The night before my wedding, my fiancé and I met with the priest who would marry us. As we signed our marriage certificates, I told the priest I wasn’t afraid to be married, but the day overwhelmed me with its performative demands. He listened to me thoughtfully, nodding, then advised: “Let the day surprise you.”
I held those words in my heart and squeezed them when everything threatened to blur out and overwhelm me: Let the day surprise you.
Surprise is not often thought of as a virtue when it comes to pregnancy and early parenthood. It is now canon that we get to know “what to expect.” There’s the book, of course, and then all the other books, and a million social media accounts telling you what to do, what to buy, the 17 things every pregnant person should know, or do, or not do, or tell their in-laws never to do.
When I had my baby, there was an instant sharpening of experience, a clarity of focus, even as my perception of reality and self shifted beneath me.
But the idea that you get to know what to expect — that you can exert some level of control through advance planning — is fantasy. Newborns are certified 100% pure chaos agents, as any honest parent will tell you. What parents-to-be should prepare for is the fact that you will not be prepared.
You can’t prepare for the fact that you’ll love them more than you’ve ever loved. Or that the hard bits will be hard in the hardest way, pushing you to internal brinks you didn’t know you had. At the same time, the way you love that baby will reorient your entire metaphysical understanding, and you’ll be this weird, raw version of yourself for a while.
The other day, I gave away a travel crib to a couple expecting their first baby. The mom seemed kind of nervous and chatty. As I helped them carry it to the car, she said something about “I think we’re ready. It’s going to be good.” Her tone made it sound like a question, though, so I offered the only advice I give anymore: “Oh, yeah, it’ll be great! It’ll blow your life up completely, and it’ll be great.”
Maybe that wasn’t the best choice of words, I thought as I walked away from her slightly terrified face. Then my own two kids pulled me back into my noisy life. Maybe it was the perfect choice of words. Nothing can prepare you for falling in love with your own child. Nothing could have prepared me for the fact that I now say “Whose butt was that?” multiple times a day. For how it feels when I pad softly past my kids’ bedrooms in the middle of the night and experience a sense of immense wholeness because they’re here with me, inhabiting a golden moment together. A peak of my own life on Earth, here at the beginning of theirs.
I carried the sentiment that grounded me on my wedding day into my first pregnancy, and it helped me. I told everyone that I saw the time after my baby’s arrival as a black hole. It was a void I couldn’t see into, but in a good way. Its nothingness soothed me. I knew only that I couldn’t know.
They pulled that baby out of my body and laid him on my chest and tears started flowing out of me in the most joyful way I’d ever experienced. Lost in transcendence, I asked him where he came from. From the other side of the curtain, my OB said, “Well, Miranda, when a man and a woman love each other very much...,” and asked me if he had a name. The name I’d chosen before was the one I said, but in the seconds since meeting this creature of mine I knew that his being transcended naming. But also he needed a name, and that name was Griffin.
Just be new, like your baby. Let yourself not know. Help your baby, and let other people help you.
There was an instant sharpening of experience, a clarity of focus, even as my perception of reality and self shifted beneath me. The universe was vast, and I was fierce, and I held it all in my arms. I was every mother ever, and I was connected to everything, and nothing mattered except the 7 pounds, 9 ounces in my arms.
As your newborn learns to breathe air instead of liquid, you will learn to be a parent. Together. Slowly. Squinting into the abyss, into the newness, confused about the difference between things that used to be obvious, like night and day, pain and hunger. Both of you will fuss a lot about your first post-delivery farts. You’ll cry together.
Just be new, like your baby. Let yourself not know. Help your baby, and let other people help you. In that space of not knowing, perhaps you’ll find room for surprise. Some surprises will be less comfortable than others. The surprise of how exhausted I was able to be without being dead was not one of my personal favorites. The surprise of being mesmerized by my baby’s nostrils — I grew you, you grew nostrils, and now you’re outside of me in the world just breathing — was a pretty good one. The way it felt when he first smiled at me, well, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s a good one, too.
I don’t know what kind of baby you will have, or if they will be healthy and easy or not. I do know that you will not be able to strong-arm the experience into any kind of mold. As a wise man once said in the best movie ever made, anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
When my baby was very small, I returned often to Alan Watts’ water analogy from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety:
You cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run.
I wrote a lot when Griffin was new. I’d text myself while he nursed or slept in my arms — which is what he did, 24/7 — little snippets and things I noticed or wanted to remember. I’d notice that just remembering to eat or drink a little water made a really big difference and was also incredibly hard to do. I wrote about what got me through: “When Griffin opens his eyes and seems to look at me, or seems to know my voice, or smiles in his sleep, you’re just so very alive in that moment, it’s an experience I wouldn’t want to live life without having.”
If you want to truly prepare yourself for your baby’s arrival, prepare yourself to let it wash over you, welcome it all. Expect the unexpected.