I tip-toe over to my daughter’s cradle and furtively place my hand on her belly to feel the rise and fall of healthy breathing (a common new mom compulsion, or so I’m told), a gesture that elicits what sounds like an exasperated sigh from my already very independent 2-month-old. I breathe my own sigh— one of relief, that is— and curl back into bed next to my husband. I watch Lyla squirm a few times, furrow her brow, and sigh again before settling back into a comfortable position. Each squirm makes my heart ache in the best possible way, and I close my eyes and sink back into this new state of being— one I can only describe as a state of vulnerability imbued with incredible strength.
I rarely think of myself as a vulnerable person. I will admit that I’ve been vulnerable at times during my life, but it isn’t a term I frequently use to describe myself. I’ve always associated vulnerability with weakness, something one (especially women) must fight against in order to be successful in life. This philosophy had served me well for many years— at least I thought it had until I discovered the beauty that lies in allowing oneself to become completely vulnerable.
The events surrounding Lyla’s birth taught me exactly what I had been missing all these years. With each movement felt or heartbeat heard during my pregnancy, I fell deeper in love with the powerful little being growing inside me. As I labored to bring her into the world, I felt both my body and soul open to the possibility of loving more than I had ever thought possible. This opening, this complete surrendering, left me more vulnerable than I have ever been in my life. In the first days at home with her, I kept her on my chest constantly (unless her dad was holding her), needing to feel her near, needing to show her how much I loved her.
As the days passed, out of this feeling of vulnerability came the knowledge that I was a capable mother. As my physical strength improved, so did my mental clarity and emotional energy. Combining instinct with research, I continued to care for my child, a process I had begun ten months earlier. As I nursed her, bathed her, and took her out into the world, I felt both invincible and completely exposed. This vulnerability/strength dichotomy is inherent to my experience as a parent. Each day is trial by fire, and I come through it feeling more confident, more aware of my daughter’s needs. I fall even deeper in love with my child, which leaves me feeling vulnerable… and the cycle starts all over again.
Before I became pregnant, I had a conversation with a good friend who described parenthood as being completely willing to sacrifice everything for one’s child, even one’s own life. I didn’t doubt this was true, it was just that I had no context for this type of emotion at the time. I understand it now. I understand it on a visceral level, and I know that this desire to protect and ensure the survival of one’s child is in and of itself and act of strength.
When Lyla was two weeks old, I was invited to sing back-up on one of my dad’s songs at the Compassionate Friends International Conference. This organization exists as a support network for parents who have lost children at any age, due to any circumstances. This year’s conference was organized by my beloved aunt, who lost her daughter (our dear cousin) in a tragic car wreck sixteen years ago. Dad and his musicians were asked to kick off the morning walk to remember with his song “Walk in the Light.” As the song began, I looked out into the sea of parents who had gathered to remember their sons and daughters. Many of them had pictures of their children on their t-shirts. I ached for them. I also admired them more than words can express. In their eyes I saw the utmost pride and love for their children—these souls who continue to live on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones. I saw incredible strength, strength that I cannot even begin to imagine. Just as it was difficult for me to understand parental love before I became a mother, it is nearly impossible for me to fully understand the type of strength it takes to carry on in the memory of a child who has left this world.
What I do know is this: It is only through allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable that we experience true and deep love. Of course, this state of heart-wrenching, exhilarating, all-consuming love is not just reserved for parents. It is accessible to anyone who dares allow him or herself to enter into this precarious and sublime state of vulnerability. From what I’ve witnessed so far in my very new journey as a mother, out of this vulnerability comes unimaginable strength, the strength to care, to act, to love unconditionally every day of our lives, whether our loved ones are still with us or not.
We will walk in the light of their memory,
Run with hope in our hearts,
Fly on the wings of love all our days…
All our days.
(Excerpted from “Walk in the Light” by Dan Westmoreland)