Map of Flaws
Like an early explorer set out to survey the land with no knowledge of longitude, completely unaware that the Earth stretched round before me, I began motherhood. I remember, seven months pregnant with my first baby, and it all seemed so surreal. I felt inadequate in my ability to plot out the topography of my motherhood role. Maybe it’s different for each of us. When the delivery nurse first put Lily on my chest, when the warmth of her cheek met my skin and I placed my hand on her bottom to hold her to me, that felt real. But did it feel like motherhood? Did I know where I was going? I don’t know. My truth is, all these moments later, and I’m still full of questions.
Years ago I stood with my kids and a few cousins on the screened-in porch of our Lakeview cottage, a beautiful heirloom that has been in my family for generations. This old cottage from the early 1900’s with it’s white-with-green-trim simplicity, looks out over Lake Erie.
A fierce storm rolled in over the lake. Obese bruise-colored clouds rumbled in, quick and circular. They battled with the wind’s fury and churned the water into a sickly greenish brown. Rain poured in angry sheets and slashed against the cottage. Like a continuous burst of gunfire, the sky hurled hail down upon us. The adults raced to close windows and draw the heavy, vinyl window covers down on the upstairs screened-in sleeping porch before everything was soaked.
One could almost feel the tension in the pulse of the adults. My own heart beat with the tempo of the furious storm. But the kids seemed unaffected. Four-year-old Lily and two-year-old Jasper laughed and stood in awe of such large chunks of hail. I loved a good Lake Erie storm, but this? “This is the worst storm I’ve ever experienced up here,” I said to my uncle.
“Me too,” he responded. “And I’ve been coming here for almost sixty years.”
From the front porch we stood and watched the tempest battle with the waves. Our mouths opened as several hundred feet away the wind lifted the long wooden dock completely off its frame and sent it shattering into the water. Eight-foot-long section after section, ripped off as if they weighed nothing, dust in the way of the impatient broom.
“Oh my God!” we shouted. It all happened so fast, and then, before we knew it, the storm was over. Trees stopped their shaking; the hail ended; even the rain fell off to a soft drizzle. We made our way outside, awestruck at the devastation. Branches and leaves littered the grass. We walked toward the dock, or rather, where the dock used to be, in complete disbelief that it simply was no longer. The sky sat clear blue above us as we gaped at the mess. Oblivious to the wreckage, the kids got red plastic cups and gathered the golf ball-sized hail chunks that were covering the ground like a blanket of snow.
The flight home from Ohio to Seattle that summer was full of storm delays and too-hot aircrafts. One child cried and fidgeted nearly the entire trip; the other did her best to win the air-sickness award for most vomit in one plane ride. And the person in charge of picking us up when we landed at midnight forgot about us. Ugh, I’m never traveling again, I thought, as I finally climbed into bed about 3 a.m.
Before I ever began marking my way along the path of motherhood—leaving broken twigs and red twists of fabric along the trail for when I got lost—the most daunting journey I went on was when I moved to Los Angels in my early twenties. The city of angels, that sprawling mass of people and movement. Holy cow! I thought, as the car crested the San Gabriel Mountains and I first set eyes on the madness. House after house, neighborhood bleeding into neighborhood, palm trees, streets and buildings all crisscrossed with freeways and set under a steam bath of heat. No part unused, all the way to the ocean before you can take a breath.
A native mentioned the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles—a book of maps, but not just any book. Over 400 pages of maps of that 502 square mile city, page after page of grids with numbers and letters. Oh the beauty and clarity a map offers. I remember how it felt; my fingers searched for an address in the index and then its corresponding page in the book. Using the precise grid, I pinpointed exactly where I wanted to go and how to get there. This act always connected me to the city. Along the way the landscape developed in full color, trees, sidewalks, hills, rivers without water, mangy old gas stations on the corner. Places to avoid and others I wanted to visit. I was a cartographer adding layers and layers to my map of understanding of Los Angeles.
I always wanted my children to travel, to experience other places, learn about different cultures, so the year after our Lake Erie hailstorm we climbed onto a plane again. The pain of that atrocious plane ride, covered in my daughter’s puke, had faded in my memory as the trauma of labor fades before the next child arrives.
We made our way to Orlando to enjoy Disneyland with grandparents. Jasper and I floated side by side in the shallow end of a quiet pool in our condo complex. I held his tiny hand: we watched cloud shapes drift above. The kids tried over and over to dunk Greg, giggling and spitting water. Sometimes that trip seems like it was all just a dream.
Almost nine years now and I’m still searching for the full color map of motherhood, complete with the legend in the corner to explain each symbol along the way.
I know when I’m cuddled up on the couch with my kids reading a good story—that feels real, like connection, like warmth. When I teach Lily how to make a béchamel sauce for cannelloni and she gets it right on the first try, constantly stirring, never letting it burn. Her proud cry of, “Now I have to help you make cannelloni every time, Mama.” Or watching Jasper’s tiny fingers spread brown sugar over the buttered dough for Sunday morning cinnamon rolls. Yes, this. I feel it now, this spider silk binding us together.
But then there are days when I bring them home from school, my writing interrupted to go pick them up. I look forward to seeing them only to have them bicker and whine the entire way home. The “Bickersons” I call them, and they grump at me for it. I mention what’s for dinner and they mope and sigh the ugliest sighs ever, as if I told them they had to eat overcooked spinach for the rest of their lives. I listen to them swipe nasty words at each other, and I wonder, where did they learn to treat each other like that? Strangers. That’s who we are some days. A scorching desert where a lake was supposed to be. Did I miss this page in the motherhood manual? Can I just hide in the kitchen with the aroma of sautéed onions and garlic soothing me, just before I add the tomatoes and set my pomodoro sauce to simmering?
“Gosh!” Lily exclaimed. “I can’t wait until we get there. So much of traveling is just waiting.” She flopped down next to me. We sat on the floor of the SeaTac airport waiting for our flight to Hawaii. Eight-years-old, and Lily’s been traveling since she was a baby. She’s right, there’s a lot of waiting. She and her brother are both seasoned travelers. With each journey they gain new experiences about the world, about geography and sometimes simply how best to get through airport security. Trip by trip their brains build a foundation of the world around them. A map of their own making.
I wish motherhood was like this, one block after another added onto a strong foundation of understanding. Or, maybe it is and I’m missing the boat, instead, stuck out in the middle of a vast ocean without my navigation skills. Is there a Thomas Guide to Motherhood? The index might include: “Getting through the day on no sleep,” “How to teach children gratitude,” or “Anxiety in elementary schoolers.” It would lead me to the correct grid, full of the information I needed to solve the problem. And then it would help me find my way back again. All the while adding to my foundation, my map of motherhood.
While we grow forward and up in numbers, in this linear fashion, my children and I, motherhood doesn’t follow that same straightforward path. Where is my compass? I want to scream some days. After a frustrating morning when I yell and send them to school angry with me, when one spits on the other as a way to communicate he didn’t like her drawing, when my healthy child starts having random seizures. Even on those precious mornings when the kids sleep in, and I enjoy the peace of watching the sun lighten the sky, I whisper for this motherhood path to be illuminated.
My axis of motherhood is constantly shifting and being thrown off it’s access. It’s not an equation to be solved. There’s no such thing as a precise distance from here to there to be measured, no angle to calculate. There’s no numeric representation of what croup looks like or postpartum depression, how to teach your child to stick up to bullies, how to navigate the mind-numbing boredom of pretend play, or the sheer loneliness of wondering if you’re the only one messing this whole motherhood thing up.
There simply are no fixed points.
The only map of motherhood I know to be true is this—it’s a map of flaws. Some days it’s floating in the calm blue water, the sun’s perfect warmth relaxing your skin with puffy white clouds above. Other days the hailstorm bludgeons you with its wicked oversized bullets, and when it clears, you must fix the damage, clean up the debris and move on. Many moments are simply waiting.
Unlike a cartographer, we can’t know where all the rivers and roads are, where the mountains will rise up to confront us. We can’t draw the contours of this motherhood landscape constructed of our scars, our frustrations and fears, our successes and laughter, until we are past them, never having the completed guide until the journey’s over.
Sara Ohlin lives and writes in Bangor, Maine. Her essays can be found at Anderbo.com (as Sara Mitchell), Trillium Literary Journal, Mothers Always Write, The Good Mother Project and the anthology, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America. She’s a contributor to Her View from Home and currently writes about life, food, motherhood and gardening at www.lemonsandroses.com