By Jillayna Adamson
First, the wrecking.
For months, my hair would come out in clumps. Gobs, pulling out in my fingers while gathering it into a ponytail, or brushing it out of my face. In the shower, the gobs were bigger, and as I rinsed the conditioner I would gather my broken hair onto the side of the tub to throw it in the trash can. In my palm, a mass, wadded and shocking.
16 months later, every single day when I strip my clothes, I am shocked at my body. If I lower myself into the tub, I get flashes of those months I was so immobilized in it, barely able to wash myself. Flashes of the huge round of my bulging belly. Of the weakness of my whole body, my legs hardly able to carry me. And I still see the endless needle marks and swells all down me. Bruised veins from the IVs. My pump hanging over the tub, its tube a trail to my bruised and scarring thigh. “I don’t like needles” my son would say, watching me reinsert the tubes every two days, tracing my body for untapped skin not scabbed or knotted with scar tissue, to insert.
Now, my hair isn’t coming out in clumps. Instead, it breaks like straw. Over one half of my forehead, you’d swear I went scissor crazy and started for bangs and changed my mind mid-forehead. And so I moved my part, dividing my hair down the middle to hide the long patch of short jagged hair. At my part, it is brittle with scattered short patches. And underneath, it’s all broken off. It coils into curls under my long blond waves that stretch half down my back. Perhaps a person wouldn’t notice, but I do. Every day it dictates how I am no longer able to wear it, and the careful ways I have to keep all the broken parts in some semblance of order.
It reminds me every day that I am in shambles.
The great bulge of my belly is gone. It’s now walking around with my same curls, wreaking general (though adorable) havoc. And my stomach has a sag of wrinkles below my belly button. A deflated balloon, extra skin bunching up in patches, slick white stretch marks now collapsed and synched. Again and again, I look in the mirror, or down at myself and I recognize a light alarm of disbelief through me. Throat shock, sinking down, down, down, to a pit in my stomach. This is me now, somehow.
I see it in the mirror, the now-lines on my face, the way the bags under my eyes have grown and darkened. How I look older, creased. And again, I feel those shambles. Not much the shambles of a great passage of time, which might feel more natural, but the tumbling shambles of experience. Of heavy living, in relatively short spans. Of getting wrecked.
You have done something amazing, they tell me. Your body has been through astronomical things—twice. You have survived grave illness twice over. I know these things. I say them too. They are true, yes. But I am still here in these shambles. Within the leftover rags of wars I somehow survived and yet don’t even feel close to out of.
Exhaustion exacerbates the shambles. There are almost always people on me. Grabbing at my body, laying atop me, cozying themselves into my nooks. Climbing, pulling, pushing. Rarely am I just there with my own autonomous self. The scarce self. There are days I can’t help but flinch at the hugs and grabs of my husband because he counts as one of these beings always situated on me, or pressed close, or pulling for a kiss. The dog too. And I wonder why. Why do they all come to me? At me? On me? My body, my autonomous self so far from my own. We all live here. It’s all of ours. And the times it’s just my own, I’m scarcely awake.
But I do love these people. These grabby, needy people that ask for all of me. I love them endlessly and consumingly. But I wonder, where have I gone?
This mothering thing, it is all of you. A disappearing act. In the gain of that love, you can feel an overwhelmingly exhausting and hollow loss.
This wasn’t in the parenting books. My mum never mentioned it, nor did I ever suspect it. It occurred to me one morning, after reheating my coffee for the tenth time, that as a child it never crossed my mind that parenting—that motherhood, specifically—would be hard. Would be difficult, exhausting, depressing, depleting. I carried around my sweet, rose-skinned dolls, and swaddled them up and pushed plastic bottles to their lips without ever once considering any possible unpleasantries within it. I played house, and mothering—I always wanted 12. I was a nurturer, a lover of kids. Never once did I look up at my mum and think is all of this hard? The three kids? Three! That are always hungry, and wanting more, or complaining or fighting, or having meltdowns. Do you know where you are? I never wondered if my mother knew where she was, if she lost herself or sought herself out. And now, she comes and she visits, and she scrubs at the crust on my stove I’ll never get to, and spoons yogurt to the baby while the boy runs in loud, fanatical circles around her, and she says, “You forget. I don’t know how I did it all.” And she doesn’t blame me for being in bed by 8:30 and she says, “It gets easier”. But I can’t help but think it should have crossed my mind, as I cradled my waterbabies, or made my mum lay with me at night until I fell asleep, my little hands gripping at her arm.
I told my 6 year old son the next day, after a regretful argument. I had yelled at him—I never yelled. I hated yelling. But I had lost it, my patience had cracked. And so I told him. “It is hard, you know, being a mom.” And from the back seat of the car, he was perplexed. I watched his eyebrows furrow in the rearview mirror. He was so young, so small looking sitting in his booster. “I love you and your sister more than anything, but sometimes I make mistakes. Because sometimes being a mom is exhausting and difficult. It is a lot of work.”
“I didn’t know that” he said. “Why?”
“Well,” I answered carefully, not wanting him to misunderstand that this didn’t mean I didn’t love him, nor love being a mother. “It never shuts off or stops. Moms worry, moms do all the little things to take care of you all the time. It’s a whole lot of little things. Big things too. There aren’t breaks from it. There aren’t clear cut answers to everything. There isn’t time to do a lot of things we like to do for ourselves.”
He is quiet for a moment, taking it in. Then he nods. “I just thought you get to play like all the time. Plus grownups get to do whatever they want.” He puts his arms out, hands flexed like it’s a question he sees a different answer to.
When I gave up my business and we moved out of state away from family and friends, it came up most starkly. I was playing the role one hundred percent. The glue. Making the best choice for the marriage, the family. Sacrificing the elements of me—that’s what this so often was, wasn’t it?
But there, in the beautiful sun and the palm trees, in a town I knew no one and had nothing, I was just a mother and a wife. Just the glue, with no independent self. Day in and day out, the shambles of me so apparent. I felt like nothing. Like the great erasing had taken hold.
My body showed it. Cracking, breaking, creasing. The wrecking.
Enmeshed in love and devotion but also stripped and also wrecked. Highlighting Japanese Folklore about the Crane Wife, CJ Hauser wrote for the Paris Review, “ to keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps, she plucks out all of her feathers one by one”. I read this, and I think, yes.
First the wrecking, then the erasing. We all live here now, this body and self isn’t just me.
I push my partner away (No, I don’t want you to join me in the shower, I want literally 15 minutes without another human on or near me, thank you!), I sigh at the dog’s eyes following and beating into me constantly (Really, you too?). At the baby, holding my legs in screams as I try to make dinner, my son, asking for the 18th time if dinner is ready yet and lamenting that he will starve as he wraps himself around my waist. Not because of a lack of love or devotion. But because of depletion. Because of the tightness atop me, of the energy it takes to take a breath. There is no getting your oxygen mask on first in all of this—there isn’t. It’s a nice thought, and it’s true health-wise, sure! But it isn’t realistic. It is goddamn unattainable. It is a laugh, and every mother knows it. We, by our very nature, will scramble like hell for that mask at the final moment for ourselves because we are fucking busy and we are relied on and even when we want to take care of ourselves first, we don’t know how. The world is on top of us and screaming at us and for us, and until it stops, until we can simmer it, there is no breath, no mask. Try and tell me that we can’t help until we can first breathe, and you’d be wrong. I’d tell you, you don’t know mothers.
My hand travels mindlessly up to my broken chunks of hair often. Twirls their short coils. My hair has changed. It’s no longer its familiar texture, no longer thick. Sometimes my hands run through it again and again, feeling the frame the breaks made around my face. As if searching for familiarity, as if getting to know this new wrecked self.
My breasts, the soft stretching skin of my stomach. My body half nourishment, half playhouse and home for grabbing, poking, squishing. And it’s the same on the inside. The reflection is right, it is truth.
For centuries, folklore, literature and history has shown us just how love allows humans to leave ourselves for others, to neglect and deplete, but to somehow carry on, shells intact, some semblance of strength we can’t quite find the source of. And mothers are the queens of wrecked selves who soldier on, who pause in the mirror, who stare a moment longer in the bath. But don’t get to dwell a second longer than that. It’s in the background, there isn’t much noticing in it, nor heroic championing. It’s just the bare bones of motherhood. Not the main character, scarcely explored nor marveled at. I think back to mothers across cultures and time and history—mothers who have fared true hardship I could never fathom—mothers whose stories haven’t been told because they never had a moment unneeded to do so, and because these are just the things mothers do. Their sheer devotion, survival, their pain and isolation, the stripping of their selves. And why mothers have held onto this so quietly, so careful not to let their children or those around them know that this is hard, I don’t know. The core, the basic structure of motherhood is careful knives carving folds into our bodies for our littles, chipping at pieces of ourselves we’ll sew onto them. Becoming a house, a home, the food, the love, and the catcher of tears, the holder and fixer of little hearts. Allowing for, inviting the wrecking, the erasing. Our bodies and selves, the background noise, the unnoticed shell for piling into. What we become, so far beyond ourselves, a place for us all.
Jillayna Adamson is a mother, psychotherapist, writer and photographer– and can often be found wondering how just to fit all those pieces together. She is passionate about all things people and culture, and explores this through writing and photography.
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