On this day, twenty-five years ago, my perfect pregnancy came to a screeching halt as my first born was sliced out of my stomach after a failed attempt at a natural birth. There had been no piñata filled with colored confetti to reveal the sex of the baby. No pink or blue cake hidden beneath a neutral shade of frosting. No helium balloons to let the world know if we were having a boy or a girl.
I snuck only the stealthiest of peeks at the sonogram, asking the technician to reveal no more than the number of arms, legs and heads on the embryo. I was absolutely convinced that my first baby was going to be a boy. So sure that I packed a baseball outfit as a coming home outfit.
So much for a mother’s intuition.
Molly came wailing into the world and right into her father’s welcoming arms. I, on the other hand, was much more concerned with making phone calls and retelling labor stories than bonding with my baby.
“Why doesn’t everyone have a C-section?” I asked my caesarian-experienced sister on the phone that night. “I’ll admit the labor leading up to it wasn’t pretty, but I’m definitely scheduling C-sections for the rest of my kids. I have absolutely no pain right now!”
“Just wait,” she said so softly I almost didn’t hear her.
And she was right. No one gets through this mothering thing without pain.
As a matter of fact, I had so much pain that I tried to shirk my duties the next afternoon, requesting the baby stay in the nursery so I could sleep. My spouse had just left under the guise of readying the apartment for our homecoming. More likely he was sneaking a couple hours of work in.
“So, you ready for your baby bath lesson?” a middle-aged nurse asked, bouncing into the room.
I was lying prone on the bed, head elevated, pillow hugged to my belly, dreading the impending agony of my next trip to the toilet.
I looked at her blankly.
She raised her eyebrows.
“No. That’s OK,” I said, blinking back tears that had inexplicably found their way into my happiness.
“Oh, my God!” she gushed. “Did your baby die?”
“No!” I exclaimed.
“Is she sick?”
I shook my head.
“Oh, OK. I get it,” she said matter-of-factly, picking an m&m wrapper off the floor.
“How ‘bout this. All you have to do is get your sorry soul out of bed. I’ll open the window and you can jump. It’s clear you’re unloved,” she said, pointing to the dozens of floral arrangements scattered about the room. “So, if life’s that bad, I’ll be glad to help you out.”
So much for wallowing in self-pity.
Because I refused to breastfeed, I got Molly on a schedule pretty quickly. And because I’m who I am, I kept meticulous records of each and every feeding. Dr. Spock said bottle fed babies should eat once every four hours. And so she did. If she cried after three hours, too bad. If she kept crying, sometimes I’d feed her 15 minutes early, but I’d also lie in my notebook so no one would ever know I cheated. After three weeks, she slept from 11 to 7 every night.
And just like that, my sleep deprivation days were over.
I went back to work three months later. I hired Teresa from the corner grocery store to take care of Molly. She was only 18 years-old, but I surmised from just one meeting that she was better with babies than I’d ever be.
I was right.
Our first nighttime babysitter was Kara. She was eleven years-old. I used to babysit for days on end when I was eleven, (for 50 cents an hour, I might add), so figured she’d be just fine. To this day, every time I see Kara she reminds me of what I said when we left that night for the movies.
“If she cries too much, just put her in the closet and close the door.”
Luckily, Kara knew I was kidding. Kind of.
Our friend, Janet, gave Molly an old-fashioned wooden sled for her first Christmas. One snowy evening I wrapped her up in a snowsuit so puffy that her arms and legs could not bend. My spouse plopped her on the sled and gave me the reins. I pulled her along at a clipped pace, trying to raise my heart rate and burn some calories.
“Stop!” the spouse screamed after I took the corner a little too close.
I looked back and there was Molly, face down, arms splayed, in a snow drift.
I laughed. And laughed. My spouse scowled and scowled. Molly cried. And cried.
Molly swears she remembers that sleigh ride.
But that doesn’t worry me, because over the past twenty-five years laughing at my kids’ misfortunes is far from the worst thing I’ve done.
Some people, like my friend Claire, are innate nurturers. They’re made to be mothers and perform their duties with precision; washing towels daily, cooking meals nightly, tending to wounds stoically and carpooling happily. Others of us struggle with the role. It doesn’t come naturally so we have to rely on those little voices in our heads reminding us to be more empathetic, more flexible, more giving. More motherly.
Every step of the way I’ve worried if I’ve destroyed self-esteem, damaged psyche, spoiled dreams. If I’ve been supportive enough, strict enough, kind enough. And through it all, I’ve never, ever underestimated the power a parent has. Which has scared me to death every day of my mothering life.
To celebrate this 25th anniversary, I spent some time flipping through photos from different stages of my daughter’s life. I laughed. I cringed. I cried. And I realized, looking at the compassionate, confident, adventurous young woman she’s become, that we did it.
We muddled our way through together.
And I have absolutely nothing to be afraid of anymore.