I had planned a special post for this week—a blog entry about my daughter Natalie that I originally wrote in 2009 and then reworked for submission to a potential writing gig the following year. (Yes, “potential writing gig” is just a dignity-preserving way to admit that the story was rejected, but perhaps you could indulge me by pretending it means something more glamorous, say, a prestigious job offer that I was forced to turn down because it interfered with my sparkling social life.) The document has been languishing in the Looking For New Homes folder on my hard drive ever since, so I decided to give it a home here in honor of Natalie’s eighth birthday last week.
However, every day that I’ve tried to publish it so far, my fingers have frozen on me much like a throat clamping down to stop painful words in their tracks. I couldn’t understand why at first. The story is about my honest struggle with new motherhood and the love that eventually bound me to my daughter. It’s authentic and ultimately positive, two of my highest aims in writing, so I couldn’t fathom why the post-production crew in my heart kept stalling.
Another read-through today though, and I understand. I wrote the post when Natalie was four and we had been in Italy just one and a half years. Dan grew up in Italy, so he had settled back into the culture like a man coming home, but everything from the pace of life to the words on our grocery receipt was new for Natalie and I. We were one and a half years into total cultural upheaval, I was one and a half years into severe postpartum depression, and our mother-daughter relationship was at an all-time low. She was an energetic preschooler; I was struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. We clashed constantly, and I had no reserves of patience or perspective left from which to draw.
Reading back through the entry sends me traveling to a time that I would eagerly erase from our memory if I could, a time that left barbed wire imprints around my rib cage and temples. Revisiting it is painful in a way I wasn’t prepared for. We’ve spent this last week celebrating eight years of Natalie, my sweet, creative girl whose enthusiasm for books and curiosity about life fill an endless well of shared interest. Our souls have discovered their kinship, so it pains me all the more to look back on a time when I was not enough myself to appreciate all of her self. I regret the mother-I-once-was more fiercely than anything else in my experience.
However, camping out in regret is no way to live and certainly no way to move on. Grace nudges me to look back with softer eyes and recognize that at each stage of my rocky road to motherhood, I did the best I could. Even on those gray, gray days when I felt like I could not possibly go on living until the next, I still got out of bed, still made breakfast, still snuggled up for storytime, and it was for her. My love was feeble, but it was very real. It is very real. The same elemental strain pulses through my veins today, and it’s why revisiting the darkness of four years ago causes me to flinch. It’s also why I’m finally sharing the post, because proof of love is not in perfection, not defined by the glossy, Instagramable moments when the sun is shining and birthday cake on the table; it’s in the whole story, the mess and the grace, the regrets acknowledged and then gently ushered to the back row.
Here it is, home now:
I remembered the doors swinging open to white walls, autoclaved and sparkling under honeycomb lights. I remembered an audience of green scrubs as I struggled to sit up, feeling as dignified a landlocked whale in my backless gown. I remembered hunching over my belly, wondering if it would burst under my lumbering attempt to form a C until a needle in my spine dissolved worry along with sensation. I remembered a blue curtain dividing my body from my four remaining senses and the doctor telling my husband, “You might want to look now.” At least this: I remembered being in the same room when my daughter was born.
Otherwise, I had my doubts as to Natalie’s origin. There was absolutely no question that Dan was the father—she was a tiny, olive-skinned photocopy of my husband with his Lebanese ancestry peeking through her impossibly dark eyes—but who her mother was, none could tell. I had been a redheaded newborn with a penchant for screaming; Natalie’s hair was coffee-colored silk, and even after two weeks at home, she was more likely to take in the world with wide, wondering eyes than to cry. Neither her features nor her easy acceptance of being alive pointed to my genetics, and while I loved seeing the many bonds she shared with her daddy, I ached for more proof than leaking milk and a Cesarean scar that she was my girl.
Pregnancy had not turned out to be the Anne Geddes photo shoot I’d always envisioned. Dan and I had just returned from a delightfully irresponsible summer in Europe, one last hurrah before graduate school, when I found myself gobbling chicken enchiladas for breakfast and sleeping through the other two meals. The telltale pink line showed up instantly. “Well,” I said and went back to bed. Apparently, our summer had been more irresponsible than we’d realized. By some bewildering amalgam of miracle and accident, my debut into academic stardom had been swapped out for morning sickness.
I bought the ubiquitous What to Expect When Expecting and looked in vain for the chapter on reluctant motherhood—What to Expect When A Pregnancy Test Has Just Derailed Your Future, perhaps, or When You Can Expect to Start Loving Your Embryo. I couldn’t understand how a woman who had long dreamed of babies could find her swelling belly equal parts unreal and unfair. It was a friend’s nonchalant comment—“I didn’t fall in love with my son until after he was in my arms”—that pulled me from the jaws of motherguilt. This is normal, I thought, I hoped. I am not Lady Macbeth after all; I will just bond with my baby after birth.
The simple phrase “my baby” coupled with the release of expectations began to work a primal magic on me. I warmed to the creature somersaulting beneath my rib cage. I gave her the name that had topped my fantasy offspring lists through girlhood. I started to daydream about springtimes planting daisies and autumns baking gingersnaps together, and slowly, wonderingly, I fell head over heels for my unborn daughter… just in time to receive the diagnosis.
“G-a-s-t-r-o-s-c-h-i-s-i-s,” the doctor spelled for us. It was only a minor league defect, an opening in the abdominal wall allowing some internal body parts to develop outside the body, surprisingly common and carrying a high survival rate. However, the information disoriented me. Against my doctor’s wishes, I searched the Internet—as every worried mother since the invention of the search engine has done—and found the macabre side of gastroschisis. Thoughts of my baby strangled in-utero by her own digestive system plagued me as we plunged into weekly ultrasounds, contraction monitors, emergency hospitalizations, and meetings with the world’s most dire neonatologist.
Natalie was pulled out of my womb a month early, beautiful, oblivious to the body wrapped around her skin, and motherhood was whisked away to surgery the moment I touched its hummingbird pulse. I lay two hours alone in the recovery room, dopey from the epidural, and then twenty-four hours in the postnatal ward, dopey from the shock of it all. My husband was driving across the state from the children’s hospital to his university where exams didn’t suspend for newborn surgery patients or recovering wives. I was alone and not entirely sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole experience up. When I convinced the doctors to discharge me the next day so I could meet my daughter, the reality of our lives at that moment undid me. Natalie lay in an incubator like some scientific experiment, trussed up with wires and tubes and machines blinking vital statistics. Despite scouring my hands in chemical disinfectant to enter the room, I was not allowed to hold her. Dozens of people had already handled her tiny body—bathed her and diapered her and cut her and bandaged her—and I could only watch from my wheelchair, sobbing. I was a spectator, a physical and emotional mess, a roadblock to the nurses scurrying around the NICU. Anything but a mother.
Over the next two weeks, I filled bottles with bloody milk, not realizing the hospital-grade pump had gentler settings. I shared my meal tickets with Dan and let him hold Natalie while she screamed from hunger and I cried over a bathroom sink filled with pumping paraphernalia. Once the scar over her stomach lightened, we were allowed to change her diaper and assist with her baths, though only in a novice capacity. We arrived five minutes too late one Thursday to feed Natalie her first bottle, three ounces of thawed colostrum; the nurse misinterpreted the ragged disappointment on my face as helplessness, and when I got the go-ahead to start breastfeeding, a lactation consultant was sent into the room with us. I—the oldest sibling of eight, the quintessential babysitter, the former nanny and nursery director—had never felt so incompetent around a child.
We brought Natalie home from the NICU healed and content, a blessing after all the possible tragedies I had conjured. However, I had never so much as picked her up without permission, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with the tiny person now entirely in my care. Mother’s intuition, that patron saint of childbirth, had failed to notice me in the operating room. Perhaps I hadn’t wanted it enough or hadn’t attuned quickly enough to the life growing in my womb. Maybe this was punishment for those beers I drank before realizing I was pregnant. I should have known sooner. I should have loved her sooner. In my reasoning, a good mother should actually feel like one. I placed Natalie carefully on a blanket next to our floor-length window and burst into tears.
Over the next couple of weeks, we grew together into a tentative acceptance of our family’s newness. Dan and I worked together to wake Natalie up for feedings, and she snoozed peacefully the rest of the day while I struggled to find my role. I could see the rough shape of it—feed the baby, clean the baby, love the baby—but the finer details were still swirling in the realm of instinct beyond my vision. When well-meaning visitors snuggled Natalie in those early days, I could never tell if they were trying to relieve me or just trying to show me how the job was done. The reality, of course, was neither, but my insecurity saw their adoration of my daughter as an intruder on my wobbly-legged world, and I was left feeling more confused and disconnected than before.
In many respects, I had the ideal baby to ease me into motherhood. Natalie was sweet-tempered and curious, and she nursed dreamily as long as I could keep her awake, but her favorite arms to burrow in were Dan’s. He was the one to calm her during her rare colicky outbursts and to smile at her with utter confidence in our parenting abilities. With the procedural bustle of the NICU behind us, motherhood was mine to inhabit fully, but I still didn’t feel like I had a claim on our little girl. She looked like her daddy and approached the world like herself; I searched her wide eyes for a bit of mommy-daughter resemblance in vain. Hadn’t I left any evidence among her biology, some tendril of my life-force grafted into her chromosomes to connect us where umbilical cords had left off?
It’s four years later, and I am yelling at Natalie for the twelve zillionth time in a half hour span and feeling like I’ve hit an all-time parenting low. No young child deserves to be treated like a malfunctioning megaphone, but my internal frustration gauge has maxed out, blasting through my vocal cords and taking the better part of my dignity along with it. My daughter’s face, now so similar to mine with its soft sprinkling of freckles, is momentarily obscured by the density of my irritation. I am teetering on the brink of certifiable insanity and feeling guilty because I’m not a yelling mom, I’M NOT and wondering how my sweet preschooler ends up so deep under my skin and wallowing in the shame of misplaced intentions when I finally see it: her personality. It is unmistakable proof that we are cut from the same fabric… and the reason why we so often run into each other like roadblocks.
Like me, Natalie requires smooth stretches of time each day to retreat and recharge before her emotional blood sugar plummets. This I understand all too well. Before she could spell her own name, she had inherited my old laptop and my view of computers as docking stations for over-socialized minds; I joke that she is welcome to bring me up in group therapy one day, but I fear that it’s not a joke, that my bloodline has guaranteed her a future of force-fed relationships. She already follows my lead in shying away from strangers and mistrusting the unfamiliar. On the other hand, she shares my secret love of thrills, the perceived danger of roller coasters and mountain hikes amped even higher by our natural caution. I finger the navel ring that I snuck out of a business seminar on my eighteenth birthday to get, turning heads at the grungy piercing parlor with my pencil skirt and heels, and wonder how deep the instinct flows—to what lengths Natalie will go throughout her life to surprise the people who think they know her.
Even now, she manages to twist and eddy just beyond the scope of my foresight. My mind chafes against its inability to corral her, but then again, I am the one passing volatility between us like borrowed shoes. Thanks to my unique brand of hormones, our limits fluctuate from hour to hour, subject to the color of the sky, the position of the moon, and the number of toys waiting to ambush us in the entryway. I see my own windswept creativity in her as well as the volcano simmering beneath it, and the simplest expectation can trigger a core meltdown in either of us. She is already at the mercy of my own childhood fervor for pink; soon, I expect, the urgency in her heart will shift to reading, then horses perhaps, followed by any number of boys and then the career she chooses to follow with the full force of her passions.
However, the most distinctive trait she and I share is also the most inflammatory: the steel-plated precision hardwired into our DNA. Things must be just so, or the world as we know it will shatter from the injustice. The IKEA mug goes there. “Caramel” is pronounced like this. Blue-green is so very different from green-blue. Thanks to our detail-stippled thought process, we are right—always and without question—and if this is not universally acknowledged, the opposition rankles in our spinal columns. Along the fluorescent-lit stretch of my college years, I finally realized that people are allowed to hold various and conflicting opinions. However, I often have to remind myself that the burden of rightness is no longer mine to foist on humankind, and relativism has no chance whatsoever against the bulletproof logic of four-years-old.
I am frustrated that my intelligent, rational daughter refuses to taste the soup I made from ingredients she loves, and she is frustrated that I force her to use dinnerware that is neither pink nor princessy. I want her to subscribe to my version of sense while she wants me to admit to the superiority of hers. Our brains lock. I yell for the thirteen-zillionth time.
But then, tomorrow morning, she will wake up with a fever. It will be nothing serious, more summer flush than griddle-hot skin, but her small voice will wake up every mother urge in me. I will coax a thermometer beneath her tongue, smooth damp hair behind her ear, and kiss away her concern over missing preschool. Natalie will find a nest on my pillow, and I will be struck by another piece of proof: tenderness, the kind that cannot be manufactured for anyone else’s children. It is fierce and elemental, strong enough to carry us through sickness and weighty enough to carve allowances into our personalities. It wells from the same primordial pool that rushed through my veins the afternoon she was conceived and supplied me with tears as a hesitant new mother, and I will feel its claim of ownership, its indelible biological signature signed in duplicate. This is my daughter’s origin. Even before her hair lightened or her eyes took on my blue or I started yelling at her for acting just like me, even four years ago when my only proof was an anxiety-riddled memory, and even before that when a pregnancy test tipped my future on end, this tenderness was her origin. I will realize something I wish I’d known a long time ago—that intuition, the patron saint who snubbed me during Natalie’s birth, is overrated. As I snuggle up with my beautiful, volatile, frustrating, passionate little girl, the disparate harmony of our heartbeats will be the truest proof of motherhood I have ever known.