The WE is as important as the ME

We have existential conversations about God, faith, outward signs of piety, inner conversions, and the struggle to find truth in a polarised world.

Mar 10, 2023

I confess the hardest part of being a Catholic, for me, was the mandate that marriage meant procreation. As a kid, while other girls my age were marrying their Barbies to Ken, (polygamous fella that he was, he had multiple wives, being the only male doll), I was too busy lining up my stuffed animal menagerie by zoological classification.

While teenage girls antagonised about being asked out, or not, I was too busy learning the guitar chords to Stairway To Heaven, and trying to pitch my voice to Nancy Wilson of the rock band, Heart. I was not overly fussed to have had my first kiss only when I was in Form 4, nor was I bothered about pairing off with any of the boys in my coed school. In my opinion, boys made better friends because they didn’t go on and on about having to lose weight!

It therefore came as a bit of a surprise (both to me and my friends) that I got married at the age of 31. I had hoped my weight and age would have made it harder for me to get pregnant, but without much effort, one year into marriage, I had conceived. And let me tell you, the best part of that was feeling it was my right to have a burger at 2.00am because hey, I was pregnant.

Apart from the medical aspect of it – was the foetus growing on track, was a heartbeat present – I had minimal maternal urges. In fact, it was my mother-in-law who was the excited one. I came back one day from work to be presented with a completely assembled nursery for the expected baby! I wasn’t bothered about a nursery colour, or matching crib bumpers. I just wanted a healthy baby, gender notwithstanding.

Pregnancy-induced diabetes and pre-eclampsia necessitated a caesarean. For me, I was relieved I didn’t pay for Lamaze classes only to have to be sliced open. The postepidural experience was possibly one of the worst things I have ever experienced in my life. A reaction to the numbing drug left me shaking and teeth-chattering for hours, while my surgical incision burned with the wrath of a fallen angel.

I wanted to attribute my lack of maternal instinct to the fact I was forced to deliver two weeks early. Unstimulated by contractions and a natural delivery, my body refused to lactate, necessitating the use of a breast pump to try to extract the few drips of precious colostrum for the baby who just would not latch on to my grudging breasts.

I did not know it then, but I probably suffered from terrible but undiagnosed postpartum depression. I would wake in the night, believing the baby was crying, only to find her asleep. But anticipating her waking and crying made it impossible for me to sleep peacefully, so I would spend the nights in dry-eyed wakefulness, just waiting for the time a wail would send me scurrying to make a bottle of formula.

Everything about motherhood was a chore for me. There were very few moments of that beatific peace one sees in the Madonnas painted with the child Jesus. I came to realise then that having a child does not make one a mother. Carrying a child in one’s womb for nine months does not assure a smooth transition to motherhood.

Motherhood to me was aggravating, perplexing and a downright inconvenience. I remember ringing my late granduncle, Fr Ignatius Huan, one night, sobbing in frustration, and demanding answers to why God gave me a child but not the ability to cope with, and delight in, her. His answer was, “Sometimes God tests us to show us what we lack.”

The baby turns 15 this year. I still struggle with patience, tenacity, gentleness and motherliness. I make a better business owner than I do a mother, and my executive decisions come more astutely than my motherly ones. Yet, at an age where teens shy away from contact with their parents, mine still wants to come on holiday with me, and looks forward to little café dates together. Some nights, the teen comes into my room to cuddle and she tells me she wants to live with me until she is ‘old’. When I tease her that I will probably be dead when she is old, she chastises me, and tells me she will always need me.

We have existential conversations about God, faith, outward signs of piety, inner conversions, and the struggle to find truth in a polarised world. I have told her of my continuing struggles with motherhood, and the new responsibilities of parenting a teenager, being very careful not to blame her for any of it. My inability to be a goo-goo-gaga mummy has given way to my ability to be the cool mother, who allows, nay, insists her friends come to our house to hang out, instead of loitering in malls and spending their allowances on inordinately expensive coffee.

What happened? I don’t know. Maybe my relationship with my progeny is illustrative of the times and seasons all lives need to go through. Perhaps it’s because I continued to hang on to the belief that “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9) because there was nothing else that I could do.

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action.)

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