On Motherhood: When You Were A Fish
Liz Tascio is a guest contributor to Central Standard, she first shared the essay below at a Kansas City event called Listen To Your Mother.
Before you were born, you were a fish. When you were a fish I tried imagining you as a baby, as my baby, but I couldn’t. I was 35 years old and nervous. I was afraid I’d get my heart set on you and then lose you to miscarriage. I was also scared that everything would be fine but that I'd fail you somehow, that I wouldn’t be a good mom.
For those reasons, I had a massive failure of imagination when it came to you. I felt disconnected from you. I said awkward things while I was pregnant, like, “It’s the size of a grape. He or she is the size of an apple. Now it’s as big as an artichoke.”
I looked at my growing belly, wondering irrationally if you were really in there, and I remembered having the same feeling standing on the shore of a lake, or on the edge of the ocean, looking out at the water, wondering about everything living that I couldn’t see, that I couldn’t even imagine.
While I used metaphors to try to get myself used to the idea of you, I looked forward to mileposts in the pregnancy when I could be sure, at last, that I would imagine you as you, that I would feel what I thought all mothers felt long before their bellies showed – love. Perhaps at the twenty-week ultrasound, when I thought the tech would show us your whole little body squirming and swimming, the screen glowing in a dark room, us the quiet underwater fish for once and you a bundle of stars in the shape of my baby. Instead she gave us glimpses of white arm bones and leg bones and the braid of a spine and skull as she zipped along your body, measuring and marking while I lay there hoping to recognize you, to fall in love at last.
Then the lights were on and it was over, and on the way home I burst into tears.
Perhaps the milestone would be when you started moving? A kick, a punch, a rolling over – my heart would surely move with you! But the best I could do, the most I could feel, was the same mysterious longing I felt while looking at water, wanting to know what was underneath. When I lay on the couch in our living room, my hands on my belly, waiting to feel you move, I was on a boat on the ocean waiting for a whale to surface, looking so hard my eyes hurt. I was at the lake in childhood, the water brown like tea, schools of tiny minnows shimmering and vanishing at the shoreline.
A few weeks before you were born I was walking in our neighborhood, because walking, even in the August heat, was keeping me in shape for labor, and I felt your foot pushing hard against my side. I pressed back, and you disappeared, that foot darting in, all of you vanishing like a fish. I don’t know why, but I laughed, thinking of the delight of huge golden fish in a koi pond, there for a flash, and then gone.
I thought, surely, at the moment of your birth, I’d feel a rush of pure love, an instant bonding thanks to the well-timed burst of hormones that biology or God designed to fuse the souls of mothers and babies. I knew mothers who said that happened to them. Their babies, red and crying and squirming, looked like angels to them in that moment.
After what felt like forever, you flew out of me in one rush, screaming, with your arms up and your body purple, and your dad put you on my belly and my hands cradled you there. I was saying, “Hi, hi,” over and over, dumb with surprise at the reality of you. I felt an overwhelming urge to protect you, but what I expected, what I thought I would feel, a rush of silly puppy-dog love, a certainty that you were the angel I’d been waiting for, even a flash of recognition, it wasn’t there.
So I gave up waiting. There was far too much to do, anyway. The nights and days started rushing together as your dad and I laughed at how little sleep there was to be had, living with you. I decided to just start telling you that I loved you without waiting to feel what I thought I was supposed to feel. “I love you, baby,” I whispered to you when you were red-faced and inconsolable. “I love you,” I’d croon when you were wriggling your skinny limbs and making yourself impossible to hold. I thought to myself, “I’m just going to talk us into crazy love.”
Experienced parents told me it would happen. Experienced mothers confessed to me they hadn’t bonded with their babies early, either. All of this helped to know. But what helped the most were two distinct moments in those sleepless first weeks of your life. First, when I cried to a friend, as all mothers should. She listened to me talk about feeling protective of you, feeling endlessly exhausted and endlessly patient, every second of my day turned toward you, but feeling like a failure in terms of loving you enough.
“That sounds like love to me,” she said.
Then, one blurry afternoon you and I were curled up, as we always were, in the nursing chair in the living room, and you were latched on, your tiny light body folded in my arms, your eyes closed, your whole focus on what you were doing, and while I looked down at your face, your eyes opened and you looked up directly at me, and it was like being caught in the gaze of a giant whale, a silent underwater moment, like being seen by another soul.
I think I can say now that I didn’t know what love was. I don’t mean that in the way of pop songs – I mean I didn’t know the many forms love can take. I didn’t know that love feels like a surge of patience in the middle of a long night. Love feels like the urge to protect. Love feels like worry over whether I’m being a good mother to you. And when I recognize that love feels all these ways, I know I didn’t miss out on what I thought I should feel.
I loved you when you were a grape, I loved you when you were an apple, I loved you when you were an artichoke.
I loved you when you were a fish.
Liz Tascio is a freelance writer and editor, and writing teacher at UMKC.