"Would you like to hold the baby?"
It's a simple question with an ostensibly straightforward answer: yes or no. But I'm caught off guard. Lana, one of the friends D. and I are having dinner with, doesn't let on that she's noticed as she bounces her four-month-old daughter gently, but it's too late for me to cover my hesitation. Lana's husband, absorbed in conversation with the men at the other end of the table only a moment ago, glances my way with interest. I suddenly wish I weren't sitting directly across from him -- or anyone -- where the blush rising on my face is impossible to hide.
"Sure, if you want me to," I say, regretting my word choice instantly. If you're okay with that is closer to what I'd meant to convey, not this noncommittal, indifferent-sounding reply. I'm actually dying to hold this baby, to feel what an infant feels like in my arms. But the last half-hour of conversation with Lana has been all about her new-mother anxieties -- finding the right nanny, enrolling her daughter in infant-level music and dance classes, even teaching her how to use sign language. "So the baby can express her thoughts even when she's preverbal," Lana explains. A budding helicopter parent? Maybe a little. Later in the evening, when the baby is asleep in her stroller, Lana will keep one hand on her chest to make sure she's still breathing. "I'm freaked out about SIDS," she'll say.
While I don't quite get the reason it's so urgent to put a non-ambulatory child in a dance studio, I understand this last concern and, given the newness of motherhood for Lana, the instinct to hover. Which is why I initially resisted asking to hold this little girl -- I didn't want to add to her mother's worries. If it were your baby, I tell myself, you'd be obsessing about the germs she'd be exposed to from strangers. I've picked up that tendency from my own mother, always conscious of what my hands have handled before I touch anything that goes near my eyes, nose, or mouth. Unfortunately, as much as I don't want to become her, I suspect this particular disposition will be hard to suppress when it is my turn to be a parent.
And when will that be? I wonder. D. and I are at minimum several months from trying to start our own family because I'm still recovering from food allergies that played havoc with my immune system while they went undiagnosed. After spending most of the previous year systematically identifying the culprits that were making me sick and eliminating them from our home, I'm much closer to feeling at my best again, but after putting off our plans for the three years I'd been inexplicably, constantly ill, waiting even just a few more weeks for my body to heal feels hard. Suddenly, I'm unable to keep my eyes off this infant sitting happily in her mother's lap, the perfect embodiment of everything I've been trying not to want more and more as the delays have continued. Or so I think. There are still days when I'm not sure if my reasons for wanting children are motherly in nature or more rooted in the desire to have a family of ours, different from my family of origin or D.'s. After spending recent holidays with both, we are both readier than ever to make the idea of us -- whatever that may be -- more distinct.
Maybe because Lana is keenly observant -- and knows some of our story -- she can see all this in my gaze. Or I'm just doing a terrible job of hiding my longing, which, in my mind, sometimes borders on the unseemly. Either way, when Lana offers the baby to me, I feel exposed, embarrassed by the possibility that she's picked up on the thoughts I'd rather keep private. These breaches -- spillovers, really, of emotion I can't quite hold in -- happen so much more easily these days. I am as tender-skinned as the oncoming bundle of arms and legs I reach out to take.
The baby is unwieldier than I expect. Perhaps, because the only living thing I've held in the last year and a half has been our cat, I expect her to have a different center of gravity -- or at least some such sense of mass in my lap. But so quickly does she try to change position, arching her back to see what's behind her from this new perspective, that it is all I can do to keep her from launching backward, her head too close for comfort to the table's wooden edge. I turn her automatically to get her out of harm's way; still, she wriggles in her purple-footed pajamas, curious about everything but me. To my relief, she doesn't seem alarmed to be in a stranger's hands. Do I let her explore? I give her some room to peek over her shoulder at D., seated to my right, whom I don't dare to look at -- I won't be able to bear it if he's laughing at my predicament. I know my inexperience is showing, but I don't need the one person who knows how emotionally complex the idea of motherhood is for me to be amused when I am anything but.
I know I cannot know this baby's habits or anticipate her movements as her mother does. I remind myself of this as a less rational part of me waits for her body to feel less foreign in my arms, as if those storied mothering instincts every woman is supposed to possess might relax me, give me the knowledge of what to do next. To feel next. Because isn't that what I'd wanted to find out? What I might feel in this moment with not my hands but my heart? As much as I haven't wanted to admit it to myself in recent months, I fear, with every pang of desire for motherhood, that I don't have the capacity for it. That my heart isn't built to love a child -- which holding this one, I hope, will disprove.
Of course, this test is fundamentally flawed for the same reasons this baby feels so strange to me: she is not mine. Still, that less rational part of me insists on searching for just an inkling of motherly response, whatever it believes that might look like. Delight in her impossibly round cheeks? The irresistible urge to tickle her belly? Anything but this mode of intellectual observation and analysis I keep reverting to -- I'm apparently unmoved by cuteness. I let my gaze drift from the baby toward the half-eaten dinners on the table, not from disinterest but discomfort. To look at the baby directly is to torture myself with the expectation of feelings that refuse to surface. What must Lana be thinking of me? I wonder. Now that I'm past my initial panic over protecting her daughter from injury, my stoicism in the face of something biologically designed to melt me with its pheromones must look unnatural if not outright bizarre. I might as well be holding this infant on the end of a ten-foot pole, I think, afraid that if I look down, I'll find out that it's true. I stare obstinately at my water glass, desperate to find something to distract me until I can compose my interiors and hand this baby back to her mother without completely revealing my disappointment in myself. I don't want Lana to see the letdown in my expression and misinterpret it as distaste.
I don't realize I've taken the baby's hand in my own, gently massaging her palm and fingers as I do our cat's paws. It is habit, almost like manipulating a worry stone -- our cat inevitably hops onto my knees whenever I'm seated at the kitchen table, and after some time, we settle into this position. Suddenly, I'm aware that the baby's fingers are gripping mine. With surprising force, the baby pulls one digit to her mouth and gums it, exploring the texture of my skin. A pause. She draws her prize back out, looks at what she's tasting, adjusts her grip, squeals. Before I know it, she's got a second finger in her other hand, a look of satisfaction on her wide-eyed face.
There, a voice in my ear whispers. And then it is silent again.
Is that all? I ask, though I already seem to know there is nothing more to be said as the tension I didn't realize I was holding in my shoulders eases. I look again at Lana's daughter, who cannot get enough of her new discovery, reaching for a third finger, a fourth. My body relaxes more.
I am not suddenly enamored with this baby or babies in general -- and, to my relief, I no longer expect to be. But I understand what my heart wished to feel as it waited for my mind to get out of the way: connection. To know that it is possible.
"My hands are clean," I reassure Lana as the baby grabs for a knuckle.
13 hours ago