You Began in Love (or Someone Once Wiped Your Ass Over and Over Again)

Friday, November 14, 2014 - 6:27am
Photo by Cia de Foto

You Began in Love (or Someone Once Wiped Your Ass Over and Over Again)

My daughter turned one-year-old yesterday. Which has almost nothing to do with you, except it has everything do to with you. Because you were once a baby. And someone loved you as much as I love my girl.

Someone fed you. Someone burped you. Someone changed your diaper. Someone made sure you didn’t swallow tiny objects. Someone fruitlessly searched for shoes that would stay on your chubby paws. Someone buttoned your onesie even when you were squirming around. Someone blessed you when you sneezed those tiny baby sneezes and smiled at you when you let out those tiny baby hiccups. Someone got a centimeter from your chest while you slept to make sure you were still breathing. Someone held you in the dark and thought about how damn hard this is and, yet, how compelling.

(Cia de Foto / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

I want you to know this because I didn’t know it before having Maya. Before having Maya, I was very grateful to my parents, my mom in particular. I could name a million amazing things she’d done for me during my conscious life — from the mundane to the sublime, coordinating carpools to creating cultural experiences so I could see beyond the confines of my hometown to the big, wide world. I was probably uncommonly aware and expressive about my gratitude for these things, a sensitive kid, a watcher and a communicator.

But I had very little understanding of the things my mom had done for me before I had consciousness. In the space before my memories start, I have realized, there is a galaxy of nurturing that I had never witnessed, a love the color of the darkest hour in the middle of the night, a generosity beyond generosity. If you’ve never mothered or fathered, or witnessed parenting up very, very close in the very, very beginning, you might be like I was, you might not fully comprehend how much you have been cared for. It’s almost impossible to take in.

(Cia de Foto / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

But you must. You must right this moment pause and say to yourself, “Someone loved me enough to make sure that I survived my most defenseless days. When I could give almost nothing back — not even a simple thank you or a smile — someone relentlessly fulfilled my needs.”

I ask you do to this, not out of some martyr impulse. I don’t even care if you call this person and thank them (though that would be nice, hint, hint.) I ask you to do this out of sheer astonishment. It is the earliest and most fundamental affirmation that you were loved. And there are so many days, no doubt, when you question how much or how well you are loved. Rightfully so.

(Cia de Foto / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

No doubt there have been days when you looked back at the parenting you’ve experienced and felt let down, unseen, maybe even abused. There were so many mistakes made, so many parts of you misunderstood, so many needs unmet. You wear the scars. You carry the wounds — some passed down generation to generation. It is complicated and, yes, everyone was doing the best they could. But so often it wasn’t good enough. This is true. It’s important. It’s shaped you.

But before all that, there was this year (and more, in fact) when things weren’t as complicated, when you had a variety of incredibly basic needs and someone — maybe a mother, maybe a father, maybe a grandparent, maybe someone you’re not even biologically related to — made sure that you were okay. In a world where selfishness is fairly normative, where people spend so much time in their own heads, wanting and scheming and acquiring on their own behalf, there was a time when your needs were prioritized. Even when inconvenient. Even when confusing. Even when exhausting.

(Cia de Foto / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

I tell you this, again, not to make you feel indebted. I remind you of this because it means something comforting about you, in particular, and something profound about humanity, in general. About you: you began in love. No matter what terrible things have happened to you, no matter what unloving moments you’ve endured, you can hold on to the truth that you were nurtured unceasingly at first. Someone, somewhere, showed up for you over and over and over again.

About humanity: we carry on because we are loving beyond measure. We have a kind of endurance for care that I have never fully comprehended until this year. As I dug deep into my own wells of selfless, visceral, unquestioning love, deeper than I ever knew I could, I realized that someone had done that for me, and that someone does that for each person that survives infancy.

Thank you Mom and Dad. Thank you Maya, for teaching me this — among so many — miracles this year. I understand our vulnerability and our greatness in a completely new way.

(Cia de Foto / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their baby girl Maya. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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36Reflections

Reflections

Beautiful, just beautiful. I write this through tears of sadness as both my folks have passed, tears of gratitude as the feeling of that paternal love from them has grown since then have been gone. Now as a parent myself to an amazing little person full of life and love, I thank you for the reminder that we all arrived in love. Many thanks.

You are so welcome my very precious and wondrous child.

I very much appreciate the intent and tone of this post, and although I myself was fortunate enough to have been cared for by a family who loved me, I must say that Ms. Martin, clearly and gloriously in love with her own child, as it should be, makes many assumptions that are not true for everyone. Not everyone was loved; they may have had their ass wiped, but not necessarily with loving intent, or care. Thankfully, many people have indeed been cared for by adults who loved them as best they could -- not perfectly, but the best they could. But the mere fact of someone's survival through infancy and childhood does not mean they were loved or ever felt love. And for those who weren't, this ideal vision of parenthood and childhood is also potentially a painful reminder not only of what was missed, but of how often such persons and their pain and loneliness are not seen or validated by others.

This was my reaction to this post as well. I clicked the link hoping for a miracle, but skeptical that she could fulfill the promise of the headline without skirting the whole problem of "unwanted children" - or children born into families who are too young, too wounded, too whatever to properly care for them. This piece, while glorious and true - and echoing my own sentiments toward raising my son / understanding my mother, does not address the harmful environments into which many children are born...

Yep. Lisa just said the exact same thing I was going to say. I too clicked hoping for a miracle. But instead, (and the prior poster did not say this part) the post is a heartbreaking example of a new parent's egocentrism -- no less selfish than the selfishness she references -- that assumes everyone has parents who wanted them or that their glowy new-mom experience reflects a global experience.

I and many others didn't and grew up with a mother who constantly reminded me everyday of how much she hated taking care of me as a baby, and posts like this actually make things worse by reminding me of how little cultural awareness there is of that. I wish I hadn't read it, truthfully!

The absence of the nurturing care and love we all need as human beings is indeed brought into sharp relief when contrasted with a home filled with love. Yet the dark absence itself is made more truly known as absence by the clarifying light and love that must still be proclaimed as the truth of our existence and to which we are called to recieve and be healed by.

yes, there are many who were not cared for with love and yes, the absence of that love is exactly how we know the value of the love that does exist...such paradox...without the dark we know not the light...yet still I know so many who cannot trust in love because they never felt it in their young lives...

Yes. In fact, those who survived without love early in life are often those who are the most giving in life because they know just how precious love is and what it is like to live and survive without it.

Presently, my mother is on the other spectrum of life . . . old, frail, needing much care. If we are fortunate, we have the chance to take part in her care . . . very much like she cared for us as infants. I pray that we all can love old people as much as we love babies, for they are treasures too and deserve the best we can give them . . . of ourselves!

Five years ago, we bought a new/old home with a large attached apartment for my parents--and moved them from the farm. Mom and Dad are fairly healthy for late eighties, with lots of doctor appointments and, let's see, there have been seven surgeries in five years. This is hard, much more difficult than I'd imagined--and it is joyful,more so than anyone can ever describe. Everything about it is larger, more complex, more important, and more intricate. I don't feel (as some friends in similar circumstances describe) that I'm "giving back" what they gave me. I feel that I am giving the love that they nurtured inside of me, and that I am receiving much more than I am giving.

Thank you for recognizing the importance of the elderly in our lives! It is no coincidence that when we age, we ourselves need once again to be cared and loved for tenderly. I believe there are great lessons to be learned in the caring of others who are near the end of their journey, and in being the recipient of that care. Seems a very natural cycle of life... difficult, beautiful, and a time to be cherished.

The story of survival is really a profound and inspiring fable of love. Thanks for sharing your realization that nurturing an infant is a monumental act.

thank you.

Such a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing that. Feeling the loss of my parents deeply today. Yes, I am loved and so are you.

Wonderful observations. I lost my Mother a year ago. I know that she loved and cared for me in the way that you describe because I watched her do so with my younger brother and I did the same with my three children. There is something magical about having the opportunity to care for an infant and toddler, being given the gift of molding an adult. Sometimes the magic gets lost in the mundane chores of care-taking and it is hard to see through sleep deprived eyes, but it is always there. I live alone now, my kids are grown and gone. I think of all the hours of my life that I spent loving and nurturing those little lives. I am happy that I had the opportunity and gift to do so. But the loneliness of the empty days of my life now, I would gladly swap with those lovely work-filled, hug-filled, kisses full days.

Utterly true, warts and all :)

Here, on this blog, on a Friday afternoon, you have shared something so simple, so sublime, so viscerally true, at least for my own experience as a mother and as a daughter. Yes, as other reflections have indicated, it may not apply to the 100% of the population of humankind. But there is an overarching truth to this piece: that we have all, somehow, at some point, been touched by an unrelenting, unfathomable love that exists almost without reason and surely without benefit. And for all the mistakes those loving hands have made, we somehow still know that there's a foundation to human kindness. And that gives me hope for, umm, everything.

This piece was beautifully written, but it did not speak the truth that I know. It left that part out. My truth is that some children are unwanted from the moment of conception. Others are unwanted immediately after they are born. Some children grow up never having known unconditional love or that anyone cared. It scars the soul. I'm grateful to have survived. I will always bear the scars.

yes, you will always bear them and from my point of view, they can be a testament to the strength of your power to be able to lay them aside at least some times...what do you have to lose?

I understand. Hopefully the scars will heal.I believe that only with love can we heal.

The value of this piece is in the story. It is unique to this woman's experience of motherhood. I am grateful for that. I think you represent the ideal vision of the maternal experience. As i read the responses I was saddened by women who could not appreciate the writing and sad that they did not have healthy childhood experiences. There is value in their stories as well.

To reflect on this I would thank you for sharing it and agree with you that mothers witness the ultimate life experience of raising a child. I was lucky that I got to see that as an older sibling and it has been with me for a lifetime.

Somewhere out there, in fact quite a few, a. didn't get this attentive care or b. paid for their diaper year for a long time afterward.

The author is looking at her own triumph of love and extrapolating. Triumph is not equal to truth. In fact it often skews the truth.

I find this kind of complacence to be emotionally dismissive and morally limited. I object strenuously to it.

Going into a youth ministry retreat this weekend. Good article for helping me to prepare my mind.

What a beautiful post. I think I was meant to read these words and reflect on my relationship with my mother, my other half and all the others I am blessed to meet, endure and learn from.

beautifully put
.not everybody has such an insite. love all these stories.

While thoughtful, this post strikes a romantic pose. It assumes, as many comments suggest, there is a standard for how one should feel about parents and parenting regardless of lived experiences. Simply put, her truth is not everyone's truth. We become our best human selves when we acknowledge mulitple truths as they exist within the "messy," unromantic spaces of our lived experiences rather than try and see ourselves within someone else's mirror.

What a beautiful and insightful reflection. Thank you.
-Fellow watcher and communicator :)

Thank you for so eloquently writing feelings I didn't otherwise know to express. You made in to our daily desk cry:

In my struggles as a mother, i discovered varied faith, and unconditional love found me. Without inner turbulence and despair, self reconstruction would not appear. Motherhood came to my rescue,as I realized the love my parents shared was the love they experienced and knew.

This makes me appreciate my parents.With love, compassion and a sacrificial heart they raised me.Like me they had some degree of imperfections that they struggled with while giving me as much of them as they could. I now realize that there is a standard of love that is outside myself. A standard that when not met causes ripples of pain and confusion throughout ourselves and the people around us. I am thankful for whatever love people can muster towards me and try to be charitable towards people who cannot yet carry out any representation of love as a verb.

After reading your article and the comments below, I felt compelled to share my personal experience with motherhood. I come from an extremely abusive home. Before starting my family, I was lucky to have spent some years healing my story and for me, becoming a mother helped me find peace with my own mother. I didn't think I'd ever be able to move past my anger towards her, but once I became a mother, I realized just how easy it is to let a baby/toddler die, and although I received the minimum care from her, I realized just how much that minimum care is. Friends sometimes ask why I keep in touch (3/4 phone calls a year)with my mom, and my answer is, i'm grateful to be alive. I'm sure there were many times she could have turned the other way and perhaps it was her fear of jail that spurred her on, it doesn't really matter now and those phone calls do nothing to fix the past, but they are my way of (safely) showing appreciation for not letting me die. So, although everyone's story is unique, I am grateful to have had a similar experience as the author, because that concrete understanding of absolute vulnerability, ironically helped to heal my own trauma.

Many people here are saying that this is something they and/or others didn't experience, because they were unwanted. Another way of looking at love is not as an emotion, but as an action. Someone fed you. This was how they loved you. Maybe they didn't want to, but they did it anyway. Even if your own mother didn't, someone did take the time to do it. They showed you love. Maybe not affection, but love. Love is so much more than a feeling.

This is truly beautiful. My son recently turned one and I am so proud of myself. I had several health issues occur within the first few months of his life, and I didn't think I could or would be a good mother to him, and my two year old daughter. Thank you for sharing such a precious, selfless, and beautiful time of your life with the world.

Thank you Courtney for such a beautiful reflection of your experience as both a child and now a mother. I always say that you never really truly know what love is until you've met your child whether that be through birth or adoption. It's an amazing feeling that I am unable to describe. So thank you, thank you for reminding me as I embark on motherhood once more to live in the moment and enjoy even the zombie like state I know is around the corner.

Now, for those that are posting reflections about unwanted children or the difficult environments some children are brought into. Yes, these do exist, I won't pretend that they don't. But why are we going there? Courtney's reflection is positive as that is HER experience. Discussing these other experiences is simply that, a completely different topic of discussion. I'm sorry for those that still carry the scars of their upbringing but I hope that if you do decide to be a mother/father one day that you take your experience and choose to go in a completely different direction much like my husband and my own father whom I hold in high regard. Because even though their own childhoods were marred with sadness and certainly not enough love, they have chosen to live their lives completely differently with an emense capacity of love for their children.

One of the best stated and human articles I have ever read. Bawled the whole way through.

very nice article .