The other day a friend reading my new memoir, Sex Changes, remarked, “Something that really comes across is your fierce love for your children.”
That surprised me. I wasn’t particularly conscious of writing about my feelings for my children in the book. But the comment also brought back the moment I realized that I had become a mother.
It was a beautiful autumn day in New England, eighteen years ago. My four-or-five-month-old firstborn was asleep on my bed in the little cottage we were living in at the time. I was just outside the bedroom doing some work on the living room sofa when, unexpectedly, the door to my bedroom creaked part way open. Then several things happened more or less simultaneously. I experienced a phenomenon I had always thought of as metaphor, not physical fact: I felt the hair on my arms stand straight up. I stood up too, and soundlessly walked the few steps to the fireplace where I picked up a metal poker. I went into the bedroom. The baby lay sleeping peacefully on the bed. There was no one else in the room. The door must have been blown half open by a breeze I’d been unaware of. I closed the door. I replaced the poker. I sat down again, shaken to the core.
There was little chance that an intruder could have climbed in through one of the ground floor windows in the bedroom without my knowing it. But when I heard the creaking door I didn’t think. I acted. My body acted. Pure animal instinct set me in motion. Just as, walking alone through the supermarket, my breasts met the cry of an unknown baby on another aisle with a flood of warm, sweet, nipple-prickling milk.
Creating new life, my body had taken on a new life of its own. An elemental, animal life powered by the biological imperative that my baby, that all our babies depend upon. I’d become the moose mama shyly and awkwardly shielding her pair of calves on the road around the bend from the house I now own. I’d become the bird mama who dive-bombed me in a park in San Francisco when I paused to look at the hatchling chirping at the base of the tree it had fallen from.
Two more babies and several other huge life changes later I’ve experienced a lot more of what it means to be a mother than I had eighteen years ago. But maybe I haven’t learned anything more important than what the creaking door demonstrated that afternoon: I had profoundly changed. Someone – my son – and something – his wellbeing – now mattered more than I did. More than anything. Not in some lofty, distant or intellectual sense but in as physical and gut-wrenching a way as could be.
You can’t protect them, I’ve been told. They have to make their own way. Sink or swim.
You’re not responsible, I’ve heard when I hold myself responsible for things that have happened to my children in my absence, things that should not have happened. Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t know. It’s not your fault.
I can’t buy it.
A few weeks ago I left the baby boy who once slept on my bed in a college dorm room and drove away. It was breathtakingly painful. It made the case better than anything else ever had that if danger stalks him I won’t be there to fend it off.
And yet. I can’t buy this freedom from responsibility. I am responsible. There is nothing on earth that I am more accountable for, that the cells of my skin, my blood, my bones know me to be more accountable for, than the lives of my children. That’s my job: protecting them. It’s my job even if, even when, agonizingly and unbearably, I can’t accomplish it.
Is that a bad thing? If, as parents, we held ourselves accountable this way, we’d have no children abused or neglected at home. If, as adults, we held ourselves accountable this way for all children, we’d have no Jerry Sanduskys. No Jimmy Saviles.
A baby’s survival is lodged in instinctual, hot, protective love. Maybe the children who grow up knowing that someone would die or kill for them carry a little of its heat with them when they inevitably go out to meet the world and all its hazards on their own. Everyone says my son can take care of himself. My son says it. He is learning fencing, a fact with no connection to the creaking door incident except its metaphoric value in suggesting that perhaps he really will be ready to wield his own defensive weapons should the need arise. If he is strengthened by the untamed love of his infancy, so much the better. And if he decides to let me jump in and tear his opponents to shreds, I’m ready.
Even if we can’t shield our children from harm we’re damn well built to try.