Everyone knew what I would be when I grew up. My grandparents and neighbours knew it. My brother had an inkling. The nuns at school were aware of it. It was no big secret – I knew it, too. Maybe I had thoughts about it that Freud addresses. I remember being five years old and rocking my beloved pink-suited baby doll to sleep, mimicking the feverish closeness that comes with moulding a little body around one’s own. Later, I also delicately scooped out her vacant eyes, painted stars on her cheeks, plaited her hair and dyed it blue, but loved her no less for it. Perhaps the absence of a Freudian interpretation is in my favour.

You see, motherhood was as inevitable to me when I was a bride of 24 as when I was a tottering toddler, or a teen, but its gifts have left me with mixed feelings. There are worse fates and inevitabilities, I told myself, drawing on the kind of free advice that women of childbearing age get – imagine if you couldn’t get pregnant despite wanting it?

So, it came about that I was sitting on the toilet seat and clutching a pregnancy test, one summer’s day, bewildered with emotion and the blazing heat. I remember closing my eyes, thinking that the moment of motherhood was upon me. But it was a false alarm. The indicator stick stayed resolutely immune to the palpitation I felt in my heart. However, I realised I would feel more excitement than dismay if the one control line became two. That, to me, was the resounding call to motherhood. My personal hero’s journey had begun.

In retrospect I count the next, successful pregnancy test I took as one of the best metaphors of motherhood. What experience is more akin to the physical aspects of motherhood than the urine-soaked chemical nod by an impersonal device that tells you your one line of life is now verifiably two?

The good and the bad

Motherhood in my twenties was an accelerating gut-dropping rollercoaster, an absurdly public yet isolating house of horrors, a funhouse of distortive mirrors, a maze of wandering difficulties. It was a course in getting weighed down, cracked open and then gradually sloughing off terrible physical burdens and pain in indifferent medical environments.

Fortunately, it was also about all the other stuff they show you on television when selling baby powder and diapers. In fact, it was even better because it was real. It was about gurgles and late-night cuddles, crooning and pre-verbal growls. It was the wonderment of watching a new being experience something for the first time, even if it was just a baby’s face scrunching up when tasting papaya mash.

But mostly, it was a course in ambivalence, as I watched single friends bounce my babies, praise my endurance, and return to office parties and their packs of smokes the minute they left the apartment. Kind to a fault, they praised me for really keeping it together, and I, so wrapped in the promises of society and common sentiment, accepted that homage. How could I explain that I was falling apart, one clump of hair in the shower drain at a time, and that I wasn’t looking for advice on calcium supplements? My body was a strange enough creature, inflating, contracting, and betraying me at the cry of a suckling infant in the other room, but stranger still was my sense of self and my understanding of what it now meant to be me.

It felt like I had earned the highest medal a woman could biologically achieve and had simultaneously lost the ability to walk out of the domestic door without spit-up on my blouse and hours’ worth of drills and keen strategic planning behind me. Not to mention the guilt that came from the reliance on paid help and family, or the anxiety of fearing an emergency phone call that would send me hurtling back home. It was a reality check that involved looking at my partner and knowing that despite whatever sense of responsibility he experienced, I was in this particular experience by myself and I didn’t know how to climb out of it.

Mother’s dilemma

Yes, children grow up. We all know this. I’ve seen my own two race up, slipping and sliding towards the finishing line of childhood like it’s a game of snakes and ladders. But what of mothers? Do we ever emerge unscathed from that intense crucible of the early years? We are praised for our selflessness and unimpeachable status but when are we going to start talking about the difficulties of getting there, what we lose along the way, and what it means to be both honoured and imposed upon like nobody else in the family?

Fashion magazines will make you regret lost skin tonality and hair, but they keep mum – pun intended – about the psyche beyond recommending a visit to the spa. I think this is partly because market forces tell us it is easier to focus on what can be fixed by denial systems – like an anti-stretch-mark cream – than talk about neural patterns of the mind. If venture capitalists don’t want to invest in breast pumps, why should the research community try to understand what is predominantly a “woman’s complaint” about her “womanly duty”? The burden of the propagation of the species lies heavily and unevenly on women, as does the religious and popular valorisation of it, making it seem like an offense to complain at all.

Yet, what I am reminded of on this Mother’s Day is not the many joys and difficulties of feeling irreplaceable, just like society promised I would, but of the strange polarities that motherhood creates within me. Maternity is a double-edged instrument and I am reminded of the equivocation that Shakespeare ascribes to drink in Macbeth – it both makes you and mars you, gives and takes away, makes you stand up, and forces you to stand down.

What are those moments of pride and joy compared to the experience of fragility and mortality that come with navigating that second line on the stick? This Mothers’ Day I am going to kiss my children for their handwritten cards, and then write a card to myself. I wonder what it will say.

Karishma Attari is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down.