I sat on a swivel stool next to my best friend, our skinny legs tucked under the counter in her kitchen. “Here’s your snack!” My friend’s mother, exuberant and direct, placed two plates in front of us with neatly spaced tuna fish sandwiches, sliced diagonally to make triangles. I scrunched my 9-year-old nose, but swallowed forced bites. Tuna was my least favorite. My friend’s mom chatted with us as she wiped down the kitchen counters. “Eat up, girls! Tuna fish makes your boobs grow.” Mortified, my cheeks turned crimson. I was an awkward introvert, and my own mother, who taught my brothers and me about puberty by reading us a library book on the topic, would never have mentioned “boobs” so casually to her quiet daughter.
“How do you know that?” My friend challenged.
“Why, it’s in The Mother’s Handbook, of course!”
The Mother’s Handbook was the ingenious invention of my childhood friend’s mom. She used it to justify everything from healthy foods we didn’t like, to the daily activity schedule, to why we needed to clean up after ourselves. She recruited others into the fold, convincing my mother to play along. “We do that because it’s in The Mother’s Handbook, right?” Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. My friend and I would plead with her mom to show us a copy of The Mother’s Handbook, but she always refused. “You get your Mother’s Handbook when you become a mom; that’s the rule.”
When I became a mom myself, this woman, so dear to my childhood days, sent me a lovely baby gift and a handwritten card: “You must have received your Mother’s Handbook.” Six years and three children later, I’m still unearthing The Mother’s Handbook, page by page. Part rule book, part advice column, The Mother’s Handbook holds timeless insight, guidance and is every mother’s true companion. These are the tenets of The Mother’s Handbook I’ve discovered so far:
Motherhood is unpredictable.
I remember delivering a baby in residency training to a teen mom. Her extended family flitted in and out of the overflowing labor and delivery suite, young cousins circled on the floor playing card games. The laboring teen was on her cell phone, chatting with a friend through most of her contractions. Nearing the end, she finally said goodbye, with a flourish: “I have to hang up now – I need to push this baby out.”
At the time, I had never given birth myself. I was shocked at how casually this new mother approached labor and such momentous change. I discovered over many years of delivering babies that women react quite differently to the pain of childbirth and motherhood in general, sometimes surprising themselves. While doing a rural rotation in Montana, the sweetest redhead I had ever met spouted obscenities during labor that would have put the crassest of sailors to shame. In between contractions, she would apologize profusely to her obstetrician.
My own first baby was breech, necessitating a scheduled caesarean section. With dozens of deliveries under my belt, I thought I was prepared for any complication or aberrancy that might occur with my own initiation into motherhood. But her breech status, subsequent C-section and week-long hospitalization at birth for several complications revealed my ignorance. I was confronted immediately with this first and most valuable of lessons—you can never prepare yourself for the unpredictability of motherhood.
Ask for the Barbie.
I never had a Barbie doll growing up. As the middle child flanked by two brothers, I played with Legos and GI Joes and Transformers. I coveted my best friend’s Barbie, her pink plastic dream house with the crank-lifting elevator, the open-top corvette that Barbie and Ken sped around the playroom, wind whipping their un-tousled hair.
I ached for a Barbie, but never got one. Years later, as an adult, I asked my mom why. I assumed it was some underlying feminist stance she held, abhorred by the unnatural body habitus of the iconic doll. She was trying to protect me: her half-Asian, bookish, chubby daughter from the self-castigation in which every young girl is tempted to participate. But she actually had no lofty intent. My mom said she never bought me a Barbie doll because I had never asked for one.
I don’t remember why I never asked for the doll I so desperately wanted. But I try to instill in my own children that, while they may not always receive what they desire, the ability to define it, to make known to themselves and to others their longings, is a skill in self-understanding and communication. In motherhood also, I’ve discovered the value of this ability. The demands of motherhood have refined me and defined my needs, my musts and my goals. In order to give of myself to others I need to fill myself up with those things that bring me sustenance and joy. As mothers, we need to ask for the “Barbie,” be it a weekend away with friends, a regular exercise routine, a career change or a night of takeout. We need to ask it of our friends, of our partners, and of ourselves.
No one has it all together.
Social media came of age just as I was birthing my first child. I began posting photos of my baby to Facebook, collecting the likes and complimentary comments. I used Pinterest to plan her first few birthdays: coordinated affairs with themed foods and tasteful decor. Instagram became more popular as my two youngest arrived—the perfectly framed and softly filtered images depicting a quiet baby, an expertly prepared dinner, tanned smiling faces on a beach vacation.
I remember meeting up with an admired friend from middle school. Her children were older and her life looked so polished online. I was in the throes of sleep-deprived babyhood and toddlerhood, my house a mess, my life feeling strained. She always looked happy, stylish even. Her children—perfectly coiffed, her husband—successful, her own business—thriving. I had always emulated her, even as a preteen. I was happy for her, but my life, although full and accomplished, felt worn in comparison.
We chatted over dinner, easy conversation that comes when childhood friends reunite. She admitted her family had been stretched by years of her husband’s graduate school training; she was ready for it to be completed. She had the normal worries of a mother of any teenage daughter: appearance and self-image, influential friends, the mother-daughter relationship. She didn’t know it all, didn’t have it all, and wasn’t perfectly situated in an idyllic life.
I was shocked. There was nothing severely amiss in her life, nothing out of the ordinary. But because I mostly saw her through the filtered lens of Instagram and Facebook, hearing about her everyday stressors seemed revelatory. I ascribed perfection to this dear friend who I had admired all my life, but she, like all of us, struggled too. It’s a lesson for our children also: everyone faces challenges, even the most popular, talented, happy appearing kids at school.
I began to re-filter my perception of moms on social media, acquaintances I encountered at preschool, the moms I saw at the park. I reminded myself that, just like me, they’re presenting their best selves. Underneath we’re all flawed and struggling and continually learning, every single one.
Eat your tuna fish.
To achieve a goal, you sometimes have to do things you don’t like. For my friend’s mom, she attached tuna fish to adequate development, a goal to which every awkward preteen aspires. In motherhood too, I’ve discovered many areas where I’m required to do tasks I detest, all in the name of mothering. We’ve all cleaned poop out of the bathtub, made a million school lunches, filled out lengthy summer camp forms.
But it’s the more subtle asks of motherhood—the constant interruptions, the monotony of playing the same game over and over and over again, the sleep deprivation—that I’ve found the most grating. The end goal in motherhood is more nebulous, not a tangible prize, not a destination, but an evolving accomplishment: grown, contributing, kind human beings. It seems that is worth eating some tuna fish along the way.
There’s no such thing as “just a mother.”
I started motherhood later than most. Driven to achieve, mothering took a backseat to my ambitious pursuits: medical school, doctoring, marriage, world traveling, home owning. I always knew I wanted to be a mother, but I wore these other roles and accomplishments as badges, collected them as treasures. Motherhood could wait.
Motherhood, though, proved to be not only the great refiner, but also a definitive definer. Suddenly, I was “just” mom to my child. This little baby didn’t care that I held postgraduate degrees, that I had strolled through Angkor Wat at sunrise, that I had managed an ICU in a rural Kenyan hospital. I was warmth, a source of sustenance, a safe harbor. Just Mom. It was hard to reconcile my previous multifaceted self with my new, singular role.
I’ve had friends, often who stay at home full time, who have struggled with identity too. Suddenly you are “just” mom to this little being, and it’s takes effort to not also identify yourself as “just.” The antidote seems to lie in the refining aspect of motherhood; we become defined by this all-consuming role, but as we are also refined by the intensity of motherhood. We unearth the gifts we want to cultivate.
For me, this came in the form of writing. Although I had always been a writer, I only began to take my writing seriously after I became a mother. Now I think: All those years! All that time I could’ve been writing. No interruptions. No children clinging. No bone-weary exhaustion. But it took the pressures of motherhood, the unveiling of my greatest flaws, the culling of my mediocre hobbies, to reveal my authentic self. As we grow into motherhood, we can rest in that refining role, without letting it define us entirely.
Learn on the job.
The truth is, there is no handbook. The brilliance of the concept lay in the fact that The Mother’s Handbook is customizable, malleable and fluid among the members of its tribe. We all make it up as we go. We glean from others, lean on others, imitate the mothers we admire, do our best to avoid the mistakes of the mother figures who might have wounded us along the way. This is a learn-on-the-job vocation. My oldest just entered elementary school. I’m sure I’ll receive new wisdom for The Mother’s Handbook as I journey through each stage, each challenge, each triumph.
The Mother’s Handbook is both a manifesto for motherhood and an instruction book for the children we are rearing. It’s meant to be written and re-written and shared. It’s meant to be instructive and bolstering and mysterious. The Mother’s Handbook is the great gift my best friend’s mom bestowed on me decades ago in her 1980’s tan kitchen. I hope to add to The Mother’s Handbook as I grow into my mothering. And, just maybe, get my kids to eat a little bit of tuna fish along the way.
Mary Pan is a writer and family medicine physician with training in global health and narrative medicine. Her work has been published in several online and print publications including Intima, Coffee and Crumbs, Hektoen International and Mamalode, among others. Her musings can be found on her website (marypanwriter.com) and in undecipherable scribblings in her Moleskine notebook. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three young children.
It was lopsided, struggling in the mulch, and we squinted at the tiny creature lurching under our backyard birdfeeder. “Its wing is broken,” my son said with finality, his fingers smudging the window. “What should we do?” he asked.
I looked at him blankly. Though sympathetic, I didn’t intend to do anything about the little bird. My son, however, found an old shoebox, lined it with newspaper and birdseed, and went outside. Returning, he Googled animal sanctuaries in Indiana and drove to the closest one, thirty minutes out into the country.
A few moments after he left, I returned to the window to address the smudges and spotted the culprit. A hawk skimmed the water remaining on our pool cover before landing in front of me, searching for his handiwork.
* * *
My son left for college a few days later.
In the months leading up to his departure I’d indulged in mountains of photos of his babyhood, allowing memories to re-animate, and one in particular surfaced repeatedly. Soon after his birth I’d visited my parents’ home to introduce him to my grandfather, who lived with them through a long illness.
My grandfather creaked his way across the room and lowered himself slowly, slowly onto a chair, wheezing at his exertions. I approached him, set my baby on his lap, and watched as they seemed to lock eyes. My grandfather laughed gently, passed his hand over the little head in blessing, and looked up at us. Maanchi Vaadu, he said in the Telugu language, smiling.
A good person.
Caught up in the moment’s sweetness, I didn’t think much about these words until my mother brought them up later that evening. “He didn’t say that lightly, and he doesn’t say that about people often — certainly not about babies. He knew something about your son.”
A good person.
* * *
As nostalgic as I feel now about that time in my life, I also remember its shadow side. Motherhood knocked me sideways, made me sacrifice all manner of beliefs and expectations at the altar of experience. I’d thought I was a strong and energetic person, but there I was, daily leaning over the edge of my endurance. Some days I could only sit baffled at the abominable ignorance (arrogance?) I must have had, not to comprehend the duties, the responsibilities, the sheer physical labor of a parent.
I’d thought I could work as a lawyer and take care of a child, simultaneously and well. Instead, I watched my friends quickly return to work post-childbirth, while I wept and wondered why I no longer desired to do the same. I battled myself continuously, second-guessing my decision to meander exclusively through motherhood’s uncertain corridors. For many years, I could not find peace with myself and my choices.
My second child followed seventeen months after my first. Blearily, I watched other mothers handle their offspring — often more than two — with ease, while I cleaned vomit from my blouse or struggled with a stuck stroller or rocked a screaming infant on the airplane. I listened to their strongly-voiced opinions about the optimal duration of breastfeeding and the advantages of the family bed and the environmental sustainability of cloth diapers, and I lamented all of my missteps.
When the early fog cleared in pace with the growing sentience of my children, I moved on to other methods of self doubt (torture?). Was I providing the right foods? progressed to Was I providing sufficient athletics alongside academics?Was I providing enough exposure to their culture and heritage? Was I balancing my expectations of achievement with opportunities to explore personal passions? There was, it seemed, no end to my bewilderment.
Through this fabric of my confusion, of course, little rays of light shone through — exuberant renditions of “The Song of Sylvester the Snake,” adamant insistence on matching Bob the Builder Halloween costumes, unusual variations of Marco Polo in the pool. And as they grew older, surprising opinions about politics and world events — and jokes so awful that they were hilarious.
Now that one child has taken his first independent steps into the world, I look back and wonder: shouldn’t that fabric have been reversed? Shouldn’t the sweetness have dominated my confusion? As my son defined and occupied his identity, how much had I missed due to my preoccupation with my own parenting journey? How much had I missed of this miraculous unfolding, unfurling of a human being?
Now, on the other side of that journey, I only wish I’d paused daily to see the world through his eyes, to watch what engaged him, to heed what he found beautiful or important or deplorable. I wish I’d witnessed each piece and layer and fragment that made the mosaic of him.
Instead, I can only view him in retrospect and gather the pieces I remember.
When I do so, I see the five-year-old who stopped me from killing the moth that slipped in the house. I remember the ten-year-old who insisted our whole family volunteer at a local soup kitchen. The teenager who learned about the global water crisis and then designed an app to promote conservation, who puzzled how to donate resources to the homeless in a manner that honored their dignity, who fought for gender inclusion in the clubs he led. And the 18-year-old who helped launch nonprofits committed to better education and to engagement of youth in the political process.
I am humbled by who he is, humbled at having had the privilege to usher him into the world, thankful that he has thrived despite my perplexed parenting, gratified that he fulfills daily the prediction-benediction he received almost two decades ago.
And I think of him now, finding his way, launched into a world whose status quo frightens me. But my fear for our collective future is counterbalanced by my belief that all will be well, as long as there is such a child, one who defies the circling hawks, cradles the earth in his hands, feels its beating heart, and does the needful.
Dheepa R. Maturi is the director of an education grant program in Indianapolis and a graduate of the University of Michigan (A.B. English Literature) and the University of Chicago (J.D.). Her work has appeared in Every Day Poems, Tweetspeak Poetry, A Tea Reader, and Here Comes Everyone, and is forthcoming in The Indianapolis Review and Flying Island.
My eyes travel across the pictures that grace the walls of my bedroom, taking in the ultrasound image of a sweet, unborn face. A snapshot of a swaddled babe snug in her bassinet hangs next to an image of a smiley toddler holding our hands at the shore. It feels like just yesterday that I was in the hospital giving birth to my little girl. But, my daughter is three, and time continues to speed along faster than I can grasp. The woman I once was is now skilled in extreme multitasking, instant decision-making, and the ability to wave off frustrations the way one shakes sand from a beach blanket. Life as a parent moves swiftly, and it’s difficult to hold onto anything for too long whether good, bad, beautiful or ugly. Parenting a child is a lot about going with the flow; because today is constant flow.
Today she makes me smile.
I wake to her voice reverberating from her room at the end of the hall. I steal a few more minutes in the soft sea of blankets and pillows, with the enchanting sound of the Minnie Mouse voice singing about monkeys jumping on the bed. I picture tiny hands holding stuffed animals as they leap from crib’s edge. When I close my eyes, the sweet notes reach my ears until she finally stops and calls out, “Mommy.” Then I rise from my bed, eager to reach the sunshine beyond the nursery door, her welcoming beam already an imprint in my mind.
Today she makes me crazy.
It’s impossible to tune out the ceaseless siren calls for “MOMMY,” so I break from my short exercise routine for the fifth time only to find that nothing is wrong. Crayons fall like heavy rains, striking against the wood floor as I rescue Play-Doh from between the cracks of the weathered coffee table. My child screeches as a small droplet of toothpaste settles on her shirt. I stand outside her room with my eyes closed, trying to tune out the thunder of angry little fists. I look at the clock, and I am overwhelmed. It’s only eleven in the morning.
Today she makes me proud.
I cheer in silence, watching my daughter choose perfectly matched clothes and dress herself without help. She pretends to dust the house, and I am proud. At the playground, the trees dance in the wind.They celebrate with me as we catch her words, “Thank you for helping me.” said to the little boy who helped her to the top of the slide. I marvel at her ability to sing songs and recall details that happened nearly a year ago. With every question, polite response, and new discovery I feel proud this little human is my daughter.
Today she makes me question my parenting.
Standing at the checkout counter my daughter screams like a victim in a horror movie, failing in her multiple efforts to swipe my credit card through the machine. A formidable line of impatience forms behind us. My discreet attempts at taking the card from her hand are met with howling and flailing arms. Suddenly I am a mouse of a woman to this sea of onlookers, weak-willed and unable to take control. I cringe in shame. Maybe I should be more firm. My mask of composure slips a bit more with each unsuccessful swipe of the card. But, suddenly my vision turns from red to rainbow, little fingers now distracted with plucking stickers offered by a merciful employee.
Today she makes me exhausted.
I make four meals, much of it tossed away more quickly than it was prepared. I tidy up toys, clothes and art supplies only to watch them surface again seconds later like a tiny storm . In the afternoon sun I climb jungle gyms and chase my daughter through the playground. I fly 28lbs of giggling airplane around the house over and over just to relive the joy it creates. I read books; brush mini teeth, and prepare bedrooms for slumber. Finally, my husband walks through the door to find me almost asleep on the couch.
Today she makes my heart hurt.
Today she brightens my life more than anything in this world can. She throws her arms around me and tells me she loves me. She rests her head on my shoulder while I read her a book. Realizing she’s made me upset she says, “I’m sorry mommy,” her wide blue-grey eyes waiting for my face to calm. When she laughs, I look for reasons to keep her laughing. Before bedtime she asks to snuggle in “mommy’s bed,” and cuddles by my side.
In my third year of motherhood I’ve learned that everything is only for a moment. The key to happiness amidst the chaos is in shaking off the toughest instances and in memorizing the most memorable. Every day is a journey with highs and lows. It is said that memories are always better than the experience. I suspect this is true because one is more inclined to remember those moments filled with love, joy, and wonder.
Today was a beautiful day; at least, that’s how I’ll remember it.
Marisa Svalstedt is a stay-at-home mom living in Connecticut, with her husband, and their daughter. She received her MA in English from Western Connecticut State. Her writing has been featured on Babble, The Mighty, ParentCo, Her View from Home, and many other publications. In addition to writing she enjoys photography, crochet, and jumping on trampolines.
First, I lie under the MRI machine. Then I lie in bed with a puddle of wet Kleenexes at my feet. Then I lie, like a map, on a cold operating table three times in a two-month span.
“The doctors aren’t sure what’s wrong with my leg yet. That’s why they’re sending me for all of these tests,” I lie to my ten and eight year old daughters. The doctors know I have a rare cancerous tumor. The mass lies in the nook of space where my left femur bone meets the hip socket. The doctors know it’s malignant, but I don’t tell my girls that yet. A lie by omission, I concede.
In the hospital examination rooms, my eyes connect the dots on the ceiling tiles above me while I’m being poked and prodded. Under bright lights, I recall the nightmare of when this had all started. A nagging pull in my groin area for months led me to eventually visit a sports chiropractor. A running injury I had thought. But after a few weeks of treatment, the chiropractor grew suspicious. Then, what I had thought was a routine MRI resulted in a cancer diagnosis and urgent referral to an orthopedic oncologist. Post-diagnosis, I had wanted to kick myself for dismissing the smoke signals my body had been sending me all along. Night sweats for months, frequent heart palpitations and that darn groin pain that had been causing me to limp. I should have known something was wrong. The body doesn’t lie.
Headaches, dry throat, tense shoulders, pits in my stomach have all entered and exited through the revolving door of my recurring bodily symptoms over the years. One time when I was trying to park my car before a specialist’s appointment, I was blindsided by a nauseous spell so strong it seemed that the marked lines of the parking space began floating in space and I was drifting alongside them. I’m done with lying to myself. A headache is rarely just a headache. I ask it why it is occurring and I’ve learned to listen to its answer. Bouts of motion sickness usually hit me when I’m still as a picture and waiting to hear the results from my latest CT scan. That hollow I feel deep in my gut isn’t always hunger or indigestion, but sometimes a beckoning of hurt and disappointment from when my stepmother casts her evil on us. A deafening numbness froze my body over for days after my sister Kathy committed suicide. “It’s your body’s way of protecting itself from the shock it has endured,” my therapist suggested when I visited her after the funeral. My burdens manifest in my body.
When my now fourteen year-old daughter Annabel tells me she’s tired or that her stomach hurts, my thoughts run away from the obvious, a virus or hunger pang, and instead wonder if it’s nerves over a school-related issue, or distress due to a social media drama playing out. What is happening in her life and what is her body trying to tell her? In my mind’s eye, I map out the story of Annabel’s world, as best I understand it. I try to navigate her teary-eyed waters and eyeball where the elevation peaks and valleys. Who was she with when the situation happened? What is their history? Did she get enough sleep the night before? Perhaps not making the school soccer team affected her more than I had realized? I urge her to ask her body for answers and she looks at me like I’m crazy. To Annabel, the roads of her map are labeled but they aren’t connected. She’s just not hungry for breakfast the morning of a big science test, she says. And that’s when I realize that my own life’s journey has led me to appreciate the connection between my emotions, my thoughts, and my memories and the state of my body. The body doesn’t lie. I have to do the work of listening.
So I visit Nadine, a somatic psychotherapist and cranial sacral therapist who believes our bodies are home to all we think, feel and do. I lie on a bed and she places her hands beneath me. While we talk, her hands connect with areas in my body that cause me physical and emotional pain. While I cry and cry over my sister’s death, Nadine holds my heaving chest, whispering in my ear that Kathy was ready to go. As I’m swearing a blue streak, venting my anger at what I feel was a preventable death, Nadine as cartographer, thumbs the distance between my broken heart and healing spirit. “Let it out,” she begs. “You will recover from this loss.” Her words echo whenever I’m having a hard day.
When my left quad muscle seizes in spasms, Nadine grips it with the strength of a deep-sea fisherman. She holds on so I can let go. When I try to explain these appointments with Nadine to my twelve-year-old daughter Karina, she has one word. “Weird.” I’m not surprised. Karina’s own map, green and intact, is her point of reference. Except on days when her ponytail isn’t cooperating and she shrieks in terror at the thought that she might have inherited that dreaded frizzy hair of mine. Karina’s awareness is coming. How can I expect my young girls to understand a relationship between my body and my life that took me over forty years to discover myself? As abstract as this work that I do may sound to them right now, I have to believe the roots of empathy have been planted in them. They’re bearing witness to the power of healing when we tune in.
Time weathers the map. I stand in front of the mirror and notice Annabel and Karina watching me. To understand the map, study the legend. It doesn’t lie either. Staring back at me are the ravages of time and disease and life being lived; multiple surgical scars, a few extra pounds, greyer hair, a permanent limp from losing half a limb. For now, my girls see the surface of the map. Lying beneath these markers are the truths my body holds. Everything is connected. Grief, joy, stress, whatever I feel, is absorbed in my body. From this same body, Annabel and Karina emerged, along with the biggest truth of them all. Love.
Gina Luongo is the author of Slowly, Gradually, Gently a self-published memoir detailing her journey in learning to walk again following surgery to remove a rare cancer growing in her leg. Gina’s written piece “Music As a Gift: A Personal Narrative” about how music provided her refuge and inspiration during her recovery was published in the academic journal Music Est Donum. She also wrote and self-published Your Song and is the author of the novel Truth Is Beautiful. Gina lives in Toronto, Canada and works as a Consultant for Assistive Technology in Special Education. She can be reached at email@example.com and @Gina5Elle.