Exploring motherhood and meaningful play.
I just caught a wave for the first time in six months—the longest I’ve gone without seawater on my skin since I was an infant. It’s a sunny spring day, two months since the death-defying birth of my son. Little wavelets are crumbling down our local sand pointbreak, and I’m finally in the clear to exercise. As I paddle back out, extra pounds sink my familiar log in unfamiliar ways. After two decades of surfing, I’m back to balance checking and wobbling as my hands reacquaint themselves with the dip and pull of paddling.
Parallel to my eager joy, I’m sore and weak, and it occurs to me why so many people stop surfing after having babies. My paddling isn’t streamlined; my tight hamstrings make popping up more difficult than before. I momentarily lament having once felt strong and efficient in this space; I now feel like a terrestrial dairy mammal.
Still, I’m teary-eyed at the soft wash of waves over my skin, the interplay of sun and water. Waiting for another wave, I’m brimming with that beautiful paradox of surfing: at once winded and enlivened. I take a deep breath and start at the newly familiar sensation filling my chest: the milky let down. It’s an internal tingling, a sparkle-cascade of some miraculously conjured liquid that has transformed my preemie son into a rollie pollie of a baby. This wordless communication between our bodies has ruled my days and nights, weeks and months, since the moment he was born. Must be time to get back to him already.
I was never sure if parenthood was for me. Actually, I was pretty sure it wasn’t. Life up to pregnancy had been mostly self-serving, as your 20s can be, especially when your job description reads “surf rat.”
I’m the only child of a single parent. I love the quiet, abhor schedules and prefer hours in the ocean daily. Parenthood didn’t feel like the most natural choice. Plus, overpopulation. What kind of hypocritical environmentalist chooses to further overwhelm the planet with more humans to feed, clothe and shelter? I asked myself.
It took years for me to get past my American-educated notion of birth as a medical event—a country with the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. And the risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes is two to three times higher if you’re Black or brown. When I became pregnant, I had to work at reframing pregnancy and birthing as natural bodily processes. I found excellent resources in Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, the film The Business of Being Born and Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions.
Still, I had plenty of fears to manage. And so many questions. In no particular order: How will I manage motherhood and a professional surfing and writing life? Will I lose my sponsorship? Will there be time for creative exploration? Will I die—or want to die—from the searing pain of birth? Ultimately, would I hold more regret in birthing and raising a child, or in not birthing one?
Perhaps this is already obvious, but my sense of motherhood was predicated on loss and sacrifice, on handing over the keys to freedom and adventure. In my mind, motherhood implied martyrdom. I could envision what might be given up, but I lacked the imagination to understand the bigness of parenthood’s imperfect gifts.
As my 20s waned, I found that the fundamentalism of my “-isms” softened, like my eyesight now. I grew into more nuanced understandings of our looming environmental challenges and the fundamental role that systems play. As in, to blame overpopulation alone for the environmental crisis ignores systemic inequality and the uneven distribution and misuse of resources exemplified by those of us with privilege.
With a strong, loving and supportive partner by my side—one committed to real, egalitarian sharing of diaper blowouts and late-night baby cooing—I felt my biorhythms gradually change pace. I felt like traveling less, gardening more and developing deeper relationships with local waves and within the community that I’d moved into in Northern New South Wales, Australia.
About eight months later, I was pregnant. It was the hottest Australian summer in forever. I was seasick and sweaty, but excited. I surfed a bit during my first trimester, despite all-day queasiness. If Serena Williams could win the Grand Slam in her first trimester, then I should be fine sliding through mine, right? I enrolled in hypnobirthing classes and prepped for an orgasmic, sunflower-scented homebirth. Your body is made to do this mysterious magic of human making and birthing! I ingested.
But, I wasn’t cut out for the birthing bit.
I had placenta previa, the rare condition that meant that my placenta was blocking my cervix (the exit route), leaving no option but a C-section for delivery. Placenta previa usually resolves on its own, but mine didn’t, which meant months of bedrest until we either got to our due date or my body destabilized in hemorrhage.
The remaining four months of pregnancy became a kind of Zen retreat—stillness of mind and body. Driving in a car or laughing too eagerly would trigger contractions. Hours dragged by as I grappled with the fact that my feeble human mind had no role in the magic of cells dividing and subdividing. I had no control, only choices in how I responded to the presence of discomfort, pain and fear in my body.
Without my finely honed toolbox of physical coping mechanisms developed over a lifetime—surfing, swimming, yoga or even walking farther than the length of our house for that matter—I was invited to push beyond my known capacities in so many ways: sleep, pain, discomfort, mental fortitude.
I got to contend with many of my pregnancy fears headfirst, from unexplained bleeding to long nights in the hospital listening to the blood-pressure-spiking sound of a fetal heart monitor and, eventually, an emergency C-section. Then a mandatory three weeks in a special care nursery with our premature little guy as he grew to full-term size.
Had I been pregnant in any other time in human history, or even birthing in most other countries today, I’m not sure we would have survived. The privilege of access to Australia’s free, quality healthcare meant we didn’t have the added pressure of debt on top of new parenthood. By the time it became clear that I would need the surgical birth I’d once feared and demonized, even my fears were exhausted, and I was left with nothing but deep gratitude for my health and for my son’s health.
All of the superficial trepidation I’d had about my body or career changing was insignificant compared with the singular focus of keeping my baby and myself alive. When the danger had passed and we were safely home, just collecting groceries felt almost as satisfying as collecting remote waves once did.
More months evaporated spent sitting, laying down, baby gazing and breastfeeding. (One year of breastfeeding estimates to around 1,800 hours of a mother’s time. For context, a full-time paid job with a 40-hour workweek and vacation is about 1,960 hours annually). I took up more physical space, and I felt expanded in other ways I couldn’t yet articulate, too.
As a family, we were both lucky and privileged: We set ourselves up so that I didn’t have to go back to work until I was ready. As I rolled into my second year of breastfeeding and working more regularly, I started to come into my own body as a separate entity again. Initially, sleep deprivation had stretched me into the remote frontiers of exhaustion, cloudiness, rage and delirious hilarity. As sleep slowly returned with some form of regularity, I began to appreciate the ways that pregnancy and motherhood were transforming me.
Yes, I lost my main surfing sponsor. Yes, my body could never be the same again. None of me could. I felt different because I was chemically and physiologically a different person. And, unexpectedly, that person felt like a more anchored and focused version of myself.
Old and emerging science reveals that this process of becoming a mother, or matrescence, is akin to adolescence as a developmental passage. Among the surprising changes that pregnancy brings are significant alterations in brain anatomy that affect how we relate to others and how we “think about what is going on in someone else’s mind,” as reported in Scientific American. For many women, motherhood also represents a transition from a singular sense of self to a plural one—from “I” to “we.” And not only in the familial sense, but also globally.
I interviewed my friend and surfer Belinda Baggs about this, and she attributed her later-in-life environmental activism to motherhood. “For me, motherhood created empathy and a consciousness for all living things on a deeper level … My son opened my eyes to the health of the planet beyond my lifetime,” she said. “The effects of our actions today will impact the planet—soil, air, water and all life forms. I’ve realized that there is no single job more important as a parent than ensuring my son is safe, happy and healthy.”
Despite the story I’d been shown that linked motherhood to martyrdom, my lived experience was much more nuanced. Making time for my own outlets for creativity and play—even in stolen moments on the toilet—usually means I have more to give to my family. My privilege in making these moments is not lost on me. I grew up with a single mom who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Only now can I more fully appreciate what that meant for her well-being. Parenting was never meant to be done alone; it is a cooperative art. For parents to nourish and thrive, they also need to be cared for. We need all the hands and hearts of a functional community to do this well.
With support on my side, I found myself wanting to push back on my self-imposed limits. In the water, my experience of motherhood made me question my lines and want to redraw them more creatively, with less restriction. Take off deeper, have a higher wave count, go faster. I’d always considered myself a longboarder, and suddenly it occurred to me that I’d boxed myself into a risk-averse version of a surfing life. I was surfing not to fall. That wouldn’t do any longer. As I started experimenting with mid-lengths, I found speed and steepness more alluring than slow motion, subtle log riding. I’ve found myself searching out waves that I’d hesitated on before. I’m not kidding myself; I’m not surfing Pe’ahi—and I’ll never have the breasticles of Paige Alms. But my personal thresholds have undoubtedly shifted.
Through my complicated pregnancy, I was required to cultivate a column of calm in my internal ocean. Like when you dive under a set wave, sink your fingers into the sand and hang, unperturbed in the strip of unaffected water beneath the cloudy turbulence.
What emerged was the ability—the necessity—to be able to still my own internal seas as fear mounted. This relationship with discomfort, of knowing (better, at least) how to put it in its place, has made risk-taking more palatable. More fun.
And then I felt physically more solid than ever, more robust and resilient (though definitely not at first, and I had to work at it). All that hoisting of a human body, and sharpening my reflexes by saving it from steep edges and projectiles, is a kind of strength-training regime. Actual strength training, which I’d never really done before, helped, too. Yes, my body has changed. But maybe it’s better—if we can agree better means more capable.
As that first year or so came and went, I felt a longing to reconnect with and contribute to my community after disappearing into the baby bubble. I was ravenous for creative expansion, if lacking some confidence about my place as a freshly unsponsored (and unemployed) writer/surfer. The desires weren’t necessarily new, but the focus and follow-through definitely were. Motherhood made me a chess master of time management; I finally got around to launching that podcast and writing the book I’d held in my mind for so long—both crafted during nap times.
Most of all, I felt a fresh appreciation for my relationship with the ocean. With new, deep love lighting up my life, I was able to see more clearly how the ocean, and the living world, had long met many of my needs that weren’t quite sated on land. The ocean had been mothering me all along.
Back in the lineup, the pressure is mounting, and I know that it’s time to go in. But I’m not quite ready. Just one more (or one more one more). I suspiciously side-eye the two other folks in the lineup. A set comes and they both slide shoreward. I quickly yank down my wetsuit, hunch over and squirt my homemade milk onto the surface of the ocean, to relieve a little pressure. I watch these bizarre, miraculous water-pistol-streams spray from my body and mix with ocean water. Now I have time (and comfort enough) for another set or two.
I laugh at myself, but suddenly get a clear glimpse at how intricate parenting really is. Birth is just a warmup to being stretched in every direction. Parenthood invites us to do things we might not have ever imagined—sometimes humiliating public things—and maybe we do them happily. Like risking the judgement of self-milking in exchange for another wave.