Insane and Wonderful
“Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
You may have heard this quote before. Maybe you’ve used it yourself. I heard it before I was a parent. I know that it was pre-parenting because I remember regarding it as if from a great distance. It seemed like a curious but probably accurate insight. Sounds reasonable, I thought. You love your child, who is indeed, once born, outside the body. Sure, I can see that.
Then I slept until noon and went out for a long brunch. I imagine. I can’t remember much about those days, but what I do remember involves brunch.
Years later, as a new mother, I heard this again, this heart-outside-the-body quote. I understood it at that moment, absolutely and completely. I saw how unbearably tender an idea it is, and how horrific. Oh my God, I thought. Heart outside the body? This is a terrible idea. This is unsound, medically and in every other way! What have I done? Is it too late to take it back?
It turned out it was too late to take it back, and no matter what happened from that point onward, I was forever changed. When my child was born, another birth was happening, right there in the room, to both me and my husband: we became parents. No one gave us an Apgar score, but I’m sure we wouldn’t have scored as highly as our son. No matter.
Given how overwhelming and bewildering new parenthood can be, it’s no wonder that there are 86 billion (approximately) baby books out there. The moment we’re handed another human being and told, “Here, you look like you could keep this alive,” many of us run to a book—or an entire library of them—to tell us all what to do, how not to mess up, and how to survive while we keep their (our) beloved little hearts alive and thriving as well.
But all the advice books in the world can’t really explain or even reflect that deep, primal mixture of terror and hopeless love that signifies the first months and years of parenthood. There’s no advice for this condition, after all. It resists easy answers. It is insane and wonderful. It just is. When you’re in the middle of it, you need more than advice. You need stories: stories from people who have been there, who have survived it, who are forever changed, as you are.
It’s hard to describe the drama of early parenthood without sounding like a well-worn cliché. Fortunately, the talented writers featured in this collection rise to the challenge with aplomb, scaling the heights and plumbing the depths of those surreal early months and years.
Looking at these essays as a whole, you can see a consistent theme of loss: loss of identity, of freedom, of time. This is the shock of early parenthood. Who thinks about everything they’ve lost in becoming a parent until they’re in the middle of their new lives, examining the wreckage, wondering what happened to all they once knew? Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew writes in her essay “Another Mother,” “I roll out of bed and trip through the dark, abandoning all I’ve been for the sake of this bare need.”
Parents often find themselves forced to give up their expectations. In “The Shell of Your Ear” and “States of Permanence and Impermanence,” two mothers face their babies’ physical challenges—hearing loss and torticollis, respectively—with grace and humor; in “Hungry,” Amy Amoroso recounts her painful struggle with insufficient milk supply. Our babies, and our own bodies, can often surprise us. As Leah Laben writes in “Just Colic”:
I no longer believe all the books and authorities with their One True Method of Parenting that will yield up the child of your dreams. The child of your dreams is just that. The child that you actually get is likely to be as complicated, messy, and frustrating as any other human being on the planet.
Let’s face it: the days after becoming a mother can be kind of anticlimactic. All that work, all that buildup, and all you’re left with is a (temporarily) wrecked body, a yelling baby whose yelling is impossible to decipher, and (if you’re lucky) a freezer full of lasagna. It’s no wonder new parents can feel let down—and feel guilty for feeling let down. How can I be sad when I have all this? “I had a newborn in the crook of my arm and a husband in the next room, and I felt alone in the universe,” Anastasia Rubis writes in “Blue Pools”—echoing, I am sure, the thoughts of new parents everywhere.
But it’s not all a huge bummer. There’s a lot to laugh at throughout the entire process. Take birthing class, where you might find yourself, as Eden M. Kennedy did, surrounded by young, fresh-faced hippies, all of whom are probably judging you:
I’d brought some strawberries to share that night, and now they sat wetly in their bowl.
“Are these organic?” asked a pale farm wife, picking up a berry and examining it.
“No,” I said. She took the berry she’d chosen and folded it into a napkin.
Meanwhile, Farm Wife’s hirsute husband was bragging to the banker couple. “We are purposely going to put the baby’s bassinet on my side of the bed, so that when it wakes up for feeding at night, I have to wake up and pass the baby to my wife, so that I’m fully participating.”
If you can’t laugh through sleep deprivation, when can you laugh? In “The Eleven-Minute Crib Nap,” Jill Christman writes of the weird power struggles that can occur between parent and baby, one of whom just wants a few minutes to get some work done: “If suckling at a mother’s breast can be disgruntled, that’s how Ella nursed now, her one exposed eye wide open and glaring. She wanted me to know she had my number.”
But even if we lose something, becoming parents, look how much we gain! Like, say, a baby. “Babies are such a nice way to start people,” the humorist Don Herold once said. In “Skin Time,” Becki Melchione recalls the moment she meets one of her twins, the other still on her way via a surrogate, mere feet from her:
I hold my hand above her face to shield her eyes from the bright light, and she opens them just enough to see my face smiling at her. I’m a stranger. My voice isn’t the one she’s heard for the last nine months in utero, so I introduce myself. “Hello, I’m Mom,” I whisper, barely able to get the words out, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
In “Boothville” Lisa Southgate has just given birth to the baby she’s planning to give up for adoption: “The unexpected weight of him. His realness, his completeness, his well-drawn limbs, his mashed brown hair and sleepy blue eyes. He looks around the room and back at me with a heavy, skeptical gaze.” I won’t spoil the story by telling you how it ends.
Even if you’re like Amy Penne, author of “Apocalypse Now” (the essay, not the movie), who does not think much of babies, keep in mind that babies grow up to be “smart-ass kids who talk, memorize the track listing to Led Zeppelin IV by age three, learn piano, collect football cards, make heart models in sixth grade, and finally learn how not to trump their partners in euchre.” They’re pretty cool, in other words. They can even become your role models. “He may have been small,” Steven Church writes of his son (“Four Early Lessons in Parenting”), “but he thought big and wild and in ways I aspired to match.”
And sometimes our new identities as parents can save us, perhaps even literally. In “Becoming His Mother,” Mary A. Scherf tells how the ordeals she faced during the adoption process helped cement her desire to be a mother, despite the damage her abusive parents had inflicted. Terrance Flynn writes in “Baby Card” of the hours before his heart transplant. Waiting to receive the new heart that will save him, he’s keenly aware of the risks ahead and wants his surgeon to know that he is important, that he matters, because there’s a little girl who needs him. “Tell the surgeon I’m a dad,” he begs his nurse, before being wheeled into surgery.
There’s so much in this collection that it’s hard to encapsulate all the themes in one introduction. There are birth stories, both joyous and ambivalent; stories of adoption and surrogacy; of fertility treatments and postpartum depression; of struggling with parenthood in the wake of loss and divorce. These are twenty-three essays to be savored, whether you’re up at three in the morning for another feeding, or finding yourself with a precious eleven minutes before the next nap is over. Not that you have to be a new parent to read and enjoy these glorious, heartbreaking stories—they remind all of us that life is precious, and weird, and gross, and beautifully messy. Enjoy.
And for God’s sake, if the baby is sleeping, you should be, too. Go to bed.
From OH, BABY! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love.
To read the rest of the collection, purchase the book.