by Elizabeth Hunter–
Fear and awe kept me awake that first night home from the hospital. I couldn’t believe they let us leave the maternity ward. We had no idea what we were doing. I was supposed to be resting, letting my husband, Leslie, sit up and watch our newborn son, Evan. But all night I lay awake, listening to those soft, reassuring whuffles, thinking: He’s breathing.
When adrenaline pushed me from the bed, a stumbling, milky mess, I peered closely at Evan’s little belly, reassured by its gentle rise and fall. He uttered a tearless cry, and I gratefully fed him.
Some of the things I’d thought I’d wanted to do were no longer relevant. Having a child means giving up some options. But some other things I’d lost sight of over the years were suddenly in focus. There’s this line from a movie called The Rookie that I like: “It’s okay to think about what you want to do until it’s time to start doing what you were meant to do.”
I’d been floundering for a while, spreading myself thin between work, school, home and church, wavering on the brink of decisions, fearing to commit too deeply to any path. It’s funny that motherhood would bring about more clarity. I don’t think it’s a betrayal of my feminist roots to say that being a mother made me more of who I was created to be. For me, motherhood seems to be what God is using to wake me up to life. What I once worked for—recognition, respect, financial security, being right—fell by the wayside when I became a mother. Where I once pondered the meaning of life, now it was all I could do to simply live.
In between diapers, feedings, chores, maintaining a marriage and working, I only had time left over to do what I love. Realizing that I had the skills to teach, but not the burning desire, I quit graduate school. This time, I signed up for church committees where I could give more, joyfully, without resentment. Admitting to myself that writing was like breathing for me, I began to write again in my free time, forming a writers’ group with a gifted friend who encourages me when I’m tempted to throw in the towel. Outside of these activities, I focused on my family, giving my all. Sometimes I wake up so tired it’s like I never went to sleep. But life is somehow more complete.
So much of my life centers on my son, Evan, that it’s a bit unnerving to know that he will one day leave us. He’s already begun the process in small ways, starting with the moment when that strangely tough and rubbery cord between us was clamped and cut. It was not the easiest start.
I barely got to see Evan that day. As soon as he was born, two nurses rushed him to a medical bassinet to clean his tiny body. How unnecessary, I thought, longing to touch his beautiful, glistening skin, catch his loud cry in the curl of my ear, let him burrow in the groove between my floppy belly and my heart. But when I asked to hold him, they hesitated, looking at each other. Please, I begged, suddenly afraid. So they let me hold him for half a minute then scooped him up again, saying he was going to neonatal intensive care. His respiratory rate was falling, they said. Don’t worry, the nurse told me.
Poor prodigal father in Jesus’ parable. He didn’t have a Leslie to send to stay with his boy as I did. “Don’t leave him,” I told Leslie.
“What about you?” he asked.
“I don’t want him to be alone,” I said. Were those also the prayers of the father in the parable? God, go with my child. Watch over him. Don’t leave him. I fear for him. I don’t want him to be alone.
Alone in the recovery room, I wept when I saw the empty bassinet. Was Evan still struggling to breathe? Not knowing what was happening was terrible. I couldn’t call, since cell phones weren’t allowed in the hospital. I tried to pump some milk, but it was still new and I could only get a teaspoon. When I spilled half of that, I wept again. Was this all I could give? Would it be enough?
That night I walked to the intensive care unit to see our baby, carrying those few drops of milk. Respecting the wires and tubes everywhere—down his throat, across his hand and his heart, even the sole of his foot—we gently caressed toes, counted fingers, stared at his sleeping face. I was determined that when we finally took him home, we would give Evan whatever he needed, even if it hurt. And it often did. Some of it is a distant memory-the swollen eyes and sleepless nights of feedings every two hours, the painful breast infection caused by “improper latching” in those early days. I was determined not to quit. I wasn’t letting go of anything I didn’t need to; not yet.
At three months came a moment that would have repulsed my old pre-baby self. Evan and I were playing, and I held him over my head, smiling and chattering up into his little face—and he spit up directly into my mouth. And then he smiled. It wasn’t so much gross as it was revelatory. I didn’t puke. I laughed. What is this crazy, deep, boundless love that makes a person take leave of her senses?
Is this the boundless love that made the prodigal father run to embrace and forgive a much-missed younger child, encompassing even his dirt and sin? Is this the compassion that made him reassure and forgive a disgruntled older son? Is this how God stands, not at a distance from our dirt and drool, but coming close to mark us with a joyful kiss?
I hope I can love Evan in just such a way. I want him to make good choices and stay close to me, but even if he doesn’t, that’s the way it goes. I’d rather love him mercifully, unconditionally, spitting up and laughing as we go.
Elizabeth Hunter is editor of Gather.
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