Who are you?
The moment you first see your baby is supposed to be one of the most beautiful of your whole life. It’s supposed to make you forget all the pain you endured, be grateful for the sacrifice, make it all worth it. You’re supposed to fall in love, right there in that strange hospital room with all those strange people feeling all those strange feelings. But it didn’t work that way for me. Instead, as I held my little strangers, the first thought I had when I saw each one of my five babies for the first time was simply Who are you?
I think part of it was the pain. I had two-and-a-half births with an epidural and two-and-a-half births with no drugs (and of course it’s the two halves that tell a whole story) but all were excruciating. After Jelly Bean’s birth, which was a “natural” delivery, I turned to my husband and said, “We are never having any more children. But if by some freak chance we do, force me to take the epidural! In fact, just flat-out anesthetize me. I can’t do this again.” I was shaking so hard from the effort I could barely hold her. And I did not forget the pain. The next night I woke up screaming with some PTSD nightmare, thinking I was still in labor with its red-hot unstoppable pain. I still haven’t forgotten that pain and I don’t think I ever well.
Another part was my ever-worsening post-partum anxiety. It put me under a cloud that pulled me ever farther from my children even as I clenched them tighter to my chest. I was so worried about them dying of SIDS that I couldn’t enjoy just watching them sleep. I was so scared of them choking that I couldn’t smile as they took their first bite of food. I was so afraid of them strangling that I wouldn’t allow anything with cords or string on it in the nursery, much less anywhere near the crib. All those balloon bouquets people give you to celebrate births and birthdays? DEFCON 1. And that cloud didn’t begin to lift until my progesterone and estrogen started leveling out. It started getting better around four months post-partum but I don’t fully feel like myself again until they are fully two years gone from my womb. Thanks for nothing, hormones.
But part of it really was just this overwhelming sense of not knowing who this little person was. None of my kids were ever born looking like I’d imagined them; I didn’t recognize them. Not yet. Anyone who’s ever had a child can tell you that they all come out with their own little unique personalities, quirks, wants, and dislikes – the concept of tabula rasa (blank slate) is ridiculous – yet in that moment I didn’t know any of these things about them. And I would spend the next two years playing the trickiest game of charades ever trying to figure it out. As I stared into their squished faces (newborn heads get royally squashed coming through the birth canal, do not let TV fool you!), I felt instinctively protective of them and there was love, on a primal level. There was also a measure of I worked so hard to get you here by golly I’m keeping you here. But that deep mother-child bond people talk about so much? Didn’t have it. Not even once.
I tell people I didn’t like any of my kids until they were six months old. They usually laugh because they think I’m joking but it’s quite true. And apparently I’m not the only one just hanging on to the 6-month mark as a recent survey said in print what so many of us don’t say out loud: newborns are often very unlikeable little people. Now, I don’t want people to confuse this with post-partum psychosis, that awful illness that makes mothers reject their children. I cuddled and kissed them. I fed and changed them. I was so so careful in my ministrations. I protected them (maybe too much). I always loved them. But I didn’t like them until they passed the bologna loaf stage. Some people are “baby people” (my husband is one) who adore that brand-new stage. But the older my kids get, the more I like them.
And oh how I like them! I love watching them grow into their true selves, getting a glimpse into how their fantastically weird little brains work. I love seeing them try new things and succeed at some while failing at others. Some things I can predict – their smarts, their eye color, their summer freckles and winter pallor – but there is so much more that I can’t. They surprise me every day, in the smallest of big ways and the biggest of small ways. And today was one of those surprises.
I got some notes home from one of my son’s teachers telling me that while they think he is a lovely child and very smart and helpful, he is – to paraphrase – a huge nerd and the other kids make fun of him. Worst part? One teacher sadly noted that he is so eager for friends that he often doesn’t realize when they are making fun of him.
I went to a place where he couldn’t hear me and cried so hard I almost made the notes unreadable. I would do anything to save him from that pain. Because I know exactly how it feels. When I was in school, I was so earnestly unaware that the other kids spit on me. And not just spit but hawked loogies into my hair. They slammed doors in my face, dumped sloppy joes into my book bag during lunch and inflicted a million other tiny paper cuts. And I never knew the why of why me.
My husband and sister both pointed out that my son’s situation is different from my own horrific school experience in one major way: He has me. True. Yet I have no idea what to do. The way I solved my problems was to rebel in high school and then grow out of it when I went to college and found out how to reinvent myself. My husband added that I’ve learned how to turn my sensitive nature from a curse to a (mostly) blessing. Perhaps I can teach my son that kind of compassion. Deep down, I kind of expect him to teach me a few things about living a life with an open heart – because that’s just the kind of kid he is.
There’s nothing quite so unnerving as looking into your child’s liquid eyes and asking Who are you? only to hear: