(written for a class. Liked it, wanted to share it.)
The ultrasound photo didn’t look like a baby to me. It either looked like a mutated kidney bean or a tiny alien, depending on the angle I held it at. When people said “wow the baby looks just like Mommy!” I had to wonder how absolutely unattractive I was. Did I have bug eyes and a tiny mouth and a caveman forehead? I knew I was supposed to blush and say, “oh thank you” or “nope this one looks like daddy!” or “I’ll take that as a compliment!” so that is what I did. When I was alone I’d put my hand on my growing belly and feel the baby moving, and I’d wonder. What was this creature? Who was this creature? Over countless hours in waiting rooms I’d hear other soon-to-be-mothers talk about imagining what their child was going to be like. What color of hair would he have, what disposition, how irrepressibly cute might she be? I didn’t wonder that. I wondered, “will I like this child? Will I want to take care of it? Will it resent me?” The times when my husband and I stopped fighting long enough to sit together in silence I’d stare at him and think, “my God, what have we done?” I’d fantasize about a world in which I’d been brave enough to break off the marriage before we’d gotten so far. A world in which I was still skinny and attractive and being wooed by someone successful and independently wealthy. It was an imaginary life in which having children was still far away somewhere in the future, and I was certain that when I got around to it I’d be a perfect mother. Then the baby would stir inside me and anchor me hard to reality. Regardless of if I wanted it, if I was ready, or even if I was able, I was this child’s mother.
The closer the due date loomed the more excitement and fear I felt. I wanted my child desperately, but partially just because I was sick and tired of being pregnant. My stomach ached, which I expected. My joints hurt, which I heard was normal. I retained water like the Hoover Dam every time I ate anything salty, which was apparently dangerous but also perfectly normal. My breasts felt like they were on fire and my head was constantly pounding out a twangy riff like the bass in a bad jazz trio. I felt like my body was completely out of my control and I wanted it back. I never talked about my feelings with anyone, even my midwife, because I felt so completely ashamed. Where was my glow? My joy? The heart rending poetry of longing for my child to be in my arms? I would write epic journal entries about my fears and then trash them, mortified at the things that were running through my head. I still remember the words I wrote, despite their having long ago turned into compost. I remember writing that I would have no idea how to raise a bubblegum and pompoms princess. I wrote, “I’ve heard the stories about what my husband was like as a child, and I’m fairly sure that raising anyone even remotely like him would kill me. I can’t do this. Please, God.”
The due date passed, and then another date, and then another; with every hour and minute that ticked away I felt the inevitable gathering nearer like thunderclouds. I had contractions every twenty minutes for a week. I was sleep deprived, sore, cranky, and completely emotionally wrecked. My midwife sent me to the hospital and I was buoyed in an ocean of relief and panic. My husband held my hands, he said something really romantic about finally having our baby. I honestly can’t remember what it was. What I do remember is the feeling I clung to, of wanting to be happy, pretending to be happy, hoping it overwhelmed my mortification. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed that once I had my baby in my arms I would be magically transformed into a mother worthy of her child.
It would be 38 hours before I finally saw my baby. I went into the hospital late on a Friday evening and they induced labor overnight. My body fought it the whole way. I was left staring at a room that looked a little like my grandmother’s parlor. The walls were a tan color, the kind of color that is somehow even more colorless than white. There were stenciled vines with grape clusters on the wall, and the nurses and midwife and my mother took turns sitting in a rocking chair by the bed and working on needlepoint and knitting. I can remember at one point thinking, “am I giving birth in a sewing circle?” But the delivery room didn’t exactly feel like a comfortable room. Not with the braid of plastic tubing sticking out of my wrist and the crisscross of elastics holding monitoring devices on my belly. The IV regulator beeped regularly, telling me information I couldn’t really understand. The readout from the monitors showed my heartbeat and the baby’s. A nurse pointed to a needle scratching on a paper roll that reminded me of lie detector tests on spy shows and said, “see that little hill? That’s a contraction. We want it to look more like a mountain.” Later, my husband would incredulously ask if it was normal for the needle to not go down in between peaks. I’d look at the paper printout and see that my contractions looked like the Rockies. The nurse would sympathetically say that in a natural labor there were breaks for the mom to rest, but every time they dialed back the meds to give me a break my labor stalled.
I should have felt comforted by the nurses in their cardigans with prayer shawls pinned to their buns. The nurses who, in my memory, all look like distant relatives of mine. But comfort was unreachable. Everything about that day felt so surreal. My eyes tracing the stenciled vines like a labyrinth, the gnawing hunger that ice chips couldn’t sate, the beeping and whirring and scratching machines, my husband’s voice so distant and muffled like he was holding a pillow to his face, the pinch of two black combs I held in my hands and squeezed until they drew blood, the sterile smell of the room which looked to me like it should have smelled of cinnamon, the pounding pressure of wave after wave of contractions that crashed into my body without ever drawing back to sea, the inescapable tide of the thing, all of it worked together to carry me to a place that I remember only in scraps and flashes like a drug induced nightmare. Other women recall the day of their child’s birth with bright smiles on their face. I start to tell the story, and the back of my neck clenches so tight there’s an instantaneous headache.
There were two insane hours of pushing to bring my first child into the light of late morning. There were tears and blood and sweat and things that are what a good friend called “too unladylike to discuss”. No matter now, because I got through it. I didn’t give up, and eventually managed to bear my baby kicking and screaming into this world. When the midwife held her up my first thought was, “ew.” She was covered in ooze and had just pooped all over herself. The nurses laid her on my stomach to towel her off and one miniscule hand clutched at my finger. Her grip was so disproportionally strong. I wondered at those tiny fingers, the feet that curled like a ballerina en pointe when she cried, the greasy wrinkles in her neck and the feathery blonde hair sticking up in bloody clumps. I thought, “she came from me.”
Then I was lost, in an ocean of panic. I didn’t know this baby, she came from me but she was a complete stranger. Was she like me? Was she like my husband? Who would she grow up to be? Would we have anything in common? Was I even capable of being the kind of mother she needed? The past nine months I’d feared and resented her, and now here she was, screaming, and I had no idea what to do. “You need to nurse her,” my mother whispered, and I blushed. I should’ve known that. I struggled with how to hold her, what to do, what went where. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to be instinctual? Easy? One of the nurses corrected me, telling me the baby wasn’t latching on. I cursed under my breath and tried again, and again. My husband’s calloused hand was on my shoulder. Despite all of our differences, he was the one who said that he was proud of me. “She’s perfect,” he said, “she’s just like you.” Over the next few days I’d end up chafed and sore and constantly worried that I still wasn’t doing it right. My daughter would cry and it would take me just a split second to recognize her voice, to respond. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt. I’d see other mothers for whom nurturing was second nature and I would secretly hate them.
It wasn’t until months later, after seemingly countless setbacks and struggles and nights spent awake with the baby clutched to my chest and me crying through my pain and frustration and wishing I knew what I was doing wrong, that reality would start to creep in. I remember one dim twilight, another three o’clock feeding, after I’d given in and my daughter was curled close in bed beside me. She started fussing, not really crying but the sort of sad whimpering that leads to cries if you don’t react in time. I half woke up and took her to my breast without even completely opening my eyes. She reached one hand up and laced her fingers through my hair, holding the tangled lock to her cheek. I woke up just enough to see that she was smiling. That was when I finally knew it. I knew that she belonged to me, and I belonged to her. Whoever she became, whoever I became, whatever we ended up meaning to each other as she grew didn’t matter. We were designed to fit together, by nature or by God or by love or whatever force our lives are led by. I’d like to say that I basked in the glow of that moment, that I was awash with emotion, and it changed my life forever. However, I couldn’t say that and tell the truth. It was three in the morning, the baby had been fussing half the night, and I was tired. I fell asleep. That moment was lost in the ups and downs of many moments to come, and it’s only in looking back that I realize now what it meant.
When I was a child I took for granted that my parents had no choice in whether or not they loved me, and it took me a long time to grow out of that belief. I once thought naively that love is something that happens to people. I imagined that if men and women are meant to make babies together they would be drowned in an ocean of love and pulled together by an unstoppable tide. I believed that mothers loved their babies from the moment life is first sparked inside of them. I believed in love as only a child could, and believed in its transforming power as if it were magic. It isn’t. It’s hard work. Here’s the truth: Pregnancy sucks. The women who do glow don’t glow because of the fact that they are pregnant, they glow in spite of it. The love that a mother and father feel for each other isn’t an unstoppable magical force, either. It’s built off of a million decisions made over time, in which the old identity is bricked over like a foundation and they are re-created, as a person whose innermost being is inseparable from the new role that they’ve taken. It isn’t pushing a child into this world that makes a woman a mother. The sight of that crying baby doesn’t change you forever. What changes you is a myriad of moments in which you make a choice; those moments are mostly lost to memory. Yet somewhere inside of you, your soul reaches out like an infant’s hand and grasps on to each one, with disproportionate strength, holding them to your heart like a tangled lock of hair to a milk stained cheek.