My baby. It took me a while to whisper those words to the tiny, blood-red thing quivering within a nest of rolled-up cloth nappies. His hospital tags bore my name, but how could I have possibly earned the right to call myself a mother when the only thing I could do for my son each day was to change his nappy through the portholes of his incubator?
I was a helpless spectator, watching as strangers yanked the invisible strings which I prayed would pull my baby one step closer to home. And every night I left my son alone in the hospital felt like an insult to the very definition of motherhood.
When you give birth to a micropremmie, every trace of the new-parent journey you might otherwise expect is stripped away. Those first layers which help establish our relationship with our child and build up our identify as a mother don’t exist in the NICU.
Or at least, not for a while.
So instead, tucked away in the corner of Ward 9; away from the joyful cacophony of the Special Care Unit babies, I learnt about naked parenting.
It took four and a half months, but slowly…achingly slowly, the privileges of my parenting experience were expanded. And somewhere along the way, I became a mother.
But when did it happen? Could it have been that first, incredible time I held Etienne skin-to-skin; when I felt the tiny weight of him relax into my chest, when I smelled him, and kissed his downy head, 10 days after he was born? Or did I become a mother several weeks later, when I fed Etienne a fingernail’s worth of milk through his gastric tube; the first time I was able to sustain and nourish him? Was I a mother after I’d bathed him, or clothed him, or picked him up when he cried? Or did it only happen once I’d strapped him into the car seat to go home?
Today, my parental identity has evolved into complex layers of experiences, and emotions, insecurities and unanswered questions. But I confidently call myself a mother. So the only way I can answer that question is to strip my identity back again. To find the common connection between the me of today and that scared woman in the NICU, hesitant to call herself Mum.
So let’s take away the home-cooked meals, and the carefully chosen outfits, remove playtime and the rituals of a baby routine; strip away the kisses, and the hugs, and the guilt, and the worry, and the burden of ‘not good enough’. And what will stand before you, the essence of this naked mother, is just one remaining layer.
It existed even before I saw my son, before I touched him, bathed or fed him. Even before he drew his first breath.
I’m guessing this last layer is the same in all mothers.
And that’s a fiercely protective, unwavering and unconditional love for our children.
So if you’re questioning your parental identity because you’re separated from your child; because they’re in the NICU…or worse, or just because you’re another Mum who feels like you’ll never live up to the impossible expectations of others…strip it back.
Take it back to the naked essence of motherhood, which is not about comforting or nourishing, or protecting or teaching. They’re just the consequences of that final layer.
I want to say this to the woman I was back then, and to anyone else who ever doubted themselves; at the very moment when our children existed, and we loved them, we earned the right to call ourselves a mother.
Then and forever more.
And once we accept that love is the foundation of motherhood, and every action or decision we make regarding our children is an outcome of that final layer, perhaps then we’ll stop questioning and second-guessing, and start loving ourselves a little more too.