First they’re born. Then they don’t leave.
Years ago, I thought I knew how people became parents. It was thrust upon you. One minute you’re pregnant and in the next,, you’re a parent. And you are responsible for a completely helpless, approximately 8-pound thing who demands every wit, cell of your body, and minute of your day, forever.
I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast; I think apart from the crowd, resent automatic authority, and I do not assume conventional wisdom is always right. One day I looked around and realized everyone was zigging and I’d been zagging. So when it came time for me to give birth, I was adamant: I was doing it at home.
One day you can’t remember what it was like not to be a parent, and you can’t believe you decided to do this baby thing and that it turned out the way it did.
I grew up really close to nature. That’s a nice euphemism for being a wild animal of a small child in a rural area. I grew up with dirty feet, cuts and scars I can still find on my body today, a kind of feral predatory tracking of any and all creatures in the woods, so to me, going to a hospital to have a baby was, well, unnecessary.
There is a big difference between laboring and birthing a baby in a maternity ward and doing it at home: the very second that baby is fully outside of your body, tag! You’re it. There are no buffers; nurses, aides or cooing family around your bed, an imposed schedule and someone else changing diapers. Oh sure, my sister was there and a fully-certified nurse-midwife, and of course, the new dad. I can still see him holding her and the look of wonder on his face. And it happened at night and I was able to eat without nausea for the first time and go to sleep on my stomach.
The post-partum bliss lasted for two hours. And then the next four were spent in a mutual staring contest: we stared at her; she stared at us. In unadulterated amazement, unleavened by caring strangers bringing her to us or offering advice, like, for instance: to rest, the next morning, on a beautiful summer June day, I went for a walk with my husband. My sister stayed with the baby. I was floating, light; I’d done it. I’d had a baby.
We returned and began to climb the stairs and I heard it: screaming. My sister was sitting on the sofa crooning softly to the new baby who was having none of it. I still remember my sister’s voice as she offered the infant to me: “I think she wants you.”
At that moment, like a movie set pushed aside and the shabbiness of reality intruding, I realized that I was now responsible for another human being. It was for life. Some mysterious and ancient ceremony had taken place while I was out walking and I was now ‘two’—in a way I could not have imagined before that millisecond of awakening.
It was an unwelcomed shock. I had been accustomed to taking care of myself. Now I had to take care of her, too? WAIT!
But there is no waiting, no catch-your-breath, time-outs when you are a new parent.
And I’m pretty sure many people feel this way, but see it as socially unacceptable to feel it and so they repress the feeling that something has landed in your life you’re not 100 percent sure you want to deal with. But I think you have to let yourself feel that, because it is natural and normal to be in shock as you absorb the knowledge you are on the hook for another human’s life and survival.
Those first few days were rough. And incredible. Her stare, her presence, the fact that we had a daughter; a part of us, she is our family. It takes a while, but you grow around the newness and integrate it into your life. And there is joy and discovery and your heart gets bigger. And one day you can’t remember what it was like not to be a parent, and you can’t believe you decided to do this baby thing and that it turned out the way it did.
You’ve changed 10,000 diapers, learned how to feed her, watched this floppy infant claw her way to sitting and standing and walking and climbing and talking to you and asking questions and demanding and growing. And this amazing person returns to you, like a satellite to its mother planet, for everything she needs. It is exhausting. But somehow, each time you open your heart and give, you get a tiny bit better at it. The giving makes you stronger, better, and smarter. And then you realize that more than anything you have ever done, being a parent has changed you. You’ve grown, too. It’s the biophysics of parenthood.