As the August sun settled for a moment above the rooftops visible from our corner hospital room, I glanced down and the fresh pinkness of my newborn daughter, who was cradled against my chest. She was only a day old, but her shock of blond hair and cat-like cry had already become ingrained in my brain.
She was ours. And in a matter of hours, we would be let loose into the world to care for her on our own.
This thought was daunting, of course. We were young, fresh-face students about to begin our senior year in college as new parents. Our apartment was tiny but it was clean and organized. Stacks of diapers and newborn clothes awaited our arrival. We had spent months shoving furniture into the smallest corners to make room for our newest addition. But first, we had to be discharged.
The nurse arrived that morning, bright-eyed and cheery with a clipboard full of information that we would need in the following weeks. She stood next to the hospital bed and spoke slowly, as if she knew I had not yet awoken from the giddiness that came with being a new mother, on top of the fact that I had not slept in thirty hours.
“You’ll need to set up an appointment with her pediatrician for her first shots.”
I nodded eagerly. Of course. Shots. I knew that.
“Swab around her umbilical cord stump until it falls off. Then you can give her a proper bath.”
Ah, yes. The stump. Another nod.
“Becoming a parent is a wonderful thing. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
I nodded once more and glanced at my husband who slept even as he sat in an upright chair. I could see our daughter’s face reflected in his peaceful, snoring one and felt a tug at the corners of my mouth. We were no longer just a couple. We were now a family.
Then, the nurse lowered her voice, glanced around and said, “And what I’m about to tell you is not coming from the hospital, but from me.”
At this point, I stopped nodding and instead exchanged a look with my mother, who sat on the small couch against the wall. I could feel it coming. After all, this was the South and I had made it that far into my hospital stay without any sort of confrontation or reference to God, other than the tiny elderly lady who had meandered into our room to offer us an equally tiny Bible.
A sort of angry electricity built around me as I prepared myself.
The nurse continued, “I’m just going to tell you that bringing a child home is such a happy time. But I don’t believe you can have a happy home unless God is in it.”
The electricity around me retreated into my chest, and I felt as if I would explode. Instead, I looked once more at my daughter, at the life my husband and I had created, without the hand of some divine being but instead through one moment, on spark that had happened nine months before.
I took a breath and replied, calmly, slowly as she had to me, “You know what? My husband and I don’t believe in a god. And I’d say that we’re perfectly happy.”
“Well. . . like I said, just my opinion,” she stammered. The look of surprise on her face, her rush to sign my papers and leave the room, were enough to alleviate my anger. That moment, however, is something that I have integrated into my head and heart. That nurse, the astonishing assurance of her tone, and the way that she disregarded the potential belief or disbelief of her patient.
That night, we arrived at our apartment with bags of gifts the hospital had given us, cheap pillows they had forced us to take home, and a newborn who slept quietly for a couple of hours at a time until her mewling cry pierced through the darkness and jerked my husband and I out of our much needed sleep.
The nights that soon followed were filled with our quiet steps and voices, as to not wake the Little One. Days passed, with spit-up and tears and the small moments that multiplied into wonder-filled accomplishments: the first time she smiled, laughed, crawled, stood. The moment she first reached for me with her grabby hands because she knew my arms meant comfort. The instances that my husband and I looked at as small representations of human kind’s ability to stumble, fall, and then pick itself up until it accomplished something remarkable.
And now, as Little One has begun to run, her feet hitting the ground with an awkward stutter followed quickly by her squealing laughter, the words of that nurse no longer make me angry. I no longer feel the heat on my face, the wave of embarrassment that I have been told so many times I should feel for not believing in a god. Instead, they bring about a small smile, just a twitch, and a sigh. Because now, I know, despite the confidence with which that nurse spoke, the wrongness of her words.
Our family has learned to depend on one another, rather than a deity, for strength in difficult situations. We exchange kind words and encouragement instead of prayers. The intrigue of discovery, the spark that ignites in our daughter’s eyes when she has discovered something new, surpasses any religious ritual. This is what makes us a family. This is what sustains our home. And above all, this is our happiness.