The calculus I used to determine whether or not to become a parent was unusual.
Many of my friends had always wanted to be parents. They married and bought houses in good school districts and with room for a nursery. My husband and I had not. We bought a home in a neighborhood where bars seemed to outnumber playgrounds ten to one. In my heart I knew we, my husband and I, were not a good match. In my heart I hoped being within walking distance of a bar would prevent driving home from one. Our choice of home and our lack of progeny seemed appropriate given our circumstances.
And yet, call it my biological clock sounding a warning alarm, at thirty-three, I began to question my childlessness. I imagined myself at eighty. Would that woman-I-would-be wish younger-me had made a different choice?
Unfortunately, my marriage lacked awesomeness. Many days I felt as if I already had a child in man form. Which is not to say I had no responsibility for the state of our relationship; marriages are a mutual creation. Despite everything, there was a kind of love sprinkled amongst the anger, fear, and sadness.
Despite my suspicions that our marriage would not last, I realized I didn’t want to leave this life without having experienced parenthood. Before my thirty-fourth birthday I said the words: Let’s have a baby.
Having been told most couples would need six months to conceive, I nonetheless felt a sense of disappointment when months passed without pregnancy. But, I needn’t have worried–roughly six months from the day we made the decision to have a child I was pregnant. I walked to the gym that first day, the news still a secret between me and the stick I’d just peed on, with butterflies in my belly. As I worked out, I felt the weight of the decision we’d made. Nothing would ever be the same.
My pregnancy was not particularly notable except in how detached I felt. I’d heard my son’s heartbeat; I’d felt him move. But I didn’t know how to love him. Some women–maybe most–say they felt love and connection to the little being inside them from day one. I didn’t. I watched my swelling stomach and felt my back aching, but I didn’t feel love. Curiosity maybe, but not love.
As the day of delivery approached, I worried. I’d told my husband he was not to touch alcohol for the thirty days prior to my due date. I warned him, “I’ll never forgive you if you’re drunk on the day our baby is born.” The threat, in this case, worked. When my water broke, he came home from work and drove me to the hospital. On the way there I said the thing you’re not supposed to say to someone you love; the thing that can’t be taken back. “You know,” I said, “I think this might be easier if I was doing it on my own.”
Shocked, he turned to me, “What?”
“Nothing,” I replied. I knew it was true, but I also knew my timing was terrible. My defenses and my mental filter were not operating at maximum capacity. Nevertheless, the truth of our marriage, the dynamic sum-total of our experiences together up to and including this one, broke open like a cracked egg: Life would be easier if I was doing it on my own.
Though we both sat stunned by my admission, the moment passed. For the next twelve hours I labored. My husband snoozed as I watched Nick at Nite, waiting anxiously for this kicking, heart-beating bundle to take his first breath. Even then I felt curious–anxious even–but no higher emotion.
Something shifted at around five in the morning. The hours of waiting were over; the moment had arrived. The red-headed creature with legs, arms, and toes in appropriate numbers arrived. The nurse laid him in my arms. Perhaps it was the hormones coursing through my body, but the love I felt in that moment was incandescent. I couldn’t stop repeating the phrase, “He’s so amazing!” with breathless abandon while tears coursed down my cheeks. No one, not my husband nor the medical staff, could intrude on this moment. I was inexplicably, undeniably devoted to this being with every fiber of my own. The locus of my universe had shifted away from myself to the space between my child and I.
Now it was not me, but us.
This shift from person to parent is obviously not unique to me. Mothers and fathers the world over experience it at different moments when a new child enters a family. And each time it defies description. It pricks at the eyes, and radiates from the skin. It’s not an emotion so much as a state of being. Loving a child has no end and seems as if it had no beginning.
Now, nine years after that moment–after divorce and remarriage; hard work, suffering, and joy–I cannot imagine life without the gift of my son. Becoming a parent opened a secret well of empathy and compassion, of vulnerability and strength, within me.
This realization of love helped me manage through divorce with kindness. It helped me ask for help when I needed it, and to be grateful when it arrived. I learned to love without strings attached.
But this love also taught me to be vigilant. Ego, whether mine or someone else’s, is the enemy of love. It drains the wellspring and I must watch it closely. Love has helped me correct myself when my ego wants its way no matter the cost.
Where my new universe began with two occupants, myself and my son, my definition of “us” has since expanded exponentially. I meet people and often–though not always–feel a type of love the Ancient Greeks called philia. Loving my son gave me access to an affectionate regard for others as part of one human community. I now understand that the multiplicity of our interconnected relationships form the real definition of “self.”
I am to you a different me than I am to any other human on earth. We create each other. The space between us, not either of us alone, is the magic.
When my son was born, like all new babies, his eyes could see nothing clearly. With time they gained focus. As the weeks passed, he began to see that which his developing brain recognized as essential; faces, for example, or movement. Like my newborn son, I’d seen only what mattered most to my survival at the time. Becoming a parent changed the myopic vision I held of the world and my place in it.
The great mystery of this love, of course, is that it had always been there; I just hadn’t had the eyes to see.