When I was pregnant, my mother used to remind me of this old saying “your heart sees your child before your eyes do.” As I was carrying our baby, I identified with my mother’s words. All of a sudden, the flow of generations became so palpable, as life was expanding directly under my heart.
During that time, I realized that I was entering a life altering stage. I was curious to know more about the time my father and mother became new parents. Who were they then and what were their lives like?
A few years ago at a family gathering, I was captivated by one particular photograph my father pointed out to me of an elderly woman sitting with her palms resting in her lap. She was the village midwife, who delivered my father at home in rural Kessab, Syria. He was born between two World Wars. I was intrigued by how she acquired midwifery, how this knowledge was transmitted from one generation to the next, as well as the techniques and natural remedies used at the time. Amid the current frenetic pace of life, my mind would often drift off to the simplicity of my pregnant grandmother. She essentially toiled the land in Kessab until she went into labour.
My inherited links to Kessab, a wildly mountainous part of the world edging the Mediterranean Sea, would perhaps explain why I constantly wanted to be surrounded by nature while pregnant. Call it some sort of evolutionary desire, but I wished to feel the mother of all mothers close to me.
While I was listening to the leaves’ murmur one night, I felt a first flutter. Baby presence had been medically established but I had not yet felt the real existence. Stardust and fresh forest air invaded the room as that movement confirmed that I am definitely not alone anymore.
Months later, we were blessed to have our eyes see what my heart already knew. I was completely overwhelmed when the nurse handed our baby over to us. There was certainly relief, and joy, but also apprehension, and adrenaline, and most of all, I was so intrigued. Although we had just met, there was something so recognizable about him. Who was this new human that just came out of nowhere and, now what? It did not take long to discover how the early weeks and early months with a newborn entail pure survival mode.
Motherhood is a steep learning curve, and I am still actively climbing it with each milestone my child reaches. After navigating the initial jolt following childbirth, countless sleepless nights, understanding the art behind breastfeeding, and the significant life adjustment that having a child entails, I know that new challenges are to come.
In addition to the immediate challenges of childcare, women find themselves sandwiched between taking care of different generations: their aging parents, their growing children, and potentially even their grandchildren. This multi-generational caregiving commitment increasingly appears to be the norm, given the rise of life expectancy in general.
Growing up, I witnessed this experience of being a caregiver for two generations first hand. When my maternal grandparents immigrated to Canada from Lebanon, they were well over 70 years old. At the time, I was a teenager with two older brothers.
My mother, an early childhood educator by profession, decided to prematurely end her career and tend to the everyday needs of her parents. This included not only emotional and financial support, but also shuttling my grandparents between government offices in order to finalize their Canadian immigration paperwork, and taking them to medical appointments. My grandparents initially lived with us, and eventually, when mobility and safety became issues, they moved into an elderly care residence. This move is never an easy decision and transition for the elderly and for their primary caregiver.
Once my grandparents left our home and settled in an elderly care home, my mother would visit them almost every single day. She would make sure my grandfather could watch European soccer matches on TV, would appease my grandmother’s worries about the nursing staff giving her incorrect medication, and sometimes cook a homemade meal for them.
I was fortunate to watch my mother lovingly care for her aging parents for years, as not all relationships between parents and children are always convivial. As my grandparents grew older and frailer, their basic needs certainly increased. Somehow my mother was always present for them, for my father, my two brothers and me, her extended family and friends. She was heavily involved in community activities, including executive positions, while managing other facets of life. At the time, I did not think much of it. It was just what mom did. However now, as a new mother myself, I am amazed by her endurance, by how she managed it all. In hindsight, she never complained about this hectic and demanding pace and continued to support my grandparents until they both drew their last breathes at different times.
My mother’s story is not unique. Nor do her commitment, her sacrifices, and her choices to prioritize her family make her an exception. I see it all around me and am certainly more attuned to it now, since having my child. I am in awe of her sacrifices and every other mothers’ sacrifices - mothers who work full-time, mothers who do not work, who work part-time, mothers who are entrepreneurs, mothers who are struggling financially, mothers who are sick, single mothers, mothers in unstable relationships, mothers who travel for work, mothers who face domestic abuse, mothers who are in same sex marriages, mothers who are constantly juggling their careers and families and are firmly committed to both.
I do wish my mother took more time for herself during this intense grind, especially when she found herself in-between two generations. However, she made a conscious choice to dedicate herself fully to her family, even giving up her career earlier than expected. This brings me to the eternal question: can a woman have it all?
The challenges of negotiating multiple roles are real, particularly when it comes to maintaining some semblance of a balance between mothering and having a career.
Right now, it is hard to envision life without the demands and joys of motherhood. It is just as difficult to imagine life without being immersed in my job and career. Both fulfill me. Managing the logistics of a career and motherhood is truly a juggling act. However, feeling fulfilled on several fronts comes to ease the exhaustion and somehow fuel the frantic rhythm. The hope is to find small pockets of respite to renew energy in order to give once more. My quest to balance job and motherhood may change one day. For now, it feels right.
I am weary of the statement that if a woman decides to pursue her career, her family will suffer. If anything, the personal fulfillment and ambition driving her may ultimately make her a more satisfied and wholesome mother. As for women who do not work, it is not any easier. In fact, it may even be more challenging to strike a balance and set boundaries between childcare, household tasks, and time for herself.
One of the key components of this balancing act is the presence of supportive fathers or partners. Regardless of the relationship status, without a present and committed spouse, a mother’s already difficult task of raising children becomes even more complex. It would be naïve to think that all stereotypes surrounding mother and father roles have dissipated. Just as it would be foolish to think that a woman’s career does not take a hit following childbirth, while the impact on a man’s career is usually less harsh. Regardless of these realities, shared responsibility is a requirement, and not a draw of luck or a character trait in a partner.
Not too long after having my baby, I remember thinking how bringing a new and highly dependent human being into the world creates a shock wave to one's identity. In speaking to other mothers from my generation, I realized that this is the norm in most cases. I wonder if previous generations felt the same way. Does it have to do with having children later in life and having prioritized self-realization in terms of career, personal choices, and the pursuit of interests and passions?
In those early weeks following childbirth, I was left with a new puzzle. I was reformulating who I was, while trying to decipher types of baby cries, changing diapers, folding laundry, and breastfeeding at obscene hours. Realigning my “new” identity as a mother was a conundrum at times, but it took a cuddle, a smile, or a coo to remind me that the force behind this reformulation was an immense source of joy. In writing about her experiences on early motherhood, Naomi Wolf professed that you are not necessarily born a mother, you become one. In the haze that follows childbirth, I remember the relief this idea gave me.
I am coming to understand in these early stages of motherhood that the perfect mother does not exist, and perhaps the perfect career doesn’t exist either. Each day is different and how we end up investing our time as a mother, a career woman, or both, will inevitably vary. Rather than focusing on guilt for going to work, guilt for not working, or guilt for not feeling any guilt, shifting focus on love and presence seems to be more productive. I cannot say that I apply this approach seamlessly, but I am at least trying. I am actively trying to be present at work and be present at home with my child, to get the most out of both experiences that I feel are now so fundamental to who I am.
As I write this on my laptop, my son waddles over to my desk, offering me a half eaten cookie, and saying otanav, otanav (airplane, airplane). He loves watching large planes landing and taking off on YouTube. I interrupt writing to sit him on my lap, as we watch the serenity of big aircraft moving in the sky. I could not ask for a more beautiful break. Later on, further interruptions, one sweeter than the other. This is my life now and I would not want it any other way.
The transition to motherhood is not necessarily easy and nor is it the aestheticized perfect pastel images we see on social media. It is messy, painful, and exhausting, yet, interspersed with pockets of unimaginable heart-expanding joy, because our hearts see them first.