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The Birth of a Child


kamurj

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Excerpted from
As Good as I Could Be
By Susan Cheever

I was thirty-eight when I had my first child, my precious daughter. It was late on a Monday night, the day after Easter in April of 1982. The British were preparing to invade the Falklands, and John Updike and Sylvia Plath had just won the Pulitzer Prize. I had been married less than a year. My father was dying of cancer. None of that mattered at all. The birth of my daughter divided my life into a one-dimensional "before" and a rich, deep, and human "after."

As the doctor performed a C-section and my husband held my hand, I seemed to drift away from the scene in the operating room. When they were all finished, I would have a baby. I congratulated myself on the arrangements I had made in advance. I had a baby-nurse and a nanny. The nanny had already been cleaning our apartment for months so that I could get to know her. We had picked out a pediatrician, after interviewing three who had been recommended by friends. We had chosen the one with the organized office and the wallpaper patterned with garden trellises. We had gone down to Orchard Street in the car and loaded up with a crib, a changing table, and a bassinet. We had a diaper pail and a complete layette.

A series of baby showers had provided us with stuffed bears, receiving blankets, and half a dozen mobiles. The announcements were ready for the printer. We knew the baby's name. She would be Liley - my father's mother's maiden name. I was of the opinion that I probably wouldn't like the baby at first, and so I had been sure to protect myself against her intrusion into my life. I was a writer, a woman, a lover, and a friend. I just couldn't see myself as a mother.

In the moment that I held my baby daughter in my arms, in that operating room at New York Hospital, I changed so fast that I felt dizzy. I instantly loved her and wanted to protect her. Loving her became the focus of my existence, and somehow that love included all other mothers and all other children and the whole human family, a phrase which in the past would have made me snort with derision. To my surprise, after almost forty years, I became vulnerable. With each moment, with each tiny sound or gesture, my baby girl provoked more love and more and more until I was awash in this delicious and unfamiliar feeling.

My senses seemed awakened for the first time-as if all my previous feelings, all the perfumes and delights of my life, had happened to someone in a movie. The feel of my baby's skin was like a rose petal, like an angel's wing, there were no words to describe the way it felt to me. The smells of her little body, the soft warmth at the top of her head, and the way her little perfect hands smelled when she brushed my face, made me feel as if I had never had a nose before.

The physical deliciousness of my baby was nothing compared to what I felt inside. I could actually feel my heart expanding and blossoming beneath my skin. All the feelings I had before seemed silly and petty. What had I known of love? It wasn't even as if the feelings that I had before were some kind of practice for the feelings I had for my daughter-they were of another magnitude, as if I had been living by starlight and had suddenly walked into the sun. My heart thawed in an instant. Feelings I didn't know existed poured-and it literally felt as if they were pouring out of me-toward my tiny daughter. I thought I was going to melt.

All the things they say about love, the kind of love they write songs about, suddenly seemed insignificant. Nothing that a man or any adult could do-not making a million dollars or bringing home roses or cooking a great meal-could make me feel the way my baby's tiniest gesture or welcoming smile could make me feel. She was infinitely fascinating. Everyone else was boring. When I held her I could feel my center of gravity shift over until it was as if I was floating, floating with my baby on a cloud beyond anyone else's reach. My whole life shifted with her smile, and darkened with her crying.

I had spent my life trying to connect and find meaning. I had traveled, I had loved many men, I had read and studied and worshiped. In the moment of my daughter's birth I found everything I had been searching for in all those ways over all those years. It was as if my soul opened out to embrace her-and in opening out my soul made itself known to me. This rush of feeling became like a scent that pervaded everything I did, and everything I remembered. As my baby grew, my love grew right along with her. That love gave me energy and sharp eyes and the ability to get along without sleep. Most of all it gave me a person to be-a mother.

The birth of a child is also the birth of a parent. As I settled down to raise my daughter, I began to learn the most important lessons of my life. With her, and later with my son, who was born seven years later, I was gently forced to learn about the special kind of intimacy which exists between parents and children. Before Liley was born, I was a child myself. After she was born, I began the long process of becoming an adult-a process which interested me only because I wanted to be a good mother for her. I knew, and this was the first true thing, that only an adult could take care of a child. I was forced to understand the special kind of authority which parents have over their children.

One of the little known facts about pregnancy is that it actually lasts from two to five years. It's a progression, from the conception of an embryo to the fully developed, walking, talking child. Childbirth is just one point on the continuum. For months and months after Liley's birth, it felt to me as if my daughter and I were still joined in our bodies as well as in our souls. Any separation was indescribably painful. When I was with her, I was whole-my two parts were reunited. When I was on the other side of town, I was torn in two. Even when I thought she was safe, and I was very anxious about her safety, missing her still felt like a visceral tearing, like an internal amputation.

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