I’ve written about my oldest son in a number of posts. Everything in this post is only indirectly about my son. It is mostly about me, about my first year-and-a-half as a new parent, and about the evolution of love as an act of endurance.
From my own experiences, it seems to me that raising children - a first child, especially in the first four years - is as much about endurance as it is about love. We develop the ability to endure because we have a very strong sense of responsibility. The child is ours. There’s visceral biochemistry involved.
I knew, in the hospital, whenever my son cried. Whenever any child cried, I would tense, wondering if it was mine - but the minute I heard his voice, there was no question. I knew. Also: he cried. A lot. I hated to have him away, but at the same time, I was exhausted, in pain, and in the severe stress I generally am when I’m stuck in an unfamiliar environment and strangers don’t think twice about walking into the bathroom when the door is closed and I am sitting on the toilet. Ahem.
If we have a strong, visceral attachment to our newborn infants, we also have doubt and fear and uncertainty, and in spite of the fact that the bundle which has now entered our life like a cluster bomb is new and entirely helpless, we also have things we need. As adults, we address our wants and needs, often with far less damaging consequences than our early attempts as teenagers. As parents, or as mothers, the needs of our child are now considered tantamount; they are to subsume all our needs, because: baby vs. adult. As adults, we’re expected to somehow become ideal. We warrant judgement and mockery if we fail to live up to the ideal of motherhood as it is held, often by people who will never experience it except as a very disappointed child.
Actually, that’s unfair. I don’t know about any of the rest of you, but as a childless woman myself I was highly critical and often judgemental about the parenting of other people. I would see a child having a tantrum in public and I would think: My mother would have killed us if we had done that or no child of mine is ever going to do that. I knew, of course, having had no children of my own, that there was a right way to raise children so they would behave perfectly. (I didn’t say any of this out loud, and I am profoundly grateful that I didn’t - because I say most things out loud, and this one deserved to be buried so deeply it never sees the light of day again.)
You may all laugh at me, now. I knew it because it’s easy to know this when there’s no experience of the absolute truth of the 24/7 that is motherhood. So, first and foremost, motherhood was humbling. It was humbling because all of the certainty I’d once held--the unkind certainty--that I would raise perfect children was staring me in the face.
It taught me two things. One: that I had been so wrong if being wrong were a crime my children would have been single parent children within the first week of their life. Second: if I could be that wrong about something so important, how wrong could I be about other things? How much did what I “know” reflect my total lack of experience and my youthful hubris? It changed not only the way I looked at parenting, but also the way I looked at the world. It forced me to dig deeper, to try to see the truth of a life I might never otherwise live.
It made me far less judgemental.
But I was still at sea, here. I understood ‘love’ as it pertained to me, my husband, my friends. I understood that I felt most loved where I was seen and known as myself. Love was grounded in respect, respect in knowledge. I loved my husband for who he was.
I loved my parents in a different way, but I will tell you, I have fought with no one in my life as much as my mother and I fought during my adolescence. Not even my sister. We clashed time and again over areas of respect and knowledge and inconsistencies.
I had never thought about loving a baby. I had--as so many of us do--assumed that that all-consuming love would hormonally kick in the minute labor was over and the infant was bundled and placed in my arms. I knew - I flatter myself here - how to love other people.
But…a baby is not quite a person. If an infant has likes, dislikes, they’re not immediately clear. Babies do not have shareable opinions; they do not have life-defining philosophies. They are not, however, an entirely blank slate: they exist in potential, with character traits that arrive, hidden, at birth.
How does someone who has struggled to an adult, sane, and rational definition of love & human interaction then interact with someone who … has not? How could I love someone who I did not know, and who did not know me?
When GEnie was still active, I went from being childless to being a mother. My son did not sleep unless he was held. If he was put down, he woke and screamed until he was picked up. He could not just be held either, unless he was asleep; he required motion. Sound. Visual stimulus. He could not, in fact, be put down - at all - until he was able to crawl.
We believe, at this point, that his stomach was not entirely fully formed (this is not infrequent with babies), and he was therefore in pain. Stimulus distracted him from that pain. So we had to hold him -- face out, arms supporting that position - and bounce him gently up and down. He would not sit in a stroller until he could walk. (We tried. Twice. He simply would not stop screaming until he was picked up.)
My husband worked three day weeks for the entirety of his vacation, because it gave him more time at home for the longest possible period. And I will admit up front that I deeply envied him the ability to go back to work. He could: answer the phone. Eat a meal. Go to the bathroom, all without the certainty of interruption. I would put my son into his car bed and go to the bathroom while he screamed his lungs out, at home.
Sleep was…a thing of the past. It was fractured, broken, and hugely variable. I was, to put it mildly, a wreck. I was also a new mother. The latter almost guarantees the former. Lack of sleep is a subtle torture, and it eats away at everything. I do not think I have ever cried so much as I did during my oldest son’s first two months of life; I was exhausted. Again: new mother. This is common.
But we’re often afraid to say this because it works against the Hallmark version of the good mother. It makes us sounds as if we don’t appreciate baby boot camp. And it is boot camp. You don’t get proper food, you don’t get proper sleep. You do everything on autopilot, and some things, you do not do at all. The house was a mess.
I was not a Hallmark mother. I was desperately trying to get a book finished on deadline because I had assumed that it would not be difficult to find one hour out of a day in which to write. One hour. It was, as it turned out, almost impossible. So: stress. It was the first time I had not been working full-time since we were married. And we needed the income. It wasn’t optional. I did not make much money writing, at that time - but the little I did make was required.
I kept waiting for the happy glow of sentiment that would make this all seem worthwhile and pleasant. I felt like an alien. I would go to meetings with other mothers and they all seemed happy and content and I felt like a monster. After our sixteen week meeting with the labor coach and the parents in that class, I turned to the labor coach, feeling like an utter failure and said, “Why is every other baby but ours sleeping through the night?”
She gave me a very funny look and said, “Oh, they’re not.”
“But they all said they were.”
“They’re lying. Or they’re defining “through the night” in a way that does not actually mean what the words say.”
I am, at heart, a very straightforward person. A geek. I said, “But--but why would they lie?”
And she said, “for a hundred different reasons. No one wants to look like a bad parent. No one wants unhelpful advice. No one wants to listen to their parents criticize them for their parenting. It’s much, much easier to say ‘yes’ when asked if the baby is sleeping.”
I had all the biological impulses, all the physical reactions - to his crying, for instance - but they were dissociated from me. I was even afraid to touch him too much because I had hated being touched as a child, and if he hated it, he had no way of expressing it, no way of telling me to keep my distance. I was trying to treat him as if he were another independent person. Flailing.
I would start emails and finish them hours later, in bits and pieces. I asked most of my friends not to call because I couldn’t answer the phone without screaming (his) or crying, and on the off chance that he fell asleep, I could at least sit down with him, instead of the constant walking and bouncing - but the phone would wake him.
So: I was isolated, I was exhausted, I was a zombie. No two months of my life before or since were as difficult as the first two months of life with my first child.
When I did finally, slowly, come back to a very changed life, my son was fifteen months old. At fifteen months, I fell in love with him. But it took that long before my fear of failure, my lack of sleep, my inability to instantly emotionally bond stepped out of my way.
Did I share this with my son? No. What very little energy I husbanded went into time with him. I learned to smile. I learned to laugh. I sang instead of speaking (because that often caught his attention). I would lie down on the floor, on my stomach, to play with him. For hours. The vacuum cleaner made him scream. He instantly panicked if it was turned on. Multiple attempts to acclimatize him to this sound utterly failed. So, I may have mentioned the house was a mess. My husband would take the baby out for a walk, and I would do the noise-making cleaning. Or, you know, collapse on the couch and stare listlessly at the ceiling.
I did not mention GEnie by accident.
GEnie was a board that hosted a lot of authors, and each was given their own discussion topic. Each author set the tone for their topic; they were their own moderators. There were topics I loved because of the discussions they hosted, and topics I avoided because of the flames.
But one author’s topic caught and held my attention. She was a respected SF author, and she had married a man who had a six year old son. She had dogs. She got along well with the six year old until the day he found out that she was marrying his father - that his father and his mother would therefore never live together again. Then, he became insecure.
Her husband worked the usual Monday to Friday out of the house job; she was a writer, and she was therefore home. So she undertook the childcare. Children were not part of her future plans before she met her husband, and she found herself entirely lost at sea. She did not want to replace the child’s mother, and she didn’t want to step on the child’s toes or disrespect his boundaries; she wanted to give him respect & room.
Yes, you can understand why these discussions caught and held my interest. It was like gazing into a mirror. But she was willing to talk about these things in public because she was not the child’s biological mother. She talked about her sense of alienation; of being outside while keeping an eye on the children, and realizing she had far more in common with the grandmothers and caretakers than she did with the mothers. She spoke about the way her life was reduced to shopping for children’s clothing, grocery shopping to make meals because if she didn’t meals were on a very shaky schedule, and school duties.
And she said one thing, one day, for which I had to comment. She was at a low point in her entry into motherhood, and she was certain that had she been the child’s biological mother, she would not have any of these feelings. She would have that bonding, and that instant affinity, that would somehow make life just work.
And so, I said, and this is paraphrase because I don’t have the GEnie records for those topics anymore; I just remember the sense of the discussion, “What makes you think that biological mothers don’t have this reaction? What makes you think we don’t get tired, we don’t feel lost, we don’t wonder what happened to the lives we struggled so hard to build? We’re just as lost when we start. They don’t have mandatory parenting classes. The only difference is we don’t doubt that we are the child’s parents, because demonstrably, we are.”
And she said, “Wait, wait. You mean you’ve felt this way as a biological mother?”
And I said, “Oh yes. I think a lot of us do, but we don’t normally speak about it because we don’t want to look or sound like bad parents. We don’t have doubts about our feelings that we can blame on not being biological parents--demonstrably, we are. But we have the same fears, the same sense of inadequacy.”
And she said, “I have to think about this.”
I don’t know too much about what happened to her after this. She left GEnie, and I had so little time to spend on-line that I kind of left everything for a while, because my oldest child was very, very time intensive and as he slept less, there was no time for much else. Son, writing, and household chores. Sleep was still not plentiful.
But by this time, I accepted the responsibilities that I had chosen. I learned to endure the endless days of play-doh in the breakfast nook (I mean this: we could be there for four hours). The 5 minute walks between the house and the playground that took almost an hour, because every pebble had to be inspected, every crack in the sidewalk, every small twig. I learned to see the world as my son saw it, and to try to find the joy and the humor in it because I had to do it anyway. I grew to love the time because I was old enough to teach myself how to do this. I threw much of myself into his life because, among other things, it was my job. It did not come naturally, to me. I had to work at it.
But, you know, writing came naturally to me - but writing well enough to be published most assuredly did not. Parenting was the same. It’s just that writing was not and had never been a 24/7 thing.
Was I perfect at parenting? Hardly. But I was good at keeping the frustration to myself on most days. On the days I simply couldn’t - well, we had timeouts for those, and when my son was two and a half, I could stick myself in my room for ten minutes without risking hideous injury on his part.
And years later, I read an interview in LOCUS with this author, and she spoke with happy--and great--affection of “my kid”. It made me smile, because although I did not read or correspond with her again I understood that she had chosen to make the same journey that I had.