art by Nguyen Thanh Binh, a contemporary Vietnamese painter (b. 1954)

art by Nguyen Thanh Binh, a contemporary Vietnamese painter (b. 1954)

A good friend and I have often rolled our eyes when hearing someone who has become a parent say, “you’ve never known love until you’re a mother.”

It felt condescending, exclusionary and mean spirited. The statement undermines love between siblings, between friends, romantic love. Love is not exclusive to mothers or parents. Plus, you never know what sort of fertility journey someone might be on! Most of all, you don’t know my life!

The same friend also once asked me how I knew I wanted to have a baby. I told her it was like knowing I was straight. I just knew. There was no big internal struggle, no debate, no pros and cons. I’ve always known I wanted to be a parent. It was always more about the when.

I was lucky. I got (and stayed) pregnant easily and with the exception of the first 16 weeks, which brought nausea, exhaustion and mood swings, I loved being pregnant. I was healthy and mobile and growing a tiny human was a crazy and magical feeling. After week 40, I wasn’t desperate to get her out because I was physically uncomfortable, I was just excited to meet her!

Labor was exactly that - labor, very hard work, which I did mostly without medication (a decision not entirely my own, but that’s a story for another time). I pushed in a calm and quiet room with her father and my sister by my side, then dealt with some postpartum complications, but my baby girl was born perfect and healthy.

The first days were a blur. Everything hurt. Sitting up: hurt. Lying down: hurt. Peeing was terrifying -- and hurt. Luckily breastfeeding didn’t hurt, but wow, was it exhausting, and this baby was HANGRY.

I’m blessed to have an incredible support system, family and framily (friends who are family) who came to help and take care of us. And yet, that first week will remain in my memory as one of the hardest of my life.

I felt suffocated but alone. Exhausted, but manic.

Looking down at this tiny person brought forth a tsunami of emotions. I loved her so much, it was all-consuming. I studied her face, in awe. My lips, her father’s ears, a nose that was entirely her own. A week before she was living inside me and now she was an outside, sentient being.

I remember looking out the window while breastfeeding and spiraling. We’d brought this baby into the world and now we were responsible for keeping her safe and alive. In this terrible world! What if something happened to her? What if she got sick or hurt? What if something happened to one of us?! We were subjecting her to a lifetime of pain! How do people handle this pressure???

And suddenly, I understood the meaning of, “you’ve never known love until you’re a parent.’ Not in the woo woo way, but more in the “with great power comes great responsibility way,” the unbearable tension of the sheer terror at sustaining a whole life outside of your own. That is the love people are talking about, just sugar coated because otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to function. There is so much joy and beauty and sweetness when it comes to your baby, but also there’s the raw side, which is less fun and scarier to talk about. With hormones coursing through my body, the fear of the unknown future loomed large. Climate change! Racism! Anti-vaxxer bringing back eradicated diseases! The patriarchy!

And then, after the first week, things got better. (Not the world, obviously.)

I’d always assumed people were lying about getting used to less sleep, but it’s true. Routines kick in and things feel less bleak. I focused less on the scary future stuff that I couldn’t control and more on the present.

I’m still only two months into this parenthood thing and am hardly an expert on any of it, but I finally understand the whole “you’ve never known love until you’re a mother” thing and have a lot more empathy for the lightly disguised petrification. This kind of love is outrageous and beautiful and scary AF.

Leonor M. is a photo editor by day, passion project pursuer by night. She has a weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here: https://tinyletter.com/leonorjr