I had a coincidence of snails over the weekend when I took my one-year-old daughter to a local greenhouse. We walked between rows hand in hand, reaching for flowers, drinking in the scent of soil and mist. Beneath one wide-leafed plant, we met a snail: a garden-variety one the color of pond slime, its shell balanced nimbly on its back. It waved its tentacles through the air in benign greeting, and left a trail of slick mucus behind it.
Slimy things in general tend to revolt me. I am finicky about texture and prefer to keep my hands clean. This being the case, however, I could not resist reaching out one finger to stroke the snail’s shell, which was a perfect, striped spiral in the warm colors of chocolate and licorice.
It felt as smooth as the skin of my baby, who showed no interest whatsoever in the snail. I looped one arm around her waist; she leaned her head back and closed her eyes to be kissed.
The coincidence came when I opened a library book at her bedtime and found a page featuring a snail. Being slimy and not very exciting, a snail is not a typical protagonist in the world of children’s literature, but this book celebrated the snail. This, it claimed, was because snails spend their whole lives constructing something of beauty to leave behind after they die.
I didn’t know snails are actually the carpenters of their own homes. I thought they simply found empty shells and moved in—a nation of renters. Wrong. These guys are serious artists, the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the animal world.
An average snail is born with a speck of shell, a translucent whorl the size of a stud earring. The shell is soft at this stage, and flexible; you could smash the whole thing easily between your thumb and index finger.
A snail’s head and foot may emerge from its shell, but its heart does not. Its heart is always enclosed, safe, sound, in the room it has made for itself. As its heart grows larger, so too, must the room grow larger.
I finished the book and laid my daughter down in her crib at the foot of my bed, my own heart swelling as I brushed one hand through her hair. My friends keep telling me maybe it’s time to move her crib out of my room, but I can’t, just yet.
I did most of the work of birthing her in our room, pacing the floor where we’d planned to put her crib. It was such a beautiful labor—hours at home, in the cool dark, listening to love songs for my baby as I swayed back and forth, willing her to come. “I’ve loved you for a thousand years,“ crooned the voice on the mix I’d made only for her, and I believed it. I’d hoped and tried and yearned and prayed for this child for almost a year. I’d wanted her so badly that the gaping absence of her almost physically hurt, a constant animal gnawing in my gut.
The night she was born, snow lit up the dark, a million flurries flying in the car’s headlights as we drove to the hospital. I felt calm, in control, and—as much as possible—peaceful. We walked up to the room, and 15 minutes later I felt my body yawning open. I looked down and, all at once, she was there.
“Aren’t you so happy?” the nurse asked me the next day, placing my daughter in my arms. It had been the labor of my dreams—my baby was healthy, gorgeous, and as easygoing as they come.
“I think I’m mostly just in shock,” I said, to cover what I really felt, which was . . . nothing. Numb, emotionless, disconnected. Where was the tidal wave that was supposed to sweep me off my feet? Why didn’t my heart swell up with the force of mother love? Instead, it felt bare and sparse, like an empty room.
Even at the time, I knew that it was postpartum depression; knowing this did not stop it from absolutely scaring the shit out of me.
What if, I feared, my heart simply could not hold her? What if my heart was simply too small? I felt defective, deformed. I wept and wept for my beautiful, perfect daughter; she deserved better.
Love should come, I thought, like breathing, like a beating heart: effortlessly. But it did not come effortlessly, and I felt so guilty. Guilty and terrified.
I could not stop crying, and so everyone who came into my room that first week was privy to my pain. My mother told me I wasn’t the only mother who felt like this, that I wouldn’t feel like this forever. She said love was an action, and that feeling followed behind. Another woman—a wise, older woman—told me that when you have a baby, the love doesn’t always rush in all at once. Instead, over time, you “make room” for her.
So I took my daughter home, and endeavored to make room.
A snail, as you might guess, makes its room excruciatingly slowly. The layers it arranges in stratified succession are thinner even than a single cell. Each layer is arranged on infinitesimal levels: protein-by-protein, mineral-by-mineral. A snail shrugs these building blocks from the mantle that is not quite shell, not quite snail. Then the layers harden and calcify.
The shell begins to spiral outward, then, into cone or coil or barbed wheel; spiny-backed or smooth as glass; the color of cocoa or cream or mint ice cream; reminiscent of sapphire or of blood; some are even iridescent. Building the room is a process that continues until the snail takes its last breath. When a snail’s room is finished, it’s nearly indestructible.
When a snail dies, it leaves the shell behind, and we humans are struck with the beauty of the spiraled shells we find in our garden soil or at the beach. We collect them, put them on our windowsills or behind museum glass or into treasure boxes. There’s something about their softly turning colors, their smooth surfaces warmed in the palms of our hands.
I suppose beauty derives from this: First the heart of the snail grows. Then it endeavors to build a room to fit.
No. Let me revise that theory, because I know now what it means to expand oneself, to make room, and it doesn’t begin with the heart but with the brick. First the snail must build its room, and then . . . then the heart must also grow larger.
When I brought my daughter home, I began to lay down the layers of room for her. My love was no tidal wave sweeping me along; instead, I put the engine of action to work, with faith that the feeling would eventually follow on behind.
So I fed her and held her against my skin. I put her in the crook of my arm and watched her sleep. I traced her eyelids with my fingertips. I let those postpartum tears fall into her hair, and then I smoothed them away. I kissed her cheeks and rocked her to sleep. I whispered nursery rhymes, played with her tiny fingers and toes. One day she smiled, and after that, I tried to figure out what would make her smile. When she started getting baby chub, I softly pinched her and called her “Squish.” I explained matter-of-factly that I was indeed going to eat her up, and then I did; after that I “ate her up” every day, because it made her laugh. I chose songs that I’d sing only to her. I learned her favorite books by heart.
Moment by moment, I couldn’t choose how I felt; I could only choose what to do. I chose love for her. Layer by infinitesimal layer, I built her room in my heart.
These days, we high-five when she nurses, and she giggles every single time I count her toes. On hands and knees, I chase her around the house while she laughs hysterically, turning before I can catch her so she can play chaser, too. I pick her up and flip her upside down, carrying her around the house, loudly asking where she is. Then I flip her back into my lap, and she gives me sloppy, open-mouthed kisses that make me yell in part disgust, part delight.
The truth is, these rituals of ours did not come naturally to me; I learned them, practiced them. My love for her did not begin with feeling, but with action. Layer by layer, I build this love intentionally, and so it spirals, ever larger.