By Jennifer Graf Groneberg
Each night before bed, my son casually, nonchalantly, reaches out and grabs my ear, pinning me to his side. If he is particularly uneasy, he grabs both ears, pulling me close, and I smell baby soap and milk, warm cotton and skin. Our breaths mingle, our heartbeats answer each other and together, we drift to sleep. I am his, and he knows it.
It wasn’t always this way. I was a nervous new mother. I’d read all the books and knew all the ages and stages, but none of it helped me. I was terrified. Too scared to let myself love this small, feeble being, all hunger and need, helpless. One thing that new life had shown me was that living was an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous thing. That such a snippet, not much larger than a carton of eggs, could flourish under the care of my husband and I suddenly seemed to require a great leap of faith. I wasn’t sure that we were up to the challenge, after all.
There is a tiny cluster of islands west of Japan where mothers are treated as newborns for the first month of new motherhood. In their ordinary, hard, agricultural daily lives, they make camellia oil, or harvest shiitake mushrooms, or repair fishing nets. Yet after childbirth, a mother is wrapped in blankets with her baby and is expected to do nothing more than nurse and recuperate. Other women care for the mother, speaking baby talk to her in small, high voices. They help her regress, so that she can recover. They honor the work of bringing a child to the world and nurture the one who carried it from the darkness into the light. A woman needs time to catch her breath after such work. I did not know it then, but after the birth of my baby, I needed to allow myself the time to be a newborn mother.
This is what happened: nights of endless nursing. Worry. Exhaustion. Depression. In the darkness, I wrapped myself and our baby in a patchwork quilt and laid on the floor, cold with winter, utterly spent, and fell asleep in the blue glow of the nursery nightlight. I awoke near day break, terrified. I hadn’t put the baby back in the crib. Had I smothered him in my sleep? There we both were, warm and safe, my son breathing softly, his creamy pink skin glowing in the dawn. I inhaled the milky-sweet smell of him. It was the first time in weeks that I’d slept long enough to dream.
It’s been two years and motherhood has become a part of me, as essential as air. I am marked by it. There is extra skin across my belly that folds into itself like the empty sack that it is. My shoes are all one-half size larger now. And I am part of a wobbly, wonderful clan of women, all Mommies, who prefer wash-and-wear clothes and no-care haircuts. We are agile, ready for Peekaboo or Tea Party, Catch Me or Ponyback at a moment’s notice. We are magic. We can turn flour into play dough, snow into ice cream. Our kisses heal. We hold the future in our arms, several times a day. There is a light in our eyes. We know the sweetness of it, the crazy joy, the pure love you find when you give your heart to a child.
This is what I want to say: Never be afraid. Love fearlessly. The love you give never leaves you. When you think it’s gone, close your eyes and remember. It’s all there. Yours again, to give again.
Jennifer Graf Groneberg spends her days in the mountains of Montana chasing after her husband, Tom, a son, Carter, and a cowdog, Truman. She has worked at many things in her life, but nothing prepared her for the hands-in-the-air, heart-in-your-throat, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stomach flip that is motherhood. She is author of Where the Sky Touches the Earth, a literary narrative of life on a dryland wheat and cattle ranch, and is the editor of MY HEART’S FIRST STEPS – WRITINGS THAT CELEBRATE THE GIFTS OF PARENTHOOD (Adams Media 2004). You can find out more about her book at www.myheartsfirststeps.com. Her work has also appeared in Woven on the Wind (Houghton Mifflin), Montana Magazine, Big Sky Journal and the Tobacco Valley News.