Litmus test

December 15,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Yesterday afternoon I held a week-and-a-half-old baby for a long while, marveling at his tiny fingers and feet, and the way his hair lay in flat wisps across his scalp. I held him tentatively at first, then with more certainty, and watched his body twitch the way newborns do when they are fast asleep. I held him, and I held my breath, too, worried about what I would feel.

Earlier in the afternoon, Scott had called on the way home from a tennis match. He proposed a quick visit to my sister-in-law's later that afternoon to see the new baby.

"Oh, I don't know about today," I said, even though we had nothing planned that afternoon.

When he came home I fussed about the timing, worried that we were imposing, and proposed going another day, when the new parents had rested more. "Should we really drive all the way there for a short visit?" I asked. I complained about how long it would take to get L. going, and announced that we might not make it back for dinner.

"We can eat pizza for dinner on our way home, at our favorite place," my husband suggested.

Then I even complained about eating out, which is when, Scott told me later, he knew something was out of the ordinary (Me? Refuse to eat out?).

"Why are you being so negative about it?" he asked, reasonably (I think "crabby" was the right word, actually).

I looked at him. "I don't know."

But we went, and I held the baby, and the kids ran upstairs to play with their cousins, and it was so good to sit and talk and hold a brand-new person, so warm and completely asleep, buttoned into a sleeper I had forgotten came in so small a size. I felt lighter inside, too, as I held him, although I didn't quite know why. When we said our goodbyes and left the beautiful new family of five, it hit me suddenly, why I had been so negative earlier, so hesitant to go. I was afraid that holding a new baby would make me want one, would trigger some primal, instinctive, reason-defying physical longing for one of my own. Because I know, as most women do, that the longing for a baby is never some rational, intellectual thing, but the stuff made of blood and bone, straight from the heart and womb.

I felt lighter because I hadn't felt all that, that upside-down turmoil of emotions. Just a teeny tiny piece of me felt sad that I hadn't felt it, and sad that, for me, babies and impossibly small sleepers, and scrunched up fingers and toes, are all a thing of the past, seen at the other end of a lengthening road--a road all parents find themselves on, sooner or later. When we got home, T. came to me and asked to be picked up. I held her and she burrowed her face into my shoulder, the way she'd seen her new cousin do.

"I love my BIG girl," I told her.

"I am big," T. said, a little wistfully, I thought.

"I love that I have a big kid to talk to, to shop with, to read to, to sit with, to help me," I told her. "And of course," I added when L. walked into the room, "I'm so glad to have an even bigger kid around the house, too."

And I am. I truly, truly am.