I didn’t take to motherhood like a duck in water.
My own mother was — and is — so good at it. Endlessly patient. Endlessly understanding. Endlessly giving. She was born to be a mother the way Mozart was born to be a musical genius. (Nope, not an overstatement.)
Me? I feel selfish in comparison. There are things I want out of this life that have nothing to do with being a mom. That doesn’t mean I want to shirk off my kids — quite the opposite — but it has taken a long time to figure out how to be me while still being a mother to them.
Now that I’ve been a mom for nine years I find myself trying to characterize the shock of motherhood, the loss of self and the rallying to find me again.
The closest I could come was this little story I just made up. I guess it’s supposed to be an allegory of my first few months of motherhood.
The Lady in the Sundress
Life on top of the cliff was good for the most part. Sure, some days the sun was too hot, the wind could knock you on your ass and the gravel in your buttcrack could be irritating. But you got used to it.
There were lots of people around. They wore T-shirts emblazoned with band names. Everyone had cutoff shorts.
There were books scattered everywhere. Someone was always showing a black and white film on the cliff face. There was always music. And beer cans. Bad wine was passed around and drunk right from the bottle.
And there was talk. Lots of talk of the glorious future. Looking off into the endless horizon it was hard to believe that anything was impossible.
But I knew I wasn’t going to stay there. Even though I liked my life on the cliff I always had the sense that it was a temporary place for me.
I had seen other people jump into the water below. I wasn’t really sure what happened to them after that, but the idea of that jump appealed to me.
And then one day something came over me. Next thing I knew I was taking a running start and throwing myself off of the edge of the cliff.
I could just make out my friends whooping and applauding as the sound of the wind overtook my ears.
The water got closer. Fast. All of sudden I was swallowed by it. I went deep. I wanted to stop going down and swim up but I couldn’t fight the trajectory. The water was taking me.
Finally, I found a way to kick my way back to the surface. I gasped for air. It felt good to breathe — I was alive! I had done it! — but man, the shore was far. I was exhausted.
Somehow, without even realizing what I was doing, I started swimming to the shore. Stroke after stroke after stroke. Waves were whacking me in the face. My body was getting stung by jellyfish and torn open by jagged rocks. It got dark and then it got light again. And again. I don’t know how many days passed. Like a machine, I just kept swimming.
I drug myself onto the shore. There was a bottle of water sitting there. I drank it. Clean, dry clothes — a v-neck T-shirt and capri pants. I put them on.
Then I noticed a group people on the grass just beyond the beach. They seemed to be having a garden party. They looked up when they saw me.
A pretty lady in a sundress came over. “Hi,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you. Come on over and meet everyone.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t understand. I was up there.” I pointed to the top of the cliff. “Then when I hit the water there were all these jellyfish and the current was really strong … you don’t know what I’ve just been through.”
The woman lifted the hem of her sundress. “Yes, I do, honey.” She pointed to a scar on her thigh. It was white and long-healed, but it had obviously been quite a gash at some point. “We all go through it.”
I looked at the garden party. People were well groomed and drinking cocktails from hand-painted stemware. The grass was perfect.
There was no way all those people – those people – had come from the punishing water.
The lady in the sundress could see the skepticism on my face.
“No, really,” she assured me. “It’s true. You get cleaned up. You catch your breath. And then you join the party.”
“But what about up there?” I asked, pointing again to the cliff. I could just barely make out the people on top, tiny and frenetic.
“You can’t go back there,” she said.
“What about my friends? Won’t I see them again?”
“Some of them may wander down to see you from time to time, but you’ll have to communicate in a completely different way. You’ve been through something. You’re different. In fact, some of them won’t understand you at all – when you speak they’ll hear a completely different language.”
“Can I ever go back?” I asked. “I liked it there.”
“Someday you might go back, but it won’t look the same,” she said. She smiled a wry smile. “But you won’t have the time or the energy to climb all the way up the cliff for a long while. Besides, you can’t really climb while you’re holding a baby.” She looked at my arms. So did I.
I was holding a baby. A girl. She seemed content in my arms. I could feel something buzzing between us, quiet and low, as if there were an electrical charge holding us together. We were bonded so tightly that I felt that even if I let go she’d still stick to me — another part of my body, yet not quite.
“She’s adorable,” said the woman. She looked me in the eyes. “Amazing, huh?”
I choked back some tears and nodded.
“You’ll get used to it here,” she said. “Look around. It’s pretty nice. Besides, a cliff is no place for a baby.”
I felt the infant’s warmth in my arms. She pursed her mouth, lifted a chubby, tiny fist and whopped herself on the cheek. She turned her head from side to side and began squeaking. “Would you look at that?” I whispered.
“She’s hungry,” the lady told me. “Come on.”
I looked back at the cliff.
“Listen,” said the lady in the sundress. “A lot of people like it here. They come out of the water like you did, they get cleaned up, they take care of their kids and they stay. But not everyone stays. There are other places to be but you have to seek them out. That can be hard with a baby. But still, some people do it. You’ve just been through a shock. Let yourself recover first before you make too many judgments.”
The baby started yowling.
The lady in the sundress smiled at me.
I could feel my lip trembling. I was so tired, so confused. I wanted to melt right into the sand. I wanted my old sleeping bag on the cliff, but I knew the lady in the sundress was right. That was no place for a baby.
“I don’t know how to feed her,” I said.
“That’s OK,” she told me. “We’ll help you. You’ll learn.”
I looked at the garden party. Garden parties had never interested me much. But it looked safe. It looked clean. It would be a good place for me to take the baby.
Without even one last glance at the cliff, I followed the woman in the sundress.