Nonfiction

Motherhood: A Not-So-Subtle Art

By Allison Alder

It’s a crazy thing, really. A miracle that any of us survive.

The first words I uttered to my newborn son were, “Good Dog”, gestation having involved copious alone time on that derelict farm on the backroads of Armstrong, waiting with my dog for my ripeness to complete, listening to Peter Gzowski on the CBC, craning for the sound of tires on the gravel in the driveway. My selective memory tells me the tire sounds were happy tire sounds, not angry, gravel-spitting preludes to accusatory bar venombabble. I said ‘Good Dog’. Not ‘Good Boy’ or ‘Howdy Kiddo’ or ‘Gosh You’re an Almighty Force of Love in a Tiny Slippery Package’.

But, really. It’s a miracle no matter how you look at it.

That our vessels flop about, then Lo and Behold: intact, breathing, perfection. Born from meager whims and ill-controlled urges: man and woman hotly united, coolly disengaged. We settle in to poach helically entwined nucleotide memories made deep within, nourished with our breathed-in air and hard-sought sustenance, for 40 weeks and create rapt perfection.

Then the body bursts open.

Bloody, ripped, and glorious, with the emergence of a fully-formed human being. Of course it was to be expected; we were, after all, expecting. Yet the urgency of simultaneously multiplying and dividing, forever altering the course of a life by creating new life, both devastates and scintillates.

Back down the windy driveway at the farm, the questions about creation and peril endlessly percolate, and stark are the contrasts which brew. How can this state of absolute grace exist in the same realm with What the Hell Have I Done and, moreover, What Now?? And: How do I protect something this small? How do I keep them alive? Provide for their future? Not mess up their mind entirely? Magically, inside of me, I could protect my child by covering their skin with vernix, so as to not damage them with the amniotic waters in which they were held. Now, they’re on the outside. What cover will protect them from me, my world, or this world?

We fumbled and flounced about.

On any given day, who was to know what was working and what was not. We moved between art camp, soccer practice, talked about goals and fears; we kept an open mind, practiced spelling, and avoided gravel. Thank goodness for courses, books, adages, idioms, wives’ tales, and foreboding myths of assured doom. I took it all in. It began with my first parenting course, taught by a lovely couple of small town gals, later showing up as my child’s kindergarten and grade two teachers. That course:what an eye opener. The other moms did not know the difference between happy gravel and angry gravel. I kept my examples of parenting challenges strictly on the up and up, whitewash: paramount for small town survival.

And I watched you.

…Your face lit up with joy when your first pea plant sprouted and burst through the crusty spring soil, crushed when that the bumble bee you patted turned its stinger on you.

I listened to you.

Stories never ending of civilizations shaped and shattered, reflections of your small world captured in your daily musings: my heart bounded to your heart forever.

I fretted for you.

You: fraught with tenderness, acuity, and potency, reeling in the undercurrent of a family stitched together from modest amusement, bloated ideals, that never intended to stick, only to start. Fretted until your dad and I could no longer see eye to eye on the sound of gravel. With a final spew, we watched as he extricated himself from our lives …all that lingered was the shadow-sound keeping us on edge, ever-wondering.

Then they do it. They emerge.

From utter dependence, from cellular entanglement, my blood running in your veins, to intact and independent entities. Carrying around their own shells, thinking their own thoughts, making themselves into whomever they choose to become. I’ve witnessed four of them following this same pattern, and every one of them kept bits and pieces of my heart, my soul, and my essence tucked in amongst the lobes of their liver or mixed in with photographs in taped-up moving boxes. Sure, they started making their own blood cells and decisions long, long ago – I mean, the human body replaces its entire cellular complement every seven years or so, but I still feel like they are me walking around.

But that’s the rub of motherhood.

Like mycorrhizal network under the soil, you give life and nourishment to the forest but remain unseen, underground. You help them stand strong, battered by the elements, yet reaching far into the sky soaking up sunshine and rain. The best testament to your job well done is their absence. As they move on, confident, intact, even brazen sometimes. It’s shocking to witness—and heartbreaking and enthralling.

That first born, she is now my daughter. Unfathomably courageous, confident, and intact. She steps boldly into life, creates community, tends the daily fires, and holds hearts so softly – perhaps the vernix worked after all.

With the lavish murk and emotion accompanying motherhood on any given day, it’s a miracle we don’t bust wide open, and mimic that first wrenching moment of selfhood, divided. How funny it was of me to have fantasized how life would return to normal once I had completed my parental work. How I’d pick up all my old passions and pastimes with my obvious glut of free time (parental work is a consumptive obsession chewing through scads and scads of time). But it changes us, spreading our cells and our selves around the world. We birth new humans not just in our offspring but in ourselves as well. Those old passions and pastimes were fine back then, but now I’ve a forest of beings to watch in wonder.