To say my first pregnancy caught me at unawares would be to understate the surprise of my young life. A series of medical events led me to believe that my ability to conceive might well be predicated on divine or at least extreme pharmaceutical intervention. The unexpected, though eventually joyous, news caused a scramble to A. fully embrace the concept of motherhood and B. plan a shotgun wedding with my baby daddy. We were married on New Year’s Day by a justice of the peace who eyed my burgeoning belly with just a hint of ill-concealed contempt, after which we went home to watch football with friends and announce our news.
My pregnancy progressed and I watched in horror as everything on my body became larger than life. My tiny frame ballooned from delicate and adorable to hideously leviathan. I developed canckles. And upper arms the size of well-developed thighs. And my thighs – dear lord, how could this be happening? I was filled with resentment as my tall, willowy friends placed their hands protectively over their gracefully gravid bellies, looking as though they had eaten one too many burgers at lunch.
As infants go, both of mine were challenging, both had arcane and ongoing medical issues. After many hospital visits, my firstborn was eventually diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies and asthma. We were on a first name basis with our local hospital’s emergency department staff. During her first two years, if sleep came at all it was in brief spurts followed by hours of hallucinatory wakefulness accompanied by the ceaseless painful cries of colic.
Her brother followed two years later, with health challenges of his own. To be fair, he was a champion sleeper. He came out of the womb an old, empathetic soul. I think he knew that sleeping was his golden ticket to my heart.
There are women who adore infants, women who cherish the sight, sound, and smell of a defenseless baby to which they can coo and sing. I am not one of them. For me, my children’s infancy was something akin to the Bataan Death March, slogging through endless days filled with diapers, bottles, and mind-numbing songs about bunnies and puppies and wheels on the fucking bus, followed by sleepless nights, walking the hallways or driving around the neighborhood, my screaming infant strapped in the car seat, both of us weeping with an intensity and vigor that belied our sleep-deprived state.
“Use your words,” I would mumble sarcastically under my breath to my howling babies, wishing I could get into their tiny heads (all the while scared shitless of that mushy spot at the top) and figure out what the problem was. As infants, my children, as much as I loved them, remained a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a poop-filled diaper.
And then a miracle happened. The words came. And with both of my children they came in a torrent, as though one day a switch was flipped and language was finally accessible. That was when I fell in love with them and started feeling like motherhood was a job I could be good at, not simply survive.
I can say with no small amount of pride that both my children were born with a refined sense of humor. For this I thank god, since loving a humorless child would surely be the ultimate test of my motherly devotion. Their humor has served them well through their personal challenges as well as some shaky family dynamics. Laughter is the tie that binds our intrepid little band together through good times and bad.
In their own way, my children taught me how to be a good mom. When they were at their best, which was most of the time, their preternatural empathy and kindness toward others made me fall in line when I might be inclined to release my inner harridan. During their myriad medical crises, they displayed courage and fortitude that made me dig deeper for my own, when my inclination was to give into fear and despair.
They taught me the ultimate form of love, welcoming their surrogate sister into our family, making space in their hearts and in our tightly knit group for one more. They knew early on that love, when freely given is multiplied, never divided.
Even at their worst, their antics offered up learning opportunities, schooling me in both humility and patience. My daughter’s adventurous – some might call it criminal – teen spirit caused me to get to know law enforcement officials in more than one jurisdiction and acquaint myself with myriad state and local ordinances. My son’s early and seemingly effortless ability to navigate – and by navigate I mean hack into – protected online chat rooms, introduced me to several senior executives at AOL I may never have otherwise gotten to know. We became acquainted when I had to explain to them that if a 9-year-old could find a way into their employee chat rooms, they might want to shore up their defenses.
Truth be told, I loved mothering teens, the sassier and more truculent the better. Infants left me scratching my head, wondering what needed to be done. Smart-mouthed, sarcastic teens made perfect sense to me. I was still in touch with my distant teen angst, those intense, self-absorbed, insecure, contentious, and ultimately uncontrollable emotions. I welcomed the hormone-fueled pageant that played out in my kitchen, which was always full of loud, hungry, funny young people, demanding food and attention. And love. They were easy to love.
Flash forward, present day – Mother’s Day. It’s this day when I marvel at my own mother’s journey, an Army wife and artist, shepherding five children around the world, moving every year, often to foreign lands like Panama, Bolivia…Kansas, all the while continuing to paint. All five of her children are thriving with families of their own. All five take part in caring for her as she ages. All five of us are still speaking to each other, which judging from most families I know is a minor miracle in and of itself. By any measure, I would call my mother a success.
And if the proof is in the pudding, I’m going to call myself a success too. My children are bright, engaged, engaging, and still hilariously funny. They have long-since become smarter and more accomplished than I am. They have chosen well in their friendships and found careers that they pursue with joy and passion. I learn something new from them almost daily, in large part because they have generously made space for me in their lives.
So cheers to all the mothers I know, many who gave birth to their children, some of whom did not. Here’s to the women who nurture children not their own, the women who care for four-legged children, children with feathers, fins, and blow-holes. Here’s to the men who are some of the greatest mothers I know.
Here’s to a mother’s love. May it find you, may it free you, may it be you.
Happy Mother’s Day!