This Mother’s Day I feel settled into motherhood, not so new anymore, not so green. There is a rhythm and a dance and a comfortability in knowing. There is the sacred tapestry of our finely-woven bond of cells and blood … Continue reading
It’s one of those mornings. I wake up worried, a whirlpool of panic threatening to suck me in. I’ve been up since 3am with a coughing baby who soaked through her diaper. There’s a lot of crying, coughing, nursing, holding, rocking. I’m afraid it’s croup, but I know it’s not croup; it doesn’t have the bark. Eventually she settles on my chest like a newborn, though she is far (and not so far) from newborn. Her legs stretch down the length of my thigh and her toes rest at my knees now. Her head is tucked under my chin and I’m breathing her wispy hair. We doze for a bit and then she’s up at 5:30am.
Coffee. Dishes. The panic makes me edgy and grumpy. I try to push it down, not let it creep up into my voice. Switch out laundry. Scoop cat litter (my favorite). I go through the morning routine. I keep moving. My fear is mostly around not knowing what’s next. I text my sister who texts me back with assurances and a virtual slap for focusing on my regrets instead of my accomplishments.
A text from a friend jolted me out of my anxiety and back into the present. Then I happened upon Jennifer Berney’s beautiful essay On Infertility and Magical Thinking, which talks about the struggle to get pregnant, all the magical thinking that takes hold, and the truth of how you feel when you reach the other side.
The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.
My second blog post was about being a magical thinker, but I also believe in that last sentence of Berney’s: We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all. It is only by chance you reach the other side of that solitary struggle with a baby in your arms. Though were you to ask my mother, she would tell you that she prayed my daughter into existence, and I believe that too.
There have been few times in my life I’ve known exactly what I wanted. But I knew with absolute certainty that I wanted a baby. A single-minded, desperate yearning. I wished on eyelashes and birthday candles and dandelions. I saw acupuncturists and herbalists and endocrinologists. I meditated on lunch breaks in my car. I went to a shrine in New Jersey to pray at the feet of a statue. We nailed a wishbone above the bedroom door. For months we looked at ultrasounds of my ovaries, squinted at vague underwater black and whites. The tests drained all the insurance money and told us nothing. Unexplained infertility. Like the universe shrugging its shoulders at us.
For two and a half years we tried. Eventually I took the last of the insurance money to a different doctor. They began by repeating the same blood work, which had all been fine just a few months before. Chris was playing hockey at night back then. There was a Russian team who liked to get rough, and Chris took a puck to the mouth and face-planted the ice. He didn’t even call me until after he’d been to the ER to get stitched up. His eye was purple and swollen shut. He had a giant lump on his forehead and four stitches in his lip. That week my blood work came back, and according to the numbers, my ovarian reserve was gone. Poof, just like that, no more eggs. Even if we could afford IVF (which we couldn’t), it probably wouldn’t be successful. (There is a metaphor in here, both of us beat up, done in.) Then came Mother’s Day. My period was late, as it often was. I didn’t dare take a test – the irony would be too ridiculous. I was dreaming again, those whispers of hope floating like ash. So I waited two days. Two days after Mother’s Day, a positive pregnancy test. Poof, just like that, I was having a baby.
This story is lost from my day-to-day. A baby will make swift work of wiping out your former life. You are rooted in the ever-changing present and jolted forward by the rapid motion of their growth – and yours. Time stands still during sleepless nights and evaporates everywhere else. You try and catch it – it can’t possibly be moving this fast. Sometimes you are so tired, so touched-out. Impatient, delirious, frustrated, worried. Other times, joyful to the marrow of your bones, happiness coursing through blood vessels, rapture thrumming in your organs. It undulates. It ripples. It surges and swells. And you swim, a novice and a natural born swimmer both at once.
Worry clouds memory, makes me forget precisely how lucky I am. My angel girl, my heavenly creature. Here we are together! Gratitude suspends worry. We go to the playground and run through snow and slide down slides together. I push her as long as she wants on the swing. I sit in the passenger seat of the car and nurse her into pure contentment before we go. I hold her while she naps, staring at those long eyelashes and rosebud lips, perfect face. I have the life I dreamed of. My wish come true. My prayer answered. I shouldn’t worry so much.
*This post was edited on January 28, 2016.
My daughter was born during a cold and snowy winter. We lived by the water in a second-floor apartment, and I can still hear the scraping rhythm of her dad shoveling the long driveway while we looked down from our warm perch. Spring came like it always does, as an affront and a relief, crocuses and mud and stark sunshine. Every day I bundled her up and walked the two mile loop over cracked sidewalks that gave way to beautiful homes and smoother sidewalks and onto the boardwalk along Long Island Sound.
The geese and ducks return first. Then osprey swoop and dive, chased by groups of little birds trying to protect their nests. As the air warms, cormorants arrive and perform their hide-and-seek magic, diving deep and popping up again twenty feet away. Summer isn’t promised until the egrets appear in the estuary, long white elegance rising from the mud. Last come the regal great blue herons.
The birds’ arrival mean babies are coming. Not all of them make it. Sick or fallen or pursued by an osprey, casualties are inevitable. There would always be a few dead baby birds on the sidewalk or nearby in the grass next to beach roses waiting to bloom. One of those stark-sun days, pushing my little bundle in the stroller, we came upon a tiny, featherless creature on the sidewalk, so newly fallen its big eyes blinked and its beak mouthed a silent plea. I was tortured. I should have moved the doomed creature to the grass and offered up a hopeful prayer that its mother might rescue it. But I was a fragile new mother who couldn’t accept even the smallest death.
I felt panicky as I carefully scooped the bird into my left hand, transparent skin pulsing in my palm. I imagined my warmth was comforting as I pushed the heavy stroller with my right hand and balanced the bird in my left, still a mile to go, fearful of bird germs near my baby and not having any idea what I’d do when I finally got home. I jerked the stroller one-handed off the curb and back into the neighborhood, over sidewalks cracked from frost heaves and tree roots, my left arm outstretched with my palm up like an offering. The baby bird was still breathing and blindly searching the air the way every baby does.
At home I laid it gently under our holly bush. I needed to wash my hands and get my own baby upstairs before I could figure out what to do. I called my husband and a friend for advice, looked online, still pretending I could save it. When I made it back downstairs an hour later to check under the holly bush, it was being devoured by ants.
New motherhood felt raw and vulnerable. My entire being contracted with fierce protection, a myopic laser vision focused on my daughter. But inside, an expansive empathy spread and extended to every living thing, especially the small and helpless. Most days my world did not go beyond that two mile radius, but my internal landscape stretched out like a western vista, big sky country reaching up into my heart.
Sometimes you call out to the universe, and the universe answers back. It echoes from the canyon, reverberates over hills, hinting you might be onto something. I’ve always been a magical thinker.
Yesterday, after months of planning this project and finally beginning, a gift arrived in the mail from an old and distant friend. Lucia Berlin’s story collection A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN, sent by my friend Jenni. We met in art school and then maintained an epic correspondence. This was almost twenty years ago, the days of actual letter writing. More than a hundred letters. Back then I was a painter, and I pictured them culminating as an art installation, papering the walls of a gallery. Now she’s a literary agent and we glimpse each other on Facebook. In her note, she said the book made her think of me, so she put it in the mail. It was funny to see her tiny handwriting again, indelible and alive.
I’m only two stories in and I already feel like, I needed this book, I was meant to be reading this book. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want to write. From the first story in the collection, ANGEL’S LAUNDROMAT:
I looked into my own eyes and back down at my hands. Horrid age spots, two scars. Nervous, lonely hands. I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.
My magical thinking goes far past echoes from the universe and unexpected books in the mail, but I have a toddler painting at the kitchen table (read: painting the kitchen table) and I’m counting the hours until my husband is home from a business trip to Florida, so that I can perhaps flee the house, if only for a short while.