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Life Notes: Becoming A Mother
It’s not necessarily the day you give birth
By Sally Friedman

Strangely, I can pinpoint with precision the day I really understood what it meant to be a mother. It was November 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. 

Some of you may not have been born yet, but those of us who were on planet Earth will probably remember that day forever. 

I was a new mother in 1963, and on that momentous day two of my college friends had visited for lunch. We were still far closer to our college days than to our adult lives as we giggled and remembered.  

We almost didn’t hear the doorbell ringing, and when I got to the door, there was Rose, our wonderful next-door-neighbor standing there, ashen.  

“Are you watching TV?” Rose asked. I barely got out my “no” when she blurted, “They shot the President!” 

Before I even knew what I was doing, I was racing up the steps. I’d heard enough to know the world had gone mad, and I was gripped by what probably qualifies as maternal instinct – a new reflex to protect my young. This adored baby.   

In that instant, I crossed the line from one life to another. 

Jill was only 10 months old. And I was her mother. That word, so powerful, meant I had to keep her safe, watch over her, protect her. 

I scooped Jill up from her crib. She was stunned and started screaming. Somehow, I got her down the steps safely, and only then did I realize I was no longer Sally the college coed. I was somebody’s mother. 

There would be so many other moments like that one. Moments nobody ever told me I would feel. And even if they had, I wouldn’t have understood.          

Motherhood is something so powerful, so all-encompassing, so life-altering, it’s far easier felt than explained. How can anybody really explain that just as a baby is born, so is a mother. Mothers, it’s said, grow a second heart, one that rules. 

I know when you see your child in real or perceived danger, the lioness in you bursts forth, and you’re suddenly all power and might, like those people who somehow lift cars or swim against the most furious current.  

Nobody ever told me that when I became a mother, I would also feel raw rage when a child of mine came home sobbing because some kid gave her an emotional punch. Nor did I expect to feel boundless joy when that same child learned to handle those symbolic punches. 

Until I added “mother” to my identity, I thought I knew what sacrifice meant. But I didn’t. I have struggled and suffered and sobbed about a child’s travails. I have lost years of sleep over their issues and problems and crises. 

I have soared with them over life’s blessings, and have wanted to say “I’m sorry” and “I love you” 10 million times after I have behaved badly or misunderstood a daughter. 

In the push-pull of home and work – that eternal tug of war – I sometimes have won and often have lost. And now I watch my own daughters, all mothers, going through that. I can’t really help them find their way, as much as I so desperately want to. But I can tell them this with certainty: a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. 

I’ve been there. 

And now I know for sure that, as they say of the Peace Corps, motherhood is probably the hardest job…you’ll ever love. 

May 2018
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