Our youngest children fall asleep
on the couch each night. Bodies limp,
arms suspended in childlike poses as
they mingle in fantasy, waiting, unknowingly
to be scooped up by their father and carried
off to bed. Our daughter’s mouth is always slightly ajar,
her ringlet curls bounce, each sorrel strand shifts to meet
his shoulder and she is home—born of father’s yearning
and content to know him. When he moves her, she appears
as light air, though her legs hang near his knees now—
each day she’s spilling out of this mold of a little girl.
Our son is flush with languor, a compact boy, idle in his rest
before his father lifts him laboriously beneath his shoulders,
knees bent with the weight of six-year-old concerns, dipped in gravity
and thirsty for the warmth of bed, his stomach brimming with one last drink.
I don’t carry our children to bed. If daddy isn’t there to displace
their placid chassis, to their bed or ours, I lie beside them.
My movements aren’t fluid like a father, fixed and firm
but without concern. I watch their stomachs rise and fall
while he rests with them, they remain asleep—
a steady beat of working day slipping from them
with each contented breath, eyes unlatched
to be sure he stays a while.
Jesse Albatrosov is an emerging voice drawing inspiration from life—the day-to-day of raising children, creative endeavors and keeping a home while writing—trying above all else to give human experiences a vibrant, visual life. She was the runner up in the 2017 Writer’s Atelier contest for short fiction and her work is published or forthcoming in THAT Literary Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Mothers Always Write and Press 53’s Prime Number Magazine. You can find her online at www.jessealbatrosov.com or on Facebook and Instagram: @jalbatrosov.
“Food, water, shelter, and unconditional love. Those are the four basic requirements of children,” pronounced the cheerful Attending Psychologist at the Center for Foster Care Health. Though tall, Mike looked too young to be an authority on much beyond dorm life, much less to be guiding makeshift families in crisis. “That’s it,” he finished, as if he’d imparted a simple pancake recipe.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” I said, chimpanzee-like. I raised my hand, though only my husband and I sat before him. Our eight-year-old foster son, Ben, was down the hall with crayons and a nurse. She’d given me a scanned copy of the stick figures he’d drawn here five years ago with a different foster mother.
“Yes?” Mike pointed at me, as if picking me out of a large audience.
“I’m sorry, but I need a definition of unconditional love!” I yelled over the helicopter touching down outside our window on the landing pad of the hospital where the Pediatric Trauma Center was located. “I hear that term a lot, but what does it mean? Exactly. I have no idea, anymore.”
Normally I would have been too mortified to call attention to my incompetence, my missing the boat on the instinctive stuff that comes with pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. “Poor mothering skills,” Mike might note on his report, adding to Ben’s 2,000-page social services file. Foster-adopt mother doesn’t know the meaning of unconditional love. What harebrain licensed her to care for a kid?
But it had taken months for us to be slotted into this specialist’s schedule. I couldn’t hold back now: He could be the one to tell me what I needed to know, to give me the key to preserving our tenuous family. His askew bowtie projected harmless. It had to be for the kids, but the crooked knot worked its clown magic on me, too, emphasized by his higher-than-expected-voice and the awkwardness of his long legs cramped by a classroom-like chair.
“I mean, isn’t all love conditional, if we’re honest?” I babbled before he could respond. Didn’t I place conditions on loving my spouse of over two decades? Richard must limit himself to seven banjos and, God help me, one accordion. He must not leave the gas tank or toilet paper roll or Saltine’s box empty. He must remember my birthday.
Didn’t we expect women to leave abusive partners? Weren’t we teaching Ben that his love should be conditional? That he should be treated with respect by those who professed to love him, unlike the biological parents who had mistreated him? That those he loved in the future should expect to be treated better than how he treated us? That, no matter the humor in his calling my thin husband a “fat bitch,” Ben’s other parroted behaviors were conditions no healthy relationship should endure?
Two years with Ben and the foster care system had muddled all my ideas: wasn’t the notion of unconditional love a crock of malarkey we’ve smeared all over ourselves like pricey anti-aging face cream? An unrealistic concept propagated by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Disney and Eleanor of Aquitaine?
We placed conditions on Ben every day. Despite the happy stuff—nightly hugs and weekly hotdogs at the farmers market, teaching him to ride a bike, bounce on a pogo stick, and swim—on most days we felt we were running a boot camp. To keep him out of the secured group boys’ home—a step down from juvenile detention—that he came close to being sent to during his first year with us, we implemented a zero tolerance policy on infractions. If he couldn’t stop slamming his door, the door came off. If he couldn’t stop throwing his toys, the toys were removed. When he was caught stealing, we cut the pockets out of his jeans so he had nowhere to hide smuggled goods. We kept to a strict schedule, even on holidays, since he did better, understandably, with consistency. Not what our rose-colored glasses had envisioned parenting would be in the fourteen years it took us to finally have a child, this child, the boy we’d envisioned adopting since the day we met him at a Kids Fest, where kids needing homes met couples desperate to become parents. Ben dropped his pizza, tripped and fell a few times, and sized us up with the crossed eyes nobody had addressed. We fell hard for him. Though there was a long line for the curly-haired girl toddler, nobody else wanted Ben.
For foster parents, the state had exact definitions regarding food—we could never, for any reason, skip a meal for our little monster. No bed without supper. We had exact definitions of shelter: a minimum of fifty square feet of bedroom space. We had exact definitions for proper bathtub mats, water heater temperature, haircuts, certified fire extinguisher class, posted exit routes, safety ladders, smoke detectors, outlet plugs, furniture positioning, car inspection, pet vaccinations, and unacceptable yard receptacles that might hold water.
But what was unconditional love? His counselors and therapists, his social workers and teachers…all were unified in telling him that his behavior must change. As is, he had learned he was unlovable. Eleven other families had not loved him enough to keep him.
Now Richard and I were dragging our heels on adoption proceedings. When we described Ben’s issues to an adoption lawyer, she urged us to delay finalization for as long as possible. Let the state remain responsible for a child who couldn’t safely be left alone with other children. “Do you love him?” she’d asked us. Into our long pause she answered, “You love him,” her brusque demeanor softening with the sagging of her broad shoulders as she observed our faces.
Our inability to commit to Ben forever, to be legally responsible for his actions, is why an understanding judge had sent us to consult with Mike. The state was chomping at the bit to either unload Ben onto us permanently or move him on to another foster family who might adopt him, though the odds were unlikely with his history and increasing age.
None of this seemed like unconditional love—this calculated decision by us, this being a cog-in-the-wheel of a system that needed to move Ben to a different column in a database.
In response to my question, Mike didn’t probe or belittle my maternal ineptitude.
Neither did he give me a definition of unconditional love.
He gave me a story.
He had another patient, about Ben’s age, also a foster son placed with a couple who planned to adopt him. Mike had spoken extensively with the excited father and child about the adoption plans; the mother didn’t attend the meeting. All that remained in the adoption proceedings were formalities. Paperwork. Like us.
When Mike next saw the child a month later, the boy was accompanied by a different man. Though a mother had been mentioned, Mike thought perhaps he’d misunderstood and that two gay fathers made up the adoptive couple.
But, no. There had been a mother. She and the boy had quarreled, and the boy had scratched her arm. He was sent packing that night. The boy had returned to Mike with a new foster father.
“That was conditional love,” Mike said. “But, unconditional love means that, no matter what he does, he knows that you still love him.”
Unlike that vanished mother, I was quick on my feet around Ben, though I was otherwise nimble as a fireplug. Ben had never managed to punch or kick or spit on me, despite his halfhearted efforts, though he’d socked his last foster mother in the stomach because his bathing suit didn’t fit. I had never allowed myself to be scared of him and his understandable fury—I was his twelfth mother; why wouldn’t he be angry? I had decided that when he would someday certainly top me by over a foot, I would never cower. I would be a powerhouse mom with superpowers, like my own five-foot-tall mother, who had vision from the back of her head and could swat us in the back seat of the car while she safely drove a stick shift without ever turning around. Ben had seen women harmed and belittled and intimidated, and I was determined to remap Ben’s notion of how women should be treated—more conditions of what love should look like.
After Mike’s anecdote, I felt an overwhelming sense of validation and relief. I was a mother. The essential true and right thing I had done was not give up on Ben. Not when he lied, broke things, urinated on the rugs, endangered other children, and threatened to kill me.
We had considered giving up on him. Every night after Ben was in bed during our first few months with him, my husband and I poured ourselves stiff drinks and debated in low murmurs: Should we call our social worker the next day and say we couldn’t do it? The question itself was killing us. Biological parents didn’t get to ask that question, although I’m sure at times many would consider a trade-in.
One night while we sat cross-legged in bed with our tumblers, I decreed that we would not permit ourselves to ask that question again until Ben has been with us for one year. We will keep him for a year, no matter what, no matter how bad it gets.
Taking the question—the doubt, the vacillating, the back and forth—off the table took away the easy safety raft of being able to pass him on to someone else. By placing it out of reach, we’d focus instead on staying afloat.
On the one-year anniversary of Ben’s move-in with us, his anger had vanished. He’d chosen on his own to call us Mom and Dad instead of our first names, and we forgot to revisit the question. But two years later, the foster care designation remained our life preserver. We had lacked the faith, in ourselves and in Ben, to cut it loose. Ben had changed, but we were stuck.
Unconditional love meant that seeing the trauma center’s drawings from three-year-old Ben had colored over my qualms with indelible ink. Unconditional love meant that I’d known the moment the nurse had handed me Ben’s drawings from five years ago that his artwork would henceforth be only on our fridge, and not tucked into the next stranger’s purse.
Jennifer D. Munro’s blog won First Place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Humor Competition. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Salon; Alaska Airlines Beyond; Full Grown People; Literary Mama; Brain, Child; and the Seal Press anthology The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image.
There is one natural object a mother of boys truly learns to appreciate: the humble, ordinary stick.
It would seem this primordial toy has been beloved by boys since time immemorial (whether because of nature or nurture is of no importance to those in the trenches). A mother of boys learns that the blessings of spring, for some, are not the chirping of young birds, the sprouting of green buds and dewy blossoms; rather, they are treasures discovered in the damp earth underfoot, in the fresh scattering of twigs and branches of every shape, diameter and length. In the months of April and May, the unassuming plebian stick has the power to outshine every comparable man-made phallic toy ever devised, including the normally highly sought plastic swords, rifles, machine guns and light sabers.
Growing up in a world of Barbie dolls and ballet classes, the oldest of three daughters, I never dreamed I would be the kind of mother who would allow her kids to wield sticks at their playmates. But as the mother of two boys, I learned the elaborate rules that enable boys to do just that—a kind of ancient chaos theory. These rules are for the most part learned unconsciously by parents of boys. Before you know it, you’ve absorbed and passed them on just by virtue of regularly showing up at the playground. This unwritten charter of rights, liberties, and privileges is drawn up out of thin air by mothers on playgrounds everywhere. It goes something like this:
A stick may be aimed like a weapon but must never graze another child, nor violate his personal space, since over-zealous, imaginary attacks can accidentally (or not so accidentally) poke, brush, jab or downright stab.
A stick that is longer than one’s person, no matter how marvelous, magical or seemingly precious a find, is strictly off limits–not only due to its potential danger to others, and to the holder himself–but because a stick of such immense proportions shall, with the jealousy it inspires, spoil the day in its entirety for all other parties concerned. (The irresistible appeal of the Enormous stick is why all mothers of boys learn to keep any spare curtain rods, canes, or poles hidden from sight—mine were kept under beds against the wall behind boxes.) Babies and toddlers may NOT be included in games of sticks, passively or otherwise, regardless of how interested they may appear, or in fact actually be.
On those few occasions when girls who are cool enough to be interested in joining the game happen upon the scene, by all means, admit them. (Girls for the most part consider playing with sticks inane and do not appear to suffer from stick envy). When girls are not interested, direct all choreography around them as if they are nothing more than breaths of wind or immovable trees in the forest.
Strict and painful punishments shall be incurred by anyone who violates any of the above rules. For a first offense, the perpetrator shall forfeit his stick for a time-out, with the unhappy consequence of being odd man out among other boys still carrying. A second offense earns a longer time-out, with the following warning: the stick shall be taken away for goodwith the incursion of any further offense. A third offense is rarely made more than once. The permanent forfeiting of one’s stick for the day inevitably brings about the premature ending of the play-date for the boy concerned, with all its attendant bitter leave-taking, since remaining a player without any possibility of regaining one’s stick involves insupportable suffering bordering on torture.
As with any and all boys’ games: parents in charge must be vigilant for any signs of escalation from whimsical to actual malice. (An experienced caretaker, sensitive to subtle changes in the breeze, can recognize, interrupt, and disperse brewing hostilities before the bearer of them is even aware of them himself). In cases where actual malice does materialize, sticks shall be banished for all concerned.
These tried and true rules allow boys to pretend to utterly destroy imaginary foes in one another and themselves with all attendant joys without putting themselves or others in harm’s way. An experienced mother, after years of tense shadowing of her offspring, can enjoy the fruits of her rigorous training in relative comfort on a park bench. From there she can enjoy the sight of her sons cavorting about, brandishing sticks in and out of their counterparts in the thick of the field, deftly weaving and thrashing with nary a child receiving so much as a scratch.
It’s why a mother of boys can appreciate the wise words of Confucius: “Never give a sword to one who can’t dance.”
Gail Hammill is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai where she teaches literature courses. A mother of two boys, Gail writes about motherhood as part of her interest in literature about the body, gender and spirituality.
A few weeks ago, in the middle of a sunny, almost-warm late February day, Alex walked into the kitchen and uttered these shocking words. “Hey, do you want to go on a walk with me?”
This wouldn’t be remarkable for any reason, except for the fact that he’s 17. And given that he’s now a driving, almost adult, I see the mailman (excuse me, the mail carrier) more predictably than I see my son.
I looked around the kitchen to be sure one of his friends hadn’t snuck in behind me, but it indeed appeared that he was speaking to me. It wasn’t necessarily the most convenient time to go for a walk. I was attempting a baking feat, which was ambitious from the start, but what does one do when their 17-year-old son asks you to go on a walk? You take advantage of this don’t-miss opportunity, drop everything, and go.
I wondered if he had anything earth shattering to tell me, but he didn’t. I wondered if I should use the moment to impart lifelong lessons, but I didn’t. Instead, we just walked up to the shops that are a few blocks from the house. He had a gift certificate he was ready to cash in, so there was a destination to the excursion. He spent his gift card and we leisurely strolled through some of the newer shops I haven’t had a chance to visit. We talked about nothing in particular — just little things of no individual significance. But collectively, they added up to mean the world to me. When we got home, he even thanked me for going with him. Since he wasn’t feverish, I claimed it as the only thing it could be: a Sunday miracle.
Okay, so it wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea. But if you don’t have a 17-year old yet, here’s are a couple of simple truths I didn’t see coming:
They are their own independent people, with busy schedules — whether it’s social, sports or school, they have their own, real life — with places to be and people to see. And over time Mom’s role gets downsized. One day you’re the star in his show, then suddenly you’re lucky if you get a bit part. If there was playbill for Alex’s 17thyear, my role would be listed at the end as, “line cook.”
Once they can drive, just wave goodbye. When they are dependent upon you for taxiing, those quick trips from point A to B to C and back again are actually critical connection points. These are the little windows that give you an inside look at what’s going on. Now that Alex is his own shuttle service, well, those connection points are gone. Gone, as in, “here are your car keys, now drive away with my heart.”
I wasn’t prepared for this. I was actually thrilled that he worked so hard and saved his money for to pay for half a car. (We sprung for the other half, because driving around in half a car would be so awkward.) He has worked for the past three summers and by the time he was 16, had saved way more cash than I had accumulated into my mid 20s.
But regardless of how they arrive at their first set of wheels, it will become a vehicle that clearly furthers the process of letting them go — both literally and figuratively.
And here we are, halfway through Alex’s final semester in high school. In a few short months, my kid will be off to the University of Georgia. Of course, this is wrought with its own excitement, joy, pride, questions, anxiety and sleepless nights. His role in our family is huge – he’s our first born, with two siblings that look up to him, even though they don’t act like it. And he’s the first to leave the nest.
Suffice it to say, I’m feeling sentimentally fragile these days. It’s unknown, even to me, when the emotional pangs will hit. I’m trying to avoid known triggers, like thinking this is his last (insert event here) at home. And of course, Alan Jackson songs are banned from the house.
So I held on to the sunny, warm memory of my Sunday walk with Alex for the next week. As the following Sunday rolled around, I loitered around the house and found many excuses to hover around his doorway, you know, just waiting to see if a second miracle might occur. As the afternoon ticked along, I took the ball into my own hands, peeked into his doorway asked him oh-so casually, “Hey, you want to go play some tennis?” I turned to leave sure his head wouldn’t even lift from his snap chatting endeavors, as he muttered, “Nah.” Instead, he replied with a simple, “Sure.”
Ah, a second Sunday miracle had occurred.
I’m pretty certain one can get too pushy with the miraculous. So I was all set to revel in the joy of the past two weeks, when out of the blue the very next Sunday, Alex asked me — just me, no begging sister, brother or dad allowed —to go to lunch after church. And here’s the kicker: He paid.
This marked the third miraculous-moment-Sunday in a row. And this past Sunday was Easter, so make that four.
I hesitate to even put it in writing, but could it be that my son is feeling a slight bit sentimental about his impending departure? Could it be that he is feeling the heavy tug as well? I will never ask, but I will take it. And I will hold on to it, every grateful for his letting me in as I struggle to let him go.
And, of course, I’ll keep my Sunday’s open.
Cathy Lepik a mother of three: two sons, one in college and one in high school and a middle-school daughter. She’s a freelance writer that earns a living through advertising copywriting, but her love is writing about her kids. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with kids, husband and Labrador Retriever. She has a blog, ThisThatandTheMother.