This May, three babies were born among my neighbours and family. The first is Scarlett, the closest to my heart, who joins her three-year-old brother in what I know will be a happy and close sibling adventure. The other is Audrey, who lives right next door and will do the same, I hope, with her big brother who is just two. The third lives around the corner.
They arrived like the warmth of spring trailing joy and hope.
They arrived inevitably, after a slow and patient wait that veered sharply as it came to an urgent ending.
They arrived, and for all of the preparations—the fresh feathering of the nest and frequent medical monitoring—they’ve brought unpredictability and disorganization into their parents’ lives.
They’re all healthy babies and their seasoned mothers and fathers aren’t having to reinvent the world. They have a frame of reference, a bank of experience from which to draw. These families are already up and running.
The job of child number two or three or four, in any family, is to hop on a train that’s already moving and in which some seats have already been taken.
Each child eventually finds their way into adult life while bumping alongside siblings or else never having to share their ride.
It’s the experience—with some very sad exceptions— we all have in common.
But what of motherhood?
“All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body. Because young humans remain dependent upon nurture for a much longer period than other mammals, and because of the division of labor long established in human groups, where women not only bear and suckle but are assigned almost total responsibility for children, most of us first know both love and disappointment, power and tenderness, in the person of a woman.”
My breath caught when I read this. It has such weight. The enormity of it. The unquestionability of it. The responsibility of it.
I’m the second of three sisters. My father decided when I was very young that I should wear my hair short and then gave me the nickname Mikie. I think it was a clear message about who I should be, or who he was expecting. But, mysteriously and despite my tomboyish appearance, the strongest memory I have of my childhood hopes and dreams of the future is of a deep, unswerving desire and conviction that I should one day be a mother.
I can’t explain it. It was just there inside me.
I became a mother at twenty-four, while still a graduate student.
“That first pregnancy is a long sea journey to a country where you don’t know the language, where land is in sight for such a long time that after a while it’s just the horizon – and then one day birds wheel over that dark shape and it’s suddenly close, and all you can do is hope like hell that you’ve had the right shots.”
The story of how I became the mother of three goes like this:
The first time, I wanted a baby, and had two.
The second time, I hoped for one baby, but my son died in utero and was lost at 29 weeks.
The third time, I had learned to just hope for a healthy child and mindfully experience every second of the time he lived inside me.
This doesn’t begin to express what any of these experiences were like. How beautiful and terrifying and difficult and euphoric and painful and instinctive and dangerous and traumatic and life-threatening and life-altering and true and transformative they were.
This is the medical lexicon of my motherhood:
Twin high risk pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, prolapsed cord, emergency caesarian, intra-uterine death, compound presentation, prolapsed arm.
My childbirth experiences are all stories that I must hide from women expecting for the first time. They’re unshareable.
“He carries no burden, he feels no pain. What man, like woman, lies down in the darkness and gets up with child? The gentle, smiling ones own the good secret. Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make flesh that holds fast and binds eternity.”
― Ray Bradbury
I’ve thought so often since I became a mother about what it would have been like to live the way most women have lived since the beginning of time— that is, without the possibility of choice. Without any control over whether or not I would become with child.
“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”
What I experienced in bringing children into the world branded me for life and changed me profoundly. I was brought right up to the brink of myself and of what I could bear. I became the place where life and death did battle over my own and my babies’ existences.
I carry the wounds and scars of those battles with me every day.
This is not nothing. It is, in fact, almost everything to me. And to many women, I think.
Had I not had any choice at all in the matter…would I have survived?
I bring all of this to my mothering. And always have. How could I not?
And yet, I’m no different than every other mother. I feel a connection with my children so visceral and so deeply embedded in all of me that I know it will never abate.
There’s a pain in mothering that just never goes away, and it lives conjoined with a love supreme. And from this connection comes the strength possessed by every mother to defend and protect her child no matter the consequences; no matter the danger; no matter the cost to herself; no matter who or what stands in her way.
Stephen King wrote that: “There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”
He’s right, of course. I’ve transformed many times during my decades of mothering, and the ferocity of my feelings shocked me.
Lioness, Furiosa, Elen Ripley. I’ve been all of them.
When Elen Ripley took on the Queen in Aliens, I was on the edge of my seat, roaring along with her.
But I’ve more often felt very close to Joan Allen’s character, Bonnie, in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer:
In that small and very personal movie, Bonnie is the mother of the boy—a chess prodigy—whose life is fast slipping into a very adult and male world of competition for its own sake. In a short and very powerful scene, Bonnie is the quintessential mother: she’s not projecting herself into her child, she’s simply drawing a protective line in the sand that she will not allow to be crossed:
Bonnie: He’s not afraid of losing. He’s afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers’ love every time they come up to the plate?
Fred: All of them!
Bonnie: He knows you disapprove of him. He knows you think he’s weak. But he’s not weak. He’s decent. And if you or Bruce [her sons’ chess teacher and coach] or anyone else tries to beat that out of him, I swear to God I’ll take him away.
If I live to be a hundred and ten, I’ll never do anything more meaningful, more hopeful and more astonishing that bringing my sons into the world.
With them, I’ve lived many more lives. I’ve experienced innumerable do-overs—those opportunities to start again and do things better, do them right and become a much better person.
I’m filled with an immense sense of gratitude.
My gratitude has four names. They are Simon, Jeremy, Gabriel and Christian.
“As I cooked in the cauldron of motherhood, the incredible love I felt for my children opened my heart and brought me a much greater understanding of universal love. It made me understand the suffering of the world much more deeply.”