Motherhood: A Life of Mourning
By Sarah Johnson
“I love my friends! We are friends forever!” My daughter sings this tune, listing the names of her preschool friends while I bring groceries into the house. She’s twirling, her mess of blonde curls swiping her cheeks with every spin.
Lilly is a carefree spirit, having a typical moment for a 4-year-old. But the song has shaken me out of my routine. I stop walking, feeling my eyes water. I’m unable to wipe away the tears because my hands are weighed down by canned tomatoes and boxes of crackers.
I smile anyway, not wanting her to see any despair. “That’s a nice song,” I say.
She keeps on dancing, continuing her display of pure happiness.
Part of me is jealous I don’t remember what it feels like to be so free of worries. But mostly, I’m amazed by her innocence, that she doesn’t yet realize friendships rarely last forever. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they’ll love you back. And just because I’m her mom doesn’t mean I’ve loved her forever.
“One day you won’t let me kiss you,” I say to her during another typical moment. She’s sitting on my lap in between bites of Special K as we talk about what we’re going to do over the next few days. Tuesday is preschool, Wednesday her grandmother comes over, Thursday is preschool again.
“You’re just kidding!” she says, using her favorite new phrase. “I will always kiss you!”
I shake my head but she insists. Maybe she is years away from spurning my touch, but I have been dreading that time ever since we found out her gender. When the ultrasound technician said, “You are having a girl,” what I heard was, “You are having a teenage girl who will hate you.”
Like most teens, I pushed by mom away during my high school years, creating a fissure that has never fully healed. It began soon after my father moved out and around the time everything outside the house became more enticing than what was inside it, including boys and the concept of adulthood.
My momentary disappointment about having a girl was my first realization that I would be entering a lifetime of letting go. Parents are in constant grieving of what once was, as they fulfill their duty to develop independent beings.
After Lilly was born, two nurses, two doctors, and my husband got to touch her first before she was returned to me. I wish I had held her first, as soon as she entered this world, when she changed from her status as “Lemon,” the faceless inhabitant of my belly we had nicknamed, to a munchkin replica of us.
When my water had broke hours earlier, there were signs of meconium. The nurses had told me a pediatrician would have to look at her immediately to make sure she was breathing properly (in case she had meconium aspiration, or had been breathing her poops). It turns out she was perfectly fine, born as a lady, who would never consume feces, even her own.
By the time she was in my arms, I didn’t know what to do with her. She squirmed and I squirmed, setting off a lifetime of awkward and tension-filled, mother-daughter episodes. In those first few weeks, when relatives and friends came in and out of our house to meet Lilly while I was exhausted and detached, nearly everyone talked about this instant love that I somehow had missed. “It must have been love at first sight!” “Didn’t you just love her as soon as you laid eyes on her?” I nodded, going along with the farce, hoping and trusting that I would somehow come around.
And I did, eventually. Now fully in love with my daughter, I grieve for the 1-year-old, 2-year-old, and 3-year-old version of her, with more versions to come. But I don’t miss the newborn phase at all.
Did I resent her when she was born because I was in defense mode, afraid she’d hate me once she exited the womb? Or was I just a new mother who had very little experience with babies?
“Do you want to hold her?” the nurse asked.
Mothers-to-be eagerly wait for that question, which in most cases doesn’t require an answer. It’s usually YES in neon letters. In the middle of the night, though, exhausted by the late hour and pushing, I gave a quiet answer, aimed at my husband, Phil. “You can hold her first.”
After all, I thought, I had held maybe two other babies in my life. I had no idea what to do with this baby, even though she was mine and I had carried her everywhere I went for nine months.
I didn’t have to tell Phil twice, and I can’t blame him. He was eager to get his hands on his little one. Having watched the birth, he had had more time to let the reality sink in that a new human had entered our lives. For me, five hours of labor went by too fast to feel real.
Letting Phil be the first of us to hold her was a concession during this era of co-parenting, when men have manned up to share diapering duties and are not a rare species during drop-offs and pickups at daycare. In retrospect, though, that was a moment where motherhood should have trumped any symbol of equality. I had earned that “first.”
Instead, my husband wears a hole on his sleeve like a fatherly badge of honor. About the size of a dime at the end of a faded blue shirt, the hole serves as a sloppy reminder of his first (tiny) sacrifice as a dad, when he first held Lilly.
She nestled in his arms, swaddled in a hospital-provided blanket. He stared at her and was – there is no other word – beaming. Feeling hot but terrified of disturbing her, this creature that just a few minutes before had been a wailing, slimy mess popping out of his wife, Phil leaned forward to push his sleeve up with his teeth. In the process, he ripped a hole in his shirt.
I have more permanent (stretch) marks than an old shirt to show I’m a parent and have made sacrifices too. But I wish I had the same memory of his when he first locked eyes with his little girl and, by all appearances, naturally took over his new, lifetime role as a dad.
Those first moments he had with her let me procrastinate my motherhood role for another half hour or so while I was cleaned up. I lay there in a daze while my husband got a head start on bonding. “What should we name her?” he asked. How could he talk so casually at this monumental moment, I wondered. Why did he look so at peace, while I felt ravaged?
As time progresses, I think of my missed moment with Lilly. It comes to mind whenever she acts like Daddy’s girl, even though I realize she may have been Daddy’s girl no matter who held her first. She’s strong-willed, girly, and when things aren’t going her way, I get the brunt of her discomfort.
“One day, Mommy won’t be with us,” she said one night after we all went for what I had thought was a nice walk.
Hurtful words make me remember the fleeting time when I didn’t like her, during her first few weeks of life. I was a dutiful mom even though I didn’t feel like anyone’s mother. I fed her and rocked her, but I felt miles away from her. I didn’t see her as a baby. She was an expensive warm doll that I kept telling myself I would one day love. Maybe that first embrace in the hospital, if it had gone better, would have sped up the bonding process. Then again, adoptive parents find their way to their children without being the first ones to hold their children.
To make up for it, now, I cuddle with her as much as possible. Sometimes, though, the duties of motherhood get in the way.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” she says.
“Just a minute, Lilly,” I answer, sighing at her impatience and having already said I would get her a cup of milk.
Standing in front of the refrigerator, about to grab the milk but thinking about the long to-do list in my head, including what I’ll be cooking for dinner and giving myself a mental note that we’re running out of paper towels, I make myself stop the mental babbling and look at her. “Yes, Lilly?”
“I love you!”
I repeat the words to her and give her a hug, making up for the one I didn’t give her four years ago.
About the Author: Sarah Johnson is a freelance writer and editor. A mother of two, she lives in Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @SGJComm.