We Are Mothers

Episode 7 Essay


Nice to Meet You
The First Moments of Motherhood
BY Tomi Nelkin

I recently asked my eldest son, as I was holding him in my arms, if he remembered the first time I held him.

“Nice” he answered; “and I cried because I wanted you” he said.

I always knew I would be a mother.  It was a given. A constant. Maybe even the only thing I was ever sure of.  I imagined having three children - first two boys, and then a little girl. I planned their names and would picture their features.

As a visual artist I tend to express myself best in imagery - lines, shapes, icons, color and fonts. I interpret and understand the world in a similar language.  Feelings have colors, moods take shape, personality is built linearly.

But when the nurse handed me my son the first time; that memory for me lacks visuals.  Instead all I recall is pure emotion as I held him close, tears of pain blending into those of joy while my heart expanded to where I thought it would burst.   

But as the minutes became hours and then days, my initial high rapidly gave way to a reality shaped by a cocktail of emotions, spiked by a strong dose of sleep deprivation.  I started to feel ambiguity and doubt as the enormity of “I am responsible for this life” dawned on me. “My little boy's survival entirely depends on me. Holy shit what did I get myself into?”

That first night at home with my son, I could not let myself close my eyes for even a second.  Was he breathing? Was he hungry? Did he need to be changed? Would I hear him if he cried? When he cries, how will I know what he was trying to tell me?

So I watched him. And suddenly, like a strange vision, I saw my beautiful baby as an alien. This hairless, swollen eyed, tiny being sleeping beside me was alien to me.

The first moments as mother with child are a period of exploration and discovery. Both parties uncovering unknown territory with the help of biology and nature to guide. For my son and I, the days were long and nights were longer and truthfully it was not easy; a lot of trial with luckily not too much error.

And thankfully, my little alien “came in peace” and was willing to share, participate, teach and train me to mother him.  For him it was clear who I was and what my role needed to be. And I, I quickly caught up. I learned to nurse, protect, tend and nurture him; and to look after, care for and take care of us.  As I learned him, I learned the new me. The Tomi as mother.

My whole life I imagined having children.  For nine months I prepared to birth my first child.  But now looking back, I realize that for exactly zero months I actually prepared, learned about, invested in the role of motherhood.  Birthing my son did not make me his mother. He did through his needing of me.

“Nice,” he said.”  “And I cried because I wanted you.”  

Thank you my boy.  With all my heart.