It was a blue sock, sized six to twelve months, and it had a faux mary jane stitched onto the foot. Adorable, but not irreplaceable. My daughter, then a ruddy eight-month-old gumming the shoulder strap on her stroller, kicked it off somewhere on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland. We’d been browsing, killing the long hours in the afternoon after her nap and before the return of her father from work. An older woman pointed out its absence, perhaps hinting that I ought to have kept my child better shod in the chilly March weather.
I can find it, I thought. We haven’t been in that many stores. It’s just lying under a t-shirt display; I’ll peek in the last few shops, grab it, and be on my way. Besides, where do I have to be?
But it wasn’t in the last shop, or the one before, or the one before that. It wasn’t in the street, it wasn’t on the sidewalk, it wasn’t helpfully laid on top of a newspaper rack or the lid of a recycling bin–it was nowhere. I even asked a few people if they had seen it, aware of the fact that only a crazy person would go to this much trouble over a stupid sock, but no one had. I went home in defeat, my baby’s one foot a little colder and me, angry about the sock and angry at my anger about the sock.
Why did I care? It wasn’t the sock–the mary jane socks had actually come in a 3-pack, and I had two other complete pairs at home. Blue’s not even my favorite color. The sock was more of a message, a spitball from the universe, landing on my forehead and reminding me that, even though parents are supposed to anticipate and control everything, sometimes you can’t do a damn thing about anything.
The first thing a woman will hear when she gets pregnant is, “It’s not about you anymore.” This statement is always accompanied by an elbow poke and a wink, as though your selfish ways are stuff of legend and, like a junkie kicking the bad stuff, you’ll have to rehabilitate yourself in order to learn how to be caring and selfless and decent. Aside from the judgmentalness and overt sexism that this statement exudes (I’ve never in my life heard anyone say this to an expectant father), it is a flat out lie. Motherhood pins a woman under a microscope like no other endeavor, save perhaps appearing on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Once the egg is fertilized, it is solely about you: what you eat, how much you gain, are you stressed, are you exercising enough. And when the baby comes out the focus is even sharper: did you dress her warmly, are you reading to her enough, have you been giving her tummy time, are your breasts producing enough milk–the demands are endless and so must be your patience. Patience, not always for your child, but for the friends, relatives, and complete strangers that question you, assuming by default, that you are an imbecile.
As a mother you’re tasked with not only keeping your child alive (no small feat when they learn how funny it is to see you scream and run when they dash toward a busy street), but making her flourish in the Aristotelian sense of the word–imbuing her with virtues so she can grow up to have a meaningful life and not waste her time scouring Gap Kids for a lost sock. This much pressure can make you crazy. Why else would apartment-dwelling parents, sleeping ten feet from their newborn, install a video monitor in their child’s crib? Because what if–that’s why. (“What if” may be one of the most harmful concepts ever to entered the popular conscious, but that’s a topic for another day.) The pressure can also make you power drunk, giving you a false belief that not only must you control the universe, but that you can.
SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is a terror that stalks all new parents. The idea that you could walk into your child’s room and find them unresponsive is the cruelest vision that replays in your head throughout your child’s infancy. Doctors have made monumental strides over the last thirty years in their recommendations to parents about how to guard against SIDS, and correspondingly, a baby safety industry has grown to sell parents items that may assist them in following doctors’ orders. But, beneficial and well-intentioned as these products may seem, the ugly side of them is that there’s an implicit message that if parents don’t buy them, they’re risking their child’s life. So parents buy them. I did, as did my friends. A girlfriend told me about a nursery thermometer she was given that would beep if the room’s ambient temperature fell outside a prescribed band. She came to fear the dreaded beep (and it would beep, apparently, at least once a day), signalling that her baby could die because she had failed to adequately heat or cool the room.
Given the amount of products you can buy, and the amount of research you can do, and the data that you can collect (did you know there’s a Fitbit for babies? You thought analyzing the color of your baby’s stool was fun? Now you can get a live feed of your child’s heart rate when you’re in the shower!) parents are given a false sense of control, that they can stave off tragedy or even mild discomfort with another amazing product.
And when you are lulled into the belief that you can control the world, you begin to see your occasional failings through a much harsher lens, outliers that should have been prevented, Six Sigma-like, in your managed environment. Suddenly a missing sock stands in for all the ways in which you have failed and will fail. The sock is your lapsed attention while you pay for groceries and your daughter sneaks out the open door and into the parking lot; it is the cup of hot coffee you thoughtlessly left on the kitchen counter when the phone rang and scalds your child’s hand as they tip it over. The sock is everything because your child is everything and you know how fragile and fleeting the whole arrangement is. This is why you remember all the missing socks and still feel that somehow you’d be a better mother if only you’d seen them fall.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James is a stay-at-home mother of two in Oakland. Before she was a full-time diaper changer, she was a waitress, a pollster, an opera singer, and a fundraiser. Her writing has previously appeared in The Bold Italic.
My husband cooks like he’s on the Food Network. That is, he cooks like we have a staff to clean up after him. Alas, we do not.
If Gary needs lemons, he’ll paw through the fruit drawer. A bag of oranges, some grapefruit, the leftover papaya and a couple of limes go on the countertop, and when he finally finds the lemon he needs, he’ll go back to work, discarded fruit rolling around on various surfaces.
Into a metal bowl, he’ll toss spices: cardamon, cinnamon, cayenne, three kinds of paprika, maybe a dash of cumin. He leaves them all out, lids buried under a pile of spoons. “Why don’t you put them away as you go,” I ask, visualizing the clean up project to come. “I might need them again later,” he winks, and I have to walk away. I can barely stand to watch.
Spoons. Every last one of them. Big ones, little ones, wooden ones, long handled, demitasse, mixing spoons, even a ladle. Every spoon in the house used for tasting, stirring, testing, every single one left in a pool of work-in-progress-sauce on the counter top.
His specialty is sauces, and I must admit they are sublime. Sometimes it’s maddening how tasty they are, the flavors melting together in a symphony of all the right notes, a bit part in a movie that steals the whole scene. He only cooks once in a while, but when he does, he seems to have an instinct for how flavors and textures go together. A stranger to rules, he makes odd combinations and can never remember what he put in anything.
Our styles in the kitchen are different, and we’ve learned to give each other space. While my husband is the visiting artist in the kitchen, I am merely its workhorse. I crank out our daily meals using ingredients prudently, economizing on mess making. He indulges his imagination, using resources with abandon, embracing disorder. The squirt gun we used last summer in the back yard becomes his dispenser for lemon juice; his cordless screwdriver doubles as an apple peeler. It’s a level of creativity that makes me wonder if disinfectant might be in order at some step in the process.
This morning, he and our daughter Lauren decide to make pancakes. They get out my old Better Homes Cookbook, the one my mom gave me when I graduated high school and is now rubber banded together and splotched with samples of a million dinners. Lauren flips to the page on pancakes and starts reading. “That’s good enough,” Gary says after she’s read a few lines. “We get the idea.”
They get out milk, flour, sugar, eggs, orange juice, blueberries and pumpkin pie filling. Milk splashes on the hard wood floor. Gary drops a paper towel on the white puddle, smears it with his sock clad foot, kicks the towel aside and puts the empty milk jug back in the refrigerator. Lauren giggles; I wince.
Gary retrieves the mortar and pestle from the back of the pantry and Lauren chucks whole spices in his direction. She has my green eyes but his curiosity, his sense of adventure that brings a thrill into the most mundane of activities. They are feeding off each other, two fearless creative minds working in unison. The skillet sizzles in readiness for their first masterpiece.
They dump the powdered spices in the bowl, the sleeve of Lauren’s pink cotton jammies skimming the surface of the batter. She gives it a final stir, licking her fingers and laughing.
I flip open the paper and tried not to look at the production. There’s flour on the floor, in Lauren’s hair, and even some on the light fixture. In a saucepan, pumpkin pie filling bubbles and pops, bubbles and pops, splattering yellow brown goo all over the white stove top. But even from my seat on the other side of the kitchen, I can sense that this goo is transforming into buttery spicy goodness, a syrupy blend of nutmeg and brown sugar, pumpkins and apples, the very flavor of home.
A sizzle announces that batter is on the skillet at last, and the fragrance of pancakes delivers me from the editorial section. I put the paper down.
Every inch of countertop is covered, but the smell is irresistible. “Let’s eat in the next room,” I suggest, since the kitchen is trashed. The sun streams through the dining room window as I set the table for three. Gary grabs the saucepan of pumpkin syrup and a handful of napkins. Lauren marches in with a platter of steaming cakes and a stick of fresh butter. We dig in, the pumpkin syrup a perfect complement to the tender airy cakes, the mess in the kitchen forgotten.
A perfect Sunday morning.
Nancy Brier grows organic, dry farmed walnuts in Northern California along with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in various business journals, LiteraryMama, and MothersAlwaysWrite. For more of her work, please visit NancyBrier.com.
open beak begging
all she can give
and still more
a mother’s life never
until it flies
heart breaking into
Steve Lavigne runs a local poetry group cupoetry.com in East Central Illinois. The group meets weekly to discuss, write and help make poetry a part of the community experience. He’s been published by the New Verse News and the Riversedge Journal.Steve self-published his older poetry in easily downloadable formats at smash words ebooks. And yes, he put it there for all posterity to annoy and embarrass his daughter.
has invaded my body,
watched a whole
little league game
without once looking
at her phone,
wrote two hundred
Thank you notes and
a bouncy castle
with a single breath,
all while I was
lying on the couch,
cigarette in hand,
waiting for my pink toenails
Natasha Garrett is a higher education professional and a mother of one boy, among other things. Originally from Macedonia, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she writes personal essays and poetry on the topics of bilingualism and living across cultures.