When our visas came in the mail, I laughed. I look like a double agent in this picture, I told my husband. Nobody mess with this girl.
We both knew the real story: standing before the French consulate cameras, I was nursing my son. That white stripe on the right side—that’s my nursing cover. Underneath, I’m holding a boy who’s getting heavier by the day. And I’m feeding him, as I’ve practiced every few hours since he was born.
I’m used to my son being an extension of my body, pressing his face against my skin and curling his long legs around my torso. When the visa process required fingerprints and a photo, I stood up, baby and all, and did what needed to be done. Because I’m a mom, and that’s what we do.
It wasn’t until I got my visa in the mail that I saw how fierce I looked doing it.
As Mother’s Day rolled around, I realized why that fierceness surprised me. The day was inundated with flowers, cupcakes, and images of nurturing mothers. Now that I am one, it struck me as strange that this has become our cultural story of motherhood: all sweetness and quiet martyrdom, no grit or wildness.
Because any mama will tell you, it’s not just rainbows and butterflies and kissing scraped knees like a bandaid commercial. It’s blood, sweat, tears, and all sorts of other bodily fluids.
It takes more than sweetness to do this work.
It takes strength. All the stock photos of nursing mothers look so docile, but let my visa photo be a testament: there’s nothing weak about breastfeeding. My son and I endured weeks of difficult, painful nursing before we got it right, and even now I regularly feed him until my arm goes numb. It takes endurance to nourish a baby, not to mention the physical strain of growing, birthing, carrying, and one day running after him. Motherhood should be an Olympic sport.
It takes calculation. I’m not a numbers person, but at any given moment I could tell you when my son last ate, how long he nursed, and when he’s going to be hungry again. If we have a scheduled event, I plan for it all day long, coaxing him into an eating/sleeping pattern that’ll mean a happy, well-fed baby during that time. It’s futile, of course, because babies change schedules like they change diapers. But I do the math anyway.
It takes research. Just today, I’ve poured over reviews of teethers, researched what sunscreens are safe for infants, and read the latest advice from my favorite breastfeeding website. Some parts of motherhood are instinctual, but for everything else (and that’s plenty), there’s Google and an army of mothers who’ve gone before. For my sanity and my son’s wellbeing, I pursue all the wisdom I can get.
It takes intelligence. Having a baby is like learning a new language. You decode their noises, expressions, and gestures, trying to figure out what they need. And as soon as you figure it out, the dialect changes. But you’re so crazy in love with your little puzzle of a baby that you solve it again and again. I could recognize my son’s cry in a room full of babies, not just because we’re biologically attached, but because I’ve made myself an expert on him.
It takes persistence. More than anything, motherhood takes a fierce, stubborn persistence. When my son was born, the mama bear in me came out full force, making me intensely protective and relentlessly devoted. Nothing could keep me from caring for him the way I wanted to—no setbacks, no exhaustion, and certainly not other people’s opinions.
Motherhood hasn’t softened me, it’s made fierce, smart, confident, and strong. It’s sharpened my skills more than any university and challenged me more than any job. Though our culture may paint it as one-dimensional, as we often do with feminine roles, we mamas know that motherhood is a complex beast. When the world gives us flowers and cupcakes, we know that we could have earned six figures with all the work we’ve done.
When the world sees a sweet mother quietly nursing her son, we see the fire in her eyes.