While the baby naps, I’ve pulled out his little lime green tinsel tree and am decorating it. There are a whole mess of glittery plastic balls, each with a tiny silver thread with which to hang it. I notice that several loose threads lay on the bottom of the box – a sure sign that not all of the ornaments were strung up and hung last year. It’s no wonder, of course, considering I decorated the tree laying down in a hospital bed, as I waited to get wheeled in to the OR for my c-section. I remember how my hands shook as I tried to tie the tiny knots.
Now here I am, nearly a year later, thinking ahead to this Christmas with my son, and thinking about a friend who is about to embark on the same journey. I’ve tried to be supportive but not know-it-all-y, honest without terrifying her. But mostly I just want to cry thinking about all that is about to change for her, as soon as she meets that little miraculous person.
I am so glad I had a whole year to think about this before putting my thoughts down in writing. If my friend had had her baby three months after I had mine, I would have told her a different story. At six months, too. Now, with a year under my belt (such a short time in the grand scheme of things!) my words will be tempered, softer, and probably even wistful as I try to explain what it was like for me.
First of all, I would like to admit that a woman, nearly forty years old, with a fair amount of confidence in herself and her abilities, was brought to her knees by a boy barely weighing eight pounds. I had no idea the enormity of the love. The weight of it. Nor the fact that it is so intense as to at times feel nearly unbearable.
In my massive amount of preparation for becoming a mother, I really didn’t think about this aspect of it – this love like no other. I felt it the moment I saw his little red face, his deep eyes locking on mine, each of us already knowing the other. Because of the surgery, the nurses took him away for me, just for a few moments, as I lay on the operating table. But an ache burned the back of my throat and I called to him, my voice hoarse and small, feeling acutely the first separation we’d had from each other in our ten month relationship. I imagined what a terrifying shock the masked faces, bright lights, and sounds of the various machines must have been for the tiny baby who had only known the dark warmth of my womb until a few moments previous. But my voice he would know well. Soon, though not soon enough, they brought him to me, adjusting my hospital gown to create a pocket in which to put him next to my skin. His snot mingled with my tears. His little hands grasped for me, and I covered him with the first of the millions of kisses he’ll get from me. Immediately, all I wanted was everything for my son. Immediately, and probably for the rest of my life, I could not stop myself from imagining all of the ways I won’t be able to protect him from the ills of the world.
I did not feel this way before I saw him. When I was told that without IVF a baby would be impossible, I was all too ready to accept a life without a child, because in truth I was scared to death of parenthood. If my body wasn’t able to make a baby, then forcing it was a bad idea, I wagered, and I knew I could still live a happy life without a child. My husband wanted a baby almost more than anything. Me? I could not wrap my mind around what it would be like, other than to think it would be very, very hard, and I wasn’t at all sure I would be any good at it. I had had too long to think about it, and had become accustomed to a certain life that worked well without kids. I pooh-poohed John’s conviction. All I could think was “he has no idea what it’s like to be a parent, so he doesn’t even know what it is he wants.” Until one day when it dawned on me that, although I focused on the negative things about pregnancy, birth, and child rearing that I had heard, I also hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was or wasn’t missing. I was just scared to take the leap of faith that John was ready for – waiting on the precipice with outstretched hand. That epiphany is what I swear led to the surprise plus I got on a pregnancy test. We tried for nearly three years. We had stopped actively trying, and I had stopped actively fighting it, and then there it was. I was thrilled, but still terrified, and read, listened, and tried to figure out just the right formula for being good at this mothering thing.
But then he arrived, and pretty much all that I thought I knew went straight out the window. Everyone else’s tales became irrelevant. The fogginess surrounding what I thought parenthood would be like dissipated and my son, Ronin James, came into focus. I realized my folly at trying to plan ahead for how I would do anything before I met the actual person at the center of it all. Now I think it’s just mean for advice-givers to make expectant parents believe that there is one right way to do anything. Babies are just tiny people. They come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and temperments. We muddled our way through the beginning. We are very, very lucky to have a kid with an overall even temperment – given to fits of laughter, and ready to go with the flow at a moments notice. But even still, there are so many ups and downs, some really tough spots in the first year, and I’m guessing in all the years that follow.
Loving a person with your entire being has not been all fun and games. It can be like directly looking at the blazing sun after so much rain. Just. too. much. The worrying doesn’t seem to end. The desire to respond to every one of his needs myself (because who can do it better than me?) is not only unhealthy but really impossible. I often repeated a phrase in my head during the long and ardurous afternoons, middle of the nights, early mornings I spent with the baby in his first couple of months. “All Joy and No Fun.” It was the title of a New York Times magazine article I had read once, during the time that I was simultaneously trying to get pregnant and terrified at the prospect. It points to the many studies that show people with children are more likely to be unhappy than their kid-free counterparts. One of the reasons, the author muses, might be because of the unrealistic expectations people have that they will be happier once the children come. We were definitely happy with our life before. And we are definitely happy now, and so grateful for our third wheel, but if you go into this thinking that those happinesses will be the same, you’re in for a real shock. It was a great life – we had a great run at being selfish without any real repercussions – but I would not trade this new, sometimes maddenly slow, sometimes manically chaotic life for all the tea in China. For real, I wouldn’t. And still. There is still that no fun part in raising children. Knowing that in advance was probably a little helpful, but it still didn’t make the 4am feedings any easier.
On the other end of the spectrum – there have been many, many really fun parts to this year. Many moments of being utterly amazed. There is so much joy to be had if you are willing to let go – let go of your need for a clean house, let go of your propensity to overbook your day. My finest hours as a mother always come when I stay present. It’s not as easy as I just made it sound. Just be right there, in those tiny moments when the baby is awestruck by the way the grass feels on his bare toes or that you can hit a switch and a light comes on, or goes off. When you’re not worried about what your going to conjure up for dinner, or obsessing over your weedy garden, these moments can make you shake your head at your luck. How did I get this wonderful kid? Those are great moments. And there are lots if you let yourself notice them. Really.
In the time it took me to write this, my friend went from about to have a baby, to holding a son of her own in her arms. Like I said before, I am not an advice-giver, only offering what worked for me with the understanding that when you’re in the trenches, you have got to do what works for you. All I’ve got are the tools that either helped me, or the ones I wish I had. Mostly, I’ll just divulge those things when asked. I just have three short things to share, with anyone who really cares what I think.
1. Take parenting advice with a grain of salt. Especially from people who make such outrageous claims as “my baby has slept through the night since birth,” or “my child has all of her teeth but somehow I never even noticed that she was teething.” Some people lie, but most are so sleep deprived as to have no recollection of large swaths of time. I have a friend who dreamt that someone she knew got a sex change operation and believed, for a year and a half, that it actually happened in real life (it did not).
2. Also, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for making mistakes. For taking your frustrations out on your significant other (always a better target than your baby). For not “enjoying every moment,” as oft instructed. For breaking promises to friends because, for a while at least, you may find it shocking how little else you can accomplish outside of taking care of your child.
3. Remind yourself of what a momunmental task you’ve undertaken and look often at that baby and marvel at the ways in which you are helping to shape him into the amazing person he is destined to be.
That’s it for now. Let’s revisit this conversation in 12 years.
It was a short year in which I went from a terrified mother-to-be to feeling quite ambivalent about the end of my son’s babyhood. I think back to those early days, weeks, months of getting the hang of things only to have them change. Of hoping we were handling this or that situation right. The first three months were a hard adjustment, I won’t lie – the next three were challenging, too. And then I blinked and found us here, with this big boy wobbling his way toward toddlerdom at breakneck speed. He walks – a little. He talks – A LOT. He sings. He gets jokes. He wants everyone he sees to be his friend and offers a wide smile as proof. He makes animal noises and has favorite books and songs. I sometimes find myself staring open-mouthed, unbelieving that this beautiful little boy is my son. That I almost missed the boat on this. That someday he’ll be all grown up and I’ll squint to see if I can still find my sweet, blue eyed baby inside that man. He makes me want to be better than I can be, just so I can attempt to be the kind of mother he deserves.
The little tinsel tree is up. It looked so much better this year when I saw it through his little sparkling, amazed eyes.