My three pregnancies were so full of win. I read the books and ingested only nutritious things. I tried very hard, but also remained calm and serene so as not to stress the baby. I did everything exactly right almost. It was the last mile that got me.
With my first pregnancy, I learned that birthing a baby carries with it a possibility so awful that they shroud it in jargon and run-on sentences, then tuck it deep inside the very last session of childbirth class. But I was young and still felt it was possible to know things, so I parsed our teacher’s language until its light dawned:
“During the final stages of pushing,” she told us as if it was nothing, “it’s not unusual for a woman to push so hard, using the same muscles she uses for a bowel movement, that, if her rectum is full, she may evacuate. Depending on the mother’s position, some fecal matter may end up on the baby’s face, but this is quickly and easily dealt with by the OB or midwife.”
I looked, shocked, around the classroom. Everyone else seemed to be taking this in stride, nodding and jotting notes. Sooo sophisticated, my classmates. At the next break, I accosted my husband.
“Did she just say I might shit on our baby’s face?”
I knew even Anthony was rattled when all he did was parrot my words back at me.
“Yes. It’s possible you might shit on our baby’s face.”
“I can’t believe this. My first act as a mother, the very first thing I do?”
“Yes.” he said. “Shit. Baby’s face. You.” Then he got all prim. “I would never do that.”
But Eldest was born and her face stayed unsoiled. Three years later, so did my newborn son’s. But by five years after that, my perfectly clean record must have made me complacent. The possibility of messing things up from the get-go didn’t even occur to me this time around.
Then, two days after her birth, my tiny Youngest was still pinkly screaming her resentment at being in the world when Anthony approached me nervously.
“So, um, Linda got it off.”
I was confused. Our midwife got off? While I was in labor? Good for her I guess, but it hardly seemed appropriate.
“No, got IT off. The, um, poop. On the baby. You know.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“It wasn’t that bad. Really.”
But I had tried so hard! I did everything right almost! (Almost: the gap where the guilt gets in.)
I felt terrible. And mommy guilt makes me defensive and blamey, which makes me ridiculous. Shortly after Anthony confessed my crime, I produced the following gem of rationalization: “It’s just, she came so fast! I’m sure I wouldn’t have pushed that hard if the baby herself hadn’t been so pushy. Don’t you think?”
I wallowed for a little while, but honestly: If there’s a better object lesson for striving for perfection and messing things up anyway, I can’t think of it. (And if you can’t make a little lesson out of pooping on your baby, why bother?)
The wisdom borne of this Incident should be obvious, but I’m a slow learner and require a lot of repetition: No matter how well I set out to be the perfect mommy, the perfect daughter, the perfect partner. No matter how good my intentions or how hard I try, I will shit on my baby’s face, and there’s no way I can undo it. And every minute I spend wallowing about the poop thing is a minute I’m not admiring tiny fingernails.
Some of my mom-crimes are worse than others, but all of them are forgivable. Yep, Youngest, I did that. I also nursed you and read to you. I drove you places and kissed your owies and lost my temper and said the wrong thing and kept forgetting to sign you up for dance lessons even though you really, really wanted them and you would have been really, really good. I’ve made you a few fancy and complicated birthday cakes and many frozen burritos.
As your mama, all I can do is my best, clean up my mistakes as quickly as I can (or allow other people to clean them up for me, thanks), and then move forward, taking care not to do it again. In this case, I can probably guarantee it.
Margot Page lives with her family in Seattle, where she also writes and works full time. She’s just completed a memoir of the year she hauled her family to Costa Rica. Read more of Margot’s work at www.margot-page.com.