One afternoon as I nursed my son in the glider in his bedroom, I felt a stabbing sensation and looked down to find that the nail on his pointer finger was implausibly sharp –the tiniest awl driven into my chest just above my right breast.

The pain was more acute than the burning milk blisters on my nipples and more immediate than the dull ache that had inhabited my upper back since I’d begun spending all my time curled around my baby’s body — the star to my crescent moon.

I did not unhook his finger from my skin. I did not move. I barely breathed. For the first time in what felt like days, Arlo’s eyes were closed — giraffe lashes shut against petal-smooth skin — and I would bleed out from the chest before I would wake him. His pinning me in place like a bug was the beginning of a realization that my body, despite the fact that his was no longer inside of it, was still not mine.

As I’d prepared for Arlo’s arrival (as if anyone can really prepare), I was told that after I gave birth my life would change in every way. I was told that my love for my child would shock me, that my relationship with my husband would be tested, that I’d be surprised by those friends who would support me as a mother and those who would disappear. But not one person mentioned that motherhood would be the greatest physical challenge I’d ever been presented with.

I was reasonably fit pre-pregnancy. I went to spin class a couple times a week; I did yoga. I live in New York so I walk everywhere. But I also spent whole evenings on the couch, and have a weakness for ice cream and dinner out and one more glass of wine. I was someone who could not gracefully pull herself from a swimming pool, stand up without pushing off from the ground. Still, though I might not have been described as athletic, I did not think of myself as weak.

The assault began with the nausea that had me staring dog-eyed at my computer willing myself not to vomit when Arlo was but multiplying cells and DNA. It continued with the incredible feeling of stretching and growing, of his body inside me rolling over, fists and feet socking organs that had never until then been touched, and it culminated in labor. The feeling that overwhelmed me in the moments after I gave birth was not one of love or of calm — though I felt those things. Instead, much more intensely, what I felt was astonishment: “I can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe I did it,” I murmured, dazed, to my husband, as the doctor pulled needle and thread, the metallic scent of blood, my blood, in the air.

In the months that followed, dozens of times a day, I got up and down off the floor while holding Arlo. I lifted him from his crib, from his carseat, from his bath. I went without sleep, food, drink. I carried his stroller up and down the subway steps. Coming home from the grocery store was its own special challenge. I trudged the three blocks to our apartment with the diaper bag slung over one shoulder, plastic bags of groceries in either fist pulling my arms taut, Arlo on my chest in the front pack. There, at the gate that secures our building, a gate I had trouble pulling open before Arlo was born, I juggled the bags, finagled the key from my pocket, and somehow got it into the lock without dropping it or banging Arlo’s head against the door, heaving it open, every muscle screaming.

I don’t carry him in the pack anymore, but somehow as a toddler it’s even harder. He hits me when he’s excited, tugs on my hair, pulls off my glasses, grabs at my necklace. As he climbs me, his little feet find organs from the outside in the same way he did when he was on the inside. He runs from me, struggles out of my arms, throws himself bodily on top of me.

One punishingly hot July afternoon, long before I got pregnant, a friend and I were walking down the boardwalk by the beach in New Jersey. A family with two children approached from the opposite direction. The kids were whooping with joy and running this way and that as the mother called out to them, “Straight line! Steady pace!” She looked like a pack mule with bags hanging off all her appendages, a stroller before her.

“That looks so hard,” my friend said. I was carrying my own bag; I had a towel thrown over my shoulder. There was a blister working into the bottom of my foot, drops of sweat on my upper lip, and a singing in my bladder that would need to be addressed shortly. These few things seemed all I could handle in that moment. What this woman was doing didn’t look hard; it looked impossible.

When I was five months pregnant, I met a mother who told me that the big secret of parenthood was that the moment one has children one becomes a super hero. “Bam!” she said, dead serious. “Just like that.”

I’d laughed at the time, but now, a mother myself, I see that she was right. Part of the reason we are able to meet these challenges is bundled up in that shocking love we feel — we are able to do things we never thought we could because we want to make life comfortable for our children. But we are also able to do them because we get stronger as our children grow. When Arlo was born, he was 7.15 pounds. I have picked him up dozens of times a day, every day, since then, and now at nearly 24 pounds I still lift him. I got faster as he learned to walk and then run, and more lithe as he has learned to throw and kick and grab. Being a mom is its own training.

I also realize now that the feeling I had after giving birth was more than astonishment, it was one of power and of strength, it was the same feeling I get when I wrestle the gate open, lift Arlo down from the jungle gym, hold him over the bathroom sink so he can wash his hands while not crushing his legs with my body nor allowing him to get ahold of the toothbrush holder, the toothpaste, our face wash. I will continue to nourish Arlo with the stuff of myself until he is 18 years old, longer if he needs it, and I will be stronger for it.

There is also a flip side to the continuing bodily assault — the incredible physical sweetness: for me it’s the softness of the bottom of Arlo’s feet, the spring of his doughy thighs, the warm swell of his stomach, his downy head, the back of his neck. It’s his breath like butterfly wings on my shoulder when I rock him to sleep. It’s his hugs — he rests his head on my shoulder, relaxing into me, cupping my biceps with his palms. It’s his kisses — his wet mouth open against my cheek. “MMMaa,” he says, leaning back and smiling, knowing he has done something good.

Katherine Dykstra is nonfiction editor at Guernica and a writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. Find her on twitter at @dykstra_k or online at katherinedykstra.com.

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