I am willing to admit, with only a brief round of arm-twisting, that I received a handful of blessings when I came into the world. I like to think that I'm kind, have a bit of compassion, can do multiplication in my head. I value these qualities and feel quite blessed. What I am sure I did not get, in any way whatsoever, was maternal instinct.
Even as a kid, I did not get that whole mommy thing that most of the other little girls seemed to do without effort or thought. I didn't play with dolls. Hell, I barely played with others; why in the world would I play with bits of molded plastic that did, well, nothing? Dolls did not talk (not really) or walk (unless I moved their feet) or eat (unless it was one of those strange little magic baby bottles of chemically liquid that was (apparently) supposed to be milk and disappeared when you tipped the bottle one way and reappeared when you tipped it the other). They weren't real, and they certainly weren't clever enough or independent enough to be mistaken for such. They were, in a word: boring.
So, no dolls for me.
And in case I'm being a little too coy and understated: I didn't play house, hated baby-sitting, shuddered at diapers and really, just felt at a loss when it came to miniature creatures, who would one day, with an incredible amount of luck and training I couldn't begin to comprehend, grow up to be actual people.
But they would do it all without me.
Imagine my surprise when I learned I was pregnant. I'm sorry-- what? That cannot be right. I'm not cut out to be a mother. I have cats. I barely remember to feed them on a daily basis; how in hell will I remember to feed a baby? Relax, they all told me. You'll remember to feed the baby. It's different when you're a mom. And then they'd snicker (though they'd insist it was gentle laughter, meant more to commiserate with my cluelessness than chide my ignorance). Pregnant. Apparently with a baby. Some poor soon-to-be-human who had the poor prenatal intelligence to choose me as his mom.
Thirty some-odd years (and then some), and I still didn't play with dolls.
Panic gripped me, and the angst almost ate me alive. I lived, for nine long months, playing an endless loop of "what-if? in my head" What if I drop him? What if I break him? What if he doesn't like me? What if I mess him up? What if aliens conquer the earth and separate us and he grows up to become an axe murderer? He could be unpopular; worse, he could be popular, and what the hell would I do then? Oh God- what if he's a Republican? There were a hundred things - a thousand things - an infinity of things, real and imagined, that my child could be, and what if I fail him?
Ah. There it is, the secret shame, the real fear, named at last: what if I am not up to the task? What if I fail?
My son, and not a mothering bone in my body.
And then I held him. They placed that small body in my arms- warm and swaddled and wrinkly. His head fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, his body curved into mine as if he were the piece I didn't even know was missing. My son. My child. And I held him. cradled him against me, and felt the presence of God, knew that God lived in the space between our breath, between the beat of our hearts.
There, on the fringes of my panic, driven by doubt and fear, I prayed to every god I could think of, including the one I'd finally made my peace with not too long before this miraculous instant-- I prayed; no, I demanded "Now what?"
I mean, really: now what? I learned, just in the nick of time, that I had, if not a maternal instinct, then at least a connection to my son. It was profound. It was more than love; it was bordering on magic, and certainly miraculous. It filled me, this love, to the very edges, and then overflowed in small waves, until I felt like I was drowning, or maybe breathing for the very first time. There was this life-- tiny and fragile and innocent and our hearts, our breath, was woven together, an inextricable bond, and now fucking what?
So, I loved him. So what? Bad pop songs went spinning through my head, a calliope of the banal. The world needed a helluva lot more than love. I needed a helluva lot more than love. I needed, at the very least, an instruction manual. They were sending me home with this infant boy. Did They -- whoever They were, some omnipotent They, related to the Editorial We and the Royal Plural, those power broker rule maker mavens-- did They not realize how little I knew, how unprepared I was? They gave me a diaper bag, a handful of glossy pamphlets, some samples of formula and some other tchotchkes, my son and a fare-thee-well.
We were on our own, and I was still waiting for that maternal instinct to kick in.
I guess I was waiting for the bolt of lightening, angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin kind of enlightenment. I wanted to be infused with that mommy glow of knowing, quickly and painlessly. What I got was something else entirely.
I got the disorganized mommy gene, the one that had at least one major item missing from the traveling circus diaper bag that it was necessary to carry any time we left the confines of the house that was now a cross between a padded baby prison and a toy store. Other parents showed up with extra bottles and binkies, a change of clothes, little Tommy's favorite toy, crackers and cheerios in environmentally safe packaging, and their infant, clean and calm and smiling. I was lucky that I remembered the baby. Extra stuff? I'd be happy with enough stuff.
Birthdays were celebrated with joy and merriment. Parties were hit or miss. We did them most years. They had no themes. I didn't realize babies and toddlers needed themed parties. We almost always had cake, and a present that showed up, sometimes wrapped, within 48 hours.
Calendars and school vacations were mostly theoretical. There were a couple of times I took him to school, only to find that there wasn't any that day. Pulaski Day. Really? I don't know that he can spell it, let alone know who the hell Pulaski was. But apparently, he's important enough to close the schools around here as a show of honor and respect.
Forget Little League and after school activities. Apparently, these were all designed and scheduled in a worm hole from 1957, an era in which both parents didn't work and kids could walk willy-nilly and unsupervised across town to get to the ball field or wherever said activity was being held. And there were carpools and gangs of neighborhood kids and you knew people and other parents who could step up every so often, except your "every so often" was every time, because you work full time and you're a single parent and you barely know your next door neighbor, let alone the parents of your kid's classmates. So you die a tiny little bit, when that kid, that not-quite-so-small and still defenseless and slightly older kid looks at you as you drive past the ball field with practice going in full swing and says, in his most grown up and understanding voice "That's ok, mama. Maybe next year."
Then there were the days that you prayed to everything that was holy that your child stayed this side of not-quite-sick long enough for you to make the meeting that you just couldn't miss. Those were the days that you cringed every time your phone rang, hoping it wasn't the school nurse letting you know he'd gone from not-quite-sick to sick enough, please take him home. Worse were the days you were out of town and you couldn't be there at all, had to depend on someone else - anyone else - to fill in for you. Good God, those were the days you had to depend on someone, and come to think of it, they were probably a helluva lot more organized than you, more focused than you, more mom than you anyway, so what's the big deal?
There are meds to take and doctors to visit and shoes that leak water and buttons that fall off and homework that needs to get done and teachers to correspond with and you manage, barely, to feed him every day and put on clean socks every day and make it to school every day and love him every day. Every day, you do those things. Some days are better than others. Some are more organized. Some, you swear there's not enough duct tape in all the world to contain him and give you just a minute of quiet, so you can catch your breath before the next round. Some days you want to crawl into a corner and weep because you know, you just know, that you have failed him. And every day, you love him, just a little bit more.
Every day, again and again. Every day, in an endless succession of over and over. And you can't imagine living your life without it. Thank God (or whatever deity in which you currently believe) you have been given this gift, this miracle, this awesome and fearsome and breathtaking boy, to care for and comfort and learn from and love. Every day.
And then you pause. You think: That maternal instinct, that thing I've been aching for since the day I first knew that I carried another heartbeat, another soul-- is that the feeling of dread and guilt and annoyance that fills me? And the feeling of bursting-at-the-seams pride when he achieves and createds and laughs and sings and brings you a flower and makes something out of pasta and glitter and spray paint? And the dread you feel, wondering if you will break him, or ruin him or can't fix his hurt or heal his heart?
Could it be that sure and absolute knowledge, before anything else-- before everything else-- the idea that the only job you have, the onl one that matters, is to love that boy, that not-so-small and suddenly teenaged boy, and make sure that he knows, with his every breath, without doubt or hesitation, that nothing he does or says could ever make you love him any less, that he is loved and he is, ever and always, enough?
Is that maternal instinct? Is that being mom enough?
One of my favorite stories: a woman is bemoaning her single status to a friend, wondering why she can't find the man of her dreams. So her friend, being wise, asked her to make a list of all the characteristics she wants in this perfect man. The woman sets about her task with enthusiasm, taking a week or two to compile a list of everything she considers a prime quality in this mythical-but-hoped-for man. Finally, she is satisfied that she has everything covered. She returns to her friend, hands over the list and waits for her friend's words of wisdom and advice. The friend glances at the list (which covers several pages), barely seeing a single trait, hands it back and says, quite gently, in a voice filled with love and kindness: "Now become all those things."
I wasn't looking for my perfect man; I was looking to grow a boy, to teach him to be a person - a mensch. But-- maybe yes, become all these things. Become them, because how on earth could I teach him forgiveness if I did not learn to forgive? How could I expect him to understand the strength it takes to ask for help if I hid my fear behind a wall of pride? I have not become all those things, not by a long shot. But I try. He, marvelous boy that he is, has learned every lesson I have ever taught him, intended or not. Trust me, I have spent much time apologizing. "I'm sorry; I didn't do that well (or right, or kindly, or patiently, pick an adjective, any adjective); I will try to do better next time. We need to learn this better, ok?"
My son is smart and funny and annoying and sarcastic (in spades) and kind and self-absorbed at times and curious all the time. He splits hairs until I want to scream. He challenges the powers-that-be in politics and religion and science, both their reasoning and their conclusions. He has a moral compass set to JUST, and is finally learning to temper his judgement with mercy and compassion. He tastes life, in great gulps and with much passion.
He has become... himself. He steps through his life, sometimes faltering, sometime boldly. But he walks through it. Every day. He succeeds, he tries, he fails, he stresses, he questions, he knows -- without hesitation -- that he is loved. He knows, without doubt, that he is enough.
And that, forever and always, is enough for me.