After I got pregnant I heard and read the usual stuff about how, when I popped my first baby, I would experience love like I’d never known before. I was led to believe that the onset of parenthood would be so transformative that I would no longer be repelled by squinchy, wrinkly newborns. I was skeptical. At 38 years, I thought my view of juvenile humans was pretty well fixed. Babies were unattractive. Also I had rarely met a child who I didn’t think was an excellent candidate for a thorough psychiatric evaluation. Anthony was a skeptic too. I remember the pep talks he gave me while I was pregnant, along the lines of… “You already know you’ll think the baby’s ugly when you first see it, but don’t worry. You will learn to love it.”
Still, friends and family insisted I would turn all ooey-gooey inside; I’d be molten-lava chocolate cake. And I did change unexpectedly the moment my firstborn Jesse arrived, only not quite like that.
Jesse’s pregnancy was peppered with small worries from start to finish. Nothing panned out, but I carried around a little bucket of anxiety for 9 months alongside my fetus (which is why I think it’s all my fault that Jesse has an anxiety disorder). They worried for a while I might develop placenta previa, but that corrected itself. The 20-something-week ultrasound showed a spot on her heart that was associated with a higher risk of Down Syndrome. My amniotic fluids were low so I was on partial bed rest for a time, and also there was some related concern that maybe there was a kidney problem. Jesse was very small from the beginning, and as we neared the due date there was growing concern she was failing to thrive. So we agreed to induce 10 days early.
Jesse was born with the umbilical cord wrapped, but not tightly. Still, because of the cord wrap, they didn’t drop her right on me. They took her away to the warming table to do thises and thats. Anthony stayed close to her, as we had already planned in the event of complications. The doc got right to stitching me up, so there I lay, splayed out and nowhere to go, pushing the epidural dose button over and over and wondering if it was working. They told me Jesse had a lot of hair, but this wasn’t meaningful information to me. I had one thought on my mind. “Does she have Down syndrome?” I barked. The doctor looked at me from between my legs like I was crazy. “Nooo!” She snapped, rolling her eyes. Satisfied with this positive outcome, I lay there and waited. I just wanted someone to bring me my baby so I could nurse her. So that was my second thought, after establishing that Jesse didn’t have any significant and obvious abnormalities: I needed to feed her. As soon as they got her in my arms, I set to working that out. Jesse got out a few drops and passed out, and then after a bit I handed her off to Anthony.
It was all business, really. I wasn’t gushing about my beautiful baby and cooing and all that. I mean, she was beautiful, but mostly what I felt was protective, in an extremely primitive way. I felt very consciously that I would kill anyone who tried to hurt Jesse, like literally. That was definitely new. It didn’t feel like warm and fuzzy maternal love. It was violent and feral. I hadn’t expected that.
(I have to admit that I don’t mind the wellspring of protective violence that now permanently lurks in my heart. I haven’t actually attacked anyone physically yet, but I’m a pretty aggressive advocate for my kids. I don’t take kindly to any sort of bullying from school staff, and I flatter myself that this has served Jesse well as she’s muddled her way through the early educational years. I like that I instinctively put myself between my children and danger. I like that, when we’ve come across large wild animals during wilderness hikes, I size them up and wonder insanely to myself if I can take them.)
I went through the same limited arc of emotions when Nick was born. His pregnancy was uncomplicated. I gave birth with no painkillers, got through induced labor upright, and popped him out in two contractions. They put him right into my arms and I remember thinking, “Huh. You’re bald. Oh well.” And then I got to the business of nursing him and preparing to kill anyone who tried to hurt him.
So what am I saying? I think I’m saying that my children’s births did change me, but not into a marshmallow of love. I was transformed into a mammary and a weapon. How cool is that?
Fortunately for Jesse and Nick, they have a sweet and doting father to make up for their neanderthal mother. Anthony took a shining to his offspring the way I think I was supposed to. One of my dearest memories from the day Jesse popped is watching Anthony hold his swaddled daughter in his arms. She opens her eyes and looks up at him. “Hi Jesse, I’m your daddy,” he coos quietly, his nose practically touching hers as they gaze deeply at each other. “Welcome to your world. I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.” I watched them together, took a few photos, wondered when I’d feel that way.
Anthony filled the humanity void with Nick too, in another dear memory. Right after birth, Nick was blue with cold, and my body was too cold to warm him up, so the nurse asked Anthony if he wanted to take off his shirt to hold Nick. The alternative was laying baby on the table under a heat lamp. I don’t know if the nurse was more surprised by Anthony’s ready answer of “sure” or by his speedy shirt removal. But that’s how Anthony cooed his hellos to Nick, skin to skin as he warmed his son from blue to pink. I lay there and watched them, waiting patiently for that deep warm gooey love to well up in my heart. Maybe I’m still waiting.