I would like to dedicate this post to all of the women who have so bravely contacted me with their own stories of struggling with motherhood, from trying (and failing) to conceive, to wondering when to stop breastfeeding, to how to discipline a toddler.  You are my heroes.  My heroines.  My online community.  I appreciate you more than you know.

It was Mother’s Day, 2011, and I had just received a card in the mail.  “Happy Mother’s Day! We love you!” It was signed by my mother-in-law, and included a $50 gift card to a clothing store that I liked.  I cried when I opened it.  We were just about to hit the one-year mark of trying to have a child, and six months of using fertility treatments.  In less than a month, we were going to have our first artificial insemination.  We were already having long, serious conversations about what kinds of budgeting we’d have to do to afford the rounds of IVF we were certain were in our very near future.  I wasn’t a mother.  And I had very real fears that I never would be.

And then, she sent me this card.

My husband tried to explain to me.  “She feels as though Mother’s Day is for every woman.  She probably sent you a card last year too.  You just didn’t notice it then.”

“No. Mother’s Day is for mothers.  I’m not a mother.  I do nothing but talk about how much I want to be a mother, and then she sends me a card??  How could she do something like this?”

My mother-in-law has always been known by her incredible kindness and generosity, so nobody believed for a second that the gesture was done out of malice, but I felt as though that card was mocking me, my lazy ovaries, my husband’s sperm count, all the months of planned sex on a schedule, without joy, spontaneity, excitement, or lust.  It mocked the months of the negative blood work, the marital fights, the hormonal tears, and the silent rage and jealousy as I watched the budding families around us.  For Christ’s sake!  It’s called Mother’s Day!  How could it be for “all” women??

Then, our IUI worked, and I became a Mother.

And I realized.

Mother’s Day is for all women.


I knew that I was a Mother when my daughter was four days old.  It was our second night home from the hospital.  I was giving Honest Girl her long, nighttime feeding (it was about ten o’clock at night).  My husband, who helped to hold her hands down so she could get a good latch, had been unceremoniously kicked out a few minutes earlier, as his presence, his pained face, just reminded me how difficult breastfeeding was turning out to be. (She didn’t know what to do with her hands during those first few weeks.  She’d end up swatting and pinching my already tender breasts, and accidentally pulling and pushing the nipple away from her mouth at critical times.  My husband would have to gently push her hands down by her sides, let me get her latched, then release her so she could squeeze and pump the milk into her mouth.  But he often had to stick around, because she would lose control again, yanking and pulling at the skin, leaning back with my nipple still in her mouth, while I winced in pain with every strong pull.  Those first few weeks could not have been easy for him to see.  Her initial gulps of milk combined with my rushing let-down would elicit a pain so intense, my toes would curl.)  Those first few days, she would suck on the colostrum for an hour at a time, leaving us both exhausted by the effort (but also encouraging my milk supply to come in, fast and heavy, after just two days).  My family wanted to help, to keep me company, to encourage me, but I wanted to be left alone.  Aching, tired, filthy from not having showered, I was covered in fluids both foreign and domestic, and I didn’t have the energy or the patience to hear the chipper, “It’s just hard these first few weeks!  You’ll get it!  You’re doing great!”   I rocked her and fed her, every now and then calling in Honest Dad to come give me a hand.

After almost an hour, she leaned back, milk-drunk and happy, and I started burping her.  She gave a good belch.  I looked, frozen, at the burp cloth on my lap.

It was full of blood.  My little girl had spat up blood.

I started screaming.  I yelled for my husband, for my parents.  I asked them to look at the burp cloth.  I needed other eyes to see what I was seeing, to confirm that this horror was real.  Please, let me be asleep on the rocking chair.  Please, let this be a nightmare.  My husband and mother tried to calm me down.  Yes, they saw the blood. Yes, that really was blood.  Maybe we should call the pediatric nurse and see what she has to say?

I began to panic.  My child. My child. My child. Please.  Please please please please.

I pulled out my cell phone, where I had already programmed the number for the pediatrician.  But I couldn’t speak.  The air wasn’t going down into my body.  It would only fill my mouth before rushing out again.  My only memories of that night are tinged in yellow, like someone had dimmed all the lights in the house and left things illuminated by candlelight.  The nurse asked me to spell my daughter’s name, and I forgot how to.  On auto-pilot, I started to spell my own name, before getting confused halfway through and spelling my husband’s.  She asked me to spell her name again, explaining that she needed to find her chart information.  Her voice was concerned, but she was obviously losing patience with me.  There was a baby in potential distress, and I was wasting precious time.  I could only gasp, “Please, she’s only four days old.  She’s four days old.”  I handed the phone to my mother.

I hadn’t let go of my daughter this whole time.  My husband was pleading with me to let him hold her, so he could check her.  He wouldn’t leave my sight.  I could be right here.  Please, Rachel, just let me see her.  I just shook my head, my face buried in her dark, long hair.  I tried to smell her head, to fill myself with that comforting, new baby smell.  But my head was reeling by this time, and I only remember squeezing her, closer and closer, as though I could physically pull whatever was wrong with her into my body through some sort of mother-child osmosis.  Whatever it is, I’ll take it.  Put it into me.  Leave her alone.  Just leave her alone.  Give it to me.  Whatever it is.

My mother was gently tugging on my arm.

“She wants us to check on her, to see if she’s distressed or in pain.”

I nodded, and pulled my daughter away from my shoulder, so we could all look down at her.  Her entire body fit in the crook of my forearm, her head resting in my palm.  She looked at me, calm, relaxed.  Her grey-blue eyes—eyes the color of well-worn denim, eyes like your favorite pair of blue jeans—blinked sleepily as she studied the worried, frantic faces around her.  It was the same look she gave me after she was born.  It was a look that said, “I don’t know who you are.  But I know you.  And I trust you.  I believe that you will try your hardest.  That’s all I need from you.  To try.  And I’ll try too.  That’s a deal we’ll make together.  I don’t know who you are.  But I know you.  I really do.”

My husband smiled, rubbing me on the back.  “Look, baby.  She’s fine.  She’s totally fine.”

The nurse asked me to pull down my shirt and check my own nipples.  Still holding my daughter, I unclipped my nursing tank and exposed my breasts.  There, on my right nipple, was a small cut that was slowly seeping blood.  A few bright red drops were already drying on my grey tank top.  I hazily remember Honest Girl jerking back on that side, her strong jaws still tightly clenched on my breast.  My chapped nipple had broken under the pressure.  Just a little.  But it was enough for her strong sucking reflexes to pull out what looked to me at the time to be a mountain of blood.  Then, when she was finished eating, her little body had rejected it.  She threw it back up.  It was my blood.  Mine.  She was okay.

I’m certain that I had been crying prior to that moment, but that’s when I remember sobbing, shaking my entire body with large, catching breaths that made me feel dizzy from the sudden inrush of oxygen.  My husband took our daughter from my arms, and I collapsed onto my mother’s chest, her familiar softness and scent wrapping around me, as she laughed in nervous relief.  Somehow, my dad had gotten the phone from my mother, and he and my husband continued to speak to the nurse, checking on my tiny baby, confirming that she was, in fact, fine, and promising to keep an eye on her for the next several hours.  I’m certain the nurse could hear their smiles through the phone line, and she asked them to give me a hug from her.  She was once a new mother too.  She understood.

It had to be close to 2am before any of us actually fell asleep (which, for a newborn, was like a dream come true.  Honest Girl felt like it was a party just for her as we all hovered and cooed over her).  I stayed awake all night, watching her breathe in her sleep, and thinking about what had just happened.  In one of the most dramatic ways possible, I realized that I was now a Mother.  I became a Mother that night, after I realized, completely and fully, that my love was greater than myself.  When I swore to whatever higher power may have been listening that I would gladly take whatever was wrong with my daughter, that I would gladly give my life for hers, it wasn’t some lip-service bargaining tool that I may have uttered before in a moment of weakness and panic.  It was genuine.  I would and will give everything that I have—everything—for this other human being.  For somebody outside of myself.  That was it.  That was the moment that solidified it for me.

Before, I had just had a child.  Now, I was a Mom.


A  Mother isn’t a woman who carries a child in her womb for nine months (give or take).  She isn’t a woman who chooses to have biological children.  She isn’t a woman who cares for babies.  She isn’t a woman who necessarily even knows those who will become her children until they are older, well advanced in age, perhaps with spouses and families of their own.  She isn’t a woman who gets to see her children grow up, or even be born.  She isn’t even a woman who has the physical capability of personal conception.  A Mother is any woman who knows the strength of her own love.  A Mother cares for a person outside of herself, not out of a sense of obligation, but because something primal and undefined within her refuses to let her feel anything other than the most incredible, soul-uplifting love.

Other people may call it a “sacrifice,” but Mothers know that it isn’t.  It doesn’t feel that way.  Not ever.

For a year now, ever since my daughter started eating solid foods, I haven’t finished a single meal.  I’ve shared everything that I’ve eaten with her, and I noticed the other day, while we were splitting a fillet of fish, that I only give her the good, flaky bites from the middle.  I was eating all the burnt ends, the hard, thin, overcooked pieces (I’m not that great at cooking fish).  Though logically I knew that I could put any piece of fish into her mouth and she’d eat it, if only because it was “grown-up food” (or, more specifically, “Mama’s food”), I continued to give her the good, buttery middle pieces.  It was my choice.  And I when I have a choice, I will always choose to give her the best.  I’m not sacrificing myself.  I’m not making myself suffer, or reducing my quality of life.  Rather, my quality of life would diminish if I didn’t give her the good piece of fish, or kiss her boo-boos, or comb the tangles out of her smooth, straight hair, or even offer up my life in exchange for hers.  That’s not a sacrifice.  Not to me.  That’s something else.  That’s being a Mother.


Since starting this blog, and speaking candidly about my own struggles with motherhood, infertility, breastfeeding, and incontinence, I have received numerous emails from women who feel comfortable enough in my honesty to share with me their own stories, their own heartaches.  I treasure those communications, even though many of them break my heart, and I hope that you don’t stop writing them, if only to give yourself a space to vent, to speak freely, knowing that you can find in me an open ear, an open mind, and a non-judgmental sounding board.  Several women have told me about their struggles to conceive, their fertility issues, and their fears that biological motherhood will be a condition that will forever elude them.  To those women, I say, “Happy Mother’s Day.”  Because you are all already Mothers.  Because I know that you already feel the strength of your love for the children you are missing.  Because you understand already the power of the bonds you seek.  Because going through tests, treatments, embarrassing exams, having hormones shot into you, or thrown down your throat doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.  It’s not decreasing your quality of life, but increasing it, because it gives you hope for the physical realization of the love that you experience daily.  The love that is primal and undefined.  The love that refuses to be ignored.  The love of a Mother.

And for those of you who have reached the hard decision to stop the treatments, to live without children, or to move on to the (equally expensive and time-consuming) alternatives of adoption or surrogacy, I say, “Happy Mother’s Day” to you as well.  Because your love hasn’t disappeared with the removal of the laboratory or the doctor.  I don’t know who you are.  But I know you.  I know that the love you have within you, reserved for your children, can’t be contained to just yourself.  You love.  You love others with a capacity that shocks and amazes.  Spouses, significant others, nieces, nephews, friends’ children, parents, grandparents, siblings, the “family” that you create by choice, all of these people know the depth and breadth of your love and caring.  Even if your own acute pain and sense of loss means it takes you a little while longer to congratulate a friend on another happy addition to her family, I know that your love eventually triumphs over everything else.  And that’s what it means to be a Mother.  Sometimes our love hurts, but it is always love, notwithstanding.


So, my mother-in-law was right.  Mother’s Day is for all women.  Because (though I know that my own experiences are myopic, narrow, and limited) I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t shown the love of a Mother.  Who hasn’t stayed awake all night, hovering and cooing over the thing she adores more than her own life.  Who hasn’t gladly offered the best bite of fish.  Who hasn’t made the sacrifice that isn’t a sacrifice.  Who hasn’t made that genuine and real promise to give up everything for the sake of the life before her.

I don’t know who you are.  But I know you.  I really do.  You are a Mother.

Happy Mother’s Day.


For a great article on the “Dos and Don’ts” of talking about infertility, please check out Dreaming of Dimples: Infertility Etiquette.  While we were struggling with fertility, my husband and I heard all of these well-intentioned (but ultimately hurtful) comments on a regular basis, and I wish that I had known then how to redirect the conversation away from my own sense of emptiness, even while I couldn’t stop talking about wanting and missing the baby that we couldn’t have.