My son didn’t seem to like me all that much in the first weeks of his life and I couldn’t say I blamed him. I may have managed not to drop him, or leave him on a grocery shelf as had happened in my dreams, but I nearly sat on him moments after laying him on my bed. And somehow I closed a snap on his little cotton sleeper with his skin pinched in between the halves.
I also cried constantly, but this was one thing we had in common.
“Everyone goes though that,” my friends who were parents assured me. “Everyone finds it hard at first.”
But not all my graceless moments as a new mum were universal. I have cerebral palsy, a physical disability that results from an injury, usually at birth, to the part of the brain that controls motor function. My case is actually very mild. I walk with a limp and have tight muscles and limited dexterity on my right side. It’s often gone unnoticed, even, until the birth of my son, by me.
For as long as I could remember I’d wanted to be a mother and felt sure I’d be a natural at it. I worked as a children’s librarian and whenever a group of five and six year olds came in for story time, they raced for the spots on either side of me so they could listen with their knees touching mine.
During my pregnancy I read through piles of parenting books. I discovered there are two distinct camps. The Ferber faction believes that if babies are left to cry for allotted amounts of time they learn to soothe themselves, while the Sears faction believes that if babies are attended to quickly and held much of the time they grow up secure, having experienced the world as a loving, responsive place. Without having to think about it, I knew I would be a Sears mum and practice “attachment parenting.” I’m here for you was the first and most essential lesson I wished to teach my son.
I also pored over books on prenatal nutrition, some of which made me horribly anxious. When I read in a book on herbs that oregano could cause a miscarriage, I flew into a panic.
“We had Italian last night,” I trailed my husband through our apartment to say. “We have it all the time.”
“Plenty of pregnant women have eaten spaghetti without hurting their babies,” he pointed out, adding wistfully, “You know, you used to be so easygoing.”
He was right, I knew, but I couldn’t help the fear that rose inside me like the steam heat that banged through our pipes. I was already so in love with our baby, it felt crucial that I do everything exactly right.
As for my cerebral palsy, I can think of two times it crossed my mind while I was pregnant. Once when my midwife asked if I wanted to test for spina bifida or Down’s syndrome—I declined, insulted by the implication that a life with a disability might not be worth living—and again in my cumbersome eighth month when I joked to a friend that I was already used to moving awkwardly.
What didn’t occur to me until after my son’s birth was that motherhood required real agility. The first time I tried to nurse him he was unable to reach my breast because of the sloppy cradle my uneven arms made for him.