At the moment when my daughter entered the world, when her cries brought to a halt my groans, in the seconds between when my husband cut her cord and then handed her to me, there was one other sound in the room. Me saying, in a panicked and shaky voice, “Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God” on a loop.
Mira’s warm body now lay on the opposite side of the belly which had been hers for nine months. The idea of motherhood had, in one long push, turned into the reality. And oh my God, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, feel, be, act like. I was not ready and yet, that didn’t really matter, did it?
When the nurses returned Mira to me in my hospital room, sweet-smelling and swaddled, still in that sleepy newborn daze, I was able to stare at her for the first time. As Sid slept in a chair beside me I gently unwrapped the blanket. Ten fingers and toes — wasn’t that the gauge of baby perfection, and wasn’t it my job to at least do that level of quality control? I slid her clenched fist out from the blanket and felt my breath catch in my throat. Her fingers were exact, miniature replicas of my husband’s. This was real. We, together, made a baby. And now she was here, with her long perfect fingernails and rosy red cheeks, beauty and potential bundled in a hospital-issue receiving blanket.
I shuddered. Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby? She cried that first night and I had no idea what to do. She cried for the next three months and I still had no idea what to do. After my umpteenth sleepless night, after it was yet again obvious that I wasn’t making enough breast milk, after she had thrown up yet again from the formula we tried to give her, I asked myself and asked God, “Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby?”
I spent my 20s convinced I was too selfish to be a parent, and I’m sure I was right. But then 30 hits, and you see how wonderful your husband is with little babies, and you know that deep down, it is an experience you want to have. But the truth is that you are scared to death: The brand-new adult life you just a few years stepped into is still precariously delicate. You’re still trying to figure out your way in the world — professionally, maritally, financially. And in the midst of all that unsurety, six pregnancy tests confirm what you really only needed one to tell you.
I was the mom whose baby wailed during the afternoon walks in the stroller that, pre-baby, I had fantasized would be our special time together enjoying nature. We were the ones driving in circles around the neighborhood praying for that moment that the wailing turned into a whimper and turned into silence. I was an over-achiever. A perfectionist. If I got a 95 on a test, I berated myself over the last five points. At motherhood, I was failing miserably and failure was not my thing.
One night, when she was about 6 weeks old, I remember staring down at that full head of brown hair, stroking her forehead as Sid taught me to do as a way to calm her down, and thinking, “Okay kid. I’ve had it. It’s time for me to be the mommy. And to do that, I’m going to have to figure you out.”
And one night at at time, I did. We found a formula she could tolerate. I figured out that if I got her a bottle before she went into full-on tantrum, she’d drink and fall into a deep sleep. I learned how to swaddle. We created nighttime routines that signaled to all three of us that the day was coming to an end, a sanity-saver for adults and baby alike. And slowly I came to accept: Maybe I wasn’t an utter failure at motherhood. Maybe it was a good idea to give me a baby.
As that baby who perplexed me and humbled me grew, so did the amount of space she took up in my heart. A smile made me melt. When her eyes fixed on my face as I talked to her, I realized I’d never felt that special to anyone, ever. Her arms started to reach for me. Once I figured out how to get her to sleep, nap time became my favorite time of the day — the rocking, the reading, watching her eyes grow heavy, a dribble of milk moving down those wonderfully round cheeks. Oh my God, oh my God — I was in love.
It shocks me now to think that, when she was first laid on my belly, I was not overwhelmed with love for my daughter. Instead, over time I fell madly, deeply and obsessively in love with her. And somehow, for me, that is better. My love of her was a choice and then an undeniable urge, instead of the other way around. She quickly became my sidekick and my favorite companion, moving Cheerios into her mouth as she focused intently on watching me make dinner; her arms wrapping around my legs when I picked her up from day care and then pre-school and then kindergarten. Her smile still makes my heart melt, as if all the goodness in the world is being filtered through her to me — how did I get that lucky?
Today that precious gift I was given, that good idea that wasn’t my own, is growing up and growing away. Mira is 10 years old. This weekend I told her we’d bake cookies together, as baking is one of her favorite pursuits. Instead, she baked and I watched, my sole role being removing the hot cookie sheets from the oven. She confidently asks store clerks and restaurant waiters “Do you have this?” and “Can I have that?” She wakes up on her own at 5:30 am to shower and is often downstairs for breakfast before I am. She is applying to middle schools and has her sights set on the best one in New York City.
My baby, that rosy-cheeked bundle that rooted me and taught me more about myself than anyone ever has, is becoming her own person. Now what I’m left to wonder is — Do I remember how to be me?
Next year Mira will start middle school, a wild west of adolescence and hormones and cliques and first crushes. I try not to think about all the emotional education she has yet to receive — all the slights and heartbreaks in her future, all the joy and excitement she’ll have that I won’t be party to and likely will know nothing about. I try not to think about how much I miss those chubby little arms wrapped around my neck, or the way she would sing “Jingle Bells” every morning when she woke up in her crib, no matter what the season. But then I do think about it, as I am now, and I fight back tears but also marvel at how lucky I am to have had those moments.
It’s easy to dwell on the past, to wonder how time could have passed by so quickly and to regret the haste. But I try to focus on what a friend, years ago, told me when I asked her, “What is your favorite stage with your children?” She had three teen-agers at the time. She thought for a moment and said, “You know, every stage was fun in its own way. I really loved them all.”
And so as my daughter grows from little girl to almost teen, as the way she needs me changes, I try to focus on that. Children change, but every stage is a new adventure. Middle school, while it scares me, excites me also because I know there is so much yet for her to discover in this world, and so much of it is so good.
I can say the same for myself, both as a woman and as a mother: there is so much yet to discover in this world. Only I get an added benefit: I get to experience it myself, and to see it through my children’s eyes. And Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God, how wonderful that really does sound.