Local Dispatch: Naturally, a mother figures out just how offspring can thrive

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Fifty years ago, when I became a mother for the first time, I had nothing to prove except that my husband and I were definitely on board with the pope's policy of no interference with nature's way.

I somehow knew -- but also somehow forgot -- that the marriage act can cause immediate pregnancy. Once I accepted as true what my nausea and tiredness were suggesting, I had to say goodbye to my teaching career.

As instructed, I took a note from my doctor to the board of education stating my official due date. I watched as the school board official counted back the days and told me exactly when I would have to leave the classroom so that none of my students would ever know that teachers, once married, could conceive and bear children.

My first Mother's Day was also the day of our first son's christening, a huge family event hosted by my proud parents. Now I cringe to see those pictures of a chubby me gingerly holding what looks like a bundle of blankets, accompanied by a startled husband whose eyes still showed shock at becoming a father so soon, so soon.

Only once can a woman be a mother for the first time. Who would want to live over again those first few days of total responsibility for keeping a child not only alive, but also dry, warm and well-fed? While I welcomed the assistance of my own mother, I resented her insinuation that my attempts at full-time nursing were making the baby starve. (Couldn't I see him chewing on those little fists?)

And his bath had to follow her pattern, set down by her own mother and those in ages past. First, fill the white enamel tub with tepid but not too tepid water; hold the baby under his shoulders so the head can be supported; rub Johnson's Baby Shampoo on a baby wash cloth; swirl; rinse; pat dry the head. Then delve into those cracks and crannies under the armpits, between the legs and around the navel.

Once, after having learned the art of inserting a rectal thermometer coated with Vaseline, I could tell that my son was in danger when his temperature rose above 102. My panic was so extreme that we summoned an obliging pediatrician to climb three flights of stairs to our attic apartment in Squirrel Hill. The doctor may have found it a useless trip, but to my husband and me, his assurance that our son would survive this mild infection was worth the extra price we paid for a home visit.

A few months later, this first son of mine managed somehow to squirm and fall out of the high chair. His chin was clearly cleft and his blood was really red. Having no car and no money, with my husband at work in the city, I ran downstairs to my landlady to borrow enough for a cab.

My son remained calm and enjoyed the ride while I cried all the way to Children's Hospital. After the usual waiting room ordeal, his chin was quickly repaired with three small stitches applied in two short minutes. My boy was easily consoled with a sweet teething biscuit, but nothing could assuage my guilt for having failed to protect our first prince of the realm from the slings and arrows that life had already prepared for him.

Little did I know that my lack of control over the fate of my child was the fate of every parent, not just for a day but for all days.

Plenty of advisory books exist on how to prepare for motherhood. The best news is that it's all there in the genes. Once a woman goes into labor, the process is out of her hands. The baby will do what nature requires, and the breasts will produce milk as they have been designed. As an unconfident new nursing mother, I often comforted myself with the notion that primitive women with no access to Dr. Spock could nurse their children and keep them happily alive.

Fifty years ago my husband and I were just two kids in love, ready to go with whatever life had in store for us. We could not have guessed that our first son would be followed by his four brothers, enriching our lives far beyond the price we paid in laundry, cooking, coaching and crying as needed to get results.

Now that we have been blessed with 12 grandchildren, we have more than enough reason to give thanks for what our days and years of parenting have given to us and to our family.

intelligencer

Donna Lund of Upper St. Clair can be reached at donnajlund@hotmail.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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