‘Not The Woman I Married’
A while ago I came across microchimerism, the phenomenon of a mother carrying her babies’ fetal cells over the course of life after a baby, the effects and evolution of which is still being researched. It brought back a memory, with startling clarity.
At a wedding — bamboozled as usual into watching over a bunch of kids — I was distracted by a couple having a quiet quarrel like a controlled explosion. Two of their three small children were running amuck. The third was clawing at his mother and whining in that way toddlers do when they’re too exhausted to sleep. Aged 12, with five small siblings, I was familiar with the end of this parental tether. The woman hissed under her breath at the man. He glared at her. Then I heard him snarl, “You’re not the woman I married!” I saw her recoil, her eyes fill with tears. Later, I told my mother what I’d heard, and she said she’d heard versions of this over the years from practically every married woman she knew.
“You’re not the woman I married.”
It stuck with me, not least because I’d overheard these adult women, all mothers, referring to life after a baby as some sort of paradise lost. They’d rattle off numbers – waist-measurements and weights, how many suitors asked them out to the dance one New Year’s Eve, how young they were when they were married or the number of recent attempts to finish a book. Sometimes their pot-bellied, balding husbands would join in, poking fun at their crash diets or their girdles or the way they burst into tears because the children were making them crazy.
When I saw that second line appear on my first pregnancy test, I was unsure of many things, but I was determined not to change. I would never mourn my youthful self or wasted opportunities. There would be no chance for my husband to tell me I was not who he married. And yet, even as I was making these conscious resolutions, my brain was beginning to change, in some ways, permanently.
For the first time, I felt I’d lost autonomy over my body. After the morning sickness, a boob leaked in a job interview, and I ran home embarrassed out of my wits. Then, my legendary bladder was replaced, magically, by a thimble, and I became the “Is there a toilet here?” lady. Toward the end of my first pregnancy, I got carpal tunnel syndrome in one hand (and the family dog bit me in the other) rendering me incapable of typing and dressing unassisted for two weeks. My feet grew one whole size. The relaxin my body was producing (meant to loosen your joints to help you give birth) was also making me drop small stuff. Not reassuring, given I was expecting, after all… a small human. A friend said after her C-section she couldn’t feel her stomach for six months. Another, describing labour, quoted the Bible: a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Then one called to tell me she’d fractured her pelvis giving birth.
When the beautiful baby arrived, like Nosferatu, she didn’t sleep for three months. Meanwhile, I had two pairs of sweat pants I could squeeze into, and all of my patience was spent on her. For the first (and hopefully last) time, during an argument, I flung a book at my husband in rage. I was unrecognizable even to myself. ‘You are not the woman he married,’ I told myself, ashamed. When he didn’t say anything, I wondered if he’d thought it.
An amazing woman I met only last year has included me in her eclectic circle of girlfriends. These women plan to go out once a month and actually manage once in three. There are only two rules at these nights out: No talking about ‘the little people’ and no talking about ‘the husbands.’ The table shudders with laughter and stage whispers, universal conditions and individual experiences. One time, the conversation veered to the battle scars of birth and motherhood. Stress incontinence was a favourite. “I have to cross my legs when I sneeze.” “I used to have just one stream,” one of them drawled, “now I’m like an upside down lawn sprinkler.”
You meet women who get knocked up, then have to sing the rest of the Chumbawumba song while reorganizing their bodies, priorities, logistics. We learn to balance a baby on the hip with one hand and use the mascara wand or camera with the other; we research and write from behind a soft, sweet smelling head, batting a chubby hand away from the keyboard. We stay up all night managing urgent PPTs and febrile toddlers. We participate in conference calls, puppet faces drawn on our toes. We don’t let anyone see us cry when we leave the children wailing at day care. We resuscitate our careers and our algebra skills; we re-imagine our personal ambitions; we wonder if we’ll ever wear our bikinis again.
Science is only just documenting all the changes, seen and unseen, that mothers have endured. We have altered and grown. The proactive and reactive shape-shifting we must accomplish everyday — from tiger-moms to mother bears, screaming banshees to safe-harbours, jittery helicopters to omniscient motherships – becomes a source of unspoken strength and, dare I say it, pride.
We are not and never will be again the women we once were, but it’s not the loss it may sound. For, if the microchimerism is anything to go by, we actually contain multitudes.