Pregnancy can be a tumultuous time for the expectant woman. It’s tough to balance the management of fears amid the brimming hope that presents itself as the baby grows. It’s easy to feel pulled by the tender strings of fleeting emotions (thanks, hormones). But there’s something else that occurs amid the constant swirl of thoughts and feelings. This the emergence of the Mother Voice: the person that the woman turns into with the birth of her child. It’s the voice that speaks from within, wondering internally—but also audibly—about who she will transform into, what kind of mother she will be, how she will also tend to her own needs while also satisfying the unending needs of a additional, new person.
At the end of my first pregnancy, after feverishly high emotions for several weeks during the final trimester, I found a strange calm in the days before my scheduled induction date. Perhaps it was the fact that the child I was bursting with now had an appointment to be met; perhaps the hormonal signals had grown tired of their frenzied travels in my circulatory system. My burgeoning Mother Voice began speaking up, anticipating the coming events with a collected excitement: I look forward to welcoming this person, this new life, and I feel in my soul that I will be present for opportunities, and be dedicated to imparting nuanced life lessons in a developmentally appropriate manner, I thought, naively.
I expected the core principles of my personality to remain unchanged, but that I would predictively be opened by an exponential amount of new love, whatever that meant. Boy, was I wrong.
My firstborn son’s entrance into the world was met with the horror that accompanies a birth devoid of breath. That day, the Mother Voice merged with my audible voice the moment I began screaming from the birthing bed for my near-lifeless baby, whom the nurses tore away from my swollen body.
When I first met my son, in the NICU, the Mother Voice spoke sweetly and uninhibitedly to him, stroking his silky skin and fuzzy hair as the machines beeped in accompaniment. An endless supply of love swelled from my eyes, every kiss to his little forehead drenched in yearning. As his improvement was rendered impossible by the extent of his brain injury, the Mother Voice told me, you should have known. How could you not have known this was happening to him while inside you? This is absolutely and unequivocally your fault.
Without a baby to mother, the Mother Voice became accusing, relentless with blame, as if determined to punish me for failing to protect the singular thing it was assigned to: my son. His death transformed all the bubbling confidence I possessed into self-doubt and shame, despite the insistence of family, friends, and medical staff that the burden of proof did not bear its weight on me. Having had no idea that such a terrible, life-taking injury had been taking place inside me, the Mother Voice became defiantly deaf in its pursuit to block all assurances of my innocence. At least if I was to blame, there was some explanation as to why something so terrible could happen to a blameless child, wholly undeserving of his outcome.
Spending the subsequent months at the helm of a life that didn’t feel like mine, I could barely look people in the eyes. I wondered, when contact was accidentally made, if they could tell I was battling myself for the right to wake up the next morning. The person I was supposed to be—the mother of a new baby—was in direct conflict at all times with the childless person I had always been, I was ripping in two, as each side fought for the right to exist.
The funny thing about the Mother Voice is that over time, with no charges to consider, it quieted itself. In a way, I began to feel again like the person I used to know, even though it felt wrong to not drip with constant misery over my son’s death. I didn’t have the opportunity to chuckle at my naïve pre-birth pregnant self during the chaos of newborn life—he wasn’t here, and there was no other self to reassure with imaginary sleep-deprived platitudes over dirty diapers.
Because of this, I spent my entire second pregnancy in a state of tepid waiting, attempting to create an additional dimension of awareness within myself, unmoved by excitement. When my second son was born safely and successfully, the Mother Voice reappeared with such a vengeance—it shredded reality with its shrill, panicked tone.
The postpartum nurses tiptoed into my room with dread, as if not to poke the bear: I was incapable of answering any questions or asking any coherent ones without bursting into uncontrollable sobs. I became obsessed with making milk around the clock for a child who wouldn’t latch and I couldn’t sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time in fear that he wouldn’t be alive when I woke up. How am I ever going to get him to latch? How is he ever going to gain weight? How am I going to keep him alive if he won’t eat? HOW AM I GOING TO KEEP HIM ALIVE AT ALL? I screamed to myself.
The Mother Voice I possess now, as the mom of a fearless toddler and a beautiful baby whose life was too short, is overzealous, serene, hyper-vigilant, relaxed, anxious, faithful, much like so many others. Time has found a place for ease a in my thoughts, ameliorating some of its most heightened fearful states.
I will never be quite the mother I intended, nor will I ever enjoy the privilege of raising all my children in this life. But I have turned, transformed, fully merged with this voice.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.