When I held my first daughter in my arms, I experienced the flood of emotion that every parent feels in that moment: I was blissfully happy, worried about whether I was ready to take on such a grand responsibility, and totally in love. Though I had never seen her face or heard her cry before that moment, it was as if I had known her for my entire life. She was totally new, yet totally familiar.
The nurse ran across the room in a panic. “WHY ARE YOU CRYING? Are you OKAY? Do I need to clear the room?”
I have never been more puzzled in my entire life than I was at that moment. “Umm, no…” I stammered. “I’m just happy.” She relaxed. The cuddling resumed. My perfectly chubby baby contentedly sucked her hand as she tried to look about the room. It was bliss.
Fast-forward not quite two years later, and I found myself cuddling an even chubbier baby, who looked almost identical to her sister. I felt the rush of hormones and emotions, but there was one new emotion I wasn’t ready to contend with: distance. Rather than feeling totally familiar, this new baby’s blank newborn stare seemed… well, blank.
As I held my new little one in that hospital room, I loved her as mothers do, and I attributed this feeling of distance to the tension I felt about adding another child to our care. I struggled knowing that this baby would mean that my relationship with my other daughter would have to change. “But change isn’t always bad,” I told my husband (and reassured myself) that night. “I cannot wait for S to meet her little sister. She’s going to be so delighted. She’s going to be such a big sister.” And she was. She is.
But the strange feeling of disconnect lingered. As the hormone high faded and the reality of exhaustion set in, I began to find myself getting frustrated and angry at the fact that I wasn’t bonding with my new little girl the way I had with my first. I knew in my head and in my heart that I would grow to love her as I did S, but I didn’t remember it being this difficult the first time around. Why was there a delay? What was holding me back?
To be honest, there was an element of post-partum depression at the time. It wasn’t severe–just a case of the Baby Blues, but it was still there and I wish I had the courage and the self-awareness to admit it at the time. I hope you’ve inferred that I did, in fact, come to cherish and love my second daughter as much as my first. As any parent can attest, these two children are wildly different and they equally have my heart. As I looked back in retrospect, I mentally explained away my bonding difficulties as just the emotional stress of adjusting to life with Two.
Enter: The Third.
When Little Man was born that Christmas morning, I knew that his sisters would be ecstatic to come meet him. “He’s the best Christmas present EVER!” dear S exclaimed. The girls hugged and loved on him in all his squishy roundness and I thought, “I’m in heaven. This is wonderful.”
But when LM came home from the hospital, here I was again– I loved him, really truly! But why weren’t we “bonding”? I searched for answers in my Baby Blues repertoire, but I couldn’t find anything there. I was so delighted to have a little boy and the girls were wonderful and my family was wonderful and helpful: what was holding me back…. again???
Then one day I came to a realization. Little Man was about ten days old and had just finished a champion nursing session. All was quiet in the apartment and I had the strange sensation of looking into that little face– one that was almost identical to that of his sisters– and I realized that he may look exactly like my other kids, but he was a total stranger. I didn’t know anything about him yet: I wasn’t sure if he preferred being bounced or rocked (bounced), if he was going to be a serious or a goofy kid (goofy), whether he would like the color orange (he prefers red) or the taste of carrots (not really) or if he could throw a tantrum (decidedly yes). In my post-partum fog I suddenly realized that what was holding me back was the simple fact that this new kid who was taking up so much of my time, demanding so much of my energy and undivided attention, was a stranger. I surmised that I didn’t feel this with my first one because back then, everything was totally new and I didn’t know what I didn’t know; but now I was aware of this huge gap that existed between me and my son– a gap that did not exist with my daughters, whom I knew so well. And yet I was supposed to love him all the same.
A still, small voice rose up within me:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Mt 25:35)
I’ve read a few blog posts about how parents are called to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy at home, but most of them use the traditional List of Seven, of which the third is not “welcoming the stranger” but “sheltering the homeless.” I guess the latter still applies to these brand new babies we suddenly find ourselves taking home, but in the context of parenthood I find the former much more potent to think about.
This little baby may be flesh of my flesh, but he starts out a total stranger. For reasons only He knows, God chose this infant for me and my husband, as He chose me for my parents, and them for their parents. It is a great responsibility and it is also humbling, because this realization puts me in my proper place. This experience of welcoming the stranger reminds me that these new little people are not “mine” as mothers and fathers may be tempted to claim– they are their own unique people and they belong totally to God.
In a world that seems so confused about motherhood and fatherhood, so that even the sacred issue of life is treated as a commodity to be bought, sold, manufactured, solicited, or tossed aside as waste, I think we would all be wise to meditate on what it could mean for parenting to be one long exercise in welcoming, loving and guiding The Stranger home.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
…You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet