Everybody loves the countdown to a new baby. It is among the best – and most profound – before and afters life has to offer. Leap into the great unknown, fall off the edge of a cliff, enter a brave new world. Invoke any imagery you like: when the cord is cut and what was for nine months a hidden part of you becomes at last something tangible, it is as exciting and scary and unpredictable as each of them suggests.
When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I went to a series of pre-natal classes in an attempt to prepare us for just this uncertainty. The thing from these that has stayed with me the longest, apart from the friendships made, was an extended metaphor the teacher presented by way of warning. It seemed kind of cheesy at the time, but I have quoted it and considered it more than any other single piece of parenting advice.
Having a baby, she said, is like taking a trip to Italy. You pack your bags with clothes appropriate for the weather; you buy your guidebook to tell you what to do; you tweak your expectations so that you can enjoy the particular sites, foods and events on offer. And yet, sometimes, you get off the plane only to discover that you aren’t in Italy at all. You are in Amsterdam. Now Amsterdam is a great city, no doubt about it. But it’s definitely not in Italy and it’s not where you thought you were going.
During this same course we also spent a lot of time formulating a ‘birth plan’, the preparation of which became for many of us, somewhat ironically, a perfect microcosm of the instructor’s allegory. How many women, it made me wonder, have spent how many hours designing this document down to the finest detail only for the whole thing to go to hell in a hand-basket in less than a minute? To remind myself of the failure of my own carefully constructed birth plan, I need only recall the TENS machine I hired from Boots, with great fanfare, when I was 36 weeks pregnant. It was meant to help manage the pain during the allotted home portion of my labor. Needless to say, there was no ‘home portion’ of my labor and the cursed thing never came out of the box.
The point of all of these figures of speech is one and the same: having a baby is a scriptless endeavor. And not simply the birth part, the parenting part too. Just as you can’t know in advance what your baby will be like or how exactly it will find its way out of your body, so too you can’t know in advance what you will be like with that baby once it does. This is especially true of first children. If all pregnancies are journeys into the unknown (to continue the metaphor), none is more so than the first, where the destination is motherhood itself.
When I got off the plane with my first child, I was in Rome and it was magnificent. He was exactly what I expected (however vague that picture was) and I became to him, almost instantly, the mother I had hoped to be (however vague that picture was). He was round and placid, he slept well and ate well, he developed quickly and without incident. He was, in other words, a ‘good’ baby and it was his goodness in large part that allowed me to flourish straightforwardly in my new role. Our relationship was a two-part equation, in this way, but there was also an element of luck to it. There always is. In retrospect what I was most lucky about wasn’t having an easy baby, although that certainly helps. It was the fact that having a baby, as an experience, turned out to be so positive for me when it was something I didn’t even know I wanted in the first place. It can readily go the other way: you can pine away for a baby eternally and then find, for whatever reason, that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Interestingly, this is what happened to me next. The wonder of creating children is that doing it once or twice (or more) doesn’t grant any assurances for the future. Even if I knew in theory that kids from the same parents are not carbon copies – or even versions – of one another, I was still shocked when my second baby emerged from the womb nothing at all, in either looks or temperament, like his older brother. He was different and difficult and I’ll admit that I was disappointed. Rather unimaginatively, I possessed only one model of what my baby could be like. This time when I got off the plane I wasn’t quite sure where I was. Latvia maybe?
Both of these reactions to having a baby are normal and neither of them is determinative of the relationship you will ultimately have with that child. Newborn babies are not fully fledged beings, not even close: they are inchoate bundles of need and potential. It is a stroke of fortune to feel bonded to one from the very beginning. As with the other people in your life, it is often the case that you need time to learn to love them as you come to know them.
I make a point of speaking to my friends shortly before the arrival of their first baby. Not because there is any particular piece of parental wisdom that I want to spout. Not because I like to augur the changes to come. Not because I feel the need to warn them about how hard it can be or how magical. Rather, it is because I want to mark in my memory for each of them, in the way I did for myself, the space between the before and the after. To see where they think their particular ticket is for and then to find out, however many weeks later, where it is they have actually disembarked. I’ll hope for Florence. I’ll hope for Venice. But if it’s Riga, well, I’ll let them know that’s okay too.