I was as round as a meal, as pregnant as a pause, a hen in the chicken coop tending to my eggs. Our friends outside circled around the picnic and my blood drained out in clumps. The fibrous exodus of a hoped-for future inscribed farewells on the surface of the water. I sealed my heart to slow the flood And returned to the party, a tomb.
Here’s the thing about motherhood—it is the entrance into a perpetual, fluid experience that you can influence, but you cannot control.
It is a state of relationship to a child born, unborn, yearned for and not yet. It is a moment where you cease to be the primary protagonist of your story. Your storyline splits and there are two versions: the you that you knew before and the us. This is not to say that your needs or desires as a person cease to exist, but rather that your purpose becomes deeply intertwined with something other. Your locus of control shifts. Diverts. It’s no longer just about you.
Getting to motherhood is messy, regardless of how it happens. Whether it was an instance of failed birth control, or an exhausting marathon of hormone injections and timing, or a phone call on an afternoon that the paperwork is complete, the stars aligned, and you’ve been granted the chance to share a life with a child you haven’t met. None of us gets a guarantee.
I have been pregnant twice but have one child. Like so many, my path to motherhood didn’t progress in a linear fashion. My husband and I experienced a pregnancy loss the first time we conceived. It was devastating. There was nothing we could have done to change the outcome, and it was a too-personal example of the unpredictability of life.
I adore my son. He is light and exploration. He is curious and confident. His hunger is a guttural grumble that will not cease, and even when I’m cleaning bodily fluid off of his tiny body and mine, the exquisite intimacy of our duality is palpable. I reflect often on the specialness of this force we set into motion that grows and learns of his own accord. I can influence, but I cannot control.
I watch him first observe, then practice, then emulate basic words. His shaky muscles propel a reach and a grasp until, after repetition and willpower, they push and pull his body into sturdiness. His brain makes connections between events that I did not weave together. The light switch and the lightbulb. The drop of the spoon and the clatter on the ground. The wiggling fingers lifted in salute, and the corresponding wave from the stranger on the sidewalk. No amount of organic food, scheduled sleep and wake windows, educational toys, or screen time limits can ensure who he will be. I can influence, but I cannot control.
His firsts are my firsts, too. I flex shaky muscles in ways they haven’t been used. I learn to navigate a new body, unfamiliar in both its form and its habits. Thinned hair, widened hips, a moon cycle unpredictable in its intensity. I toddle through the world in continual surprise that the assumptions I took for granted have changed. A yoga squat is easy. A full body plank is hard. I learn how to hold the squiggly line of a kid as I thread him through a sweater. I realize he has preferences as he smacks the spoon of chicken and lentils away from his mouth. I become proficient in a language I didn’t know—one where pitch and tone of a cry tells me the depth of pain or the shallow unease of over-tiredness.
On this Mother’s Day I lay in bed for ten greedy minutes and suppress the guilt that my husband is doing all of the morning child-rearing tasks. Because of the holiday I can get that guilt into a dense, flat circle about the size of a dime, but it never goes away. With the space left behind from that guilt vacuum, I instead write this:
If you, too, are in the slippery throes of uncertainty, the unease of newness, the frustration of circumstances you used to be able to hold tightly in your grasp, hello. I am here, too. Even if no one brings you French toast in bed, or your child is waiting on a diagnosis, or you are in the umpteenth round of IVF and can’t see the reward on the horizon, know that you are part of something larger than yourself. We are here, the other mothers swaying in the breezes of change, and we see you. Big hugs on this day, of all days. You are enough.
Naked as a babe I stand,
and survey the damaged hills
and valleys of my skin—
familiar landscape made foreign.
If my body was the temple,
you were the holy spirit
that craved a fragrant sacrifice
of blood and milk to bless
the world with hope.
I wonder now at what I am:
the other side of a miracle.
The altar stained, the crowd dispersed,
Remember when the angels sang,
the earth split, the sea rose?
What wonders to behold!
Now my belly is a billowed shroud,
the body gone, the body risen.
I am the imprint, faint and faded,
touched by God.
Several weeks ago, my husband snapped a photo of our family’s new nightly feeding routine. The scene is set around 3:00 am, the dead of night, and my back is turned toward the camera. I lean over to adjust the breast pump. In the frame, the half of the bedroom we fashioned as a diaper changing station and nursing oasis is dimly lit by a single, soft white bulb. My husband holds our infant son, Charlie, as he greedily suckles a bottle, the contents of which were donated by some other mother with more than enough breastmilk to spare. I sit bathed in white light and attempt to increase my own supply, as the rest of the bedroom glows red. The night light casts bloody shadows across the wall. We are exhausted.
Prior to parenthood, I knew the breadth of change that a newborn would bring: sleepless nights, ringing ears, tested patience. I watched other mothers navigate the early weeks and months, and I thought, “I am up to this challenge.” What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the emotional rawness of the experience. I thought perhaps Charlie’s birth would be a clean slate, a new beginning. His would be a fresh life as yet untouched by the secrets and pain of his ancestors’ trauma. And, in some way, I thought my hopeful focus on the future would seal the jar on my own sadness and loss.
Instead, the experience of bringing a new child into the world was not isolated. I could not wall it off from the past year’s events. Charlie continually reminded me of the DNA discovery–a biological father I would never meet and my mother’s half truths and omissions. I stared into Charlie’s tiny face and big, expressive eyes, and I saw my own eyes reflected. Would I have been so upright if his financial stability and childhood were on the line? If I knew the truth would push him into the same cycle of broken relationships of the family’s previous generations, would I still swear allegiance to it?
I began to see the threads of connection between my own parental experience and my parents’ messy lives. Even though my biological father was no longer alive, his DNA lived on in the tiny human I held in my hands. I had yet to discover which traits of his Charlie carried, and the truth was that I might never be able to distinguish them from the genetic gifts of my maternal line. Would Charlie love dogs and travel? Would he wield a charismatic directness in his older years? Would his almond eyes remain as evidence of Japanese ancestry even as his hair turned my mother’s shade of strawberry blonde?
There was no perfect answer to these complicated questions–no new life blooming except through the roots of the old. Just like the photograph, the legacy of loss glowed red alongside the hope of an unmarred future. There was no separating them. New parenthood taught me that living fully means embracing the reality of what came before.
What the camera portrayed and what my son’s face reflected was this: death is just the beginning of hope.
Reassurance Alice Walker I must love the questions themselves as Rilke said like locked rooms full of treasure to which my blind and groping key does not yet fit. and await the answers as unsealed letters mailed with dubious intent and written in a very foreign tongue. and in the hourly making of myself no thought of Time to force, to squeeze the space I grow into.
The blood test results arrived, and I skimmed the summary via the online patient portal. The doctor’s professional analysis was not yet available, but I took the raw information and Googled the value for each chromosome. All chromosome pairings looked normal, as far as I could tell. I was awash in medical terminology, my head just barely above the surface. No Aneuploidy Detected. Result consistent two copies of Chromosome 21.
The magic of modern medicine was that this genetic screening could both tell me if the baby I carried had obvious chromosomal abnormalities and isolate whether the fetus had XX or XY chromosomes. I could learn my baby’s sex based on information taken from my blood. Or rather, our blood—the technique relied on the assumption that my blood was healthy and that I was female. Any deviations could be chalked up to the little stranger forming in my womb.
The sex chromosome showed an X and a Y. It was a boy! When Alex returned from work, I held the phone screen up and watched his face change slowly as he drew the same conclusion I had. I’m so relieved, he commented. I have so much experience being a boy!
Over the next months, I began to transform one of our spare bedrooms into a nursery. Prior to the discovery of our baby’s sex, I was already passionate about creating a space conducive to any gender expression our child might have. No baby blues or passive pinks for us. There would only be bright, joyful colors. I wanted to leave negative space for my future child—they could color in their own lines. I did not want to tell this future human how or who to be based on a lab test.
I chose rainbowed crib sheets and multicolored polka dot wall decorations. I painted a turquoise accent wall and splurged on a plush, green dinosaur toy. And as I auditioned different window curtains to choose the most playful shade of yellow, I realized I was scared. Unlike Alex, I did not have so much experience being a boy. But I did have so much experience being a girl. I had layers and layers of observations about the privileges boys around me received, the actions they took with and against me, and the experiences of my fellow sisterhood.
As I nested in the nursery, I felt the weight of my responsibility as a newly-christened “boy mom.” Yes, there might be dump trucks and trains and ABC blocks on the horizon. Then again, there might be mermaid tails and princess wands and Barbie dolls, too. I didn’t know yet. But what if my child did express himself in that traditional, raucous, boy way? How could I nurture in him the tools and discernment he would need to be a man in a world where so many self-purported “good guys” did heinous things to women? I swore to the good God above that I would not dismiss bad behavior with phrases like locker room talk.
The questions I had were bigger than finding the right rug for the playroom. I didn’t want to blunt the edges of my future son into a dull, dissolute mother boy. Instead, I needed strategies for how to make his discernment scalpel-sharp. I hoped I could help him wield his power in the direction of equity, resolution, and kindness. My worst fear was that he become a man who succumbs to the trends of the market or corruption of power that often pass as success. How could I become a boy mom that raises her son to be deeply attuned to his conscience? Could I teach my child to use his empathy as a sextant to chart his life’s course?
I decided to start small. I would amass a children’s library that represented varied perspectives beyond his own. This boy could both love baseball and understand the tradition of hijab. He could make finger paint messes and understand consequences and clean up. There would be no shrugging mantra of boys will be boys in this house.
I also realized that I could not teach what I did not, myself, know. I might not be able to control the behaviors of this new, autonomous being, but I could work on my own knowledge and toolsets. I began to evaluate my own behaviors and habits—was I making inroads towards a just and peaceable world? My actions were already speaking for me. What did they say?
Yes, I gave financially to causes I thought advanced equity for women and people of color. I recycled. I read anti-racist literature. I subscribed to podcasts about education initiatives and how nice white parents could elicit unintended consequences. But I started to see gaps where I could do more. The To Do list stretched much longer than I had anticipated, and the baby wasn’t even born yet. Everything already felt out of my control.
I sat on the floor next to the newly-assembled crib, surrounded by children’s books, and the realization came. No amount of parental preparation or discipline that I enforced could guarantee the goodness of my child. I could stack the deck in such a way that he was surrounded by community who loved him and challenged him, who inspired him and held him accountable. I could invest in strong education and literature. I could wrap my own morals around him as a cushion and hope he would make the right choices. But when all was said and done, I would reenact the same cycle I hoped to break.
If I attempted to do the emotional labor for my son, he would not learn how to do it for himself. I could stock his childhood library, but I could not take responsibility for his character. That would be his alone to grow.