Today is my grandmother's 91st birthday. In her honor, I'm posting a short essay I wrote about her while awaiting our daughter's arrival. I figure after one rejection and 15 months of wasting away on my hard drive while I was too busy to shop it around, the essay deserves a bit of air. Happy Birthday, Grandma!
Photo caption: Grandma and Grandpa on their wedding day, 1941. They recently celebrated their 70th anniversary. Photo by Doug Berg, Daily Times.
On motherhood, Grandma knows best
It was mid-afternoon, the time of day when I was typically too worn from a restless night’s sleep and the weight of my pregnant belly to do much other than read or doze on the couch. Our dogs, content with my new-found slothfulness, snoozed at my feet.
But something felt different that day—the quality of light seemed suddenly changed and wind gusts were unfastening the last leaves and swirling them to the ground. We’d been longing for this season all year; our first baby was due in a few weeks.
The event’s abrupt nearness pushed me from the couch that afternoon, and I decided to tackle two projects I wanted to finish before the baby arrived: drawing up a birth plan and reviewing a file of Grandma’s correspondence dating back 70 years.
I sat at my computer and allowed my mind to wander to the day I thought would never come. Our birth preferences were simple—nothing bizarre or overly prescriptive. Nothing our doctor would snicker about to her colleagues. The main points included minimal medical interventions and having the baby put on my chest after birth.
Last year, I witnessed this immediate bonding after my sister delivered her daughter. When my niece—naked, raw and wide-eyed—nuzzled into my sister’s chest and peered at her parents for the first time, I craved the same powerful experience with my own baby-to-be.
Energized by the completed birth plan and the intimate image of greeting our daughter, I began to sift through Grandma’s correspondence.
I always admired Grandma for her wise and self-sacrificing ways. Her life has been full of leadership roles and volunteer efforts, but she has derived her greatest joys from being a mother. Now that I was about to embark on motherhood, I realized I have much more to learn from her vast maternal experience.
At nearly 90 years old, she is a mother of six, grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother of 23. When I asked her a few years ago to describe the significance of motherhood in her life, she looked puzzled.
“How important has it been?” she asked. “It’s been my life!”
Age has affected Grandma’s memory. Thankfully she wrote masses of letters and other documents throughout her long adult life. I cling to them, working to glean everything I can from her spectacular example of motherhood.
I started with letters Grandma wrote to her parents during World War II as a new mother whose husband was off flying for the Navy. But I found, tucked into the packet, a more recent essay, dated June 9, 1976, which she had typewritten on Children’s Health Center of Minneapolis letterhead.
Grandma was one of the founders of Children’sand became the chair of the board of trustees in 1974, one of the family legacies of which I am most proud.
As part of the board, Grandma attended a White House seminar on the prevention of psychosocial disabilities in infancy. In the 1976 essay, Grandma wrote to the board, responding to the conference from three perspectives: “as a mother, a layman, and a volunteer trustee.”
It was no surprise she began with her perspective as a mother:
“Through the years I had the opportunity to observe my grandparents, parents, ourselves, and now our six children, working with their families. One factor is unchanging: the instinctive need to be close, physically and emotionally, to one’s infant from the moment of birth. Mothers need to hold, cuddle, and talk to their baby whom they have carried with them for nine months…When the baby is whisked away to the nursery right at the peak of excitement, the fulfillment and love in the first few minutes and hours following birth is denied the mother and leaves her with an incredibly empty feeling. That exhilarating intensity of emotion does not seem to be repeated at a later time.
“It is rewarding to learn that this phenomenon, which is so instinctive, is fully documented by the scientific community. Perhaps now it will be possible for the health care system to accommodate these deep-seated needs.”
The poignancy of the essay, which fell into my lap moments after I finished the birth plan, struck me. Nearly 35 years ago, Grandma was advocating for the right I was now requesting, for a quiet moment of mother-baby bonding following delivery.
Grandma’s essay, informed by her extensive maternal experience, encouraged me to fight for the last point in my birth plan. So be it if the nurses rolled their eyes. In her nine decades of wisdom, Grandma knows a thing or two about what moms and babies need.
The light fading, I settled back onto the couch as the dogs sighed and welcomed my return to the land of idleness. The baby was about to arrive. I was finally ready.
(Note: Our daughter, Cricket, arrived two and a half weeks after I finished this essay. The doctor lay her directly on my chest. She was purple and screaming and perfect. And I was madly in love.)
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.