Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Motherhood

In the beginning, waiting for the baby to feed or stop feeding or burp or pass wind or yellow liquid shit, I postponed showers, phone calls, bowel movements. With the baby I could spend four days in two rooms, so tired I was half blind. The perimeter of my vision shrank to a bull’s-eye. I ignored correspondence because I had no energy even to write I am so tired, and no one would care that I was tired — who isn’t tired?

I can’t responsibly compare my maternal sleep deprivation with anyone else’s, but I can compare it with the sleep I lost before, back in my original body. I used to lose sleep when I willed myself to finish a piece of work, or when I was kept awake by some particular worry or abstract dread. The will was my will. The fear was my fear. For almost a year I remained in an apartment after a loud bar opened across the street because I wasn’t yet able to part with the marble mantelpiece or the exposed brick. I stayed up then too.

Now I wake up neither because of my will nor because of anyone else’s. I wake up because my body wakes to attend to the child’s body.

I assumed pregnancy would consist of an interruption to my original body, and that after I gave birth my original body would reconstitute, maybe with an interesting new mark or wrinkle to commemorate the occasion.

I believed I’d choose the degree to which I’d attend to the baby. If my health were at risk, I thought primly, I’d care for myself first. Only now do I see that at risk and caring for myself are indefinable categories. I hadn’t considered that the normal demands of early motherhood, which often prevent sleeping or eating or bathing, would put anyone’s health at risk, or that comforting the crying baby might ultimately be a better means of getting some sleep than inserting foam stoppers into my ears.

It wasn’t a desire to comfort the baby that woke me to go to the baby; desire was suddenly incidental, irrelevant. My body was a ship overtaken by pirates, my will the thwarted captain.

If the child calls out from his crib while I sleep in my bed at the other end of the apartment, I feel a prickling in my ears, as if all the little hairs have risen to attention in an instant, pulling themselves taut. With the tautening, my ears tune out the other sounds as I await his next cry. My body rises and moves down the hall, carrying me with it.

Attending to the child in the early days — when he was still a sleepy, vomitous little crumb of flesh, before he was able to express his humanity — was a physiological imperative, like scratching an itch. Now I feel even more fiercely protective of his little body than I did then, especially when he most trusts me with it, toddles over to rest his soft little cheek against me. In the days after he learns a new skill or plays with a new toy, he has trouble getting to sleep, as anyone would. He’s too excited. He is a little person now, and I love him.

To represent maternal love as a softening, weakening force is exactly wrong. In my experience the feeling is closer to a hardening, closer to what traditionally would be called courage: the willingness to sacrifice my body for the child’s body. Maternal love, the love that has prepared me to give my life for his, feels like a new physical ability, a new potential. I might as well have woken up one day knowing I could fly.

I feel more protective of the child’s body than of mine. The feeling resembles no kind of romantic love I recognize. It feels more like violence. As a toddler, each day he exacts an accumulation of small insults on my flesh — most of which, now that he is weaned, consist of needing my attention during the time I would otherwise use to sleep.

Now that the child is no longer a baby, I smile when I remember the day I startled awake, slumped on the sofa, and cried out to my husband, who was standing in the kitchen, holding a mug of coffee, not holding the baby, Where’s the baby?

On your tit, he answered. And so he was.

The first year’s fun-house nightmare over, my child sleeps. I sleep. It isn’t the deep weekend-morning dive into hours of wasted daylight I used to enjoy, but it is sleep. Despite this good fortune, I still feel bewildered in this body, as if someone rearranged its furniture while I was away on a long vacation. Though it resembles my original body, it is not the same. Some of the bones have been pushed askew, the flesh redistributed, pigmented, scarred.

It makes sense that the new body has new tendencies. I no longer lie awake worrying about what will happen in a month or a year or five years; perhaps for the first time I am occupied mainly by the circumstances of the present moment. I believe this constitutes an improvement to my character. I rise each morning sleepy but free of the worries I used to make part of my living thinking and writing about. As I walk to the child’s room I’m already choosing which kind of fruit he’ll have with his morning toast.

I’m growing accustomed to living in this new body, newly capable of briefer, shallower, broken sleep — a mother’s body, a machine designed to wake up.

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is the author, most recently, of The Guardians: An Elegy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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  • mama2

    You said it sister!!!

  • mama3

    Thank you for writing this.

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