When my daughter was 5 months old, we went to visit my husband's family. A cousin shifted my daughter into her arms, and we gazed down at my baby's sea storm eyes, her chick's fluff of hair. "She's beautiful," the cousin said. "Don't you just want to throw her out the window sometimes?"
In fact, I did not want to throw my daughter out the window — at least, not yet — but in those days, I was confronted with variations on the cousin's question so often, I began to worry about my lack of any impulses to defenestrate my child.
The current lingua franca of parenthood is a rueful sigh, a sotto voce expletive and a desperate grab for a strong drink. My Facebook feed is a stream of reposted studies claiming that having a child is more stressful than divorce, unemployment or even the death of a loved one, and links to satiric essays in which frazzled mothers fantasize about doing cocaine to make it through a day at the playground.
Accordingly, when I got pregnant, I expected the worst. Sleep deprivation, crying jags, the conviction that my body had been replaced by an inflatable pool half-filled with warm Jell-O: I was ready. But no one had prepared me to fall in love with my baby.
When she was born, and I was sucked down in a gasp and swoon of tenderness more fierce than anything I'd known. She would put her head on my shoulder and sigh, and I would throb with a physical sensation that was both flood and ache. The top of her head smelled like flowers and honey and sunshine — or so I believed, until I asked a friend what she thought it smelled like, and she took a whiff and said, "Sebum."
I knew I wasn't the only one who'd been ambushed by parental love. Even my most vociferously exasperated Facebook friend's sardonic rants about her "crackhead" 2-year-old were interspersed with pictures of the crackhead's first day of preschool and the crackhead dressed as a bunny for Halloween. Images of love-drunk mothers gazing at cookie-sweet infants sell everything from formula to investment plans, needing no words to state the obvious: There is no greater love.
Why is it so easy to joke about wanting to murder your child and so hard to talk about worrying you might actually die of love? We have a thousand words for sleep deprivation but a paucity of terms to describe that hour, just after dawn, when your child has gotten in your bed and is sleeping next to you, one arm flung over her head, her breath somewhere between a snore and a purr.
Much of the daily routine of caring for a small person is low-stakes. My daughter and I share a bagel. At the pet store, she tells the fish she is happy to see them again. The only way to transform these mundane events into anecdotes, which can then be strung together into a narrative, is to neuroticize them. So I emphasize frustration, embroider calamity. Our daughter sticking her hand in the tank to "pet" the fish, then scooping her wet hands into the bin of bird food while I shriek at her to stop, agitating the rabbits, which start banging in their cages . . . now we're getting close to a story.
I tell this story to my husband when he comes home at night, hoping to make him laugh. I tell this story to underscore how hard this job is, how poorly I am executing it, how utterly I am at the mercy of a three-foot tyrant in sparkly tights. I tell it to reassure him that I am still the sarcastic, ironic person he married, that motherhood has not made me soft-headed and moon-eyed, liable to weep at a Diapers.com commercial (though I do). I tell it to practice what I will say to the other moms at Saturday morning gymnastics, where we stand around with our puffy eyes and takeout coffees, trading polished complaints about our little monsters, additions to the canon of stories of parenthood as the worst thing that can happen to a minimally self-aware person other than not having kids at all.
The joy of parenthood is not a story; it has no plot. It is a series of moments, unspoken. At the park, a father swoops up his son and kisses the top of his head in a single, flowing gesture. At the pizza place, a mother and daughter share an after-school slice, the daughter wiggling on her chair, waving her hands, the mother listening, smiling.
Glimpsing these moments, I wonder what other, secret joys these parents are hiding, what furtive raptures they harbor. I wonder if they, too, sometimes wish there were more words to bridge the public story of being exasperated to the point of throwing your offspring out the window, and the profoundly intimate experience of having a tiny pair of hands reach inside your ribs and wrench your heart open like a stuck window.
I haven't yet found a way to ask. I haven't yet found a story to tell of this: On the way home from the pet store, my daughter held my hand for three whole blocks, not just the intersections. The top of her head still smells like honey.
Jennie Yabroff is a freelance writer and editor in New York. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.