Unexpectedly, I discovered that becoming a mother has helped me heal. I’m reminded of this during seemingly mundane moments: at night when my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zora lays in a relaxed heap in my lap while I sing her Beatles songs like “Blackbird” and “In My Life;” in the morning when she insists on pouring herself a bowl of cereal (“Ima gonna do it myself!”), and I let her, knowing full well that more of the cereal will end up on the table than in the bowl; and anytime she announces that she’s mad at me for not letting her eat rainbow sprinkles for breakfast and slams the door to her room, only to come out minutes later to tell me that she loves me. I worried so much about giving Zora the love and attention I never had growing up. So I was surprised when my daughter was able to give something back to me.
Dr. McLaren moved the transducer around my belly pointing out an arm here, a femur there, the four chambers of my baby’s heart. In some cases, I could pick out the body part he was talking about, but mostly I felt as though he was using Doppler radar to examine a weather system that existed inside my body. Toward the end of the screening, Dr. McLaren focused on a particularly cloudy blob.
“It’s a girl,” he announced
My husband Rodney’s dark eyes got that shiny look. We grinned at each other. A girl! Then, I felt a twinge that I couldn’t identify.
Later, I recognized that twinge as anxiousness about having a daughter. Because my mother is schizophrenic, I had no experience with a true mother-daughter relationship. If I were having a boy, at least I wouldn’t have any mother/son expectations of myself. But with a girl, I felt as though I should, well, know more. But I didn’t. Without a blueprint I felt lost and inept; a daughter left me in unfamiliar territory. How could I develop a close relationship with a girl when I had broken relationship with my mother?
I set to work making up for this perceived gap by reading every baby book I could get my hands on. I filled my bookshelves with titles like Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, The Girlfriend’s Guide To Pregnancy, and the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting. These owner’s manuals described in great detail the care and maintenance of my daughter: how often to feed her (on demand); what color her poop should be and how it should smell (mustard-colored and sweet if you breast fed, which of course, you did); whether you should introduce the “family bed” to encourage bonding (yes). My husband Rodney listened as I read passages from my weekly email on in utereo development. “What fruit is she this week?” he’d ask jokingly, referring to the email’s description of how large the baby was. She dutifully grew from the size of a blueberry to a lime to an heirloom tomato, to, finally, a mini watermelon. Acquaintances and colleagues, who weren’t aware of my mom’s illness, exclaimed that my mother must be excited about her first granddaughter and asked if she’d be staying with me after my daughter was born. Not wanting to explain, I pressed my lips into a tight smile, and avoided their questions by saying that my mother-in-law would be helping me and my husband out.
I also scripted my daughter’s birth: I would try for natural childbirth but not rule out the pain-relieving epidural, I would give birth and immediately hold her to my breast and nurse her so she would get that first infusion of colostrum, the high-octane milk that would inoculate her against germs. She would sleep with me, skin-to-skin, and we would bond. It was a very tidy plan that was never meant to be.
In the summer of 2007, after missing my due date by nearly two weeks, I was induced early one morning. I endured three hours of hard contractions before saying yes to an epidural at 10:30 a.m. Zora Kathryn entered the world at 8:31 p.m weighing eight pounds. The heart rate monitor indicated that she was distressed during delivery, and when she emerged, the cord was wrapped around her neck. Although she began breathing on her own, her breath was ragged, so the nurses whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for observation. I remember returning to my room later that evening, crawling into the hospital bed, and putting my hand on my now empty belly before turning out the lights.
Because Zora was in NICU, I couldn’t nurse her right away and my checklist to becoming the perfect mother, the mother I never had, fell apart. She was drinking formula. She was sleeping in an incubator instead against my skin. I watched the nurses scoop her up with ease and confidence and coo to her, “What’s a big girl like you doing here?” While I was resting, my husband and his mom would go to the NICU and stroke her fuzzy head (“I think she has red hair!” my redheaded mother-in-law said excitedly) and squeeze her impossibly small hand. “She has quite a grip,” Rodney said proudly.
Two days later we were back at home, and my obsessions with the details continued. I assiduously charted feeding times and wore rubber band on my wrist to remember which breast I fed from last. But within weeks of coming home from the hospital, I learned my father had been admitted to a hospital in Connecticut: his doctors wanted to remove a tumor that was blocking his bile duct, and I needed to be with him. With my mother- in-law, Marian, in tow, we drove the six hours from our home in northern Virginia to stay at my aunt’s house in Connecticut. Zora was six-weeks old.
Once in Connecticut, I would nurse Zora, change her, and press my nose to her peach fuzz head to breathe in her warm, yeasty smell. Then, I’d hand her to Marian, who cared for her while I sat by my father’s bedside. To console myself during the long days at the hospital, I’d tell myself “She’s with her grandma.” But I couldn’t help thinking about my baby girl, and when I did, my breasts would ache and then leak the milk I couldn’t feed her. I felt exhausted and guilty. Late in the day, when I left the hospital and returned to my aunt’s house, Marian would tell me about Zora. “I know they say that babies don’t smile, but, Evonne, I swear she is smiling!” She told me how alert Zora was, taking in the world with her dark eyes and squawking when she was put down. “She doesn’t want to miss anything,” Marian told me.
Neither did I, but I was missing so many of those mundane moments in which a mother comes to know her baby, and there was nothing I could do about it. Though my father had been diagnosed with cancer and his prognosis was grim, he stabilized enough that we could go home to Virginia. Marian left to visit Rodney’s sister in Colorado. A week later, I received a frantic three-a.m.-phone call from my father’s girlfriend: he was unconscious and in the Intensive Care Unit. I drove up with Rodney and Zora the next day. When the doctors told me that there was little chance for recovery, I let them withdraw life support. My father died two days later. Rodney cared for Zora, who was now eight weeks old, while I made the funeral arrangements. At the time, I felt like I was a failure as a mother. My initial vision of how I would spend the early weeks of motherhood had been a far cry from the reality.
After the funeral we returned home to northern Virginia. In an effort to alleviate my anxiety after Zora was born, I had brought in a postpartum doula to show me the ropes. She was capable, self-described Mary Poppins who showed me how to change Zora’s diaper, sterilize bottles, and bathe Zora—all the things a mother typically teaches her daughter. Initially, I was grateful for these basic care lessons, which gave me a measure of confidence. But now that I was back from Connecticut, Mary Poppins had new lessons for me. If , when I put Zora down for a nap, she protested, I was to let Zora cry it out. Pacifiers were forbidden. Baby wearing was scoffed at. “Are you one of those mothers in the bush or working the fields?” she’d ask in her indignant British accent. “No! You don’t need to wear her. She needs to learn to be by herself.”
So I sat on the couch and tried to make small talk with the doula while Zora cried herself hoarse. Conflict! The Dr. Sear’s book said I was supposed to wear her. But Mary Poppins said no. Marian, who had returned from visiting Rodney’s sister in Colorado, despised Mary Poppins, subverted her advice, and encouraged me to hold Zora whenever she cried and give her pacis. “You can’t spoil them when they are this little,” Marian told me. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t trust myself to make a decision. And so I lived a double life, pretending to follow Mary Poppins’ advice, trying to listen to my mother-in-law, but in the end feeling clueless, alone, and just plain wrong. When we knew the doula was coming, Rodney, Marian, and I scrambled to hide the pacifiers so we didn’t have to listen to her lecture about teaching Zora self reliance.
Marian could see that my confidence was low. One afternoon while Zora napped, she told me how alone she felt when she had Rodney and his sister. Her own mother was an ocean away in The Netherlands, and Rodney’s father worked, so she followed the advice she heard most often: don’t spoil the child. “I wish I had listened to myself,” she told me.
Listening to myself turned out to be much easier once I could be alone with Zora. Once my hours with the doula ran out and Marian returned home to Brussels, Belgium, I had more moments when I stopped second guessing myself and let myself just be with my daughter. I joined a new mother’s group, and during our first meeting the facilitator asked us to answer this question: What do you want for your child? It was such a simple question, but for the first time I really stopped and considered what I wanted for Zora. I wanted her to take risks, I wanted her to feel express what she wanted without worrying about what other people might think, I wanted her to love and trust me, and to confide in me, and fight with me. I wanted for her all the wisdom and confidence that I felt I didn’t have. All the lessons my mother couldn’t teach me. The relationship I could never have.
Becoming the mother I wanted to be wasn’t contingent on breastfeeding, paci guilt, or using the cry-it-out method: it meant being with Zora; it meant listening and responding to her needs so that she could trust me. So I relaxed. I laid on the floor with Zora and dragged my long hair across her face to hear her gurgle and watch her eyes crinkle because it tickled. I learned that she was content resting in my arms drinking formula from a bottle and that I was less anxious, I learned to get a big belly laugh out of her by snapping a pair of pants inches from her face.
Rodney’s relaxed approach helped me, too. After putting Zora down for a nap, he’d eschew the baby books and crack open a book or a magazine or chat with me about what was going on in the news. Squeezing in a shower when you have a newborn is difficult, but Rodney experimented with bringing Zora in the shower. “What?” he asked when I shot him an incredulous look. “I’m multitasking.” Zora promptly turned a shade of persimmon and burst into tears. We laughed.
I was realizing that I didn’t have to be perfect. These kind of moments built my confidence as a mother. I began to accept what I didn’t know, tried to figure things out, all with the understanding that I was going to mess up, and that was okay. I wanted Zora to be confident enough to try something new and not be concerned about being wrong. The day I let her cry and endure that discomfort until she found her thumb was a small triumph for both of us.
Each moment with my daughter is a joy and a sorrow for me. In raising her, I recognize what my own mother could not give me. I can lock eyes with Zora and mirror her expressions, but schizophrenic mothers can’t do that. Zora will collapse into my lap and rest her head against my chest without a second thought. My mother shrugged off my affectionate hugs. One of the few positive physical memories I have is of her brushing my hair. If I close my eyes I can remember the gentle click of her rings and bracelets and the feeling of her long fingernails against my scalp. I still love it when someone massages my scalp.
I wonder who I might have been had I received the love, affection, and attention I give my own daughter. But along the way, the balance shifted from worrying about “am I good enough” and dwelling on my loss, to giving what I never had to my daughter. I had planned for all the practicalities of Zora—her birth, the nursing, the napping—but I hadn’t counted on how she would heal me.