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Learning to Love Motherhood

By Chantal Panozzo 

Girl enjoying snowtimeRecently, both my two-year-old and I had “aha!” moments. Hers was: “Snow is cold.” Mine was: “Oh, so this is why people have children.”

I was never one of those women who felt born to breed. I didn’t have dreams about bridal gowns or babies. Even though I met my future husband when we were both 19, we felt no particular rush to do anything but enjoy our lives. We got master’s degrees at 25. We got married at 26. We moved to Switzerland at 28. When I wasn’t working, I concentrated on one thing: seeing the world’s wonders.

My husband and I were DINKS (double income, no kids). And we lived like it. We traveled when and where the spirit (and great airfare deals) took us. Warsaw for the weekend? France on a Friday? Notting Hill next week? Takoui, and sign us up. I printed out a map of the world and hung it on our fridge. After every trip, I colored in the countries I had visited.

Thirty-two years and 32 countries later, my biological clock began dinging and donging as much as the medieval clock tower across the street. The possibility to add a little bundle of joy to my life was slowly announcing its expiration date. Didn’t babies define happiness? I loved happiness. And even though I had plenty, I got greedy; I wanted more. So a year later, I was pregnant. When “joy” arrived I took her home, jubilant. But it wasn’t long—maybe 72 hours—before “joy” made me feel something else: sorrow. Instead of seeing the world, I was seeing spit up. I couldn’t help it; I missed my old life.

Did I have a mental disorder? Everyone I knew was congratulating me, saying how wonderful a baby was and how I should enjoy every moment. But all I could do was smile and nod and silently wonder, which moment did they mean?

Was it the moment when I dripped from every orifice in my body (orifices that before giving birth I didn’t even know existed)? Was it the moment at 3 a.m. when I was reminded I wasn’t a woman, but a cow?  Was it the moment when poop became the main topic of conversation at breakfast? (That is, if I even remembered to eat?)

The truth is, after I had a baby, my life as I had known it took a free fall. Warsaw on the weekend? I had taken less baggage to Warsaw than I did now to go across the street. Work out? Even if my husband was home, I felt like I had to ask his permission to leave the house. Go back to work? Great. I could feel guilty. Stay at home? Fantastic. I could feel like I had wasted my education.

The worst part was my dining room table. Where the silver candlestick holders had once been was a big, yellow electric breast pump slowly sucking the life out of me every time I looked at it—never mind when I used it.

I don’t know what I expected, but as a member of the Google Generation with everything from instant coffee to instant answers for “what airline flies direct to East Timor?” perhaps I assumed I’d also be graced with an instant love of motherhood. But instead I found myself silently regretting it.

Why did you want a baby? Stop. I wanted to stop asking myself that. But since that thought usually happened at the same moment I was sleep deprived and spilling some preciously pumped breast milk, it only egged on other troubling questions, especially if I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror. I had bags under my eyes and an extra ten pounds around my hips. My God, what did you do to your life? Stop. I didn’t want to ask myself that either. Especially when my daughter finally began smiling. But my protests did no good. My thoughts babbled more than my baby. And since they were mean and selfish thoughts, I didn’t share them with anyone. Instead, I let them ferment inside me like a Swiss Gruyere. For two years.

Then it snowed.

Of course, this particular snow was hardly my daughter’s first snow, but at 25 months, it was the first snow she registered. We watched it from our window. “Snow!” she yelled, “Pretty!” She remained mesmerized for at least nine minutes, practically an eternity for a toddler. “Out,” she said, “go!”

We prepared to go outside. That took approximately one decade. She wanted to wear her dirty diaper. She wanted to put her rain pants on backwards. And she wanted to wear her sandals. I tried not to remember my old life, when I left the house exactly eight minutes before the train to the airport was coming, tantrum-free and perfectly dressed for the weather.

Practically a lifetime later, which included several bribes in the form of Saltines, we were at the park. I took my daughter out of her stroller and set her in the snow. I was sweating from the effort it had taken to go two whole blocks from the apartment. Do something, I willed my daughter. Do something to make all the effort in getting here worth it. But she didn’t do anything except stand there as frozen as an ice sculpture. Then, to remind me she wasn’t a sculpture, she whined. And held up her arms for me to pick her up.

I sighed and held her for a few moments, debating whether we should just go grocery shopping instead. But something—let’s call it renewed patience—made me set her down in the snow again.

I began making little snowballs as she stood there. First I threw them. As her frown began to melt, I handed her little snowballs and she threw them. “More!” she said, until we had made so many snowballs that a patch of grass surrounded us.

“Walk,” she said. She took a hesitant step. “Snow,” she kept saying, as her pace quickened

When we reached the park’s fountain, that mercifully, was finally turned off, we made more snowballs and threw them into it. Each time a snowball self-destructed at the bottom of the fountain, my daughter shrieked with joy. “Snow!” she sang, her face registering total bliss, as if snow were the most amazing thing ever.

At that moment, I realized it was. Snow was amazing. It was white and cold and beautiful and I loved it. And that’s when I realized how much I loved my daughter for making me remember that.

I felt nothing but peace and happiness then. Thanks to my daughter, a new way of appreciating life had opened before my eyes like a flower. It was a world where small things were big and wonderful. It was a world where an airline ticket to an exotic country wasn’t necessary to find wonder. Instead, wonder was right in front of me, waiting to be discovered. It was in the form of my little girl in an over-sized pink coat and pink boots. She was going to make sure I didn’t miss a minute of it.

“Walk! Snow,” she said.

Inspired by her words, I began to sing a song I had sung as a child, with a newfound sense of awe floating along with the melody: “Let us walk in the white snow, in a soundless place. With footsteps quiet and slow, at a tranquil pace…”

My daughter smiled. “Mommy. Snow,” she said. She couldn’t have summed up the moment better—even with a verb. We threw another snowball in celebration of her 35-year-old mother’s ability to finally see snow as clearly as a two-year-old. I held her close, my lips warm on her cold cheek.

Then she decided to take off her gloves and my newfound love of motherhood took a commercial break.

“Aren’t you going to put your gloves back on?” I asked.

“No!” she said.

I shrugged, feigning indifference and made her another snowball, which she took with her bare hands.

“Oh,” she said, “cold!” She dropped the snowball like a hot potato and looked at me with the most wonderful expression: as if she had just watched a horror film.

“Snow is cold. That’s why Mommy wants you to wear your gloves,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Then she cocked her head and looked up at me like I maybe, actually, might have had a few words of wisdom to offer.

Now there was something to love in a daughter. So as she held out her hands for me to re-mitten, I was smitten. Her tiny appreciation for my common sense was yet another reason, two years after becoming a mother, that I finally loved my new and wonder-filled life.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.

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