You will fall immediately in love with your baby. This is what they tell you.
Here are the other things they tell you:
You will feel complete at last.
All the pain dissolves when your eyes meet.
You will gaze upon your newborn’s pinched and mottled face, and in a single instant, your whole world will finally make sense.
These are the expectations going in.
Last week, a good friend gave birth to her first baby. In the hospital, while a nurse flurried expertly back and forth, to and fro, swapping disposable bed pads and stocking diapers and rearranging pillows, my friend’s mother-in-law swept into the room with a fresh blowout and three coats of mascara. She took the baby in her arms.
“Can you believe it?” she asked, beaming, oblivious to her daughter-in-law’s dark circles and still-swollen midsection. “Wasn’t it just love at first sight?”
After so many years, she had forgotten everything but the joy.
“Yes,” my friend replied dutifully, but I recognized the hesitation in her voice, the hint of shame that accompanies this particular brand of uncertainty.
The nurse recognized it, too. She paused mid-whirlwind and rested a hand on my friend’s shoulder. “These last couple of days sure have been a blur, huh?” Code for: This part is hard. You’re going to be OK. Clearly, this was not the first time she’d seen a mother who needed to be reassured of her own normality—and it won’t be the last.
In our other relationships, there is no right way to fall in love, no specific length of time considered “acceptable” by the masses. Some people are enemies first. Some start out as friends. Some just know within the space of a glance—while for others, it takes forever: weeks, months, carefully crafted moments of getting to know one another. An exploration. A gradual understanding.
When my children were born, I was mesmerized. Each time, I spent hours staring at what I had made—the impossibly tiny fingernails, the fluttering eyelashes, the floppy neck, the fuzzy head. I nuzzled into the newborn smell, powdery and raw. There was a rush of ferocity—yes, a primal sense that this new being now came first, the unsettling and powerful knowledge I would protect it at any cost. Often, the protectiveness is the part that’s immediate.
Here are the things they don’t tell you:
Many of us already felt complete, and now we have been broken open.
Even when the contractions are over, the pain lingers in other ways—not the nurses pushing on your tender belly or the stitches—but the learning to start from scratch.
Suddenly, in a single instant, your whole world actually makes less sense than it used to.
The baby is ugly-beautiful, and it is a part of you—the clamped cord at its navel is proof of that. But it is also a squalling stranger. Bundled and uncharted, a blank map.
This is the reason you walked into the hospital and the reason you will be wheeled out. This is the reason for the ice packs and mesh underwear, the transition from person to parent—as if it is an entirely separate identity.
Last month, you were holding hands with someone special across a table set only for two. You discussed politics instead of poop, passions, and plans instead of pacifiers. Your dreams. “Should we travel?” you asked, and you did. You read books in bed. You ate and showered and worked uninterrupted.
This stranger is the reason for the upending.
But you will become acquainted the way two people do—over time. There will be cooing and conversations, cuddling and compromise. A personality begins to take shape. And then one day your smile is returned and maybe that’s the moment. Or maybe it’s the morning of that first bubbled laugh, something hits you all at once and then solidifies, just as sturdy as something you built brick by brick.
My friend is home from the hospital by now, likely getting less sleep than she ever imagined, busy battling a growing catalog of feelings. Soon, if not yet, one of those may be love.
I want to tell her—it gets stronger.
It gets better, and worse, and better again, harder and easier, over and over, and those should be the expectations going in. One day, like the parents who swear they felt it instantaneously, you will just know.