Before and After
Before I had children, I assumed in a vague way that being a parent was like being yourself—exactly who you were without kids—only now you had small appendages to bring along with you in life, sort of like a car with a trailer hitched to it. The car tootles down the road, unchanged by the trailer it’s towing except for a bit of extra exertion required by the engine.
But induction into motherhood is really more like this: the car got stolen. And when it’s finally located weeks or months later, hidden in a dark alley or maybe someplace like Syria, it’s been stripped down to its chassis. It may or may not have been set on fire. The doors, the seats, the dials and gauges that indicate direction and fuel and speed? All gone. It will take a lot of work and a whole lot of parts, along with painstaking effort, to turn it into a usable vehicle again. It may be a satisfying journey, these repairs, but that depends entirely on the mechanic who takes on the job. Because no matter how much time someone puts into that old skeleton of a car, it won’t drive like it once did. It most definitely will never look the same.
And it will still be required to pull the trailer.
I hate food.
In the months while my toddler was too small to wait four or five hours for his next serving of food that he would refuse to touch, we were averaging eight or nine meals and snacks a day between both of my kids. Even after the baby grew and I wound that down to a reasonable 4 mini-meals per day last spring, I still spend the vast majority of my life in my kitchen, spreading refried beans on gluten-free tortillas (the oldest carries one celiac gene, so we are all gluten-free), opening bags of pretzels and veggie puffs, cutting cucumbers and red bell peppers (always red, never green, for crying out loud) and slicing apples.
When I am not actively preparing food, I am cleaning up the aftermath of its consumption: the toddler’s upended water cup, the pancakes he flipped onto the floor in a fury over some indiscernible injustice concerning their shape, the landslide of bean chip crumbs that fall between the ever-present two-foot gap between my kindergartner’s body and the table. I have come to despise oatmeal. Despite its assets in speed and ease of preparation, it ends up everywhere: in their hair, on their fingers and clothes. If I am unfortunate enough to miss a tiny glob somewhere, it hardens to a concrete-like spackle, nearly impossible to remove.
Before children, I grocery-shopped in a leisurely fashion, bought only food I liked, spent as much or as little time as I wanted on making a meal. I actually baked for the sheer enjoyment of it—I laugh like a crazy person when I type this, so ludicrous does it seem now—and dropped offbrownies and banana bread and coconut macaroons at friends’ houses every week. It’s as astonishing to me as if I had once been a felon.
Now, when I am not preparing food, serving it or cleaning up after its ingestion, I am making grocery lists and meal plans and thinking about what the next snack or meal will be before we’ve even finished eating the current one. The kids like to ask, “What’s for dinner?” the moment I greet them in the morning, before we’ve even eaten breakfast. Grocery shopping is a grim affair, one notch in likability above my annual at the ob/gyn’s office.
Years ago, I was mystified when my mother and my aunt abruptly stopped cooking as soon as their last children were out of the house. “How can you not cook something delicious and hot for dinner when you’re hungry?” I asked both of them. Their answers: they just didn’t want to cook any more. When one friend’s daughters both left for college, she started going to Whole Foods only for the deli and the salad bar. “Don’t you miss cooking?” I asked. “You’ve always done it!” She just laughed and said no, she did not.
Before children, I felt only the freedom and enjoyment that self-nourishment can bring when combined with an ocean of free time and only canine dependents. I had no idea of the potential for imprisonment, how the perspective could flip in an instant.
After my first son was born, my sister-in-law—almost fifty at the time, never married, not a parent—regaled me with a tale in a horrified tone. Her co-worker had gotten pregnant at 47 using a donor egg; after the baby was born, she had been giving him to her mother for the weekend starting when he was two weeks old. The woman and her husband now neglected their dog, leaving the animal alone for 12 hours at a time, and—worst of all, judging by the look on my sister-in-law’s face—they kept a gallon of bottled water on the coffee table for mixing the baby’s formula in the living room.
I thought of my own weeks and months with my first newborn: breast milk and formula spilled onto books and our own coffee table, spit-up crusted onto the baby’s onesie because he had already gone through every single clean piece of clothing and how was someone actually supposed to do actual laundry while taking care of a baby? I thought of my own desperate, utterly primitive need for sleep, how my hands shook with fatigue, how my eyelids scraped over my burning eyeballs, how there was absolutely no reprieve from the exhaustion. How I would have done nearly anything anything anything to get rest.
My own mother had me when she was eighteen, followed by a sister and then a brother, so that by the time she was twenty-four she had three kids. When they became parents, she and my father were still children themselves; they fought about money and other women, my father drinking and punching holes in walls, my mother throwing dishes at him. My mother was rage-filled and hotly impatient, and she used her fists on us with abandon. I spent my twenties angry over what I’d suffered at her hands; for a period of six years, I didn’t speak to her at all. I wasn’t certain I could ever forgive her for what she’d done to me, and for a long time I believed I wanted no part of motherhood.
But after having my first child, something shifted deep inside me. Every day I was living the impossible difficulty of parenting. Every day I was faced with a crippling constellation of decisions to make: what to feed, how to feed it, how to have a routine and when to let go of the routine, when to say yes, when to say no, when and how to discipline, how to teach every basic skill a human being will ever need from manners to teeth-brushing to peeing in a toilet to making scrambled eggs. The responsibility was wearying on an entirely new level, and the actual speed at which I needed to decide everything left me stunned. Motherhood gave me compassion and empathy for every single parent who has ever existed, including and especially my own.
So I looked at my sister-in-law that day and said, “Now that I’m on this side of the fence, I know that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got on that day.”
I imparted this as a simple truth, one I feel in my bones; it was not uttered with condescension but with sympathy for both those parents and for my sister-in-law, who can’t understand, who views something from the outside making a judgment she knows nothing about, like I myself once did. She looked at me sideways, skeptical, and said, “Well, I don’t know about that…”
I said nothing. She was right, although she didn’t realize it. She didn’t know.
For more than a decade while I was married to my first husband, I ferried my Scottish Terriers to dog shows most weekends. When I wasn’t showing them, I prepared homemade food for them and read books on subjects such as herbal remedies for dogs and how to evaluate canine body language. Eventually I became a dog trainer, and I specialized in modifying severe behavior problems such as anxiety and aggression.
I loved my dogs with all of my heart. They slept in my bedroom, they kept my lap warm at night on the couch, they made me laugh with their antics and taught me patience and kindness and creativity where all of those traits were sorely lacking before. When my first dog died unexpectedly after eating a poisonous mushroom in my back yard at 11 years old, it is not an exaggeration to say that I thought I might die from the pain. Even now, writing or talking about the death of that special dog is so painful that I feel my heart pound and my breathing quicken, even though he died more than ten years ago.
And yet, as much as I loved that dog and all the others, as much as they filled my heart and showed me unconditional love, it is nothing like mother love.
I have struggled to describe mother love; it is so big and vast and full and complicated. Before I had children, I was egalitarian about love; I knew that love was love, that no one type of love was categorically different than any other. I never once considered my dogs my “children” or my “fur kids”—I always chafed at such designations for animals—but I believed that the quality of love I felt for them (strong, true, sweet, tender) was no different than the love that, say, my aunt felt for her husband or that I felt for my grandmother.
How wrong I was.
The difference is the blue vastness of the ocean versus a drip from the bathroom faucet. It is the difference between a cut of fine silk and a wad of dryer lint, between a Post-it note and a piece of Fabriano watercolor paper, between a single oak leaf and a massive redwood tree. It is not that these smaller things are of lesser value or importance, but the space between these small things and their more developed counterparts is so very immense. The quality of mother love cannot be compared to the love one feels for a husband, a grandmother, or a dog…not even on the very worst days when I am beaten down by my children’s unending needs. Mother love vibrates at a different level, a bass note long and deep and unswerving.
I started taking piano lessons as an adult three years ago, and my piano teacher has explained that the strings of a piano have two ways of producing sound. First, you can sound the strings without touching the piano keys, which feels like something magical in and of itself. If you hold down the damper pedal with your foot, this raises the hammers for all the keys; you can then yell or sing, and the strings will vibrate in response to your voice. This is called sympathetic vibration. It is an intriguing sound, but one-dimensional; it holds no real depth. The other option, of course, is to strike one or more keys as you normally would play a piano; by connecting those notes and playing them in succession, music is made.
Both uses of a piano create sounds and tones that our ears hear and register.
But like mother love, only one is music.
Amy Collini’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Slice, Sycamore Review, Witness, december, Southern Indiana Review and elsewhere. Her work was also recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.