The giant Pacific octopus devotes herself to her eggs for 53 months. That’s about four and a half years. She never leaves their side and she never eats. By the time they’re old enough to survive, she’s wasted away, literally giving her last pulse of energy to keep them alive. She loves them to death.
Moving away from the watery depths and onto dry land, if you throw a wet wipe into a crowd of moms on any given day, you’ll likely hit someone who feels a lot like that octopus. Being a mom is an endless act of self-sacrifice, which is exactly what I’d expected my own mom to reinforce when I asked for her thoughts on motherhood.
Surprisingly, my mama of three and granny of seven came from a different angle. She said that, from her perspective, motherhood is about breaching the unknown.
You gotta love the light that shines from the women who have gone before you.
Here’s what she meant.
Mothers are Courageous
Right from the get-go moms are required to make decisions we don’t necessarily have complete faith in. However, even though we’re peppered with self-doubt, we have to pick a direction and go forth, because that newborn can’t say whether they’re crying from hunger, fatigue, or wind. And they sure as hell can’t soothe themselves.
For new moms, that first year is fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. We face new challenges daily in our commitment to keeping our tiny, demanding and infinitely smooshy people alive. What’s more, the advice we get online and from well-meaning friends and relatives is generally contradictory, which means we can never be completely certain that what we’re doing is right.
This is how bravery is built: when we’re sleep deprived and emotional; when we’re scared and overcome. It can be tough to get a handle on our new life and the changes it brings, but moms still have to hit the ground running and put their own needs on the back burner.
That’s what moms do. We boldly go where we’ve never gone before. And it doesn’t end after the first year. As a humble level-three mama, with a two-year old son and a 6-month old daughter, I’m learning new things every day. Mostly that having two kids is whole other story.
I recently found out that I can catch a messy sneeze in my hand, clean vomit out of a car seat, and take a toddler on a plastic motorbike for a walk around the neighbourhood, all before morning snack.
Backtrack a few years and you wouldn’t catch me dead touching another person’s excretions, let alone supervising a feral child in the road.
More often than not it’s the moment that forces us to be brave. And all moms soon learn that we’re braver than we think.
Take a victory lap if you’ve ever flown on your own with a little one, had to do a grocery run with all the kids, keep your cool through a tantrum, take a child to hospital, or deal with a meltdown in a public space. The chances are that you put on your game face and powered through.
It’s what our moms did, and it’s what we do. And if you take a minute to think about it, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment. Especially when you’re exhausted, and running on coffee and Oatees.
Mothers are Adaptable
Upon further reflection, it seems that our similarities to the octopus don’t relate to her sacrificial devotion, because, let’s face it, we break for Netflix and snacks. Rather, we’re alike in that we too adapt and adjust to cope with each new challenge.
Where the great Pacific octopus uses her phenomenal physiology to change her skin texture and colour, us human moms use our wits and hearts to tackle whatever comes our way.
Moms dig deep in order to navigate the new territory we face each day. We soon learn how to be the person our children need us to be in any given situation, even when they don’t know that’s what they need.
In addition to the curve balls each new day brings, we discover that every child is different, and we have to be flexible in order to parent them the best way we can. While the son might respond best when he’s faced with losing a toy if he doesn’t pick up his blocks, the daughter might dig in her heels.
From discipline to eating habits, the only way to figure out what works is through trial and error, victory and tears. Then when the kids are in bed moms change gear once again, into partner mode.
That means we’re constantly shifting and recalibrating the way we speak, behave, and even think. And the impressive thing is that we don’t even realise that’s what we’re doing. It’s our mother instinct.
If you take a moment to think about it, you’ll see that you’ve developed some surprising new abilities. You can calm a screaming infant (most of the time), reason with a toddler (sometimes), feed a family (generally) and choose the right school (hopefully).
You discover ways to soothe your child’s heart when it’s been broken, how to stand back and watch them face consequences, and even how to breathe life into hopeless situations.
All the while at the back of your mind you’re thinking, “What if this doesn’t work? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m screwing up my kid?”
And it doesn’t end. With each new developmental milestone, a whole new landscape of decision-making, planning and multitasking comes to the fore. Just when you think you’ve got it under control your fragile orchestration is out the window.
The giant Pacific octopus has a tough 53 months of ceaseless, sacrificial devotion, but for all the human moms out there, we’re in it for a lot longer. From first steps to high school; from driving lessons to grandchildren, it never ends.
Happy Mothers Day, you incredible woman. You are inventive and strong and capable, and no one can do it like you!
Jen Verwoerd is a full-time mama, part-time writer and gifted ice-cream taster. She lives in Cape Town with her hubby and their two littles.