Nine years ago, when I was expecting my first baby, my mother-in-law told me matter-of-factually, that “you don’t really love your babies when they are first born, but you grow to love them after you take care of them.”
At the time that she said this, a mere six or seven months into my new marriage, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in her wisdom, a situation compounded by the fact that she had a tendency to express her opinion regularly and on a variety of subjects. I nodded politely, while thinking with satisfaction that good mothers (like the one I was already becoming) certainly loved their babies from the beginning.
Over the years my appreciation for my mother-in-law has grown considerably, and I have often thought back on those words of hers with very different feelings.
When I look back on that conversation now, I see how little I knew at the time about what it meant to love a baby. I see how much I expected from motherhood, and how unrealistic my expectations were, both of motherhood, and of myself.
Oh, it wasn’t that I knew nothing. No indeed! I had read many books and articles to prepare. My research fueled in me a uniquely American sense of parenting as consumer sport. Knowing very little, I quickly allied myself with various “schools” of parenting and childbirth. I purchased organic cloth diapers and told my husband to return the playpen, a gift from his sister. I couldn’t wait for my baby to arrive, and I was filled with confidence.
Four children later, the cloth diapers are collecting dust in the closet, and we no longer really fit into any “school” of parenting. If I take the time to read the myriad of articles on parenting or motherhood that circle the internet daily, it is with a feeling of dismay. So many opinions, so many choices! Is my choice to stay home with my children a betrayal of feminism, or the perfect martyrdom? By weaning before two, am I too early or too late? Are our methods of discipline too severe or too lax? Is it possible that they are both? Depending on the day of the week or who you ask, I am either a hero or a fool.
But what if all these choices and theories aren’t really the point of motherhood? What if the point of motherhood is that, well… motherhood isn’t the point? What if this whole business of raising the next generation is actually about the next generation, and instead of viewing children as the products of our excellent parenting, we simply take the time to get to know who they actually are, and think about how best to help them grow?
Less than three years after that first conversation, I sat gazing at my second baby and remembered my mother-in-law’s words. By that time she was gone, having lost her battle with cancer a year before. In my arms was a tiny mystery, a baby who after two months of life had told us very little about the person she would become. And I saw what my mother-in-law meant about not loving your babies right away. It isn’t so much that you don’t love them, but that you don’t know them. What you really feel is a heart completely open to love for a little stranger.
And maybe that’s all that motherhood really is. An invitation to love someone besides yourself. It is neither feminist nor reactionary, but it is pretty radical. Motherhood doesn’t make you holy, or gentle, or good. At times it may seem to be doing the opposite. But the beautiful thing is, this crazy invitation to love is ever-renewing. Each morning four little strangers arrive in my bed, snuggly and noisy, needing their breakfast. They forgive my grumpiness and shower me with undeserved affection. Each day, in their innocent but demanding little way, they provide me with the opportunity to grow to love them as I take care of them.
Just like my mother-in-law told me they would.
By Melinda O’Brien, a former WYA IDO and mother of four.