‘I became a mother when I was eighteen years old, and now I am twenty-one. I still feel like a child, one trapped in a strange and contradictory existence.’ Theodora Sarah Abigail (Ebi) reflects on how motherhood has upended her life.
They say that the act of becoming a parent – of creating a child, then breathing life into it – is a lot like pulling the heart out of your body and allowing it to walk defenceless into an unknown world. Every minute you risk sudden death, an unwanted bruise – a minor accident that hurts far more than you expect or want it to.
I became a mother when I was eighteen years old, and now I am twenty-one. I still feel like a child, one trapped in a strange and contradictory existence. What went wrong?, I often ask myself. How did this happen to me? I who can barely take care of myself – how could I have given birth to another life?
This dissonance causes me to wake up some days feeling sure that I am in the wrong house. Where I expect to see the cream-yellow walls of my childhood home, I instead find smeared mosquitos, the hairline cracks in the ceilings, and curl up in a bed that is no longer only my own.
In this house, this unfinished place, I have cleaved from my parents and started another family.
In this house, my name is ‘Momma’.
Parenthood brings new burdens for us to shoulder, and as we slip them onto our shoulders they sink us down into the earth. From the first day we are expected to always be “on”, to always be there for our children or risk damaging them in some irreversible way. There is no space left for our own sorrows and joys; tending to those would be selfish and wrong. Any waking moment that doesn’t revolve around our children, we’re told, is a sin.
I spent many nights during those early days paralysed by fear, constantly questioning who I had become. Despite all the books I’d read on the matter and the experiences I’d gleaned from raising my three younger brothers, there were many questions I had no answers for. What temperature should porridge be served at? How often should I change her diaper? Is she still hungry? Is she getting enough sleep? Is she gaining enough weight? Is every miracle in her tiny body developing on schedule?
As my daughter’s independence developed, so did her propensity for accidents. She would bite her tongue one day, knock her head on the next, get a finger trapped while trying to close a door. A single house offers hundreds of possible ways to experience hurt; the world millions more. What will cause my daughter to suffer next? Our lack of wealth? Her small eyes? This country that often does not want her?
Suddenly, bringing a child into the world – a girl, especially – seemed extraordinarily selfish and cruel. As days snowballed into weeks, then months, my fears ballooned.
I looked into the mirror and began seeing my mother’s own face staring back. Her frustration and confusion, her self-hatred and self-love, her insistence on battering us with love – all these, I realised, had taken up residence in my own heart.
That first night – the night after my daughter was born – I sat in my bed and stared at the curtain divider that separated me from the other women in the ward. I cradled her in my arms and stared at her impossibly tiny face. What a beautiful fragrance – wrapped gingerly in a plush blanket, she had that familiar and powdery new-baby smell. She was a new responsibility. A new life. A new way of experiencing sorrow and anguish and wonder.
And yet – somehow, it felt that I was bringing a part of me home to die, and mourning.
No parent wants to admit that they regret parenthood sometimes, or that on certain days when the sun is shining and no one else in the house is awake, they reminisce about the past, where the hardest decision they were asked to make was to choose the colour of the shirt they’d wear that day.
Ah, but it’s perfectly normal to grieve at the birth of a child, isn’t it?
It is never easy to juggle identity – becoming a person is hard work, and it’s tempting to collapse into a singular role or archetype: the gloomy young girl, or the responsible, ever-loving mother, or the hardworking, productive writer. Rather than moving in flux with our needs and emotions, we staple these fractional identities onto our bodies and blame ourselves when we are not always ‘on’.
It’s taken time for me to realise that the life I am living still belongs in part to myself.
I am a mother. But I am also a woman, one who loves romantic displays of affections and expensive makeup and beautiful clothes. On some days I cook for myself – things my daughter can’t eat. I’ve started spending more afternoons alone with my friends, laughing about the shows we’ve recently watched and books we’ve just finished.
I think we need these minor respites from the many responsibilities we have to shoulder – we have to tend to ourselves, too.
It is a lie to say that growing up is the process of finding a singular ‘self’ – it is, rather, about compromising between all the people you are and all the responsibilities you bear. It is about guilty pleasures like going back to sleep once your child has gone to school, and about stealing kisses from your lover when no one is looking, and that split second of sunrise, lounging in the chilly air. These are our birthright, and we were cared for by others precisely so that we could enjoy them.
You must eye the crop of love and, yes, desire, and keep it green – for your own sanity, and for your child. After all, you were raised for the joyous moments, and the child you so love must also learn that she deserves a happiness all her own, independent of anyone else’s presence or place in her life. With your actions you must be able to say, it is alright for you to leave, and it is only right for you to know your own happiness.
Theodora Sarah Abigail (Ebi) is a Chinese-Indonesian American essayist, poet and author of In The Hands of a Mischievous God (2017). Ebi has written for Atlas Obscura, Catapult, Greatist, The Jakarta Post and Magdalene. Her works and essays mainly focus on the concepts of identity, heritage, and belonging. She is based in Jakarta.