Birth of a mommy

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Laura Smith is a contributing editor of the Chico News & Review.

Some 1,500 babies are born in Chico each year, on average.I became a mother 13 months ago. It’s still strange, though, to call myself a mom. There’s a little voice somewhere inside me that sneers each time I refer to myself as “my kid’s mom.”

“You?” the voice asks. “You’re always so impulsive, so compulsive, so paranoid. You’re clumsy and laugh too loud. You’re disorganized and emotional. You don’t deserve to be called mom.”

So far, the process of becoming a mother has been like trying on a really beautiful shirt that doesn’t quite fit. I know it’s mine, but I have to keep reminding myself that I’ll grow into it.

Not that I don’t love this new role—but geez, talk about a paradigm shift! I can’t watch those “save the children” commercials anymore on Saturday morning TV. I’ve somehow managed to justify wearing a baby-vomit stained sweater out to dinner (this from me, a compulsive neatness freak); and I can’t help but see my son’s sweet little face in every sick, neglected baby face I see.

What happened to that neurotic, coffee drinking, cigarette smoking, self-absorbed person I used to be? Somewhere, I think, she’s still me—minus the smoking. Becoming a mother has been like peeling away dried-up layers of the person I used to be and shining up the softer person who’s been wrapped up inside for so long.

I longed to be a mother long before I became one, but I don’t think I was aware of how deeply the need ran in me. I did all sorts of things that satisfied that urge to nurture life—I pampered cats, dogs, boyfriends. I learned to cook and potted plants. I volunteered on and off at the local animal shelter, until it got too depressing.

Then, on a hazy Sunday morning in late August 1999, I realized that my period was almost three weeks late. I’d been up too late the night before and was still shaking off the shackles of sleep. The realization was like a rock I’d just dropped on my toes. I felt nauseated and tingly.

I called my friend Jill and made some small talk before I got to the point.

“I’m late,” I said.

“What, for church?” she said, laughing.

I explained the details. I’d been on vacation in Oregon with my husband early in the month, and I’d forgotten that little round green packet of pills. We stayed in a romantic little cabin on a lake and …

“Well, take a test and call me right back,” said Jill.

Still wearing the flannel pajama bottoms I slept in, I drove to the drugstore to pick up the test. Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting on the toilet holding a white plastic strip with a bright red plus sign on it.

First, I cried.

“Me, a mother?” I kept repeating over and over. I touched my belly and shuddered at the realization that somewhere in there was a little life, and I had total responsibility for it. Me, who could barely remember to get the oil changed in my car.

I called my husband, who was in Los Angeles visiting his friends. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember the sound of him throwing his clothes into his suitcase to come right home.

By the time he arrived late that night, I was more excited than terrified, and so was he.

For the most part, I had an uneventful pregnancy, other than developing high blood pressure in the third month, for which I was prescribed medication. I ate like a horse and gained 70 pounds, but I didn’t really care because I adored my new figure. I loved shopping for maternity clothes and reveled in my chubby pregnant self.

I never minded people touching my belly. People opened doors for me, asked about the name and sex of the baby, gave up their seats for me. I was a model patient for my midwife and never canceled an appointment—in fact, my monthly appointments were the highlights of my life, because it was there that I got to hear the baby’s heartbeat.

It sounded like a galloping horse.

By the time my ninth month rolled around, even I was ready to finish my maternity marathon. And while I was ready to meet my baby, I wasn’t even close to ready for the rigors of labor—or the unbridled chaos of new motherhood.

Eight weeks of Lamaze training did nothing to lessen the monstrous pain of labor. No amount of breathing, gazing at a focus point (mine, incidentally, was a Kermit the Frog puppet supplied by my husband), or meditative trance made it easier to endure. Describing labor pains to someone who’s never had them is impossible, but the closest I can come is comparing it to the pain of being sawed in half with a dull spoon.

It’s that bad.

After three days of this torture, I’d dilated to only four centimeters and my blood pressure, high to begin with, had reached 190/120. When the baby’s heart rate began to dip, I was rushed into the operating room for a C-section and, thank God, an epidural.

Harrison Lincoln Smith was born April 10, 2000, at 7:05 p.m. In my first look at him, he was lying on a plastic bassinette waving these skinny red legs around, his dark hair matted to his head with blood and white film. He weighed 6 pounds, 14 ounces, the size of a large frying chicken.

That tiny newborn is now a robust 13 months old and adept at getting into everything in my house. He’s walking now and starting to talk (his vocabulary consists of the words “hi,” “kitty,” “mama” and “dada"). As I watch him grow, I can almost feel myself growing, too. I’ve been astounded by how much he’s changed me, but in some ways I feel like I’m mourning the person I used to be.

There are days when I miss the carefree abandon with which I lived my life before Harrison. I liked sneaking into the pool at Holiday Inn in the middle of the night to skinny dip. I loved staying up with friends, drinking coffee, chain smoking and discussing the existence of God. Before I became a mother, I had the luxury of questioning God’s existence. Now, I pray He’s there and that He bless my little family.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling sometimes, this sense of deep vulnerability my son has brought me. Even the thought of an accident or serious illness with him brings me to my knees. I’ve heard of mothers lifting cars to save their children, of running into burning buildings to rescue their babies, and while I doubted by ability to rise to those challenges before Harrison was born, I no longer do. I think I could kill a grizzly bear with my bare hands to save him.

Life is more complicated now than it used to be. Gone are the long mornings sleeping in or long talks with my husband. No more impromptu dinners out (no more impromptu anything!) or even the assumption that we’ll be able to finish a meal together.

But as Harrison approaches toddlerhood, I see flashes of myself growing into this new life of mine. I sometimes see myself becoming the kind of mother I want to be—playful, funky, easygoing, unhurried, funny.

Sometimes, it’s like watching movies of myself mothering him. There are images of me singing to Harrison while he’s splashing in the bathtub, swinging him into his stroller for a walk around the neighborhood, fastening his hat for a trip to the store.

Somehow, this new life fits me, and I fit it.