The gift of purpose comes in a tiny bundle

Our daughter’s first birthday party culminated with the presentation of the cake, a mound of yellow buttercream frosting with red and blue piping, a taste of the decadent, forbidden world we had been hiding from her all this time as we served up pureed peas and carrots.

She took a few moments to study the foreign object, then sent her right hand in for investigation, bending at the wrist and scooping her fingers like an excavator. She sampled a bite and promptly turned to my husband, at her right, and shoved a fingerful into his mouth, swiveling to offer me the remainder. Our sweet little girl, always sharing!

Soon there was a crater in the center of the cake, and I had to cut Maria off and bathe her. The Sony camcorder captured it all, adding to more than 800 videos Ted and I have shot of her first, must-document 12 months.

It has all been so incredible, so groundbreaking and axis-tilting, that we’ve felt the need to get it on film, burn it into something in case we couldn’t believe it or remember it. We play the snippets back to ourselves when we lie in bed at night — bleary-eyed, love-drunk new parents who can’t quite get enough of the babe sleeping in the nursery down the hall and projected on a video baby monitor, which we also stare at, willing her to stay still and sleep, yearning to kiss those big, droopy cheeks.

‘Ongoing miracle’

I’ve never grown so much in the span of a year. It’s almost as if the time leading up to her arrival was just a dress rehearsal — Ted and I playing house as we waited for Real Life to begin.

Capecchi
Christina Capecchi, her husband Ted and daughter Maria. Courtesy photo

This? This is it — beginning with her first, full-throttle cry at 10:48 a.m. on a rainy April Saturday and never ceasing. The hospital staff practically had to kick us out, and Ted joked with our favorite nurse that he wanted to pull an Angelina Jolie and take her home with us. For all the other cute newborns in that maternity ward, frankly, I’m amazed she was willing to part with ours, the most exquisite. Though Maria had been inside me for nine slow-cooker months, it was clear she had the dew of heaven on her peach fuzz. There was no question that our baby was a pure, intact gift from God, dropped down from celestial clouds through an umbilical-cord zip line.

To experience Maria’s first year has been to witness an ongoing miracle, to believe that anything is possible.

That doesn’t mean the early days were easy. Mainly, nursing: so painful and so frequent. We recorded every feeding and every diaper change on a chart tucked into a clip board that we toted around the house. The breakthroughs were small in scale but felt momentous; each day I’d figure out some little adjustment that would make Maria or me more comfortable, some anticipatory measure I would be grateful for at 3 a.m.

‘Mommy club’

“It goes so fast!” veteran parents told us with a fuzzy, far-off look.

But oh, it didn’t feel fast. It felt like slow motion — every round of hiccups, every burp, every whimper. Once the sun rose and Maria would stir, I’d lift her from the co-sleeper and let her sleep on my chest, my reward for making it through the night. We took it day by day.

Suddenly I was part of the mommy club, and what a powerful unifier it was. The secret judgments I had made about other parents washed away. Now I understand how seemingly simple things like the timing of nursing and napping can, in fact, be complicated. When it comes to parties and events, I feel like applauding any parent who shows up with kids who all have clothes on, no matter what time they arrive or what they forgot.

One day, in talking to the next-door neighbor, it occurred to me that she was still clipping her kindergartner’s fingernails, and I felt the weight of responsibility; all those tasks will fall on Ted and me for years and years to come — things that will go undone if we don’t do them.

‘I had changed’

I felt myself rising to the challenge, embracing my self-taught, trial-and-error education in motherhood. I felt a new, stronger sense of purpose: I was Maria’s mom, her only mom, her life-long mom. Now I think about boldface notions like legacy and mortality. Mostly, I have reason to live as long as I can. On the other hand, if I were to die tomorrow, I would have the peace of mind knowing I had fulfilled my most sacred purpose: to be a mom, to give life. Now I see my fertility as a special gift, one I want to nurture and guard. Because I can see myself in my daughter, I’ve come to love myself in a new way.

With Maria at the center of my life, my people-pleasing impulses have faded. The first time we took her to Mass, we sat in front of a husband-wife pair who both turned out to be sick. They weren’t just coughing mildly; they were hacking up a lung. I kept sliding the car seat further down the pew, and during the shake of peace, when I am normally rendered spineless and stick out my hand to receive whatever virus is being offered, I smiled and did a little curtsy wave, refusing to subject Maria to their germs. In that moment, I knew I had changed: I was a mom!

‘The divine happening’

Her baptism was a highlight, a sunny, celebratory morning when I could feel a flash of the divine happening, extending from her 11-pound body to my outstretched arm. It was a second, a snap — soon we were taking pictures and opening gifts — but it was real, and I have carried it with me.

The grace of the sacraments and the wisdom of our ancient Church have offered me great comfort as a new mom. We do not stand on sand; we are anchored by the marble of Catholic tradition, which I will spend my life breaking apart with Maria, piece by piece.

Last September I read Pope Francis’ America interview on my iPad Mini while breastfeeding, and my world seemed at once narrow and broad, rocking in the corner of a darkened nursery and somehow part of Rome.

One of my favorite passages is the pope’s discussion of the “spiritual senses” — “the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situation.”

My spiritual senses have been heightened since becoming a mom, and they are especially acute at night when I hum a few measures of Anne Murray’s “Danny’s Song,” lay Maria in her crib and call on the angels to hover above her. I think of our gentle, grinning pontiff, and I feel connected to it all. Peaceful, grounded, strong.

Christina Capecchi is author of the nationally syndicated Catholic column “Twenty Something” and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week.