Monday, April 13, 2009

Motherhood, or, I Don't Care if I Smell Like Spit-Up Anymore

I never felt that I had a maternal instinct. Sure, when Sharon and I were kids we used to talk about that magical time when we were Grown Ups, who we would marry, what we would name our children. But when I hit the teen years my innate selfishness emerged (along with a whole lot of other things) and I decided children weren't my thing. I was too impatient, too aloof, to ever feel connected to some messy-faced screaming brat that would likely be just as awful as all the messy-faced screaming brats I saw other women dragging through grocery stores. Those poor women always had looks of desperation and resignation on their faces, as though they knew that they would never again be able to go away on a whim as I was wont to do, that their whole lives had been reduced to thinking up unique ways to spell Cameron and driving a minivan.
But then, at 18, I got pregnant, and everything changed. I wasn't a bad pregnant woman, I didn't run out and do drugs or anything, but I was pretty indifferent to the whole process. I was depressed and isolated from my family 3,000 miles away, and I didn't have anyone around me to council or confuse me about my impending parenthood. I guess I kind of figured things would go the way they would go, and left it at that. In retrospect, that's a pretty good attitude to take, actually. I know far too many first time moms who agonized over blood pressure readings or created elaborate "birth plans" only to realize that babies, unlike adults, don't care about plans and are going to do what they want.
So, after 34 hours of labor, a vacuum extractor application and an ill-advised mirror so I could see what was going on down there, Tatiana emerged. "Sunday's child is full of grace," declared the doctor, after sewing up the tears and trauma of her birth. He left us to our devices, two bewildered people on the brink of new life, both exhausted and unsure of one another. But she and I grew to an understanding rather quickly. She cried, I nursed her, and after several years we both caught up on our sleep.
Along the way we moved back east in fits and spurts, and our relationship waxed and waned as all parent-child relationships will. The first time she cried, "I hate you, Mama!" I burst into tears and explained to her how hurtful such declarations were, and she didn't really mean it, did she? After the 100th such outburst I had become immune and merely said, "Yeah, well, you aren't one of my favorite people right now, either." I had become a Parent.
Being a parent means, among other things, understanding your own parents better. I now realize that my mother was not just prone to histrionics, that your children really do break your heart again and again in a thousand little ways, from the inconsolable cries of colic to the unbreachable walls of emotional distance already being erected by my nearly 10-year-old Tatiana. I also understand, truly, the meaning of love. I love my children so ferociously it brings tears to my eyes. All the romantic love in the world, the love Paris had for Helen, the love Napoleon felt for Josephine, does not compare to the depth of emotion that rises in me when I bury my face in my baby's hair and inhale her sweet scent. Becoming a mother has changed me on such a fundamental level, made me feel my femininity for the first time, encouraged a compassion for suffering that I never had before. I can look at those glassy-eyed women in the grocery store and feel a connection borne of shared experience, even though I don't know them and we probably have little else in common. I can see pictures of mothers in Africa with their babies held to their breasts and I know the tenderness they are feeling, the protective instinct they have to ensure their child is safe in one of the most dangerous and sadly forgotten regions of the world. This mothering instinct I share with women all over the world is what drives me to social responsibility in the face of my recurring nihlism. This is what it means to me to have children, that I have an emotional investment in the future that will reach far beyond my own lifetime, into the lives of my grandchildren.

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