My daughter and I had a rough start. I’m the kind of person who plays out scenarios in her head long before they happen – if they happen – and then is disappointed when the reality doesn’t correspond with the fantasy. One thing went as planned when we started a family. One. The conception. From that moment forward the experience was entirely off script, not even remotely like the fantasy I had played out in my mind for years.
When my daughter arrived two months early, she was greeted by one terribly exhausted mama. I weighed twelve pounds less than the day I conceived, my body broken and weak from hypermisis gravidarum. My sweet girl struggled, too, and the neonatologists very quickly told me that I had to abandon breastfeeding because she was burning more calories than she was taking in. Breathing wasn’t her strong suit. Feeding wasn’t so great, either. And holding a life-sustaining body temperature? Well, it took her three weeks to get that right.
I’ve spent years wondering if it was because of our rough start together or because of something intrinsically part of her, but my girl and I have never had one of those snuggly, cuddly, lovey relationships you see between a mother and a child. She pulled away from me when I tried to cuddle her, even as an infant. She was always more content next to me than on me, happy to give a hug and then retreat to her solitude.
Then there’s my son.
His start in this world was even more traumatic than his sister’s, his blue, limp body pulled from me during an emergency c-section, rushed to the NICU without so much as a passing touch from his mother. His first 24 hours were terrifying, but having had six more weeks in the womb than big sister, he bounced back quickly. I was once again a broken mess, only this time I also had a precocious twenty-seven month old to care for while I recovered from 9 months of malnutrition. And yet everything was different, even from the start. He nursed like a champ. He loved being worn in a sling. He hated his crib and preferred to be draped over me to sleep, his chubby little hands wrapped up in my long hair. With my second child I finally felt the mother-child bond that I had fantasized about in the days before giving birth to my first child, and it filled me with guilt.
My babies are now ten and seven years old, not at all the babies who spent their crying, fussing, cuddling, playing days with me on the front lines of new parenthood. My daughter is on the verge of being a teen, nearly as tall as me and equipped with the kind of witty snark that makes a smart-ass mother proud. My son has traded in his mommy cuddle time for soccer and basketball, iPad and Wii. And yet our relationships remain as dissimilar as they always were, my heart pulled to them in equal yet completely different ways. And still I feel guilt.
But yesterday something happened that made me realize my relationships with my children are likely exactly as they should be. The truth is that my children don’t love me in exactly the same ways either. Early in the afternoon I hurt myself and let out a yelp that brought the entire family into the room. My daughter took a look and dryly said, “I don’t see any blood. Must not be that bad…” and walked away. A couple hours later I was cleaning bathrooms when my husband popped in to ask me if it would be okay for him to finally toss the cat food now that the cat’s been gone over a month. I told him that of course it was okay, but then burst into tears. My son appeared out of nowhere, comforting me, holding me, telling me it was okay.
Through all the time I’ve spent feeling guilty about loving one child differently than I love the other, those very children have been guiding our relationships, asking me for what they needed, getting what they wanted. My daughter and I share winks and knowing looks and dramatic eyerolls. My son and I still enjoy a good snuggle, arms and legs all tangled up. They aren’t the same people and I should never have anticipated that I’d feel the same about each of them. I’m just so grateful that ten years into this parenting journey, those children have finally shown me that loving them differently is okay.