An outdoor restaurant in summer: A young couple with two children, one about three, the other about four months. The mother nurses the baby, snuggled in her lap. For the longest time, the baby's face is buried in the breast and under parts of her mother's blouse. But her hand is playing with her mother's the whole time. Later, her head surfaces, and she sits on her mother's lap, gazing at her. The mother makes cooing noises, and tilts her head slightly. The baby opens her mouth, making a perfect circle, her blue eyes wide open too, drinking in her mother's face. Her eyes are so open, her mouth is so open, her face is so open, she is an incarnation in this moment of pure presence. The eyes are radiating presense. The mouth is quivering with presence.
The mother puts her head down and touches it to her baby's forehead, then moves it back. The baby smiles. There is a complete force field connecting these two. This baby is in the orbit of her mother in this moment, and the two are speaking in a thousand ways, on a thousand wavelengths, across their bodies where they touch, across the air between them.
...As her older sister sits at the table, I can feel that she too is at home in her body and in the force field of her family. It is not even that they interact that much. They don't. But they form an inseparable whole in which she is completely at home.
--Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, page 189
There is an ideal of mothering* that assumes that babies are born one at a time. This isn't a medical ideal --although the medical ideal exists and is, in fact, more easily asserted, defended, and accepted -- but a psychological, even spiritual, ideal. It is an ideal of infancy, the elevation of an idea about what mother and baby create between themselves in the first hours, weeks, and months of a newborn life. It is the ideal of the singular gaze.
No mother, not even the mother of a first-born singleton, achieves the ideal. Colic, sleeplessness, hormones, employment, mealtime and laundry, they all conspire to muddy the flow between baby and mother, to fracture that heart-locking gaze across a thousand distractions. Yet the ideal exists and persists, not just as a weapon to bludgeon imperfect women but as a spiritual attainment that most mothers and babies approach and breathe upon, if only for fleeting seconds. It is this spiritual ideal of mothering, of infinite and boundless and all-encompassing love, that causes infertile women so much pain. It is this ideal that hovers out of reach as cycle follows cycle, paperwork confounds, and pain multiples over years.
For mothers of multiples, it can seem that the ideal becomes a thing forever out of reach. Just as the ideal, the madonna image, the vision of perfect oneness, hovered over our infertility, it goes right on hovering over our lives with multiple newborns. In every second spent holding one infant, drinking in one infant, falling in love with one infant, another infant waits, filled with the same longing for mother love, filling mother with the same longing for the singular gaze. The mother is always and forever divided, not between children with different needs and infinite varied desires, but between infants whose needs and desires coincide, overlap, entangle, and confuse. It is heart-wrenching. It causes physical pain.
Losing my chance for the ideal filled me with rage. My fury and my grief were boundless, the bitter apex of my infertility, the achievement of a vision forever tainted by what would never be. This was my theme and my refrain for months after the babies were born: look at the world we have lost. Look at what we will never have, and never be.
Other parents of multiples turned their backs on me in the moments I dared to confess my grief and my rage. I heard so many platitudes, so many dismissals, so many admonishments: How dare I feel grief when my babies were happy and whole? Don't you love your children? Think of the special bond they'll have among themselves.** The advantages will outweight the drawbacks, and don't you dare believe anything else. For God's sake, grow up and get over yourself.
Well, the children grew up, and I have mostly gotten over myself. But I refuse to believe that minimizing my pain helped me overcome it. Denying my loss didn't help me feel it less. When I held one baby at the breast, when I settled one baby close upon me, my eyes immediately sought another. The baby nearest me was the baby least in need of me in that moment, and my gaze was forever divided. I wrote that I held my babies enough, that I had enough time alone with each of them, but I lied. It was never, ever enough, and I forever felt divided. I see a friend with her newborn singleton and a tiny piece of my heart still aches.
What brings me comfort is this: the mothers of singletons, unlike the mothers of multiples, admit my loss. They know what they have, and they know the magnitude of not having it. The simple admission, "I can't imagine having to share this time with another baby," soothes my soul.
*I hate making nouns into verbs through gerends. I hate the term "mothering" especially. But it's the only word available that brings this particular experience of mine into sharp relief. I typically want to include Calder and use the word parent, but this ideal is an ideal by and of and for mothers, and I don't want that to be lost.
**Obviously my frame of reference is incomplete, but I don't believe that the bond between multiples is better than the bond between singletons. Undoubtedly it's different, but it's not better. For every mother of multiples who marvels at the laughing voices of her babies babbling to each other in their cribs, there's a mother of two singletons marvelling as her oldest child teaches her youngest child a new word. Is the delighted laugh of a baby discovering her twin any more delightful than that of a baby smiling back for the first time at his older sister? Special bonds between siblings are precious and delightful and I'm grateful not to face the pain and sorrow of secondary infertility, wanting as I did more than one child. But special bonds between siblings are more than, different than, bonds between mothers and infants, and one does not replace the other.