For me one of the best parts of this series is having the opportunity to pause for a moment and learn about motherhood through another mother’s eyes. Kate’s description of a mother’s heart puts to words what I instinctively feel for my three daily.
Motherhood means a lot of things to me – monumental responsibility, unconditional love, continuous entertainment, a fair bit of frustration, an unprecedented empathy, and a new meaning of selflessness that, if I’m being honest, is not always easy to digest – especially for those of us who had kids after 30, having lived a full decade of indulgent career-ladder climbing and foreign travel, and having built strong, familial bonds with friends whom we saw almost daily. There is one dimension of motherhood, however, that I most wanted to communicate when asked to define what this role means most to me. Another woman, far more eloquent than I, put it into words perfectly many years ago and I would like to share that.
A few weeks after bringing my son home, after the grace period of being able to blame everything on that initial hormonal rollercoaster had ended, I found myself trying to describe to my own mother a sort of “emotional catch-22” that I was experiencing. I was doing a terrible job of trying to articulate that while I felt tremendous joy associated with this new, unparalleled brand of love so intense, so pure, so unbridled by superficiality, mood or circumstance, I was really struggling with the accompanying, equally intense and unparalleled fear of loss. My mother chimed in, “Yes – in fact, someone once wrote or said somewhere that to have a child ‘…is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around on the outside of your body.’” I later searched for these words, which according to amateur Internet research should be attributed to Dr. Elizabeth Stone, a professor at Fordham University who provided the quote to a friend for an essay in The Village Voice in 1985.
This could not ring more true for me. I realized that any “worry” I had ever felt before becoming a mother paled severely in comparison because I had simply never loved anything or anyone as much as I loved this new person. As time has passed and my son is now 13 months old, this sense of vulnerability has become less disabling, but is still very present.
I no longer see my son as this fragile firefly given to me in a jar that I have been charged with keeping alive. He seems sturdier each day and I can see better how he fits physically into this world. However, my heart is very much walking around on the outside of my body. What used to be a fear that he would succumb inexplicably to SIDS despite all of my obsessive efforts towards prevention will morph into a fear that he will suffer a neck injury on a boogie board or get behind the wheel after too many drinks at a high school party … or be in a classroom trespassed by someone mentally ill and armed.
Because this fear, such a natural answer to the incomparable love that a mother has for her child, is so vivid, I find myself struck by child related tragedies in a much deeper way than ever before. One mother can slip quite easily into the shoes of another when it comes to the depth of the emotions she has for her child.
Elizabeth’s Stone’s words capture not only the vulnerability one adopts as a mother but the completely permeable emotional boundary between mother and child. To see your child suffer is far worse than any affliction of your own. And likewise, when my son looks up from the floor and flashes the most gleeful smile, proud of his notes on a xylophone or how high he has bounced a ball and wanting to share that joy with me, I am utterly filled with his happiness. While my experience has been brief, it is certainly obvious to me that the warmth and wonder that infuse your life when you welcome this new love far outweigh the sense of vulnerability that comes with having your heart walking around in the great big world beyond your control.
About Kate Woodbury
After college I spent 9 years working in the finance industry, followed by two years in the educational reform sphere and have recently transitioned to being a stay-at-home mom. My son West, 13 months old, will be a big brother in the end of September. Our family is in the middle of a move to my husband’s hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina.
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