If you were to peek inside an egg early enough, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were looking at a fish, a rabbit, or a human.
This early embryonic development, when all vertebrates are virtually indistinguishable, is known as the phylotypic stage. At this point, every creature resembles a tiny little shrimp curled in on itself, bulging eyes the only indicator of which end is up.
Many believe, like I once did, that the similarities between a human baby and a lizard ended at the phylotypic stage — that you raise your precious baby in a special and uniquely human way. I was wrong.
The flamingo is a beautiful bird, immediately identifiable by its bright pink plumage. The source of this brilliant coloration is in the birds’ diet, which consists of brine shrimp and blue-green algae. But, after mating season is over and the flamingo has a nest of little chicks to care for, the pink color can fade. A great deal of the bird’s energy and nutrients have gone into the care of those little chicks and the draining effects are visually evident.
I can remember a time in the early days of motherhood when I lost my pink. Blood loss from birth meant the reflection staring back at me was pale and lifeless, once pink cheeks were void of color. The sleepless hours where night bled into morning passed beyond my notice. I was exhausted. The energy I did have gathered in my breasts and went back to my baby. I wondered if I would ever be the same person again. I could hardly remember who that was.
Slowly, as the baby flamingo gets more independent and relies less on its parents, the color of the adult flamingo returns. I have faith that my pink will come back too. It already has, as my babies have learned to sleep through the night and weaned from breastfeeding to those jars of pureed fruit. Right now, I am the lightest shade of baby pink, barely more than white. I know that with time I will return to the vibrant shade of pink from before, a color I can hardly remember right now.
There came a point where I was tired of spending all day in the rocking chair. I wanted to go outside again, to see the sunshine. Maybe if I was ambitious, I could clean the house. Trying to set my baby down was unsuccessful. He only felt safe in my arms. So I wore him all the time, like the latest fashion, in a baby carrier that strapped over my shoulders and around my waist. With him strapped securely to my chest, I was able to load the dishwasher and go for a walk. Every day I was infinitely grateful for whoever had devised baby-wearing. It’s hardly a new invention. Women have been carrying their babies around on their backs for thousands of years. Just like the sea otter, who carries her pups on her chest, securing them to her with pieces of kelp.
Motherhood brings with it a new understanding of tiredness. Orcas and dolphins stay wide awake with their babies for a month straight after birth. They have developed a way to survive this ordeal, for the benefit of their offspring. My own ability to stay awake with my babies wasn’t nearly as awe-inspiring, but exhaustion isn’t even close to describing how I felt. The tendency of babies to wake frequently through the night and deprive their parents of sleep is common knowledge, but I never knew that it transcended species. I think of the dolphin mother, swimming in circles and keeping her eyes open and I remember those long nights where I was treading water just to keep my head above it until the current could carry me to the next day.
I’m not sure if I would have survived my journey through motherhood without my own mother and grandmother. When I woke in the night to find my baby with a raging fever or I had a question about breast milk storage, I ran to the phone to call for help. When I needed just a few hours to take a shower and rest, my grandmother was waiting with eager arms to hold my son. They say that raising children takes a village, and it's true across species.
Elephants live this way, too. They raise their young in matriarchal societies, with the oldest and wisest females providing support to the new mothers. Research shows that the survival rates of the elephant groups are directly related to the availability of older matriarchs. My grandmother showed me the best way to burp my son and relieve his gas so we could both sleep, just like the eldest female elephant leads the group to other sources of water in a drought.
My husband was an invaluable member of the village, too. I was paralyzed with fear when I realized that I hadn’t just chosen a life partner, but a father for my children. I knew I made the right choice soon after our babies arrived. In the days following the birth, I was restrained to the bed for treatment. As I continued to bleed, he would help the nurses lift and clean me. When it came time to try walking again, a difficult task after a cesarean section, he held my hand and guided me around the room. I watched his large, calloused hands gently wash our child’s tiny head during his first bath. When I needed sleep, he would wake with our sons during the night to give them a bottle of pumped milk. Not all fathers in the animal kingdom are so involved, but some are. Marmoset males take their babies almost immediately after birth and care for them, giving the mom time to rest and recover from the ordeal of birth.
Looking to the animal kingdom and seeing the similarities in raising young, even across species, has brought me a great measure of comfort. Still, I catch myself glancing in the mirror before taking a shower and noting, with disappointment, the ways in which my body has changed. A little more weight in the midsection, with tiger stripe stretch marks lining my hips. A raised pink scar where my babies emerged. Breasts that no longer sit as high on my chest as they once did. There is no advice to be found in the animal kingdom for this, postpartum body dysmorphia being an entirely human experience. The polar bear gains 400 pounds during pregnancy, but she isn’t worried about it. Perhaps that is the advice in of itself.
Parenthood has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life thus far, and I have a feeling it will never lose that coveted spot. It is hard now, but I know how quickly ages one and three becomes twenty-one and twenty-three. So, I intend to savor every moment.
Though it can be an isolating experience, millions of mothers have walked this road before, human and animal alike. We will lose ourselves in parenthood, find ourselves again, and miss those tiny hands or paws reaching for ours. But in the end, we will all get our pink back.