The sky is low, heavy gray threatening more rain. On the pavement my four-year-old son Theo thrashes. It’s afternoon, and we are on a walk with our next-door neighbors, three little boys and their mom Karin. Frozen, I stare down at Theo. Karin swoops down to scoop him up, then strides down the hill toward home.
Still crying, Theo calls back, “I’m sorry, Mama! I’m sorry!”
For the last few weeks, our days are marked by Theo’s apologies. It doesn’t matter what the offense, or if there is any offense at all. If we tell him to follow us into the house? Crumbling into tears, he says sorry again and again. We ask him to move over so his brother can sit down? Hysterics, followed by apologies.
A script starts to follow the apologies. “I’m sorry Mama. I won’t do it anymore. Let’s not have a hard day.” Always those lines, and he wants us to reply: “Okay.” But not just any “Okay;” it must be spoken in a certain tone of voice. If not, tears.
Could this be normal? What is normal? Is this a stage that will pass, or something more?
Questions multiply like mice, our minds full of the sounds they make. Evenings, my husband and I talk about Theo, and search Theo’s symptoms online. Research indicates it could be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; in the night I often wake worrying, our future dark as night around me.
Meanwhile, there is breakfast to make. Breakfast to clean. Snacks to pack for outings. Outings to plan and follow through. Seat belt straps to buckle and unbuckle. Diapers to change, bums to wipe. Groceries to get, unpack. In the midst of all I do, the questions are with me, and all I can do is reassure Theo, again and again: everything is okay.
I consult my aunt, a therapist, and she seems uncertain at first as I describe the symptoms. When I mention the scripted apologies, her voice drops an octave: “Oh. It sounds like OCD.”
OCD. This word thickens the fear already felt. Hanging up the phone, I resolve to get Theo to a doctor, and soon.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), and behaviors that drive the sufferer to do something over and over (compulsions). Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts. Reassurance-seeking is the essence of OCD; it is a means to ensure all is well.
OCD is a greedy disease, never satisfied with the territory it claims. The more it has, the more it wants, until the sufferer’s day is swallowed up by rituals and repetitive behaviors. The only way to reclaim territory lost to OCD is to starve OCD until it withers. The most effective therapy is Exposure/Response Prevention therapy (E/RP), a kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which the sufferer is exposed to the anxiety-inducing stimulus, and resists the urge to perform the compulsion. 85 percent of people with OCD respond to E/RP.
Eric and I commit to withdraw OCD-related reassurance from Theo, effective immediately. At first, this refusal causes Theo great anguish, but victory follows. Within a few days, Theo relaxes. Creativity and humor and joy start to seep back in, our days no longer consumed with apologies, tears, screams of frustration. In fact, OCD seems to almost disappear.
Relief settles over me and my husband; the sores of the last months are soothed. Around the fringes of our thoughts, we know that this might not be the end; in all likelihood, it is not. But we are too tired to really give it much thought. Lulled into complacency, we accept this new peaceful season.
When Theo, my first, was a newborn, I remember how over and over, other new mothers and I would muse together. Oh, how our babies changed; nothing ever stayed the same. Sometimes it made us angry, we admitted. We reminded each other to hold expectations loosely.
Newborn Theo resisted sleep, at night, during the day. Expectations gripped my throat like a fist. “He should be asleep.” Rocking, nursing in the dark, high-pitched cries. Two pairs of eyes, sleepless. Diaper changes, fresh sleeper, blanket swaddling his tiny arms. Standing wobbly as he screamed, I felt my surroundings recede, melt as though seen through flames. Exhaustion pouring over like a fever.
I’d place him in the crib and walk away, but never for long. His cries always drew me back, chastened, ready to give in and give up my ideas of how he should behave. It was refinement by fire. There was pain in this struggle to adapt to mothering, to giving all, to adjusting my own expectations of how my child should be behave and what I deserved. Intellectually, I gathered over time just how important it was to hold expectations loosely. But living it out was another thing altogether.
As the newborn season faded, the level of sacrifice, both physical and mental, diminished a bit. Yes, there were changes that surprised, baffled and exasperated me. But Theo no longer lived at my breast, and I slept longer than 1.5 hours at a time. We all settled in, some, and when Willem was born, I was not shaken as in Theo’s newborn days. I’d climbed the learning curve.
With OCD’s arrival, a new learning curve presents itself. It reminds me of the newborn days, in its immediacy and unpredictability, and level of need. Fears of injury and death flood Theo. Tiny playground scratches set off questions: “Will I survive?” Poison is everywhere: our hands, his hands, and on the ground. Every move is one toward protection from contamination.
And then there are attacks of panic, sweat-soaked brown hair, muscles tight with fear. We hold him, breathing, willing calm. On its own time panic subsides, oblivious to our schedule.
An irregular pattern emerges, an uneven wave. Through anxious peaks we are lifted. Then there are dips, the easy times bringing relief. Again, again; waves come, lift us. Set us down again. It is action and surrender at once; we paddle to stay above the surface, but surrender to the waves’ shape and force.
This, I never expected: Theo, full of fear of death at four. Did the cracks in my love, the broken places, bring this to us, to him? If I had never failed to love perfectly, patiently, would he be free? And yet, even as I ask, I know perfect love is an impossibility.
At night, I lay beside Theo as he falls asleep. Prayers form like breath within me; the presence of love curls around us, silent, sustaining. I feel the fragility of his life, and mine. These bodies that contain so much joy and pain. And at the meeting place of joy and pain, there is love. Love that is sacrifice, presence in pain, ushering joy.
My mothering heart cracks, broken by pain and crushed expectations. But the shape it takes is mine to choose; let it always be love.
Laura Urban is the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and studied English Literature at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
“Crazy, right?” whispered the mother standing next to me in “Nursery A,” the room in the NICU for the smallest and sickest newborns. I noticed her baby in the next isolette. With his eyes still fused shut, oversized wool cap, and probes adhering to his translucent skin, he looked like my triplets. Tiny but mighty. I learned that her name was Crystal, and her baby was also born four months too early. As one of the few mothers of “micro-preemies,” we quickly formed our own little club.
I would see her in the “Family Room,” where parents slipped away from their child’s bedside for a few minutes to make calls, to cry, or to stare blankly at the television, lost in their own thoughts. Sometimes we’d sit on the purple vinyl couches, sip coffee out of small styrofoam cups and share news about medical procedures our babies underwent. There were surgeries to close a valve in the heart around Christmas and laser treatments for tiny eyes where blood vessels were growing abnormally.
There were also the milestones, too, like when our babies grew big enough to cradle their tiny heads and feet with our hands, or to fit into newborn-sized clothes. Over time, my infant sons started to move through the myriad of preemie challenges in a linear path. They fought off infections and learned to drink from a bottle and breathe simultaneously. They were finally cleared to come home with us, weighing no more than 5lb each and trailing tanks of oxygen. This was success in the NICU.
But for our daughter Julia and Crystal’s son, with their chronic lung disease, it was a different story. They would show weeks of improvement only to fall apart. One of our favorite doctors, once a physician for the military, would tell us in his straightforward and encouraging way, “Good things happen slowly, bad things happen quickly.” While meant to be a pep talk, these words haunted me.
Not long after our conversation, as I was holding Julia wrapped in a blanket of miniature pink roses, I felt her quick breathing in my arms, and noticed she would not open her eyes. X – rays and blood tests confirmed that her lungs, scarred and inflamed, were failing her yet again. In a brief conversation in the hallway, Crystal shared similar news about her son. For both of us doctors began discussing inserting a tube in the trachea, for “longterm ventilator support.”
One early morning I sat by Julia’s isolette feeling helpless and afraid. Across the room there were a group of doctors and nurses in a huddle, and in the center was Crystal. I noticed the wires connecting her son to another machine, but what stood out more was how she was dressed–in a lilac suit, maybe silk, her hair coiled upwards in braids. It was Palm Sunday; I had forgotten. She walked over to me and held out a long green object which she placed in my hands–a cross formed of palm leaves. She stood silently by Julia for a minute, perhaps praying, while I tucked the cross into Julia’s isolette, next to the rosary from her grandfather.
I did not see Crystal much after that day. My mornings became filled with therapy sessions for my boys who showed signs of developmental delays. When I would arrive at the hospital in the afternoon, I felt late and all business.
But on the evening before my son was to have another eye surgery, my husband took a call outside. I convinced myself that his silence was due to our chronic anxiety over yet another medical issue for our children, but that was only part of the story. Waiting in the cafeteria, my husband gently began to tell me what I knew in my gut to be true: the night before, Crystal’s son had passed away.
My head could process what my heart would not. I had shaped an image after first meeting this other preemie mom in which we were standing in a playground, talking about those “crazy NICU days” while our children ran around together in front of us. We’d make plans to meet the same time next year before hugging goodbye. It was an image that allowed me to cope all these months; I wasn’t ready to let it go. It became much harder to leave Julia at the hospital now, as much as my boys, left in the care of my mother, needed me at home. I would leave the t.v. on overnight because the quiet terrified me. I’d wake at 2:00 am every night to call the hospital.
But I was bracing for something that never came. Julia, slowly and steadily, started to improve. After five months, she was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital a few minutes from our home. Crystal’s cross travelled with her. Eventually, her lungs improved enough that she could be off the ventilator for half the day. She received special education services (“Baby School” as I called it), and learned to sit up by herself. On the day she came home, a few days short of 18 months, the nurses applauded. I could have sworn an image of Crystal in her lilac suit flashed before me.
Ten years have passed now, and I think about Crystal almost daily. When I see Julia running outside with her awkward gait and laughing brown eyes, it strikes me. Over time, I’ve befriended other women whose children have special needs. There are times I’m tempted to share what I’ve learned–that good things can happen slowly, that miracles are real. But life has taught me that this is all a mystery, and sometimes the best way to pass on that cross is to be quiet and listen.
Anne Marie Cellante is the mother of four children- a spirited set of 11 year old triplets with special needs (two boys and a girl), as well as a lovely, “neurotypical” eight year old daughter. I was an elementary teacher for ten years, but my personal journey has shifted my passion towards special education. I’m moving at a snail’s pace to obtain this new certification, but going forward nonetheless. I reside with my family in Tarrytown, NY.
I hesitate. The moment is a gift to myself, a spoonful of hope and a split-second daydream. From my phone, I open the email. I read only the last line.
“It’s not focused enough on motherhood for us, so I’m afraid we’ll have to pass.”
I’m aware again of the rain drops, the squee, squee, squee of the wipers, the audio book droning. I close the email, set my phone down, and put the gearshift in reverse.
It is a good rejection, my first. Later, at home, I would print it and tape it to the wall above my writing desk.
My son. I realize he is magic on a summer night in our chain link fenced yard. The world is fuzzy and dark grey, and the grass is cool beneath my feet. We are alone with the moon. I hold him on my hip. He wears a white cotton onesie, a thick diaper beneath. I brush away wisps of hair falling into his eyes. He is still a baby, will be for just a moment longer. “Look,” I say and point to the sky. “Look, Bubba.” I whisper into his ear and my lips brush his skin. He looks up, his eyes wide. The moon is big, full, and warm white.
He reaches his hand to the moon. “I hold it,” he says.
He looks at me, brow furrowed, wondering why I don’t reach up and grab the moon, hand it to him. He doesn’t know yet how big the world is, how small he is. How small I am.
Dear Editor, I don’t write about motherhood. I can’t find the words. They are slippery, fragile, turn to dust the instant I close my palm around them.
My daughter. For a thousand nights, I hold her in the dark. The house is quiet except for the occasional whoosh of the furnace and the click, click, click of the rocker. Her plumpness is wrapped in terry cloth pajamas and she smells of lavender soap. Her delicate fingers grasp my thumb. I close my eyes to ease the exhaustion. She roots again, and the pain of her latch steals my breath and makes my stomach turn.
Finally, she sleeps. I rise catlike. When I set her in the crib, she stirs, and after a heavy soundless moment, she cries. I want to cry, too, to let out a long piercing wail. I want to run and lock myself in the bathroom. I might explode.
For a thousand nights, I don’t explode. Over and over, my body leans over her and my arms scoop her onto my full, sore chest. I hear myself say “shhhhhh,” then feel myself sit, rock, and offer my raw nipple to her mouth.
Click, click, click.
Dear Editor, I can’t tell you about this woman who rocks. Her resolve and patience, like the milk that fills her breasts, are mysteries to me. They come from someplace primitive and wild, are not of my doing. No, I am too ordinary to write about such things. The woman I know wails from the bathroom, the cold tile floor hard against her knees. The woman I know feels as if her body is running a marathon without her, despite her. She is simply the observer, and the experience is both a miracle and torture.
My son. It is the scary cough, the kind that forces my eyes open from sleep, the one my body knows from the not-scary kind. It’s deep and tight and too loud to come from such smallness. I bring him to the bathroom, run a hot shower, and hold him in the dark. The steam grows thick. He is restless, desperate for sleep, yet can’t stop coughing. It’s not working. I take him to the living room and fumble with the machine they’ve given us to help my son breathe. I turn it on and put the mask to his face. The hum of the motor fills the night.
My son breathes. In two hours, I must put on a bra, wash my face, then smile and say hello when I walk into work. But he breathes, and finally sleeps, his head against by chest, and this is all that matters.
Dear Editor, did you know my cells are inside of him and his are inside of me? We are truly each other’s survival.
Come with me, Editor, let me take you years ago and thousands of miles away. See her in a bikini, her flip flops beside her. She digs her painted blue toenails into the cool, heavy sand. See her body, smooth and tan, before she had scars across her belly. A notebook rests on her knees and she holds a pencil, looks out to the ocean. Hear the waves, smell the salt in the air. Watch the wind blow her hair all around. She is the wind.
Today, I change diapers and fill sippy cups. I pour cereal and sweep cereal from the floor. I pull out my laptop to work on this essay, Editor, but someone wants something: more milk, a book, a diaper, a kiss. I reheat my coffee in the microwave three times before I realize it’s no longer morning, and I finish this essay six months later. I am a mother who writes, not a writer who mothers.
No longer the wind, I am the ocean, filling the crevices that remain in each day, spilling out the sides when there is no room, transforming, reducing, and expanding into what the universe needs me to be.
Dear Editor, I dream and I write from crevices now.
My son. He struts in a blue and white jumpsuit with boxing gloves dangling heavy from his arms and a satiny cape trailing behind him. There are haystacks, jack-o-lanterns, princesses, and superheroes. When the rain comes suddenly and surely, crowds shriek and run to find shelter beneath eves. I reach for his hand to urge him along, but my boxer stops, throws his head back, and sticks his tongue out. He laughs a true, wonderful laugh deep from his belly, the way you laugh when life is light and funny and exhilarating, when instead of running for shelter you let the rain soak your hair and run down your face, when the earth gives you brisk and unexpected gifts, when you feel alive.
He grins at me, my boxer in rain, urging me, daring me. I stick my tongue out, too, and we laugh together. I am alive.
My daughter. Her first spring, we head outside one chilly morning. She squints as she looks up to the brightening sky and sees the birds. She has watched them from the window for weeks, as the earth slowly came back to life this year. Now, not just a spectator, she is part of the show. They swirl and swoop around us. Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl. Her brows lift, her eyes widen, and she points, urging me took look at these marvelous handfuls of color, sound, and flight that sprinkle the world, perform, and sing songs for us. Sparrows, cardinals, robins, blue jays, chickadees.
“Bird,” she says.
She sleeps with me now, the nights of rocking and cribs giving way to my bed. I sleep to her rhythm, turn when she turns, wake when she wakes, and pull her close when she whimpers.
She, with wild hair and sticky hands, is my moon. I am the ocean, my tides ruled by her.
Dear Editor, I can’t tell you what motherhood is. I can only tell you about that girl on the beach, the girl who was the wind, and what she didn’t know. She didn’t know what would be her life’s greatest effort, her most creative gift to the universe, or the one thing she would do with her whole body and heart. She didn’t know then about magic, about marathons and moons and birds.
My son. When I take him to school, he hugs and kisses me, then walks by himself into the classroom and into circles of kids wearing light-up sneakers and superhero t-shirts, and away from me. It is as if my arm has fallen off and is suddenly across the room with a will and life of its own. After he was born, I couldn’t sleep for fear he’d stop breathing or somehow evaporate if I looked away for even a moment. Now, he is talking to a teacher and doing puzzles with children whose names I don’t know. Every morning goes this way, and every morning I am disoriented by our separateness. I must leave, get into my car and go to work. It is not easy or hard. It is impossible.
I am not whole again until late afternoon when I walk into the school, down the hall, past the handprint flowers and lost-and-found table, and into his classroom where I wait for him to notice me, for his face to light up, for his tiny arms to wrap around my neck.
This is all that matters.
Dear Editor, the words you read now have been written upon layers and layers of others typed and erased. You see, I tried to write about motherhood, but I can’t. If I did, I would have to tell you about my smallness, my powerlessness, my inextricable vulnerability. I would have to face the shattering truth, that no matter how enormous my love and no matter how close I hold them each night, I will not always be able to protect my children from this big, scary world.
I would have to tell you that no matter how much I ache for it, no matter how many times I inhale their scents or kiss their warm naked backs while they sleep, I don’t get to hold onto this forever. Their weight in my arms, the sound of tiny feet, plastic dinosaurs and broken crayons scattered on the kitchen floor. It’s all so deliciously ordinary, so ephemeral, so devastating.
I don’t write about motherhood. Instead, I fold basketfuls of tiny pajamas and colorful socks, wipe noses and adjust car seat harnesses, check the temperature of the bathwater and dream up bedtime stories about dragons. I do none of this on purpose. I do it in willful oblivion because there is so much bliss to be had in the unconscious doing of it all.
Dear Editor, if I had to write the truth about motherhood, I would have to tell you about how it could all be gone – will all be gone – one day.
Julie Sylver is a business executive by day, writer and artist by heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Michigan.
It is Christmas morning; after we open stockings, we zip our girls into their matching Hanna Anderson snow jackets and get our car out of the garage. We head to a church on the West Side of Manhattan, our Meals on Wheels pick up, to get our assignment. Because we have a car—not that common in NYC—we can deliver to a fairly broad range of addresses. We have done deliveries to shut-ins for several Christmases, hoping that our young daughters, Miranda and Cordelia, will internalize what it means to reach beyond oneself, even in small ways. They attend Merricats Castle, a nursery school that includes children with physical disabilities, children with other needs, and neighborhood children like them. The school has helped us do a lot of the heavy lifting in teaching empathy, in teaching our girls that there will always be people who have less and have more, in teaching them about kindness. We are not yet raising the girls with formal religion as their father is Jewish and I am Christian, but we want to instill in the girls a generosity of spirit that transcends the loot under the tree.
A chorus of “Merry Christmases” greet us in the big kitchen. Kind competent people have arrived early to cook. We load the packaged meals into the back of our station wagon and start out our trek. Single Room Occupancy buildings are grim places every day, but sparse tinsel garlands and dispirited poinsettias in dim lobbies accentuate the scent of those forgotten by families or friends—cleanser and a faint hint of rotting garbage mix with loneliness. The linoleum is cracked in most of the hallways. Fluorescent bulbs make my rosy-cheeked daughters look jaundiced. I have them by the hands, two little girls sporting red and green bows in their neatly combed dark hair. Cordelia, three, wears sparkly Dorothy ruby red slippers, her choice every day. Miranda, five, wears shiny Mary Janes.
We ring the bell, announce ourselves as “Meals on Wheels delivery” and listen for feet to approach the door. Sometimes, we hear a quavering, “Coming,” or “Be right there.” We wait for the door to open. Occasionally, there is a bag on the doorknob. At those places, we are simply to leave the meal without knocking. The girls feel sad not to be able to offer holiday greetings. Those to whom we deliver are older, but not necessarily elderly. In one apartment, a woman insists we come in and sit with her; she offers the girls bananas, which they respectfully decline. We visit with her for a few minutes. I can see her delight in my daughters, the pleasure she takes from having children with her, even briefly. Her grown up children are coming later, she assures us. In other apartments, people crack open the doors, take the food quickly, mutter hasty thanks and close their doors. The girls are curious, interested. It is only I who seem afflicted by the loneliness seeping through the corridors.
We drive to another building, checking the address against the printed sheet we took with us in those pre-GPS years. This time, Cordelia stays in her car seat with her dad, and Miranda comes along with me. We ring the bell, are admitted to the building, take the elevator up, find the right apartment at the end of a hall. We knock. The door swings open, and an older man greets us with a smile. He is wearing an undershirt with a long sleeve shirt open over it. His face is unshaved, but he is delighted to see us, invites us in. Miranda squeezes my hand tightly. I demur, claiming other deliveries. He thanks us, cheery, and closes the door.
“Mama,” Miranda looks up at me as we head toward the elevator.
“Yes, sweetie,” I answer.
“That man seems to have forgotten to put on any pants.”
“I think you’re right about that,” I say. “It was good you didn’t mention that, Pie,” I add, using her baby name.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to embarrass him, Mama. Maybe he just forgot.”
“Maybe he did.”
“I was a little scared, Mama. I’m glad we didn’t go inside.”
“I know, honey. It was a little unexpected.”
“Were you scared?”
“Not scared, just surprised.”
In the car, Miranda reports our encounter to her dad and little sister.
“He wasn’t wearing any pants?” Seth asks, puzzled.
“Not even underpants,” Miranda announces.
Seth looks at me. “Not even underpants,” I concur.
We continue with our deliveries and maintain the ritual for several years. Sometimes, waiting at the door, Miranda and I grin at each other, remembering the kind and pant-less man who greeted us.
Years later, this is a story in our family lexicon. Do we tell it because it makes us laugh? Do we tell it because it was a moment we want to remember—our cozy family unit so privileged and protected in our station wagon, a living room waiting for us in our lovely apartment with presents shimmering under a tree decorated and lit with love? Is it a cautionary tale? This is what happens when you are alone? You are in danger of forgetting your pants? Of being without those who love you? Do we tell it to remind ourselves to take care, to squabble less, to find the moments of joy?
I am proud of our socially conscious children, our son joining his sisters a number of years after this episode. All three stand up for those with fewer rights or privileges. All three rarely back down. I’d like to believe we sowed the seeds of social justice in those chilly Christmas outings, that we watered them with help from teachers and friends and schools and experiences that inspired them to do what is right rather than what is easy, to use their gifts for good. We tell the story of our man and laugh, but he is a caution, too. I wish we had gone back to see him, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be equal to a visit if he were without his pants. I worried that it would freak out our girls. I suspect he is gone now. I know for sure I wouldn’t know how to find him. The New York City chapter of the girls’ childhood feels a long time ago. Still, we remember that Christmas morning, that man.
We haven’t done Meals on Wheels for many years. I think it’s time to try it again.
Ann Klotz’s essays have appeared in Mothers Always Write, Literary Mama, The Manifest Station, The Grief Diaries, Mamalode, the Brevity Blog and on The Huffington Post. A chapter of hers about becoming a teacher was included in the recently published anthology, What I Didn’t Know, published by Creative Nonfiction. You can read more of her writing on my website: annvklotz.com or by following her on Twitter: @AnnKlotz