While nothing is less appealing to me than having to be someone's friend simply because we both piss our pants when we sneeze, artificially constructed social networks like mommy groups, daddy groups, play groups, and Yahoo e-mail groups fulfill a real need for disconnected urbanites whose families typically reside thousands of miles away.
Learning to be a parent without geographic and strong emotional links to our families, then, becomes a complicated process of untangling the skein of too much information. From the moment a woman discovers she is pregnant, she and her partner are encouraged to believe they are totally, utterly retarded when it comes to being parents. The reality-TV experts, the how-to books, the product-driven Web sites and magazines cater to a deep, unrelenting distrust of ourselves, and they have the tragic effect of obliterating whatever parenting intuition and knowledge that we, as living creatures, already have in our DNA.
My path to reclaiming motherhood began with an injured wrist. Everything I had read warned that I would roll over my child and kill her if we slept together in one bed. To prevent this tragedy, my husband and I bought a sleigh bed attachment for our bed that kept me at least a foot away from my child. Each night that I listened to her breathe without being able hold her brought an agony so intense that I became profoundly depressed. I was desperate to pull her close to my body, like every mammal mother does, like our ancestors did long before they stopped growing pubic hair on their backs. In my longing to be nearer to my child, I contorted my left wrist under my head as I slept, perhaps to stop my murderous hands from accidentally touching the person I love most. With my wrist in a splint and steroid shots in my hand, I sobbed to my mother over the phone, "I can sleep with my cats, but why not with my own child?"
The night I brought my daughter into bed marked the beginning of my departure from the fear-and-product-based mommy mainstream. Within weeks a friend turned me on to the instinctive-parenting ideas put forth in Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept (Addison Wesley, 1986), a fascinating book that details the author's travels to Venezuela, where she studied the parenting methods of the indigenous Yequana Indians, who, remarkably, have never considered shopping for child-rearing clues on Babycenter.com. Admittedly, my and my husband's current touchy-feely, indigenous-inspired style is a little fringe lunatic, and, as Gregory Thomas might suggest, it's probably no coincidence that we both come from broken homes. But life-changing insights that require no investment in stylish baby gear are available to us. We only have to be willing to look.
BEYOND THE BUBBLE
One of the most affecting messages I have received about the depth of real parental love came to me in the form of a damp newspaper abandoned on the subway in New York City. Elizabeth Fitzsimons's essay "My First Lesson in Motherhood," published in the New York Times Modern Love section this Mother's Day, chronicles the journalist's trip to China, where she and her husband picked up their adopted infant daughter, who, it turned out, had debilitating health defects. Fitzsimons was warned that her daughter might have Down's syndrome, might never walk, and will likely be tethered to a colostomy bag for the rest of her life. "I knew this was my test," Fitzsimons writes, "my life's worth distilled into a moment. I was shaking my head 'No' before [the doctors] finished explaining. We didn't want another baby, I told them. We wanted our baby, the one sleeping right over there. 'She's our daughter,' I said. 'We love her.' "
Fitzsimons's fierce, truly unconditional love for a child she did not create becomes even more striking when contextualized in these fertility and pregnancy-obsessed times.
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