by Merry Gordon
I used to travel. That was before the kids (these days, just passing the Asian food section at the grocery store seems exotic). But back then, I had overheard enough wistful adult conversations about wasted youth to know I’d better take on the big, romantic world long before the grim reality of mortgage payments and stretch marks set in. By 16, I was hoarding copies of Travel + Leisure under my bed; by 18, my bags were packed.
My first destination?
Everyone comes to Paris with expectations, but mine were absurdly naïve. My France was a hodgepodge of fashion spreads in Elle, a Renoir pocket calendar and the Madeline books—oh, and that mildly dirty nursery rhyme involving naked dancing ladies and a hole in the wall. In the Paris I imagined, everyone wore berets and Dior and Chanel No. 5 and ate croissants in corner bistros. Paris was sexy, très chic. I stepped off the tour bus and took in my first view of the city.
It wasn’t the Eiffel Tower.
It wasn’t lovers kissing in a boat on the Seine.
It was a naked man urinating into a cardboard box on a litter-strewn curbside.
Très chic, indeed.
Nearly everything about Paris echoed my first let-down. The Eiffel Tower was overpriced and crowded, the bread was stale, and I got insulted by a trio of sweaty French boys on the Champs-Élysées (at least I think I did—while I’m not exactly sure what they said, some gestures are probably universal). The Mona Lisa was small, and even a twilight cruise down the Seine was interrupted by a mizzling rain and Eurotrash techno thumping from the open door of a club.
I left disappointed, but eventually I got over Paris.
I got over myself a little too. I grew up, got married. My priorities changed. By 25, I was hoarding copies of Baby Talk under my bed; by 27, I was exhausted on a delivery table waiting to hear my newborn daughter’s first cry.
The nurse beamed down at me. “Congratulations! You’re a mommy!”
But once she handed me the discharge papers, it was like Paris all over again.
Expecting to jump right out of my hospital gown and back into my size five Calvin Kleins, I was shocked to find myself still shuffling around the house in my husband’s sweats four weeks postpartum. Having been assured by glossy La Leche League pamphlets that breastfeeding was both serene and natural, I was unprepared for round-the-clock feeds (involving six pillows and another pair of hands just to get the position right) and more howling on my part than on my daughter’s. And that whole Gerber baby thing? After a vacuum delivery, my precious newborn looked more alien than adorable. How was I supposed to fall in love with this lump of flesh that only had the capacity to scream, poop and projectile vomit?
But I did.
It started small. One particularly desperate night, I sang Pink Floyd because I’d run out of lullabies. About halfway through “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” I felt that little head finally snuggle into my shoulder and my universe shifted. All those books and blogs, and nothing could have prepared me for the reality of parenting: one moment you’re a chorus away from tipping the kiddo’s pacifier in Benadryl, and the next moment a milky sigh and the clutch of a tiny finger elevate you to a zen-like understanding of the cosmos. Powerful stuff, that.
I finally got it. It wasn’t like American Baby promised—I’d been up since 2 A.M., I couldn’t remember the last shower I took, and most of the pillow talk between my husband and I that week had involved our daughter’s stool consistency—but the moment was real and potent and entirely untranslatable in the airbrushed perfection of parenting magazines.
Because of my experiences as a mom, I think of Paris differently now. I was so obsessed with the Travel + Leisure version of the city that I got hung up on a couple of stale croissants; I should have been paying attention to the gypsy guitar player scattering those crusty remnants to the pigeons and singing “Hotel California” in broken English. And maybe I got harassed by a Gallic Casanova or two, but one of them did bear a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp. I burnt my finger during sightseeing? It was on a prayer candle I lit in some tiny, off-the-beaten-path medieval chapel I had ducked into to escape the drizzle. How could I not have noticed the beauty in that?
Parenting is just like Paris, all a thousand tiny unexpected moments that are imperfectly perfect—sometimes only in retrospect.
Every time I try to explain this to one of my non-parent friends, I feel a bit bad—not in a condescending way, but in a way that recognizes the inadequacy of trying to describe the indescribable. Wait a sec. So it’s not like the magazines? There’s screaming, and spit up, and sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations, and you’re telling me this is a good thing? That you’d go back and do it all over again?