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Motherhood's Nest of Isolation

The other day I took a private VIP tour of our local zoo. At one point, we were looking at some birds known as hornbills. There were two different species on exhibit.

The tour guide explained how, when the female is ready to lay eggs, the male builds a nest out of mud, and seals the female in. All she has is a half-inch hole to breathe, eat and excrete through. She is shut off from the world. Literally, trapped. She's dependent on her mate to bring her food while she sits on the eggs. Her sole purpose is to care for the them and raise the chicks until they are old enough to be on their own.

The mother does this for three to five months. In complete isolation.

As I listened to the guide tell this story I thought to myself, "Yep, that's motherhood."

Or at least how motherhood can feel so much of the time.

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When I left my career to care for my daughter full time, I was not the least bit prepared for the intense and overwhelming sense of isolation that would follow. Being a stay-at-home mom was a lonely experience.

In the very early days, I spent all my time confined to the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen of our home. I was "trapped" in my own tiny hornbill nest, my husband was my lifeline.

That is not a natural or healthy state of existence for anyone.

Photograph by: Elizabeth Flora Ross

My world shrank so severely it was shocking. It was scary. It was the one aspect of stay-at-home motherhood I was least prepared for. I had been focused on what was in my daughter's best interest. I'm not sure I gave much consideration to whether it was in mine.

Wanting to stay home with her was one thing. The reality of being there was quite another. I had almost no connection to the outside world. And I hated it. I nearly lost my mind. I'm not being overly dramatic; I almost had a breakdown during her first year of life.

Part of me was afraid to admit what I was feeling, because staying home was a choice. And I was fortunate to be in a position to make it. Complaining about how lonely I was felt petty. Insensitive. Selfish.

I was also conflicted. I loved being able to stay home with my daughter. I had no regrets and knew I had made the right decision for me. My time with her was challenging, to be sure, but also incredibly rewarding.

While I loved her with all my heart, I hadn't intended for my child to become my whole life. I'd never imagined leaving my job to be with her would lead to a life of seclusion.

Society today expects human mothers to be like the hornbill. At least that's how it feels. If a woman isn't sacrificing everything, making her children the center of her world, she isn't being a good mother. Many women I know have lost their sense of self in that process. I did, and it was a long, hard journey back to discovering who I was outside of "Mommy."

And what about men? Are they viewed solely as providers once they become fathers? During their nesting period, the female hornbill and her young are totally dependent on the male for food. If something happens to him, the whole family could perish. That's a lot of pressure. I imagine my husband could relate as much to the male hornbill in our early days of parenting as I could the female.

Seven years later, things have definitely improved. I have much more of a life outside of the home and beyond the boundaries of motherhood than I used to. But truth be told, I do sometimes feel trapped in a nest of seclusion.

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My world has opened up. It took a great deal of commitment and initiative to make that happen. I had to seek the opportunities. Or create them. Working from home, starting my own business and making myself a priority again has been, just like motherhood, challenging and incredibly rewarding.

It was up to me to break free from the nest I built without truly realizing what I was getting myself into. And now that I have, I can fly once again.

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