Three and a half years ago, I wrote a post about my struggle to decide whether to have a child. Now I have one — a wriggling, screaming bundle of chub and cheeks. She is wonderful. She is awful. She defies description. Until four months ago, I could not have imagined how it would be, how it would feel to have a baby. So I thought I would write a letter to my 2012 self. I’d like to help her understand what she’s in for . . . at least in the first few months.
Motherhood doesn’t begin like you think it will. There isn’t any rhythmic breathing or sweating or straining. No pain or pushing. No labor at all. Instead it begins with a scalpel. A doctor obscured by a blue surgical drape mutters, “baby out,” and another says “well, hello there!” And then comes the wail, both terrifying and awesome. Suddenly you are responsible for the survival of seven pounds of fragile flesh and bone. You marvel at her helplessness. She has all the parts, but none of them work well. Except her vocal cords. At first, the nurses (bless them!) are always there. They show you how to feed her. They change the baby and bathe her. They swaddle her just so. They give you pain pills, the strong ones.
One week down. But now you’re on your own. She is precious when she naps, pursed lips and folded hands. But then night comes, and dear god she won’t sleep. She is all naked need and ravenous mouth. Sucking, sucking, sucking until you bleed. And you’ve never been so destroyed. There’s the physical pain: The belly scar that is still healing; the angry, half-moon fissures that ring each nipple; and an exhaustion so bone deep that you marvel at your ability to survive. “Why aren’t I dead?” you wonder as your zombie limbs move to rock her.
But the agony isn’t just physical. Four days in you are a hot, blubbering mess. The tears come and go with no obvious trigger. One minute you’re fine. The next you’re heaving great gasping sobs that won’t quit. You can feel your identity unraveling like a shoddily knit scarf.
Three and a half years ago you wrote, “Raising a kid is a shit-ton of work.” Shut up. You know nothing. The first few months are so much harder than you ever imagined. It’s the relentlessness that gets you. “I am not a mother,” you think. “I cannot do this work,” you say. There will be moments in which you are certain you have made the wrong choice.
But time passes. You do the work because you have no other option. And the baby grows. Life falls into an almost manageable rhythm. She starts to sleep some at night. You get four hours uninterrupted. And that brief respite allows you to consider this miniature being. You built this tiny human cell by cell. Or maybe she built herself. But you provided the factory and raw materials. You kiss her feet and say, “These are MY toes! These toes belong to me.” And you kind of mean it.
Two months come and go, and then she starts to smile. On purpose. At you. These gummy, lopsided grins don’t make up for all the heartache. She still owes you big time. But they feel like a small down payment.
People who have children say, “I can’t imagine my life without them.” You do not yet suffer from this strange parental amnesia. You can imagine life without a child. And you often do, especially in the evenings when the baby hits peak fuss and what little patience you once possessed is all used up. But just because you can picture your former life and see its merits doesn’t mean you want to go back. You love this child with a raw fierceness. You would not trade her. But then, you already knew you would love her. I’m here to tell you that the intensity of that love makes the work . . . well, not pleasant, but possible.
Here is what I wish I could make you understand. This fork in the road, the one that feels so consuming and momentous, is just like any other fork. You pick left or right, and the choice propels you forward into the rest of your life. You will choose to have a child. But somewhere, maybe in one of Brian Greene’s parallel universes, you’ve taken the other road. And that path will lead you elsewhere, to a wholly different life. The choice does not define you. It does not change who you are. You will still be you. You are still you. But now you have a child.