An Ambivalent Mother’s Journey to Motherhood

woman in pink flowery shirt holding her pregnant belly with ambivalent expression on her face

When I was seven years old, I built fairy camps out of sticks, stones, and moss in my grandparent’s back yard. I would set a single place setting at the little campfire and build one clover-soft cot for sleeping under a tent of twigs.

Abstract and magical image of Firefly flying in the night forest. Fairy tale concept

My daydreams often involved running away from home and living in the woods as a hermit who wore graying K-Swiss tennis shoes. I would wander for hours watching the sun cast shadows on the ground.

When I was bored of that, I would lie still in giant leaf piles pretending it was my funeral pyre.

It might come as quite a shock to that solitary little girl to see herself at 31– long since married with her first child on the way. 

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I Never Longed To Be a Mother

As you can guess, I was not the type of girl who longed for domesticity.

Instead, I built my life around the things I loved – helping others, scientific study, and travel.

After finishing graduate school, I found work as a data analyst before landing my dream job as an epidemiologist. Every day, I talked to people about their recent illnesses, collecting valuable information while giving them a space to reflect upon sometimes fairly traumatic experiences.

Outside of work, I traveled frequently with my husband, logging my thoughts in a personal blog, and nurturing my dream of a second career as a travel writer.

I was content, even happy.

Though becoming a mother always felt like a destination along this infinite path, I never felt ready to pursue it with the same tenacity as I had approached other aspects of my life.

I had no grasp on what motherhood would look like for me. Sometimes I would meditate on what it meant to be a mother.

“The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

With these words still ringing in my ears, I imagined motherhood as a type of martyrdom.

A noble sacrifice made for the sake of another.

Other days, I would scroll through Facebook, wrinkling my nose at pictures of women with their perfect families. I imagined motherhood as a selfish act, a chance to impress your ideas and values onto the world like a seal in cooling wax.

Or Perhaps “Mother” Is A Verb

On the days I wasn’t being self-righteous or cynical, I came to the conclusion that “Mother” is less a title and more an action word with immeasurable definitions.

A Mother is enfolding you in their arms to give you comfort. A Mother is making you laugh when you think that despair is going to overwhelm you. Finally, a Mother is listening to you without judgment.

I was already doing all of these things for my friends, my family, and my coworkers.

In fact, I had been doing all of these things my entire life.

I was the mother figure that people didn’t even know they had, and I embraced the role as so many women before me. To me, I was a “bonus mother.”

What extra joy could come from mothering a child?

I have been lucky enough to have two extremely loving parents who never left me wanting for support and affection, but I also had a bonus mother,  my Aunt Jan (my father’s sister). 

Her bright and boisterous personality flourished in a family whose favorite pastime is talking over each other. Her laughter could fill an entire room. My cousin (her son), was in college when my little sister and I were coming of age.

Aunt Jan showered us with the love of a mother and the sage advice of a woman who had traveled the country and weathered two divorces. The day I fell face first into a massive mud hole, I squished and squashed my way over to my Aunt’s house as a dripping refugee, rather than face my mother’s frustration and annoyance.  

Feet in mud close-up

She is my bonus mother, and her love has carried me as a warm, persistent breeze into my adulthood. 

My Ambivalence Toward Motherhood

My ambivalence towards being a mother came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when I found out I was pregnant with my first child.

Feelings of joy and anticipation consumed my waking hours, and not knowing any better, I allowed my heart to wander freely into the distant future where I would hold my baby in my arms.

These rose-colored daydreams did not last long.

Just four short weeks later, I was diagnosed with a blighted ovum.

There was no baby inside of me at all… just a dark, empty space. This is called a blighted ovum, which you can read more about in Katy’s recurrent miscarriage story.

As I watched the image of my pinched uterus bobble around on the ultrasound monitor, it was like a rift had opened up inside me. I was completely blindsided by heartache, and I was angry with myself for wanting to be a biological mother so badly after so many years of indifference.

It took almost two years for me to come to terms with the loss of my pregnancy, and another still to fully understand how it had shaped my emotional life.

I questioned everything about what I believed about motherhood.

If I was so content as a bonus mother to all the people I love, why was I also so deeply wounded by not being able to have my own child?

Is my love for my newborn nephew not as valid, not as essential as the love I might have for a newborn baby that looks just like me?

I found the best method for coping with these opposing ideas was to listen to other mothers like Katy or my friend Sarah and to allow their words to frame my half-formed thoughts.

Learning to Accept Grief

Reading Katy’s article about helping a friend through a miscarriage by validating their grief brought me to tears.

I struggled with how difficult it was to say goodbye so openly to a person I did not and will never know. Then I cowered at the prospect that my tears outweighed the true burden of my sorrow and that I would be judged harshly for not being grateful for everything else I had in abundance.

I have come to accept that the reasons for my grief are entirely my own.

I don’t owe an explanation to anyone, even myself, for the ways in which my mother’s heart can be so full of joy at the prospect of serving others and yet mourn the opportunity to serve just one.


Having finally found some acceptance and closure, I had the energy I needed to give freely of my time and my talents again.

I started volunteering at the Historic Oakland Cemetery, where I get the chance to meet people from all over the world and tell them why I love Atlanta.

Hoping to spend more money on my family and friends,  I changed my spending habits through a year of no shopping challenge.  

In an effort to better share the health benefits of a yoga practice with my loved ones and coworkers, I registered to become an RYT-200 level yoga instructor at Ebb and Flow studio in Loganville, Georgia.

I made countless visits to see my new nephew Asa, ordering take-out for his starving parents and delighting in every new word or skill he mastered. 

I helped our best friends move into their new home and gained “big running hug” status with their oldest daughter.

Needless to say, I had my bonus mother groove back.

Moving Forward, No Longer Completely Ambivalent

Again, I was content, even happy.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, my sweet life as a bonus mother was not long for this world. In October 2018, I received a call from my husband telling me his beloved grandmother, Pao Pao, had passed away.

Though it seems strange, the instant he told me, I decided to go home and take a pregnancy test.

I have always loved the poetry of life and death, and I feel strongly that there are forces binding us, mystical and unseen. I wondered if this was a sign that a new door was opening.

With the aloofness of someone who had seen so many negative pregnancy tests before, I eye-droppered my pee in the little white well and sat on the toilet across the room trying not to stare at it.

Minutes later, a faint pink line appeared.

Finding out I was pregnant the second time was different. I had ridden this rollercoaster before, and I was not ready to hop on again. Though I felt more prepared emotionally for whatever might happen, there was still a lot of unknown territory to cover.

Pregnancy Anxiety After Miscarriage

The day of my second ultrasound, my husband and I were backing out of the driveway. The tires made a slick and crinkly sound over damp fallen leaves. He was recounting our previous doctor’s visit and the series of mishaps that almost made us late.  His voice was matter of fact, but he sounded far away.

I felt a painful stiffness rising up from my stomach into my chest. My breath felt ragged and loose in my lungs. Something in me was failing. My eyes began to tear, not from sadness at first, but from the immense effort needed to keep the feeling from swallowing me whole.

I didn’t realize at the time I was having a panic attack triggered by thoughts of seeing the ultrasound screen. I discovered that day there was still some healing to be done.

It’s difficult to talk to other people about this pregnancy, including my family members.

Everyone is naturally happy and excited for me all the time. Sometimes I am happy, but many days, I am uncertain and cannot match their intensity. This is normal for pregnancy after miscarriage.

I Wonder About the Future of Motherhood

I wonder what it will be like to give so much of myself to this baby and to spend so little time with everyone else. I also wonder what my son will think if he ever reads these words.

I wonder if he will understand that his mother’s ambivalence toward being a mother is not the same as ambivalence towards him.

In fact, it is my heart’s desire that one day when he is grown we can lay buried in the sacred leaf piles of my childhood and shade our eyes with the canopy of pine needles.

I would build his little twig tent right next to mine. 

3 thoughts on “An Ambivalent Mother’s Journey to Motherhood

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I wouldn’t say I’m an ambivalent mother, but I do feel like an accidental mother. I turned 31 three weeks after my son was born and no one was more surprised by this turn of events than me. I’ve found that it gets easier. Three weeks, three months, six months, 12 months, 18 months…as I mark my son’s milestones, I notice I’m feeling more like my old self. Blessings from WI. -Kathy

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