My Hard, Beautiful Love
By Heather Kirn Lanier
“In America we are explicitly taught that a healthy kind of love is a removed love…. Love is the area outside of suffering, not within it. For me the experience of love has always been more primal…. Love is fire. It’s not a sigh; it’s a wail, one part caress and one part claw.” -Arielle Bernstein
I’m not supposed to tell you about the moment I wanted to give my baby up. A mother is not supposed to want to give her baby up. A mother is supposed to adore the need and mystery and flimsiness of her newborn. Photos in Hallmark cards show black and white portraits of naked babies, curled on the chests of half-naked mothers. The babies are sleeping. The mothers’ gazes are cast down toward their babies’ peach-fuzz heads. The mothers’ mouths are upturned so slightly as if to say, This is heaven.
But three months into motherhood, I was not in heaven. I was standing at the lip of hell, and I know I’m not supposed to tell you that the moment I fell in, I had the flash desire to hand my baby back to the doctor who was delivering me news. No. Here you go.
Dear daughter, I’m sorry. You might never be able to read sentences as complex as the ones here. You might never be able to read a single word. But I know at some point you’ll understand this phrase: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that for one microsecond of the turning and ticking world, which churns out baby after baby and new mother after new mother, I wanted to hand you back.
* * *
I was holding my three-month-old in the doctor’s office. My husband sat next to me. Throughout most of the discussion, I’d been nursing my baby, and our nursing became a part of the discussion. The doctor noted that breast milk trailed down my daughter’s cheek, which meant she did not have a strong seal or suck. The doctor noted that I still had to wear a nipple shield, which meant my daughter didn’t latch properly. The doctor noted that it took over an hour to feed my daughter, and yet she still wasn’t more than seven pounds. My husband and I both nodded.
“She’s three months old, and she’s the size of a newborn!” the doctor said, hands raised as though we didn’t know, to which I said,
But there were issues beyond just size and nursing troubles. When the doctor pressed a stethoscope to my daughter’s chest, the doctor said, “She has a murmur.”
When the doctor inspected my daughter’s naked body, the doctor said, “She has a Y-shaped butt crease.”
Finally, when the doctor handed my seven-pound mystery back to me, she said, “I suspect she has some kind of syndrome.”
And that, that is when I felt in my arms the brief exigency to extend them, along with my baby, right back toward the doctor and say, Here.
Of course I didn’t. Of course I loved my daughter already and I loved her too much. But for a fraction—oh, the slightest fraction—of a second, I wanted to hand her back. And that is a moment that haunts me.
* * *
Yesterday I carried my daughter, now two years old, into the hospital. We were not visiting her orthopedist or her geneticist or her cardiologist or her neurologist or her nephrologist. We were not getting a kidney ultrasound or an echocardiogram or an EEG. We were visiting her regular ol’ pediatrician. At fifteen pounds, my daughter is light but not easy to carry. She thrusts her body backward to escape my arms, or she bends forward at the waist and hangs like a rag doll to inspect some spot on the ground. But if I were to set her feet down and let go, she would face-plant into the asphalt. She cannot walk or stand or crawl. She is willowy, her thighs so thin that a thumb and finger can encircle them. She succumbs to gravity like it is an omnipotent god, and she prefers this position: lying face up, her hands fisted into balls.
So when I got to the door of the hospital yesterday, I switched my daughter from hip to hip as she wiggled and slung and strained against me, and I pressed the handicapped button, a sign that once meant “for the benefit of others” and now means, “Oh, thank God.” To my relief, the door opened, and that’s when I saw the flyer.
“Don’t Abandon Your Baby,” it said. “There IS Another Way.”
Since that office visit two years ago, I had not once thought of giving up my baby. But the flyer was comforting. I know how advertising works: if an audience is big enough, a sign is made.
* * *
That moment two years ago was fleeting, so fleeting in fact that it felt foreign, like for one flash second my body had been inhabited by something outside myself. And with my husband at my side, I immediately tamed the urgency in my arms with logic. No need to freak out. My daughter might have a syndrome. But she might not.
Also, the doctor told us that there were many kinds of syndromes, not just the disabling ones I knew about.
“You mean like Lincoln?” my husband asked. “Lincoln had a syndrome.”
My husband cited the former president’s exceptional tallness and thinness, which some physicians offer as evidence that he had Marfan syndrome.
The pediatrician nodded, but as concession rather than confirmation. As in, Okay, sure. I‘ll give you Lincoln. But then she looked down at my baby in my arms. My very small, very thin baby. My daughter was squirming, a writhing question mark. Her cries were so meek they sounded like a cat’s. Without even saying it, we could agree: we did not appear to be looking at another Lincoln.
* * *
In 2010, National Geographic decided to honor Mother’s Day by making even the most insecure mom feel decent at the job. It offered the following:
If a panda has two babies, she’ll often abandon one.
If a hamster has a baby with any congenital anomaly, she’ll sometimes eat the baby.
Hooded grebes incubate two eggs until the first one hatches; the other is left in the nest.
When I felt the urge to hand my daughter back, was it a synaptic impulse from the echo of ancient DNA? Was it in my bones, the behavior fossilized into the calcium? Was it in my cerebellum, that grooved, reptilian chunk at the base of my brain? I think of the leathery skin of lizards, the probing tongues. They don’t make snuggly parents. They lay their eggs, then crawl away.
* * *
We came home from the doctor’s office that afternoon and rushed into making dinner. In less than an hour, my coworker and her two kids would arrive. We vacuumed the carpet, sautéed the meat, chopped the veggies. We had no time to think about genes and chromosomes.
“I forgot how small they are,” my coworker said when I answered the door with my baby in my arms.
My daughter’s eyes were black back then, onyx as Magic Eight balls. They fixed intently on the objects any baby inspects—whirling fans, light through curtains.
My coworker asked to hold my daughter. When she cradled my baby, my coworker lifted her arms up an inch, her eyebrows raised in amazement.. “How much does she weigh?”
I told her. Seven pounds.
She told me about a child she knew who was also quite small, and how doctors fretted and worried the parents. She told me everything had turned out just fine.
Then her youngest child, nearly one year old, clutched our coffee table and side-stepped along it. Then she belly-laughed, a gorgeous ruby-red burst I desperately wanted to hear from my own kid. Instead I heard this, a small voice in my mind: The path of your daughter is different.
Who can dissect fear from gut, especially when one is entertaining guests? So I asked, because I still believed I belonged in the camp of typical parents:
“At what age do they laugh like that?” A belly laugh seemed a great reward for the grueling work of parenting.
To this day I forget my coworker’s answer. Six months? A year? I don’t know when kids first belly laugh. To this day, my daughter, now two, has not belly laughed. She offers many adorable closed-mouth giggles, especially if you dance with her to house beats. Bounce her to Jay-Z, to M.I.A., and her mouth spreads into a wide grin and her blue eyes light up. Out sneak her little giggles like secrets. But I don’t know when babies belly laugh and I don’t know the answer my coworker gave.
What I remember about the exchange is this: I felt envy. I envied the calm, content smile on my coworker’s face as she watched her child laugh and toddle and learn. I envied the certainty she had—her child was side-stepping expectantly toward a healthy future. Both of her children seemed to be known, understandable fixtures of her family, so foundational to the house of their mother’s life that I’m pretty sure she had no strange if brief urge to hand one over to a pediatrician.
My baby was flimsy, literally—she could not hold her head up—and she was flimsy to me emotionally. She felt like a stranger. She felt like a visitor. She asked of me everything and offered only unknowns.
At what point did my daughter become a solid fixture to me? Was it when her actual body became more solid? When she could hold her head up, roughly at six months?
No—if she had never learned to hold her head up, as some of her peers don’t, I still would have found her burrowed into some un-mined and immovable part of my being. Her now sapphire eyes are imprinted somewhere in the deepest place in me. Her pink-lipped smirks and bowl-cut head of honey-brown hair rest in a territory so uncharted no ultrasound can scope it. There she is. My daughter. My love. My hard, beautiful love.
So when did it happen? When did she change from strange visitor to solid fixture? Was it during that first echocardiogram, which found the hole in her heart? Was it during the first catheter, inserted so that doctors could test her kidney function? Was it while I sang ABC‘s to her red-hot, sobbing face as the nurse tried again and again to insert a tube into my daughter’s urethra, and then eventually called another nurse?
Was it during the “swallow study,” when a doctor inserted a tube with a camera up my daughter’s nose and down her throat, and then asked me to nurse her? Was it, dear God, during that first seizure? Was it hearing the colloquial name of the seizure—grand mal? Big bad? Was it during the dark, cold walk from the house to the ambulance as I held her, bundled and pale and postictal, in my arms? Was it the weight of her in those arms? Nine pounds?
I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened, the instant my daughter found in my soul a fixed point that clung as fiercely as I clung back. Maybe it grew incrementally each day. Now I’m a mother who drives several hours to specialists for her, who sits through hours of therapy with her, who inserts seizure medication rectally for her, who offers spoon after spoon of food for her, changes diaper after diaper for her, with no promise that she will ever do these things by herself. I have no promise, that is, that she will ever advance beyond her need for me. My love is deep and raw and all consuming. Her need is in perfect balance.
* * *
After my coworker and her kids left, after my husband and our daughter went to bed, I did what one should not do when one possesses just enough navigational information to land into blackness. I Googled. I typed search terms like “wide-set eyes” and “heart murmur” and “Y-shaped butt crevice.” I unearthed from the bowels of the Internet rare syndromes like Turner and Noonan. I was convinced my child had this chromosomal disorder or that, and I read forums from parents on this chromosomal disorder and that. I learned that their kids had digestive issues or excessively bleeding gums or difficulty learning math, but that they were doing okay for the most part. They were even going to college.
And so I envisioned this future for my daughter: tummy troubles, bloody visits to the dentist, long nights at the kitchen table hunched over word problems. But also college. A backpack and a first day of classes and a new crush spotted across the lawn.
I did not, in all my searching, ever stumble across the incredibly, incredibly rare syndrome my daughter did have, does have, Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome. Thus I escaped the words usually used to describe people with her syndrome: moderate to severe intellectual disabilities or, if the rhetoric is outdated and made to cut, moderate to severe mental retardation.
No, I still had no idea what lay in store for my family.
* * *
“Didn’t you just feel overwhelming love?” older women have asked me, their faces aglow with nostalgia for those early mothering days.
When I held my daughter on day one, I felt what everyone else in the room seemed to feel: fear. Her body was so small that when she emerged, a strange hush fell over the nurses. Our birth plan requested that she be placed on my chest, but instead they whisked her away. She’d been born not one minute and already anxiety trailed behind her like a heavy train on a dress. Something is wrong, the air in the room said, and perhaps that’s when the chemicals of stress eclipsed any oxytocin-induced high I should have felt.
Yet when the doctor on duty held her body up to eye-level, rotating and inspecting her torso, he couldn’t place what that something was. “Her ears are well set,” he said.
On the highway home, the world seemed too full of steel and speed for a person as fragile as my daughter. FRAGILE, read her coming-home onesie, stenciled in a font reminiscent of the letters on a cardboard box. A friend had made the onesie as a baby shower gift, and I’d marveled back then at its tininess. How could a person be so small? But now my baby’s body swam inside that onesie, her lean torso lost in the white folds, her wrists poking out of the short sleeves where underarms should be. She was too small for FRAGILE.
Didn‘t you just feel overwhelming love? Yes. I did. But women ask about overwhelming love with glowing, smiling, punch-drunk faces because they remember this love as pleasurable. My love was shocking. It was mammoth. It was a swell in the middle of the ocean, and I was a speck in a rowboat. I loved her so much I was sinking.
* * *
Eight hours after the pediatrician had suggested a “syndrome,” two hours after my husband and daughter had gone to bed, I finally shut the lid on the laptop. The Internet had done what it does best: stirred my fears into such a strange froth that I no longer knew which way was up and which fact was truth. I mistook my fear for my ground and walked on the shakiness of it, frightened in the dark, and went upstairs to bed.
When I climbed the stairs that night, my arms, empty of my daughter, felt light the way they were pre-child, when the front door was a portal I could easily pass through, when any destination took as long as the fastest route, when all my concerns were about me. Parenthood had dropped me onto a strange new planet whose turning was no longer around the axis of myself.
As I climbed those stairs, I felt the lightness and the freedom of no child to carry, but I also felt the heaviness. The fear in my heart for this new person who now occupied a place there. There was no turning back. No giving her over, even while, just a few hours ago, some reptilian part of my brain had envisioned it. And without knowing much more about her, I sensed that she was going to demand far more from me than anything in my life already had.
So that night, when I reached the bedroom and joined my husband and our newest family member in sleep, I made a change that surprised me. I moved the bassinet closer to me. I’d been feeling almost suffocated by the night feedings, by the relentless round-the-clock-ness and inescapable-ness of parenting. Despite this, I brought my baby even closer. She was swaddled in a cream blanket with only her heart-shaped face exposed. I pressed her bassinet right up against the bed. This way, mid-sleep, I could reach over and touch my daughter. This way her heart would murmur all night next to mine. If she weren’t so small, I would have tucked her into bed with me, curled my body around her seven-pound frame. Together, we’d form the shape of that question mark that hovered above us. If it were physically possible, I would have enfolded her murmuring heart into the very beating of mine. I wanted this. Wanted her inside me again. Wanted to surround her with everything that I was.
And there it is: the painful tension of parenting. Even as I wanted the uncertainty of our lives batted straight out of the ballpark of my life, I also wanted the reason for that uncertainty—my daughter—so close I could hear her breathing. So near I could hear her heart beating. I never wanted to let her go.
Dear Past Self, I think I get it. Get why you wanted to run. You were terrified of becoming the kind of parent you would need to be. Two years later, maybe I can understand the reason for that strange, fast, foreign urge in my arms—the urge to thrust her back. One part of me couldn’t bear what another part of me knew I was going to bear: the raw, gut-wrenching, heart-bruising work of loving someone who utterly needs you. The experience of now-and-forever holding, and being held by, a love so big it hurts.
Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America, and The Story You Tell Yourself, winner of the 2010 Wick Poetry Open Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Sun, Utne Reader Online, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She blogs about her daughter, who is now three years old, at starinhereye.wordpress.com.