On becoming a Velveteen Mother
“Try not to react when you see her. She doesn’t look good.” That’s what my former husband was telling family members outside of my hospital room before they entered. He was right – I was in rough shape.
Motherhood did not arrive gently at my doorstep. That moment didn’t look anything like those muted magazine photos of rapturous mothers in long flowing white eyelet dressing gowns leaning over equally white bassinettes where cherubic infants lay sleeping. My bloodshot eyes and haggard face wouldn’t be featured in any parenting magazines or diaper ads.
For the first two hours of motherhood, I was blind. Literally. Hours of hard pushing had strained my eye muscles so badly I was unable to see my newborn baby. Or anything else, for that matter.
And for the first two and a half weeks, I couldn’t pee without a catheter. Days of labour, followed by a delivery that involved cutting and forceps and an emergency visit from the only doctor in the city who knew how to flip the baby into the right position had left my internal organs so beat up that not only did I have no sensation telling me that it was time to pee, but I couldn’t force anything out no matter how hard I tried. It was like my body had just forgotten how to perform that function. Five days after birth, when my body still refused to cooperate, I was finally sent home with a glass catheter tube and instructions on how to drain my bladder. Every two or three hours, I gingerly bypassed the meat-raw zone of my birth canal and inserted the tube to relieve myself.
And that was only the labour and delivery part. Six months earlier, just as I was ending my first trimester, I sat down on the toilet and blood came gushing out. I was rushed to the hospital, sure that I was losing the baby. I didn’t, but after two nights in the hospital, I went home on high alert, worried that the wrong move or the right combination of stress and overwork would bring my pregnancy to an end.
Two months later, my then-husband tumbled into an emotional spiral, overwhelmed with the stress of a new job plus the weight of pending parenthood. After weeks of worry and multiple failed attempts at getting him help, including an overnight in a mental health facility, he got up one morning, kissed me good-bye, and disappeared. My mom and I spent the day looking for him, and later that evening, he checked his beat-up and bloodied self into the hospital after repeated attempts at suicide. Surgeons worked late into the night to repair the damage he’d done to his wrist, throat, and chest.
That was how I became a mother, twenty-five years ago this weekend. Struggle and Pain knocked on my door and said “Guess what? We’re the companions you didn’t know you were inviting in when you chose this path. We’ve brought along a few gifts for you, but you don’t get to open them unless you let us live with you.”
In the middle of my first night as a mother, I woke up in the hospital with the most potent ache of loneliness I’d ever felt. Everyone had left me so that I could finally get a full night’s sleep and my hospital room echoed with the emptiness of it. It was deeper than just the absence of my husband, mom, and siblings, though. The baby that had moved inside me for the last nine months was now somewhere down the hall, separate from me, and I hadn’t had a decent chance to see her yet because of my blindness and because they’d whisked her away for observation and antibiotics after she was born with a fever.
The lower half of my body felt like it had been torn open on an ancient torture machine, but I knew I needed to see my baby immediately or I might die from the ache of separation. I tried to wriggle close enough to the call button so that I could call the nurse, but it was just out of reach and the wriggling was agony. Failing that, I inched slowly and carefully to the edge of the bed, bracing myself for every stab of pain as I moved. After what felt like an hour of tiny movements, I could finally swing my legs over the edge of the bed, prop up my torso, and get my feet on the floor. Then came the even more agonizing effort of lifting my body off the bed.
The nurses were surprised to see me shuffling slowly down the hallway, leaning on the wall as I moved. “I have to see my baby,” I said, and they nodded and helped me to the nursery.
I stood over the incubator, staring at this tiny one who’d only hours before been inside me. She looked so helpless and set apart – no longer attached to my umbilical cord, lying their nearly naked with tubes and wires protruding from various places. I couldn’t even hold her; I could only touch her skin. I was her mother – the gravity of that nearly knocked me off my feet. Standing there with my body and heart ripped apart, I was the Velveteen Mother, made real by the violence of separation.
Nobody warned me that motherhood starts with the ache of loneliness and the avalanche of love the moment your baby is first torn away from you and you have to stumble down the hall.
If that moment made me into the Velveteen Mother, I wonder what kind of mother I became four and a half years later when I laboured for the third time and knew this time the baby would never breathe. Perhaps when you birth death, you become a Shadow Mother. Or a Ghost Mother. Or maybe some of your velveteen fur gets rubbed off to reveal that there’s not flesh but Steel underneath.
I have been shaped, far more times than I’d like to count, by time spent in hospital rooms. Perhaps that’s why my body still shudders when I walk through hospital doors – because I never seem to leave the hospital the same person.
That particular time, when my third pregnancy went horribly wrong and a failed surgery left my baby vulnerable, with no membrane to protect him, I spent three weeks in a hospital room before he was born dead. Every day, twice a day, I got to watch him on the ultrasound screen. For twenty minutes each time, we’d sit and watch him wiggle around on the fuzzy black screen. Twenty minutes is the normal time it takes for a baby to empty its bladder inside the womb –we’d wait and watch for that to happen so that we’d know his internal organs were still functioning the way they should.
Nobody warned me how much a mother can bond with a baby when she watches him pee on a TV screen approximately forty times over a three-week period. (Probably nobody before me ever knew to tell me. I may have a unique angle on that.)
And then one morning, when I went downstairs for the first ultrasound of the day, the nurse turned the screen away from me, mumbled something, and rushed out of the room to get the doctor. I knew, by the look on her face, that this wasn’t going to end the way we’d hoped it would.
This time, the ache of loneliness that accompanied the birth was as deep as the ocean and as wide as the sky. This time, I didn’t get to shuffle down the hallway to find the baby in the nursery once he’d made his way into the world outside of me. The pain of childbirth was still part of my Becoming, after the ultrasound showed that his heart had stopped, but this time I had to go home with empty arms and a broken heart.
The cruelest moment came two days later when my breasts betrayed me and filled with milk. My body knew only that a baby had been born and not that the baby hadn’t lived. My body was still focused on the Becoming and didn’t know how to adapt to the Loss.
You expect that Becoming a Mother happens only once, but the truth is much more complicated than that. At the beginning, you are only mother to an infant. But then you become a Mother to a Toddler. Then a Preschooler. Then a School-age Child, then a Pre-teen, and so on and so on, and every stage has a whole new Becoming.
Each time, you learn to navigate a brand new landscape, with different emotional needs, different tantrum triggers, different learning edges, different boundaries, and a hundred different ways to fill you with self-doubt. Just when you think you have it figured out, the child morphs in front of your eyes and you have to become a whole Different Mother to meet the new terrain. And gradually, through all of these changes, the child pulls away from you and sometimes even turns on you and you learn the ache of loneliness in a whole new way you didn’t see coming and you feel like you’re still shuffling down the hallway trying to find her.
Nobody warns you how much pain a child can cause with just a few careless words tossed in a mother’s direction. And nobody tells you about the sleepless nights when you’re pretty sure you’re doing it wrong and you agonize over the ways you’ve ruined the child you so painfully yet lovingly brought into the world. (And if they DID tell you, would you really listen anyway?)
And then you become a parent of multiple children and you discover that you are actually Three Different Mothers navigating three separate hallways all at the same time. Each child comes with her own set of needs and her own pace of emotional development and… you stand there in the middle completely befuddled because what worked with the first one is most certainly not working with the second and nobody gave you a roadmap for this and maybe you’re messing up three different children in three different ways.
My first two came in quick succession, and they quickly let me know that they had vastly different personalities. Even in the womb, I knew they were different, when one never stopped moving and one caused concern because she didn’t move enough. One was more introverted, the other was more extroverted. One wanted to walk as quickly and as often as possible, the other took her time and wanted to stay in the stroller long after she could reasonably fit in it. One wanted to be held long into the night, the other didn’t want anyone touching her once it was time to sleep.
Because the first two were so different, I made the mistake of believing I’d covered the spectrum of parenting and expected the third (or fourth, depending on how you count) to come out like one or the other of her sisters. She quickly proved me wrong when she revealed that there was a third way to be the “opposite”.
Even now, as I am learning, at this new stage, to be Three Different Mothers to Three Different Adults, I continue to discover that there is new terrain that I haven’t yet learned to navigate and there are still ways that I can mess up. Throw in neurodivergence and mental illness and disability and… what looked like three straight hallways have suddenly become three complicated mazes. Plus I know that there’s a whole new kind of lonely ache ahead of me as they prepare to move away from me into their own lives and I’ll be left standing alone in the hallway.
In many ways I also, mistakenly, took on the mantle of Motherhood in my marriage. Nothing could prepare me for the emotional labour that would be required of me as I navigated that particular landscape, and I thought I had no other choice but to accept it.
When he needed coaxing to get his GED and start university, when he wasn’t confident enough to hand in a university paper without me editing it first, when he competed with our children for my attention and comfort, and whenever he plummeted into anxiety and depression… there were so many ways I took on more weight than a wife should. And then there were the hard years when he fought with our teenagers like he was a teenager himself and I was forced into the role of Peacekeeper.
Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife is allowed to have boundaries. Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife doesn’t have to hold all of the weight of the world on her shoulders. Every training I’d ever received and every modeling I’d ever witnessed taught me that Becoming a Mother means that you show up when you’re needed NO MATTER WHAT and you don’t say no, especially to your partner. And you don’t get angry. And you don’t walk away.
And then there was the second time he attempted suicide, when our oldest two daughters were just starting high school and I had to navigate the psych ward and the soccer field simultaneously, putting on a brave front in both places because I knew I had to be The Dependable One. There’s something about a psych ward hallway that looks particularly dark and interminable, especially when they lock the door behind you.
Becoming a Single Mother was yet another landscape I had to learn to navigate. Again, I had no roadmap, and this time I was even more alone than I’d been before, without even a mother of my own to help me survive the road bumps. Once again, I fumbled my way down the hallway, pretty sure I must have found a whole new way to mess up and get lost. It took me five years to end the marriage because every time I got close, I kept convincing myself that my daughters were better off in a two-parent home and that I would fail them if I chose otherwise.
My greatest fear, though, in the dark lonely hours of the night, especially in those years when the two teenagers triggered the wounded teenager in my husband, was that if the girls were parented half of the time in a separate home, I wouldn’t be there to be the Peacekeeper.
But finally, when the cracks were bigger than the marriage, I knew that I had to take a chance and believe that the separation would be better than the alternative.
The night we told our daughters that their dad was moving out, the three girls were true to form and reacted in three entirely different ways. One got angry and disappeared into her room, one got emotional and blamed herself, and one was relieved that it was finally over.
There were no “stages” in the grief – everything showed up simultaneously and, once again, I stood in the middle befuddled and unsure of which hallway to stumble down first to try to meet the needs.
Weeks earlier, when I’d said I was finished and wanted the marriage to end, my then-husband asked me to visit his therapist with him to talk about it where he’d have her as a support person. I told the therapist “I feel like I’ve been angry for five years.” And she said “you don’t look angry.” Oh… I thought… so this is one of those places where I’m supposed to “show my work”, like an elementary school math quiz? But what if I don’t know how because I’ve spent the last twenty-two years doing my best to erase it?
Moments later, when my then-husband talked about how and when and where to move and I stepped in to help him navigate that decision, the therapist stopped me and said, “you’re going to let him figure that out himself this time.”
In just a few simple statements, without knowing she was doing it, she spelled out my entire training on Becoming a Mother. 1. Never show your anger. 2. Always help out. Never let the fact that your body has been torn apart keep you from stumbling down the hallway to be with The One Who Needs You. Swallow your pain and offer up kindness. Eat nails and spit out candy. Be The Dependable One to the end of your live-long days.
Sometimes I look down at my hands and wonder when my hands became my mother’s hands. When did they get that saggy skin around the knuckles? When did they lose their smoothness and develop these tiny lines and ridges? And then I realize that I am the age my mother was when all of her children were already grown up and moved away and I remember that I thought back then that she must already know everything there was to know about Becoming a Mother.
And suddenly I think… “Hold up, slow down, WAIT…How can I be this old already? How can I have reached THIS stage when there are still so many things I haven’t figured out and so many moments I still feel blind and beat up? And why didn’t I give my mother a bit more of a break for the ways she still really didn’t know how to parent me up until the day she died?”
Days before she died, when her mind had started slipping in and out of focus, my mom leaned toward me and whispered “I don’t know how to do this.” I replied “I don’t know how to do this either.” And it was the truest thing either of us ever said to each other.
Of course I couldn’t have known, back when my mother’s hands looked like mine do now, how the Becoming goes on and on and on until one day it’s the Mother torn away from the child. And the child is the one stumbling down the hallway trying to find her way through the Ache of Loneliness to the place where at least skin can touch against skin and maybe it will be alright after all.
Twenty-five years ago, I entered motherhood blind and beat up. At every new stage of Becoming, there is, again, a time when I am both blind and beat up. And then, after Struggle and Pain have had their way with me and have retired, satisfied, back into their private wing of the house, I settle in to unpack the poorly wrapped gifts they’ve left behind.
Fortunately, there always comes the day, after Struggle and Pain have left their mark, when Joy and Ease pop out of their rooms in the house and say “Remember us? We’re here too. We haven’t abandoned you to those bullies.” And when they bring the light back into the room, I look up at my three unique daughters with wonder and awe, and I watch them navigate this new terrain of Becoming Adults, and I feel both dumbfounded and lucky that I get to be on this journey with them and that I’ve always managed to find them down at the end of the hallway.
As blind and beat up as I may have been at every stage, I can’t help but look back and see all of the ways that I have risen to the occasion, that I have, again and again, stumbled down the hallway, that I have shuddered my may through hospital doors, that I have navigated new terrain, and that I have learned to persevere through Struggle and Pain until Joy and Ease came back into the room. And I have, above all else, begun to practice a new story of what it means to Become a Mother – one with more truth-telling and less martyrdom and cultural baggage – so that my daughters might, hopefully, have a new script to help them, should they find themselves here someday themselves.
And in the end, I have discovered that the Ache of Loneliness is only a true companion when you have also known the Comfort of Connection. And that’s what it means to be a Velveteen Mother.
For more personal stories, check out my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. The audiobook has just been launched.
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