MAY 12, 2010 8:58PM Being a mother is perhaps the most intense and transformative experience one can ever have. As with all intense and transformative experiences, it encompasses both joy and pain--sometimes simultaneously. What has been most surprising to me, and what I most treasure, is the extraordinary intensity of the love one feels--surpassing anything previously felt--and, with that, the sometimes overwhelming expansiveness of the capacity to feel. The intensity of this love and emotionality can be painful, at times, but it makes one feel more deeply alive and connected to the universe. What is more difficult and painful--though something I still value--is the way in which being (and becoming) a mother lays one open, revealing all one's inadequacies, insecurities, fears, and failings. Of course, the most joyous aspect of motherhood is just the fact of one's child's existence: watching your child grow, and become; sharing in the triumphs and agonies; and the many ways in which one's child's love is expressed and manifested--unquestioningly, unconditionally, and with such amazing trust.
The intensity of my love for my son caught me off-guard. It came all in a moment, overwhelming me, and yet at the same time relieving me of a secret fear I'd not been able to share with anyone.
While I was pregnant with my son, I had (among the many worries one has while pregnant) sometimes been concerned by all the talk about "bonding." How did this bonding thing work? It was so important, the books said, for mother and infant to bond in the first moments after birth. But what did that mean? I felt affection for the unknown child I was carrying, and delighted in the kicks, hiccuping, and startles at sudden noises that I felt from within. But who was this person? How would I feel about him or her when I held this infant in my arms? Would it be love at first sight? Or would it just be a baby, whom I would grow to love? What if I didn't?
My worry manifested in strange ways. I found myself asking my sister "what if my child is ugly?" (a bizarrely shallow concern to me now--but it seemed of paramount importance to me at the time), a reflection of my fear that I wouldn't bond, wouldn't be able to love my child. It seemed a strange fear to me even then, given that I'd been wanting a child for several years, and had suffered from a couple of miscarriages--one after three months of pregnancy, which was emotionally devastating, and made it difficult for me to celebrate being pregnant this time. My fear of becoming too emotionally invested in this pregnancy muted the intensity of my desire for a child, made me afraid to really believe that this longed-for being would ever really exist. Perhaps this self-protective emotional distancing increased my sense of detachment, as well as my fear that there was something wrong with me. The fear and detachment stayed even as I began to allow myself to believe I was actually carrying a healthy baby to term.
My son was born via ceasarean section, after 11 hours of labor--his head, it turns out, was just too big. The spinal anesthesia blocked my sensation of breathing, which panicked me: though apparently I was hyperventilating, I felt I couldn't breathe at all. Since a c-section baby needs oxygen immediately (the lungs aren't squeezed dry during the birth process), he was whisked away to an oxygen tent, while I was wheeled to a recovery room where I gradually regained sensation--and where I worried that I'd had absolutely no feelings of love toward the small being who had been briefly laid on my insensate breast while I gasped for the breath I felt I wasn't drawing. Was it too late? Had I missed those vital first seconds when "bonding" occurs?
My mother and nurses went back and forth between the nursery and recovery room with news of Apgar scores and the prognosis that he was "beautiful." But I felt nothing, except for a profound sense of my failure at the most basic female role--giving birth and nurturing a child. I wasn't able to birth a child in the way women had been doing for millennia--and even once the doctor had sliced me open to remove the child I couldn't birth, I felt no love for him.
Finally, I was able to wiggle my toes satisfactorily (despite the fact that I still could not feel them), had instructed the anesthesiologist that I was not going to take Demerol (I gave up on that one soon after), and I was wheeled into the nursery, to lie on my gurney beside the little clear plastic cradle that held my son. He was so beautiful, so helpless and perfect and real and alive. I felt a rush of love, so sudden and intense that I burst into tears. I couldn’t touch him, or even move, but I could talk to him, and I did: babbling to him in the way I used to talk to a frightened horse. I felt so relieved--the mysterious bonding had happened, all by itself, despite everything. I felt both love and pity for all the other babies in the nursery--for they were not as perfect and beautiful as mine. I lay next to him, watching him as my tears streamed down, and only vaguely remember anything else until we were together, nestled in a bed cranked into an awkward position to take the pressure off my stitches.
I felt sort of silly after--why did I worry so much about that? Of course, being a mother provides lots of opportunities for worry: is he eating enough--or too much? Is he too hot, or not warm enough? Do all babies make these faces? Does he show all the symptoms of this dreadful condition described in the latest baby book--or not? Is he crying because I ate broccoli last night, and will he stay awake all night if I drink coffee now?
Not to mention the many other opportunities for feeling inadequate--one can never be complacent, for there are always so many moments provided for self-recrimination: the fall out of the stroller; clipping fingernails for the first time and drawing blood; trying for hours to get a screaming infant to sleep, and knowing you just can’t take it anymore; spanking your child when you knew you’d never do that; not making cupcakes for school birthdays like all the other mothers; losing patience, sometimes unfairly--again and again.
And there’s nowhere to hide, when you are a mother. The potential for pain lurks around every corner, and it generalizes to all children: I can’t take scenes in movies, or even books, where children are harmed. A friend once told me that having a child was like taking your heart out of your body and letting it run around in the world by itself. Sometimes it seems like such an incredible risk--how can I let my child out of my sight for even a moment? Yet off he goes, to school, in cars--so dangerous!--and I’m inured to it now, enough, anyway, that I can stand it. And sometimes I even need to get away from him, and feel guilty for it.
Of course, the potential for joy is always present also: the preciousness; the amazingness of a first word or step; the sensuousness of chubby infant cheeks and baby smell; the shared moments of silliness, laughing till we’re too weak to stand; the sweetness of a sticky toddler kiss; the amazing wise-child perceptiveness; seeing the world through this new pair of eyes; or just watching his face stilled in sleep.
When my son was only a few days old, a song came on the radio about a mother seeing her grown son off into the world. I started to cry, ridiculous as it was, so many years away in the future. It’s not so many years now.
Being a mother, one finally understands all those times when your own mother told you to be careful: what a worry-wart! Or just snapped at you for no apparent reason: so unfair! Or ranted and raved because your clothes were all over the floor: who cares! --it’s my room. That’s you, now. You hear yourself saying things you swore you’d never say, doing things you were never going to do. But not all of them. You make your own mistakes, and succeed in your own ways. But you gain an appreciation for the difficulty, the impossible amazingness, the incredible gift it is to be a mother.