Several months ago, after a long, sweet stint as a champion sleeper, my then 10-month-old son, Daniel, began sitting bolt upright at the unlovely hour of 4:30 a.m. and wailing until I went to him. Hanging over his crib rail one night, shivering in my thin white nightgown, I had a flashback. I was 4 or 5, and I woke up either sick, afraid, or just lonely and called out for my mother. From where I lay, I could see straight down the hallway, see her stumbling toward my room, her pale nightgown backlit by the dim light from the stairs. In my memory, she's an angel come to rock me back to sleep.
But now I'm on the other side. I know exactly how it feels to be the woman in the nightgown: the instant transition from deep sleep to action. The sensation that there's actual sand in your eyes, actual lead weighing down your bones. Then the amazingly soft feel of your child's silky hair, his warm heavy breath, the way your hand takes up almost the whole of his back. It hurts, because it's so late and you're so tired, and then it hurts again, because your heart just breaks with love.
Finally, I can sit across the table from my mother and nod knowingly. It doesn't matter that I became a mom in my 30s, after college and a career, whereas my mom had her first child just a couple of years out of high school. We may have taken different paths, but we wound up at the same place, that 4:30 a.m. one. When I had a baby, I got it -- the visceral pull of motherhood -- and I realized that this is how my mother felt about me.
How that stunning, simple realization can change your relationship with your mother, however, depends on what it was like before you had a child. Giving birth may draw you closer -- or cast new light on old, sometimes thorny, issues.
Denise Schipani is a writer specializing in health, fitness, and parenting.