I remember the first time it hit me that I was actually married. We were on our honeymoon, at a bed and breakfast in Newport, Rhode Island, and the front desk called up to our room.
“Hello, is this Gil Binenbaum?” a voice inquired.
“No,” I said, “that’s my, uh…I mean, he’s my, uh…” I couldn’t think of the word. He wasn’t my boyfriend, he wasn’t my fiancé, he was my…my…well, we were married now, so that meant he was my…I could barely bring myself to say it. Finally I blurted out the h-word to the guy on the phone. Husband. That meant I was somebody’s wife. It sounded so old-fashioned, so middle-aged. Wasn’t it just the summer before that I was supporting myself, living alone, reading Backlash? How could I suddenly have a husband? How could I suddenly be a wife?
It was with a similar shock that the news sunk in again and again after Emi was born that I was a mother. “Congratulations!” someone would say over the phone that first week post-delivery. “How’s your new daughter?” My mind would race. Daughter? The word confused me. How could I have a daughter? I was the daughter. No, wait, that’s right: I’d had a baby, and it was a girl, and that meant . . . yes, I had a daughter. And she was fine. “Oh,” I’d say, after having reasoned through the logic, “she’s fine, she’s great,” reminding myself, Emily is my daughter; when people ask, that’s who they’re talking about.
“And how’s Mom doing?” people would say next, and I, not realizing the third-person inquiry was about me and not my own mother, would reply, “Oh, she’s doing great, really happy, first granddaughter and all that.” Then I’d realize they meant me. It was just like when I was pregnant: people whom I’d just met would ask me when I was due, and, thinking they had asked me “What do you do?”, I would respond with a lengthy explanation of my job description before realizing from the slightly confused looks on my listeners’ faces that I had completely misunderstood. It took a while to adjust to the fact that the mom in question was now me, the daughter people spoke of was this baby of mine. The generational seating chart had shifted by one, and I was sitting in a new place, my little girl now occupying the spot where I used to be.
* * *
When my husband started medical school, he was concerned about how being an older student would affect his ability to compete with his fellow classmates. “Don’t worry,” a friend told him. “Don’t you know that old joke? What do you call the worst student who graduates from the worst medical school in the country? A doctor!” The same joke could work for a new parent: What do you call a woman who has just had a baby, whether or not she has any experience, knowledge or innate maternal skill? A mother!
In the beginning it just didn’t seem right that I should have the same title as someone like my friend Jeannie, who’d had nearly thirty-five years’ experience as a mom, or my mother-in-law, who’d raised two kids, or my own mother, who’d raised three. And yet I did: even just hours after delivering my first baby, the nurses would ask me, “How are you feeling, Mom?” or “How are Mom and baby doing today?” It seemed almost disrespectful to the millions of mothers who had actual experience and hard work to back up that designation.
Shouldn’t I start out the way I did when I took my first editing job, as an assistant, and work my way up? Wasn’t there some sort of hierarchy? Maternal Assistant, then Assistant Mother, then Associate Mother, then Mother, then Senior Mother, then Managing Mother, then Mother-in-Chief? It just didn’t seem right, jumping headfirst into this new job with the same title and daunting responsibility as someone who had done it for years.
I felt as though any moment someone would see through my inexperience and confront me on it, and the imagined scenario would always end with her taking my baby away and giving her to an actual mother, someone who really knew what she was doing. I tried my best to take the kind of advice espoused by television self-help gurus and just “fake it till I make it,” going through the motions of mothering with confidence I didn’t yet have. I walked through the park with my baby, just like a real mom. I fed my baby, just like a real mom. I rocked my baby to sleep, just like a real mom. I changed diapers and gave baths, just like a real mom. I got up in the night again and again, just like a real mom. Eventually, I reasoned, I’d become so comfortable acting like a real mom that I’d actually turn into one.
The anxiety I felt as a new mother certainly wasn’t any pretense, however. I imagined the kinds of things only new parents understand imagining. When she fell asleep soundly the way babies sometimes do, I worried she might never wake up. When she stayed awake for hours longer than usual, I imagined she’d never again fall asleep. Walking with Emi in the Baby Björn I’d envision myself tripping and falling, crushing her beneath me. Pushing her in the stroller, I’d picture a car careening out of control at an intersection, knocking us down and pinning us to the asphalt. Feeding her, I’d foresee her choking and me unable to save her. I began to half-believe that if I could imagine all the horrors of what might happen, I might be able to eliminate the possibility of any of those things actually coming to pass. What would I do if she lapsed into a coma? What would I do if our cat attacked her? What would I do if there were a fire in our building?
It became a habit, almost, the conjuring up of deadly scenarios to counteract the possibility of their actually occurring. Even when I realized this magical thinking wouldn’t stop fate from transpiring, wouldn’t make me a more experienced mother, I couldn’t stop imagining the what-might-bes. I managed to find danger in the most mundane things. Walking in platform shoes, I’d imagine myself tripping. Standing in the kitchen, slicing up greens for a salad, I’d see my fingers chopped off, wriggling among the arugula.
Of course, living with a med student didn’t help. Gil had similar new-parent fears, but he also had an incomplete medical education to back them up. Her cheeks look red-she could have Fifth’s Disease! She has baby acne-no, wait, it could be measles! She has reflux-she could have a severe malformation of her gastrointestinal tract! She occasionally looks cross-eyed-she has strabismus! Every fear I thought I could discount he could back up with half-understood medical references from textbooks not written to soothe the hyperactive nerves of novice parents.
This was the true initiation into parenthood, the sudden frightening realization that I had a fragile life to nurture and no reliable, infallible means of nurturing it. I wanted to protect my baby from all the dangers of the world, and yet until she was born I hadn’t realized the true scope of what might befall her. My anxiety over this was actually a way to limit my focus, to restrict the overwhelming possibilities of what might happen into a more comprehensible, if still fear-inducing, list. It was a way to regain some measure of control-control that could make me feel more self-assured in the face of all the possible things beyond it.
* * *
As I moved up in my own mind from Assistant Mother to Associate Mother, mastering some of the more panic-inducing new-parent anxieties and feeling more at home in my routine, I began to feel less like I was acting the part of the mom and more like I deserved the title. Eventually I realized I wasn’t always tempting fate just by taking Emi for a walk or stroll around the park or otherwise acting as if life was something we could take for granted. My anxiety receded as my confidence grew, and I saw that the more comfortable I felt in my new role as a mother, the less I needed to conjure up terrifying circumstances to justify my fears.
The decisive moment for me was when I was able to apply those new, odd-sounding designations of “mother” and “daughter” to myself and Emi without hesitation. Once when Emi was nearly six months old I was out with her and my in-laws, shopping in a department store. An older lady came up and peeked in the stroller, where Emi was sleeping. I protectively stepped closer, fixing Emi’s blanket and moving her bunny out of the way.
“How old is the baby?” the woman asked.
“Almost six months,” I told her.
“That’s right,” my mother-in-law joined in, “next Thursday will be six months! What a milestone!”
The older woman smiled and looked at me. “Well, aren’t you a dear,” she said, “helping your mom take care of your new baby brother.”
“Oh, no,” I said, without even thinking about it, “it’s a girl. And I’m her mother. She’s my daughter. I’m the mom.”
For the first time, it didn’t feel completely strange to say it, to admit to being a mother. I said the words, and more than that I meant them, and I’m not sure who was more elated at that moment: me for finally feeling as though I deserved to publicly proclaim myself a mother, or my mother-in-law for being mistaken as someone young enough to be the mom of a six-month-old baby.
I still have my moments. There are still days when I am shocked to remember that I’m a mother now, that I’m the one who’s supposed to soothe the boo-boos and know what to make for dinner. But I’m slowly getting used to it, slowly finding it normal to be the mother of a daughter instead of the daughter of a mother. And now when I hear a little voice calling “Mommy!” I don’t always have to look around to see who that means. I’m starting to know it’s me.