I first saw my son in a picture.
Somewhere in the vast hospital that day, my baby was crying in another person’s arms. And somewhere else, in a bag stashed into a corner, laid the crumbled birth plan that was supposed to orchestrate his birth. “I want the birth to be as natural as possible,” that plan declared in bold letters, and continued to do so as my fever went up and up and up and my body refused to cooperate and the doctors’ faces grew worried and grim.
“I want to be active throughout the birth,” it stated while I was carted into the operations room and strapped onto a bed, and a blade tore across my abdomen. “I want to move and breathe through the pain,” it announced, even as I screamed, “I can feel it, I can feel it, no, don’t put me out, please, I want to meet my son!“ And then it was all too much and I nodded, and the nurse gave me drugs and oblivion.
Later, when I lay blinking under the bright lights of the recovery room, my husband pressed a phone into my hands. “Our son,” he whispered, and I clutched the cold device and stared at those translucent eyelids and peaceful face. I dozed off and woke up and dozed off again, that little picture on a phone screen lying flat against my empty stomach, a poor replacement for a beating heart.
In the following months, whenever parenting challenged me, I thought back to those hours in the recovery room. When I saw my son’s picture, I only felt pure joy, but hindsight laced that moment with undertones of failure. When my baby refused to nurse, I asked myself: “Is it truly so surprising? You weren’t there to bond with him when he was born! You couldn’t even wait around long enough to meet him before nodding at the nurse.”
When I couldn’t figure out how to change diapers, I thought, “what an incompetent weakling you are. But it’s not surprising: you weren’t strong enough to be in charge of your own birth, after all.”
When I didn’t experience that overwhelming rush of love that I thought all mothers felt, I thought that I should have expected it. “You’re not like other mothers. And it’s not surprising: After all, you couldn’t even give birth properly!” Unnatural, I thought as I struggled and tried but felt more and more helpless. I’m an unnatural mother, lacking something essential that other women don’t. Unnatural, like the pixels through which I first met my son, like the blade that had to save him from my failure.
But then, one day, I read a book that changed my life. While Jennifer Weiner is a wonderful author and an advocate, I will forever think of her first and foremost as the fellow mother who saved me from myself. “Little Earthquakes,” Weiner’s novel about a group of first-time mothers, describes many challenges and misadventures, but it was one little comment that truly caught my eye. “My job is Mother,” whispers Ayinde, one of the characters, as she cares for her son. This line got me: “And she was good at it, too, she thought, even if it was boring and tedious, even if she felt time stretching like taffy…” I looked up from the book and my hands were shaking. So other mothers felt bored, too? It wasn’t just me?
I started paying more attention to what other mothers said and wrote. And whenever anyone spoke about their difficulties, whenever anyone complained about exhaustion or not feeling “maternal” enough, a little jolt of recognition pushed my unhappiness further away. These shared challenges tasted like homecoming. They told me that my difficulties didn’t make me unnatural: They merely marked me as a normal member of the normal mothers club.
Years later, my body failed to birth my daughter and I went through another, and far less taxing, C-section. Later today, I plan to call the hospital to make an appointment for my third one. I was thinking about possible dates when my son pulled my arm to ask a question.
“Ima,” he asked me, “how come I have no scars even though I fell down from a chair last week?”
“Only serious cuts and burns leave scars,” I answered.
“Like what?” he wanted to know, and so I told him again about the day he was born and the horizontal jagged line across my abdomen. I told him how peaceful he looked in that picture on my phone, and how eagerly I waited to meet him. “And now I will always have a scar to remember that day by,” I concluded the story. I was surprised by how nostalgic I felt, thinking back to those hours in the recovery room, remembering the joy as I experienced it: unadulterated. “Like a souvenir, to remind me of the day you came into my life.”
My son beamed at me. “Wow, Ima,” he said. “You took a scar, which is something bad, and turned it into something good!”
I looked into his eyes, the same eyes that I first saw in a picture, and realized that he was right. Over the years I took something bad–my unpleasant initiation into motherhood–and used it to remind myself that challenges are normal, difficulties are natural, and good parenting isn’t about having an easy time. If anything, it’s about doing your best when complications occur, as they inevitably do.