The clothes pile around me. The dishes pile up in the sink, and I’m pulling bits of malt-o-meal from my braids. The only other person I see all day is the mailman who turns from the window while he quickly fills the slot. Perhaps he is afraid to see a star of flesh when the baby looses the nipple from her cat-like mouth. I long to see his face, to see him curious as to who lives in this blue house with the gingerbread trim, but in this storybook town, gingerbread houses decorate the hillsides like Christmas bulbs in December.
Awake most of the night, near sleep much of the day, I have become a zombie. I am dazed and numb, not quite craving flesh for food, though my body has become food. My daughter nurses around the clock. She takes cat-naps through out the day and even then I am afraid to relinquish my hold on her tiny body. What if I leave the room and she wakes alone and frightened or is stolen away by the Goblin King? I hold her in the rocking chair all day, holding my bladder for hours.
When I hear the heavy clunk of my husband’s boots on the porch, I don’t know whether I want to run toward him or run away, so I sit still and hold the baby. I pretend not to hear when he asks about my day. What can I say that he can understand when mine is the language of gurgles and coos? So I let him rock the baby, while I sleepwalk into the kitchen to open cans of beans and probably burn the vegetables.
Sleep has become the Holy Grail. I wish for it, long for it, pray for it, imagine it, almost find it, and still it eludes me. When sleep finally comes, there is no rest, only shards of REM swirling like a kaleidoscope. Dreams are a B horror film reeling with black and white flickers on the walls of my mind, disconnected images of drowning babies, missing children, and burning buildings. Dreams are the mirrors and hallways of a Fun House at a midnight carnival with bins overflowing with button-eyed dolls that pretend to be my baby. I wake exhausted, covered in sweat and sticky milk, surprised to find her in the bed beside me sleeping like an angel. I lean my head close to her chest and listen for her breath. I almost rise to find a mirror for her to fog, when a jerk of her arm reassures me, for the moment.
My mind tries to convince my body that she is a separate being, but I am hungry, cold, and tired. I cry when she cries. When I reach for her across the darkness of the bed, she burrows against me, belly to belly and I can almost feel the ghost of her umbilical cord pulse. I encircle her in my arms, the rib cage protecting the heart, the dragon hoarding her treasure, sleeping with one eye open.
Bethany Fitzpatrick has a MA from the University of Arkansas where she studied English literature, creative writing, and ecofeminism. She has had poems published in Exposure, Babel fruit,Cliterature, and Apeiron Review. She has published nonfiction online for Mothering magazine. She lives in northwest Arkansas where she teaches English Composition and raises two lovely, spirited children with her husband.
I hear them, but pretend not to. They are shameless with their incessant demands. I’m hungry! Wipe me! I’m bored! Where’s my bunny?
Small feet race by the door, thumping like a stampede of elephants. I wait it out, hoping they’ll give up.
But they never do. They just get louder.
Mommy! Where ARE you?
I’m hiding, of course. Usually in the bathroom, but I’ve been known to stand in front of a sink full of dirty dishes, or lean against the washing machine, checking email and scrolling through Facebook.
I know my solitary moment is fleeting, but I steal it anyway because even a minute is a reprieve. Soon their footsteps grow louder. They’re onto me, like little bomb sniffing dogs.
When I finally appear, or am discovered, I try to sound pleasant. But sometimes the effort is too great and I snap at them. What? The sound of my voice makes me cringe, but I can’t help it. I can’t hide the fact that sometimes I’m dismayed to be needed. Again.
Take the other day, for example. I had to run errands with my two kids. After much cajoling and some bribery, I buckled them in, threw some snacks in the backseat, and started the car.
Then my three-year-old son began to scream, a blood curling sound that felt like someone was stabbing me in the ear with a knitting needle. I turned around thinking he was being strangled by his car seat strap, but he was red in the face crying because his shirt had ridden up in the back.
I unbuckled, contorting my body, and fixed it. With a sigh, I placed the car in reverse and it happened again. More screaming. This time because he dropped his water. Seconds after I buckled myself in for a third time, he called for me again. WHAT? I screamed, turning toward him, my face quivering with rage.
He froze, tears glazing his eyes. “I have to pee?”
It was his small voice that reminded me who I was talking to – or rather, who I was yelling at: a three year old, my last baby, who experiences bunched up shirts and fallen water bottles as emergencies. I’m the adult, the one who is supposed to soothe, calm, and reassure. To teach him what a real emergency is.
I stared at his stricken face and immediately apologized. Sometimes the lesson is for me.
Parenting is a humbling task.
It’s also fleeting. One day, not so far from now, I will strain my ears for my name and hear only silence.
This is important to remember, not just to maintain my sanity, but so I can strive to be better. I don’t want to look back on these early years with (too much) regret. I don’t want to realize, belatedly, that my snapping responses outweighed my kind ones.
I’m in the thick of it with a rambunctious preschooler and a headstrong yet sensitive seven-year-old, who reminds me, too much, of myself.
You’d think this would make me tread more carefully, and sometimes it does, but her tenderness also bruises my heart. Some days I wish she were different, tougher, a little more resilient. A little less like me.
My three-year-old son is easier in some ways, but he’s also a boundary pusher, limit tester, and on occasion, head butter.
But these are my children. It’s my job to accept them for who they are and help them become their best. To fill their hearts and minds and bodies with my love. Enough to last a lifetime.
On holidays and birthdays, I dash off my signature on their cards, Love Mommy. Several times a week I affix my name on homework folders, permission slips, and absence notes. Even after seven years, the title I hold, the name I am called, fills me with awe and wonder. I can’t believe that I am a mother, their mother.
My children still climb all over me. I am a mountain to be scaled, a soft place to land.
The push and pull of motherhood is tidal. I sneak away, I hide, but ultimately I want to be found.
Dana Schwartz lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. She has published short stories in several literary journals, was a contributor to The HerStories Project on female friendship, and will be in the forthcoming anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness (November 2015). She also writes about motherhood and the creative process on her blog, Writing at the Table.
Driving to Rhode Island for vacation, I nearly get sideswiped when I begin to switch lanes. My younger daughter is in the back. She takes a deep breath but doesn’t scold me. I realize that I am always in a hurry. I am usually running late, if only for something imagined.
Later that week I make a wrong turn and end up at a tollbooth for the Newport Bridge. I do not want to cross the bridge, the expensive bridge, so I ask the tollbooth operator how to turn around. She replies that I have to cross the bridge and pay the four-dollar toll. I rail a bit, in a controlled way, about the inadequate signage. She remains unmoved.
“Can I use a credit card? I don’t have any cash.” I have just spent twenty-seven dollars on ice cream, which I now regret.
“No.” Her face is immoveable. “You can fill out a form and send in a check for ten dollars to cover the toll.”
Ten dollars! No. I fish through my wallet and the cup holders in the car. A dollar bill, quarters, nickels, dimes, cruddy from spilled drinks. I get up to three thirty-five. My two daughters help search the crannies of the car.
“Please move your car. There’s a line behind you.”
“Just a minute, just a minute.” I persevere; remember another zip pocket in my wallet. I get to four dollars. I hand her the crumpled bills and cruddy coins and try not to scowl. She looks like the meanest person I’ve ever seen. She waves me through.
The Newport Bridge is expansive and beautiful, and the sun is setting. Narragansett Bay sparkles like a postcard. I tell the girls to enjoy the view. Lena, my fifteen-year-old, sits next to me in front. She had made impatient noises throughout my ordeal. Now she says, “You didn’t have to talk to her like that.”
I push down my irritation, don’t let myself admit that she might be right. I am proud that I didn’t completely lose it. Behind that search for change in the car is the piled-up stress of late mortgage payments, bounced check fees, the deep inadequacy of never being on top of the bills. And twenty-seven dollars’ worth of ice cream.
I jokingly ask, “You guys want to go to Newport, as long as we’re here?”
Eliza, eleven, knowing we have spent four needless dollars to get here, is quick to say yes. But Lena will have none of it. And I remember the ice cream, the dessert I am bringing back for everyone else. Cousins, sisters, aunts and uncles. So we turn around.
“There isn’t a toll this way, is there?” I ask, hoping against hope. I really don’t have four dollars now. I am trying to keep it together, not let the shame come out as anger. The girls say a sign said twodollars, so I ask Lena to scour the remembered pocket of my purse. But it is two dollars per axle—four dollars again.
A new toll keeper, another unsmiling middle-aged woman in uniform and badge, awaits. Holding down my irritation, I explain my situation to her—that I had crossed the bridge only because there was no turning back, and I returned immediately. She too tells me I can pay ten dollars by mail. I beg her understanding, saying I never wanted to cross the bridge at all, much less twice.
Lena makes more impatient sounds, holding her hand to her forehead.
The toll operator calls for a manager, and another woman, younger and bleached blonde, appears almost instantly. She smiles at me, and I feel a flood of relief. She asks who had instructed me to cross the bridge.
“I didn’t get her name.”
“What did she look like?”
“Um—brunette?” Surly? Put upon? My unbending enemy?
The younger woman is standing and thus higher than the rest of us, which gives her further authority. She tells the toll keeper, “You can enter it as a U-turn for Mary Ellen.” The toll keeper punches some numbers.
“You mean I don’t have to pay? Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” We drive away, and I feel the tension pinging through my body. Lena speaks.
“You shouldn’t talk to them like that—“
I cut her off.
“Lena. You can’t tell me how to behave. My god.” My voice rings with force and authority. The car goes silent, though I can feel the force of Lena’s glowering beside me.
I drive on, and the rightness of Lena’s criticism floods through me. I have used my age, my position as a parent, and my assumed authority to silence her. I justified my behavior as due to stress—the ongoing financial mess of my life—and considered I had behaved well under the circumstances. I had not screamed! I had even told Toll Operator #2 that I was sorry for my irritated tone.
But Lena is right. Soon she will be an adult and will be able to assert her rightness, and I will no longer be able bully her into silence. I can see it coming.
I know when we get back, after I have calmed down some more, I will have to apologize.
Before we eat our ice cream.
Alice Knox Eaton is an English professor, the mother of teenagers, and a writer. Her personal essays have been published in the First Person column of The Chronicle of Higher Education and the online journal Flash Fiction World. She has also authored several academic articles about Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, and a number of African-American writers and cultural figures. She blogs at aliceinbloggingland.wordpress.com.