No one tells you, when you first begin to talk about having a baby. Naively, you think it’s about love-and it is. But not just love; it is also about so much more, and not all of it is quite so fuzzy.
Here’s the truth: parenthood is a relationship based on biology.
What made you decide to have them in the first place? You’ve always said it was an evening one summer when you and your husband went to the county fair. It was a joke that you went at all; you both hated fairs on principle, but that day must have been fate. There you were, the two of you, and here was the fair: greasy food smells and dust, and people smoking, sweating, and the tangy odor of green manure that one forgets about year to year; heavy, sweltering heat; the noise and exhaust from the rides and a million pickup trucks, kids shouting, and the country band at the beer garden playing loud, bad music.
Together you watched a chubby, very, very young couple shepherd their five children through it all. They stood waving as the kids rode in pairs on the children’s rides. Around, around, around, turning fast and slowing gradually, and each time their children went by, they glowed; they radiated it; they waved, until the ride stood still and they hurried through the gate to unbuckle their kids from the rides and shoo them out of their seats before some grizzled, dirty carny could get there and lay hands on them. They were crazy about their little people. They were in love with it all. You could see; you both could, and you wanted what they had.
That’s the story you tell each other, but is it true? Did you make a choice? Were you captivated by the idea of love that pure and visible? Or were you simply overpowered by the instinct to pass on your genes?
Then pregnancy: Now your body was the site of a biological coup, comandeered as a factory for the making of people. There was a lot more of everything: blood, pee. Bigger breasts, more hair, nosebleeds. More sex drive, and the sex was incredible. It was pure lust: you both agreed on that! Joints loosened, everything swelled, and the quantity of thermal energy and bodily fluids was absurd. You were a big, swollen, steamy, leaky, expectant, horny seminal vessel.
But it was strange, almost frightening, how the hormones activated responses that must have been hard-wired in your brain all along. Not love, those responses. Not exactly, but they resembled it. That’s what you thought then, at least. Now, you know differently.
Not surprisingly, there were threats to it. What could happen did happen, when you and your husband were no longer just lovers and companions but co-administrators of a family unit of five. Alternately drawn together by primal urges (to copulate, to protect) and driven apart by conflicting urges toward what you each needed for yourself, you did well to tolerate each other in those days, let alone love each other. You kept on sleeping together, thank God, or you wouldn’t still be married.
Biology? Or love?
Some of both.
And there was, and is, the actual parenting part: children break your heart-sometimes every minute of every day-and no one who doesn’t have them can understand how, 24/7, they drag you under and buoy you up, until your heart becomes a huge, pumped-up muscle from the undue workouts. Enlarged. Weakened? Or stronger? No. Yes. Everything.
How could you know, that day at the fair, that you would one day be taking your baby to the ER after a seizure? That day, you started to suspect you could deal with anything. You still don’t know for sure, but you think you can. You can handle it, whatever comes. You’re a mother. You have the chops. Hormones and the heart-investment together have done something to you. This part there’s no scientific explanation for: your compassion has gone viral; it emanates beyond your house now; it extends to the other young people you know-nieces, nephews, your kids’ friends and the friends’ friends. It covers your husband, even when you hate him. It encompasses all the fragile elderly, the starving third-world peoples, your cats and the boy’s snake, the whole animal kindom. It covers the country, ascends to the sky. It’s unstoppable; it’s inside you. “And now,” to paraphrase the wise verse from scripture, “these three remain”: you, the world and love. But the greatest of these. . . .