At twelve weeks pregnant, I logged onto my online medical portal to confirm a routine doctor’s appointment. It was a crisp autumn day in Connecticut, already deliciously mapped out. That night my husband and I would stay in a quaint bed and breakfast. During the day there were plans for a pub lunch, antiquing, and a walk.

It was 2020, just as restaurants and hotels were opening up after months of lockdowns in New York, and the weekend away was meaningful to us. We were excited about getting out and about; excited about the baby, our first. Bursting with schemes for the year ahead. Then I opened the portal. And saw an appointment scheduled with a genetic counsellor.

Some blood tests had come back that were worrying: our baby had a higher risk - 1 in 77 - of being born with Down syndrome. I felt overwhelming love for this little being, then sadness, then fear. It was the first time I realised that motherhood has the potential to go hand in hand with loss: and that we can’t control when or how that happens.

In many ways, it has become fashionable to be open about loss while discussing parenthood today. Unlike previous generations, having a baby is a choice not an expectation. We ‘opt-in’ to parenthood, having been educated ad nauseam on the sacrifices it entails. Frank discussions in the media are sold as a society that is finally being honest.

For women, this is particularly stark. Friends and family, commentators and psychologists, speak candidly about the relinquishment of independence and control associated with motherhood: from the death of one’s former (freer) identity to all the brutal physical wounds a birth can inflict. For those drawn to the pervasive idea of the mother as martyr, the transition to motherhood can feel like nothing short of “the erasure of womanhood”, writes perinatal psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin in The New York Times. She warns: “Making yourself smaller and smaller in the service of your child may feel noble at first but ultimately can lead to resentment, bitterness, and mental health issues.”

Having children, it seemed to me, was an invitation to trauma. In much the same way that trauma has become a dominant narrative in media and the arts, trauma embedded within motherhood is endlessly picked over, analysed, and sometimes even celebrated as a route to personal expansion (“my wounds have made me a better mother”).

In a recent art history lecture reported on by the New Yorker, Sarah Hoover, a director at the Gagosian, discussed Louise Bourgeois’s vast sculpture of a pregnant spider, Maman. “It has no eyes, nothing about it is friendly,” she said. “It is grotesque and scary, and how it could be called ‘Mom’ is a bit incongruous. But I think that’s just it: being a mother is grotesque and scary, and menacing, and monumental.”

Hoover’s comments are not surprising, nor is Bourgeois’s sculpture - they are safely in vogue with the new dominant narrative of motherhood. It was one I fell for almost completely. Pregnant, and intimidated about the “monumental” task ahead, I was convinced I was saying goodbye to my life to create another: that there wasn’t space for both of us; that having a baby was a chore I had to submit to - something to endure, not enjoy.

Friends appeared to agree. “You’re pregnant!” they exclaimed, before throwing their hands in the air and admonishing us to live our lives to the full NOW. “Do everything you want to do! There won’t be another chance once the baby is born!”

It was when I was at my most apprehensive and scared, hours before I was due to be induced, that a friend messaged me, suddenly shifting the terms. “Get ready,” she said, “for a tsunami of love.”

Three weeks after the Connecticut weekend, we decided to undergo an amniocentesis, a diagnostic procedure for chromosomal abnormalities. Doctors would have to stick a long needle into my growing belly to extract, and then test, our baby’s amniotic fluid. I was frightened - for my baby, rather than myself. This was her world and here was something cold and sharp and potentially deadly (amnios run the risk of miscarriage) rudely disrupting it.

Then, as the needle was about to pierce my skin, and my husband and I watched anxiously on the ultrasound, our baby gave a tiny thumb’s up from the corner in which she cowered. Until that point, the doctor had been pragmatic and businesslike. But even she laughed. This was a sign, surely, that everything was going to be okay.

And it was.

When my daughter Hartley was born on March 31st, 2021, healthy and screaming, I suddenly understood. This was love. She arrived in the world wrinkled and crying, her head comically - and, yes, somewhat monstrously - elongated by a vacuum device used during the birth. Newborn babies aren’t pretty: they are swollen and covered with muck. But, by God, we loved her. We were smitten.

On our first night we stared at Hartley, swaddled in her blanket, with a little striped hat hiding her cone-shaped head, which the nurses promised would shrink back to size soon. Everything she did amazed us. She blinked and we sighed. She took in her surroundings with her sleepy, sleepy eyes and we thought she must be the smartest baby in the world. Her little fingers curled around mine and held on tight.
I had been so caught up all in the negativity surrounding motherhood, I had no idea of its joys. This posed another problem altogether: my heart no longer belonged to me. Here was a tiny person who now owned it and I knew it would never be safe again.

Loss of my identity gives me pause - it is real and has been a struggle. But it is the loss of my child that terrifies me. Fear eats me up. I read about people in the news whose children have died - through an accident, natural disaster, some terrible illness - and I can’t stop crying. Maybe it is the hormones. I know it is more than that; a guttural, animalistic and urgent need to protect my daughter paired with a realisation, simultaneously, that I can’t.

Hartley is now nine months old and a curious, bonny baby with chubby legs, an infectious smile, and a head of merry strawberry-blonde hair. She cries only when she wants to communicate a need. She has learnt to clap on command. She crawls around our Brooklyn apartment, creating havoc, unpacking bags, pulling over plants, zooming down the corridor towards some new thing she has eyed and wants. She sleeps through the night, giving us thankful, dreamy rest.

Motherhood is often termed, erroneously, as the pursuit of wholeness. For me, it is the opposite. I don’t feel any more whole than I did before. In fact, being ‘whole’ - whatever that means - is further away. Because my body has produced another being, who lives outside of me, I am forever fractured.
Fragmentation isn’t always bad. Millions of years ago, the fracturing of a single giant landmass created new continents. Tsunamis, too, can wreak havoc and destruction, churning up the seas and rupturing our carefully constructed worlds. But they also spread nutrients into the earth by distributing rich sediment needed for growth.

For all the late nights, and worries, and scares, and medical appointments, and the fear that sometimes consumes me, I now know. There is a tsunami of love. And my daughter is mine.

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