Like so many expectant parents, I spent any free time during my pregnancy reading about the tiny human forming inside of me, fluttering at first like a butterfly, then stomping around like an Irish Step Dancer and punching like a boxer.
It was a boy, and he seemed so sure of his place in the world, resting, rolling, and rocking out in my belly, long before he ever made an appearance. I read that he would be born with built-in reflexes, like rooting and sucking and grasping.
He would know what to do, but would I?
I was born with the worry reflex. Could I be the kind of mother I wanted to be, without my own mom here? I had countless questions for her that I’d never be able to ask.
In the NICU on the morning after my son was born, snowflakes whirling out the window, I sat wan-faced in the kangaroo chair, as our nurse, a gentle Caribbean woman, placed my baby on my breast. He shook his head around lightly like a puppy dog, then latched, and suckled, as if he had been doing it his whole life. I looked at him in awe. On my phone was a photo from the night before, when my baby lay under an oxygen helmet, unable to be held. My husband had reached out his finger, and our newborn at once wrapped his tiny hand around it.
With birth, like loss, you can try to prepare, but there will always be surprises.
My husband and I watched a YouTube clip in my last trimester of pregnancy that showed an infant cracking up over her dog. It was a home video that had gone viral. The baby could not stop giggling; my husband couldn’t either. I laughed too, at first, but then pulled the comforter up over part of my face as tears streamed down my cheeks.
The baby’s laughter was pure happiness – high notes on a piano, swinging up to the sky, skiing into sunlight. So why was my throat thick and my chest heavy? Hormones could be to blame, but I think in that moment, I knew, my son was about to crack my heart wide open.
Like his other involuntary movements and actions, my son came into the world seeking joy. Something I had lost and run from for so many years while grieving the loss of my mother, he ran straight towards at full force, like it was all he’d ever known – and I suppose it was. His eyes would lock with mine and his mouth would form a smile too spectacular to be real. His gummy grin was Christmas morning, his giggles the giddiest song. His clumsy, crash-into-you hugs and sloppy mouth kisses were unadulterated affection (un-adult-erated). He held nothing back. Nothing held him back. He lived for loving and being loved, and for having limitless fun.
Rumi wrote, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” My baby moved straight from his soul – not his ego or conscience, but this beautiful, instinctive place not yet touched by fear or shame.
And oh, did he move.
As soon as my son began crawling, then walking, he couldn’t stand being still. He lit up like floodlights at a football stadium when given the chance to go – to run to his heart’s content. It didn’t matter where he was going, but he preferred to be outside. In nature, no matter the weather, crunching leaves, treading on soggy grass, wobbling on sand, trekking through the snow, my son transformed into a sprinter, an explorer, a scavenger on a hunt, an air traffic controller – so curious about and captivated by the world around him.
When it’s too dark to go outside, he settles for running inside the house, round and round the circle that our foyer, living room, and kitchen create, much like the one in my childhood home. “Mommy gets you?” he asks, with stars in his eyes. “Daddy chase you?” his eyes and smile growing brighter, daring us to do it, begging us to. So my husband and I take turns running in semi-slow motion, hands outstretched, shouting in an ominous tone, “I’m gonna GET YOU! Better watch OUT!” until we finally tickle him to the ground. He doubles over in laughter, gets up, and demands to do it all over again.
There is a vulnerability that comes with this level of happiness. So much joy means so much to lose. My son has no idea. When I lose myself in the moment with him, I surrender to the joy, his excitement becoming mine, our elation spilling over. I meet him on a soul level, the river moving inside of us like high notes on a piano, swinging up to the sky, skiing into sunlight, returning home after so long away, rushing into crashing waves, waking up on a Saturday — I never want it to end.
In the midst of our play, I have a flashback to evenings as a child. My dad would chase the family dog around the first floor of our home, my mom and brother and I egging him on – “Get that dog! Take him down!” Our collie galloped like a horse from room to room to room, his mouth wide open in a wild, slobbery smile. My dad would tackle him to the ground and we’d all get down and kiss his long snout. “Collie Takedowns” we called it.
“I guess we do ‘Toddler Takedowns’ now,” I say to my husband, laughing. But I have no time to recount more stories. Our toddler is lunging forward, swinging his arms, flashing us his most mischievous smile. “Againnn?” he tries to lure us into chasing him once more. “No!” I shout jokingly. “No, no, NO!” He cackles and runs in place, looking at me like I’m the most hilarious person he’s ever known.
No, I never needed to worry I’d know how to mother my child. I’ve known this kind of joy all along.More On