Thirty odd years ago, I never could have imagined myself as a mother. I was a 23-year old student at the University of Regina on the Canadian prairies. Having just graduated with an Honours Degree in English Literature, I considered continuing my studies as a graduate student. In fact, I didn’t foresee any changes to my life which had flowed smoothly till then. I had grown up with one sister, ballet lessons and a library filled with great fiction and I still enjoyed gardening, painting and drawing, just as I had done as a child. I was content.
Suddenly, my life as I knew it changed dramatically. I met Michael, who was just passing through Regina, Saskatchewan to Prince George, British Columbia. From that first meeting, it felt like the prairie wind swooped down and scattered all my work and plans. Michael describes our initial introduction in much kinder terms; he says that he saw fireworks when he first laid eyes on me. It was instant attraction. Everyone thought I was going to be a nun librarian but, as Michael loves to remind me, he saved me from this fate.
I was not ready for such a dramatic change in my life but it was clear to me that this encounter was a defining moment that I could not ignore. So I baffled fellow students, profs, advisers, friends and family by saying yes to the unexpected. I did not know anything about my newly chosen lifestyle. I did realize that I was completely ignorant and lacked even the most basic skills required to survive.Coming from a family with only two children, it was a culture shock, to put it mildly, when I moved to eastern Ontario and met Michael’s sprawling French-Canadian family of eight boys and two girls.
I became pregnant before our first wedding anniversary. Instantly, I began to panic because I knew, that once again, I was utterly unprepared. I had never even held a newborn! So I got ready in the only way I knew how; I read every book I could find on pregnancy, birth and baby care.
However all this studying did little to equip me to mother a fragile, completely dependent newborn. For example, as I held my baby in a small bathtub for his first bath, I was nervous. It is hilarious to admit now but I actually had a book propped open with one elbow awkwardly holding it open to the right page, while my baby was in a bathtub on the table. The book was my security blanket, I guess.
My new husband, who was the second oldest of ten children and completely relaxed with babies, walked through the kitchen, shook his head in disbelief and said quite wisely,
“Melanie, there are some things you just can’t get out of books.”
Yet, something did happen to me moments after giving birth to my first child; still in the delivery room, I forgot my exhaustion and pain the moment I held my newborn. A surge of motherly love rose up in my heart combined with a sense of awe at the miracle of creation as I examined tiny, perfectly formed fingers and toes.
There was something about my baby’s open, trusting gaze that literally drew love from me. My newborn could see clearly for about 8″, just far enough to focus intently on my face. It was almost as if the initiative to bond came from my son first, especially when I consider his fierce hand grip as he clutched my clothing.To ensure that I fed him, he was born with a powerful rooting reflex and a cry that literally triggered the let-down reflex for my milk, soaking my clothes if I did not start nursing quickly enough.My baby did not even have a sense of himself apart from me for the first year, his whole identity was intricately entwined with mine. On a good day that translated into an almost magical relationship of love, the strength of which astounded me; on a bad day it meant little sleep where I was unable to put him down for more than a quick dash to use the toilet or to drag a toothbrush across my teeth.
Somehow, though, this new life, this culture shock, became my daily life.Unbeknownst to me, each successive baby set me free to become more fully who I was called to be, a joyful mother of nine children. If I think about it, I am just as baffled as any outsider when I consider this conundrum.