When my daughter was 5 months old, we went to visit my husband’s family. A cousin shifted my daughter into her arms, and we gazed down at my baby’s sea storm eyes, her chick’s fluff of hair. “She’s beautiful,” the cousin said. “Don’t you just want to throw her out the window sometimes?”
In fact, I did not want to throw my daughter out the window — at least, not yet — but in those days I was confronted with variations on the cousin’s question so often, I began to worry about my lack of any impulses to defenestrate my child. “You spend the first year waiting for them to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives wishing they’d sit down and shut up,” said the instructor at Mommy and Me yoga. A friend I hadn’t spoken to in a decade e-mailed advising me not to be “a martyr” to my child. My husband and I went to a first birthday party to which another guest, a father of two, brought as a gift a bottle of whiskey.
The current lingua franca of parenthood is a rueful sigh, a sotto voce expletive and a desperate grab for a strong drink. My Facebook feed is a stream of reposted studies claiming that having a child is more stressful than divorce, unemployment or even the death of a loved one, and links to satiric essays in which frazzled mothers fantasize about doing cocaine to make it through a day at the playground. Hundreds of “bad mommy” bloggers parade their daily parenting “fails,” such as hiding in the bathroom with a bottle of Chardonnay during homework hour. On the show “Louie,” Louis C.K. patiently brushes his daughter’s teeth, then flips her off behind her back. A burgeoning genre of anti-motherhood memoirs has emerged, including Naomi Wolf’s “Misconceptions,” Ayelet Waldman’s “Bad Mother” and Rachel Cusk’s “A Life’s Work.” Even contemporary books for children are written with a wink and a sympathetic eye-roll toward their harried, hapless parents, whose red-faced, tufty-haired, single-toothed brats capriciously reject meals, boycott bedtime and leak from both ends simultaneously.
Accordingly, when I got pregnant, I expected the worst. Sleep deprivation, crying jags, the conviction that my body had been replaced by an inflatable pool half-filled with warm Jell-O: I was ready. But no one had prepared me to fall in love with my baby, and when I did, it scared the hell out of me.
I loved my husband. I loved our cat. In fact, I loved our cat so much that before my daughter arrived, I told myself that if I could manage to love her almost as much as the cat, she would probably turn out okay. And then she was born, and I was sucked down in a gasp and swoon of tenderness more fierce than anything I’d known. She would put her head on my shoulder and sigh, and I would throb with a physical sensation that was both flood and ache. The top of her head smelled like flowers and honey and sunshine — or so I believed, until I asked a friend what she thought it smelled like, and she took a whiff and said, “Sebum.”
I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d been ambushed by parental love. Even my most vociferously exasperated Facebook friend’s sardonic rants about her “crackhead” 2-year-old were interspersed with pictures of the crackhead’s first day of preschool and the crackhead dressed as a bunny for Halloween. Images of love-drunk mothers gazing at cookie-sweet infants sell everything from formula to investment plans, needing no words to state the obvious: There is no greater love. But I needed words. I needed a way to talk about this terrifying, intoxicating experience that wasn’t sappy or cliche; that didn’t feel unfashionable and embarrassing; that was honest and true and helpful, rather than boastful or false. As a friend sniped as we watched the aggressively cheerful mother of four(!) boys(!) navigate her double-wide stroller through the park: “She’s in so much denial about how much pain she’s in.”
Fearing that I, too, would be seen as delusional, or simply uncool, if I told the truth, I stuck to the dominant narrative of resentment and fatigue, of post-childbirth complaints and detailed analyses of infant digestive systems. And yes, there was tremendous comfort in sharing stories from the trenches. Some days the only thing that stanched the hysterical crying jags was knowing that being forced to fashion a diaper out of a plastic bag would make a great story for my mom friends, who, I knew, loved their babies just as ferociously as I loved mine. It wasn’t that I thought I was alone in this emotion — it was that I listened, in vain, for its echo in the chorus of complaint. Sutures would heal. Poop would sort itself out. What I really wanted to know was, what to do with all this love? My daughter seemed too small to receive it all. She couldn’t even bear the weight of her own head.
Why is it so easy to joke about wanting to murder your child and so hard to talk about worrying you might actually die of love? Maybe it’s a hard-wired superstition that if we publicly express our delight at our children, the gods will hear us and smite us for our pride. Maybe all happy families really are alike. Or, as Jennifer Senior describes in her book “All Joy and No Fun,” it’s easier to find the words for the tough stuff: “The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive.” We have a thousand words for sleep deprivation but a paucity of terms to describe that hour, just after dawn, when your child has gotten in your bed and is sleeping next to you, one arm flung over her head, her breath somewhere between a snore and a purr.
Much of the daily routine of caring for a small person is low-stakes. My daughter and I share a bagel. At the pet store she tells the fish she is happy to see them again. The only way to transform these mundane events into anecdotes, which can then be strung together into a narrative, is to neuroticize them. So I emphasize frustration, embroider calamity. Our daughter sticking her hand in the tank to “pet” the fish, then scooping her wet hands into the bin of bird food while I shriek at her to stop, agitating the rabbits, which start banging in their cages . . . now we’re getting close to a story.
I tell this story to my husband when he comes home at night, hoping to make him laugh. I tell this story to underscore how hard this job is, how poorly I am executing it, how utterly I am at the mercy of a three-foot tyrant in sparkly tights. I tell it to reassure him that I am still the sarcastic, ironic person he married, that motherhood has not made me soft-headed and moon-eyed, liable to weep at a Diapers.com commercial (though I do). I tell it to practice what I will say to the other moms at Saturday morning gymnastics, where we stand around with our puffy eyes and takeout coffees, trading polished complaints about our ungrateful, ill-tempered little monsters, additions to the canon of stories of parenthood as the worst thing that can happen to a minimally self-aware person other than not having kids at all.
The joy of parenthood is not a story; it has no plot. It is a series of moments, unspoken. At the park, a father swoops up his son and kisses the top of his head in a single, flowing gesture. At the pizza place, a mother and daughter share an after-school slice, the daughter wiggling on her chair, waving her hands, the mother listening, smiling. Glimpsing these moments, I wonder what other, secret joys these parents are hiding, what furtive raptures they harbor. I wonder if they, too, sometimes wish there were more words to bridge the public story of being exasperated by your offspring to the point of defenestration, and the profoundly intimate experience of having a tiny pair of hands reach inside your ribs and wrench your heart open like a stuck window. I haven’t yet found a way to ask. I haven’t yet found a story to tell of this: On the way home from the pet store, my daughter held my hand for three whole blocks, not just the intersections. The top of her head still smells like honey.
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