As far back as I can remember I have wanted to be a mother. Even at the early age of four, motherhood was a primary goal of mine. As I grew older, there may have been imaginings about having a husband in the picture, maybe a career, but come Hell or high water, I was going to have a baby, or two, or three.
My Baby Alive doll, a pretend infant that “ate” baby food and then “pooped” the recently “consumed” baby food, was a toy I treasured. Gifted to me by my mother, Baby Alive was the PERFECT baby doll to help me live out my fantasy of motherhood. With my very own infant cradled in my arms, I convinced my mother to allow me to take over her linen closet and turn it into a nursery. In the center of the closet, surrounded by many shelves stuffed with sheets and bath towels, I gently placed my baby into a pink plastic toy crib. A re-purposed laundry basket was filled to the brim with pretend disposable diapers that had come with the doll.
I prepared my baby’s food by mixing the faux baby food packets with water and voila… banana and strawberry baby cereal for multiple feeding sessions. Yes, of course I tried it! Any mother would. It tasted remarkably good. And so began many hours of feeding and changing Baby Jane. I called my first child by my middle name. All this feeding and then quickly having to change diapers was a nasty business but I relished it. I loved being a mother.
When I was five, my parents adopted my brother, Jeremy, who was only seven months old when he was ceremoniously placed into my child arms at Boston’s Logan Airport. I had waited many minutes, many hours (it seemed like a whole day) in the cold, beige plastic airport waiting room chair for my new baby brother to arrive from Florida.
The airport air was stale, tinged with cigarette smoke and airplane fuel. I remember the tiresome wait was finally interrupted when my grandfather announced that the plane had landed. Bouncing uncontrollably like a human Tigger, I anxiously watched a uniformed woman in a dark navy-blue suit open a large door. With her navy pump, she pushed a doorstop into place so the door at our gate remained open and through the doorway I saw a carpeted hallway that wound forever into the distance. My grandparents said my mother and father would be coming down that hallway with my new baby brother.
The infant was placed onto my lap and my grandmother encircled us both. Despite Jeremy’s sour smell, I was overcome with love for him. His skin was light brown, his hair scattered in small tufts of soft black curls at the top of his head. Jeremy’s eyes, wet from tears, were large dark brown orbs. He fussed. I pushed my lips into one side of his brown face, then the other.
On his first night home with us, Baby Jeremy lay gurgling in his crib. The adults allowed me to watch quietly over him while he settled into sleep. I didn’t take my eyes off him for a second, constantly searching for any sign of distress, an opportunity to comfort him by stroking his head and cheek. I listened intently to his inhales, his exhales, his squeaks in between.
Squishing my face into the slats of the crib, I reached in and traced my fingers across my baby brother’s wet lips. I held his fist and watched him breathe for a long time into the night…like any mother would.
I had no idea what motherhood was really going to be like…whether it would fit or not. Motherhood is a risk. You can’t put the baby back into the packaging and decide to play with something else. You can’t just hand the baby back to the real mother. YOU ARE THE REAL MOTHER.
The reality of motherhood is that I’m fifty-two and my four babies aren’t babies anymore. In an instant, I’ve gone from precious first nights with my treasured newborns to arguing about science fair projects, stressing over college applications, and consoling broken hearts during bad breakups. The reality of motherhood is that it’s much harder than I ever imagined. It never ends. There’s no control. I make mistakes. There are times when I’m just not very good at it. It’s no fantasy.
The one thing that links my fantasy motherhood with my reality motherhood? The need I’ve always had to nurture. The physical, deep-in-the-gut need to love a child and to give of myself. I cannot live without that feeling. I will always treasure my memories of Baby Alive and my baby brother because they satisfied that need in me to love.
But nothing satisfies the need to give and love as much as motherhood in real time. The minute-by-minute details of my four kids’ lives are so intertwined with the details of my own life that I feel their pains and joys as if they were my own. Even as they grow older and appear more and more to be trying to loosen those intricate ties with me, the love still holds. All I can do now is stockpile the details, hoard the memories…so I can treasure them forever…like any mother would.