Becoming the Person You Are: Meaghan O’Connell Writes Motherhood

April 17, 2018 | 5 min read

I knew life with a baby would be radically different. I had been warned, and I had seen time and again how a baby could change a family dynamic. I prepared (as much as one can) for breastfeeding problems and colic and sleepless nights.

But what I didn’t expect were the changes in me. Not the physical changes; my body was doing strange and unusual things, but I knew they were temporary. What took me completely by surprise were the changes to me—my essential self, my personality.

I felt like my entire brain had changed. It felt re-mapped, re-wired, with new neural pathways. Sometimes, during frequent lulls in conversation with my husband or the rare visit with a friend, I searched for something funny or interesting to say—something, anything, not revolving around the baby—and I came up empty.

“I just feel so different,” I tried to explain to my husband one day. “I feel so…unfun.”

When I finally had a moment to myself again, when I could sneak some writing time, I found myself staring at the computer blankly. My brain couldn’t connect ideas, couldn’t summon arguments the way it had so readily only a few weeks before. The idea of creating anything else, after creating this child, felt mammoth. Between breastfeeding, constant worrying, and sleepless nights, I had nothing else to give. I was all emptied out.

I loved being with my baby; caring for him was one of the most natural experiences of my life. It just fit. When I held him, I felt a wild crush of joy and unadulterated happiness. Yet motherhood had so enveloped me, I couldn’t remember how to be the person I’d been before. My world had contracted, with each contraction, down to a pinpoint, down to survival. My whole focus was on this baby: keeping him alive, protecting him, watching him grow.

Who was this person I had become? I’d never expected to fall into the parent trap. I knew that there were more important questions in the world than whether the baby had pooped that day. But in my fugue state, I couldn’t think of them.

coverInstead of writing, I turned to a collection of essays about writing called Scratch. The format was perfect; I could set it down and pick it up as my new and unpredictable schedule dictated, and it opened up to me a plethora of voices and viewpoints at a time where my world seemed so narrow. And it made me feel a part of the writing world again, even if it was as a passive observer.

One of the contributions in particular stuck with me. Meaghan O’Connell documented her entirely opposite experience of writing and new motherhood; while pregnant, she’d worried about ever writing again; but giving birth opened the floodgates of her creativity. She couldn’t wait to escape to a coffee shop and write in two-hour bursts.

How? I wondered, propping up the book in one hand and nursing the baby, who steadfastly refused to nap, with the other. Who took care of the baby? And how could she think?

coverStill, I loved O’Connell’s irreverent wit, and this intersection of motherhood and creativity fascinated me. Even in my tired mind, I bookmarked her forthcoming memoir about motherhood, And Now We Have Everything.

When I read the book several months later, I felt the wonder of validation light up in me. It felt like someone had been there with me, even in the darkest hours, and could now offer humor and insight.

On the surface, she and I had markedly different experiences. She was surprised to feel indifferent or inadequate as a mother; I felt like motherhood was one of the first things that ever came naturally to me. She escaped into writing, becoming more ambitious than ever; I struggled to remember words like “prolific” and couldn’t recall what it was like to string comprehensible sentences together.

But at their core, our experiences were the same. We were trying to figure out who we were, now, and what being a mother meant. What was this new relationship—not with the baby, not with our partner, but with ourselves? And was it normal to feel both inescapably changed and yet fundamentally unprepared at the same time?

Even before the pee hit the stick, when O’Connell pictured herself pregnant the image was already about herself as a mother—how, she writes, “it might change me or wake me up. Make me better.” Throughout her pregnancy, she consumes birth stories and parenting tomes voraciously, but none of them answer that question, looming larger than any others: “What will it be like? How will it change me?”

Despite this consistent focus on the transformation that accompanies motherhood, O’Connell never falls into mere navel-gazing. Each story she tells—the book is more like a collection of short and long essays than a typical memoir—is sharply observed, wickedly funny, and painfully important. I have never read anything about parenthood that so clearly encapsulates what it feels like.

As O’Connell writes after viewing her incision scar:

Everything felt stacked inside me haphazardly, my body weak and vulnerable when I was supposed to be nourishing and protecting something even weaker, even more vulnerable. I wanted to be present and strong—I wanted to take it all in stride. I wanted to be worthy of my son. Instead I felt like something essential in me was threatening to slip. Maybe it already had.

I shook with recognition. This was how I’d felt—weak and tired and serious, so far from the person I’d thought I was.

There are umpteen books about parenting out there. Books about feeding and sleeping and eating, books about how to keep your children healthy and wealthy and wise.

But books about motherhood? About how you, this person, created another person and delivered them out of your body and then nourished them from your imperfect self? Vanishingly rare. How do you expand your identity to include “parent”? How do you reconcile this new self with the person you have always been, and the person you want to be? The changes you go through—the shifts in your priorities, the receding or rising creativity, feeling too much or not enough (or both) like the mother you thought you should be. How do you cross over?

As I read the book, I began taking notes. At first it was on the book itself, arguments for convincing my friends to put down whatever they were reading and pick up this book right now. But soon I found myself retelling the story of my own new motherhood—not my baby’s birth story, not the details of his health, but the transformative effect it had on me.

I felt like a new person once more. I had washed off the fatigue and worry caking me, slowing my brain and dulling my wit, and I’d emerged—the same person, yes, the same body, the same weaknesses and strengths. But, I hope, better. Wiser, calmer, more efficient. More me than I’ve ever been before.

Near the end of the book, O’Connell describes a session with her therapist. Her therapist closes her fist and then splays her fingers out. “You expand and retract,” O’Connell writes. “You begin to open all on your own, to seek out other people. Seek out complexity of your own.” You begin enjoying your old favorite pastimes, which were waiting there for you all along: cooking, sex, running, reading. “You will go to Target alone and leave with sunglasses, a new necklace,” O’Connell marvels. “Nothing for the baby at all.”

This word like a promise, expansiveness, has stayed with me, all through my unfunny months, my days spent cocooned with the baby. Now, exactly one year from my son’s birth, I feel the world opening to me once again. Expanding.

Image Credit: pxhere.

is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is at work on an anthology of essays about premature birth. Follow her on Twitter @m_scribe.