When I welcomed my first son into the world seven years ago, my entire identity changed. In one long, laborious night, I went from someone who had only ever cared for houseplants to someone who was completely responsible for the health, well-being and happiness of another human being. It was a momentous shock and I felt the reverberations from it for many months after my son’s birth.
I was somebody’s mother. The role felt all-consuming, like it had devoured anything else I was before. For me, figuring out my identity as a mom was one of the hardest parts about becoming a parent. Was I a mom who made her own baby food? Cloth diapered? Attachment parented? Breastfed? Was I a mom who co-slept or swaddled or baby-proofed? Was I a mom who worked or stayed at home? Did I raise my voice? Did I put together matching outfits? Did I Google developmental milestones? Did I let my kid eat Cheerios off the floor?
Was I a mom who had any idea what she was doing or why she was doing it? Or was I just flying by the seat of my pants and hoping for the best?
I spent the first few years of my son’s life trying to answer these questions. Carving out a new identity for myself as somebody’s mother. By the time I got pregnant with my second son, I thought the transformation was complete. I thought you only became a mom once, when your first child was born. You certainly don't have to go through a whole identity crisis again. It turns out I was wrong.
When my second son was born, I found myself in the throes of a complete "Who am I?" moment. This new baby was nothing like my first and I was nothing like the mom I had been the first time around. At every turn, I contradicted myself and my previous parenting choices.
Things I had the time for with one child suddenly seemed unattainable. Things that had felt vital to raising a well-adjusted kid no longer carried the same urgency. I cut corners, shrugged off recommendations and guidelines and milestones, and relaxed my carefully constructed standards, all to survive life with two kids.
This could have been a relief, but it wasn’t. For me, there was only guilt. I felt like a failure.
To make matters worse, I wasn’t bonding or connecting with my son. I felt suffocated by his demanding personality. I grew frustrated with his unexplainable colic and fussiness. I wondered if I had made a mistake in having another baby. Was I someone who should only have one child?
I couldn’t figure out what my son needed because I wasn’t letting him change me.
It had taken me so long to understand what kind of mother I was and this new baby had blown that identity to pieces in a matter of weeks. Here’s the thing, though: This is totally, 100 percent normal.
Every child, even the ones born to the same parents, needs a different mother. I couldn’t parent my second son the same way I did my first, and not just because I had two kids now instead of one. He was a different child and he needed different things. I was trying to be an outdated model of myself, clinging to an out-of-print version that was no longer relevant, and it was having disastrous effects.
I couldn’t figure out what my son needed because I wasn’t letting him change me. This is what our kids do—they change us. We don’t decide who we are as mothers. We think we create these identities for ourselves, that we choose what kind of mother to be, but we actually have very little to do with it. Our babies arrive on this earth with needs and when we respond to them, we become their mothers.
Your baby refuses to breastfeed? You’re now a formula-feeding mom and there's no shame in that. Your baby can’t fall asleep on his own? You rock him until his body is too heavy to hold. Your baby won’t wear socks or eat peas or take a pacifier? You let him crawl around barefoot, eating bananas and sucking on your index finger.
You become whoever you become as a mom because your kids tell you that’s who you are. And every time you have a baby, this identity will change.
I fought it for a long time, because I didn’t fully understand the relationship between mothers and babies. The complex nature of call and response, of being who someone else needs you to be, rather than who you thought you were. When I let go of all that and turned into the mom my son actually needed, life became much easier. It wasn’t always simple, but it no longer felt like swimming upstream.
My second son taught me a lot of things—how to bounce and rock a baby at the same time, how to make dinner with a sleeping infant strapped to your back, how to survive on a torturous lack of sleep—but this was the best one. It’s the thing I tell all mothers expecting their second children and the thing I wish someone had told me: You will become a different mom and that’s OK.
Let this baby change you. I promise, you’ll like it.