At the beginning, for those first few hazy weeks, my son still belonged to me the way he did when he was on the inside. To him, I was everything: the one he depended on, the one who was biologically engineered to fulfill his needs. He turned his head toward the sound of my voice when someone else was holding him. Only I could tell what he needed based on the pitch of his cry. He stared at me with his round, amazed eyes, slept on my chest, head nestled under my chin. For those first few months, I was his whole existence, and he was mine.
Late one night — I remember it was late because Owen was not on a sleep schedule yet and was still awake at 10 p.m. — I left him with my husband so I could go upstairs to change into my pajamas. When I opened the door to step out of the closet, Andy was standing there, Owen strapped to him in his Ergo carrier, the top of his tiny dark head just visible against Andy’s chest, in a vein-bulging, red-faced scream. Andy was awkwardly bouncing up and down, trying to soothe our offended baby.
“Am I doing this wrong?” he asked, his eyes desperate.
“Try bending your knees more,” I said, demonstrating the correct rhythm and speed there in my closet, minus baby.
He tried again, and Owen got quieter.
As Andy turned to slowly bounce his way back downstairs, I smiled to myself, trying not to feel smug. No one had ever taught me how to do that. That maternal knowledge had just always been there, somewhere in my head or heart or hidden in the muscle memory of my arms and legs, and I loved that.
It didn’t bother me when people made comments about how much Owen looked like Andy, even though it was absolutely opposite of what I’d expected. When I saw the initial ultrasound picture, the first thing I noticed was how much like mine his profile was. I could tell he had my round cheeks, the same button nose. When the doctor lifted him over the surgical curtain for me to see him for the first time, he even had my dark hair. After the initial stage though, when his features started to come through the wrinkled newborn squishiness, it was clear to everyone that he favored his dad. His hair lightened to a dirty blonde and patterned itself into a copy of Andy’s; he had Andy’s long torso and rosebud mouth, and everyone thought they should tell me about it. I always smiled and made some joke about the unfairness of carrying him for nine months and then him not looking a thing like me, but it didn’t really bother me. He might look like his daddy, but he was his mama’s baby, I knew.
Then, somehow, Owen wasn’t a baby anymore. He was a full-fledged toddler who didn’t want to nestle against me, wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to breathe him in. He had strong opinions on everything from what shoes he wanted to wear (always his rain boots) to what food he wanted to eat (bananas at breakfast and macaroni and cheese at every other meal). He had favorite books and favorite songs and favorite pajamas.
And a favorite parent.
As soon as he figured out that he was his own person, separate from me, and that he could have preferences and make choices, his choice was clear: Dad.
I first noticed it when I went into his room on weekend mornings to get him out of his crib. I had been back to teaching full time for a few months, and Andy had been getting Owen up on weekdays, getting him dressed and fed, and taking him to the sitter and then heading to work himself. Before returning to a full class schedule, I had loved mornings with Owen, seeing his smile as soon as he woke up and marveling at his delight just because I was there. Then, one Saturday morning, I went into his room to get him, and his response was not what I had loved for so long: “Dada.”
The next weekend was the same: “Hi big boy,” I’d say. “Did you sleep well?”
“Where’s my son?” I’d smile, opening his curtains.
“Owey … good morning,” I sang.
He asked for him, so Andy and I started getting Owen up together on the weekends. Once, we both walked into his room, I going to one end of his crib and Andy going to the other, and Owen took one look at me and literally ran to his dad, shaking his head at me and saying, “No …no … no.”
When the three of us played together, Owen was really playing with Andy, and I just happened to be the other person present. He chose Andy’s lap for a story, looked to him for permission or redirection when he was about to bang on the cabinets, wanted him to be the one to roll the ball across the room. When we picked him up from the nursery at church on Sundays and he absolutely lit up, it was Andy he was looking at. I was just there. I was the outcast clamoring for the popular kids to like her.
Shortly after Owen turned two, I went on a 10-day trip to Florida for work, and every one of those 10 days, I imagined our reunion. My return flight was scheduled to arrive with just enough time for me to pick him up from the sitter’s. He wouldn’t be expecting me. He would be sitting in his chair, eating his afternoon snack, and he would see me and light up the way he did with his dad. He would smile, say “Mama” in that slow, affectionate way he used to use when he saw me, and he’d reach for me with both arms. I would pick him up and he’d wrap his legs around my waist and push his face into my neck, arms caught up in my hair.
When I knocked on the door of the sitter’s house, I heard her walking through the front hallway and his perky little toddler footsteps following her. “Who do you think it is?” she teased, trying to lead up to the big reveal even she was expecting. She opened the door, and Owen looked at me, paused a moment in surprise, then said “No,” and proceeded back down the hallway.
I managed to wait until I was back in my car with Owen strapped into his seat before I cried.
I prayed. I stifled tears. I made unfair, passive-aggressive comments to Andy. I lost my confidence, which, as a first-time-mom, wasn’t even entirely found. I asked myself, WHAT AM I DOING WRONG??
Since I might as well not have been there anyway, I started watching Andy while they played, surreptitiously searching for the key to Owen’s affection. I noticed how Andy had this creative, effortless way of making things new that I would never have thought of. Instead of just stacking blocks, he used them to make a road for Owen’s trucks. Instead of just chasing Owen around the living room like I would, he turned the game into hide-and-seek. While I knew Owen liked it when I tossed his ball to him in the backyard, he shrieked with glee when Andy threw it ahead of them both and then raced to see who would get to it first. Maybe it was the teacher in me, or my unhealthy love of “shoulds,” but I always followed the rules—blocks were for making towers, crayons were for coloring on paper, books were for reading page-by-page. Andy, I discovered, had a creativity about him, a way of making mundane things exciting, that Owen loved. It was relaxed and silly and all about the moment.
I tried to be more like that: tried to think up new ways to do the same games, tried to play up the silly. He liked it when I threw the ball into the air and let it hit my head on the way back down, but most of my efforts resulted in a few laughs that seemed obligatory or, more often, nothing at all in response. Even at two years old, I think Owen knew I was trying too hard. I’m pretty sure my toddler actually rolled his eyes at me.
So I called my mom.
“I’m just not as fun as Andy, and I’m all stressed out about it!” I wailed as I drove through the weak morning light on my way to work. Then, my realest, truest fear: “What if all my anxiety rubs off on Owen?”
“He would be much worse off if you two were both like Andy or if you both were like you,” she rationalized. He needs Andy and he needs you. He needs both types of parents.” There it was: permission to stop trying so hard to be something I’m not.
Logically, it makes sense. Yes, I dig in the sandbox and blow bubbles on the patio, but I spend more time taking Owen to Romp n’ Roll classes and swim lessons. I show him how to “help” me fold the laundry and empty the dishwasher. I want to make sure he’s learning the right things, socializing, figuring things out, and meeting his milestones. I research the symptoms, make the doctor’s appointments, check in with his speech therapist. I spearhead the meal prepping and the potty training. I keep the schedule. Owen needs that. He needs us both. A team full of forwards will lose every game.
Yes, it makes sense, but it still hurts. Like hell, sometimes. And it seems unfair. But guess what else hurt and was unfair? Pregnancy. Childbirth. Nine months of vomiting, of giving up caffeine, of sore joints and aching ribcages. Sixteen hours of Pitocin-induced contractions on a closed cervix before my epidural, only to be followed shortly by a C-section. But I would do it again, a hundred times over, in order to have Owen.
Mothers have their hearts and bodies broken over and over again, and we still come back for more, because we love what we get out of it, however unbalanced that payout may be by comparison. When I spent every lunch break for a week researching the perfect preschool that will simultaneously challenge and nurture my son only to be met with his rejection when I try to color with him, I remember the times—even if it’s only when Andy’s not around—when Owen does express his love to me. When he climbs in my lap on the couch, when he puts down his toy trains to press his cheek against my arm, when he laughs at something and then looks at me to see if I’m laughing too. I would face all the rejection again, a hundred times over, in order to have those moments.
Broken hearts and broken bodies: that’s the price of a mother’s joy.