What is it about the pungent sweet and sour smell of a newborn wrapped in velvety skin that makes mothers cry? It’s not the baby’s mother I’m referring to, but other mothers.
The week our baby came home from the hospital, I witnessed my mommy friends tear up with love and reminiscence as they held his tiny body for the first time. At first I didn’t understand their reaction; I just uncomfortably looked the other way while trying to figure out what was happening to these women I knew so well. But now that my baby is a full-fledged singing, dancing, adding-and-subtracting, opinion-filled little human, I get it. I totally get it.
When I hear a baby cry in a public place, I find myself following the sound like a zombie so I can lay eyes on the perfect little creature that made it. And when I hold a new baby—anyone’s new baby—tears start in my toes and pin-prick their way through every cell of my body before finally finding my eyes. The first time this happened to me I was blindsided. I had no control over what was happening. I suppose I still have no control over it, but at least now I know what’s coming: a visceral, primal reaction that will in short order embarrass me in a crowd. How can it be that an eight-pound bundle takes me hostage?
Is it the vulnerability and innocence of a baby that makes us well up with love and protection? Is it the somatic memories of our own children, stored in our beings forever, bubbling to the surface? Is it the powerful neurological effects smells have to access the deepest reaches of our emotions? Or, is it the pull at our hearts when we realize that we only move forward with our children, that we can never go back to relive the joyous giggles of yesterday or the sweet snuggles of years ago?
Of course, every age and stage we go through with our children offers amazing delights and challenges that inch along our own growth, but the memory of time spent with a newborn is magical and harrowing like no other. Remember how one day slipped silently (or not so silently) into the next with a transition that was hardly noticeable, how bleary-eyed days were filled with endless snuggles and caretaking, how the clock and the calendar held no real meaning, and when you were the most important person on the planet?
Yes, as a new mom I was sleep deprived and often whirled myself into a tizzy over the silliest worries, but mothering a new being was like watching in awe as shooting stars occupied a split second of my life. Something so beautiful and fleeting that I am not sure it even existed…until I hear a baby cry. This cry reminds me that, yes, it was all real: the soft body held to mine for hours on end, the different cries for different needs, the first smile, the first laugh.
And in the awakening of these memories, there is something that gnaws at me. I remember holding my sleeping baby and arguing with myself. One voice would say Revel in this moment that you have right here and right now. These days are so short lived. Just hold the baby until your arms fall off and then hold him with another part of your body. The opposing voice would chide Put him down and go do something productive, like wash the dishes. For God’s sake, he’s sleeping. Get something done you fool. For hours the dueling voices would drive me nuts. In hindsight, I kick myself for every time I let the productive voice win, which it did all too often.
Today that confounded argument still rambles in my head. Yah, I can be productive and responsible, but I’d much rather watch my son think through the engineering of a stick fort, built outside in the freezing cold. I’d much rather take in how his skinny legs fill out the outgrown pants that flood above his ankles, or how the double knots in his shoes were tied by him with determination and perseverance. I’d much rather just be in awe right here, right now, before the fleeting moment disappears and I feel the need to ask someone “Did you just see that?”