When Lilly was born, I waited for the joy to wash over me like a waterfall of pure bliss. After all, that’s what new parents are supposed to experience, right? All I had to do was cradle my precious child like the beatific, serene Madonna I’d seen in so many works of art, and take my place in the heavenly halls of motherhood. Right?
Lilly was born in a planned C-section because of the spina bifida. Although we’d been aware of the SB since the fourth month of pregnancy, I was still a nervous wreck. I was afraid of the surgery (my first ever), afraid of the new demands of motherhood, afraid of the SB and all it entailed. Still, I held out hope for that proverbial wave of maternal joy to make things right; and when the nurse showed me that little elf-faced bundle before whisking her away to the NICU, I did cry a few tears. Tears of relief, of amazement, and yes, of a deep, abiding love, a love I’d felt for my child since conception.
But joy? Not quite yet. The closest I’d come at that point was during the first few months of my pregnancy. I loved being pregnant. I’d heard horror stories from so many women who had debilitating morning sickness. Not me. I didn’t throw up once. I felt amazingly alive and beautiful-my hair and nails were full and glossy, my body became soft and rounded, without an ounce of excess weight. Just that baby bump beginning to show. I truly glowed, as the expression goes.
The first flutterings of movement in my womb, evidence that an actual child was growing in there, was surreal and thrilling. The news of the spina bifida at four months was a crushing blow and shadowed the rest of the pregnancy, but I was otherwise healthy and tried to enjoy it as much as I could. I tried to take joy in the unfurling of autumn around me, my favorite month, but all color had been drained from my world.
In the gloomy month of February the stress and worry surrounding the birth set in. Soon we had an actual, squalling, defenseless infant under our care, a baby with a wound on her back, with two parents who had no idea what they were doing. It was all so overwhelming; I was anxious and weepy.
I remember one night during that fumbling, sleep-deprived first month. I held my crying baby against me as I rocked her in the rocking chair. My husband lay sprawled at my feet on the floor, tired and at wit’s end, a hand touching my ankle to show he was there. Lilly wailed, and I cried, hot, silent tears coursing down my cheeks. I remember thinking, I love this child more than life, but I’ve made a terrible mistake. I can’t do this. This baby deserves a better mom.
Such were my irrational thoughts most of those bleary-eyed first three months. Joy was a rumor, a myth, something other mothers-good mothers-experienced.
And then, as spring strained toward summer, a confluence of things began to happen. We all started to get a little more sleep at night. Routines fell into place, and I started to feel less flustered, more in control. Lilly’s stitches came out, and she healed.
And she smiled. She would look at me and return my smile; she’d laugh in response to mine. I’d talk to her, and she’d burble something out of her lips, fascinated by her own sounds, testing the early waters of speech. She’d curl her fingers, flip her hand around, and watch in awe. She became amazed at herself.
And so did I. She wasn’t just a squalling, helpless little creature anymore. She was a person. Her personality began to bloom like the summer flowers unfolding all around us. This amazing person came out of me. She was mine, and I was hers, and that would always be.
That’s when joy slipped through the back door and surprised me. For some reason, I remember feeling it most intensely while we were in the grocery store one day. I pushed her around in her stroller, shopping, just doing a normal, mommy thing, and it hit me-I’ve never been so happy. It felt right, meant to be. Looking at my child, the joy bubbled up inside me, like the nonsense words that so often escaped from her little lips-spontaneous, indefinable, but unmistakably with her as its source.
Some much of what you shared resonated with me. I, too, didn’t discover “joy” for a while after my first baby was born. I, too, had those ideas that I lacked competency and that he would have been better off with some other mother. (I think at the time I imagined this “some other mother” as being a woman who had the selfless capacity to feel that joy I simply couldn’t find.)
Your descriptions of the “mother condition” (like the “human condition”) sum up beautifully the common thread we share when we find ourselves in that common, yet unique space.
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I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one, though at the time it’s such a terrible, lonely feeling.