Her Bad Mother’s recent post on the Eros of mothering has me thinking about the physical pleasures of motherhood. As always, her words are inspiring:
And I want to write about this, too: how my love for her is physical, desperately physical. How my love for her wants to cleave to her, always, to feel her pressed against me, her breath on my cheek, her tiny hands tangled in my hair, her wee proud belly warm against my chest.
Did anyone – can anyone – read those words without feeling a shock of recognition? And yet when I grope for words of my own, what I keep bumping into is the reality that the physical part of motherhood has been slow in coming for me. In pregnancy, I gave my body over joyfully, loving the little rippling stream of kicks and hiccups, the feel of a sharp elbow tickling my belly button. I felt healthy and glowing and unbelievably powerful; I reveled in my ability to eat an entire French Breakfast combo at a single sitting (three eggs over easy, hash browns, bacon and sausage, French toast with maple syrup, and a side order of brown toast with strawberry jam).
And then I gave birth, and traded that glorious enceinte body for a ravaged wreck. The stitches from my episiotomy protested every time I tried to move; my arms quivered with the effort of holding a spoon. What overwhelmed me then and for months thereafter was how heavy my baby felt in my arms. Two months to the day after he was born, Bub weighed in at fifteen pounds, and my aching shoulders and back and tailbone gave shrieking testimony to the sheer heft of this unwieldy burden. In my bath, I cautiously touched the lopsided skin over my collapsed uterus, and felt unbearably lonely.
I cried the first time I realized that breastfeeding occupied eight hours of my day. And I cried when I realized that I was spending every minute of my baby’s naps on the computer, trying to rescue some semblance of an adult life. If my cat tried to curl up on my lap, purring and nudging my chin with her nose, I was flooded with hatred because the one thing I absolutely could not stand was anyone else demanding something from my body – comfort, pleasure, nurture, companionship.
Bub, too, came slowly to the kind of love that expresses itself in hugs and kisses, in the quiet cleaving of one body to another. His was a head that never willingly rested on a shoulder; always, always, his body struggled for independence. Occasionally, at a playgroup, he would sit on my lap, calm and still as he watched the riotous two- and three-year-olds gamboling like kittens. More often, he demanded to be carried around the room, facing out so that he could survey the changing scenery. When I think of his infancy now, I see the two of us chained together like inmates of a medieval dungeon, struggling inexpertly to arrange ourselves, limbs splayed awkwardly, those pesky iron shackles chafing our necks and wrists.
It worried me, once, that I never felt the urge to kiss my children. With my eyes, I worshipped them, their round cobalt eyes, their butterscotch hair. My heart swelled painfully at the touch of a small hand on my shoulder. After the Pie was born I joyously reclaimed my lap, loving the way Bub fitted so neatly in the space his sister had so recently vacated. But my babies’ cheeks, as round as apples, remained mostly unkissed, and only with a conscious effort could I form my mouth into the words "I love you."
I’ve been learning, over the last few months, to press kisses into those soft warm cheeks, to nibble softly on those plump, smooth toes. But I don’t think I will ever be the kind of parent Catherine Newman describes in Bringing Up Ben and Birdy:
A few nights ago I was at a dinner party where a friend had brought her two teenagers, a boy and a girl. And they were just so beautiful, these kids. I mean, sure, they looked very teenager — army-surplus type clothing, vaguely menacing expressions, that funny kind of hiding posture. But after dinner they sat on the floor, curled sleepily around their mother while she talked with her grown-up friends. And they rested their heads in her lap, calm and relaxed, while she absent-mindedly stroked their hair, and I thought: that's what I hope for. For my body to be that kind of home the children can return to, for as long as they want.
The boundaries of my body are more sharply defined than that. I cannot sleep, as she does, sprawled on a bed with the sweet breath of toddlers enmeshed in my own, their smooth, chubby limbs nestled against the softness of my belly. The grief of parturition, for me, is that for whatever reason I cannot share my body with my children; at best I can loan it out from time to time, bridging that separateness for a few brief, ecstatic moments when a tired head rests on my chest or a cheek sticky with bananas and applesauce finds its way into the curve of my neck.
But for all that, Bub and I are finding our way together. We are better at the side-by-side than we are at the face-to-face. Each night when it’s time for his story he lies down beside me, two heads on one pillow, and keeps time with his own book, turning each page as I do, his motions synchronized carefully to mine. The Pie, walking sturdily on her own two feet, is learning the language of smiles and glances, her laughter beckoning to me across the space between our bodies. And in that separateness, my children are also finding each other, leaving the occasional bruise as they clamber over one another, testing their strength in numerous bouts of tug-of-war. The Pie ripples with laughter as her brother’s impatient slaps morph into an impromptu game of patty-cake. They are puzzle pieces, all flailing arms and legs yet fitting together perfectly in those moments of quietness when they discover the joy of warmth and companionship and love. And I look on, humbled and appreciative but always, a little bit, on my own.