I remember sitting at lunch with a colleague of mine from the newsroom.
A wonderful woman and very talented, she now has many awards to her name and quite a title as well. But that day, she was being a good reporter and doing what good reporters do, gathering information.
She was about to go on maternity leave for the birth of her first daughter. I had just returned from maternity leave following the birth of my first son. Her purpose was simple: She wanted to know what it was like to be a parent and what to expect.
She had told me that when we set up a date two days prior. So I had time to think.
Normally, my friends and family will tell you, finding words is not my problem. Stopping the words from flooding out of my mouth—that’s my problem.
But faced with that question, I had no words.
What can you say about being a parent?
Try to describe it.
Fifteen years later, I still don’t have a succinct answer. Most of my attempts to answer the question make me sound like a cross between a Hallmark card and a paranoid schizophrenic.
My boys are wonderful. They are two amazing people who have fascinated me since the day they were born.
They taught me about a love greater than anything I have ever known. They switched the center of the universe on a twentysomething. And they taught me that I could believe in myself with a new level of confidence and caring at the same time I was shaken to the bone by my inabilities and my insignificance.
From the moment they were born, as the love welled up in me, so did a large, empty hole of fear. Just hold a small baby burning with a fever and you reach a level of darkness that no Stephen King novel can touch.
No longer are the questions: “Will I be healthy?” “Will I be happy?” Because if my son is not healthy, if he is not happy, how will I live? What will I do?
Just looking at my son when he was born, I was horrified by this ghostly being streaked with white and red blood and mottled with unworldly blue spots. I remember how vivid the colors were and thinking—but only for a moment— “Oh my God, I just gave birth to an American flag.”
Remember, I had just finished experiencing incredible pain.
Yet, it was nothing to the possibilities of pain I saw laid out in the future as I gazed into those beautiful eyes. As my newborn son was laid on my chest, waves of love washed over me as my brain filled with questions: Will I be able to provide for this child? Will I be able to send him to the school he wants? How do you actually wash a baby penis or is it self-cleaning? Will I know what to say when he needs advice? Will I keep him safe? Will I be able to get up off this table?
Three weeks after giving birth, I looked at that beautiful boy, and then, three years later, his beautiful brother, and I had the same thought. In between uncontrollable sobs, I said to my husband, “He’s going to grow up, fall in love and leave us. Babies are heartaches.” My husband attributed my outburst to out-of-whack hormones. I claim it was a moment of clarity—the type we parents rarely allow ourselves.
You know what I mean.
I know life is much easier when I wear my armor—that sort of emergency-room-doctor mentality.
A doctor cannot wallow in the personal, nor do you want them to. I do not want a doctor working for me who stops to think, “Oh my God, I’m cracking open the chest of this woman, who is loved by a family and friends. I’m reaching into her body, which is just as frail as mine, and Susy could actually die in my hands if I don’t do it just right. I could also die and how would I feel then?”
Nope. I want my doctor to do what needs to be done and grapple with the enormity of it all when I’m gone—or rather, after I’ve left the office.
Care about me, but first care for me.
If I think too often of how I feel about my boys, I am swept up into it. I will drown in that wave of love, or I will fall into that hole of fear that I discovered when they were born. Too far either way and my mothering will be smothering.
Both of those roads lead to the same place. If I really allowed myself to remember how much I loved these little people, I would never allow them to do what they need to be happy, which is, “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy,” as the wonderful children’s character, Ms. Frizzle, likes to say.
So, I push it all down.
Like an addict, I try to take it all one day at a time.
But sometimes, it creeps up on me quietly, usually in the dark, while I am sitting at a recital, a school pageant, a play or a concert and I see my boys and their friends. I see promise, I feel hope and I am moved to a love that encompasses each of those kids and I find myself silently praying, “Let them know they are loved. Let them know they are wonderful.”
Usually, as we applaud, I have stopped crying, but not always.
So, when I sat down at lunch with my colleague, what could I say?
What can you expect when you become a parent?
Without the comprehensive and correct words, I repeated what one of my husband’s dear friends said to us before my son was born, “They change your life, you know.”