An acquired taste.
Motherhood is an acquired taste. Now, I know for some being mommy comes easily. Maybe they were raised with younger siblings or cousins. Maybe they loved to babysit. Maybe they just love babies. But for me, none of the above. I was an only child who only babysat twice. The kid was 8 and I was twelve and all I remember was that he watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while I lay on the couch and read Catcher in the Rye for the third time.
And babies? To quote Margaret Cho (who is also sober, but soooo much funnier than me – Are there, Margaret? It’s me Kristen), “Babies scare me more than anything. They’re tiny and fragile and impressionable. It’s too much responsibility.”
The thing is I figured once I had a baby of my own I would feel different. Those ancient, millennia worn-instincts of motherhood would kick in and I would hold that baby in my arms and feel nothing but a tender, buoyant love. I would look at her, and utter the words I had been waiting all my life to share with someone: “You complete me.”
But when Ella was born, I felt nothing but the most hard-won shock.
I was expecting the soundtrack of those early days to be Joan Baez. Instead, I got Gwar.
It was bad heavy metal in a demon’s costume. And my baby was perfect. Ten little fingers, ten little toes, big eyes, full lips. And I loved her, of course, I loved her. What kind of monster do you think I am? I wasn’t actually in Gwar. But I wasn’t in love with her, because she was, you know, a baby.
And babies are terrifying piece of flesh. As Diana Galbaldon once wrote, “Babies are soft... But when you live with them and love them, you feel the softness going inward, the round-cheeked flesh wobbly as custard, the boneless splay of the tiny hands. Holding them against you, they melt and mold, as though they might at any moment flow back into your body.”
I mean, come on. How am I supposed to take care of something that at any moment could flow back into my body? How am I supposed to love something that at any moment could be hurt? It was simply too much to bear.
I shut down. To feel would be too much.
It was easier not to feel. Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist and the author of How To Have a Happy Child, explains: “There's a lot of mystique about bonding. The myth is that it's love at first sight, and it's all or nothing. In my experience it takes time. The real emotional connection between a mother and child – the bond – is built gradually.”
And they say (random internet stat) that one in five mothers feel the same way.
All I could was wait for her to grow, and pray I grew out of it. I started listening to an enormous amount of folk music to get those maternal juices flowing (as though Peter, Paul & Mary and Jim Groce could spur oxytocin). I did everything I possible could to keep breastfeeding – even when my supply wasn’t enough, even when I got mastitis (twice), even when I had to pump six times a day because of antibiotics. I forced myself into the role of mother, though it felt far from complete.
But more importantly, I began to realize that Margaret Cho was once again right, “My fear of having children is that, frankly, I just don’t want to love anyone that much.”
I would run through the horror fantasy of Ella dying, just to see what I would do. And the more and more I accepted that I could survive, the more I was able to love. And as Ella grew (and I became more sure of her own survival), that love expanded. With tenderness. With buoyancy. With a completeness that makes me feel like I am, after 41 years, finally home. I loved her so much that I decided this motherhood gig wasn’t so bad after all. I decided to do it again.
And that’s when the real shocker happened. I fell in love with a baby.
Now, major caveat here. Baby #2 must have really wanted the job, because he comes to it every day with the best attitude of any five-month old I have ever met. Dylan rarely squabbles, he’s a reasonably good sleeper (look, he’s still a baby), and he loves to laugh, smile and coo all day long. To quote Depeche Mode, “I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor and when I die, I expect to find him laughing.”
Because the anti-baby lady was sent the world’s best baby, and guess what? He completes me.
Most have a basic understanding of attachment theory - the idea that infants need to form a deep relationship with a primary caregiver for healthy development. As the man himself Deepak Chopra, M.D. once explained, “There's no denying that the mother-baby connection is a biological one… it can have a profound effect on the physiology of the baby."
But I would argue it also has a profound effect on the physiology of the mom.
Because motherhood is no longer some awkward song where I can only sing the last two words of each line. This time, I am in the motherfucking choir. I now know what all the fuss is about.
And the crazy part is, now, I even like other’s people’s babies. I ask about them, and try to make them laugh. I will even offer to hold them and they don’t cry as soon as I pick them up. Actually, more often than not, they settle down.
And as I stand there, holding some other woman’s infant, with an ancient, millennia-old sense of confidence, I realize that Ella trained me for this. She, in all her sleepless, full-lipped glory had slowly steeped me in motherhood. And like a frog in boiling water, I didn’t know what was happening until it was done.
Even when people offer to hold Dylan, it’s hard for me to let him go. I can sit for an hour just looking at him, or smelling the top of his hair. And my favorite place (outside of laying on a couch somewhere reading Catcher in the Rye for the third time) is when I lay in bed in the morning with Dylan in my arms and Ella rested up right against me. I don’t even need to have music playing to hear Joan Baez’s voice.
I am home.