Published on March 27th, 2018 | by Carla Bruce-Eddings0
Like Pulling a Baby Out of a Hat
I remember when the promise of adulthood spelled money, success, and power. An end to clumsiness, both bodily and emotional, a final reckoning of heart and mind. Surely grownups weren’t always so confused, so overwhelmed byf the vastness of the world, so unsure of their place within it. I remember as a child looking up at strong jawlines, hardened knuckles, furrowed brows, and longing for that toughness, the physical evidence of impacted wisdom.
My post-college years rapidly dispelled those notions, or at least clued me into the reality that much of what I actually admired was an adult’s heightened ability to compartmentalize, repress, and project. Many of the insecurities that form during our youth simply change form as we age, rather than vanish. For the most part, I’ve found adulthood to be a sustained exercise in winging it.
I didn’t realize—or, maybe I didn’t want to—that parenthood operated in the same exact way.
Maybe some small part of me still wanted to believe in magic. In some miraculous alchemy that could transform a completely ordinary person into a competent, attentive caregiver. How did that work? Why weren’t there months of examinations for this sort of thing? I’d watch newborn babies, spindly and half-blind, smacking their tiny lips for milk, limbs flailing, and ponder all the ways this fragile creature could be broken, destroyed. It seemed terrifyingly easy. It seemed astonishing that one could actually say to themselves, I’m going to nurture this minuscule alien-like animal until it grows up to be a healthy human. This is a task I am ready and willing to take on. And then…do it. Successfully.
It had to be magic.
Standing in the kitchen holding a positive pregnancy test at 6:45 in the morning, staring in open-mouthed stupefaction at my partner, was not so much a sucker punch to the gut as the beginning of a very slow and dazed climb. I don’t know exactly when I reached the peak—was it when I felt that first kick, finally receiving physical confirmation that a tiny human…thing was growing inside me? Was it the first time I experienced the scarily (aptly) named ‘lightning crotch’? Or when we toured the hospital where I would give birth, forcing me to imagine, as I never had before, the very act of giving birth? Each milestone, thrilling and unthinkable, was another foothold in my desperate climb toward motherhood, and I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder every few steps. The drop was dizzying; no beneficent spirit appeared to buoy me or allay my fears, so I had no choice but to keep going.
Maybe there is some small magic in that: nothing mystic or divine, just the steady ascent to a different plane of responsibility and obligation. I remember feeling, even on that first day, exhausted by the immediate cascade of firsts: the first time I filled out a patient sheet at an OB-GYN’s office (for once, I wasn’t stymied by the “date of your last period” question); the first time I gave serious thought about what an abortion would mean for me, personally; the first time I walked into a Barnes & Noble with the express purpose of buying pregnancy and parenting books (the kind I’d only allowed myself to furtively peruse before). My partner bought me economy-sized bottles of prenatal vitamins, the kind that inexplicably required me to take two pills at once every day, and I remember feeling so proud, so taken care of, so on top of my prenatal health each time I choked down those pills roughly the size of a baby’s fist. We were terrified at every moment, but duty outweighed paralysis. Every action had the express purpose of keeping this bundle of cells that we couldn’t touch, hear, or clearly see alive.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? That illusion of impossibility: even though we’d seen the trick performed hundreds of times, it was laughable to think we could execute it with the same ease. It’s peeking behind that velvet curtain: when you find out you’re pregnant, suddenly hundreds of thousands of other pregnant women, expectant couples, and families with young children spring into being, like you’ve put on a pair of the world’s strangest glasses. If everyone else is doing it, that should mean we can too. Right? As ever, I tackled my anxiety by making list after list. My partner conducted extensive online research on how to be an effective labor partner and attentive father, when the books he bought failed to meet his standards. I joined every message board I could find and scrolled, horrified, for hours. We watched documentaries and created baby playlists; I planned our meals around pregnancy superfoods (and ending up shoveling fried chicken into my mouth after prenatal yoga). We wanted so badly to be good, of our own merit; we wanted to prove ourselves worthy of the life we’d been given. Fully surrendering to our underlying panic and ignorance felt like we were betraying a parenting pact we were barely aware of entering.
We sought advice from the women in our family and other parents we were friends with, but always harbored a sly suspicion that we would know what was best. While I appreciated the tips we were given, I also grew to resent the haughty attitude of some of the more seasoned parents, the one that gently mocked us for our preoccupation with researching every tiny detail: what kind of stroller is best? What kind of crib? What kind of breast pump? If we have to use formula, which one? Which wipes might irritate her tiny bottom? While I knew, on some level, that maintaining this feverish obsession for too long would do irreversible things to our sanity, a part of me also enjoyed the bluster. Yes, it was stressful, but it was also strangely fun to open 15 tabs on the pros and cons of eating your placenta, scroll through doula websites with the same curious glee as one’s first time joining a dating app. I wasn’t interested in the long view, the parental perspective weathered by time and mistakes made. Every first was still exhilarating, even if it was painful, or gross, or scary. So hearing “girl, that won’t even matter in a year” or “you’ll forget how much you stressed over this” felt less like a comfort, and more like a dismissal. I wanted to say, sometimes, can’t you just let me be anxious? Can’t you just let me feel?
On the flipside, those parents were often more forgiving than our friends who’d never had babies at all: sneaking me a small glass of wine with dinner (“Trust me, it’s fine”) as opposed to a sarcastic headshake (“Ha, sorry, no alcohol for you!”), offering commiseration or practical advice rather than wordless horror at a particularly gross story, and even teaching me, once our baby was born, how to hand-express milk—more effectively than any lactation consultant ever could. And maybe this was part of the secret, the true reality behind the illusion: parenting is, at its best, a shared effort. A community effort. It’s not just in the act of raising a child, but in the willingness to relive the firsts, the trauma, the sacrifice, for the sake of supporting another clueless newbie in their quest to figure it out too—first on their own, and then, maybe, with some help. It’s the balance that ultimately gave us our sanity back: communing with loved ones, and then watching them leave. As a kid, I thought grownups were paragons of self-sufficiency. What a relief, to have been so wrong.
One of the first things my partner did after our daughter was born was send a gentle, but firm missive to our friends and family who were close by that while we’d love to see them and introduce them to the baby, we wouldn’t be able to handle long visits and also, please bring us some food. Our initial discussions around how people might receive this email were my first foray into just how needy we would be, once we were actual parents. And this was just the tip of the iceberg—all of our preparations and plans were scattered to the winds once our daughter began making her arrival. I completely forgot all of my Hypnobirthing exercises in the throes of active labor. We both underestimated the pacing of my contractions and neglected to have our bag packed; my partner left his pajamas behind in our rush to the Uber. Despite weeks of healthy dieting and drinking Mother’s Milk tea, my milk didn’t come in quickly enough; we had to give our daughter formula for a few days, which I felt (needlessly) guilty for. Every time I snatched a few hours of sleep, I awoke in a gasping panic each time, remembering anew that we were the sole caretakers for brand new, tiny life, and my heart would pound until I was satisfied that she was still breathing.
About two weeks into parenthood, I sat in the rocking chair in my daughter’s nursery while my partner painted the walls of our living room. She was asleep on my chest, and I was trying and failing to quell a sudden swell of panic. Overwhelmed and on the brink of a meltdown, I called my mother and sobbed quietly to her, demanding how I was supposed to know whether I was doing any of this right, confessing that I felt inadequate in every way to be saddled with this much responsibility, desperately ashamed of my former arrogance in thinking I could possibly be a good mom to this poor, innocent child who deserved the entire world. Sometimes, the way she clung to me in her sleep or gazed at me while she breastfed broke my heart in a way that felt completely irreparable.
“I was waiting for this phone call.” I could hear my mother beaming, although her voice was tinged with melancholy. “Every mother feels like this. You’re doing an amazing job. You learn on the spot. That’s just what parenting is.”
I sniffed and nodded, trying not to drip tears on my daughter’s cheeks. I knew what she would say, but I needed to hear her say it. Sinking into the warmth of her voice, the assurance of her years of experience paving the way for mine—it diminished the temporary illusion that I was alone. My partner came to check on us shortly after I hung up the phone, and his presence was even more fortifying. I hadn’t showered in days, breastfeeding still hurt, and I was once again running low on padsicles. But our daughter was here, and for now, she was safe, and fed, and loved. In the moment, it was all we could do.
Perfection can’t be the goal of parenthood: babies are messy, loud, and demand more than you can conceivably give, particularly in those first sleepless, apocalyptic weeks. Sometimes they bump their head or pee where they shouldn’t or fail to latch, and contingency becomes the only kind of plan you cling to from day to day. The love is what you keeps you going, even when there’s no fuel left. The job gets done because it has to, because they need you, because you are all they have. You. No magic required.