Monday, September 04, 2006

Learning Mother Love

It's a shiny bright apple of a day in San Francisco and the three of us--me, my husband, Jeff, and our one-year-old son, Max--are at a concert. He's in red corduroy overalls and a striped shirt, his hair long and golden as the day ahead of us. The concert's been going on for an hour already, and the whole time Max has been content to sit on his father's lap, enthralled by the music. Already, a woman has come over to compliment us on our well-behaved baby. "What a love!" she coos, chucking Max under the chin. Someone else crouches and snaps his picture. And then Jeff says quietly, "I have to pee."

We both know what that means. He lifts Max up and sets him on my lap. Startled, Max looks around wildly. Jeff hastens to the bathroom, and Max begins to scream.

He wails when I try to rock him. He tries to peel himself off my body when I croon. And when I stand, trying to dance with him, he flails his hands. "Is he okay?" the person next to us asks with great concern, and I nod. "Colic," I lie, my mouth quivering. "A little stomach bug."

I walk with Max, trying to get away from the concerned stares, and then suddenly there's Jeff. He takes Max, and all the crying stops. We sit back down. I feel everyone's eyes upon me--even though no one may even be looking. I keep my head down, blinking hard, biting on the edge of my lip so I won't cry. My own son screams when I try to hold him. What kind of mother am I?

I halfheartedly hand Max a pacifier and he swats it out of my grasp. "Fine," I snap. "Do without:'

Jeff blinks at me. "He's a baby," he whispers. "You know better."

I did know better. I knew that for the first three months of Max's life, I was critically ill in a hospital, so all the bonding we were supposed to do just never happened. I knew that for the next three months I was still too sick to hold him, to feed him, to do more than talk to him. Babies can recognize their moms by scent. But this particular baby was more likely to recognize his blanket than he was me, simply because he had had more contact with it. The truth was, I didn't really know him. He didn't really know me. And what's more, he didn't seem to like me and I hadn't a clue what to do about it other than to sometimes, to my great shame and bewilderment, not like him back.

I tried, but I wasn't always a good mother. I didn't look the part, my hair falling out, my skin gray, bloated from the steroids I had to take for my illness, a postpartum condition that kept my blood from clotting. To bond with my baby, I began to care for him, changing his diapers when he'd let me, giving him his bottle because I was too sick to breast-feed. One day, I was leaning over him, tickling him with my hair trying to get him to laugh, when a hank of it slid off my head, dusting his belly. Horrified, I grabbed for the hair the same time Max did. I jerked it out of his hand so hard, he whimpered. Within minutes, we both were weeping.

Jeff soothed me. My friends soothed me. "Mothering is exhausting," a friend told me. "One day I was so tired, I put Sammy in the laundry hamper and left him there" She quickly added, "But I took him right out. Don't be so hard on yourself."

How could I be any less?

It was Jeff who pushed us together, who made himself scarce. Max, of course, was not happy, which, in turn, made me tense. But I was determined. I tried to do all the right things: to read to him, to splash him in his bath, to keep a smile on my face. One day, when I was reading to him, we both fell asleep on the bed together, and when we woke, we were gazing into each other's eyes and I felt the shock of connection. He lifted his small hand, like a starfish, and laid it against my cheek. He snuggled against me, and though I wasn't sleepy anymore, you couldn't have moved me with a forklift.

The great myth is that mother love comes instantly, as natural as breathing. Oh, maybe it does, for the lucky ones. All I know is that, as they say, "we wuz robbed," Max and me. We were robbed of parts of each other we needed, of that early, magic thrill of getting to know each other right from the start. Maybe bonding isn't easy or natural for anyone, but we never even got the chance. I missed out on the first few months, the plans I had had to read to him, to talk with him, the time I had arranged to be no one's but his. And he missed out, too. He had the adoration of his Dad and his grandmothers and a devoted baby nurse. But he didn't have me. And when we finally got to have each other, we both found a stranger in our midst. We both had to grapple with a person you get to know, you come to love.

Max is eight now. We spend almost all our time together, and I take nothing for granted. We're the love of each other's lives. I know the struggle it took to get there, I know what it cost both of us, and maybe that's what makes it all the more sweet. I listen to him. I make him laugh, and every time he calls for me or seeks me out or takes my hand, I feel undone by my happiness.

By: Leavitt, Caroline, Psychology Today, Aug2006


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