You can’t necessarily tell from this photo, but the first several months of Milo’s life were full of some really dark days. Between crushing postpartum depression, and an extremely sick baby who needed open heart surgery, this was probably the hardest period of my life. Until now.
The upheaval and uncertainty in my life right now cannot be overstated. Both of my parents have recently been diagnosed with cancer. I am on the cusp of divorce. The fallout from that…financial, social, psychological…is devastating. I am trying to jumpstart what appears to be my nearly-lifeless career, and I have no idea where I or my children are going to be living in a few months. But that isn’t what I’ve been thinking about today.
Today, I’ve been thinking about Milo. Today, he turned nine years old, and I can hardly believe it. This kid took me apart and put me back together in a way that I never saw coming. My expectations of myself were blown to bits upon Milo’s arrival. It caught me off-guard…this new kind of fragility that I hadn’t identified with prior to becoming a mother. I know that for me, as an adopted person who has never known a biological relative, to give birth was profound on a different level than most people experience (and it is profound even in the most common of circumstances). Milo has drawn out the full range of my capabilities, both positive and negative. I have tapped into my strongest and most loving self with him, and in my darker moments, I’ve also scraped the bottom of my most shameful qualities. I love him with a fierceness that can feel literally breathtaking at times, and I am more grateful to him than he will ever know.
Today was the first kid’s birthday since Jason and I have announced our separation (we will celebrate Felix’s birthday in a few weeks). Our level of civility with one another has been…inconsistent…so I’ve had some anxiety about how we would handle Milo’s birthday in a way that would feel supportive and loving to Milo, and also not push either Jason or I past our boundaries. And although there were times when it was uncomfortable, and lots of times when it was sad, we managed a day of cooperation and respect and genuine celebration of Milo.
And I guess I’m just trying to stop and notice these moments…these brief places where it feels like even if things aren’t lining up perfectly, or don’t look quite right, they can still strike me as beautiful. Jason and I have broken so many things past the point of repair. Celebrating Milo today is a reminder (and a welcome one, at that) that no matter how much we’ve destroyed, we also built something…somebody…whose beauty will outlast us, will outlast this blinding, wretched storm that we are trying to weather. They say that divorce is one hundred times harder when there are kids involved, and I wholeheartedly agree. So much of this would be simpler if it were just the two of us, weighing our own consequences our own futures. But for all of our anger and low-blows and relentless hostility, our resentment and sadness and pain…what a gift it is to have these kids who, just by their nature, call on us to turn down our ego’s and turn up our gratitude.
Looking at these pictures makes me sad; sad for the present, and for the future. There are lots of days I can’t look at them at all. But today, as I celebrate Milo, the person who made me a mother, I want to also celebrate Jason, and all our imperfect stumbling hopefulness over the years: that part can’t be undone, and it’s not for nothing.
photo: cara totman
Over the course of today, lots of friends have wished me, along with Milo, a happy “birth” day, and I love that acknowledgement. June 29 is the anniversary of the day that I labored for sixteen hours before bringing Milo into the world, and becoming a mother. It is also the day that Jason became a father, and that we became a family.
This dismantling of our family as we envisioned it that day…it is heartbreaking, and I expect it will remain so for quite some time. But when I re-read my journals and notes from that year of postpartum depression, I can remember the terror and free-fall and loss and confusion of it all. And I see how I did put myself back together again, eventually. I don’t look the same. I am not the same. I am not better or worse, but I am definitely more with the experience of coming out the other side. I can try to hope for the same for our family: that after the dismantling, we will be put back together in a new configuration that supports us all.
Its 11:00am, and I am lying face down on the hardwood floor in my living room. I’ve given up on trying to reach the runaway LEGO motorcycle that has driven away under the couch, and now my son is driving his Hot Wheels cars up and down my back. This is the closest thing I’ve had to a massage since becoming a parent. The kids and I have settled into a lazy pile in the sun, and they’ve launched into their favorite game, “Would You Rather?”
“Would you rather be a giraffe or a walrus?” Felix asks me.
“A giraffe,” I say, resolutely. “I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be tall.”
“But forever?” Milo interrupts, unsure that I’ve given the right answer.
“At least for as long as I’d be a walrus, sure.” I answer, although I am suddenly, inexplicably, not sure at all now.
I find myself not sure of much at all these days: I’m not sure what to do for work, I’m not sure if I want to be single or partnered, or with whom. I’m not sure if I should sell my house and leave town, or if I should find a way to buy my husband out of it and stay put. I’m not sure if my therapist is only pretending to like me, or if anyone is only pretending to like me. I’m not sure if I should try being a vegetarian again, not sure if the kids have allergies or just back-to-back colds, not sure if I’m doing Pigeon pose correctly when I practice yoga. And now I’m not sure if I’d rather be a giraffe or a walrus.
But it’s Milo’s turn. “Would you rather be stuck here in this house with us forever, or never see us again?” he asks. I meet his solemn eyes, the color of root beer, and see that he is holding his breath.
“Be here with you guys, forever, of course!” I say quickly, scooping him into my lap. I kiss his freckled cheekbone and breathe him in, my head filling with his little-boy smell of sunshine, maple syrup, and dirt.
This one I’m sure of.
“Your turn, Mama,” they remind me.
“Ok. Would you rather…it be winter forever, or summer forever but you can’t go swimming?”
Felix’s round face winces at the hopeless choice. “Yours are too hard,” he whines.
Milo shakes his head at me. “He’s only four, Mama,” he reminds me.
“Sorry. Would you rather…have tuna sandwiches or veggie burgers for lunch?” I slide Milo’s skinny legs off my lap and pull myself up to standing, and they both follow me, like ducklings, into the kitchen to help.
As I chop celery for tuna salad and Felix stands on a step stool, struggling with the twist tie on the bag of bread, Milo sets the table and wonders out loud, “I don’t know what I would choose…summer or winter.”
“Oh, sweetie: you don’t have to,” I say, feeling guilty for introducing such existential hardship to him right before lunch.
But he won’t let it go. He continues, “I want to say summer. But then I feel so sad about not being able to swim…so I think I need to choose winter. And that makes me sad because I know I’m choosing wrong.”
I notice out of the corner of my eye that Felix is spooning straight mayonnaise into his mouth, but I let it go for the moment.
Milo goes on, “I just love swimming so much.”
I smile at him. “I do, too, buddy. So much.”
His face brightens. “Hey, do you remember when we went swimming in Nana and Papa’s pool at night in the dark?!?”
“Of course I do. That was so special and fun.”
He is hopping up and down now next to the dining room table, holding our three napkins to his chest, the memory too joyful for his body to contain. “I hope we can do that again sometime. Together.”
I can’t help smiling to myself as I carry our lunch to the table, remembering that night in the pool. It was so hot out, still over 80 degrees even after the sun had gone down. Milo’s sleepy confusion slowly turned to excitement as my parents and I got him out of his sweaty blue whale pajamas and into his green shark bathing suit and walked him, barefoot, out into the night. I will never forget his thrill at seeing the pool lit up in the dark, the fireflies blinking in the lilac bushes around the fence.
There was something redemptive about that night for me, too. Profoundly so, in fact. When Milo was three weeks old, his dad had been working late at the bar we owned up the street. After the staff had closed up for the night, they all decided to go night-swimming at a local swimming hole. Jason didn’t come back until the sun was coming up. I was at home, deliriously awake with our newborn, worrying and wondering where he was. When he told me he’d been swimming, something cracked inside me, and I was flooded with such betrayal that it took me years to articulate it properly.
I think it was that first smack of loss as a mother: there is a loss of freedom, of course, but one anticipates that when preparing for a baby. The gut-punch was the loss of being an equal partner on equal standing in a world that had felt equally ours, pre-parenthood. I had lost access, and I felt cheated, and horribly petty for feeling that way. I also felt foolish, for not seeing it coming. These feelings, of course, have faded and paled; it was almost nine years ago. Other betrayals, of greater magnitude, have since eclipsed it. It seems almost silly to me now that I was so upset. But at the time, when I was alone, crumpled at the bottom of the black well of postpartum depression, I honestly thought it might kill me. My nipples raw from Milo’s pitiful latch, everything still raw from childbirth, I was ashamed of my bloated body and my sad, broken brain. I remember ugly-sobbing, and Jason trying to understand why I was so upset. “I’ll never go night swimming again,” was all I could manage.
So, I wouldn’t trade that night with Milo for anything. I grew that child inside my own body, and I taught him how to swim. Floating on my back beside him and looking up at the stars, seeing his proud face reflecting the moonlight off the water as he splashed me playfully and paddled away into the darkness…this did more to heal that painful open seam inside me than a hundred nights at the swimming hole with friends ever could.
Motherhood has been a road of miracles and potholes and confusing detours that I am mostly too exhausted to reflect on properly. It is a whole lot of “Would You Rather…?” Would you rather let them play videogames while you scroll through Instagram, or would you rather drive them to pick three quarts of beautiful strawberries that they’ll rave about all summer, even though you all get sunburned and eaten alive by black flies? Would you rather make macaroni and cheese again and have dinner done and cleaned up in no time, or would you rather let them “help,” measuring and spilling grains of rice, clumsily hacking zucchini and carrots…the only vegetables Felix will eat…into bite-sized pieces for a strange and messy stir-fry? Would you rather work your butt off for your career and not see your kids enough, or would you rather stay home with them (also working your butt off, for what it’s worth)? In the small world of small kids, it is easy to feel that every parenting choice is unbearably sodden with meaning and consequence: what if I’m doing it all wrong?
And that’s just the parenting side of things. My marriage is a whole other raging dumpster fire that is threatening to not leave anything standing in its wake. Would you rather hunker down inside what burned you, this short-circuiting electric fence of a relationship, or face everything, forever, alone? Would you rather crawl home to your parents with your tail between your legs, or fall to your death on your own two feet? Would you rather get a bulldog divorce lawyer and bankrupt yourself for justice, or just cut your losses, swallow your pride, and hope you make it out in one piece?
Milo yelps suddenly as Felix knocks a tumbler of apple juice onto the kitchen floor, bringing us both out of our separate daydreams. “I made a juice accident,” Felix redundantly explains from his stepstool, helplessly holding up his mayonnaise-covered hands, as Milo and I both scramble for paper towels and drop to our knees. Crouched on the floor together as we mop up the juice, our foreheads nearly touching, he meets my eyes gravely and says, “Never mind. I choose summer. Even though that wouldn’t be my best kind of summer. Maybe I would find a way to go swimming somehow, eventually.”
And I’m flooded with love for him, and his tiny heart that won’t give up on summer. And this is all really just to remind myself: you *did* go night-swimming again. He will go night-swimming again. You will love again. You will fall down again. And again. You will learn to recognize loss as a chance to be grateful for what remains. You’ll try to remember that you’re not ever choosing “forever.” Even if you think you are. Even if you wish you were. You choose and choose and choose again, sometimes under duress and sometimes when there is no right choice. You’ll wrestle with, pick apart, and revisit your choices; all in the midst of the daily business of simply putting one foot in front of the other, and packing lunches, and filling prescriptions, and checking for ticks at bath-time, and pulling the couches away from the wall to collect the LEGO’s underneath.
Finally, we are sitting with our sandwiches, the floor and Felix’s hands both wiped clean. I see Milo and Felix meet each other’s eyes and smile knowingly, and Milo mouths the words, “No, you ask her.”
“Mama, I love you,” Felix begins.
“I love you, too, Felix,” I reply carefully.
“Mama, would you rather…get me and Milo a kitten, or a puppy?”
This photo of me was taken by my husband. We were out to dinner for my birthday (I was turning 33), and in this photo, I am nine and a half weeks pregnant. This was a pregnancy that was planned, very-much wanted, and that ended up not being viable. The day before this birthday dinner, we had learned that the heartbeat of the fetus had become barely detectable, that it had not developed normally, that a miscarriage was imminent, and that I would likely need to have a D&C (technically, an abortion) to remove the tissue of the dead fetus from my uterus the following week.
I don’t share this story very often for a number of reasons. The most important reason is that, too often, the language and the lens we use to talk about abortion is clouded by moralism, guilt, and trauma. Abortion is healthcare, and attempts to ban it are assaults on reproductive rights. Period. Too many publicized narratives defending abortion have described it as a “necessary evil,” with even progressives using apologetic language that reduces abortion to a social faux pas; something to be permitted, but discouraged.
The abortion bans in Alabama and Georgia dictate that the actions of the medical providers who supported me through my circumstances during that time, while I also simultaneously managed my grief and mothered my toddler at home, would have constituted a felony crime.
My experience is no more legitimate or compelling than anyone else’s. My position as a white, middle-class, cis-female mother in a heterosexual marriage potentially privileges my story over other more marginalized people’s, and that is honestly one of the reasons I don’t talk about my own experience very much in this political context. I don’t believe that these types of “worst-case scenario” narratives are the best way to defend reproductive justice; they toe the line of viewing abortion as a “necessary evil,” and I vehemently reject that framework.
There is no ethical or humane way to limit abortion rights. Most people have heard of the Hyde amendment, which was cleverly imbedded in the appropriations process for Medicaid in 1976, and has been successful in barring federal Medicaid funds from covering abortion care, except in the case of rape or incest, or to save the life of a pregnant person. Congressman Henry Hyde was transparent about his intentions when he first introduced his amendment: “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion; a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the… Medicaid bill.”
Shifting circumstances in my life have meant that my family and I no longer have private health insurance. In the midst of learning to navigate the staggering bureaucracy of MassHealth, it suddenly occurred to me that I might not have access to safe and legal abortion any longer. In all my years of non-profit work for reproductive health, graduate school for reproductive health policy, and general activism for reproductive justice for marginalized populations, I always took for granted that the rights I was fighting for were other people’s. Living in Massachusetts and having access to private health insurance, I never felt even a flicker of fear that my own reproductive autonomy was at risk. It was sobering, humbling, and thoroughly terrifying to me that as a Medicaid recipient, I might be barred from fundamental reproductive health care. After a bit of research, I was able to confirm that through the advocacy work of NARAL ProChoice Massachusetts, Massachusetts is one of fifteen states in which Medicaid recipients have access to abortion through state funds.
Still, though, the reality is that the majority of low-income women throughout the United States do not have access to abortion, and there is an undeniably coordinated and concentrated effort to erode the reproductive rights of all women under this godforsaken administration. Nationally, almost 300 bills restricting abortion access have been filed so far during the 2019 legislative session, and nearly half of those have been outright bans, aimed at taking away the rights of people to make their own healthcare decisions. As part of the sustained and targeted attack on abortion, several states are also enacting trigger bans, meaning patients and abortion providers would be criminalized as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned.
None of us are beyond the current call to action. Donate money if you can: NARAL, The Yellowhammer Fund, and Access Reproductive Care –Southeast are all groups that have seen the writing on the wall, and have been organizing and preparing for the worst. Volunteer your time if you can’t donate. If you can’t donate or volunteer, then use your voice to condemn the attacks on reproductive rights: talk to the people in your life who might not grasp just how chilling these laws are. Talk to your children, your students, your Trump-supporting uncles. I just talked to the UPS guy for a minute about it (we are, happily, in agreement). None of us are beyond the impact of this assault on public health. None of us have the luxury to stay quiet right now.
I watched Milo exit the school bus, taking one great leap that spanned all three of the giant black steps, and tumbling into the brown grass of the front yard. He hit the ground running, his unzipped backpack in one hand, and his winter jacket in the other, flying out behind him like a cape . A sheet of folded white paper floated out of the backpack as he ran, and danced down to the frozen grass. He knelt to grab it, without missing a beat, and clutched it in the hand that held his coat, waving it at me excitedly as I opened the front door to meet him. “I wrote a fable!” he announced, breathless and flushed from the cold, kicking off his green sneakers into opposite corners of the entryway. “Also, I’m the best poet in third grade. Also, you need to sign my field trip thing.” His jacket and backpack dropped to the floor, forgotten, but he carried his fable to the kitchen counter, where he smoothed it out and proudly handed it to me.
“We could write fairy tales or tall tales or fables, but I did a fable because I thought there should be a moral. I didn’t do a tall tale, because I’m trying to only tell the truth, at least until Santa comes. But the moral in my fable is to not take things that don’t belong to you. At first, my moral was, ‘Don’t play with toys that are for kids ages 8 and up if you’re only 4,’ but Ms. Robinson helped me make it shorter. The story is the same. Do we have any granola bars?”
As usual, the flurry of chaos that accompanied Milo’s arrival woke Felix from his nap, and he puttered out of his darkened bedroom, squinting sleepily at us. “I want a granola bar, too!” he declared, yawning. He climbed up into his booster seat at the dining room table, and the December afternoon sun coming through the sliding glass doors lit up his unruly hair like a halo.
This transition from being alone in a quiet house to suddenly mothering still feels a bit like stripping gears to me. Even eight years into this parenting gig, I haven’t quite gotten the hang of shifting smoothly from me to them. But I’m noticing recently that more and more, these afternoons and evenings alone with the two of them feel less like the bumpy, careening ride I’ve come to expect, and more like settling into a long, comfortable straightaway. I am genuinely glad to be home with them. Lord knows this hasn’t always been the case.
False witness is so easy to bear, and although I haven’t exactly been secretive about my lack of grace in motherhood, I am still often ashamed of the way that parenting can fill me and drain me in equal measure. The presumed narrative, of course, is that mother-love is a pre-ordained superpower; an innate shield against the dark moments of selfishness. But I haven’t found this to ring true. My survival tactics have mostly been staccato, shallow, and short-term. Thaw the chicken. Write the poem. Grade the papers. Do not forget preschool pickup. Drop off a check for taekwondo. Drink. Fix the poem. Drive to the birthday party, and do pelvic floor exercises at each red light. Order a pizza. Do housework in spurts. Write in sprints. Make more bubble-gum-flavored toothpaste appear from the tube that the child has insisted is empty. Research vasectomies.
A woman’s body, after giving birth, is expected to return to its former contours as quickly as possible. But this isn’t so for our minds. Seemingly, our thoughts are supposed to go the way of our picture-perfect nurseries: pastel and subdued. The autonomy of my mind dissipated when I became a mother; I permanently lost access to solitude. What were once the private actions of my brain—daydreams, narcissism, perversions, creativity, scholarship, miscellany—are now swamped by the intrusion of parenting.
But these days, there is a bit more…negative space… around the three of us. It’s colder, but also somehow easier to breathe. I cook dinner, Milo and Felix orbiting around me, and I turn the dance music louder, imagining that I can bottle their laughter as we bounce around the kitchen. Somehow, they don’t seem to know that we’re dancing on a sinking ship every night before bath time. I have always had a sharp tendency and a high threshold for self-delusion, and I worry that maybe they’ve inherited this. But Milo, without asking anymore, only sets the table for three.
In Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, “Call Them by Their True Names,” she writes about the power of naming things. She explains, “When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it…Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”
Naming something is often the first step in the process of liberation. In the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, it is the Queen calling out Rumpelstiltskin’s true name that makes him fly into a self-destructive rage, and ultimately frees the heroine from his coercions and shakedowns. We often think about fairy tales as being about magic and enchantment, but in reality, disenchantment is more often the goal. The nature of being under a spell is that you lose your autonomy. The “happily ever after” to which fairy tales endeavor is often the result of breakingthe spell: a spell that turned someone into something other than themselves (The Frog Prince), robbed them of their voice (The Little Mermaid) made them doubt their own minds (The Emperor’s New Clothes), or left them in a deep, death-like slumber (Rip Van Winkle, Snow White). The resolution of a fairy tale is when the myth of the magic is upended, the illusion dissipates, and the character returns to her true form.
Maybe, as someone who probably wasn’t the best poet in third grade, I should follow Milo’s lead and start workshopping some fairy tales and fables. There is no discernible moral to our story right now. Except, maybe, to not hide from our problems. But rather, to show up, humanely and in good faith. To accept our circumstances as medicine: bitter, measured, but also hopefully…life-prolonging, and maybe even restorative. To recognize the tendons binding us together; the blood between us. This broken body of our family, as we name and diagnose it. Listing off the tasks; listing off the grievances. The listing is a form of paying attention, which is a form of love. And the list, indomitable, keeps growing.
A couple of months ago, Milo discovered Mad Libs. I gave him a quick-and-dirty rundown on the parts of speech, and he was off and running. We’d hear him giggling alone in his room as he carefully penciled lists of his favorite words…skateboard, boogers, Pokémon…before plugging them into the nonsensical stories. One evening after dinner, he was hunched over his Mad Libs book, and getting frustrated because he couldn’t remember the difference between nouns and verbs. “Lots of words can be both,” I offered. We sat together and thought. Attack. Fool. Hammer. Burn. Surprise. Escape. “Can you think of any?” I asked him. He chewed his thumbnail, thinking, and then his eyes lit up. “Fart!” he yelled, delighted. “That’s a great one,” I laughed, writing it down.
Later that evening, once the kids were in bed, Jason and I were in separate corners on separate couches, lost inside our phones. He broke the silence, “Oh no: they’re cutting down the tree on Mt. Pollux.” He turned his phone towards me, the browser opened to an article from our local news site. We didn’t need to say anything; we were both feeling the same sinking sadness. Our tree, the aging maple at the top of the hill where we had sat in the grass, cutting up apples and cheese with my Leatherman knife almost twenty years ago, had been hit by lightning so many times that it was no longer safe to leave it standing. I skimmed the article, noted the date of the tree removal in my phone calendar, and we promised each other to try and make a trip there to have Milo take a photo of us by the tree before they cut it down.
“Cut!” I blurted, suddenly. “It’s a noun and a verb. I need to write it down for Milo.”
We never did make it to the tree. They cut it down, and I don’t think we’ve spoken about it since. I am so mad at us for not getting there to take that picture. It’s so perfectly representative of so many of the things I’m mad at, all the things that keep falling through the cracks. We don’t get the gutters cleaned, we don’t finish reading the parenting books, we don’t save enough money for Christmas presents, we don’t plan vacations, we don’t go to couples therapy. Our struggles these days have darkened and rusted into something beyond the ordinary vicissitudes of life. These days will not be the ones that we look back on and laugh about. And the battles we are fighting right now are too complicated to be described in simple terms of victory or loss.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the (often barely perceptible) difference between letting go and giving up. I’ve been thinking about how they had to cut down the maple tree at Mount Pollux, because it had been hit by lightning so many times that it was too damaged to continue standing, and how sad it felt to let that tree go.
We are light years away from where I thought we’d be. I remember how at our wedding in 2007, somebody gave a speech and described the two of us as being “lit up like stars.” The other day, Milo came home from camp nearly bursting with the new knowledge that the light we see when we look up at the night sky is partially from stars that are already dead, and burned out. “They’re not really there anymore, but we can still see them and know they were beautiful,” he explained. Even for stars that burn out, there is no doubt a glow that lasts beyond itself. (“Glow can be a noun or a verb,” I reminded Milo, scribbling it on a Post-It for him to stick in his Mad Libs book.)
Our wedding anniversary is this weekend. Eleven years. The anniversary gift for eleven years is steel. Are the gutters made of steel? Maybe we can get each other new gutters for the house. Or, possibly, a lightning rod.
Or maybe we can think of it another way. Steel is also a noun and a verb. As a noun, it is hard and cold; rigid and impassive. But steel as a verb, like any good verb, denotes movement, mutability, action. Maybe the gift is to make this the year to brace, fortify, and strengthen; chain-linked arms holding each other up, galvanized.
“It will take all your heart, it will take all your breath.
It will be short, it will not be simple.”
-Adrienne Rich (Final Notations)
Last summer, I thought I had killed the begonias. They definitely looked dead, their red petals faded and shriveled, drooping into the mulch. I dug up their soggy brown roots and threw them in the compost pile behind the swing set. I mentally added “gardening” to the list of my failed attempts over the course of the summer. As I looked around at the overgrown yard, I took in the plastic squirt guns and whiffle balls scattered in the grass, the tangled garden hose attached to the leaking sprinkler, the empty iced coffee cup forgotten next to the grill, the gutters that needed cleaning. I felt familiar irritation rising up inside me. I have the particularly vexing brand of anxiety that manifests itself as anger and impatience when I’m confronted by perceived failure or chaos. To put it another way, I have anxiety that is triggered by mothering.
I’m sure there are women who have transitioned gracefully into motherhood, but I’m not one of them. Nearly every aspect of it has cut me to the quick. No one tells you that once you have a baby, your entire rubric of self-worth is turned on its head. It’s like the scales by which I had previously measured my worth were suddenly broken. I would step on, and nothing would register. Am I a good friend? Am I smart? Am I pretty? Am I thoughtful and funny and passionate and driven? No. I was barely alive: dull and witless, completely at odds with my body, desperately lonely and depressed. I have friends who tell me it gets better. My response is usually to wipe away my tears, grit my teeth, and nod, saying, “That’s good. Thanks.” And not believe a word of it.
I think that the hardest part has been recalibrating my expectations to allow for how chronically bad I am at most things now. I’d make it to a yoga class, but I’d forget my water, and I’d have no change for the parking meter, and I’d leak breastmilk all over my yoga mat. I got a part-time job, but I’m always five minutes late to work, and I forget my water, and I feel guilty the whole time I’m there. I make the time to write, and all I have are stillborn ideas, unable to focus on anything but the clock ticking down the babysitter’s time. And I forget my water.
But time passes. The conversations shift. I learn, slowly, to use new metrics for things like happiness and success and beauty. I place new weight on things like patience, presence, and silliness. And although my days are still full of bathtub toys and baby shampoo, and cutting grapes in half, and wrestling with 5-point harness car seats, and folding tiny pants and tiny socks, I am no longer quite so shell-shocked. I exercise. I read books, even some that are not about parenting. Occasionally, I go to bed early and sleep for hours, uninterrupted. When someone asks me, “What do you do for work?” I can answer smoothly, and no longer weakly offer a stammering explanation of the work that I used to do before I had kids.
Everyone says to new mothers, “The days are long, but the years are short.” And every new mother seethes at this, because they know better than anyone exactly how long the goddamn days are. And because the days never end, it is impossible to accurately gauge how short the years are. I see my kids growing, of course, but so much of my mental energy is spent trying to speed up the passing of time (“Get your shoes on!” “Hurry up!” “No, we don’t have time for one more book: it’s time for bed!”) that I often forget to pause in the mundane, exasperating moments and look for the gratitude. But it finds me anyway, sneaking in one morning while I’m in the weeds with the toppled sippy cups and packing the lunchboxes and finding the lost library books and brushing other people’s teeth. The toddler suddenly pronounces the word “watermelon” properly for the first time, instead of saying “Water-Lemon,” and I feel a sharp prick of sadness for another wisp of his babyhood, gone.
One night after dinner, a few months into the early winter, I stood at the kitchen sink and finished my glass of wine. I surveyed the mounds of dirty dishes and sighed, steeling myself for the Sisyphean climb towards bedtime. Staring out the window into the backyard, past the brown grass and the sandbox toys and the soccer ball, I saw something bright. It was the begonias, somehow no longer dead. A shock of brilliant red, ten feet into the woods, blooming in the compost.
“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who doesn’t like peaches.” –Dita Von Teese
I write personal essays. About my personal life. My purpose in my writing is to hold myself accountable to authenticity and growth, and I try to do that by reflecting on experiences that have shaped me. These experiences nearly always involve other people, usually those closest to me and to whom I feel the most responsibility. My husband is fiercely private. My parents are not only private, but they also despise vulnerability, and they adamantly deny any whiff of scandal or dysfunction in our family. And my kids, while they continue to be hilariously and devastatingly inspiring, are growing up and I feel an evolving sense of protection towards them and their own right to privacy. Writers, especially writers of memoir and personal essays, have struggled forever with how to navigate the ethical business of writing about other people while still being true to their own creative process. Am I writing my own story or am I exploiting someone else’s?
I remember being sixteen and telling my mom that I was queer. I was prepared for resistance and had my talking points ready: Don’t you want me to be happy? Isn’t that what really matters? She was solemn and sad, and the moment stands out as one where I had let her down more than usual. And although she didn’t push back with the religious fervor that I’d anticipated, I remember her saying that she didn’t want me to live a life with so much stigma and judgement. It was a crystal-clear message that being true to oneself was not only NOT sufficient criteria for a happy life, it was possibly not even a necessary condition. She believed it was absolutely preferable to live a quiet lie than to live a truth that would invite judgement.
A few months ago, my mother told me that she read my blog, and that she wished she hadn’t. She said that she didn’t understand the point of it, and she didn’t understand why I felt like I needed so much attention. I went hot with shame. “I don’t write it for you,” I told her softly. “That’s for sure,” she said under her breath, not looking at me.
It’s hard to disappoint your mom. There’s a Peggy O’Mara quote that says, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I suspect that my mother’s own inner voice was shaped largely by someone whose primary concern was, “What will the neighbors think?”
It’s not that I need an audience, necessarily. Its more the need to not be ashamed of my own story. It’s more the importance of pushing through the ingrained tendency towards silence and shame. I want to be able to put myself and my process out there even though it triggers my insecurity; that is the point of my writing. And I think it’s also important to say that it has never been my intention to use my writing as a tool to humiliate or punish anyone, but rather to use it as an instrument to shape meaning from my life. These stories aren’t here for readers to see what other people have said or done, but rather to see how I’ve come to understand myself in the aftermath.
So, there’s this thing that’s been really hard during the last few months. A person that I love very much has been struggling with serious mental health problems. In the interest of physical and psychological safety, I’ve drawn some boundaries around me and my kids, and because of how those boundaries have been perceived, this person and I have become estranged. I haven’t written about it, partially because I feel very much still in the thick of it and not in a space where I have enough perspective to process it very well. But another reason I haven’t written is because I’m trying to work through the ethical questions of how much of it is actually my story to tell. I have very painful, complicated feelings towards this person and our relationship, but I also know that he needs support and compassion. We all need support and compassion. A family is fractured and hurting, perhaps irreparably so, as we circle each other, wary and betrayed. Each attempt at conversation feels like a rope slung across space, as likely to kill us as to save us.
A writer-friend gave me some generous advice today. When she was writing her memoir, she said it was essential for her to mentally divorce the actual process of writing her book from her thoughts about getting the book out into the world. That resonates with me so deeply. Writing is hard enough; worrying about how it will be received renders it nearly impossible. The paralysis comes from that censoring yourself before you’ve even written anything is exhausting and demoralizing. This Anne Lamott quote is the mantra I play in my head when my second-guessing starts to overwhelm me. “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Her gentle reminder that I can claim ownership over my own life experiences, her unambiguous directive to tell my stories, and her frank humor about how people should just behave better are all the things I need to hear when I start to doubt myself and my writing.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was accused of “disturbing the peace,” in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he supposedly responded, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” As a woman, as a daughter, I have learned that keeping the peace most often means keeping quiet, especially around uncomfortable truths. My work…perhaps all of our work…right now is to dismantle the remnants of my subconscious equation of “peace” with “quiet.” Here’s to a 2018 ringing with true peace.
“How’s the writing going?” ask the nice people in my life. There is no good answer.
My “writing life,” such as it is, has been relegated to ten hours a week at the community college, helping students write English 101 term papers and scholarship essays. And at home, the only words I seem to have are the ones that I say on repeat all day long: “We don’t throw our forks.” “Where is your other mitten?” “No hitting.” “Bath water is not for drinking.” “WHAT is in your hair?” “Sweetie, you can’t open it while you’re sitting on it.” “Yes, I am SURE that your socks are not on the wrong feet.”
And “Please, not tonight; I just want to go to sleep.”
I have so many flashes of half-born-ideas, surges of motivation and creativity that always, always, are stunted. As I collapse into bed in the evening, I wonder, delirious, if I might be a genius if I were only given the space to actually think. But in the morning, when Felix asks me what a cloud is, I just stare at him dumbly, and cannot say.
The entire week had felt like the careening disaster of a two-bit carnival ride operated by convicts. I reacted as I often do, by commencing the most tidy nervous breakdown possible. My daily outfits now incorporate pink rubber gloves on my hands and a red bandana tied to my head, a spray bottle of white vinegar and a steam mop always within an arm’s reach. If I cannot feel competent or fulfilled as a mother, wife, writer, daughter, I can at least be absolutely sure there are no crumbs on the counter, no soap scum on bathtub faucet. The volume on the television is nearly always turned alarmingly loud, to accommodate for the fact that I am nearly always vacuuming. I am a black hole in our house, sucking the stars from their eyes.
I’ve gotten an email from Milo’s first grade teacher explaining that he’s been disruptive and rude at school. There was an incident with a classmate on the playground. And another one in the bathroom during lunchtime. When I ask him about it at dinner, his retelling is bewilderingly diffuse. I try to press him for clarity, careful to keep my voice calm. He shoves his cup of milk away from him, clenches his pale fists, and snaps at me, “I already told you: I didn’t DO anything!” He turns to face Felix, who is jamming the tines of his toddler fork into the spout of his sippy cup. Milo bangs his hand twice on the table to get his brother’s attention. Then he takes a bite of his tortellini, chews it, and opens his mouth to reveal the contents to Felix. “Milo!” I shout, exasperated first at him, and then at myself for shouting. Felix, of course, is delighted, and already trying to mimic Milo, chewing up some peas and opening his small, laughing mouth.
I grab my wine glass and stand abruptly, startling both of them. I storm down the hallway, hissing—not quite under my breath—I am so sick of this. Sick of what, though, exactly? Of the kids? That’s like being sick of the sun.
What am I actually sick of? The Sisyphean task of picking up toys. The stubborn belly fat that I blame on exhaustion, winter, cortisol, the crusts of the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches… anything but the beer that I seem to be drinking more of than ever these days. I’m sick of not being able to carve out a few minutes of order, so that I can take a deep breath and try and appreciate my lovely life properly.
I strongly disliked the person I’d just demonstrated, afresh, that I was. And that is the simplest definition of depression that I know of. And I am sick of being depressed.
Poor Milo. It’s not his fault that I often feel like he is everything difficult about me, stuffed into an angry, anxious 44-pound body. I am too hard on him. I am too hard on myself. He is too hard on himself.
“He is six,” Jason reminds me, daily. “Six.” He is always trying to plant seeds of sanity and goodwill, hoping each time that they’ll take root.
Thank goodness for Jason. It doesn’t seem like so long ago that we were twenty, and lit up like stars. Our arguments full of fever; never malice. Our cups always full. We knew that we could do anything. We knew we were blessed. But holy hell: these years are giving us a run for our money. Now that the smugness of youth has faded, I can see the gristle and bone of us. A different kind of beauty; a different kind of love. We’ve seen each other get knocked down a few times. We’ve dusted each other off and struggled to our feet. I remind myself that we wanted adventure. We wanted to do hard things. I still want the reckless thrill of being at sea, but I don’t want to drown. I want my dirt floor, swept clean of dirt. There is a lot to be learned from wanting something both ways.
I go back to the dining room table where the kids are still sitting, slightly subdued now, cautious. Milo is chewing on the collar of his t-shirt; a nervous habit. I take in his shipwrecked look; this family the island he’s washed up on.
I kiss his head. I kiss Felix’s head. I sit, and set down my wine. “Let’s try to talk about it again,” I say. “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow is another day. Another chance. For all of us to practice being our best selves. To see each other “whole and against a wide sky,” as Rilke writes.
As I put the kids to bed, I set my intentions for tomorrow. Steeling myself, promising to be mindful; to be present; to be kind. I will fail somewhere. And I will try again the next tomorrow. Each long afternoon bleeding into the one long afternoon of their childhoods. I know that I’ll look up one day, too soon, and it will be twilight.