The first four months of pregnancy, I was certain I was having a girl.
Friends told me that if I craved sweet foods (I did), or carried high (I did), it was bound to be a girl. When I daydreamed about becoming a mother, it was a daydream predicated on my primary image of motherhood: my own mom. And my relationship to my mom is, well, a bond between two women. Inadvertently, even if understandably, I got attached to the sense that I’d soon have a daughter.
So when the ultrasound technician told us we were having a boy at our 20-week appointment, I had a genuinely difficult time processing the information. It felt not only improbable, but impossible. So much of my experience of pregnancy was an experience of dramatic femininity — the powers and processes that my body, as a woman, made possible. The thought of sharing the space of my body with a baby boy seemed somehow incongruent with the experience.
I remember feeling a shift in my attitude and disposition toward my baby when I learned he was a boy. It wasn’t a decrease in love or affection. It was just directed differently. It was a shift in kind, but not degree. Because I could no longer picture motherhood in the terms of my relationship to my own mother, I had to rethink what this relationship would look and feel like. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had been preparing to love a baby in my own image: a baby I’d love because of all we had in common.
But this boy would not be a little me (neither would a girl have been, but I could have fooled myself longer!) — he wouldn’t just be a mini-me, or even a miniature version of my husband. He would be wholly himself, wholly other, wholly outside of me. Despite coming into existence in my body, he would be a stranger; someone I’d have to get to know.
Maybe it’s silly to admit I was shocked at this obvious epiphany; maybe it’s even sillier to admit it wasn’t the last time I’d have this experience.
The second time was four months later, when he was born. Of course, parts of him were familiar: the way he squirmed reminded me of the movements I’d felt since week 17 of pregnancy; he clearly had my nose and my husband’s ears. But even amid initial familiarities, I found myself shocked (again) at the fact that he was, indeed, a total stranger. A total stranger sleeping in my house, rearranging my schedule, nursing at my breast, and requiring diaper changes at rapid intervals.
Welcoming the stranger is common expression in Christian and Jewish traditions. More than an expression, it’s an injunction about the way to love and receive others. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19); “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:1); and Christ’s own words in the parable of the sheep and goats, which makes this work of mercy essential for gaining heaven: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
Before my son was born, my understanding and experience of love was predicated, by and large, on my similarities with others: our common values, the experiences we’ve shared, the compatibility of our personalities, and so on. My circle of family and friends have always reflected me in some sense — not out of narcissism, but because they share and therefore affirm my upbringing, my taste in movies or books, or the core of my values, since those are things that brought us together in the first place. But welcoming the stranger is a call to love despite differences, despite knowing nothing at all about each other, despite, at times, even the aid of a common language (and maybe even because of these things). This, I learned, is the kind of love newborns require.
To be fair, this injunction is not a difficult one to accept when the stranger you’re welcoming is the cutest baby in the world. But it was shocking at times to realize how little I knew about this little person — how much I still don’t know. What does he think and feel when he is smiling? What will his favorite color be? Will he like math or music, photography or football? Will he be tall or short, rebellious or rule-following? Despite knowing so little, despite our current lack of a shared language, despite the ways he is still so other, such a mystery and such a stranger in my home still — I love him like I’ve never loved anyone before.