On a recent episode of the podcast Radiolab (a podcast I highly recommend), Robert Krulwich talks about an interesting study being done at Tufts University. It caught my attention. I’ve always considered fetal development very tidy. One cell becomes two, two become four, four become eight, increasing exponentially to the trillions of cells in a baby. But infancy, as any parent can attest, is not a time of tidiness. This is a messy assemblage. During pregnancy, as the baby develops within the womb, cells from the fetus spill from the placenta into the mother. It’s like my son pouring milk. He pours with intensity, like it’s a race to fill his cup. Not surprisingly, he often spills. This is how I envision fetal development. The exponential increase in cells gains speed rapidly. There is some spillage.
Because these cells are different from the mother, you’d expect the mother’s immune system to attack and kill off these alien cells in her body within hours, if not days. On the contrary, these cells remain within the mother not for days, months, or even years, but decades. Forty years after my birth, my mother still carries some of my cells within her body.
The obvious question is “Why?” What function do they serve? The unsatisfying answer is “We don’t know.” The results are mixed. In some cases, these cells appear to help the mother. They rush to areas where backup is needed and help protect, defend, and repair the mother. In other cases the cells appear to hurt the mother. In cases of arthritis and rheumatism, it appears that these cells rush to the site and join the attack. So sometimes these cells help, and sometimes they hurt.
And these mixed results seem fitting. This is a cellular sliver of motherhood that reflects the whole. Mother’s carry their children within them, long after delivery. There is an intimate connection that is unparallelled, even by the bond between father and children. This is unique. This level of intimacy brings with it a host of joys and sorrows that carry on for decades to come.
- The joy of watching them take their first step, and the sorrow of loneliness when they leave the nest.
- The joy of a child’s wise choice and the sorrow of watching them face consequences of foolishness.
- The joy of an honest answer and the sorrow of deceit uncovered.
- The joy of a warm embrace and the sorrow of a screaming fit.
- The joy of watching them succeed and the sorrow of seeing them fail.
- The joy of a transparent conversation and the sorrow of the silent treatment.
- The joy of commending them and the sorrow of punishing them.
Motherhood is a bi-polar mix of joys and sorrows. Children are the greatest source of blessing and joy and pride. They are also a powerful source of pain and grief and anxiety. And this is what makes motherhood the most difficult and most rewarding role a woman can play. Long after the child is born, the mother holds that child within her – on a cellular level, within her body; and on an emotional level, within her heart.