After the birth of my first son, I left the hospital a strong, proud woman, emerging victorious from a natural childbirth with her head held high and a sweet little baby swaddled up tight as a burrito in her arms.
Seven days later, I emerged from the bathroom in my husband’s paper-thin, blue plaid, old man robe, heavy bags settled in for a long vacation under my eyes. A twenty-minute nap on freshly washed hair had produced a limp, air-dried nest with a flat, matted spot in the back. In my hands, all the milk I could muster from an underproductive and disappointing attempt at pumping breast milk for my now screaming little barracuda who was struggling to latch on and furious when the milk let-down wasn’t instantaneous. (I tried, little buddy, I really did.)
I shuffled towards the kitchen, mopping the dirty hardwood floors with my standard hospital-issue non-skid slipper socks. My sisters were playing with the baby in the living room, sitting pretty in their fitted hoodies and yoga pants, still springy and snug from being freshly laundered. I wore department store pajama pants, too short in length, too tight in the waist, and entirely too loose in the caboose. Beneath my homeless attire—underwear the size of Texas and a nursing bra hanging loosely over my small chest. This left ample space for my one reprieve from breastfeeding torture–frozen cabbage leaves.
I placed a large leaf on each breast and shuffled into the living room. One of my sisters looked up, pity teeming in their eyes. “You have a piece of cabbage sticking out of your bra.”
Two years later, I shudder as I pull my cardigan closed, hurrying past the dewy cabbage heads in the grocery store. My son giggles from the cart as we press on.
Jennifer Free is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh. She enjoys building “couch tents” with her 2-year-old son and going to music festivals with her husband, who has been said to resemble a hippie version of Stephen King. If you’d like to join her at a festival or just want to drop her a line, she can be reached at www.jenniferefree.com.
With the first gentle flutter of new life in her body, a mother begins a lifelong process of letting go. The sublime pleasure of gazing into her baby’s eyes for the first time is tempered with the deep knowledge that the inevitable separation has already commenced. A mother hears, as perhaps no other can, the budding language of independence in every first gurgle, giggle and coo. In that instant she recognizes that henceforth she will simultaneously celebrate and mourn every milestone in her child’s life, understanding that each step forward in a child’s life is a step away from the safety of a mother’s grasp.
I remember firmly holding my daughter’s hand shortly after she learned to walk as we carefully traversed an orchard carpeted with fallen apples. With each step her little ankles would twist and her slight body weight shift to accommodate the undulating landscape beneath her feet. Halfway across, she tried to pull away from me, certain she could do it alone. The more tightly I held her hand, the more firmly she tugged to get away. She finally broke free and crossed her arms closely against chest her in a stubborn refusal to let me grab hold. I gasped as she stumbled ahead without me, afraid she would fall…perhaps more afraid she wouldn’t. I have never felt so abandoned, so utterly irrelevant in my life.
Until now. Standing on the threshold of my daughter’s high school graduation, I feel fate nudging me further out of the picture of her life. I am at a loss to explain how the eighteen years since her birth have collapsed into what registers as mere minutes on my internal hourglass. How, I wonder to myself, did we go from “Me can do” one day to “Where are the car keys?” the very next. From, “Mamma” to “MO-ther!” in seemingly a single breath.
I have investigated several possible culprits, including Flintstones vitamins, iron-fortified bread products and Disney on Ice, all of which I suspect of unnaturally hastening the maturation process. And while a strong case can be made for each of those, I lay the bulk of the blame at the feet of her orthodontist. He may not have struck the first match, but he certainly poured gasoline on the fire.
“What have you done to my baby?” I screamed at him a few years ago when he removed her braces. “Look at her! How could you do this?”
He stood there speechless, his silence a blaring admission of his guilt. It was hard to deny the facts in front of his face. I had brought him a perfectly nice little girl with bright blue eyes, skinned knees and a happy smile full of teeth going every which way. Three years and a few thousand dollars later, he handed me back this young woman. Eyes like azure pools, framed with thick lashes, smooth shapely legs and a perfectly aligned smile that fairly simmered with budding womanhood.
Now, as both my daughter’s budding womanhood and my parental panic threaten to burst into full bloom, I try desperately to remember the lesson learned in the apple orchard so many years ago. I must let go of her hand, let her make her own way, I silently repeat as she and I take a tour of her prospective college campus. I force myself to loosen my grip and, exerting Herculean effort, manage to stay at least two full steps away from her side throughout the day. It feels as if someone is pulling my heart out through my chest. I can’t let her go, I think. The cost is too great. It will hurt too much.
And then, unexpectedly, life showers me with tender mercy. As I am crossing the green with a group of parents, my daughter breaks with the pack of students and makes her way toward me. In full view of other teenagers, she walks up to me, links her arm through mine, puts her head on my shoulder and whispers, “I love it here…and, Mom, I love you too.”
My heart stops. I am afraid to move, afraid to speak, afraid some uncool motherly word or mannerism will betray me and break the spell. Inside I am screaming, “My baby still loves me! Did you hear that?” But on the outside I know I must be the picture of restraint. With all the feigned nonchalance I can muster, I discreetly squeeze her arm and reply, “I love you too, sweetie.”
The pain in my heart eases a little. The sting of separation is at least temporarily soothed. And as I watch her run back to her group, through a veritable forest of Georgia pines, I swear the sweet scent of apple blossoms suddenly fills the air.
Lee Gaitan has worn many hats in her 25 years as a professional communicator, from public relations writer and television host to stand-up comedienne and educator. She is the author of two books, Falling Flesh Just Ahead, and the recently released My Pineapples Went to Houston—Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry. She has also authored a chapter in the bestselling book, The Divinity of Dogs, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post, Midlife Boulevard and The Good Men Project. She lives in suburban Atlanta with her husband and dog. Connect with her at www.leegaitan.com; https://www.facebook.com/mypineappleswenttohouston; www.twitter.com/LGPineapple.
I wake a beat behind. A morning in sluggish motion with cereal and sandwiches requiring more attention than they deserve. A cold walk to school. Goodbye kisses rushed.
I return home to do the amount of daily required cleaning, laundry, and food preparations necessary to pacify my family. Lists and piles occupy my mind.
I pause and breathe deeply. I am overwhelmed by my insignificance. I impact only the world between the four walls in which I live, for the four people with whom I live. Nothing more.
I set down my pile and pick up the child reaching for me. His “hold you’s” supersede my “should-do’s.” I get on the floor and actually play. I smile at his musical words, uniquely made sounds from that tiny mouth. His body indents mine as we read.
I count his teeth; note the length and beauty of his lashes. I kiss his stomach and tickle his warm neck. I squeeze him a bit too tight and whisper time-stopping “I Love You’s.”
Infrequent are my insignificant days. My inability to revel in them pains me. I know their joy, yet feel their judgment.
I hear the voice telling me this isn’t enough. I hear it when I look beyond this, to the world outside. I hear What did you do all day?Why isn’t this done? What did you accomplish?
It’s my voice. I’m the accuser.
I cage my insecure monster of comparison.
I free myself with the truth all mothers know. These quiet days are blessed. These days — these moments — are a privilege.
I inhaled and loved my growing child today, I answer myself.
I look at his face and find my peace. I look in his eyes and see his world reflected. For today, I rest grateful in my significance to him.
Sonya Spillman is a lover of laughter, coffee, red lipstick and Jesus. She is a motherless mother who writes at spillingover.com to share herself with her kids, avoid paying for therapy, and give voice to a journey through grief, grace, and growth.
Very near to where I live, for a certain portion of the year, there is a little flock of little birds that flies in low, fast, continuous, little circles– and it just doesn’t seem to make any sense. I wonder why they do this – go round and round, over and over, day after day.
I don’t know what type of birds they are or why they do what they do. I like to think that there is a reason, an actual purpose behind their actions, even though it might not be immediately apparent. The birds never go far – it is a limited area, confined by invisible boundaries — though they always seem to be in a frantic hurry to get somewhere. Of course, despite their persistence, they never actually get there.
The birds fly their circles, above a corner gas station, in between my house and our local YMCA. This is the other direction from my son Jonah’s elementary school, but along the same main road. I spend quite a lot of time driving on this road.
A typical day goes something like this — get up and get dressed, eat breakfast, make kids’ lunches, hug, kiss, and wave good-bye to Joshua as he leaves for middle school on his bike, and then the same to husband as he leaves for work in his car, and then again to Jonah after I drive him to school. Next, drive to the Y, exercise, and drive home. Shower, work, do laundry, wash dishes, eat lunch. Drive to pick up Jonah from school. Drive home. Supervise homework, snacks and music practice. Discuss school day with kids. Drive boys to swim practice at the Y. Drive to nearby grocery store, shop for groceries. Drive home to drop off food. Drive back to Y to pick up kids. Drive home. Make dinner for family. Eat dinner with family. Ensure kids get to bed at a reasonable hour. Kiss the kids goodnight. Watch some TV. Kiss husband. Go to sleep.
This typical day routes me by the circling birds no less than 6 times, and sometimes more – because there are often additional places that I need to go such as meetings, errands or volunteer work, and of course there are band practices or friends’ houses to which the kids also need to be driven. As a result of everything, I am constantly pressed for time, rushed, and feeling frazzled.
My neighbor, who is older than I, and never had kids, comments that she always sees me, constantly going in and out, back and forth, day after day, and wonders how I keep up with everything. I see other women my age, driving mini-vans with kids in their back seats along the same main road, and wonder, do any of them notice those birds up there?
Each time I drive by the birds, I consider looking for an actual, scientific explanation for why they might be flying in circles. I could call the Audubon Society easily enough. Or buy a book on bird behavior. Or even google this phenomenon. But, in the end, I never do any of those things.
Instead, I simply go in and out, drive back and forth, and watch the birds go round and round — over and over, day after day. It is with much fascination for their boundless and vital energy, along with a certain amount of disdain for their apparent lack of destination, that I continue to watch the birds fly in quick, never-ending, little circles.
Lisa Pawlak is a San Diego based freelance writer and mother of two boys. She is a regular contributor to Carlsbad, Orange Coast, Hawaii Parent and San Diego Family magazines — and has also published with Working Mother. Lisa’s personal essays can be found in Coping with Cancer magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and in six anthologies of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Additional essays will be soon be available in Greenprints, The Story Behind the Recipe and How to Survive Tantrums and Babysitters.