I recall vividly the first night our son, Harper, slept at home with us. He was all of two days old. He slept right next to us in a tiny hammock thing. The idea that he was now on the outside of my body was so bizarre to me that no matter where he was, I felt myself having to touch something attached to him…a toe, his blanket, something to keep us connected and make me feel that I was still protecting him.
In the middle of that first night, he let out a tiny noise that caused me to bolt upright out of a dead sleep, gasping frantically. My husband didn’t stir—but I felt possessed. Radio controlled. Like a voodoo doctor had stuck a pin in me. It was shocking.
THE EARLY DAYS OF MOTHERHOOD
Sometimes I miss the earliest days of motherhood. They were insane, of course, but the passing of time creates nostalgia. My son didn’t sleep more than three hours at a clip for the first year of his life, which meant neither did I, which kicked my ass. But, in a funny way, it was a very clear time. Much of the outside world dropped away. I wouldn’t have felt compelled to keep up with work and socializing even if I’d been able to, physically and mentally. I accepted that my husband and I were in a no-sex period and neither of us felt pressured to change that. We three just existed in this “baby bubble.”
I had to feed this baby and keep him alive. Everything else was extra. That simple goal, that animal connection, was freeing for someone who had lived a goal-oriented life; someone who was raised to prize intellect and reason. In that period I had to learn to live day to day.
Naturally, at a certain point the outside world began to encroach again and I felt the strain. While taking care of baby, I’d start to worry that I was disappearing…that my career was done for. When I was out in the world, trying to run the old familiar race, I missed my son like a body misses a limb. Having leaky boobs reminding me of feeding times didn’t help. Trying to have significant conversations on three hours of intermittent sleep didn’t always go well. The contrast between the two worlds caused a lot of tension for me.
HARPER AT THREE
Now that Harper is almost three, the goals of parenting are more muddled. Keeping tethered to him requires thought, mental gymnastics, and reasoning—not just sticking my boob in his mouth or reaching out to hold his toe while he sleeps. Mine is not the only face he sees in focus anymore. Mine is not the only voice he responds to.
Yesterday was a very hard day at the tail end of a difficult week of teething and inexplicable frustration for Harper. Usually a sweet, fun-loving child who is generous with kisses and hugs, he had spent the week as a whining, difficult toddler whom I barely recognized. It brought us both to tears more than once.
On our way home from the park, Harper reached up for me to carry him, which I did. When I scooped him up, the entire weight of him slumped deeply into me. It wasn’t the weight of a tiny baby. It was the weight of another human being who desperately needed comfort. And his head—that beautiful head of golden curls, recently cut short for the very first time through a veil of my tears—lay like a heavy melon against my neck. I breathed in the sweet smell of a sweaty boy child who’d been exploring the park for hours. I felt the light touch of his small arms as they encircled my neck, his hands coming to rest on my back. In that moment, I was consumed by a sense of my good fortune and by the awesome nature of my responsibility as his mother. I am the one person in this world who will ever enable him to feel exactly this way.
THIS IS A MOTHER’S LOVE
He’ll have friends and lovers and I hope at least one fantastic and true love in his future, and they will all, I pray, provide him with deep understanding and comfort. But this…this. This is a mother’s love. The burden and responsibility of being his mother can sometimes overwhelm me, but it never ceases to feel like what it is: a privilege.
Whether I do perfectly well or horribly badly as a parent—or, most likely, something in between—I will remain his one and only chance at feeling he can rely on, be soothed by, be loved unconditionally by his mother. I hope never to be a mother he has to run away from (for more than a little while, anyway). I hope to allow him his own personality, mistakes, and triumphs. And, for my own sake, I hope that I can revisit those early days in the bubble—their simplicity, honesty, animal nature, and completely mind-blowing intensity—within myself from time to time for the rest of my life.
“Ali Smith” excerpted from Momma Love; How the Mother Half Lives. Photo at top of Ali Smith and son, Harper.
All photos ©Ali Smith from the book Momma Love.
ALI SMITH has lived many lives: as a ballet dancer, a touring rock musician, and a photographer whose work is concerned with the quality of the lives of women. She has been profiled on the Oxygen Network, interviewed on television and radio, and featured in magazines, newspapers and galleries internationally. Ali lives with her photojournalist husband and their son in New York City. Momma Love is her second book. Check out her photography at Ali Smith Photography and on her blog.