorm my 3-year-old, who had been learning about the planets in school, asked me, “Mamma, what’s going on with the Solar System?!” I stopped still on the path that was covered in snow on the way to his nursery class, squeezed his hand, knelt down, and said, “Graham, that is THE best question.” I then totally punted, realizing he didn’t have the capacity for my existential interpretation of his brilliant question, and I also literally didn’t know. I responded, “Let’s go ask Ms. Laura.” I figured her age-appropriate lesson plan would suffice. I barely knew that Pluto had been downgraded from its former planet status.
For me, this was a motherhood moment of both marveling at my toddler for asking the most poignant question, and also a moment of finally feeling comfortable realizing I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on with the solar system, and I don’t know how to be a perfect mother. I definitely had neither a perfect blowout nor red lipstick on that day.
I used to think that if I could ask my mother about all of these things, I’d get the answers. That the reason I’m so confused about elements of motherhood is that my own isn’t around to guide me. While I’d give anything to be able to have that conversation with her and hear all her secrets—tell me what time she woke up to always look so nice, and how she dealt with her own complexities in the background of being a mother—I’ve come to accept a different version of this desire. I realize now that nobody can tell you how to become a mother. Not even your own.
And certainly no one can tell you how to prepare for it, either. You have to find your own rhythm in a way that’s esoteric, cosmic, and unable to be articulated. Kind of like the solar system. And until I find that rhythm, I’m learning how to be ok with not knowing and surrounding myself with people that can admit that too. Because while nobody can take your own motherload off of you, those are the people that can make all the difference in the motherhood marathon. And for the first time since becoming a mother, I feel some relief.
Meredith Burns is the mother of 3 young kids, and the founder of marketing and media firm, Fort View Productions. She writes to make sense of life and support others on the wild ride of motherhood. After leaving Brooklyn, NY during Covid, Meredith now lives on Eastern Long Island full time with her family.