turning 21: a mother was born
nothing had ever — has ever — so deeply captured my attention. you can see it in the gaze above, the eyes locked between mother and child. you can see it in the parted lips, my lips, can almost hear the gushing in of breath, of pure and utter undiluted amazement.
deep down, i think, i never really believed it would happen. had so little faith in my body — in the flesh and bones that made me who my vessel was — i gasped when they handed me that bundle. i so distinctly remember drinking in his eyes, whispering, “hullo, my sweet, so here i am, and here you are, answer to my deepest prayers, my dreams come true beginning now.” and then, before i could stop myself, i zeroed in on the thighs. the thighs i am blessed to report were duly “pudged,” rolls of flesh and perfect fat, a fat so deliciously dimpled it nearly melted me off the birthing bed.
i’d been afraid i might grow a baby without the requisite fat. in fact, i doubted my capacities as birthing chamber all along. in one long weekend, after an early set of ultrasounds, i convinced myself my baby had no brain. all you could see inside the skull was black space, blank black space. oh my god, i thought, they’ve not yet broken it to me, but i think my baby might be missing his brain. i even called a radiologist friend — on a sunday — to find out if he’d confirm my fear.
he confirmed it not.
and in fact, on the sultry start-of-summer tuesday when at last that babe was born, he was a whopping eight pounds, nine ounces — a good chunk of that birthweight duly tucked in the cranial cavity, where in the years since he’s proven how undeniably that brain was where it needed to be, doing precisely what it was wired to do.
my beautiful beautiful boy turns 21 on sunday, and while my letter to him will be deeply private, the one i’m writing here is the one in which i proclaim to anyone who pulls up a chair how very deeply his birth birthed the depths of me, allowed at last the core of who i dreamed i could be, who i prayed i could be, to begin to take form, to emerge in light and shadow, to rise from the gauzy netherworld, to be defined in sharp outline and tender spots, and to be forming still.
it just might be most every blessed mother’s story: we stumble upon the best that we can be, sometimes, when living, breathing, squawking, ever-hungry babe is cradled in our arms. our trembling arms, to be sure. our arms that grow stronger, surer, over all the sagas and the chapters and the countless hours of two lives entwined.
when i think back over the 21 years that he and i have been essential factors in each other’s equations, i stand in wide-eyed wonder. i bow down low in deepest gratitude. i wince at my mistakes, moments i’d give anything to do over. and i marvel at the times when i stepped to the edge of the precipice, mustered all my courage, and leapt — that eternal life-saving instinct nestled deep in every mother’s heart, the one that propels us to put form to whatever is the holy vow we take when we’re first told that life stirs within.
it’s unbreakable, the mother bond. it defines our days, puts order to our must-get-done list, sets us off to the ends of the earth, if need be, in search of the essential whatchamahoojie — be that the medical specialist who can peer inside a child’s shattered bone or merely the USB cable that’s gone missing from his laptop at the very hour the paper must be printed and turned in for a full semester’s credit.
and it keeps us awake, long night after long night.
we learn, once motherhood comes upon us, just how long we can go without so much as a spoonful of cereal (it took me a couple weeks to figure out how to inhale breakfast with a baby wailing in the infant seat), and how many consecutive nights we can curl up on the bathroom floor cradling a fevered child or one who’s upchucking till the wee wee hours.
when necessary, we discover we can make the scariest of phone calls, can dial up the mother of the slumber-party bully, can look the teacher in the eye and say, i’m sorry, i don’t think you understand my kid. we can even will our knees not to buckle when the ER doctors start tossing around words like “airlift” and “cervical fracture,” and “severed spinal cord.” we can make promises to God — ones we swear we’ll keep — when, for longer pauses than we ever thought we could endure, we’re begging to be spared a kid who can’t flinch a muscle from his neck down to his fingers and his toes.
in rare sweet moments, we find out how it feels to catch the wind and soar. we turn and see the kid we love dashing down the block to hand a crunched-up dollar bill to the homeless guy he knows by name. we nearly fall in the river as the kid who couldn’t catch a fly ball now rows mightily across the finish line. we read the words his college professors send to us in emails that knock us off our chairs, and leave one of us brushing away the streams of tears.
we hope, we dream, we pray. we reach down deep, deeper than we ever reached before. we listen till the birds of dawn begin to sing, if that’s what it takes some long dark hollow nights.
we find our voice along the years. we exercise our heart. we wrack our brains. we love, and love some more.
and suddenly 21 years have happened. countless picture frames loop before our eyes. words and stories bubble up and fill page upon page. our hearts are 21 times the size they used to be — at least.
we have paid most exquisite attention, to each and every breath and utterance all along the way. we’ve driven ourselves nearly mad. we’ve cared beyond reason. in fact, there’s little room for the rational when it comes to this particular brand of love story.
we were handed a treasure. we owe it to the treasure. we owe it to the bequeathers of the treasure.
i, for certain, was handed the treasure of my life. june 22, 1993. the day the best of me was born.
a work very much in progress. the best work in all my oeuvre.
i love you, sweet will, with all my heart and all my soul and everything that dwells between.
chair people, thanks for indulging me in this morning’s labor of truest deepest love. i found the photo above — my sweet boy’s forehead stamped with a “stork kiss” from my beloved obstetrician, who made it a habit of smearing on bright red lipstick to mark her babies shortly after birth — while working on a little picture project. i’ve been compiling a little something for my sweet boy’s birthday and this frame floated to the top.
feel free to tell what birthed the best of you along the way….
I didn’t give birth to my daughter; she could speak in paragraphs and dress herself by the time we entered each other’s lives. But some of these feelings are still the same, including the wish for some do-overs, the memory of chasm-leaping courage, and the belief that our relationship is the best work I will ever produce.
She’s expecting now, and I am pleased to report that according to this morning’s ultrasound, his brain is present and fine.
so so beautiful, dear laura. “chasm-leaping courage,” indeed. mazel tov and great good prayers for that baby growing deep inside. to begin anew the birthing….
Such a beautiful, beautiful piece, befitting of the beautiful, beautiful mother…..Hope everyone is well and happy and loving the sunshine and green! Love, Laurie
love you, dear laurie.
Oh, Barbie! Thank you, thank you for your beautiful words! My youngest will turn 21 this August and you have put into words with such beautiful eloquence everything I am thinking and feeling! Congratulations, young Will!
extra big hug to you, my beautiful friend from one of the tenderest chapters of my life. mothers who walk the halls of children’s memorial are the bravest mothers imaginable…..
Such beautiful words Barb ❤ My oldest just turned 31 on June 3rd and my youngest is 27. True love is looking into your child's eyes everyday ❤
beautiful, sweet linda. “true love is looking into your child’s eyes every day…”
“and suddenly 21 years have happened. countless picture frames loop before our eyes. words and stories bubble up and fill page upon page. our hearts are 21 times the size they used to be — at least.
we have paid most exquisite attention, to each and every breath and utterance all along the way. we’ve driven ourselves nearly mad. we’ve cared beyond reason. in fact, there’s little room for the rational when it comes to this particular brand of love story.”
How I love the idea that our hearts are 21 times their size as our children reach 21 — I’m quite certain it’s true! (My heart is 27 times its size, 24 times its size, and 20 times its size. These separate sizes, of course, correspond to each of our children. How elastic the heart is; no matter how many times it is stretched to enclose a growing child, it remains one heart.)
We -have- paid most exquisite attention, haven’t we? And we -do- care beyond reason. Oh, yes.
I love knowing you have treasured being a mother as much as I have. What a gorgeous essay this is, Barbara — satisfying in every way.
May your heart keep growing, on and joyously on. And happiest of birthdays to your darling Will!
bless you, and bless you, beautiful amy. clearly you have a big big heart. i will never catch up. xoxox
Who needs to catch up? Your heart’s the perfect size! ❤
Wanted to add that I adore that photo of you and Will. It's the sweetest. And the red calico jumper you're wearing: what a charmer! Laura Ashley? xo
amy, soon as i wrote, “catch up,” i wanted to run back and fix that, because when it comes to hearts — as you already know — there is no catching up. we are all right where we need to be. bless you. so so much. how DID YOU KNOW IT WAS LAURA ASHLEY?!?!? i treated myself up the wazoo, and still have it i love it so much. i bought it so i could be in laura and feel like a prairie girl the whole time. i still wear it. or i did for a long time. it was almost always the dress i pulled out to wear on willie’s birthday, because it was my going-home-from-the-hospital dress. i love your keen eye. and i think i’ll wear it sunday, just to feel like it’s 1993. xoxoxo
Happy birthday to both of you! How blessed you both were that day. I hope Will realizes what a treasure of a mom he has in you. We all wish we could have do-overs, but oh my, all the amazing things you have done right every single day. Blessings upon you, dear bam, and your darlings, each one. ❤
sending love, my dear friend. xoxo
SUCH good reading, as always.
As you already know, I remember that ultrasound of his spine. I also remember meeting that little bundle of swaddled joy at Prentice—by which time, of course, he had turned out to not be “Sophie” ( 🙂 ), but possibly still a “Max.” Then again, maybe not, because you said that just didn’t feel right, now that you “knew him.” What a perfect Will he has turned out to be!
indeed, ms. karen, you had the front row seat on that developing story. complete with ultrasounds pegged onto the board. bless you for all your shower of kindnesses. and for the children’s classics ever inscribed to max/sophie, forever tucked on our best shelves. oxox
Wow…I’m afraid to write anything! All of your friends express themselves so beautifully! I have always loved the way you write and still have that very first letter you taped to the plywood door on our house on Wellington 100 years ago when we were neighbors. How could I have brought my Sophie into the world without you next door cheering me along through every first time mom’s fears? You were pregnant with Teddy at the same time…a very relaxed second time mom. I can’t believe that Will is turning 21! The years are really flying by. We have to get together for coffee one day…pull up a chair together and reminisce about the old days when we looked into each other’s kitchen! Happy Bday to Willy…the little boy who was “practicing his fencing moves” the first time I met him. ❤️
oh, sweet darling. yes, yes! we must have real coffee at a real table with real tears. because with you they are mostly always tears of laughter. i don’t think anyone has ever used the word “relaxed” with me in all the years i’ve been alive. so i’ll just strut around today pretending i’m “relaxed” and see how it goes. big giant hug. xoxoxo were we looking through feldco windows is the big burning question? hmmmm…..
Wow! So beautiful Barb. Funny how I can forget what I did for lunch yesterday but I, too, can remember so clearly the moment my babies were handed to me and that undeniable, unconditional, immense surge of love that overcame. Will (and Teddy) are lucky boys to have you!
it’s seared in our hearts, right? thanks for pulling up a chair, sweetheart. xoxo
Parenting has stretched every single cell (ribosome, RNA, DNA, mitochondria) in my earthly frame, and we won’t even get into the all those energy layers. But all that stretching has blown out my universe so I feel less and less able to judge and say “I know what is best”. I only know that I can just love. I just texted one mine, (who has serious challenges and he struggles mightily in the bravest way) that we will always have his back, and meant it with the strongest love I could summon up. I am grateful that my heart and understanding have expanded so…and expect/hope that it will continue. As always, thanks for your nudge to reflect and search my heart.
so extremely beautiful captured in words, sweetheart. we struggle to wrap our words around the depths and heights. i hear you in every breath. you are magnificent. and at the art of mothering, you inspire. xoxox
i have read and reread and savored this since you posted on friday 20. that was the the day four years ago when i was a mother born, too. and, as always, your wise words here continued to whisper to me as i watched my boy shriek and splash through sprinklers in our neighborhood park this weekend, and i thought: it’s true, she’s right, i will never add anything to the world better than this. happy birthday week to sweet will! what adventures we had on wellington. a boy full of wonder, curiosity, who was deeply funny, intelligent and sensitive. as he’s grown he’s only become all of that and more. happy birthing day to you and blair. happy 21 to will (who shall always be willie to me). xxoo
and happy blessed FOUR to you and your sweet boy, too, darlin. i love knowing that willie was a bit of a starter kit for you, as you and sweet todd with easel came and delighted willie on all those magic-filled babysitting adventures — learning to paint, learning to make a movie. you two were mighty skilled at the art of sparking wonder, well before your own real live experiment in parenting began. blessings to you, to your magnificent mothering, and for being that rare friend who takes words from the chair and tucks them into your own heart. love you, sweet laur. xoxo
If I were to pick the moments where I have felt most startlingly alive, they can all be traced to the common source of a babe in my arms. My own undersized 8lb.,10oz., mammoth of miracles to cradle, bundled and placed in my arms, was the moment I really started living. My life was jump-started by this little one who reflected the face and hand of God. My very own Christ child stared back at me–I was being entrusted with one of God’s greatest gifts to the world: a child, from his treasure box of Children. I would never feel or be the same, for, as you so succinctly put it, “a mother was born.”
May the air be prime for a mother/son flight this birthday marked 21, with a breeze beneath your wings that finds you both soaring…
Thank you for finding the words to express the deep and varied feelings carried by us all so incredibly blessed to be called mom in our many-colored days of motherhood.
My sweet baby girl was definitely life’s biggest gift to me. How in the world did I deserve it? Her biggest gift to me was when she said to me, all grown up, “It never occurred to me that not every single mother was happy about having a child, because you always acted like it was the best thing in the world.” I never SPOKE about that feeling because it simply never occurred to me that there was any other way. How painful that it is not true for every mother. I wish love and resources and support for every mother and her children!