Right after my daughter was born, the midwife held her up to my chest. I blinked down at this damp, strange-looking object.
“Take your baby,” the midwife said gently.
Oh, yeah, that’s what I’d been doing. I put my arms around her – arm, really; she didn’t need both – as they wiped off her face. Moments later, she let out a cry, and everyone smiled.
It was nearly four in the morning. I’d been in labor since the evening before, intensely since about midnight. I had a remarkably easy labor, but it was unmedicated, and I was so focused on the moment-to-moment physicality of it all that I did, in fact, lose track of the point there at the end.
Parenting is weird.
She was perfect. She was healthy. She was small, and carrying no extra weight. She did not want to eat. She and I had incompatibilities that way. I resisted supplements, despite being pushed by everyone (including a host of lactation consultants). When I gave in and fed her formula, I wept, and slept better because she did.
I thought, before she was born, that I would know what she needed and how to give it to her. Babies are uncomplicated: food, cleanliness, affection, sleep. But order? Routine? That turned out to be elusive. And I never did learn the difference between a “hunger” cry and a “discomfort” cry and a “tired” cry. I had a roster of things on the list: diaper, food, temperature. Check them all, not necessarily in that order. Usually one would do it, but there was never any rhyme or reason from the outside. She could communicate in one way. I was used to navigating a world of far more nuance.
Culture gets so much about parenting wrong. We use the right words, but we ascribe the wrong motivations. I remember realizing, one day, that I would die for my daughter. Fling myself in front of a train or a bullet for her. But as much as I loved her…love wasn’t behind that knowledge. It was a simple A leads to B equation for me: if you drop a ball, it falls toward the earth. If my child is threatened, I put myself between her and the threat. It’s not love or sentiment. It’s physics.
I’ve read enough to know that not all parents feel that way. There are as many journeys as there are parents, and many ways to parent well. But my experience is not uncommon. That oft-quoted sentiment about your heart wandering around outside your body? Everybody thinks “Aw, that’s lovely!” when really it’s the raw, bleeding reality for many parents. You don’t choose to live every day with that low-level terror of something happening to this completely independent part of you that has somehow escaped the confines of your skin to wander around in a world it doesn’t understand. It just happens, and you’re left flailing, wondering why nobody told you how unbalanced you would feel all the time.
I feel obligated to mention that I’ve never been one of those people who believe that everybody should have children, or that everybody should want to. There are more than enough people on this earth, and a fulfilling life is not dependent on a genetic contribution to the next generation.
But I’ve known, since I was little, that I wanted children. Not in an “it’ll-wreck-my-life-if-I-don’t” way; but as something I really, really wanted to do. Which makes it sound selfish, and it probably is, at least for me; but the truth is I’ve had, for most of my adult life, a pretty strong biological nudge toward reproduction. Because of this, I’d always assumed I’d be a good parent, giving a child exactly the leeway she needed to both explore her environment and be completely safe, changing those parameters effortlessly as she grew and learned. I would never relive my own childhood through her, never punish out of anger, never get my feelings hurt by a small person learning how to navigate the world.
The biological urge to parent did not make me a good mother. All it made me do was prioritize bringing a child into the world. It brought me no lessons, no coping tools, no nothing.
Parenting is a big, mushy, amorphous game of “get enough right,” where you don’t get to see what the definition of enough is until your child is grown and hopefully still speaking to you to the degree that they can tell you if they’ve built some kind of happiness for themselves. Parenting means fucking up every single day, often without knowing it. It means missed opportunities, overindulgences, psychological scarring, inadvertent manipulation.
It’s kind of amazing that humans survive being raised by other humans.
I’ve got a character in the book I’m working on who is a parent. Someone asks her, “Are you a good mother?” And she says “No,” without hesitation. In context, it’s the truth: he’s asking her more than “are your children fed and clothed?” and she knows it. It’s what I’d answer in the same circumstance.
And it’s the wrong question.
I don’t think I get to decide, ultimately, if I’m a good mother or not. I think my daughter does. And I think if she ever feels like she can tell me, that’s a good indication I didn’t get absolutely everything wrong.