Baltimore fiction writer Elisabeth Dahl retraces the philosophical questions — and moments of doubt — she faced as she anticipated motherhood.
One sunny day in my late 20s, I walked in a new square of park built on landfill beside the San Francisco Bay, my boyfriend next to me, a kite festival swirling overhead. As parents and kids stood on the green, watching their bright dragons zig and zag across the sky, I tossed out questions I hadn’t given much thought to before: Would I ever want to have a child? Was I too selfish? Would I be sufficiently loving? My own life wasn’t yet rock-solid — not much better than landfill in earthquake country. What could I provide a child?
A few months later, I launched into motherhood unexpectedly, after a careless moment. Parenthood was no longer a topic for discussion on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was happening.
For the task-oriented among us, pregnancy can be thought of as a massive to-do list. You clock in at your appointed weeks, offering up various fluids and parts to tests. You count kicks and stock cupboards. You take classes to find out what your breasts were actually engineered to do.
Though I ticked items off the list alongside the rest of my pregnancy cohort, I never fully acclimated to the idea of parenthood. Not emotionally, at least. The crib might be bumpered, the diaper drawer filled, but my head and heart still lagged behind. My enthusiasm about the pregnancy had grown with my uterus, but the questions from the kite park persisted.
In about the sixth month, I dreamed that I was standing under a long arbor as a troop of monkeys swang and chattered overhead. I woke unsettled, still feeling the chaos and commotion of that arbor. It didn’t take much analytical savvy to realize that this was a dream about not monkeys but children. Life with children did involve chaos and commotion. Would I take it all in stride?
Three days before our son’s due date, my by-then-husband and I sat on the couch trying to master the hand-me-down Baby Bjorn, a thicket of straps that seemed to defy arrangement. Frustrated, I confessed that I still couldn’t imagine anyone calling me Mom. It worried me. And despite the fact that I was nearly 200 pounds, with ankles as fat and red as hot water bottles, I couldn’t even picture what our baby might look like. The two ultrasound images we’d gotten suggested that he resembled either a turkey leg or Beelzebub. Of the two, I preferred the turkey leg.
I woke up the following morning at 4 a.m. with breaking water. We checked in at the Berkeley hospital, then waited at a friend’s nearby apartment, hoping labor would start on its own. It did not. Eventually we returned for induction, monitors, a late epidural — and, finally, early the next morning, our son’s emergence. When he first came out — a little blue, needing help to breathe — the room was a bluster of machines and people and sounds. I felt like an endurance athlete who’d passed the finish line. But I still didn’t feel like a mother.
Minutes later, I looked up to see my baby — cleaned and swaddled — coming toward me in the arms of a nurse. He was looking right at me with a gaze so wise and anchored, it astonished me. Everything rushed in — attachment, recognition, a depth of love I had no words for. Of course this was what he would look like — how had I not known? His face made sense.
For the next couple of weeks, there was nothing — nothing — more interesting to me than watching my baby sleep, with the oddball expressions and rap-star hand gestures newborns make while sleeping. I felt like Edwina “Ed” McDunnough in Raising Arizona, who looks at young Nathan Jr. and cries out, sobbing, “I love him so much.”
Suddenly, other people’s babies didn’t all look the same. I could see differences in their features. I could pick out elements of each parent’s face in a baby’s. New humans were fascinating in a way they’d never been. I felt tragedy more piercingly too. Stories of kids left to bake in locked cars or freeze in refugee camps were a thousand times harder to hear. My father had once written to me, long before my son was born, that I was his “passport to the human race.” He’s prone to lofty sentiments, so I’d figured it a bit of loving parental exaggeration. Now my father’s comment no longer seemed hyperbolic. My son really was my passport to the human race.
When people without children ask the kinds of questions I threw out among the kites in the park that day, I get anxious. For people like me, those of us unable to make certain imaginative leaps, the answers to the questions won’t be clear until the baby is right there in front of us, a blinking person sure of our love.
Elisabeth Dahl’s first book, a novel for children entitled Genie Wishes, will be published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, in 2013, and she has just completed her second book, a novel for adults entitled Brood. Her writing has appeared at NPR.org, at TheRumpus.net, and in Urbanite. A Baltimore native, Elisabeth returned to the city in 2003, after a decade in Berkeley and DC. Her website is elisabethdahl.com. On Twitter, she’s @ElisabethDahl.