By Cheryl Strayed
As a child and teenager, I remember being mildly disturbed by the animal quality that overcame my mother while in the presence of babies. It was a quality she cloaked in a polite, seemingly offhand request—may I hold the baby?—and a nonchalant tone of voice, but I knew her intentions were indisputably vulturine at their core. She wanted that baby in her hands and she wanted it now.
“Oh,” my mother would coo once she had the borrowed baby in her possession. “Look at this,” she’d moan to me, standing desolately witness to her mysterious rapture. “There’s nothing on this earth like the smell of a baby once you’ve had one of your own,” she would explain each time. “Nothing like the weight of a baby in your arms.”
Over the years, I observed this same response in other women, all of them mothers whose own children are no longer babies. Inevitably—both in my younger years with my mother and later, in the company of my post-baby mother friends—I, too, would eventually be offered the opportunity to hold the baby, but rarely did I take it. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the astonishing perfection and beauty of these babies. It was that I appreciated them most at arm’s length. I wished them well, but I didn’t wish them to be in my sphere. I was never what you would call a baby person. As a child I didn’t even like dolls.
At the root of my indifference was a belief that, adorable or not, babies were trouble. They were the thing that kept you from doing what you actually wanted to do with your hours, your days, your weeks, your life. From traveling and writing and perfecting your yoga postures or collecting fragile figurines, from making love at all hours of the day or lounging around drinking tea or wine with a good book in hand. Babies cried and caterwauled, they fussed and fidgeted, they demanded without compunction and ruthlessly denied those charged with their care even the most reasonable requests: to shower, to sleep, to pee in peace. I liked to shower and sleep and pee in peace. I liked my life without babies. My life was a private pleasure dome of self-fulfillment, of doing what I wanted to do when I felt like doing it—or not.
Which is how I got the shock of my life when, at thirty-five, I had a baby of my own and loved him so entirely I couldn’t honestly remember what I thought my purpose had been on this earth before he came along.
To conceive him had been an essentially intellectual decision. It wasn’t that my husband and I particularly wanted to have a baby at that moment in our lives; it was that we’d grimly realized I was approaching an age that, as one not-so-cheerful article from a women’s magazine put it, if I wanted to naturally conceive a baby, I’d “better run, not walk, to the exit.”
My husband and I had talked for years about becoming parents, and we were in perfect agreement with each other on the subject. Neither of us was in a hurry to have a baby, and yet there wasn’t any doubt that someday we would. Parenthood, we agreed, is one of the few truly profound experiences life offers, and neither of us, regardless of our grave and genuine doubts, was willing to miss out. What if we don’t like the baby? we wondered out loud to each other. What if the baby bores us to tears or destroys our budding artistic careers?—his, as a filmmaker, mine, as a writer. We imagined, as the years rolled by, that our desire for the two children we planned to have would move from the theoretical realm and into the actual. That we would wake up one morning with the mad and certain desire to relinquish our lives as we knew them to the sweet bonds of parenthood.
That never happened. In the end, we simply reached for each other and hoped we weren’t making the biggest mistake of our lives.
On my thirty-fifth birthday I was eight weeks pregnant and living in a grand house on a small island off the coast of Brazil at an artist’s colony, working furiously to complete my first novel and trying to distract myself from the relentless pregnancy-induced nausea that clawed at me every minute of every day for three months solid. I sold my novel the same week that the nausea let up. As the details of my book contract were being negotiated, my editor asked me when I would like to hand in the final, significantly revised draft of my novel.
My baby was due at the end of April. I had a distinct image of what he would be doing in the first months of his life, of how he would recline in a lined wicker basket such as the kind I never owned, woven and biblical —a Moses basket, it was called in several of the catalogues of baby items that had begun to crowd my house. I had it in my mind that he would lie in this basket at my feet, sweet as a bundle of straw, silent as a pile of laundry, while I significantly revised my five-hundred-page novel.
I told my editor to set the deadline for June 30, and then I forgot all about the novel I’d toiled years to birth and settled into my pregnancy, watching my expanding belly in wonder, feeling my baby’s sometimes fierce, sometimes tender kicks, not quite believing that there was a human being growing inside of me. A human I would love.
“I don’t think I actually love the baby yet,” I confessed to my husband, well into my third trimester, on one of the daily walks we took around our neighborhood. “I’m extremely fond of him,” I went on to explain, “but I don’t know him yet, and how can I possibly love someone I don’t know?” Even in the throes of the much-touted high emotions of pregnancy, I was a rationalist, not a romantic when it came to babies—including my own. I was stunned and delighted the first time I heard my son’s heart beat or saw the skeletal profile of his dear little face on the ultrasound, but I didn’t burst into tears the way many mothers-to-be do. Instead my nascent mother love manifested itself in a more practical arena: in making sure I would grow and birth the healthiest baby I could. I exercised and ate the right foods and read dozens of books on pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding. I opted out of an epidural—which would ease my pain during labor, but put my baby at risk—and chose midwives who were well practiced in the art of birthing without unnecessary medical intervention. I performed a daily repertoire of squats and stretches and Kegels and practiced relaxing while my husband pinched me hard in a birth-simulation exercise.
My baby was born after an agonizing forty-two-hour labor at an out-of-hospital birth center, weighing nearly eleven pounds. I’d truly suffered while birthing him, literally been ripped apart at the seams. I’d been awake for two days and two nights roaring like a lion every six and then four and then two minutes with the pain of my contractions, unable to keep even a sip of water down. I’d pushed and pushed and pushed my baby out of me so hard I felt like there was no part of me that wasn’t him, felt that in pushing his body out, I’d pushed my own into absolute oblivion. I pushed so long that I forgot what I was pushing for, forgot that at the end of that final push there would be the baby who’d grown in me, this boy who was my son. But there, at last, he was.
My unspeakably beautiful son.
Brown as a bean, despite his Swedish and Scottish and Irish heritage. Brown hair, brown eyes, a brown cast to his skin, as if the weeks I’d spent in Brazil with him in my womb had seeped into him and taken root. Despite my exhaustion, I was too happy to sleep in the hours after his birth. How could I sleep with such a precious being in my charge? His every breath was a miracle. The ancient knowing of his eyes, a revelation. The fragile grace of his hands, an astonishment.
I was a mother now. I would never truly sleep again.
My son. My sun. My son. My sun. I chanted to myself in the weeks and months that followed his birth, as those final two days of April turned to May and then May to June, my world spinning around him all through the last pale chill of spring and into the heat of that first summer.
The thirtieth of June arrived, and at dawn I sent an e-mail to my editor, composing it with one hand, the other hand holding my son to my breast as he nursed. I assured her that I’d made great progress on my novel revision, though it wasn’t quite ready to send to her yet. Could I have until August fifteenth? I asked. The tone of my e-mail was flimsily optimistic, falsely calm, and the part about having made progress was just short of an outright lie. Turns out, despite the fact that my son was what’s called an “easy baby” in the mothering trade, he did not spend his first two months in a wicker basket resembling either a bundle of straw or a pile of laundry. In the midst of all the nursing and diapering and dressing and undressing and burping and pacing and hopping and loading and unloading and buckling and unbuckling that mothering a newborn entails, I’d barely showered since he’d been born, let alone sit down to do any honest writing.
My career as a novelist was over, I feared, despite its dazzlingly promising start—a generous deal with the publisher of my dreams, an editor, reputed to be among the best in the business, whom I both adored and admired. Writing my first book had not been unlike giving birth: a years-long gestation and labor that required a fantastic leap of faith, both emotional and financial. It was a process that had obliged me to believe, against serious odds, that I could do this, and then go on to actually do it. To write a whole book and then write it all over again. And again. To endure the doubt and constant lack of funds, the brutally candid and diverging opinions of the fellow writers I’d enlisted to read my work, the frozen half-smiles of all the people I’d met at parties over the years to whom I’d been compelled to explain that although I was working as a waitress or a youth advocate or a teacher I was, in fact, actually a writer.
And now all I had to do was write a bit more, to make one last pass at the book I’d written in what felt to me like my own blood. But I couldn’t do it, I realized with indisputable clarity on that late June morning in the early first summer of my son’s life. I was going to be the woman who ran the marathon and then took a race-ending fall in the last quarter mile.
And it was all my son’s fault.
The thing was, I didn’t care that much. Or rather, I cared—an icy cold mix of anxiety and sorrow rose in me like a fog—but I didn’t care enough to do much about it. All of my life I’d believed that writing was my calling, my passion, my reason for being, my greatest contribution to the betterment of the world, but that theory of my life unraveled completely when I became a mother. I had a new passion now. A new reason for being. And though I took it on faith that my writing remained somewhere lost inside of me, there was no question that now it was shadowed entirely by the towering existence of my son.
There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for him. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person. The relentless totality and depth of my love almost hurt; its tenderness and clarity was truer than anything I’d ever touched. When my son was one week old I wept while my husband rubbed my back in bewilderment, asking me what was wrong. It was that our son was a week old, I managed to explain between sobs, though my husband’s expression only grew more bewildered. “Don’t you understand?” I asked in exasperation. “One entire week of our son’s life is gone.”
He didn’t understand, though he, too, had now become a baby person, had been stunned by the depth and ferocity of his love for our son. But being a mother was different from being a father, another shock to me. As a feminist, I’d always rejected the notion that mothers were more vital to their children than fathers were—and I still do to a great extent. But in those early months of my son’s life, there was no question that no matter how lovely, amusing and interesting he found his daddy, I was his world. If the entire human race except for the two of us had been wiped out that first year of his life, my son would have been just fine. He ate from my body, slept nestled against me, spent a good number of his waking hours in my arms, followed me steadily with his dark eyes when he reclined in his bouncy seat across the room. I’d read that babies don’t comprehend that their bodies are separate from the bodies of their mothers until they are three or four months old, and I struggled to comprehend the same thing.
I was him that summer. He was me.
Still, I was also allegedly a novelist. A novelist who’d promised a powerful editor the final draft of her novel by August fifteenth. My husband had a teaching gig that summer that took him away from home five days a week. Each morning when I said goodbye to him I would swear to myself that this was the day that I would begin in earnest. I would write without stop from the moment my son fell into one of his frequent naps until he woke. I could make it work, I thought, I could fit it in. But almost always, something intervened. Exhausted, I would nod off when my son did and not even realize until an hour or more later when, together, we woke. Or I would spend those precious hours kicking around uselessly on the Internet or sinking deliciously into a novel or making myself lunch and then sitting down to eat it in exquisite peace. By the middle of July, I knew the jig was up. I needed help.
The babysitter I found was perfect for the job. She wasn’t looking for anything long term, and neither was I. I needed her for three or four weeks, I explained. She was between semesters at a naturopathic medical school and would sit with my son for four hours, four days a week and study for her board exams while he napped. My office was in the basement. I could hear the rhythmic ticking of my son’s battery-operated swinging chair on the floor directly above my head while I wrote. Or allegedly wrote. Half the time I sat simply staring at my computer screen, a photo of my smiling son staring back at me.
This is insane, I remember thinking even then, confounded by my mad love for such a little man. Especially since a fair portion of the time I spent with him was not precisely fun. In fact, there had barely been a day in his life that I hadn’t at one point or another felt the distinct urge to either run out the door in hysterics or smash his gorgeous little head against the wall. I didn’t do these things, of course, and nothing even remotely approaching them. But there was no question that motherhood took my breath away not only because of the gloriousness of the beauty it offered up to me each and every day, but also because of the heat of its rage. Knowing what I knew, now that I was a mother, made me afraid for all the babies in the world, amazed at how many of them had survived babyhood, despite being born to mothers who didn’t have half of the emotional and financial and psychological resources I had. It made me think of my own mother, who, by twenty-six, had three babies, no money and a volatile marriage.
My mother never met her grandson. She died young, when I was twenty-two and she was forty-five, and her death has been my life’s greatest sorrow. Before I had my son, every time I made a wish on a star or a set of birthday candles, I always wished for the same thing: that I could see my mom again for one more minute, and in that minute I would tell her that I loved her over and over again. But now my wish had changed. I wanted to say thank you to her and to tell her that I had no idea how hard it was to be a mother, and how hard, in particular, she’d had it, not only while she was married to my father, but after they’d divorced and she’d become a single mother. I wanted to thank her for not ever running out the door in hysterics or smashing my head against the wall even though she must have had a thousand impulses to do so. And most of all, I wanted to tell her that now that I was a mom, I understood something that had never occurred to me before: that when she had raved about the smell or weight of a baby in her arms, she hadn’t really been talking about that borrowed baby, she had been talking about me.
But I couldn’t say that to my mother. All I could do was pour the love she’d given me into my son. I could also finish my novel, which, as it happened, was essentially an ode to her.
I tore myself away from that computer screen photo of my son and wrote what I could in the time I had. Come August, I sent my revised novel off, knowing in my heart that I could do better, that I hadn’t really reached hard enough for what I needed to find. My editor called me a week later and gently but firmly confirmed my gut feeling. There was still work to do and no one was going to do it but me, but I couldn’t do it just yet: In the midst of everything else, we were moving.
My husband and I had bought a house that was five houses down from the one we were living in, a bigger one that would accommodate our new family of three. For those last weeks of August, before we officially moved, we owned two houses on the same street. Each day I made trips on foot, carrying small objects from our old house to the new one, my son lolling in a sling strapped to my body, while I carried a Crock-Pot or a tea kettle, or a box of knick knacks we probably wouldn’t ever unpack.
The new house was empty except for one thing: a big red rug that I’d ordered and had delivered and laid out in the living room. It had cost seven hundred dollars, paid for by my book advance. My husband and I had never before spent that much on anything for our house, but we reasoned that we needed it because our son would be crawling before long and we wanted to cushion his body from the hardwood floors. I would set him down on this rug as I unloaded whatever things I’d carried over, darting into the kitchen with a box of cups, or into the bathroom to place a stack of towels on the shelf. One day when I came back into the living room, I saw that my son had rolled over while I was gone, a thing he’d never done before. From his back to his tummy, unlike most babies, who first do it tummy-to-back.
I placed him on his back again and left the room, and when I returned he’d rolled over again, so this time I put him on his back and waited to see what he would do. He did nothing but smile at me and smack his lips and kick his legs in that jovial way he did when he wanted to nurse. I lay down next to him on my book-advance rug, and as he nursed I thought about the months ahead. Summer was waning, and I had the feeling I always get as autumn approaches—that I could begin anew again, that the future was starting now. I wanted to parlay that optimism into progress on my novel revision, and as I lay on that rug, I felt a glimmer of faith that it could be done, that in fact my old passion for my writing hadn’t disappeared, that it wasn’t in contradiction to the deeper passion I had for my son.
“Talk to your baby,” an old woman in a grocery store checkout line had advised me, unsolicited, when I was pregnant. “Tell him everything you’re doing and thinking, even when you know he can’t understand,” she’d said. It had seemed like good advice and so I’d taken it, talking to my son always, explaining what I was doing when I was changing his diaper or putting him in the car. And I talked to him on that red rug in the house where we hadn’t yet lived. I told him that a plan had been made, that his daddy would be home more soon and I would go into my office for hours at a time to finish the novel I’d first finished nearly a year before, when I’d been pregnant with him. That if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t feel complete, and that would make it impossible for me to be the kind of mother to him that I wanted to be.
He seemed to listen, the way he always did. I could tell by the way the rhythm of his sucking changed when I spoke, like he didn’t want to miss a word. He was nearly four months old, and it seemed to me both that he’d been born yesterday and also that he’d been with me forever. When he was done nursing we just lay there together for a while, awake and cool in the last summer heat. And then he did what I’d never seen him do before. He rolled away from me.
Author’s Note: I did manage to complete the revision of my novel when my son was nearly nine months old. I sent the final draft to my editor and then immediately became pregnant with my daughter. By the time my book came out, I had two children under the age of two—a newborn and an into-everything toddler. I took them with me on my fourteen-city national book tour, along with my lovely and supportive husband. It was the most exhausting, hilarious, maddening, conflicted, and wonderful time of my life.
Brain, Child (Fall 2008)
Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. Strayed has written the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net since March 2010. Her writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into twenty-six languages around the world. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.