We conceive our children in deepest night, in blazing sun, outdoors, in barns and alleys and minivans. We have no rules, no ceremonies, we don't even need a driver's license. Conception is often something of a by-product of sex, a candle in a one-room studio, pure brute chance, a wonder. To make love with the desire for a child is to move the act out of its singularity, to make the need of the moment an eternal wish. But of all passing notions, that of a human being for a child is perhaps the purest in the abstract, and the most complicated in reality. Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life.
Other parents--among them, the first female judge appointed in New Hampshire, my own midwife, a perpetually overwhelmed movie researcher and television producer, and our neighbor, who baby-sits to make a difficult living--seem surprised at their own helplessness in the face of the passion they feel for their children. We live and work with a divided consciousness. It is a beautiful enough shock to fall in love with another adult, to feel the possibility of unbearable sorrow at the loss of that other, essential, personality, expressed just so, that particular touch. But love of an infant is of a different order. It is twinned love, all absorbing, a blur of boundaries and messages. It is uncomfortably close to self-erasure, and in the face of it one's fat ambitions, desperations, private icons, and urges fall away into a dreamlike "before" that haunts and forces itself into the present with tough persistence.
The self will not be forcedunder, nor will the baby's needs gracefully retreat. The world tips away when we look into our children's faces. The days flood by. Time with children runs through our fingers like water as we lift our hands, try to hold, to capture, to fix moments in a lens, a magic circle of images or words. We snap photos, videotape, memorialize while we experience a fast-forward in which there is no replay of even a single instant.
We have a baby. Our sixth child, our third birth. During that year, our older, adopted children hit adolescence like runaway trucks. Dear grandparents weaken and die. Michael rises at four in the morning, hardly seems to sleep at all. To keep the door to the other self--the writing self--open, I scratch messages on the envelopes of letters I can't answer, in the margins of books I'm too tired to review. On pharmacy prescription bags, dime-store notebooks, children's construction paper, I keep writing.
This book is a set of thoughts from one self to the other--writer to parent, artist to mother. For me, as for many women, work means necessary income. For a writer, work is also emotional and intellectual survival: it is who I am. I don't stop working, and reworking, and publishing fiction. No matter what life throws at me--and I've had far more difficult obstacles than the intense experience of having children--I expect and offer no excuses. That's not at all what this book is about.
These pages are a personal search and an extended wondering at life's complexity. This is a book of conflict, a book of babyhood, a book about luck, cats, a writing life, wild places in the world, and my husband's cooking. It is a book about the vitality between mothers and infants,that passionate and artful bond into which we pour the direct expression of our being.
For men primarily responsible for their baby's care, please accept this book as your own as well, for you are magnificent. Gender correctness aside, historically and most often these days it is a woman who takes on the tender and grueling task of rearing a newborn. Writing is reflective and living is active--the two collide in the tumultuous business of caring for babies. She bathes her children, she mends the torn armholes of favorite shirts, he picks out birthday party gifts, they receive breathtaking confidences. He and she see the next world and the next reflected in the ocean of their newborn's eyes.
December. Deep snow and middle trimester. Where I Work.
The small gray house where I work was built in the hope of feeding snowmobilers. Twenty years ago, a rough trail was carved out of New Hampshire timberland a hundred yards from the door. Buzzing down from the trailhead--hidden now by thick growth of pine and maple--bundled riders were supposed to stop here for hot chocolate, hot dogs, doughnuts drizzled with maple syrup. But the plan fell through before it could be tested, and now, all this long winter, I hear no more than a dozen snowmobilers pass by, though the snowfall is deep. An oddly shaped window in my back room still opens where the counter was supposed to be, but instead of a stove and deep fryer, books line the walls.
In its first years, this place was rented out to a series of people who believed themselves handy with tools, and as a result it is a strange house: constantly improved, but still missing fixtures, light socket covers, cupboard doors. The man who drove aPepsi delivery truck for a living fit together a wall of bricks behind the small, black woodstove. One renter cultivated a marijuana patch at a secluded edge of our land, put in a carpet, and punched round fist-holes into the Sheetrock one night in a jealous fit. Those who've lived in this house haunt it, and their dogs do too. The brown Doberman, the harlequin Great Dane, and the two willful breedless dogs with wide muzzles, short hair, and horrifying growls have laid out invisible and possibly eternal territories of scent. Our gentle dog, an Australian Shepherd from hardworking parents, leaves me at the door every morning and watches me enter with intelligent, worried eyes. His instinct is to protect, but he finds the welter of old scents confusing. There seems to be no danger, and yet, perhaps . . .
There was also, in this house's short life, a suicide. I don't know much about him except that he was young, lived alone, rode a motorcycle to work. I don't know where in the house he was when he shot himself. I do not want to know, except I do know. There is only one place. It is here, where I sit, before the window, looking out into the dark shapes of trees.
Perhaps it is odd to contemplate a subject grim as suicide while anticipating a child so new she'll wear a navel tassel and smell of nothing but her purest self, but beginnings suggest endings and I can't help thinking about the continuum, the span, the afters, and the befores.
I come here every day to work, starting while invisibly pregnant. I imagine myself somewhere else, into another skin, another person, another time. Yet simultaneously my body is constructing its own character. It requires no thought at all for meto form and fix a whole other person. First she is nothing, then she is growing and dividing at such a rate I think I'll drop. I come in eager hope and afraid of labor, all at once, for this is the heart of the matter. Whatever else I do, when it comes to pregnancy I am my physical self first, as are all of us women. We can pump gas, lift weights, head a corporation, lead nations, and tune pianos. Still, our bodies are rounded vases of skin and bones and blood that seem impossibly engineered for birth. I look down onto my smooth, huge lap, feel my baby twist, and I can't figure out how I'll ever stretch wide enough. I fear I've made a ship inside a bottle. I'll have to break. I'm not me. I feel myself becoming less a person than a place, inhabited, a foreign land. I will experience pain, lose physical control, or know the uncertainty of anesthetic. I fear these things, but vaguely, for my brain buzzes in the merciful wash of endorphins that preclude any thought from occupying it too long. Most of all, I worry over what I hold. I want perfection. Each day I pray another perfect cell to form.