Last week, at a party in the town where we spend each summer, I run into a young woman I’ve known since she was a tween. Now, she is all grown up, willowy and gorgeous, living in California. A tiny infant nestled in her arms—pink, dressed in an adorable ensemble.
“How old?” I gushed.
“Three weeks,” she smiled. I looked for fatigue behind her eyes, saw none, and envied her newness, the beginning of her mothering adventure. What fun to have it all in front of you. What a privilege. How little we actually understand at the start.
And, there, among the cheddar cheese slices and rosemary crackers, I am catapulted back to the beginning of my life as a mother—a cold January Monday more than twenty years ago.
I thought having a child was the destination; now, I understand the process of getting to motherhood was like a maze that would open into vistas I could not visualize until we were in the midst of navigating them. Oh, I knew a lot about kids; I had been a school-teacher for a long while before we had a baby. Smugly, I believed I had it all figured out, that I would have the answers to all the questions, be equal to any challenge. In the beginning, of course, we do not know how we will be changed. There is hope and there are assumptions. Naivete is an excellent shield. Thinking back, I shudder at my arrogance in advising parents in my school how to better parent their daughters in those years when I did not yet have children, but firmly believed I knew better.
Motherhood—our quest to attain it and the adventures it has offered, has taught me humility.
“Please just let me get pregnant…let me stay pregnant.” Inchoate longing.
After five miscarriages, actually staying pregnant and having a baby felt miraculous. Hence, her name: Miranda. The act of bringing her into the world—an induction followed by 24 hours of labor, an epidural, two hours of unsuccessful pushing and then an emergency C-section topped off by surgery—felt Herculean—surely this was the hard part. Ha! Healing was not fun—I had not realized that the incision would affect everything—including laughing. But she was here; we had made it. President Clinton was inaugurated; Maya Angelou’s voice sounded from the small hospital TV screen, and we were, finally, a family.
Five days later, huddled in a wheelchair, sore and apprehensive, with the baby clutched in my arms, I waited for my husband to bring the car—we had borrowed it from a friend.
I thought wildly, slightly panicky, “Are they just going to let me leave here with her? Don’t I have to take a exam, answer any questions?”
While there had been far too many hoops to jump through along the way, once our baby daughter arrived, no one hesitated, interrogated us about our readiness to be parents. Even learning to drive had required a course and a test, but here we were, leaving, leaping into the abyss I finally understood stretched before us.
An orderly helped me into the car. Seth tucked Miranda into the backwards-facing infant seat and home we zoomed. Four flights of stairs caused made me weep; I was still weak, the incision still throbbing. We had our heart’s desire, but I could barely lift my leg to heave myself up another step. In the apartment, our tall bed was like a mountain. Seth raced to the hardware store to purchase a step stool. Finally, ensconced in our bed, Miranda bundled next to me, I allowed myself a moment of jubilation.
The long twisty path full of magical thinking and agony and medical interventions and hope that got us to that moment had required me to tamp down any want beyond that single-minded focus on becoming a mother. And now I was. I sighed, content, stretched gingerly and murmured:
“Here we are, little daughter. At the beginning.”
Those early days at home—washing our hands over and over again with Castille lavender soap, the soreness of raw nipples as I struggled to nurse, welcoming visitors were heady, exhausting, wondrous, terrifying. They stand, in memory, with startling clarity. I practiced being patient with my lumpy shape, endured fatigue, and experienced a sense of jubilation when we realized, day after day, that she was real, that she was ours, that she really had arrived—they we were finally beginning our journey.
Now, all our children are big—23, 21 and 12. Sometimes, I miss those uncomplicated days of infancy: nurse, cuddle, change a diaper, rock, repeat. There was the beauty of a single focus—keep the baby alive. The child’s growth feels like a report card: she gains ounces; mother and father feel triumph. She picks up cheerios. We beam. She toddles. We grin. She heads to kindergarten. We smile at each other, a little teary that she is growing so fast. Suddenly, she is off to college, finished college, living on her own, starting her own career as a teacher—her own poignant series of beginnings.
One good thing about my life as a mother and schoolteacher is that there are multiple beginnings in any year. The real new year begins in late August. In Ohio, where we now live, school starts by the third week of August. New shoes. A trip to Office Max or Staples for folders and notebooks and markers. Perhaps a new backpack? Optimism and apprehension characterize the days before school starts. I’ve been a mother for more than two decades, but with my son on the threshold of sixth grade, I still hope this new beginning will go well, that he will get teachers who understand him. I hope he will find people who nurture his curiosity, who encourage him to persevere even when obstacles sully the fresh, uncomplicated start.
Looking up from the hors d’oeuvres, I see Justine and her baby thread through the crowd, people bending close to embrace them, to coo and congratulate. I see myself, too, so long ago, just yesterday, with all the tender aching marvelousness of motherhood stretching out.
Ann is a mother, teacher, writer and live in Shaker Heights, OH, where is the Head of Laurel School, a girls’ school. Her house is full of books and tiny rescue dogs. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, Community Works Journal, Independent School Magazine, and an anthology about parenting older children called Motherlode. She blogs semi-regularly for the Huffington Post. Upcoming pieces will appear in Mutha and in Literary Mama. Follow her on Twitter.
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