Our lives are often parceled into different periods marked by major events, the times before and after something has changed us. There’s before Cameron and after. Before we moved to Hawaii and after we started our lives here. Before my miscarriage and after, when I learned the extent my soul could feel pain. But the greatest fissure in my life will now always be before becoming a mother and after.
Every night I stand watch, perched over Jack, fingertips grazing his pajamas as I wait for the steady rise in his chest to meet my touch then fall away, before rising again. Still breathing. Once confirmed, I’ll return to bed.
This ritual started within days of bringing Jack home from the hospital. Either Cameron or I would sit up and peer into the bassinet at night, letting our eyes adjust to the dim light cast in through a crack in our bathroom door, waiting to see him move.
After five months, Cameron has largely stopped his vigil. He’s confident our baby is fine at night. He doesn’t feel my constant, unabating terror that somehow this miracle we made will cease to be. Or if he does, he’s better at hiding it.
I’ve heard the words before that you never really know fear until you have a child. I understood the meaning of those syllables strung together to form an idea, but I couldn’t comprehend the concept until I held Jack in my arms.
Jack was born a little after midnight on November 19th. I pushed him out in 14 minutes. I didn’t let the nurses take him away to clean him. Instead I had them hand him straight to me, blood and all. Lying on my chest, only a minute old, he did the first of many things I would find remarkable, when he picked up his head and looked at me.
I’m constantly amazed at how much I can love Jack. I’d heard of people bursting with joy, but never truly felt my heart swell till I felt lightheaded until I saw his smile and heard his laugh. He can be frustrating, gross, tiresome and loud, and I love him anyway. Being Jack’s mom is the most difficult and most rewarding experience of my life so far.
Of all the realizations that have come since Jack was born, one of the most mind boggling has been the understanding that this feeling of awe I have for my son is how my mother has felt about me.
Few relationships are as fraught as that between a mother and a daughter. There are novels, movies and memoirs dedicated to the subject. Though my mother and I have a loving relationship and talk often, we’ve had our differences.
I baffle her. In as many ways as we are alike, from our physique to our exacting logic, we are different. She marvels at my gregarious ability to make friends in new places. Throughout high school she was frustrated by how often I neglected homework yet managed good grades by acing the final exam. I don’t know how many times she told me that real life doesn’t work that way; there wasn’t always going to be a big test at the end where I could make up for months of slacking off. As a freelance writer, I tend to disagree.
I needled her, clearly. I tested the perimeter of her boundaries, always searching for a weak spot. Always hoping she’d concede to me doing something outside of her better judgment. I could never understand why she didn’t want me to go to concerts at the old movie theater that had burned twice before because she thought it was a firetrap. It rankled me that she was always so damn protective, wanting to carefully guide my actions to stay safe.
I get it now. Every night as I lightly caress Jack’s ribcage, waiting for the telltale rise and fall in his chest, I finally understand why my mom did everything in her power to keep Sarah and I sound. I know the boundless love of a mother for her child that strangles with its ferocity.
We have a joke in our family. Whenever someone embarks on something new, and potentially dangerous, we tell them, “stay with the group, watch out for sleeper waves.” That was my mother’s mantra during class field trips to the beach at Bodega Bay, where rip tides can sweep you away in an instant. Now it’s a way to say “be careful, I love you.”
Now on my first Mother’s Day as a mother, I’m equally bewildered by my love for Jack as I am at my new appreciation for my own mother. And I want her to know that Jack and I continue to stay with the group and are always on guard for sleeper waves.