The baby was just hours old, but he was, as all babies are, a marvel and a miracle, all wrapped up in a striped cotton blanket. In the rare moments that he opened his impossibly dark newborn eyes to the world, he must have seen, staring back at him, two youthful faces, squinting in an expression equal parts adoration, pride, and terror. It’s no wonder that he so often scrunched them closed again, his impossibly furrowed newborn brow conveying his view of his unfortunate lot.
There in the hospital room on his first whole day of life, we had stared at him so long that my mom had to gently suggest that he might benefit from a diaper change. His father and I, whose ages added up to her own, stared at her blankly. Thinking of it now, I am sure our expressions mirrored one I have seen on my adult children’s faces in times of great stress and uncertainty, moments of transparency in which their young lives flash across their startled eyes, sudden mirrors of the toddler caught red-handed, the teenager uttering an untruth, the young adult facing the unforeseen. Anyway, no one said anything until someone – I cannot remember if it was the stunned baby’s father or the overwhelmed young mother – finally spoke. “Um, the nurses do that,” one of us said without a hint of irony. The other added solemnly: “I don’t think we’re allowed.”
It was so hard to believe, at first, that the babies really belonged to you, and not someone else – like the nursery nurses for example – who had received the requisite training, who would know how to do the job. Still, as if to head off any such suggestion, they sent you home from the hospital quickly, armed with extra pads and some encouraging platitudes, while you tried to look capable, and convinced. There was nothing to do but go home and fumble through feeding and diapering and existing without the requisite sleep while, if you were very lucky, your eager-to-help husband took direction: answering the door, offering to bring you things, going out to pick up anything you might need, even embarrassing new-mom things he would not be caught dead buying under normal circumstances. And eventually there was that moment that you realized that you had done such a convincing job that even he was a lieutenant, that oh my God, even he thought you knew what you were doing, that you were the Last Mom Standing, that the buck stopped with you. And maybe you cried a little while he was out at the store, or while you took the first shower you had had in three days, or when the baby poop that looked like creamed corn and could not possibly be normal had run out like hot lava all over everything. And you wondered how you were going to get out of this gig, when the reinforcements were coming, how anyone could have thought it was ok to leave you in charge.
Eventually, though, you began to figure things out. And necessity being the mother of invention, and motherhood being the original inventor of necessity, you came to grips with the fact that you were the only one around who could do this job, which was to take care of a baby who, according to the state-issued birth certificate which was somewhere in a towering pile of unread mail, did, in fact, legally belong to you. Even in the worst moments, the longest nights, the most overwhelmed afternoons in which throwing in a single load of laundry became an impossibility, you remained the mother and father this baby had ended up with. And because you adored this little one so much already, and because you wanted the very best for them, you kept trying, struggling to be good enough, all the while wondering if there wasn’t someone better for the job.
And then one day after some weeks of this, just about the time you started to lose hope, the little person smiled back at you for the first time, and it felt like the marvel and the miracle all over again, like the sun coming out after a long rain. And then one happy day they laughed at you, too, the lyrical, hiccupping, virulently contagious laugh of a baby who suddenly thinks you are the most hilarious and wonderful person ever. And you knew then, for sure, that you really did belong to each other, that it was all going to be ok.
And this went on for many years, the belonging, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in good times and the bad. These included times when another mother approached you angrily at the playground – where you were mercifully enjoying the triumvirate of being dressed, out of the house, and engaged in adult conversation, and also maybe were not watching as closely as you should have been – to ask, with her finger wagging, if you were that child’s mother. It also included times when a friendly stranger approached, smiling broadly while asking in sweet tones if you were the mother of your child’s name, and you smiled back, awaiting the glowing news. It even included awful times when a stern, unfamiliar voice on the phone, which had perhaps come in the middle of the night, and from a number you did not recognize, asked gravely if you were the parent of your child’s name, and your heart stopped completely before giving the answer that was always the same. Yes. No matter what you wished the answer was at that moment, no matter what the outcome of this admission would be. Yes, you said. The child belongs to me.
I saw Mamma Mia 2 earlier this week with my husband and daughters. The sequel is never as good as the first movie, and I didn’t know as many of the ABBA songs in this one, so by the time we got close to the end, I had grown a bit disinterested; I was ready for it to wrap up. And then, we got to that one scene – if you have seen it, you know which one I mean, and if you have not, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you – and suddenly I was all in, bawling right there in the movie theater to the strains of an ABBA song I’d never heard before. It turns out they rewrote most of the lyrics of this song to fit the movie, and even though I am kind of an ABBA purist in this regard, I say Well done, and also, if it was supposed to make us all cry: Same.
They sang of the images passing by, which for me are those fleeting, hazy memories of young parents, and babies in striped cotton blankets; they sang of the mirror of our children’s eyes, which makes me think of how you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the baby, the toddler, the teenager, and the grown up there, all at one time. They sang of how hard it is to find words to express how all of that feels, and today as I tried to find them, I found that if you get quiet enough to try, you might hear, in your middle-aged ears, your impossibly-now-grown-up baby’s first laugh, which causes big, silent tears to fall, decades later and for no good reason, onto your keyboard. They sang of how clear some things are, looking back, and it is true that if I try, I can nearly meet the gaze of my younger self, a mom who probably was too young and unprepared to have been left in charge of anything, but who, through the miracle of motherhood, came to understand how each of her babies did belong to her, and to sustain that belonging through all of the times and all of the years.
But when the song reminded me that, apparently, I know I don’t possess my children, the cry really got ugly, because I knew that I had forgotten that part, and because no one tells you what it will feel like when they don’t belong to you anymore. And because in all the belonging years, we totally forgot that this was coming all along. And some of us conveniently forgot to notice that it had actually already come and gone, that they have not belonged to us for some time.
And when you remember that, when you find that you have recently given birth to a grown up, it is just exactly like the first time, which is to say that you stare at them with a mix of adoration, pride, and terror until people put you in the car and send you on your way with encouraging platitudes. And the truth is that you feel as unprepared as you were then, and you find that you are still just trying to look capable, and convinced. You do it wrong a whole bunch of times before you get good at it, and you cry a little bit here and there, and sometimes still, your older mom-self wonders, in working out the un-possessing, if there isn’t someone better for the job.
I spent so much time learning how fully they belonged to me. I just forgot that the day would come when they would not.
My loves, my life.