By: Julie Gamberg
My little one, at ten-and-a-half months, has just started to say “mama” and mean it. Previously, she could ba-ba, ma-ma, da-da all day and just bask in the aural glow of her own syllabic repetitions. But now! Now, when she says “Mama,” she means me. And when I answer, “yes, love?” she beams. That beam reminds me of the first time I could read a neighborhood billboard in Spanish. I don’t even like billboards but I loved that I could see a string of foreign words together and slosh them around in my brain until meaning emerged.
Thus my little one also cracked the code. She now knows how to call for me with a word. I imagine only parents know (and I imagine all parents know!) the particular warm fuzzy that is your child calling you mama, or papa, for the first time. And my ten month old? She is thrilled with herself. Each time I turn to answer her she is not only delighted but also seems filled with disbelief that it worked again!
The philosopher Martin Heidegger says that naming something calls it into being. Seen from that perspective, my baby has called me into being “Mother.” She has brought my being a mother into consciousness. And it’s just as well that it doesn’t happen the day a baby is born because I have to say, we were both floundering for a while there. This project of parenthood is by far one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. (And I’ve done a lot of hard things!) My pediatrician, a new mom herself, recently told me parenthood was also the hardest/best thing she’s ever done. This from someone who had a highly competitive residency and went to a top-notch medical school. And too, all of these new moms I meet who have done some amazing and enormously difficult things out in the world; women who seem ready for nearly anything which comes their way …here we all are with motherhood kicking our asses.
Those first few months in particular were extraordinarily tough. And now nearly a year into it, it is still the hardest thing ever, it is still all-consuming, it is still wonderful, but it’s also getting much, much more manageable. I’m getting the hang of it! And, mostly, I’m coming out of shock. What no one seems to tell you is that giving birth and taking home this teeny tiny, this precious, precious, this helpless, helpless, contains a true and jolting shock. It is not entirely unlike the shock of a sudden and horrible accident and yet what I felt is that it would continue unabated. Like a sudden and horrible accident that will begin again in one minute. And again the minute after that. And in between will be the sweetest joy.
That total overload reminds me of spending time in Varanasi/Benares, India, where every joy and every sorrow imaginable co-exist in all moments – bodies burning in the Ghats, garland-filled weddings, acolytes prostrating themselves into shit-filled streets, candles floating down the Ganges at dawn. My first few months of parenthood had that sense of complete sensory overwhelm. And harder still is that I did not think that would change. I believed this was my new state. Shocked and dazed and exhausted and overjoyed and overwhelmed beyond measure.
Now, ten-and-a-half months later, I am out of shock, and this amazing journey feels more like a bracing swim in a cold lake. Cleansing and powerful but absolutely manageable and with the shore always in sight. I am not nearly as afraid of the endlessness of this role, and I am not as worried that I may have gotten myself into something that I can’t handle. I know my little one so much more now, and I feel like I sort-of know what I’m doing most of the time. Now, I cannot believe that soon she will be able to speak to me in actual words. Strung together. I am ready for them, and ready for everything else to come. I have been called into being. Mama.