On the selfishness of motherhood

When Avery was two months old, a bicyclist died in Seattle. It was a regular morning commute. She was riding down 2nd Ave. It was three days before a new light system for the 2nd Ave bike lane was installed. She was going straight. A truck was making a left turn. They didn't see each other. She died. Instantly.

I didn't know this woman. I had no connection to her, nothing in common with her, beyond the fact that we were both mothers to young babies.

When I first heard that a cyclist died, I brushed it off. I didn't mean to be callous, but people die every day, all the time. It's a thing that happens to everyone. But then someone told me this person who died was mom to a young baby, and suddenly I was seized with the most acute sense of vulnerability and loss I think I've ever experienced. I actually had to walk away to go cry.

For weeks afterward, I struggled. Every time I so much as thought about the bicyclist, my eyes would water and my milk would let down (an unfortunate side-effect of being emotional while breast feeding). I spent an hour crying to my mothers' group without even really being able to say why, other than that my heart was broken for both baby and mother.

I think about that bicyclist, that mother, all the time. I think about her every time I consider rushing out the door in the morning, and it stops me so that I kiss my daughter and my husband. I think about her every time I put Avery down for a nap, and it reminds me to say "I love you," even at the risk of waking her. You just cannot know what will happen. You cannot know.

These days, I struggle mightily to read books or watch movies or TV shows where babies are hurt or mothers are hurt or the two are separated. Things that I could have emotionally glossed over five months ago now crush me. The reaction is physical, visceral. It's not just a profound terror of losing my daughter, it's a profound terror of not being there, not seeing her grow up.

It's funny... before I became a parent, so many people told me about how incredibly selfless parenthood makes you. Things you never thought you would or could do are suddenly easy if it means sparing your child pain. And that's true. I look at my daughter and I know that there is nothing I wouldn't do to ease her pain. As Emmy Lou Harris and Don Williams sang, I would swim the sea for to ease your pain.

And yet... my experience of parenthood feels selfish. 

Selfish, because I have been given the gift of understanding that my capacity to love is so much deeper than I imagined. Selfish, because the only fear that comes close to that of living without her is the fear of not being here to see her live. Selfish, because the joy of being her mother so vastly outweighs any sacrifice.

And so, so vulnerable, because no other life has ever mattered so much to me. And because my life, and with it the ability to see my daughter grow up, has never mattered so much.

A bicyclist died in an instant on 2nd Ave in Seattle three months ago. The empathy that sprung from her death will endure for a lifetime.


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