Published on March 21st, 2016 | by Desiree Cooper2
THE UNEXPECTED DO-OVER: Desiree Cooper on How She Learned to Love Babies
Babies are not my cup of tea. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure that out until I had one.
By the time I was in my late 20s, I going with the flow, checking off the items on the expectations list. I married my law school sweetheart. We bought a house, adopted a dog and had good jobs. Time to start a family.
I wasn’t naïve. Plenty of women had warned me that babies will change your life forever. I was prepared for the pull of the heartstrings and the rearranging of priorities. I was ready for the expenses and the shift from spontaneous weekend getaways to Sesame Street Live and play dates. But I wasn’t prepared for a baby’s considerable, relentless needs. When I brought my son Jay home, I quickly realized that the world had flipped on me quicker than you can say “afterbirth.”
From the beginning, Jay was willful and intense. Breastfeeding seems so serene from afar. But Jay actively fought me, tossing his head back and forth whenever I tried to nurse him. If he managed to latch on, the pain was so intense, it felt like he was drawing blood up from my toes. By the time he got a few milky drops for dinner, he was exhausted and I was crying. I suspected then that motherhood and I were not going to get along.
I was fortunate enough to have a three-month maternity leave–a luxury not afforded many women. I was grateful for the time at home, but blindsided by how much harder it was than working outside of the home. I was drained by the repetitive duties, isolated from other adults, and emotionally dominated by my little bundle of joy. All I wanted to do was put on a suit and get back to work.
I found myself being jealous of the time I spent with my own child. I would be feeding him or cooing above his crib thinking about the other things that I had to do, and about the stingy little things that I preferred to be doing (was I allowed to think that way?). Like reading a novel. Like going to a foreign film. Like applying for that promotion, or working past five.
Naturally, Jay turned out to be what the pediatrician called a “wakeful baby.” Not colicky or hyper, just awake. He wouldn’t nap, and wouldn’t bed down for the night until nearly 10 p.m. He only wanted to be constantly engaged, doing whatever I was doing, all the time.
I was astounded by the bottomless needs, over-stimulated by the constant touch (even while sitting on the toilet, even while taking a bath), exhausted by the limited range of permissible emotions for new mothers (joy, pride, and a sense of womanly completion being the entire set), challenged by my newly-minted job of running all of the household trains on time, and angry that the little miracle that had taken up so much room in my body had now commandeered my energy and my mind.
Three years later, I was pregnant with my daughter, Rae. (I had such an amazing relationship with my brother that I wanted my son to have a sibling. Despite my ambivalence toward motherhood, it only seemed fair that if I was in for one, I was in for two.) I had morning sickness for the entire pregnancy and developed acne. My hair turned to wire. Instead of having that pregnant glow, I looked like a witch.
My little girl was completely different from her older brother. Rae was a “good baby,” which means that she was peaceful, slept a lot and demanded little. I learned to juggle the disparate needs of my children. And, to make it through the insanely busy days and sleepless nights, I gave myself the gift of low expectations.
Then, one day, the babies disappeared. In their place were toddlers, full of wonderful, engaging, astonishing opinions and hilarious personality quirks. Language acquisition made life better for all involved, and I was awed by the human being developing before my eyes.
I was the only dry-eyed mom on the first day of preschool. While other women mourned the loss of their babies, I was practically shaking pompoms at the thought of my children setting out into the world, making friends, learning to read and idolizing their first teachers. It wasn’t so much that I wanted them out of my house, it was more that I celebrated their steps toward self-actualization. Maybe I wanted it so much for them because, as a mother, I had forgone it for myself.
All of the rough patches that many mothers dread—the awkwardness of middle school, the turmoil of puberty, the surliness of teenagers—were stages that brought me increasing wonder. It is not an exaggeration to say that the more my children grew up, the more I fell in love with them. Beginning in eighth grade, I started reading every book that they were assigned in English. It was such fun to revisit the classics, and to read novels that weren’t even published when I was growing up. Our road trips were full of fascinating discussions about landmarks, history, science or the news. We ate at restaurants that didn’t even serve grilled cheese. We went camping and hiking without one freak-out over bugs or grit in the soup. We went to movies and theater and dance. We traveled abroad without anyone whining or throwing up.
Our mother-child relationship went from parasitic to symbiotic. I realized that I really loved babies—as long as they were all grown up.
By mid-life, I was champing at the bit. I was ready to embrace the life that I had put on hold in favor of child-rearing. I divorced after 25 years of marriage. The kids were in various stages of launching (Millennials never quite cut the umbilical cord), but they were no longer my overriding and pressing concern.
I took jobs that fed my passions. I began the slow process of refilling my creative spirit. I read and traveled alone. I began to write again, and go on writing retreats. I conceived, gestated and gave birth to my first book, not the least bit ironically entitled, Know the Mother. I worked exhilarating, excessive hours because I had no one else’s needs to answer to. I never bought another minivan.
And then in the spring of my fifty-third year, Rae and her longtime boyfriend revealed that she was pregnant. Very pregnant. I had about three months to get used to the idea that I was going to be a gr… a grand… No. I still can’t say it. (I once told a friend that my grandchildren were going to have to call me “Ms. Cooper.”) And, on top of that, Rae and her family needed somewhere to stay while they got on their feet.
What fresh hell was this? A new baby in my life at the very moment I had just broken free of the bonds of motherhood?
Rae got married on a Friday in April. On Saturday, the doctor hospitalized her for life-threatening preeclampsia, and on Monday, they started labor.
Hours into delivery, Rae’s blood pressure was zooming and the fetus was in distress. The doctor decided to do an emergency C-section. The scariest moment of my life was watching my new son-in-law—not me—don a pair of scrubs and go with my daughter into the OR.
Alone in her hospital room, I began to pray. I didn’t want this baby, not now, not when I had just begun living again. But I loved my daughter, and she had every right to become a mother, too. The last thing I wanted was for either of them to die.
Thankfully, they didn’t. Rae gave birth to Jax, a scrawny five-pounder who is the spitting image of his dad. Together we took Jax home to raise him as a village.
Twenty-five years before, babies had felt like an upheaval, a threat to my own existence, the end to my life’s trajectory. Jax was all of those things—a seismic change, a challenge to my material and spiritual resources, another interruption on the path I had envisioned for myself. But with him I was calm, peaceful, and happy to sit for an entire afternoon taking in that fresh-new-baby smell.
I discovered that I could play with him and let work wait without that familiar flutter of anxiety. The first time we took Jax to a sitter, I cried. Instead of always feeling like I could be doing something better, I felt like there was nothing better than being with Jax. I was deeply, selflessly, hopelessly in love with a baby.
People always say that grandparenting is so wonderful because “you can spoil them and give them back.” But Jax and his family lived with me. He was not an occasional diversion, but part of my everyday financial and emotional responsibilities. I struggled to fit his needs in with my demanding career, to figure out who was going to pick him up or drop him off, and who would watch him on Saturdays. I’m right back at that heart-stopping, stressful place I was when raising my own children.
That makes my love affair with Jax all the more befuddling.
Here’s what I suspect has happened: I’m old enough now not to let my commitment to Jax (or my aging parents or more grandchildren) diminish the commitment I have finally made to my own dreams of writing fiction. This time, Jax and the creative spirit within me will grow up together.
Check out the book trailer for Desiree Cooper’s newly published first book, Know the Mother.
“The stories in Know the Mother are like jewels—glittering, finely wrought and worthy of careful appraisal. Here is fiction that not only examines the everyday messiness of living, but the painful miracle of birth and the beautiful mystery of death with equal insight. Cooper’s elegant, wise, and energetic collection is about what it means to be a woman, a mother, a sister, a wife, a child, and most of all, human.” – Angela Flournoy, The Turner House