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My baby son can “moo” with great conviction. He can polish off an entire “m-m-mango-o.” But there is no sign of “Mommy” among his various soliloquies, dramatic readings, improvisations and sermons.
“Iss Dah-dee!” he declares instead, the moment he catches a glimpse of me in the morning.
“Really?” an acquaintance says, incredulously, when I tell her of Nicholas’ declarations. “My daughter said ‘mama’ right off the bat. That was her first word, in fact.” She looks at me and then Nicholas and says, “So you’re Daddy’s little boy, huh?”
I feel a hot flash of mistaken identity.
Then one fine spring morning at 6:09 a.m., I walk into Nicholas’ room, and my 14 1/2-month-old grins at me like he just reeled in the Big One. “Mah-mee.” The accent on the first syllable, the tone high-low, sweet and declarative. I feel like I’ve fallen backward into a bed of cotton balls.
The word has butter on it. I feel it rush through my veins, pulsing down my arms to my fingertips, racing down my legs and back up my spine.
Nicholas identifies me.
Soon, he has a million contexts and as many intonations. There’s one that sounds like the bing-bong of a doorbell. He says it when I wrap him in a towel after the bath that leaves his toes pruney. Other times, he says it with the solemnity of a praying monk. Sometimes, he whispers it as he stares off into the distance, flirting with a recollection. Sometimes, he bellows it like he’s doing play-by-play at the Super Bowl.
My husband, Dave, throws his arms in the air as he walks in the door. “Hey, Nicholas … Chopped Liver is home!”
“Don’t take it personally, honey. It’s a phase,” I reassure him. “It’ll pass.”
With Daddy temporarily out of favor, I am The Chosen One. It’s a nice feeling. But sometimes, when I’m unsure that I’ll be able to live up to Nicholas’ expectations (or my own), my Mommy moniker makes me feel cornered, hot, weepy. Like I’m in a room with no doors or windows. This whole Mommy thing is much bigger than three square meals, boo-boos and Band-Aids, matching socks. Mommy is larger than life.
Who am I? I am Mother. Soothsayer. I am the comfort zone. The safety net. I make it better. I am Mary Tyler Moore, turning my baby’s world on with my smile. I am the star of his show, his eyes on me like a follow spot. But for one fleeting, forgiving moment, I want to duck into the wings and disappear into the shadows. I want to be understudy for a minute. I want to daydream. I want to let my consciousness ramble, run like honey from a spoon.
Mommy. I love hearing the word. It’s balm. It grounds me. It centers me. It gives me the most sublime pleasure to hear it slip from his lips and fill the stale air with magic. In some ways, Mommy means more to me than my birth name ever could because of the little person who gives it meaning.
And even on days when I wonder whether I am the slightest bit worthy of the title or the role, my son reminds me that I am the only human being on earth fit to be his mother and that he’s rather pleased with the arrangement.
Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. I’m here. Mommy’s here.
Mommy’s always here.