What Becoming A Mother
Has Taught Me About Home

By Emily Louise Smith

Like many first-time parents, I spent the months leading up to my daughter’s arrival making room for her: packing boxes of books to empty what was then my office, hanging a new light fixture and artwork, setting up her crib in the footprint of my writing desk. Every weekend I tackled a new project in her nursery—painting the ceiling the warm coral of a villa in Santorini; salvaging hymnal racks to repurpose as bookshelves, then filling them with books gifted by colleagues, family, and friends; framing a tintype of women surfers and a favorite letterpress print that reads HERE’S TO STRONG WOMEN: MAY WE KNOW THEM. MAY WE BE THEM. MAY WE RAISE THEM. As a single but long-hoped-for mother at age forty, I knew there would not be a partner present—at least for now—to help document our story, to help me memorize the details and, in retelling, polish them smooth as stones. So I wanted to create a space that would help Birdie know, from day one, how welcome and loved she is, a room that, as she grows, will encourage her creativity and sense of self.

I love her room even more now that she’s here, smiling up at me, or perhaps at the lacy shadow the glass pendant light makes along the walls. To teach night from day, you’re not supposed to make eye contact, much less entertain, babies when they wake in the night, but how to resist those first smiles, palpable even in the dark? I gaze at her in disbelief. Had I really birthed this wise and beautiful being? I’d waited my life, or so it seemed, to meet her—beginning in childhood with the notebook-paper origami that foretold how many babies we’d have, through relationships and breakups in adulthood, the children we imagined so vividly together I could kiss the tops of their heads.

Finally, she is here: the intoxicating smell of her, her eyelashes batting my neck, the little fish lips she makes as she eats, the fists that know to close around my fingers. The first week, I slept on the sofa with her bassinet pulled close enough that I could hear her breathe. It felt strange for her to exist outside of my body. In the nearby guest room, my mother listened for her to finish nursing so that she could burp and soothe her while I slept. In an hour, Birdie would be up again, and we’d start the dance all over.

A week later, I sobbed as my mom drove away. How would we survive the days without her, much less the nights—being yanked every few hours out of the hardest-earned slumber of my life? How would I manage the grocery store with a newborn? A flu epidemic loomed outside our door. I felt simultaneously trapped and also like I might never willingly venture beyond the safety of our house again.

Everything in my path is magnified. Yes, the populous dust bunnies, dishes stacked in the sink, new colorful contraptions that bounce and sway and play lullabies and trip me in the night. But also the things that make this our home: the quiet breathing of the refrigerator, an early ultrasound photo I affixed hopefully to its door, the reflection of our little family as we pass a mirror.”

I was not entitled to fret about being alone now, I chided myself, as if allowing oneself to panic was an indulgence afforded only to two-parent families. I’d longed for this, subjected myself to all kinds of emotional and physical obstacles, never mind financial, to welcome the miracle of my daughter. The books I consulted were all hopelessly out of date when it came to modern parenting. They coached me to involve my husband: get Dad to put the baby to bed after feedings, handle the diapering!

In graduate school, I’d juggled nanny jobs for three different families with infants and toddlers, children I adored. Had I forgotten everything? I did not recall this much spit up. My baby soaked onesies, blankets, my clothes. I changed sheets at 2 a.m., then while she slept soundly, typed hormonal worries into the Google search bar until I diagnosed my baby via WebMD with various rare conditions. I left panicked messages, “I read this article today….” until my mother and sister wisely begged me to please stop reading and trust myself. “She’s healthy,” they reminded me. “You’re doing just fine.”

I’d invested years and a small fortune in my education, honed a particular set of talents and skills that seemed, from what I could tell, to actually matter to people in my profession, skills I also teach—none of which was serving me especially well in new motherhood. “But you are very quickly the world’s leading expert on your baby,” the writer Clare Beams kindly and sensibly reminded me in the midst of an exceptionally sleepless week, “which is a pretty amazing thing to be.”

I learned the wood floors of our house as if it were a giant chessboard—avoiding creaky boards here and there as I deftly moved my light-sleeping newborn from the rocker in her nursery to the bassinet, now next to my bed. My overzealous online research paid off when I scored a swaddle that allowed her to self-soothe, hands near her face the way I’d first observed them in ultrasound images. We survived Target. She began to sleep for three-hour stretches, sometimes six. She smiled at me, and the Heavens opened. I stopped looking everything up and instead attuned myself to my daughter: her cries, coos, stares, and grins. I trusted her expanding capability to communicate her needs, my knack for watching and listening, the implicit bond between us. I became so enamored with knowing this thoughtful human, I forgot to worry about doing it alone.

I wasn’t doing it alone anyway. My parents, sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and friends were helping me; seeing them love on Birdie was nothing short of magic, whether they were smothering her in kisses or holding her until they both fell asleep watching golf.

My daughter prefers to perch on my shoulder while I parade her from room to room. Sit down, and she immediately squawks. This is how I know she’s ready for her nap, and it’s one of many ways we now communicate, expertly in fact, without language. As we pace, she becomes heavy in my arms, rubs and rests her cheek on my shoulder, slings an arm across my back like we are old pals. Everything in my path is magnified. Yes, the populous dust bunnies, dishes stacked in the sink, new colorful contraptions that bounce and sway and play lullabies and trip me in the night. But also the things that make this our home: the quiet breathing of the refrigerator, an early ultrasound photo I affixed hopefully to its door, the reflection of our little family as we pass a mirror. I follow her ears and eyes like a map: to bees swerving in and out of the backyard roses, bright new banana shoots that are outpacing her in height as she nurses on the screened porch. The neighbor’s lawn mower as he blessedly crosses from his yard into my ankle-high grass, the boxes of baby clothes and gifts left soundlessly on the front steps. I’ve begun showering at night, after she falls asleep, which is how I know that through the bathroom skylight you can see a full moon.

Before my mother left, she helped me give my daughter her first bath. After we dried her in a fluffy towel, brushed her peach fuzz, and dressed her in footed pajamas, she beamed at us, relieved by the whole ordeal, and pooped. I will never, ever forget the particular, sleep-deprived laughter my mom and I shared then. How good it felt to pass into motherhood under her tender and vigilant care.

Three months in now, Birdie and I are finding our rhythms—the baths and books, minor but specific rituals that mark our days. The house too is memorizing us. Its previous owner, who lived here thirteen years, confirmed it in her congratulatory note: “That house longed for children.” So many of my worries—especially as a single mother raising my daughter in a small Southern city where people are not always receptive to difference—were mostly unfounded. Friends and strangers alike have reached out in ways I could never have anticipated. Just the other day, a neighbor I’d not met stopped us as we were strolling past and asked, “How’s Birdie doing?” My baby knows more people than I do. She has forced this proud, formerly self-sufficient mama to ask for help, has made friends of the neighbors I didn’t know a year ago when I moved in, has made emergency contacts of friends, has made my house our home. Our. What a gift, that word. When I occasionally push my errand running past her contentment and she wails in her car seat, I reach back to hold her tiny hand and say—again and again like it’s a spell—“We’re almost home. We’re almost home.”

About Emily Louise Smith

Emily Louise Smith teaches in the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she directs the Publishing Laboratory and serves as publisher of Ecotone magazine and its sister imprint Lookout Books, which she co-founded. Her writing appears in Best New Poets, Boulevard, Salt, and the Southern Review, among other places. You can read more about her adventures in new motherhood at becomingbirdiesmama.com. She is at work on a book.

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