I’m cautious about saying, “I love you.” It comes slowly for me. There are a few people whom I love—my close family and a handful of dear friends. I don’t love many objects or things. Other than that, love isn’t bandied about much in my household.
That’s why I was confused when I gave birth to Ayla. I was in awe. I was overwhelmed. I was terrified. I was joyful. But the most prominent emotion—in the soupy mass of feelings that had overtaken me—was not love.
Other mothers in my mommy groups confided that they too didn’t feel a blinding love descend upon mother and child at birth. We’re so afraid that the absence of love at first sight is a sign that we’re not capable of loving our children. Or that we’re deficient in the maternal love department. But is that so?
When Ayla was living inside my belly, I remember feeling surges of love—often in the evenings or after a yoga class—that were stronger than any emotion I had ever named “love.” During pre-natal yoga class, as I stretched and breathed and contorted myself around her tiny body, I felt like a mama bear protecting her cub. My love for her was primarily physical. Loving her meant being strong and eating the right foods and getting enough rest. It was relatively easy to love her in utero. It was all about the body.
But when she was born, I suddenly had to contend with an entirely different Love Scenario. Now she was no longer a mysterious fetus in need of protection, she was an actual human being that cried and pooped and then cried some more. True, I still felt the desire to protect her, but our mama bear-baby cub love no longer seemed to fit. Now we were on more equal footing. Now she had a face, a name and a loud wail.
For the first few months of her life, I was so overwhelmed with the demands of motherhood that my focus was on keeping us both clean, fed and sane—rather than basking in the bright light of family love. I reasoned that when her needs were taken care of, then there would be more time for love.
But even as I mastered the basics of child-rearing, the love didn’t birth itself in the way that I expected. I didn’t wake up one day and feel “The Great Love” descend upon us. Instead, it slowly emerged… Every time I observed her tiny fingers flutter while she napped, the light of love flickered. When I breastfed her, an electric current of love passed between us. And when I carried her around in a sling and could feel her little heart beating against mine, the love grew some more. On some days, I felt my love for Ayla wash over me like a giant waterfall. When a car passed too close to her body, I felt love fill every cell of my body like adrenaline, only more powerful and sacred. And so I came to love her.
So many mothers feel pressured to instantly love their children at birth. But is that fair? Or realistic? Doesn’t human love deepen and mature with time and shared experience? If so, shouldn’t we feel only the seeds of what could be an enormous love when our children are born? And then, after thousands of hours of cuddles, play and nursing, our love for them will take on human proportions, and eventually become as big and familiar to us as life itself.
Nowadays, saying “I love you” to Ayla would be redundant. Because my love for her is everywhere. Between us. Around us. Inside and outside of my body, and hers. The only question is, “How long will I be able to love her?” I don’t know for certain, but I hope forever.
[Note: This song, a lullaby for mamas, was a salve during those first weeks when I doubted my capacity to love…] 'Lullaby' by the Dixie Chicks