By Lori L. Cullen
The other day, I met a young woman sitting on a park bench a few feet away from the jungle gym where my three children were playing. She was wearing thin cotton overalls. The fabric was striped in pastels against a white background, and the stripes caught my attention. Not just because they were twisted, like pink Twizzlers, like pink candy canes, like the poles which carousel horses ride, but because at regular spaced intervals the stripes were decorated with satin bows. The outfit was cutesy. I couldn't imagine what would posses a grown woman to wear such an outfit. Without making it apparent that I was staring, I let my eyes follow the twisted canes from the collarless neckline, over her tremendous breasts, down and around four plastic buttons in the shape of butterflies, all the way to the place on her round belly where I saw that her belly-button had popped. Ah ha, I thought to myself. Pregnant.
Perhaps she felt my eyes on her belly because she looked at me suddenly, too suddenly for me to avert my own eyes. She'd caught me staring.
"I have three of my own," I told her and distinguished my children from an otherwise undecipherable tangle of limbs hanging from, wrapped around, and jumping from every and any available straight edge of the climbing gym. Then it was okay that I had been caught staring; I too was a mother.
She slid slowly down against the bench, her belly rising in air like yeasted dough. "First one," I asked.
“It is,” she said, and then there was silence even though through the silence this web of children--my three and hers yet unborn--knitted us together like two paper dolls.
"So, how hard is it," she asked.
"Oh, you'll be able to handle it," I replied.
A few minutes later she was picked up by a white Ford Escort on whose sides copper colored iron bubbled and hardened into a foamy looking rust, covering huge patches of paint like dirty lace. As she was driven away, something inside of me realized that I had lied. I wanted to run after her yelling, "I’m sorry. Mistake. You won't be able to handle it, but you will grow into something that can. You will become a different beast altogether. She will handle it."
Becoming a mother is not like becoming a butterfly from a caterpillar. A mother is not the end point of a girlhood that ends its stasis with the birth of a child. Motherhood is a beautiful thing, but it is beautiful exactly like a butterfly. A butterfly's beauty lies solely in its wings. It is the butterfly in flight that is beautiful, or a butterfly at rest. It is that elegant fluttering that resembles two pansy petals borne high by a summer breeze.
But pick the wings from the butterfly and see the disgusting, insect beneath. See the creeping body, the elongated body, the fur-covered body of the ridged caterpillar. See the larvae that it was before. See how it steps when it is not in flight, the awkward, bumbling, self-conscious steps it takes. See the butterfly.
Mother is the total butterfly from the time it is a creeping caterpillar to the time it is a something else. It is elegance and grace; it is bumbling awkwardness. It is not the butterfly that has emerged from the cocoon. It is the emergence from the cocoon. It is the self in transformation. A woman will be becoming a mother from the moment she gives birth until the moment she dies. She will always be in process, constantly wrestling with all the selves she will become whether she grows in conjunction with these changes or in spite of them. Sometimes as identical twins and sometimes no more related to the one before or the one that follows than simple siblings, these selves will be connected to the other only by that ribbon of motherhood.
As her child grows, a mother will be struck and awed by the appearance her own curls hanging like scribbles about her daughter's face, or the child's fathers freckles strewn across the mother's nose on someone else's face. Moments like these will come at first, as cute and shocking, until the moment when they are recognized as something else, moments where the mother begins to grow, having recognized her descent down the same mountain up which her child ascends: your life is not about you. This, she thought she knew, thought she knew when she realized that she was pregnant.
This life is not about you. This is a simple enough idea. You were at the center of your own world until your child came along. You may have been prepared to move over, to make way. Maybe you were not prepared to, but you will move over nevertheless. But, one day, for whatever reason, you will realize that it is not as simple as that either. You have moved over. You have made way. You have accepted your wings and you have accepted the furry parts beneath.
Above all, you have accepted your place in a string of paper dolls. But, the real moment comes, the real emergence from the cocoon comes at a later moment. This is not when you realize that you are not at the center of the universe because you now have a child. It is the moment when, because you have a child, you realize that you never were.
Lori Cullen is a writer living in Schenectady, New York.