A titanic and towering swell of love lodged inside my chest after the birth of my first child. Here I was, just an ordinary woman of 25 years of age, but I had been entrusted with the world’s very best baby. In my eyes, he was perfection, the realization of my every dream. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why adoring someone so much left me feeling so destroyed. After I’d wrestled my baby to bed, I’d stand around our small high-rise apartment in Queens not knowing which of my needs or wants I had time to address before he woke up again. Could I get in a shower? Some exercise? Reading? Or should I give up and watch television, or maybe plant my face into the floor and cry?
In those small evening reprieves from childcare, I felt no relief, just heaviness. I’d imagined becoming a mother would endow me with the disposition of the sweetest, most energetic preschool teacher. I was going to be the kind of mom who crouched down to talk to my little one in an even and calm voice. I was going to be brimming with ideas for creative play and projects. But when my beautiful baby grew into an energetic toddler, I didn’t grow into the mom I thought I’d become. I didn’t get down on the floor and play enough. I raised my voice too much. I let him eat too many processed foods and watch too much television. And where was all the early education I had planned on—the language instruction and flashcards? Where were the crafts? I didn’t do nearly enough crafts.
At the time, my husband was in the midst of his first residency and his call schedule was brutal. A sense of urgency surrounded the nights when he was home. I only had a few hours to make him understand what a failure I was as a mother, how he didn’t know who he was leaving his child with everyday.
Although my husband patiently listened to my concerns, his responses rarely satisfied me. When he said things like, “I don’t think you know what a bad mother looks like;” “You are too hard on yourself,” and “Your expectations are too high,” I took no comfort. There was a gaping hole of need within me, and his words hadn’t filled it. Soon he’d go back to work, and I’d have no one to talk to again. And suddenly, in addition to all my doubts about myself as a mother, I’d begin to fret over what this disconnect meant about us as a couple. If we were a better couple, more in sync, my husband would have known exactly how to make me feel better.
“Is that all you have to say?” I’d plead. “Do you realize you’re the only adult I talk to all day.”
Some nights these desperate questions would escalate into arguments. Some nights the conversation simply derailed into other topics. Some nights my sleep-deprived husband would fall asleep. And on those nights, I’d reach for a notebook. All the vulnerability and insecurity I couldn’t articulate to my spouse, I’d spell out in words. In 2004, I wrote, “I have lost the feeling of being successful at something, and that loss has been a burden to me. It’s not that I don’t adore being a mother, but there is no one cheering me on, telling me I am doing a good job. No feeling of success…I am hungry for it.”
But at the very least, the act of writing made me feel better. Those nightly scribbles didn’t fill up the hole within me, but they organized its contents. For my next birthday, I told my husband I had booked myself a one-day writing class in the city as a gift to me from him. A few months later, I told him he was giving me an online writing class for our anniversary. I wrote my first essays, and then a chapter of what I hoped could be a book. Then there was a draft of a memoir and another draft.
In the midst of all this, my husband and I moved again. This time to Cleveland for another residency. There I joined my first writer’s workshop. “You are on to something here,” the professor who led the workshop told me, and hearing those words, it was as if my physical body finally stepped into the shadow that had been my stand-in ever since I became a mother.
Without my noticing, that conversation that had played on nightly repeat in that little apartment in Queens died out. None of the tangibles in my marriage had changed. My husband was a still a resident. His hours were still long. We had two kids now instead of one, but our marriage felt easier, better. Those early years of motherhood had been a drought of external validation, and although my writing had not yet brought me any measure of conventional success, it had brought rain.
I have three kids now. My oldest will turn twelve in the fall. Looking back on those early days of motherhood, I can’t believe I expected my husband to be the one to untangle me from the web of mommy myths that had snared me. I was caught up in a knot of ideas so much larger than him, so much larger than us, but we live in a culture where falling in love and being in love is curative. People in movies say things to each other like, “You complete me,” as if we are all walking around as half-selves before we meet our partners. But this notion brings with it a slippery corollary. It suggests that if we are not made whole by our partners then we must not really be in love.
When I found myself floundering in my new role as a mother, my first instinct was to turn to my spouse instead of myself. I didn’t consciously turn to writing as a way to reclaim my sense of self. I stumbled into it. It was an accident that became a discovery, but it did not need to be.
There are marital problems that must be solved with your partner, but there are just as many issues that you have to address alone. There will never be a time in your life when you don’t need to feel good at something, when you don’t need to feel recognized and acknowledged, and married life can sometimes be at odds with this necessity. With committed relationships come new roles, new jobs, new homes, and new cities, and it is far too easy to blame your spouse for the feeling of loss that comes with change. In those moments, it is worth stepping back and asking yourself if there is a bigger need within you that’s wanting to be met. Maybe your spiritual stomach is growling, waiting to be nourished and fed.
Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place,and Beyond Belief. Other works have recently appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, TV Terror, is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship, a program of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, made possible by the generous support of Cuyahoga County citizens through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.