I didn’t know that I was lost. It had never occurred to me.
Early thirties, successful career, friends, married to a wonderful man – I had planned, studied, worked, worried and planned some more. I had success. No time for complacency. A woman had to think ahead. Two jobs through university, right up until the day before I started duty as a doctor.
I had taken every opportunity granted by those gone before – women’s rights, free education, the good fortune to be born in a time and place where women could do anything. I knew what was expected – what many of our baby-boomer mothers would have given anything for – respect, choices, equal pay, financial independence, meaningful contribution to society. I lived amongst the mixed messages – “work hard, be smart, determined, happy, thin, sexy, but not too big for your boots”.
Oh yes – and, “don’t get pregnant.” Motherhood, it seemed, was not considered a meaningful contribution to society.
At work, the old boy’s club muttered “women are the problem with this profession. They go off, have babies and waste all that training.” We women never discussed children. Not amongst ourselves, sometimes not even within ourselves. We’d discuss contraception, just not children. Yet, “maybe one day…” still lurked.
When my husband and I decided to try for a baby, I thought, “My life is full. We’ll just see what happens.”
A year later, ‘que sera, sera’ was wearing thin. More months of only one blue line and the possibility of ‘never’ settled in. Monthly tears began like soft afternoon rain. Specialist appointments, optimism, a prescription to assist ovulation – it burnt a hole in my ‘see what happens’ pocket. I delayed starting the medication – then we’d have to admit how much this meant; that we were really trying.
One more month. The tears came again. Then persistent nausea. I did a test. Two lines. Another test. Two lines. My GP did a test. Negative. “Just a miscarriage.” Pat, pat, patronising pat.
I looked in the bin where he threw the test. “It’s turning positive,” I gasped. “Wishful thinking. An ultrasound will confirm miscarriage,” he said.
It confirmed a heartbeat. For 18 long weeks, my body threatened miscarriage but my baby grabbed on and didn’t let go.
We shared our joyous news with family, friends and my new GP. After the congratulations, came the helpful comments. “You won’t know what hit you.” “Sleep now, while you can.” “Have fun now, that’s it for the next 18 years.”
We laughed. That’s what we expected of parenthood. I knew what could go wrong in pregnancy, birth, childhood, life. I’d seen devastating tragedies and families somehow pick up the pieces again. I knew parenthood would be hard. I ventured in with eyes wide open, as prepared as possible for the hardships this phase would throw at me.
Late pregnancy, my baby slowed. Within days, he was barely moving. I knew he was in trouble. I rang my obstetrician for the third time in two days. She had already booked the induction. Relief, fear and excitement mingled as we arrived at labour ward. I was organised – relaxation CDs, baby clothes, nappies, breast pads, a birth plan, a life plan – always thinking ahead.
Before long, contractions shuddered through me. I unearthed strengths I did not know I had. After five hours, a welcome epidural. Forty minutes later, our son was born. Overwhelming relief. He was here. He was safe. He was beautiful.
I held him close and in my soul something bloomed. My obstetrician managed my haemorrhage, retained placenta and episiotomy. I barely noticed. Hours later, our little family – tired, stunned and amazed – were bundled up to the ward. We grinned and fumbled through feeding, settling and nappy changes. Unexpectedly, a wave of clarity lifted me. Then I simply knew. I had been lost. Maybe my whole life. Charging purposefully, never looking back or sideways, only forward – too focussed to see the beauty around me, the wonder of life. Too scared to say no to others’ needs, for that was my value to the world.
That night, the seconds cradled me – every murmur from our tiny son, his silky hair, my husband’s smile, our love and astonishment too great to contain, cool sheets, warm blankets wrapping the treasure in my arms. I became a mother. What an incredible privilege. This was meaningful, valuable, important.
I felt like a lioness; fierce protector of my cub and my self. I wanted to absorb every moment. I decided to live for now.
As the night deepened and stilled, I gazed at my son. I was prepared for difficulty, exhaustion, sacrifice and possible depression.
I wasn’t prepared for this much love.
His cry touched a part of my soul never before awoken. I truly never knew I would feel such deep wonderment. I adored this person. I had been given the gift to share my life with this child. I would die for this child. Why had I never known?
No one told me I would become more than I ever was before. I felt my heart grow bigger.
As my son cried, I stroked his delicate cheek. He opened his dark, blue eyes and looked at me.
Slowly, I began to sing… “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now, I see.”
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)