A tribute to mothers.
It strikes me as best to begin with love. The word will never again mean so much.
Of course you love your spouse. You love your parents and brothers and sisters. You love your friends. You love your home, and perhaps your hometown. You love your dog. You may love your work. You might attest to loving your alma mater, mashed potatoes or reading on a rainy day.
But this is love. The feeling you have for your child is so indescribably deep and consuming that it must qualify as one of the few transcendent experiences in your plain old ordinary life. It occurs spontaneously as part of afterbirth. It is miraculous and supreme and irrevocable. It makes all things possible.
There is a certain attitude, perhaps unavoidable, that most of us seem to adopt as we grow up. It is a kind of self-satisfied conclusion that our parents didn’t love us. Oh, they might have loved us, but they didn’t love us enough. They didn’t love us the right way. They didn’t love us just so. Have your own child and you will penetrate into the utter absurdity of that idea. You will love your child as your parents loved you and their parents loved them. With a love that is humbling and uncontrived, immense and indestructible. Parents err, of course, and badly. They can be ignorant, foolish, mean and far worse, in ways that you can come to forgive in them and try to prevent in yourself. But this wholesale shortage of parental love at the crux of everyone’s story must be the product of shabby and self-serving recollections. Now that you are a mother, set that story aside, forgetting everything you thought you knew about love.
When my daughter was born, I saw my husband fall in love for the first time. He is a good and loyal man, and he loves me. But he has never lost his footing with me, not in the goofy, tumbledown way he surrendered on first sight to his baby girl.
Within days of bringing our tiny daughter home, my husband took dibs on the nighttime feedings. Born six weeks early, she had mastered bottle-feeding in the hospital nursery but was weak and reluctant at the breast. There was a double bed crowded into our nursery, a relic of its days as a guest room, and there he slept, inches away from the mews, rasps and mysterious eaps that emanated from her crib. He slept there eagerly and even well, waking every three hours to dispense her bottles. Although most nights I was waking too, like a shell-shocked soldier, to pump my raw and weeping breasts, the nights belonged to him.
So intense were his affections that I was jealous. Not jealous of him, jealous of her. He was hurrying home in the late afternoons to see her. Calling home hourly to check on her. Cradling her in the warm hollow of his chest for that last hour of sleep at dawn’s early light. How could he possibly love an old, tired, slob of a frump like me anymore? I looked at my love struck husband, looking at her, and raised an eyebrow.
I was all wound up and wrong-headed, and I hadn’t yet realized that there was plenty of love to go around. Leave it to our cat to state the obvious. She was a whiny and temperamental thing, and we expected her to make trouble when the baby came home – jumping in the crib, taking wide swipes and big bites out of the unsuspecting adversary. I had searched the baby stores and Internet for some kind of delicate-looking defense that I could install over the crib to keep our sweet kitty from eating the rival child. I’d draped a mosquito net over the bed to foil the attack. The cat knew better; the cat knew everything, and she recognized a good thing when she saw it. Within hours of our arrival from the hospital the cat was sitting peaceably as close to the three of us as she could get. Forever after, there would never be the slightest menace in her approach. The net over the crib would only ensnare dust. Our family was a love fount, and kitty was more than happy just to be in on the overflow.
In these early and unending days I was exhausted all of the time and depressed most of the time, but I came to a different and awed understanding of what life is. It’s not what you think it is. First, what you call your life is not yours at all – not yours to plan, manipulate or control, at least not very often. That’s a staggering realization. I was humiliated to see that the maturity and serenity I thought I had achieved was simply the result of having things my way all the time. If life wasn’t mine, what was it? In fleeting moments of deep satisfaction and insight, I saw the absolute truth of life: the unbroken line of love that had led to my existence, and would lead on through my daughter. My mother’s love, her mother’s love, her mother’s love and back and back forever ago. Love that is no mere word; love that goes beyond feeling; love that is life itself. I was filled with a rush of respect for all mothers everywhere. This was how we all got here. What miracles, what sacrifice, what love! I never knew, nor could I have, before now. Can you imagine this love? Can you anticipate it, fabricate it, measure and evaluate it? No, you can’t, you can only be love, and your child will release its magnitude within you.
Turns out you can take or leave the mashed potatoes.
No matter how miserable I was at the moment, I knew that life itself was overwhelmingly and infinitely good. This is the balm for all the bad days ahead. This is the only fix. This is the source and strength that lifts you up as you bottom out time and again.
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