Becoming a parent is a life-altering experience. Or so we're told by like, all the parents. The way that people talk about it, I was under the impression that as soon as you have a baby you gain a membership into the Divine Order of Parenting, a not-so-secret society in which you instantly earn the wisdom and knowledge about big deal things like love and life that you could never have even begun to comprehend back when you were childless. But it's not like that. At all. If anything, you're more confused about everything, mostly because you're so tired. Still, there are some significant changes I've noticed in myself, like how I can't watch the evening news anymore without crying. And no, it has nothing to do with hormones. It's because all the stories are super sad and terrible things keep happening to people. And I no longer see them as "people" anymore — they're other women's babies!
I'm able to recognize now that prior to having a child of my own, I was a pretty desensitized and apathetic person. The dreadful kinds of news stories that routinely get airtime and newspaper inches were, for the most part, like wallpaper to me, something of which I was aware but, unless it directly affected me, my family or my friends, easy to ignore. Upon hearing something terrible, like about a kidnapping or an accidental death I would occasionally say, monotonously, "That's sad." It's kind of like when you type "LOL" with a totally straight face.
Now when I hear horrific stories—like the two-year-old little girl that was baked to death in a hot car after daycare providers forgot she was in there — it feels like someone is ripping my throat out through my vagina. I physically react by putting my hands on the sides of my face, pulling the skin down until it hurts and crying, "Nooooooo!"
And I'll seek out deplorable shit, too. That's really nothing new. I've had a fascination with the macabre for years, reading about serial killers and massacres online before going to sleep to scare the crap out of myself so that I was too afraid to walk past my open, dark closet in the night to go pee. But now my interests have shifted slightly, and they mostly have to do with children and pregnancy. I Googled "youngest mother to give birth" thinking I'd get some Guinness Book of World Records type stuff but instead found one of the most depressing and horrendous Wikipedia entries in existence listing all the youngest birth mothers in recorded history. The youngest one was five! FIVE! And there are so many others. And they're all little girls. And they were mostly impregnated by family members or neighbors. It's awful! They should be playing with dolls or running around on a playground. I cried real tears over their loss of innocence and sense of security.
I'm sorry if I'm bumming you out. Maybe this is how normal people react to terrible things and I was simply a heartless bitch before. But, for me, this is all part of a newly acquired, very prominent instinct to protect the defenseless, which extends beyond humans. My mom told me this story recently that still haunts me: She had taken the dogs for a walk and upon returning home, noticed that one of them, Jax, was in the corner whimpering. Since it was odd behavior for him, she approached him to see what was wrong. She realized he had something in his mouth, told him to drop it, and then picked it up. It was a baby rabbit. That's what was making the whimpering sounds. And Jax had killed it.
My mother was like, "It was mushy and disgusting! Thank God I picked it up with a plastic bag. And then your father's shouting at me to flush it down the toilet. That would screw up the pipes!" For her, it was just a gross anecdote about dogs bringing wild vermin into the house and how my father says annoying things that don't help. For me, it was about a baby bunny that was kidnapped and tortured and murdered and there's a mother out there who doesn't know what happened to her baby! Just the thought of it still turns my stomach.
Weirdly, though, my new sensitivity is arbitrarily selective. Other things that are universally known to kill appetites barely even faze me. I can sit on my couch and eat a bowl of cereal while I watch my husband give my daughter an enema on the ottoman. It's not like I'm blocking it out, either. I'm actually giving color commentary — analyzing the consistency, shape, and volume of the shit as it exits her anus — through mouthfuls of Cinnamon Life. But when I hear dialogue about killing a fictitious infant on a fantasy TV show, like on the premiere of the second season of Game of Thrones, I shut my eyes and cover my ears, because I couldn't bear the sounds of a mother screaming as a baby was ripped from her arms, even if it is all make-believe.
While my mom is a little harder than I when it comes to carnage, baby animal or otherwise (she worked as an R.N. in the E.R. for 25 years), I still remember something she said about 10 years ago while flipping through a copy of People, with a missing, pregnant Laci Peterson on the cover: "That girl's poor mother. I can't even imagine that kind of grief." At the time, I thought, "Oh that must be a mom thing." And now I know that it is. And I can totally relate to her on that. It's one thing to lose a family member, friend, sibling, spouse, or pet. I'd be super sad, but I'm confident in my ability to bounce back and get on with my life. Losing a child, however, is unfathomable to me. Becoming a mother has forged this new emotional connection to other mothers — including my own mom — because it's the first time in my life that I have a visceral understanding of another person's nightmare.
Just thinking about how inconsolable I'd be if something ever happened to my daughter makes me understand why my mom was such a bitch when I'd stay out all night or take off for a weekend in high school with my older boyfriend and not call. She was probably in agony with worry. I was the bitch! I can't believe I did that to her. She loves me so much! Oh my God, I'm crying right now typing this.
I don't know if these developments and my new-found empathy has made me a better person, but I'm pretty sure it's made me a better daughter.