When Nature Fails Nurture

When Nature Fails Nurture

By Maria Kostaki

Sleepy Mom w slippersI hated breastfeeding. Not because it hurt. Not because… I can’t think of another reason normal women don’t like breastfeeding, but not because it hurt. A few minutes after my son was born, my midwife placed him on my breast. It was the second most magical moment of my life; the first was watching him pee on the OR floor as the OBGYN shouted “Oh! He’s blond!” and handed him over to the nurse to clean up. The following day he spent nine straight hours on my breast. I had a C-section, he’d insisted on staying head up in the womb and my body’s quarters were growing dangerously small for him. It hurt to sit up, to lie down, and it definitely hurt to have an extra seven pounds on me for nine hours. But I didn’t hate it yet. It was still magic.

A week later, this is how my day goes:

10:00 pm: Stumble up the stairs to bedroom with husband behind me, hauling sleeping baby in portable crib, freaking out that he will wake and I will have to feed.

10:05 pm: In shower (sometimes), nipples burning at the slightest contact with warm of water.

10:10 pm: Asleep.

11:00 pm: Baby wakes for feeding. Right breast.

11:15 pm: Left breast.

11:25 pm: Asleep with baby on breast.

Midnight: Woken up by baby sliding off me and me sinking off the three pillows behind my back. Breastfeeding pillow is on the floor.

12:30 am: Baby awake for feeding. Right breast.

12:45 am: Left breast.

1:00 am: Baby asleep on breast. Carefully release nipple from mouth, slowly place baby in cot.

3:00 am: Jump out of bed to look at clock, feeling rested, terrified that something has happened to baby. Maybe he starved.

3:05 am: In kitchen, one hand holding pump to right breast (it works better), the other flipping and crushing candy to stay awake. Pop open a beer, they say it helps milk production.

3:25 am: Carefully place 60ml of pumped milk in fridge. Sneak upstairs.

4:30 am: Baby wakes for feeding. Wake up husband. Send him to warm refrigerated milk. Breastfeed baby while husband warms milk.

4:35 am: Leave baby with husband and turn back to both. Baby eats and falls asleep on husband’s chest.

6:00 am: Baby wakes to feed. Right breast.

6:15 am: Left breast.

You get the picture.

By month two, I’m a complete disaster. I rub my red, cracking nipples with olive oil, sit on my side because post-pregnancy hemorrhoids won’t let me sit on my ass, I’m exhausted, my baby is hungry and grumpy, cries most of the day, never sleeps for over an hour straight, and I feel like the weakest woman to ever walk the earth. Weak and useless. I can’t even feed my own child. A friend suggests I go to a lactation specialist.

“No, don’t,” another friend says. “I did and she took too much money from me and didn’t help. Just keep pushing through it, it’ll get easier.”

I go see another friend who gave birth six months before me. She has huge breasts, bursting with the magic serum, there’s so much of it, she feeds her son and her niece at the same time.

We go out as a family, just down the street, to a couple who are close friends. My son doesn’t sleep for a second, so I spend the day on the couch in their spare room with him on my breast. The woman friend keeps coming in to watch. Fascinated. She doesn’t know I am failing. I pretend everything is all right and keep at it.

At the end of month two, the pediatrician makes a house call. I buzz her in and return to my crying baby. I’ve laid him on the floor, gotten down on all fours, and tried to feed him in this rather primitive position that the Internet suggested I should try. The doctor pulls me up from the floor. Writes something on a piece of paper. Hands it to me. It’s a name of an organic formula brand.

“Go get it now,” she says.

I do. Baby eats, baby sleeps for four straight hours. My life changes.  But the guilt for giving up grows at the same rate as my son.

Two years later, I’m at the pool where I take my son for swimming lessons.

A woman is changing her two-and-half year old son next to me. She takes off her bathing suit and covers her body with a towel. Or so I assume. Next thing I know, her child was going to town on her breast. I didn’t manage to breastfeed for as long as I wanted to; I envy and look up to mothers who do, for however long they want, as long as they want to. This woman gave her child her breast after he spent half an hour swimming. This kid was hungry. She let him feed for ten seconds. And he kept asking for more. She told him to put his socks on. He kept asking for more. She got dressed. The kid went nuts.

My son stared. Oh wow, I said, immediately grateful that nothing worse came of my mouth. And then it did. “Oh honey, don’t get any ideas,” I said, zipping up his dinosaur sweatshirt. The woman asked how long I breastfed. Six months, I lied. “Oh, so he doesn’t really remember then, ” she said. No, but I do.

Maria Kostaki is a native of Moscow, Russia, but has spent most of her adult life on a plane from Athens, Greece to New York City and back. She has worked as an editor and staff writer for Odyssey magazine in Athens and New York, and her debut novel Pieces (She Writes Press) publishes in May 2015. 

Illustration by Christine Juneau


What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

ART Doors of Italy

By Cloe Axelson

The waiting room at Careggi University hospital in Florence has all the charm of a Boston bus terminal: dingy, cream-colored concrete walls and steel benches with armrests so sharp they could puncture your skin. A few posters hang neatly. One offers assistance to Italian prostitutes, the others feature diagrams of pregnant bellies with a fetus tucked inside, but I can’t read them because I don’t speak the language. My husband Sam and I are in Italy for an eight-day vacation, our final getaway before we become parents. The hospital wasn’t our list of sites to visit, of course, but I’m thirteen weeks pregnant and noticed blood when I went to the bathroom, so here we are.

When we arrived there was only one other patient waiting on this Saturday afternoon in late July, a very pregnant Italian woman who was accompanied by her husband and four-year-old daughter. She looks unhealthy: sallow skin, swollen ankles, thick toenails painted a horrible metallic gold. She’s also missing teeth and every thirty or forty minutes she excuses herself for a cigarette, which she smokes, slowly, just outside the sliding glass doors. I can’t imagine a similar scene at my obstetrician’s office at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


As a kid, I didn’t daydream about having children. I was a tomboy, mostly concerned with how fast I could throw a baseball. In elementary school, I got my hair cut as short as my mom would allow, played on an all-boys little league team and wore a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, like my favorite boy cousins, to family parties. My parents later confessed they suspected I might be a lesbian, but no. I’d just decided that hanging out with the boys was much more interesting than watching them from afar or giggling when they walked by, as many pre-pubescent girls often do. Sam and I began dating our senior year in college. When I got married at twenty-eight, I skipped the wedding boutique circuit and bought a dress on eBay for $89.50.

In my early thirties, I thought childbearing was triggering an epidemic among my friends: suddenly they were giving up big jobs and adventure travel in countries with questionable water supplies for motherhood. My Facebook feed was littered with photographs of my friends’ distended bellies and, eventually, of their infants, red crinkly-looking things that became progressively more adorable and got pricey haircuts. Conversations about politics and career paths were replaced with chatter about nannies, breast-feeding and potty training. Some abandoned city living for the suburbs and bought battleship-sized SUVs. My friends were trading in their old lives for new ones—unrecognizable to me and, perhaps, to them. It was alarming.

And yet having a baby always lingered in the background, as something I would get to eventually, when the time was right. Once Sam finished graduate school. Once I’d run a marathon. Once we’d saved for a down payment. We were also busy: we’d lived in five apartments in three cities and held twelve jobs between us since graduating from college. We’d experienced 9/11 as New Yorkers. I’d traveled solo through Central America for three months. Sam had worked at the White House during the financial crisis. After dating for seven years and being married for five, expanding our twosome meant the end of an era. Having a family was something we’d talked about, but we wanted to be sure we were ready.

When we finally were ready, about three years ago, I discovered that getting pregnant wasn’t something I could do easily. That’s when I started paying much closer attention to my uterus.

I treated my uncooperative reproductive system like I treated any physical challenge, with determination and discipline. I did all the things the books tell you to do: took my temperature every morning to track my menstrual cycle and monitored my girl parts for slippery secretions, which I didn’t even notice I had until I read about them. I also quit eating so much cheese (which supposedly hampers fertility), tried yoga (to relax), drank less wine and, for a while, switched from coffee to green tea. My pillow talk, which was never very good, got worse—I instructed Sam to “plunge me” on more than one occasion.

I was characteristically practical and unsentimental about all the things I was doing, but none of my self-directed treatment seemed to be working. And after a year of trying and failing, it seemed getting pregnant wasn’t going to happen without outside help. I wasn’t ready to think about fertility treatments, so I started to see Lisa, an acupuncturist with an office in my neighborhood. I knew several friends who gotten pregnant after a few treatments and hoped it might work for me, too.

Lisa had a strong Roman nose and bright brown eyes. She’d been an acupuncturist for fifteen years after several years in “quality assurance” at a big pharmaceutical company. The minute I learned she was a national Kung Fu sparring champion, I knew she was the practitioner for me: no nonsense, tough, results-oriented. Once after a treatment she showed me a photo of one of her male sparring partners—his belly was stamped with a yellow-purplish mark exactly the width of her fist.

At every appointment, after I’d positioned myself at the end of her treatment table, she’d ask me a roster of questions about my sleep habits and stress levels and menstrual cycle. I took in the Eastern art hanging on the walls and tried to make sense of the human anatomy drawings with meridian maps overlaid. She told me to watch more television, to relax. When I told her I was training for a half marathon, she implored me to stop running so much and to devote my energy instead to believing my body could be a vessel for new life.  I nodded, but thought she sounded hippy-dippy.

I saw Lisa at least once, sometimes twice a week, for five months. (I even made Sam, an economist and Eastern medicine skeptic, go for six weeks as an act of solidarity.) At eighty-five dollars per visit, it cost us a small fortune. I felt great and could set a clock by my cycle, but it had become a comforting ritual that wasn’t getting me pregnant. With the supposed death knell of a woman’s fertility looming (my thirty-fifth birthday), I had to decide how committed I was to becoming a mom.  Mother Nature was pushing the issue.


It’s hour two in the cream-colored holding area and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever be examined by a doctor. Especially since when we visited the registration desk, a nurse looked at me and said “La Americana? You sit a few minutes, please.”

I’d started bleeding a few hours after I’d gotten off the plane from Boston. I hadn’t had any medical issues in my pregnancy so far, so my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged brain went for my worst fear: miscarriage. Sam forbade me from reading anything on the internet, which has page after page of horror stories, and together we called my doctor in Cambridge, who instructed me to find a doctor in Florence immediately.

I’d rifled through our guidebook for a recommendation and ended up here: the Accettazione Obstretica at Careggi University Hospital, fifteen minutes by taxi outside the city center, away from the tourists and crowds.

The smoking, gold-toed pregnant patient is still here, though her husband and daughter left an hour ago. She doesn’t seem troubled by the long-wait. We’ve also been joined by a couple who appears to be in their mid-thirties, like Sam and me. The woman, an Australian, has bottle-blond hair and looks to be about six months along. Her husband is fluent in Italian, and he tells us there are only two doctors on call and that two women are in the early stages of labor, hence the delay. I’m trying to stay calm. Sam is reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson in between games of Scrabble on our iPad.


After acupuncture, my first stop in the baby-making industry was my OBGYN’s office. She had to complete several tests before she could ship me off to the fertility specialists, where the real work would begin. She took pints of blood, scraped samples from my insides and dyed my uterus with an eggplant-colored ink. The tests showed nothing: by all measures, my uterus and ovaries were just as they should be. One nurse even exclaimed mid-exam in her thick Boston accent, “Gorgeous, just gorgeous!” Sam got tested, too, after I suspected that his habit of working for hours with his laptop on his lap was frying any potential offspring. But he also checked out as normal. The basic tests completed, we were referred to a fertility clinic with the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.”

Millions of words have been written about the strange and scientific voyage to parenthood taken by the infertile couple. The werewolf-like rage brought on by hormone treatment, the endless blood draws, shots and ultrasounds. The anxiety and heartbreak of failed treatments. I suspect most infertile couples go about their business in silence, but some make art out of their struggles: a photographer in California documented her journey using eggs, rose petals, tampons and pig fetuses as her subjects.

I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening because it was painful and awkward to talk about. When friends and family asked, “Are you guys going to have kids?” I wanted to tell them to fuck off, but instead I laughed and said, “Oh yeah, we’re on it.” I worried about seeing someone I knew at our clinic and I refused to discuss it, even with close friends. My parents knew things weren’t going as planned, but I didn’t share details, lest they start offering advice. They did anyway. One cold late winter afternoon, my dad and I were at the dog park. I was about to toss a tennis ball when, mid-throw, my father, a soft-spoken Midwesterner in his mid-sixties, said: “You know, you and Sam ought to try facing north. That’s what your mother and I did when we were trying to get pregnant.” I thanked him, but didn’t start bringing a compass to bed.

Our fertility clinic was located at an office park in Waltham, MA, less than half a mile from Interstate 95. It had the feel of a nice department store: high ceilings, lots of natural light, bright cloth chairs in primary colors, two flat screen televisions and dozens of magazines. The place was always busy; dozens of people, just like us, waiting to be seen. In spite of its creepy, factory-like feel, there was something awesome about the cool efficiency of it all. I imagined entire wings of the building packed with cabinets of frozen embryos, lined up like computer servers.

The fertility doctor we were referred to, Rita, was in her early forties with shoulder length dirty blond hair, a wandering left-eye and an easy laugh. She made it clear we had garden-variety infertility, a sensibility I found simultaneously reassuring and insensitive. Rita recommended we try artificial insemination first, moving on to in vitro fertilization (IVF) only if three rounds of insemination didn’t work. We agreed.

Sam would “produce” the sperm specimen at home, then race up I-95 to get it there within the sixty-minute limit before semen starts to sour. He started giving his sperm a pep talk before we dropped them off, holding the plastic cup a few inches from his face and rooting them on with a fist pump, as if each one was Michael Phelps swimming for gold. The insemination procedure takes about five minutes. A nurse would summon me to a private room where I’d undress from the waist down, cover myself with a sheet and prop my feet in stirrups. One time I was on the phone while she took a syringe of Sam’s semen and inserted it, turkey baster-style, past my cervix for a potential rendezvous with an egg. Sometimes, I’d feel minor cramping, but nothing painful; the real agony was waiting for the result.

I’d hold my breath for two weeks. The Google-search history on my phone during that time included things like “what does week one of pregnancy feel like?” and “can you feel an egg implant?” Month after month, after a blood test to check for pregnancy hormones, I’d receive a phone call from a nurse telling me I wasn’t pregnant.

Irrational self-flagellation followed. Maybe I shouldn’t have run that half marathon. Maybe there really is something seriously wrong with me. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me I’d be a terrible mother. With each unsuccessful attempt, my attitude hardened: I started to anticipate failure because it made me less vulnerable to the sting of negative results. Preparing for the worst made me feel in control of a situation that was far beyond my influence.

After our third failed insemination attempt, I needed time away from the fertility factory line. I’d started to peer jealously at pregnant women and stare wistfully at the little leaguers in the park. I was resenting people in my life, as if newly pregnant friends and family were conspiring against me. I was angry with Sam for not being able to bear children, a fact he certainly couldn’t control. I’d become just as preoccupied with not being able to get pregnant as my friends with kids were with nap schedules and play dates.

Within three months, though, I decided I was committed enough to becoming a mother that I was ready to go forward with IVF. This time, I told close friends and my parents what we were up to. It felt good to have a team of people pulling for us. We also made our fertility project the priority. Sam canceled a business trip to Miami and I skipped out on my employer’s big annual conference, things we never would have done before because it belied how much was at stake.

I’ve heard stories of women going through three, five, seven, eleven rounds of IVF. I don’t know how they find the strength. We were very lucky. I was grumpy, anxious and bloated, but after just one round, I got pregnant.


We’re on hour three in the waiting room and the pregnant Italian woman has excused herself for six smoke breaks. Yes, I’m counting. I can smell it on her clothes when she walks by me and it makes me want to retch.

The Australian couple is much more talkative than they were an hour ago. We’re all chatting, they’re asking about our trip and where we’re headed next. It’s already six o’clock: our first full day in Florence, gone. I’m not in pain, but I am jet-lagged and tired, entering hour forty-two without sleep.

Sam and I are contemplating whether he should run out to grab slices of pizza when I hear the front desk call a version of my name: “Ax-sel-son? Clo-way?”

“Yes!” I say, jumping up. We high-five the Australians on our way out of the waiting room.

The doctor’s name is Ippolita D’Amato. She appears to be in her late-thirties with short, brown hair that falls into her eyes and stylish, thick-rimmed glasses. She carries two cell phones, one in each of the pockets of her white doctor’s coat.

Italian is usually a wonderfully lazy language. People take their time, pronouncing every letter, elongating the vowels, every word a song. But Ippolita is on a long, busy shift and her version of the language sounds much less romantic than any Italian I’ve heard before—a rapid bark punctuated by o’s and e’s and heaving sighs. I decide this is probably how real Italians talk. Maybe that’s one bright spot: we’re having an authentic Italian experience.

Ippolita ushers Sam and me into an examination room and instructs me to sit on the edge of a bed that’s hidden behind a blue curtain. A nurse asks me to remove my underwear, hike up my sundress and lie back. I can’t help but think that if I were home, I’d be wearing a gown and have a sheet draped over my naked lower half, the lights would be on, the door closed. Ippolita begins performing a pelvic exam while the nurse revs up an ultrasound machine that, by the size of it, looks to be about twenty years old When one of the phones in Ippolita’s pockets rings, she answers it—”Pronto!” she barks into the receiver—while she’s peering at my cervix. I laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Next comes the ultrasound.  The cool gel on my belly, my bare lower half still splayed out on the table.

“You know you have due, yes?” she says.

“Yes, we’re having twins,” I say.

“One heartbeat and…two heartbeats. Bene, bene,” she says.

There is something miraculous about seeing your child (or in my case, children) inside your body, especially when they’re so tiny you can’t feel them move. But there they are, heartbeats flickering steadily on the pixilated screen. Alive. I feel a tremendous sense of relief. The two peapod-sized, thirteen-week beings are jiggling around in their amniotic sacs, just as they should be. I want to hug her. I briefly consider naming one of the twins after her, then quickly dismiss it. Ippolita is a tough name for a kid.

She says the bleeding I had was normal and that everything looks fine. She thinks it was the result of a long flight, dehydration and exhaustion. I didn’t drink enough water on the plane and I’d worked on my computer almost the entire flight. Our hotel room was being cleaned when I arrived from the airport, so I’d walked around Florence for a couple of hours in 100-degree heat. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought twice about before, but is now apparently beyond my physical limits.

She tells me I must be calm. “No running to the top of the Duomo,” she says. “Don’t get too hot. Drink lots of water.  Clo-way, remember your body is not your own.”

I read once that being pregnant means you are never alone. Sitting there underwear-less, eyeing Ippolita, it occurs to me I have yet to accept my new reality.


I’d only told a few people I was pregnant before our trip to Italy. I was still able to fit into my clothes and could hide the growing bulge in my abdomen. For all the pain and hassle I’d endured to get pregnant, actually being pregnant was relatively uneventful: I was constantly nauseous (but not vomiting), cringed at the smell of grilled chicken and craved watermelon, but that was it. After three years of trying and failing, I didn’t quite believe it was happening. And as much as I wanted kids, I didn’t want to broadcast the news because I suddenly didn’t feel ready for it. I was worried how people would react once they found out. It’s only natural that children don’t consider who their mother was before she became their mom. My identity as an independent, ambitious, active person would be beside-the-point to the twins. I wondered if my friends and family would also dismiss the pre-kid me in the same way.

I tried my best to heed Ippolita’s instructions. I let Sam carry my suitcase and sent him up the rickety stairs of every cathedral to take pictures from their domes while I stayed below in the shade, a bottle of water between my knees. He hiked while I sat under an umbrella at the beach. And in the early evenings, before dinner, when Sam went out to explore, I napped or read in our hotel room. I hated not being able to move far or fast.

I was happiest once we escaped the triple-digit heat of Florence for the Cinque Terre, five tiny towns perched on the craggy peaks of Italy’s northwest coast. There, I discovered the one physical activity I could enjoy: floating in the salty Mediterranean. I didn’t mind being still as long as I could be in the water. Our last morning on the coast, I sat on a jetty that cut into the blue-green sea and dipped my feet in the cool water. I can still hear the waves, with their persistent rhythm, breaking against the shore, filling the space between the rocks and making their retreat. I knew it’d be a long time before we’d visit again.

The journey from the Cinque Terre to our next stop, Siena, was about three hours by car. Our rental car was only slightly larger than a golf cart and not nearly as comfortable: the air conditioning blew hot air and my knees hit the dashboard. Making things worse, the waist on my shorts was starting to cut into my stomach, even with the button undone. I was already hot and grumpy when I read this sentence from our guidebook aloud to Sam: “When possible, avoid driving in Siena.”

Unfortunately the guidebook was right: no one should attempt to drive in Siena where the streets, which are pedestrian-only, are little more than fifteen-feet wide. Once we entered the city limits, it took us another three hours to find our hotel. As we drove in circles, I told Sam that the map was fucking useless, that I hated this stupid fucking vacation. I twice ran out of the car on the side of the road, heaving and kicking at the dirt like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I felt myself losing control, but couldn’t stop a frustration that made my whole body vibrate.

By the time we checked into our hotel, I was bleeding again. I hadn’t followed any of Ippolita’s instructions: I hadn’t stayed calm and my babies-to-be knew it.

Sam was exasperated and went out for a walk. I took a bath. Our hotel was a one-hundred year old villa once owned by Sienese aristocrats, and the heavy wooden shutters in our room opened up above the patio that overlooked the picture-perfect Tuscan countryside: a puzzle of vineyards, green hills, winding roads and stone cottages.

I could see patches of the late afternoon blue sky from the bathtub. I cupped the warm water over my growing belly, rubbing it with both hands, back and forth, coaxing calm as I looked at my toes peeking out at the far end of the tub. My iPhone, sitting on the ledge of the antique marble sink, played Bon Iver. “Someway, baby, it’s a part of me, apart from me,” one song began. I was overwhelmed by waves of anxiety, the selfish but real fear of losing myself, of never again being my own person. I wanted to be a mom, but I resented that everything I’d once thought was important might soon feel irrelevant and small, as I shed an identity I knew for one I knew nothing about.

A few tears dripped off my cheeks into the water, as I began to plead with my uterus, the organ that had been defiant for so long, and the tiny beings inside. “I’m sorry,” I said out loud. I promised to keep them safe. To be more gentle with myself. To be vulnerable, finally, to the reality of becoming a mother and all the change that would bring. “O.K., guys. I get it now,” I said, my words echoing off the tile. As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, the bubbles lost their fizzle and the water cooled. I could see how my body was changing as new life took root.

I didn’t know then that the two beings floating inside me were girls. Or that my body would stretch to an unfathomable size to accommodate theirs. Or that the toughness required to run a marathon is nothing compared to the toughness needed in labor, and to survive the ragged first year of new life.

I didn’t yet know the sense of accomplishment I would derive from tandem breastfeeding and coordinating nap schedules. The delight I’d feel in watching my daughters feel grass or see the ocean for the first time. The pride in looking at their tiny features and seeing my own in miniature. In being someone’s mom.

The things I used to worry about do seem frivolous in comparison to the relentlessness of motherhood. But I now know that is the natural order of things, even as I sometimes miss the body and life that were once mine alone.

Cloe Axelson lives with her family just outside of Boston. She is a student in Lesley University’s MFA program in nonfiction writing and works for a national education-focused nonprofit.





Newborn yellow chickens in hay nest along whole and broken eggs

By Dierdre Wolownick

“Number One’s rolling!”

My son’s finger shakes in anticipation. I follow his stare and see one perfect white egg roll onto its other side. All around us, people gasp.

Kids of every size and ebullience level fill the museum; we’ve been jostled and stepped on all morning, elbowing our way through airplanes and plumbing, the human body and impossible machines. Science-in-art. Hands-on things to push, pull and measure. But nothing has so captivated as this little warm pyramid of glass with sixteen eggs in various stages of hatching.

Nothing to push, pull or touch, no moving parts, absolute silence. It doesn’t seem like an exhibit that we wouldn’t be able to tear our little movers and shakers away from.

Yet here we stand, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, motionless. I never knew my son or daughter could stop moving for that long.

A tiny speck of beak pokes out through a hole in Egg Number One. People cheer. I don’t, but I feel like it. Everything gets blurry. Has it really been so many years since I was part of this mystery? For a fleeting, foolish moment I want to do it again. I want to be that chalice of life, and create something glorious, something that will make people teary-eyed. There’s no glory in fame, prestige, money. Renown is fleeting. This alone is glory.

The top of Number One cracks almost all around. Now there’s no more room near the exhibit. Looking through the glass, I see faces of every age pressed as close as they can get. I hear whispers only; even the tiniest children respect the sanctity of this moment.

What hard work! The chicks that have already hatched lie exhausted, laboring just to breathe. I remember the exhaustion. Will I never feel that way again?

Both my kids squeeze even closer to the glass. Number Two has rolled over, in the bumpy, unsure way of an egg. But then there are more gasps, and children point and whisper-shout and pull on sleeves or arms. Number One is out!

Everything is blurry again. I get angry with myself for a moment, but then a ball of red and yellow goo flops onto the metal mesh, out of Egg Number One, and everything else is forgotten.

How ugly it looks! — eyes almost as big as its head, beak covered with red and yellow fluid, down plastered to its tiny, quivering body. None of that diminishes the excitement buzzing around the glass pyramid. The parents are all smiling. You can tell some of them have forgotten where they are. They, like myself, have gone back in time.

The kids are all in the here-and-now. Most of their comments consist of “Look at that!” or “Mommy! Daddy! Look!” The exclamation points are audible. This is a moment to be shared, and remembered. My own are bursting to tell Aunt Diane, who stood before this very exhibit so many years ago — in another lifetime — but never actually got to see one hatch.

Some of the onlookers whisper things like, “Come on, move!” or “Go ahead, do something!” But it just lies there, its little body bouncing rhythmically, breathing for the first time.

I discover I’m holding my breath, and let it out. Did I expect to hear a cry? For an unexpected moment I feel again the unbearable anguish of silence between what we’d thought of for nine months as “the end,” and the cry that marked the beginning. The beginning of those million little anguishes. Of fears we didn’t know we had.

Will I never feel them again? That prospect fills me with bleakness. Never a great ogler of babies, I’m amazed to find myself wanting another.

My husband and I decided, so many years ago, that two was enough. And I’m too old. If we’d married earlier, if I’d had the first two younger, maybe…. But now, at our ages, it would ruin everything. We’d both be exhausted again, have no time for each other again. And the two we have are so good together. No, we made the right decision.

And yet…

Another chick, hatched a few minutes before we got here, stumbles over and pecks at “our” chick, once, twice. People gasp. “Don’t do that!” chides a small voice.

I try to remain detached. Do they eat the amniotic fluid from the others? But it isn’t working. Doesn’t it hurt them to cut the cord? I wince as they place my warm newborn on a cold, metal scale.

We have to leave. There are other places to see, we can’t spend our only day in the museum watching chicks hatch. It’s over. I’ll never feel that way again.

Author’s note: The toughest decision of all: To create — or not — another human being! The awesomeness of that choice has resonated with me forever; before I was even old enough to have children, I remember wondering, “how do you know how many to have?” This incident gave me at least one answer.

Dierdre Wolownick lives and writes in northern California. Her work has appeared in parenting and children’s magazines, as well as other types of publications, in many countries, and her short fiction has won First Prize from the National Writer’s Association. She has lived and worked on several continents, and geography is one of the main ‘characters’ of her novels.





One and Two

One and Two

rt Double Stroller

By Sara Petersen

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with One. I rock gently back and forth in my wicker rocking chair, enjoying the lazy summer heat, and sipping my thoughtfully mixed smoothie. I squint at the remaining crossword puzzle clues. One nudges me in the lower left corner of my uterus, and I rub my hand along his bones, savoring our connection. I can’t wait to meet him.

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with Two. I gulp down 50 milligrams of Zoloft, preparing myself for the onslaught of hormonal leaps and plummets soon to take hold of my ravaged body. I swear softly as One dumps out the Lego bin for no real reason other than to delight in destruction. Two taps a foot or an elbow against me, safely cocooned in the warm darkness of my womb, and I absentmindedly smooth her knobbiness away. Only a few more weeks until all hell breaks loose.

My husband and I walk towards the hospital doors gripped in silent tension, like two people about to jump from an airplane too scared to discuss their fears with each other. It’s late. And dark. Brett rings the ER buzzer, as we’ve been instructed to do.

“Can I help you?” The gruff voice on the other end of the buzzer is anything other than solicitous.

“We’re here for the birth center.” Brett’s voice sounds cartoonish and alien.

“Who are you visiting?”

“No, I mean, we’re here to check in.”

“Who is that you say you’re visiting?”

I grip Brett’s forearm with insistent panic.

“There’s a baby – I mean – we’re having a baby.”


As we walk, the midday sun smiles beneficently down on us. Brett slows down his pace to keep up with my snail-like creep towards the main entrance. I stop every so often to lean over a car and breathe through a contraction coursing through my lower back.

“So if it’s a boy, we’re going with Arthur? We really need to figure out a top-three list at least.”

“Well, definitely Rose for a girl.”

“I don’t know about definitely.”

“Did you pack the Goldfish? I’m kinda hungry.”

I watch as Brett awkwardly clicks the massive carseat into place, sweating in the July heat. I wedge myself as close to the carseat as possible, and as soon as One makes the slightest mew, I shove my crooked pinky into his mouth.

“Hurry, Brett – I don’t want him crying!”

Brett slams the front door shut, and I stare at the huge, brick front of the hospital. We’re going home. But should we be? Shouldn’t we take some sort of parenting entrance exam first to ensure we’re really equipped with the knowledge and ability to keep a 6.7 pound infant alive?

Every blood vessel and breath and spark in my body is trained toward the jaundiced little being in the carseat, but I steal occasional glances through the windows, and wonder at the oddity of the outside world. People are just walking around like nothing’s happened, like everything is totally normal. Little blue houses blurring past, commerce, people walking with purpose. Where are they going? Dogs. Children. Oh god. Children. I have one.

I watch as Brett expertly clicks the carseat into place, and I join him up front, quickly clicking on NPR.

“I really wanna hear Fresh Air – she’s interviewing Cate Blanchett about that movie – Carol, I think it’s called?”

Two is still fast asleep when we pull into the driveway. I’m happy to be home.

One will only sleep if I’m holding him. My left wrist aches from being bent in the same harshly geometric shape, supporting the lower half of his swaddled body, for the past day, night, day before that, night before that, day before that. One will only sleep if I’m holding him. I want my arms back. I want my bed back. I want my mind back. I want to eat some chicken salad.

I put One down so I can shovel some chicken salad into my mouth. After 27 blissful seconds of physical autonomy, One whimpers. My heartrate accelerates, my stomach plunges, my cheeks burn. I slam the Tupperware container onto the chicken salad. I just want a few minutes, a little nourishment – can’t you just lay in your 500 dollar thing-a-ma-jig for two seconds?

Sometimes One cries in the car. But sometimes he doesn’t. I grab One, and nearly run towards the car. He’ll nap in the car! He’ll totally, totally nap! And once he gets a good nap, his mood will improve, and he’ll sleep better tonight, and sleep begets sleep, and I’ll sleep, and before I know it, I’ll have my life back.

I bump over the back roads, desperate for the smoothness of the highway. One grunts, whines, and each noise tightens the already taught muscles in my neck, turns my knuckles a whiter shade of white. I slam onto the gas as a light turns yellow. No way can I stop.

Two will only sleep if I’m holding her. So I hold her. Her flower breath flutters against my chest as I flip through Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday. “We’ve got to laugh or break our hearts in this damnable world.” I fold down the corner of the page to gaze at the bright pink of the cosmos dancing with the brilliant blue of forget-me-knots.

I hear a little peep from below, and peer down at the soft brown cap of newborn hair. I pat-pat-pat Two’s small bum, and take another sip of my IPA. Brett’s out with One, and Two and I have spent the day rocking on the deck, napping, reading, and lounging. I kiss Two’s forehead.

I scream my Subaru down the road, anxious to reach our destination before One gets angry or sad or hungry or gassy or fussy or tired or over-stimulated. My cousin grins at me, attempting to inject some sense of proportion into my universe.

“Look at you – driving with your baby and your dog. About to take a casual stroll through the woods. You got this!”

I force a reply smile onto my pale, pinched face. I don’t have anything. And I certainly don’t have “this,” if “this” means leaving the house with one’s baby in tow without having an existential breakdown.

A half hour later, we return to the car. We’ve taken a stroll through the countryside, exercised the dog, and successfully extracted me from the walls of my house. No one has died.

I drive my Subaru down the road, listening to One’s explanation that the big T-Rex is the mama T-Rex and the small T-Rex is the baby T-Rex. I repeat it back, to assure him I’ve heard and understood him.

When I remove Two from her carseat and bundle her into the Ergo, she wails tiny impotent wails at being so man-handled. I shhhh and pat and bounce and comfort and offer pacifiers. We walk through the tall grasses and waving queen anne’s lace. Two is quiet. One’s toddler voice blends with the chatter of tree swallows.

Two begins to squirm, bobbing her face against my chest like a soft, ineffectual woodpecker.

“Hey buddy – let’s pull over here.” I hand One a granola bar and settle him under a tree.

Leaning against the sandpapery stickiness of pine bark, I nurse Two in the woods, relaxed with the knowledge that boobs can fix nearly all newborn problems. One munches his granola bar, tracing a stick in the velvety dirt among the roots.

We crest the final hill of our walk, and trudge towards the Subaru, which is resting in the afternoon glow. I clip both kids into their carseats, settle the dog next to me, and drive home. We’re fine.

Sara Petersen is a freelance writer based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She has written for BustHuffington PostScary Mommy, and Bustle. She blogs about children, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and friendship here. You can also check her out on Instagram and Twitter.













Where Have They Gone?

Where Have They Gone?

Asian Newborn baby girl 1 day after the birth, in hospital.

By J. Galvin

There is a trend overtaking hospitals and it terrifies me. Hospitals across the nation are taking away nurseries within their maternity wards and, instead, are insisting on twenty hour in-rooming for mothers and their new babies in the name of bonding and breastfeeding.

Why does this terrify me? Because I am pregnant with my second child. It was the hospital nursery that saved my sanity and kicked my maternal instincts into high gear when I had my first child four years ago; not a twenty four hour in-rooming policy.

Four years ago when my daughter decided to enter the world I had no clue. I had no clue how hard labor and delivery would be. I had no clue the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion a new baby came with. I had no clue breastfeeding would not come naturally. I had no clue to ask for help from the nurses and lactation consultants. I had no clue some newborns don’t, and won’t, sleep no matter how much you rock them, feed them, sing to them, and offer up prayers to whatever higher power you believe in.

I had no clue until a doctor making her rounds took one look at my face and suggested I put my daughter in the nursery for a few hours. I still remember she was dressed up as a bumblebee with a padded yellow and black body suit and a light up headband. It was Halloween.

“Put her where?” I stammered.

“Put her in the nursery,” she said with both a concerned and an amused face. “The nurses will take good care of her, they’ll wake you if anything happens, and bring her to you when she needs to feed.”

I felt terror, horrible guilt, and an inkling of hope. Was I a bad mother to leave my new baby in the nursery? Would the nurses really wake me if something was wrong? Would I be able to finally rest?

My husband listened to me weigh every possible option while the hormone-laden tears poured down my face. At this point I had been up three days straight between labor pains and a long, hard delivery. My daughter, who entered the world twelve hours earlier, had yet to fall asleep; a trend that would continue for weeks.

“Put her in the nursery.” My husband said. “It will be fine.”

Happy to relinquish all decision making to him, I agreed and my daughter was whisked away to the nursery. I passed out instantly and woke three hours later. I didn’t feel so bone numbingly exhausted or on the edge of losing my mind. I felt such a pull to see my daughter I knew my maternal instincts had finally kicked in.

Fast forward to the present and the countdown, though still a long ways away, to the birth of my second child begins. I feel calmer, more prepared and happier this time around, but still with such trepidation that should not be necessary. I don’t think someone else, namely a hospital, has the right to decide what is best for myself or my child. I alone, with my husband, have that right.

So for the time being, I will do my homework. I will research hospitals in my area that still offer the option of a nursery and will plan accordingly. I will hope hospitals realize that a mother’s decision to rest is key to both the emotional and physical well being of both baby and mom. I will hope hospitals realize that the decision to decide what is best for mother and baby lies with mother, not hospital staff or hospital policy.

Jamie Chase Galvin works part time as an Academic Advisor and is also a freelance writer. Jamie possesses an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology. She loves to write any chance she can and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and very talkative four year old daughter.

Marching Along The Path of Joy

Marching Along The Path of Joy

ART Marching Path of Joy

By Rebecca Vidra

Getting pregnant at 40 was not in my plans. Not even in my wildest dreams. I already had two daughters, who I managed to keep alive and mostly happy for 10 and 8 years, respectively. My career was finally recovering from my ill-advised “I can work full-time without daycare” years and I felt like I was finally reclaiming my own identity.

And my marriage? It was about to end. Or so I thought.

It was on a sailing trip in Spain that I found out that I was “embarazada.” My husband and I had taken the trip, our first significant vacation away from the kids, under the auspices of work (as professors, we were checking out potential study abroad programs). I viewed it as our last chance to renew our commitment by choice, not just because of the economic or logistical constraints of marriage.

My husband says he knew that I was pregnant before I did. I was in complete denial that I could be carrying a stowaway.

I remained that way – in shock – for the first several weeks of my pregnancy, asking myself if I really wanted to go through with it. I searched the web for stories by women like me – middle-aged and facing an unplanned and, honestly, unwanted pregnancy. Finally, my husband suggested that we take the “path of joy” and have this baby.

For him, the decision was about the baby. For me, the decision was about us.

As the weeks went by, I started to experience little flickers of excitement, often followed by huge pulses of worry and regret. I started a list of things I was not looking forward to – preschool birthday parties, pumping at work – and started a much smaller list of potential baby names.

Throughout my pregnancy, as I oscillated between excitement and fear, I could not fully admit my dread, that I would not be able to mother this child with unconditional love and attention. How could I do it all over again, this time while coping with 2 soon-to-be-teenage girls? How would we be able to do the work necessary to strengthen our marriage, while having a needy baby to care for?

And there was this, the question that kept me up at night: could I really find it within myself to be in love with my husband all over again, when it seemed so much easier to leave? For months, I felt as if I were bracing for a big wave that I knew was going to knock me over hard.

Véla was born in my bedroom, on a warm spring day. The midwife did not arrive in time, leaving me to birth my baby with the help of my husband and doula. I reached down to deliver her and pulled her to my chest, as if by primal instinct. I felt that intense panic of protectiveness that all new parents experience as I wondered if she could breathe on her own.

Then, her tiny eyelashes – little sticky curled wisps – blinked open. And it was at that moment, watching her arrive into this world, that I knew I could do this all over again.

In the photos taken right after the birth, the baby and I are in focus. You can see streaks of milky vernix and blood on her head and my hands. In the blurred background, my clearly relieved husband is crying as he reaches for us. For me.

Today, my sleep-deprivation is highlighted by crow’s feet around my bleary eyes. I don’t have the same energy for decorating a nursery, or chronicling her every move on a blog, or endlessly searching for the best preschool. I am not worrying about every little thing, though I do worry that I am not worrying enough.

There must be some gray area between obligation and love, a space for the choices we make out of both. Having a baby is hardly a prescription for saving a marriage. I get that. It certainly was not a magic wand or even a soothing balm for ours. I’m realistic about this, yet it also re-oriented me to what love looks like on most days: doing the dishes, shuttling the kids to dance practice, not asking why I didn’t manage to take the garbage out (again).

This “path of joy” is not a forced march or a romantic wandering journey. It doesn’t always feel joyful. It is crowded by our busy schedules and minor arguments. We navigate over bumps of annoyance and around curves of “what-ifs.” I think, though, that I am able to celebrate the small moments of joy more fully now that I am not looking for the exit ramp.

And when I feel the now familiar twinge of regret, I look at Véla’s tiny eyelashes and remind myself to focus on the small steps on this shared and unpredictable path of joy.

Rebecca Vidra lives with her husband and three daughters in the oak-sourwood forest of North Carolina, where Véla (named after the Spanish word for “sail”) just celebrated her first birthday..

Photo Credit: Kallyn Boerner


Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss


Art: Linda Williis

By Tara Shafer

My second child was stillborn ten years ago.

A decade out from loss and this is what I know.

When a sonogram showed no heartbeat, I understood I had to deliver my baby.

If I try hard enough I can put myself back there, but I can’t stay. The horror of the moment makes me resist. It propels me like a magnetic force or a backdraft – away.

That day I was admitted to the hospital. I lay in Labor & Delivery stoned on Valium. I was in labor with a dead baby. I remember falling in love, observing great beauty, and getting my heart broken.

I looked out the window at the orange glow of urban pollution against platter-sized flakes of snow that made up a muffled peaceful hush drifting upwards like specters.

Time was vaporous. I had been induced to deliver with Pitocin. My body had come undone. I waited for contractions to start.

I cried for my dead son. I cried also for my two-year old son, Reid. He had never been away from me and now we were forced apart without warning. That morning he and I had walked through the Central Park Zoo. We passed the carriage horses on the way to a medical appointment and Reid watched them eat oats out of big buckets.

I closed my eyes. These children. I did not know how to occupy both the lands of the living and the dead. I could not be in two places at once. I looked at my heavily pregnant stomach. Then, I remembered the little red sweater Reid wore when he waved and left the room, glancing backwards.

I can no longer remember the sequence of what happened or when. What I remember most vividly about my son’s (still)birth is playing with the edges of things – discovering all sorts of peripheral realities where death meets birth.

As I labored I imagined stranger hands on him. He was mine but I could not keep him. I tried to imagine this infant, alive, asleep at home.

On television that night John Lennon was being over-remembered on the anniversary of his shooting. Lennon singing Imagine was on news clips over and over again. I was drawn to the tinny end-of-the-world music box quality of the song.

After many hours my baby was born. We named him Dylan. I did not even anticipate the sound of crying. Still, the silence was shocking. In the room there is no one talking. My devastated husband Gavin was there. The nurse readied the receiving cart but without a sense of urgency. She was somber and deliberate in her movements. She swaddled him in standard issue hospital blanket and put a hat on his head. She looked more like an undertaker than a nurse.

In holding my son, I was aware that there would be no second chances. I did what I could to stay present even as I left behind the life I had been leading until that point.

After a while someone (I don’t remember who) asked, “Are you ready?”

I suddenly understood what it would have felt like to give up a child for adoption when adoption was secret and mothers too young. You hand your baby over.

As I did. But I knew he would never grow up. He would never find me.

“Are you ready?”

It is a terrible way to phrase this question.

We cremated our baby. We returned to our life with Reid. We tried to figure out how to explain the death of a baby whose existence had had never known to a young child. A play therapist assured us that young children do not see death as either permanent or negative. Several days later we explained that the baby would not be coming to live with us. That night as I lay in bed, soapy softness wafting off of him, I asked Reid whether he would crawl back in to my stomach and be a baby once more. Not my finest moment as a mother. He answered, “yes Mommy, so I could die and die and die.”

When we tried again, sex was multi-faceted. It was recreational, procreational, and post-traumatic.

When we did get pregnant again I had difficulties processing this reality. I took Reid to a nearby orchard and sat we sat there. I tried to understand that the coming months would be living moment to moment. I thought about the fear I would face as I waited for fetal movement. I thought about how this was the gift of another chance. I considered this all under the kaleidoscope sky with the apple trees, and the earth smell of fall everywhere. There were creeping early shots of colors in the trees as they prepared to burst into color and then retreat – a half death – until the spring. I looked at the weeping willows tacked up perfectly against the blue fall sky settling down from the scorch of summer; the world around began to recoil temporarily.

Reid grounded me and I had to let him.

I hid the fact of pregnancy for an absurd amount of time. Depending on the moment in the day, I loved or tolerated or survived this pregnancy. I learned to exist in crisis mode. Phone calls made me jump. It began to feel like alarmist Zen. I did weekly non-stress tests at the hospital. I gazed upon my baby on an ultrasound screen in sanity-saving weekly ultrasound appointments. He was so near and so far. I could grow him but I could not save him if it came to it. I was more voyeur than mother.

These were hard months, but so too, were they full of grace.

As the days before birth approach, I found I could not stay present. There was a biblical storm and the rain came down in sheets. Non-essential travel in New York State was officially discouraged.

We drove slowly from upstate New York to the city hospital on the flooded roads that were looking delta-like. There were houses sticking up through water. I half-expected to see destitute children sitting atop roofs without shoes. I glanced at Reid in the rear view mirror and I thought about his sustaining love and how he could never know the impact of his presence. I was shocked at the finality of and the force of regret I suddenly felt at what will be lost between he and I.

As panic at the thought of the alternative rose like bile within me, I tried to steady myself. I told Reid how very much I loved him.

He looked into the rear view mirror and placed his fingers on his eyebrows and moved them around.

“Mommy?” he said. “Did you know that my eyebrows look like corn cobs when I do that?”

At the hospital my husband and I stood outside in the early spring wind blows dampness around imagining the promise in existence everywhere. People walked by, hospital staff stood smoking in scrubs, the lights of a diner flickered. I remember thinking that I had never seen anything more beautiful than this. The rain was stopping but rainbow colored oil slicks ran down in rivers towards gutters on the city streets.

The next day, my son David was born and they put him on my chest.

He was so small. I had forgotten what newborns felt like and how much like a petal their skin is.

I lay there, an infant at my breast and I again recognized that humans are frail. There is honor in trying to become strong.

A few years later another baby would be placed on my chest. This one would be a girl. Isabelle, like her brother, would be born in a snowstorm. However, she lay next to me fully in my possession.

My family is growing up. I can’t even believe how old my children are now as they set their courses. I try, as all parents do, to provide perspective. At the Haydn Planetarium there is a plaque that describes the potential for interstellar life and how little we know yet about galaxies. Part of it reads: “The stars in the sky seem permanent and unchanging because it takes millions and billions of years for their lives to unfold.”

I have a memory from childhood. There is nothing significant within it except that I understood something abstract without being told. I was walking with my father once in mid-winter at dusk. The snow was blue against the winter sky and the embers of the orange light were fading and strewn across the sky. The blueness of the snow looked like the sea but perfectly still, beautifully captured imprisoned and resolute. It had stored the light from the sun and it was still there within, beneath despite the general appearance of death, of nothing stirring. My father told me, “This is the harsh beauty of winter.”

I understood that the scene was both beautiful and harsh and that these two things could easily be fused. What is absent can be just as glorious as what is present. On that rising hill beneath the sky there was lots of life but it was suspended, waiting. The winter was the victor there and it contained much in the way of dormant things all trapped within it. For all that winter freezes, it coats and protects.

Without all that is absent – what is taken from us  –  we do not know the truth about what is present. These losses, these tragedies, provide a context. They give the gift of hard-won self-knowledge too important to bury or obscure.

Tara Shafer is the co-founder of Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) an online resource center to support families coping with baby loss. Her work has appeared on the New York Times and Mashable. She is a contributing blogger for BabyCenter, Huffington Post and Psychology Today.



world-explorersBy Alicia Rebecca Myers

I could tell you how a stranded Robert Bartlett walked 700 across an iced-over Chukchi Sea, how Robert Burke traversed the latitude of Australia but died from exhaustion after turning back from a mountain called Hopeless. I could hold court on malaria and capsize. I could list disappearances.

I mitigated anxiety by reading about explorers on Wikipedia. Their failed attempts at discovery, their terrific demises. This wasn’t an exercise in schandenfreude. I took no pleasure in frostbite, in swells. I called up extreme scenarios the way a surgeon might review dark particulars before entering the operating room. I received the past as a safeguard, as if empathy could preclude the unknown. I lingered longest on those who logged the most distance.

There were very few female deaths to parse because there are very few female explorers. I reinterpreted phrases. Phrases like “New Land of the Codfish,” which suddenly described my pregnant body.


In my mid-twenties, I backpacked for three weeks, solo, through Eastern Europe. I had been managing a student travel agency on the Upper West Side while enrolled in an MFA program. New York City felt invasive, and I suddenly wanted not to talk. The halfway point of my trip was Budapest. After spending a bleak afternoon in the bowels of the Terror Museum, where I learned about Hungarian victims of the communist regime and contemplated gulag torture, I signed up for a pub crawl, desperate to be around people again. I worked hard to get my forints worth of Soproni and do justice to this particular pub crawl’s injunction to “make a transcendental bond through drinking.” I made that bond with Kyler, a curly-haired Canadian who dressed like a lumberjack. Kyler was handsome and non-threatening (important after a day touring the Terror Museum), and he had interesting things to say about politics and art and pilsners. I invited him back to my boatel. “THAT’S A HOTEL ON WATER,” I kept shouting, because I thought it lent me an air of sophistication.

Kyler and I stayed up all night, mutually transfixed in the kind of heady rapture that only comes from getting to share your best self with a stranger you’ll never see again. His attentiveness was like his burly frame: it filled the room. I felt like I was back in 1987, sitting across from the roll of unopened paper towels I’d positioned on the dresser so that the Brawny man’s gaze never left mine – except that Kyler had his own questions: Who’s your favorite poet? What have you learned so far by traveling alone? Would you rather be trapped for a day on a deserted mountain or a crowded subway car?  I answered honestly: Bishop, it’s lonelier being alone, crowded subway car. Then Kyler  asked the question that up until then no man had ever asked me directly: Do you want kids?

The topic of kids had come up before in my handful of serious relationships, but somehow never seriously. I’d discussed children plenty of times with my classmates, drunk in a bar, in the context of how our parents had messed us up and in doing so, had given us something to write about. But up until that morning in Budapest, baroque light filtering through my dank boatel porthole, I’d never had a man look me in the eye and ask if I wanted kids. I was experienced enough to know that Kyler wasn’t asking if I wanted kids with him. Still, I surprised myself with my answer, words I’d never spoken aloud. I felt like I was admitting I didn’t believe in God.

“No,” I said, reaching for my crumpled dress.

Later, we staggered above deck and drank coffee in view of Margaret Island, an island named after a childless 13th century female saint.


I met my husband Dan a few days before my thirtieth birthday. I didn’t believe in a biological clock since I had never heard mine ticking. My last relationship, with an opera singer, had lasted only a month. Alex had liked that I was a writer, a woman unconventional and messy, a woman whose kitchen table was an industrial spool she’d dug out of a neighbor’s trash. He had liked that when one of us couldn’t find something I’d ask, “Well, did you check the spool?” and we’d shine a flashlight down into its hollow wooden center. I broke up with him because I lost interest.

Dan and I emailed and talked by phone for weeks before we met in person. I was his boss. I had been hired as head of Human Resources for a small academic summer camp start-up in Brooklyn, and Dan, a poet living in Iowa, had been instated as director of our newest program. Actually, I’d picked Dan out of a catalogue long before the company had hired me. My roommate and Dan had taught at a camp together. One time, I’d found a brochure for that camp lying open on our couch and pointed to a picture of a lanky Jewish guy in a longshoreman’s cap. Dan was frowning, towering over an amusement park sign in the shape of a gopher that read, Must be no taller than me to ride this ride. I told my roommate: “I’m in love with this guy.”

I started spending less time directing Human Resources and more time wooing Dan. I secured him a slapdash staff and a total of six campers, but mostly devoted my energy to drafting witty, frank emails. The first time Dan and I spoke by phone, I had the distinct sensation of opening up, like I’d been preserved in a jar all these years, boiled and sealed. The unlidded feeling wasn’t sexual. More of a prescient joy. It was late April. Boats whizzed by on the Hudson fifteen stories below. I knew, in a way I’d never known before, that we would mean something permanent to each other.

Dan arrived a month later in New York for director training. He called me the minute he landed and showed up outside my Lorimer apartment at 2:00 am. I met him, barefoot, under a street light. It was both familiar and exhilarating. We slept together immediately. We were inseparable.

A tornado tore through Brooklyn that August, the strongest ever on record to hit the city. I watched from the grated window of my first-floor apartment as pitas from the bread factory across the street floated by like life preservers. Dan would be returning to Iowa to teach in just a few days. There was no longer a distinction between my heart and the weather. My sadness was tied to the solipsistic notion that I had begat high winds and destruction. I waded to my office in DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to discover everything intact but my desk: the ceiling above had caved in, lath and plaster piled high around my drenched computer and waterlogged files. I felt like nothing could survive in the wake of Dan’s leaving, least of all me.

Dan got on a plane. I got fired, downsized by a storm. I would fall into a fitful sleep by counting down the distance between us. Mile 997, mile 998, mile 999. I started assisting Sharon Olds, spent hours formatting her manuscript One Secret Thing, poems about the drawn-out death of her mother. In ghosting over her lines with my fingers I was internalizing some greater message of loss. I began to connect the ache of missing Dan to the forfeiture of a future family. Dan and I mailed a stuffed penguin back and forth along with missives full of love and longing. I grew practiced at typing the word “mother.” Something inside of me was shifting, had shifted.

Five years later, we were married. Two years after that, I was pregnant with Miles.


Towards the end of my first trimester, I heard a story on NPR about Louis Armstrong, how as a street performer he would tuck pennies into his mouth to prevent other musicians from stealing from him. My earliest sign of pregnancy had always been a metallic taste in the back of my throat. I wanted to stash our son inside me forever, keep him out of circulation. I imagined safeguarding him, my own private treasure, settling for a life of ghostly kicks to avoid a grisly, protracted birth scene. Or even worse, loss.


I began swimming three times a week at the start of my second trimester because of something I’d read about the movements in freestyle creating a streamlined birth canal, a luge tube the baby could simply slide down. I conceived of myself as a smooth centaur. No one knew I was carrying a child when I was in the pool. My hindquarters were hidden. Whenever I eased into the water, acclimating to the chill, I thought of Peter Artedi, the naturalist credited with fathering Fish Science. I had learned of him accidentally, a detour in my cataloging the bad luck of explorers. He drowned in an Amsterdam canal after a night of drinking. He had spent his whole life studying aquatic depths, the minutiae of structure, but no amount of studying could have prepared him for what it felt like to go under that way.


We moved across town on my thirty-seventh birthday, also the beginning of my third trimester. Our 600 square foot one-bedroom wouldn’t have accommodated our expanding family. The Georgia heat was indefensible, and I was far too big to be of any real help. I offered to scrub the baseboards of the old house, but mostly I just sat and ran a cloth over the same spot, my hair in a do-rag, pretending to be a Victorian washerwoman. I cursed at Dan in a trussed up cockney accent and called him my costermonger, I word I’d only just learned from a BBC drama. It means someone who sells fruits and vegetables in the market, but I was using it to refer to a husband who was making me pack and unpack all of our worldly belongings when I was being sucker-punched from the inside.

And then: just as we’d finished unwrapping the bubble tape from all our breakables, just as we’d mopped the floor with organic baby-friendly cleaner, Dan got the call that he was one of three final candidates being considered for a tenure-track teaching job in upstate New York. The college was requesting he fly up for an interview that week. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of moving again, this time 2000 miles, at 37 weeks pregnant. I looked to our two cats. We would have to do the trip by car, for their sake and for mine. I was too pregnant to fly. The cats sniffed at the familiar couch like it was a stranger.

While Dan was away interviewing, I spent every afternoon underwater. I was in the locker room, massaging mango-scented stretch mark cream into my expanding belly, when he called to let me know he was offered the job. I watched as my naked reflection in the mirror answered the phone, watched as my mouth gaped at the shock of the news. I was starring in an avant-garde theater production with no costuming budget.

That night, we discussed the pros and cons, as adults do, doodling half-lists on a napkin. Cons: leaving our support system of friends, my parents nearby in North Carolina, and a trusted team of midwives. Pros: greater financial security, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I agreed to move to a strange town in the country, sight unseen, under one condition: a visit to Hershey Park. We joked that this concession sounded more like a concession stand, as in candy, as in sweet.


It was late July in the South when we embarked on the long journey north. At a rest stop along I-95, I attempted some light yoga on the grass and decided it would be easier to give up and live there, next to a picnic table, walking distance from not one but two vending machines. On my back with my arms outstretched at odd angles, I looked like a broken sundial, measuring distance, not time.


At Hershey Park, I slogged from one chocolate room to another. Crowds parted. I cradled a mountain of Krackel bars in my arms, then abruptly decided to buy none.


Our half-domesticated feral cat, Girlfriend, got out of her carrier back at the Residence Inn. She bolted into a bathroom cabinet and hid behind sink pipes. Dan wrapped his left hand in a towel and attempted to dislodge her, yanking blindly, his face angled towards me in dread. The cat hissed and thrashed against metal. When Dan produced her, he was bleeding profusely, claw marks up to his sleeve. In my mind he was Hugh Glass, the 19th century American fur trapper who was mauled by a bear, left for dead, but then regained consciousness. For six weeks, Glass crawled 200 miles solo across Missouri until he reached the Cheyenne River and built a makeshift raft to safety. Dan assured me he could still drive.


A waitress at Denny’s mistakenly wrote paincakes on our check. I repeated, “I will consume rather than be consumed by contractions. I will consume rather than be consumed by fear.”


A week later, we met our New York midwife for the first time. After she listened to me recount our recent upheaval, how our furniture still hadn’t arrived and I was sleeping on an air mattress that stayed deflated on my side, she handed me two pamphlets. One on placenta encapsulation. The other on postpartum depression.


As my due date loomed, I devoted my final weeks to reading about Ina May Gaskin and homebirthing. I practiced mindfulness by chewing raisins, one at a time, very, very slowly, trying to visualize harvest conditions. I tackled pain tolerance by submerging my fingers in bowls of ice. I took a Lamaze class with Dan to perfect rhythmic breathing and a hypnobirthing session to learn traditional Chinese acupuncture techniques: mainly how to massage my butt joint. I became an acolyte of the theory that language instills in us our real fear of childbirth, that by merely reframing pain as pressure we can transcend the horror of contractions until they become expansions.

Like an explorer, I filled my hospital bag with essentials: an eye mask, a tennis ball for butt joint massage, a green cotton halter I’d ordered from a company called Pretty Pushers. Their tagline is “a stylish alternative to unisex gowns.” They promise that “you won’t have to show your backside.” I made a pushing playlist and instructed Dan that it was his duty to see that Miles was born to Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” I wrote NO EPIDURAL NO PITOCIN in all caps on my birth plan. In those final weeks, I informed anyone who didn’t ask that I was going to labor on the shores of Lake Cayuga, about five miles from our house, regardless of the time of day, until I could no longer talk through contractions. But first I would cook up a protein-heavy meal. Maybe make organic oatmeal in the crock pot. Once I was full, and comfortably dilated, we would drive the speed limit to the birthing center, where I would ease into a whirlpool and deliver our son in water, under soft lighting, my wrists smelling faintly of lavender oil.

Because pregnancy requires the ultimate relinquishing of control, because I had suffered three early miscarriages, it made sense, this need to wrangle my labor into the Platonic ideal of labor.


Miles was nine days late. I spent the morning of my labor watching a Woody Allen movie at the closest theater, a thirty minute drive. The August heat was so oppressive that once inside I removed my shirt. The only other patron was a woman who must have been in her nineties. I had the distinct thought that she would probably die before the baby came.

On my way home I stopped at the grocery store. There was nothing I needed. I paced the baby aisle, stumbling like a rabid dog, cradling my belly like a basket. On the way out, I copped two cookies from the “Free For Kids ONLY” bin. I stuffed them in my mouth, laughed as a chunk fell to the floor. Miles triggered the automatic door well before I passed through it.

That night, I accompanied Dan to a campus cook-out on the boathouse lawn. He was due to start teaching in four days. There was a lavish, homey food spread: hotdogs and hamburgers, coleslaw and baked beans, all kept warm in chafing trays. The coleslaw was clumpy and tasted of blue cheese. I swallowed five hot dogs, hardly chewing them. I was a championship eater and my only competition was myself. I rested my sticky hands on my stomach. A faculty member introduced herself. “Any hour now!” she said, poking my shoulder. I returned for a sixth hot dog. I filled a cup with ice and kept my pinky submerged in it while making small talk, only I thought of it as big talk, I was so huge.


I went into labor suddenly, at 2am, with contractions lasting sixty seconds and spaced five minutes apart. There was no time to soak oats or wade out. When we arrived at the birthing center (forty minutes away), a cheerful attendant informed us that due to a “baby storm,” there was only one room available: the one without the whirlpool tub. I managed to dress myself in my stylish and modest green gown, only to rip it off moments later and sit in the shower, defeated and splayed, while Dan hosed down my exposed backside.

It turned out I didn’t want to be touched. At all. I needed the opposite of touching. I refused everything I’d prepped so hard for. My midwife and the team of nurses referred to me as The Silent Laborer. Through a fog of hurt this sounded like a cancelled Jennifer Love Hewitt drama.

For over ten hours, I labored naturally to full dilation in a state of pre-language. I was a mime in an ashram, freed from the burden of words, pain still undeniably pain. My water had to be broken with a crochet hook. Our 9 pound 4 ounce son wouldn’t descend. Ten centimeters dilated and still not progressing, I begged for an epidural. Begged. My midwife calmly referred back to the all-caps portion of my birth plan. I denied having ever written it.

I labored for a total of twenty-two hours. For weeks after, my husband would bear the remnants of thick blisters on his hands from where he had held up my legs for traction. After four hours of pushing, I didn’t care what music welcomed Miles into the world. The last hour of fire and crowning was beyond comprehension. According to Dan, Miles made his midnight appearance to Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” a song celebrating infidelity from the point of view of a mistress.


As painful as labor was in the moment, its end would usher in an analgesic forgetting. In the immediate aftermath of birth, as soon as my squalling son had been placed on my chest and had listed successfully onto my right nipple, I felt capable of anything: eating the entire three-tiered pastrami sandwich I demanded my father-in-law bring to me in the delivery room, for example, or walking unassisted into the recovery suite.

At 4:00 am, guided by endorphins, I rose out of my adjustable bed to unpack and correct some bad birthing center feng shui by moving a lamp and draping a receiving blanket over a tray table. I must do it all, I thought to myself, and I wasn’t even sure what it was.

I had the bravado of an explorer, one with the unfounded confidence and determination to press on – westward! – regardless of poor conditions. I was thinking specifically of Henry Hudson, who, after spending the winter of 1611 cooped up with a starving crew stuck in ice, still insisted on setting sail for the Northwest Passage as soon as the ice cleared. Like Hudson, I also wanted to keep going. I was at the helm of my own Discovery, deluded in spirit, unable to acknowledge a torn perineum and a low iron count.

But Henry Hudson’s men mutinied against him. They put Hudson, a few loyal crew members, and his son in an open boat, then set a course for England. A journal indicates that Hudson oared feverishly to keep up with the ship, whose sails were unfurled to garner maximum speed. He couldn’t. This was me: repentant of my boundless stamina, claustrophobic in the wake of the world, alone in strange waters with my son. I kept sounding out his name to the clock on the wall. It felt apt. Miles. How far I was from the person I had been.  


It was as if I had trained months for a marathon, all that pre-dawn incline running with silly miniature water bottles velcroed to my middle, only to be handed a server apron at the finish line and told I was expected to show up for my restaurant double shift. I’d treated labor like a one-off, like a task accomplished. We had the glut of paraphernalia, the Ergo and the bouncy swing and the snot sucker and the diaper cream, all crammed into a nursery with its magical attention to detail. The mason jar with the electric candle on the windowsill. The stenciled grinning menagerie. I remembered only a few days before, raking my hands against the walls of this room like it was Narnia, a remarkable land I had stumbled into by accident. A land I could leave.


There was mesh underwear and clots the size of a teether. Curled up in our bathtub, I placed a desperate call to my septuagenarian mother, crying, asking her to administer an enema. My nipples were raw and chaffed. I hadn’t slept in 96 hours. I hadn’t realized the kind of tired I would be, nauseous tired, how tomorrow would be replaced by a never-ending today punctuated by mere pockets of sleep. Without that recalibration, the gift of closure disappears. Years of yoga hadn’t prepared me to live in the moment this way. I Googled “longest a person can survive without sleep,” only to discover I would be dead in seven days, like the Chinese man who couldn’t stop watching a soccer tournament.


If depression is a rendering of the self invisible, then what I experienced was acute visibility. Seeing that my son’s eyes were my eyes, that his lips were my lips, allowed me to feel unprecedented self-compassion. I connected immediately with Miles. I reconnected with myself more slowly.


I had never dressed a baby, or nibbled on tiny toes, or put a newborn down for a nap, or lowered an infant into a car seat. I had changed exactly one diaper – I’m not even sure if it counts if your college friend did most of the changing while you offered at the last minute to “stick the sticky tabs,” like you were a gymnast attempting a tough landing. Caring for our son is exhausting, but rewarding, physical, like planting by the moon, using your hands, sweating, nothing like the cerebral life I’ve cultivated, nothing like it at all.


My love for Miles is an unfamiliar love, a contradictory love. It simultaneously multiplies and tethers me. I anticipate his waking a split-second before he wakes. I startle and touch Dan’s face in bed next to me, expecting anything warm to be him, a vulnerable bundle of need. When I nurse, I am being drawn down into the earth, stabilized, but also released of some weight that has held me back my whole life. Sometimes at night I play a sinister game of questioning. Would you die for your son by train? By axe? By wheel? By sandstorm? By stonefish? The answer is yes. Always, unflinchingly, yes.


Miles and Dan and I live in unmapped wilderness, in a geothermal house, with a view of a lake, in a small rural upstate town. If, as Khalil Gibran writes, pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding, then joy is a walling-off. A family of ten deer comes to feed in our yard every dusk. I count them out loud to our son. One deer for each centimeter I was dilated, a distant memory of pain, of distance itself.


Author’s Note: I wrote this essay when Miles was still a newborn. He’s now a rambunctious 15-month-old with a mullet and a penchant for dragging large objects across the room. My writing process has changed so much since becoming a mom. I finish more because I’ve had to jettison perfectionism. I hope this serves as encouragement for other women who are considering a family but are afraid that children will compromise their creativity.   

Alicia Rebecca Myers is a poet and essayist who holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared most recently in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Rumpus, The American Literary Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, The Carolina Quarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Georgia. She has also had a poem featured in an NPR Radiolab podcast in conjunction with the NYC based performance series Emotive Fruition. In February of 2014, she was awarded a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City. Her chapbook, My Seaborgium, will be released by Brain Mill Press in 2016. She teaches at Wells College. You can find her online at aliciarebeccamyers.com.



Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything—everything I did, everything you saw—because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.

—Kurtz to Willard, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I recently asked my kids about their first memories.

“What was it?” I asked. “What’s the first thing you can remember?” Without thinking, both recalled early images of bold blue macaroni and cheese boxes. They had consumed Kraft by the case at daycare.

“You don’t remember anything before eating macaroni and cheese?” I pressed. I was fishing for proof my parenting fuck-ups weren’t set in stone, floating around in their psyches like a laminated list already prepared for their future therapists.

“Nope,” Andrew, my youngest, assured me. “I just remember playing at Amy’s house and eating mac and cheese.”

Relief set in. Thank God for the hypnotic effect of video games, Finding Nemo, and processed cheese products. I hadn’t been discovered. They don’t know.

I hate babies. I fucking hate ’em. Though I birthed a couple, was one, and acknowledge that everyone I know must have been a baby, I’d rather take my rotund shape out bikini shopping in bright fluorescent lighting with my mother-in-law after eating three helpings of shrimp and broccoli Alfredo than coo over babies, pretend they’re cute, or lie to unsuspecting parents that their baby looks any different than every other swaddled and gurgling creature at the hospital. Babies, I’ve learned, rob us of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they’re anti-constitutional.


I’ve always hated babies. I didn’t even enjoy being a baby. My first memory is of standing in my own crib screaming my lungs out at my tired mother. Perhaps this explains why I’m an only child.

I grew up in Georgia, where the only moneymaking options for a gangly preteen girl were babysitting or prostitution. Since the latter was illegal and possibly dangerous, I chose the former to earn the money to buy a second copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, having thoroughly worn out and scratched up my first one. I learned early on that babysitting young kids wasn’t so bad. After all, they’re easily placated with television and macaroni and cheese. Babysitting actual babies, on the other hand, plunged one into the eighth circle of hell, which I believe is only one step above being frozen in your own shit.

Babies do one thing: they demand. Whether it’s food, wiping, shoulders to puke on, or pacifiers, they pull you into their own shit and demand more. After one particularly harrowing session of babysitting, Baby-in-Crib (whose name I’ve either forgotten or deliberately purged) screamed at me so loudly that I all I could do was curl up, fetal position, in the corner of its nursery. I pulled myself together enough to feed it and change it and keep it safe for a couple of hours until its owners returned from their date night. I stopped babysitting babies after that. Later, in college, I worked briefly as a nanny. There was a standoff with a six-month-old. I lost. That’s all I’m legally obliged to say.

I don’t have a good explanation for most of what I’ve done, including becoming a mother. Some primordial urge must have set in when I was three years into an otherwise blissful marriage. At least I think it was blissful. I’ve got kids now. I can’t remember.

A craving to propagate the species infects some of us at a vulnerable age for reasons that only God and Darwin understand. The copulating part of this whole process is great—over too soon, but great. However, the forty-eight-week gestation period followed by infancy? That first time around, it’s boot camp. You’ve got this outside force compelling you to obey, bending your will, breaking you down. That first tour of duty is the longest.


“The Horror! The Horror!”

William was born in the middle of a hell-hot August to parents with too few skills, living in a steamy, two-bedroom apartment near the University of Illinois. My husband Bryan and I were graduate students, working our way through various degree programs to put off the inevitability of real life. But real life can’t be delayed when you’re carrying nearly ten pounds of dude inside of you, a dude who eventually attempts an exit just below the left lung. William never turned, never got into position, never did anything but suck his thumb in utero, urinate, and kick the piss out of my bladder. He couldn’t even manage to get out on time. Two weeks past his due date, he was content just to sit there, contorting my torso and rewiring my colon to suit his emerging limbs. My OB/GYN was on vacation the week William was due, so I consoled myself that managing to hang on in the sweltering heat was good, since it meant Dr. Shepherd would be back to facilitate the “blessed event.”

The details of birth are redundant and repetitive: push, breathe, scream, curse, try not to take the sharp objects away from the medical professionals so you can stab the responsible party.

William didn’t cooperate, so they shot me up with Pitocin, the induction cocktail, which I endured for about twenty-two hours. Thankfully, Dr. Shepherd needed to get to a party that night, and when he decided he was bored waiting for me to deliver, the nurses pitched the Pitocin and slapped me down on the table for a speedy C-section. Actually, the chatter between Dr. Shepherd and his nurses about his impending party kept me preternaturally calm in the middle of the chaos that is surgical delivery. Emergency sections are very different beasts from planned ones; my second son, Andrew, with the giant-but-healthy head, arrived via a planned and particularly organized C-section. Those are downright leisurely. I’d do that again any morning: have baby extracted, do some mild nursing by midday, then enjoy a little happy-hour gin and tonic at four. But the last-minute emergency variety left me resentful of William, who necessitated the drugs, the shaving, the strapping down of my arms, and the colon cleanse a nurse performed on me because my bowels had shut down after the trauma. We were not on good terms when he got here, and his incessant screaming upon arrival didn’t endear him to us immediately. Yet we managed to get this squirming pile of flesh into the infant car seat and safely back to our suddenly tinier apartment.

As in my early babysitting endeavors, I managed to feed him, change him, and keep him healthy and safe—except this time, no parents were coming back after date night. No one was coming to relieve me. He stayed with us, curdling our nerves from five every afternoon until he passed out just before ten at night. He was inconsolable. What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t inform the reader that the life-sucking malady known as colic will steal your soul and tempt you to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads if only this kid will shut the fuck up. Seriously, editors, get that into the updated fifth edition.


“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Gas drops. Baby Tylenol. Rocking. Nursing. Nursing upside down, on the left side. Sleeping with the head in an upright position. Sleeping in the bouncy seat. Putting the baby down. Letting him cry it out. Picking the baby up. Driving around the neighborhood. Sound machines with whooshes of the ocean or a mother’s wombed-up heartbeat. Special bottles that limit air in the baby’s tummy. Trips to the pediatrician. (They love those, at $250 a visit). Listening to a mother-in-law, who claims everything will be fine, and talking to helpful neighbors, who prescribe shots of whiskey.

We tried them all. Some remedies worked for a tiny bit of time, but escape was the only consistent antidote. I resorted to making multiple trips to the grocery store between five and ten in the evening. I dashed to the store at 5:45 p.m. for diapers and again at 6:15 for gas drops, followed by a final 8:30 trip to get some toilet paper. Anything to avoid the baby. My husband would remember we needed milk and then, two hours later, he’d go back for a box of Cocoa Puffs. Between excursions, we managed. Barely. But only because of the Cocoa Puffs and The Waltons reruns, with their infectious family bonding. And boxed wine, left over from our friends’ wedding.

Late one hot August night, about two weeks after William was delivered, Bryan and I sat sobbing on the edge of our bed, the very same bed that had conspired with us in this act of procreation, wondering when those proverbial “real parents” would come and get him. We were grateful he was healthy and normal and had all those feelings parents are supposed to feel. But we wept.

“Damn it,” I cried, sobbing so hard the bed rocked. “This . . . feels . . . like . . . a war zone.”

“I know,” was all Bryan could get out through his own broken sobs. Bryan is quiet, introverted. He never complains because that would draw attention and take effort. Agreeing with me that he felt we had made a huge mistake was like Mother Teresa admitting publicly that cleaning the lepers in Calcutta sucked.

We were sure we were inadequate and inept. William was a perfect baby, except for the colic, and he deserved parents who knew what the fuck they were doing. Not us. We were losers.

“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” Martin Sheen’s improvised madness at the beginning of Apocalypse Now kept replaying in our heads day and night. They—in-laws, midwives, people from Walton’s Mountain—tell you that having a baby is the greatest moment in your life, a real turning point. That’s true. It is a turning point, but one with innumerable casualties. Bryan and I had to face the fact that we’d been attacked. We’d never been so vulnerable.


“Horror . . . Horror has a face . . . And you must make a friend of horror.”

Not only did I get hit from the front with William’s colic, I was flanked from the rear by postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is the face of horror.

Like a good scholar-mom, I researched solutions. My favorite helpful advice comes from the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Postpartum depression isn’t a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it’s simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms—and enjoy your baby.” Indeed, postpartum depression is a complication of birth. Enjoy your baby? You mean the blood-curdling screams, the engorged breasts that have to be pumped at work, the spit-up perma-stains on every article of your clothing, and the bondage to a colicky creature who keeps you from date night? I’ll be sure to remember all of that during my leisurely stay in rehab. Thanks, Mayo.

Friends, you think. You’ll call friends. Good idea. Wait, but your friends all adore rocking their little ones at two in the morning, quietly singing them back to a gentle sleep after nursing, listening to Baby Bach, and finally turning on the plastic fish aquarium that swirls magical realism all over the freshly painted nursery like an acid trip with Hunter S. Thompson. Your friends and family already think you’re an asshole because you’re not finding that the joys of infancy match the charming version of babyhood perpetuated by America’s Disney-addicted culture.

As a last resort, I checked with my doctor. After a month of uncontrollable crying, I figured this was beyond the “baby blues” What to Expect had described. This was dark. I was in the shit. Dr. Shepherd said it was normal and offered me a mild antidepressant. But again, I did my research, and—like my other new-mom friends—I was nervous about drugs in my breast milk. Even though it’s supposedly safe for babies, this particular antidepressant’s ever-increasing list of side effects includes sleepiness, nervousness, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, headache, diarrhea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, abnormal ejaculation, dry mouth, and weight loss. Great. So I’d be less sad but abnormally ejaculating. No thanks.


“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Babyhood invites mothers—the good ones—to spontaneously visit. Friends, your Episcopal priest’s wife, and your sweet cousin all seem to find their way to a mother in need. Babies can provoke terror in those of us under the influence of postpartum depression, but they can also inspire pure unadulterated kindness in people who have survived the Burroughsian Interzone of infancy and lived to tell about it. That is how we have survived as a species. Evolution be damned: we’ve survived because of the tenacity of hearty Episcopalian women.

It was week four of hell. I’d turned down Dr. Shepherd’s antidepressants. I was suffering from a horrific rash under my swollen, nursing breasts. I had already gone back to work just three weeks after William was delivered; I had no maternal leave, just a handful of sick days.

I was grading a set of papers on a Saturday in late September when I heard a quiet knock on our apartment door. It was Mary Hallett, the hearty, no-nonsense wife of Father Tim Hallett, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church on campus, where Bryan and I had been wed three years earlier. I expected the pastor’s wife to come calling. A few of the kindhearted church ladies had already delivered pans of lasagna and chicken casseroles, and I guessed (correctly) that Mary was here with her signature chicken-noodle soup, a particularly tasty version of the classic healing brew. She handed me the pot of soup and some fresh bread, nodded toward William in his bouncy seat, then turned to me and offered, “Let me grab your laundry while I’m here and I’ll take it home for a wash and fold.”

It struck me that, unlike all the other visitors, Mary wasn’t here to coo at the baby; she was here for me.

“Lord no,” I replied, blearily. “That’s okay, Mary. I got it. Bry and I are fine.”

She looked at me with her gray eyes, brushed her salt-and-pepper bangs to one side, and stated in her efficient Episcopalian voice, “No one is fine after they’ve had a baby.” She pulled out a big mesh bag she’d brought over.

I could see she was serious. I scurried and grabbed Bry’s jeans and my bra from the bathroom floor, underwear from a cardboard box in the closet currently serving as a laundry basket, and random shirts thrown off near the bed by two dazed parents flopping down at night in defeated exhaustion. I put everything in the mesh bag and sheepishly gave it all to this woman, my pastor’s wife, a woman I knew well but not well enough, I thought, to hand her our undies.

When Mary returned the next day with our fragrant, sorted, and neatly folded laundry, I nearly sobbed. It wasn’t anything like the war-zone feeling Bryan and I had a few weeks earlier in our bedroom. Mary handed over the mesh bag of laundry and hugged me. I was overwhelmed by her kindness, unable to even utter a “thank you.” I think she could tell I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did let go, my eyes welling with gratitude.

“I’ll be back next Saturday,” she said. And sure enough, there she was with her determined smile and her laundry bag.

I have never forgotten Mary’s matter-of-fact benevolence. I felt saved by soup and fresh laundry. Fortified with this reminder that the human heart heals, and nurtured by something as simple as the fresh scent of Tide mixed with a hint of lavender Snuggle, Bryan and I managed to get through those first months without binge drinking, overdosing on antidepressants, or running away to a cabin in Maine. We managed. I hadn’t conquered parenting, but I at least felt like this episode had ended with the kind of neighborly kindness so ubiquitous on Walton’s Mountain.

Parents get their lives back only if they stop at one baby. Few do. Most of us are possessed by a demon that attacks when your kid is about two or three, infecting your soul and whispering: Your life can be like The Waltons. Every week a new adventure in which John Boy, accompanied by apprehensive younger brother Ben, pulls Elizabeth out of yet another creek while Mama makes her a new dress out of love, grandma’s old quilt scraps, and used kitchen towels. Have more kids. Have even more kids. It’ll be just like The Waltons.

The Dark Lord loves seventies television in syndication; it’s one of his favorite weapons of mass destruction. I couldn’t fight off the demon possession that talked us into a second one. He may have had colic too, I can’t remember. The second time around, I said to hell with the side effects and took the damn drugs. I was much happier.

Incredibly, there are moms who thrive on infancy, who continue making babies and manage to can ten quarts of pickles and tomatoes in the process. The Spillmans down the street made seven babies, and each one was a natural-born caretaker for the next brother or sister in line. The Spillmans do great babies; we don’t. Bryan and I stopped at two. (Actually, The Waltons’ demon encouraged me to go for more, but my body couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sustain another.)

But here’s the thing: Babies evolve into smart-ass kids who talk, memorize the track listing to Led Zeppelin IV by age three, learn piano, collect football cards, make heart models in sixth grade, and finally learn how not to trump their partners in euchre. Both of mine, now fourteen and eleven, weathered both infancy and toddlerhood and are nicely settled into the hormonal cauldron of high school and middle school, which is, compared to the flashback-inducing horror of babyhood, a cakewalk. (For me, at least, if not for them.)

Toward the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Willard hears on tape Kurtz narrating his symbolic nightmare/dream of a snail “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving.” I’ve lived on that straight edge, and let me tell you, it’s scary but bearable—if only you can laugh and let a nice Episcopalian lady do your laundry.

Amy Penne earned her PhD from the University of Illinois while carrying her son William—who inspired this essay—in her gut. She teaches, writes, and takes care of her husband and two boys in a frigid old house on the prairie. Even though she hates babies, she thinks being a mom is probably worth it.

This piece has been excerpted from Oh Baby! – Available now.

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Heads Up

Heads Up

WO Breech ARTBy Farah Halime

My feet were smoking, again.

Scented smoke wafted from two burning embers stuck at either side of my pinky toes. That was the moment I finally saw the funny side, because before that, I had been trapped in a whirlwind of paranoia and fear. Will she come out deformed? Will she be cut out of me? Will I die?

My baby had wedged her head firmly under my rib-cage, and the doctors had told me I had to flip her head-down—the optimal position for labor—or I’d have to have a dreaded C-section. “Do you want a natural labor or not?” my obstetrician asked me. So, I stuck some mugwort-infused incense on my toes and hoped for the best. The ancient Chinese therapy is thought to have magic medicinal powers that can turn babies, treat diarrhea and heal snakebites. But if a snake bites you, you should seek medical treatment because aside from the pot-like aroma filling my living room and lungs, this nightly ritual was doing nothing except make my neighbors think I was a pregnant stoner.

It turns out my daughter was one of 4% of babies in the U.S. who is breech at term. Getting babies to flip head-down is a thorny issue that has spawned books, specialized treatments and a lot of (maternal) anxiety. My daughter, who had traveled in utero with me from Lebanon to England and the U.S., was subjected to so many different scans and pokes and prods that by the time we reached New York she simply would not cooperate any longer. She buried herself upright, as close to my heart as possible, and refused to budge.

Even when I tried standing on my head, a technique that “opens up the uterus” to help gravity do the work for you and is supposedly fool-proof, my daughter would not turn. But at least doing a headstand every day for six weeks was good for strengthening my upper body.

One day, when an acupuncturist pricked needles into my forehead and my arms and fiddled with my incense-scalded toes again, I started to feel quite dizzy. “I feel strange,” I called out. The room began to spin and my body felt like it was drifting, suspended in the air. “Normal,” he said, flicking another needle into my body. Then, I felt a kick, then another kick, and wriggling and swaying in my belly. It’s working! I thought. My baby’s response to the acupuncture gave me hope. But the joy was short-lived. She remained breech.

I even went to a chiropractor and paid close to $500 for the most expensive massage I’ve ever had, but my daughter was having none of it. The chiropractor told me she’d seen women like me before, first time mothers, that is. “The mother usually gets nervous, so the baby stays upright. Try to let go of the nervousness.”

So I meditated, and gorged on chocolate.

Then I forked out another couple of hundred to go to a physical therapist who realigned my pelvis and strengthened my abdominal muscles (despite having just “loosened” them at the chiropractor).

My daughter, however, kicked and tumbled and rolled side to side, sometimes laying her head on my left side, sometimes on my right, but never going the whole 180. She was being so stubborn I finally decided to get her physically turned at the hospital, a procedure called an external cephalic version. “It will be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t hurt,” my doctor reassured me.

I signed several legal documents absolving the hospital from any liability and starved myself for twelve hours prior, just in case the procedure put me into early labor. I smiled at the doctor who was going to contort my belly. He was short and had a friendly, hairy face. He reminded me of a hobbit.

“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?” I asked.

His eyes widened. “No,” he said, gulping a little. “But you let me know if you want me to stop, O.K.?”

It was more like a massage than the kneading I had read about on the internet. My baby stayed put. My OB seemed disappointed. She told me about another guy who had a higher success rate: 80 percent, she said. At this point, I didn’t feel like having another IV and sitting in a hospital for hours to do the same thing again. But he was the king of turning babies, apparently, and I would be stupid to miss out. “Do you want to have a natural birth or not?” she asked again, in her hard, interrogative tone. I nodded, obediently.

I got hooked up to the IV again. The doctor who was doing the version this time was no hobbit. He seemed determined, fierce. He splayed his hands out, curling his fingers around my bump.

The pain was like nothing I’ve ever felt. My stomach was being twisted so hard that it felt like my bones were grinding against themselves. I shook with pain.

“Try to relax,” he said. I used my birthing breathing techniques again. He tried to push her head past my ribs. It felt like somebody using a chainsaw to saw through my ribcage. My daughter did not move and while my heart rate shot up, hers remained completely steady, determined.

In the end, I had a planned C-section. I picked the exact date and time for my daughter’s delivery, like you would schedule a pedicure, and all the fuss over how she would come into this world evaporated into thin air. Then I was rocking her incessantly at 2:00 A.M., wondering why the hell I hadn’t read anything about how to look after a baby.

Author’s note: I wanted the whole rite of passage: giving birth perfectly aware, unmedicated and in the way nature intended. Except my daughter had other ideas. She is my daughter, after all.

Farah Halime is a British-Palestinian transplant to Brooklyn who is still trying to figure out the strange habits of New Yorkers. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and she’s the founder of the blog Rebel Economy.

Fighting Dragons

Fighting Dragons


Illustration: The Manitoban


By Amy Cissell

When I was nineteen, my father gave me a portion of a poem to remind me to never give up.

And sometimes when our fights begin,

I think I’ll let the Dragons win…

And then I think perhaps I won’t,

Because they’re Dragons, and I don’t

— A. A. Milne

I hung this in my dorm room, and in my first apartment, and in my home office, and in my heart.


My Dragons started to appear so slowly. They snuck up on me and took hold before I even realized they were there. Only by looking back can I see how they crept in without a fight.

I can tell you about the awful third trimester of my pregnancy. How everything hurt and I couldn’t run and I could barely walk. How my father was diagnosed with cancer—brain tumors, the scariest cancer of all—had surgery, had chemo, had radiation, entered hospice, died. How the death of my father on March 19, 2012—two weeks before my son was due—was devastating. I can tell you that complications with my pregnancy meant that I never got to see my father between his diagnosis and his death.

I can talk about the labor and delivery. About my mother being in the room and stressing me out because she was so sad. About the intensity of pain that I had not anticipated. About finally getting an epidural after nearly three hours of pushing so the baby and I could rest. About the rapid deceleration of my baby’s heartbeat, the emergency C-section, the hemorrhaging. I can talk about lying on the operating table, hearing the doctors talk about not being able to get the bleeding stopped, and how I didn’t know if my son was alive.

I can paint the picture of the first time I saw my son, no worse for wear after the craziness of his entry into this world. How my arms were shaking too much to properly hold him. How I cried so much in those first weeks as I looked for signs of his grandfather in his face. How so many people needed him to be a symbol of something that made my father’s death O.K. How I felt that he was the trade-in, a newer model, and how that made me feel guilty. I can tell you that the fact that he was born on Easter Sunday was given special significance by people who wanted to believe that there was a just and loving God.

I can give you that glimpse into my soul and how much I struggled with my feelings of intense grief and ridiculous joy.

I can even tell you what happened next.

The autumn after my father’s death and my son’s birth, the Dragons made themselves known. They crept in gradually. I have never liked bridges. I have other fears: ostracism, irrelevance, spiders. But my number one fear is plunging off a bridge to my death, sometimes in a ball of fire; more often quietly, unnoticeably.

I live in Portland. City of bridges. To get to work, I must drive over at least one bridge. And so I do. But that autumn, the fall of death and birth, it started getting harder and harder. I had panic attacks while driving across the Marquam Bridge. The anxiety started spreading. Slowly, like fog on little cat feet. Creeping into everything.

And then there were whispers.

You are a terrible mother who can‘t even produce enough milk for your son.

Your constant anxiety is stressing out everyone around you and they‘re starting to resent you.

You‘re about to get fired because you‘re doing such a terrible job.

Your friends are sick of your bullshit.

Your husband wishes he‘d never met you, much less married and impregnated you.

You are a terrible wife.

Everything would be so much better if you weren‘t here.

You are an awful mother.

You shouldn‘t be here.

The whispers grew louder each day, until they drowned out the echoing sounds of bridge traffic. I started wondering if they were more than an evil internal voice that always tries to fuck things up. I began to believe it was real, that she was real—a voice of authority and reason. I started avoiding. I fantasized about running away. Sometimes those fantasies would include taking the baby and driving south until I found a place to hide. In other fantasies, I thought it would be better if I left him behind; I was obviously not stable.

I noticed my driving was becoming more erratic. I told my husband I couldn’t drive the baby anymore. I wasn’t always sure who was in the driver’s seat.

The running away fantasies met and mated with the plunging-to-my-death anxiety, and it got harder and harder to not plunge to my death. It would be so easy to just speed up and flip over the edge. To “trip” while looking down from the top tram dock and fall, screaming, to the grass below. To go for a trail run in the Gorge and not watch where I was going.

A tragic accident.

A release.

A new and better life for those I left behind.

Every day, I got out of bed. I could manage nursing my son only once a day. I dressed him. I went to work. I came home. I fed him (formula this time, such a bad mom). Rocked him. Cried.

I knew I was sinking. I knew this wasn’t right. It wasn’t me. I had a therapist who sent me to a psychiatrist. I got some drugs. I made sticker charts and bought gold stars to chart my Aggressive Happinessâ„¢ plans that involved exercise and drinking plenty of water and taking all my medications.

I stopped talking about my anxiety and depression and weird bouts of mania.

I alphabetized my closet.

I stopped seeing my friends.

I drank.

I fantasized about razor blades and blood.

I decided to become a drug addict. And then I realized that I didn’t know where to buy drugs, so I gave up.

I stopped looking down when driving across bridges lest the temptation to follow my line of sight proved too much.


Finally one day, I felt a little like myself. And the next, I was a little better.

It wasn’t a progressive upward slope. It was more a few steps forward, and a slow slide back. Gradually, however, I got out of the hole. I stood up and stretched and looked around. And that’s when I saw them clearly for the first time: Dragons. Hovering silently above the ground. Waiting for me to take my eyes off them, like scaly weeping angels, so they could knock me back down.

I backed away slowly, and just kept backing.

They aren’t gone. I still see them there sometimes out of the corner of my eye. They are waiting for me to forget. I can’t blink. Can’t let them win. Won’t.

There are times I want to pull the Dragons out of the dark corners where they’re hiding and wrap myself up in them. There’s something almost comforting in the thought of being smothered in the numbing fog of mental illness. No one expects too much, or is disappointed, or needs me to be strong.


I look for signs of my father in my son, but so far they are absent. There are times I resent my son for preventing me from being with my dad when he died. There are times I resent my father for ruining the end of my pregnancy and the birth of my son. For not living long enough to hold his first grandchild.

Last night, I rocked my teething toddler to sleep and gazed at his face. Even though I’ve been unable to find my father in his face, I felt ready to let go. Let go of the expectation that my son was the consolation prize I received for giving up my dad. Let go of the belief this was the trade-in, the upgrade, the newer model. Let go of the nearly crippling grief responsible for my second guessing all the decisions I’d made in the past two years.

Let go of the fantasy of Dragons and the idea that I might let the Dragons win.

Because they‘re Dragons, and I don‘t.

Author’s Note: In the last month I’ve celebrated my son’s third birthday and mourned the third anniversary of my father’s death. The grief still hits me like a truck from time to time, but it’s no longer a constant presence in my life. Although I consider myself recovered from the postpartum anxiety and depression I describe in this essay, I still don’t enjoy driving over bridges.

Amy Cissell is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose first love is fantasy. She is hard at work editing her first full-length novel when she’s not chasing around an active preschooler. Find her online at http://www.gazellesoncrack.com or on Twitter @gazellesoncrack


The Good Mother

The Good Mother

image3By  Sarah Minor

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told was my mother.

At least, that’s what I told her.

I called my mom on my drive back to work after my first doctor’s appointment. The mascara that had survived the stream of happy tears clung to the tips of my lashes.

There, on the screen beside me, I had just seen my baby. A little bean. A pulsing heart.

“Hey, Mom,” I said. I hadn’t planned anything to say and had to speak quickly before she interrupted me.


“Ahhh!” she screamed when I told her. “I knew it! I’m so happy!”

I smiled into the phone. A real smile. “Yes! I just went to the doctor today. You’ll never believe…”

“I can’t believe you waited so long to tell me.”


“I mean, how far along are you? Most daughters call their mothers the moment they find out. Most women just can’t wait to tell their mothers.”

I clenched my teeth.

“Well, you know, I just wanted to wait until I saw a doctor. I thought I was only eight weeks along. But it turns out I’m twelve!”

“So when are you due?”

“December 23.”

“Oh,” her voice turned grim. “That’s going to be hard, with the holidays and everything. I’m not going to want to miss my grandchild’s birthday, and the way I have to share holidays with Paul’s family, I don’t know how that’s going to work.”

“Oh. Well, I’m at work now,” I lied. “I have to go. We’ll figure it out.”

The first person I actually told, aside from my husband, Paul, was my sister, Jill.

“You can never tell mom that you knew first,” I whispered. “Never.”

“Oh my God, of course not,” Jill said. “She’d kill you.”

But now, with my mom told and the first trimester safely behind us, my pregnancy finally felt official, real. Paul and I set about preparing for the new baby: picking out furniture for the nursery, attending childbirth class, whittling down a list of names.

The news of my pregnancy also set my mom’s wheels in motion. The arrival of the baby would bestow upon her a new title and with it, a new purpose in life. She had been retired from teaching for five years and was in a on-and-off long-term relationship, the second since her divorce from my father. As displeased as she was about the due date, this Christmas baby was for her, in many ways, a savior.

Our conversations immediately turned to when she would come see the baby and how long she would stay. She was a plane ride away, so the details of her visit couldn’t wait until the last minute.

“I think you should come in January,” I told her, positioning myself in the chair in our home office like I was conducting a business call. I tried to keep my tone light. “The baby could be late, and it would be silly for you to be here twiddling your thumbs with us waiting for the baby. And Paul will be home for the first week anyway. It would be good to have someone here when he goes back to work.”

This was not acceptable.

“None of my friends can believe that you would ask your mother to wait to come until two weeks after the baby is born,” she told me, her voice climbing an octave. “Their daughters want them in the delivery room! They just can’t believe you would do that to me.”

“Mom, I just think it would be good for us to have some time alone, just the three of us, before anyone visits.”

I was standing now, pacing the checkerboard rug, waving my free arm for emphasis.

“Oh, that’s right, you and Paul, your perfect little family,” she sneered. I sat back down.

“That’s not what I’m saying, but yes, this is my family! And I think I should be able to decide when we have guests!” I was yelling now, lightheaded with anger and effort.

“Maybe I just won’t come at all. I’m sure you can just figure it out. Everything has to be just how Sarah wants it.”

“Yeah,” I said sharply. “This time, I guess it does.”

“Well, I hope you don’t have a special needs baby because then you’re going to need me and wish I was there.”

“Oh my God!” I screamed. My throat was raw. “It’s almost like you hope that will happen so I’ll need you! That is sick, Mom! This is not about you!”

The screaming brought Paul into the office.

“What’s going on?” He was used to our fights, which he had witnessed during the power struggles over our wedding and which had only intensified since we’d moved halfway across the country. Her visits were always full of tension: her thinly-veiled barbs followed by my snide retorts, and then my mom, shocked that her daughter would talk to her that way, storming out to the car or pouting in the guest bedroom.

Something always got broken. Sometimes it was an accident, a dishwasher-loading slip. But other times were intentional, like the time I wasn’t appreciative enough of wine glasses she bought me and she smashed them into the garbage can.

“This cannot happen when we have a baby,” Paul said. “We are not raising our child like this. It has to stop now.”

He was right. At 30 weeks pregnant, I called a therapist.

Her name was Libby. I found her on the Internet. We arranged a brief “get to know you” conversation before making a formal appointment. I took my cell phone to a private room at work and dialed her number. My hands were shaking.

“So, I’m pregnant, and I’m, um, just really worried I’m going to be like my mother.”

Libby’s voice was soft and soothing, with a hint of a New England accent. She sounded like an NPR news reporter. We talked on the phone for 30 minutes, mostly me rambling about my mom’s reaction when I told her I was pregnant and our subsequent arguments. I made an appointment to visit her office in a week.

“In the meantime,” Libby said, “I want you to get a book.” I jotted down the title: Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown Up’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents.

Narcissist. No one had ever used that word to describe my mom. I felt terrible even thinking such a thing about her. Yes, she was a little crazy. Needy. Mean sometimes. But she had such low self-esteem. She never seemed sure of herself, was always fishing for compliments. Narcissists were in love with themselves, weren’t they? How could she possibly be one of those?

That weekend I went to the book store. I searched the self help section to no avail. Finally, cheeks burning, I approached the register. I felt like I was at an adult bookstore asking about a kinky video.

“I’m looking for a book called Children of the Self-Absorbed,” I practically whispered.

As soon as I got home, I opened the book, a glossy paperback that looked like something for a college psychology class. Inside, information was organized in a series of bullet points, quizzes and writing exercises. I grabbed a legal pad to jot down my answers. My heart started to beat faster as I read.

Critical and criticizing…never completely satisfied…gets anxious when alone…hypersensitive to perceived criticisms…never forgets an offense.

My mom didn’t have all the traits of what the book called “Destructive Narcissistic Personality,” but certain paragraphs felt like they were written specifically about her.

There were explanations for some of the behaviors I’d struggled with, too, the “lingering effects of parental self-absorption.” Defiant, combative…overly defensive in response to comments she perceives as critical.

I started crying. Crying out of sadness for my mother and for myself. But also out of relief. This behavior wasn’t normal. It had a name. I wasn’t crazy.

And my mom wasn’t either.

Every Tuesday on my lunch break, I spent an hour on the worn red love seat in Libby’s sunny, cluttered office. Traffic honked and whirred outside the window behind me. My belly jutted out in front of me like a torpedo. I cried so much at each session that I eventually moved the box of tissues Libby offered from the coffee table to the empty couch cushion beside me.

Libby and I talked about my childhood. She took notes and occasionally illustrated points to me on a small whiteboard, stick figures and arrows demonstrating how my mom and I had reversed the roles of parent and child. Even as a child, she explained, I had in some ways been responsible for my mom’s well-being instead of the natural opposite.

Then she asked me to talk about my mom’s childhood. While she had always painted it with an idyllic brush, my mom made it clear that she was an “accident,” born a decade after her sister to older parents. Even as an adult, she felt like she lived in the shadow of “perfect Barb.”
I told Libby of the interactions I had witnessed. Divorced twice, my mom took her new boyfriend home to meet her parents.

“Careful with this one,” my grandmother told her. “You don’t want to be a three-time loser.”

Libby helped me realize that my mom wasn’t a bad person, she was a hurt person. A bottomless well of need, desperate for validation. And because of this, she didn’t realize how much she was hurting others. And though I fought with her, screamed, pleaded and prayed, I would never change her. I could have sympathy for my mom. I could mourn the relationship we never had. But I had to accept that this was my mother.

“All you can do is create healthy boundaries for yourself and your family,” said Libby.

My mom booked a ticket for January 5. I was relieved that she had honored my request, but hardly triumphant. Maybe I was too controlling. Maybe I was being crazy. Maybe I would wish she were there sooner. But it was my pregnancy, my family, my baby and my right to find out for myself.

Ten days after my due date, I was induced. The induction turned into an emergency C-section, so I stayed in the hospital for four days. My mom arrived the day after we got home.

Our homecoming was surreal; I was dazed from sleep-deprivation and pain medication. Hormones and powerful feelings of joy, love, fear, inadequacy and the overwhelming responsibility of parenting swept through me like tidal waves, nearly knocking me senseless.

On our first night home, I fed William and laid him down to sleep in the bassinet next to our bed. I turned off the light, climbed under the covers and started sobbing.

“Oh no, what? What is it?” Paul asked.

“I just love him so much!” I wailed, my nose stuffing up. “And I just realized how much it will affect me if anything ever happens to him, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If he died, my life would be destroyed forever. What if he grows up and decides he wants nothing to do with me? It doesn’t matter what happens, good or bad. Nothing will ever be the same.”

My mom arrived the next day, her arms full of gifts for the baby. Books she had bought years ago, just in case. A cross to hang in his room. She needed pictures, lots of pictures, to email to her friends.

“Okay, enough with the flash in his face!” I exclaimed one afternoon as she held the camera inches from William’s bouncy chair.

“Oh, Sarah, please, this isn’t hurting him,” she said.

“Well, I think it’s enough!” I said. “And maybe I’m crazy, but I just had a baby so I have the right to make some crazy requests.”

Paul went back to work the next day.

“I’ll be back soon,” he said, kissing the top of my head. I started to cry. It was the first time since William was born that our little family unit was being separated.

Seeing my tears, my mom started crying.

“I’m here,” she sobbed. “Am I not enough for you?”

But she was good with William, cradling and cooing at him, animatedly reading him books. And she was helpful, too, running out to buy diapers and lanolin cream, vacuuming while I napped, making blueberry coffee cake and tuna casserole.

And as we sat marveling at William’s dark hair, his tiny fist pressed against his cheek, I could not deny that in our love for this baby we’d found something on which we could truly agree.

At the end of the two weeks, I took her to the airport. I had mixed feelings: she had been helpful, and I was nervous about going back to an empty house with William. I felt guilty for my nit-picky comments and overall impatience with her. I knew it hadn’t been the idyllic bonding experience she hoped it would be.

But mostly, I felt relieved. Relieved that I’d be free from the daily task of meeting my mother’s emotional needs, a job that was as exhausting as it was impossible.

“Thank you,” I said, returning her hug and inhaling the familiar scent of her perfume. “You were a lot of help. You’re a good grandmother.”

She pulled back from our hug and looked me in the eye, the muscles around her mouth tensing.

“Well, am I a good mother?”

I couldn’t change her into the kind of mother who would never ask that. I couldn’t fill the void in her heart. But now that I understood how fragile a heart becomes once a child has claimed it, I could tread carefully around it.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re a good mother.”

Author’s note: Six years later, I continue to struggle with setting healthy boundaries with my mom. While I no longer worry that I’ll become my mom, having children has further complicated our relationship. My kids adore their grandmother, and I don’t question her love for them. But I’ve also seen her try to undermine my relationship with them and use them in her attempts to manipulate me. That said, I truly feel sorry for her and want nothing more than for her to find peace.

Sarah Minor is a writer and mom of two boys living in North Carolina.


Love Song to My Belly

Love Song to My Belly

WO Love Song to my Belly Art

By Goldberry Long

“My therapist is helping me make friends with my belly,” a fellow student had said back when we were in graduate school. She was beautiful, a former Las Vegas dancer, long-legged and flat-bellied and given to giggling. Once she gave a reading and giggled at the jokes in her story, her hands clasped behind her like a little girl, her chest out, her belly a good friend, flat and beautiful to behold. She rocked back on her heels, giggling. Rocked herself forward, giggling. She had it easy. Easy to be friends with such a friendly belly.

I was not friends with my belly, never had been. We were uneasy acquaintances, eyeing one another in the mirror, my belly a measure of my appetites, swelling; I turned to the side, balefully eyeing my belly, thought: I look pregnant. I was not. I dug in my fingers, Oh loaf of white bread, Oh unwanted blubber, Oh enormous failure. Under the fat I could feel the hard flat muscles of me.

Or the other, friendlier belly, sloping plain of white smooth skin down between the proud bones of my hips, triumph of beauty, exalted hollow, dearest. My belly was not my friend; my belly was my art project, my sculpture, my stubborn failure. It fought me, enemy mine. Eat, eat, eat, it said, and I fought back but in the end it always won, grew, ruined itself.

Thirteen, I stepped on a scale, and my mother said, “You better watch it!” I watched. I watched my mouth and for a month my mouth took in a only a daily egg, a daily orange, round pure foods, holy as communion, and my belly rewarded me, hipbones, the white plain, like Death Valley, the sand there.

Years passed, and I watched it, my belly, watched it wax and wane, exercising its tidal pull on me.

Lying beside my lover, he traced the curve of my waist, laid his hand on the smooth flat sands of my belly. This is my favorite part, he said, possessive. I preened, pleased. My belly growled. Later he called me a black hole. So true, said my belly. I can hold the universe, said my belly. Multitudes, it said. Stay empty, I told it. Stern.

My pregnant belly held a life, and this confused me. It was a stubborn enemy, a soldier for my child within me. My belly said, Eat, Eat, Eat, and I had to eat or be punished, on my knees in the living room, heaving bile. Every two hours I must eat, even up at night writhing with the pain of a starving woman — I won’t I won’t — but then I must; I am force-fed a banana at 3 am until the pain settles, the baby settles, my belly hums it to sleep, satisfied, pleased with itself. Thirty pounds in the first trimester, weeping in my midwife’s office: I’ll be one of those fat ladies who says, I used to be skinny until I had kids. My belly squeezed my liver, compressed my spleen, massaged my heart, pushed acid up my throat. Oh Belly, powerful, stubborn, furious belly.

I contain my belly and my belly contains my baby but it feels the other way around; I am trapped inside them both. There are no choices left to me. How many more months? I count them. How many more days? I count. How many hours? Countless.

And yet I love the baby. The baby inside the belly is the center of the universe. She is the one hot shining point of light from which all else radiates. There is no joy without the baby in my belly. A paradox. My enemy contains my life.

Thirty pounds, second trimester. Thirty pounds, third trimester. Round belly, hard, taut, and the life inside, writhing, kicking, squirming, beloved life—I can’t wait to get you out and hold you and therefore keep you safe, a delusion of grandeur; I know that in my belly you are safer than you ever will be in my arms, my daughter, my own: will you be friends with your belly?

In line at the coffee shop, I rest my palms on the high hard curve of my belly. There is no other sensible place for my hands. Captain, my captain, my belly. The baby kicks. They call it a kick, but it’s a slow turning, a whale, changing direction in the ocean of my belly.

And then I am a pebble, a grain of sand floating on an ocean of pain; I am only my belly and my belly is me and we are pain, and my belly howls at me: You see? You see?

And then they lay my daughter on my belly, my daughter still tethered to my belly, and I am her mother. She squirms and climbs my belly to my breast, and she eats, and eats, and eats.

I strap my daughter to my chest and for a long time no one can see my belly because my daughter is my belly.

My daughter walks at 10 months. Her belly thrust out proud. She giggles. She climbs high curbs. Her belly balances her. She strips herself naked, fondles her bellybutton, laughs. There is nothing in this world more beautiful than her body and its belly, the balance of her, the high fearless climbing that comes from her center, her very self, her belly.

We play bellybutton. That was where your belly was tied to mine, I tell her. Belly to belly. She nods, knowingly. Fingers her bellybutton. Possessive of it.

I run. I deny my body white things. White sugar, white flour, white potatoes, white rice, white pasta. My belly is once again the smooth sands of Death Valley, sloping from the proud bones of my hips. You’re so good, a friend says. I watch you, and you’re so good.

My belly asks why.

I lose the weight, but my belly wins. My belly, stretched, refuses solidity. It is fluid, with its traceries of silver, spilling over my waistband, sloshing to the side, galloping in its own rhythm as I run. My belly contains its multitudes. It doubles itself when I sit, triples when I bend. I cannot contain it.

There is another baby in my belly but that one dies inside me and for weeks I don’t know it until the doctor turns the screen toward me and lets me say it myself: There’s no heartbeat, I say. I ask my belly why. My belly has no answer. My belly, hollow, weeps blood.

My baby died, I tell my friend. My baby died, my baby died, my baby died. And then I feed my belly. Chocolate cake, red wine, potato chips, cookies, all of it. My belly sends it back. On my knees, on the floor, weeping, I think, Not enough. Bottomless pit.

My belly says, try again. My belly says, I have more for you. I contain multitudes. I contain the universe.

My daughter says, Mommy, why is your belly so wrinkly? Why is your belly so droopy? And mindful of the endless battle I wage, hoping to spare her, I say, My belly is beautiful. My belly says that it made you in there. It wrote you on my skin. Lies told to spare her. But my belly nods and jiggles its agreement. So true, it says.

And then there is my son. My belly, once again the fierce guardian. We make our bargain. Bananas at 3 am. Nine months measured in gains: 30 pounds, 35 pounds, 38 pounds, pain. The final gain, the prize, my boy.

My how he grows. He grows and he grows, and he lies beside me, cuddling, his hand on my belly. He sings it a love song: Juggly, juggly, juggly belly! I love your juggly belly! His hand makes it wobble, dance, sway between my hipbones, a sloshing mass, mud not sand, not smooth, wrinkled scars of the babies it bore, juggly belly. I want to be a bug, he says, so I can bounce on your belly! He inserts his finger in my deep hollow of bellybutton. I would live in here, he says. I would be safe and warm in here, in your belly.

I tell a friend, and she is horrified. Juggly! Oh no! Kids say the most terrible things! But no, I say, defending my son. I say, You have to understand. For my son, it is all joy. For him, what he feels is pure and good. My belly is the source of all comfort, all softness and warmth, all mother love. It is good. Saying this, I rest my hand on my belly, possessive. It fits neatly into my palm, as if they are made for each other, hand and belly. And then I know it is my belly I defend. My friend, my self, my belly.

Goldberry Long is the author of the novel, Juniper Tree Burning. Her second novel, O’Keeffe’s Girl, is under contract at Simon and Schuster. She teaches at University of California, Riverside.



WO Colorblind artBy Emma Kate Tsai

I had no idea what he’d look like.

I only knew what I could find out with a wave of a wand. Gender, length, amniotic fluid. But it didn’t tell me what everyone wanted to know: Would he have my hazel eyes, my Chinese father’s olive skin, my mother’s blue eyes, my husband’s red hair, or the blonde hair Mom once had? I didn’t know the answer to the questions the Chinese half of my family didn’t have the grace not to ask: Would he look like them or white like my mother? Of course, I look like neither.

“Do you think he’ll look Chinese?” Toni, my oldest stepsister, asked me over lunch when I was four months pregnant.

I had just announced that my first baby would be a boy. Every one of their dark-topped heads bobbed up and down, as they let out the breath they’d each been holding. My three stepsisters, their spouses, my stepmother, my father. All Chinese. (My stepmother and her family from Taiwan, my father from China.) As if to say, boy = good. I was sitting next to my father on the leather sofa, my stepsisters spread out around the living room, cross-legged on the pearly bamboo floor. Their heads were bowed, long, straight black hair cascading over bare shoulders. Shih-tzus clicked their nails on the floor around them.  My own short hair is the darkest brown it can be. Visually at least, I look the part. My skin isn’t too white, my eyes more brown than blue. I’m half-Chinese, but to them, since I’m not all-Chinese, I am basically not Chinese.

I looked over at my father. He was wearing that polite smile that told me he was barely listening. Baba, as I called him (Chinese for Dad), met Toni’s mother, Ines, in a Chinese drama club. My mother—a beautiful brunette with blue eyes and freckled skin—he met at university, shortly after setting foot on American soil. From their union, I, my twin sister, and my brother were born. Half-Chinese, AmeriAsian, mixed breed. Whatever you want to call us, we are only part Chinese. Richard, my fiancé, is all white.

I know what Toni wants to hear: that I will have a Chinese-looking boy. My father doesn’t care, or so I lead myself to believe. A traditional Chinese man he may be, but he’s not a traditional Chinese father. He never pushed me to marry a Chinese man, or to marry at all. When I first brought Richard home, he liked him because he was friendly and respectful, and treated me well. Not a single word was ever said about race. But then again, he could hardly argue with something he’d done himself.

I give a non-answer, filling the silence with truth. “I don’t know.”

“Well, you don’t have that much Chinese, really, anyway,” she says. “Only half, right?”

Her words sting, cutting my otherness from me. Baba doesn’t respond, only clucks his tongue a bit at a joke that isn’t all that funny. My father is stout and muscular, his skin brown against my own, his black hair makes mine look caramel. His big eyes remind me of melted chocolate, so dark his pupils get lost in them. My eyes are hazel, a color created by my particular genetic inheritance. Baba’s nose is wide and flat, while mine is flat at the top and narrower at the nostril, an exact blend of my two halves. My high cheekbones and full lips come from my mother. Baba’s lips are little more than two plumped-up straight lines. He could never wear a mustache well with a mouth so slight. What would my son get? Mom’s Marilyn Monroe mouth? Baba’s big eyes? My hybrid nose? Or would he bypass my side altogether and come out as All-American as my husband? The Chinese can be facially stereotyped, but what features define an American?

I’ve always called myself half-Chinese, never half-American. I wear my father’s Chinese name and so I have always had to come up with an answer for why I look American but have a surname no American can pronounce.

I wait for Toni to say something, to accept my mixed heritage, to withdraw her judgment and offer some sort of apology. Instead she just stares at my father, as if he doesn’t look Chinese at all, either.

“Yeah,” I say, “he’ll probably just look like a regular ole white kid, blonde hair and blue eyes.” I feel defeated, as if my son is already here, denying my maternity and culture. Toni nods slowly. I have confirmed what she already believes.

Later that night, I tell Richard about Toni’s question. He laughs.

“Of course he won’t have blonde hair. Brown is the dominant gene.” I Google genetics, trying to figure out the probability. It is too much science, and my pregnant brain can’t make the calculations. When I try to picture my son in my mind, I can’t. I only see a fuzzy outline. No colors. Chinese is what I have, what’s different from Richard, what makes me stand out. Will I vanish within recessiveness if my son makes his entrance looking far less different than I always have?

Soon, I find out for myself. Five months later, Oliver arrives after twelve hours of labor and pushing. About a half hour after the countdown starts, the head nurse announces, “I see dark hair!” Her exclamation is a cheer, one for my team.

“Really?” I breathe. Dark hair means Chinese. Dark hair means me.

But when Oliver emerges completely, he proves us all wrong. The nurses roll up my sweaty, bloodstained nightgown and place him on my belly, and he looks up at me and stares. I stare back and get lost in eyes that are not my own, blue eyes that should belong to a character in a story.

They are not the murky newborn blue many babies are born with. No, Oliver’s blue could be a Pantone color, a gradient created by a graphic designer. Not a placeholder for brown or hazel, but my mom’s blue, and my husband’s. After five minutes or thirty—I have lost all sense of time—the nurses scoop up our baby and take him for his first bath. When they wheel him back in, we stand to greet him and see it: blonde hair. Mom’s blonde, the blonde she was born with, the blonde Richard was born with.

My baby is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy.

When my father comes to see Oliver nine hours later, he laughs. “He looks just like you!” he says to Richard. My husband beams. I nod, as if it was my joke too. Our baby boy looks just like his daddy. It is like I am not even there. My dad leans over Oliver and whispers, “So, so beautiful.” He never stops saying it. Not that day, not the next week, not for several months. Even when he isn’t saying the words, you can see them in the way he gazes at our child. As if he’s afraid Oliver is a mirage that might disappear if he looks away. Is it because of Oliver’s fair skin and eyes? Is white more beautiful to my Chinese father than whatever I am? Has that been the reason why my father has been so uninterested in me, why he’s now so interested in my son? Why my mother came and went, then came and went again? I don’t look enough like either of them. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, someone neither parent can attach to.

A couple of days later, my stepsisters come to meet the new baby. Their feet have barely crossed the threshold when the declaration is made. “He looks just like Richard!” Toni says, and her words are echoed by the others. “He looks so…WHITE,” Georgette informs me, as if I needed to be told. My white fiancé holds my white baby, while I sit in the corner and eat a Chinese meal of rice, bok coy steamed with garlic, and roasted salmon. I watch as the other within me—my Chinese family—surrounds my two men, protecting them from the outside world. From me. As if he is Richard’s baby, and I just happen to live here. I stare at Oliver in the center of their circle, who now feels so far away. They have turned him into a question of either/or and forgot all about how Oliver came to be. I don’t care what he looks like, why should they? Why does it have to be a competition? Richard vs. Emma, White vs. Chinese.

“Look, I did all the hard work,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

“Well,” Georgette says, “maybe he’ll look like you later on.” Then, as if on cue, Oliver starts to cry. I steal him away and mount the stairs to feed him. As soon as I place my nipple in his mouth, he stops crying and I start, my family’s words reverberating in my heart. It is just one more way my Chinese heritage has subjugated me. The meals and parties and holidays I sat drowning in my father’s foreign tongue, the family from Taiwan he chose over his own, spinning tales in Chinese that his own children couldn’t understand. The mispronunciation of my name every single year in school, the “what are you?” questions, the Chinese boys who tried to date me then gave up, the American men who wished I could cook Chinese food. Can’t Oliver just be whatever he is without the label of Chinese or white?

Color was masking everything, in his case. His blonde hair and blue eyes distracted viewers from the shape of his eyes—Chinese, like mine—and the shape of his nose. If you looked hard enough, you’d see him for what he was: a quarter Chinese.

It wasn’t just my family who was colorblind. It was everyone. Out in the world, I felt like his nanny, his nursemaid, anything but his mother. I would force Richard to take my picture with Oliver positioned just so, hoping to catch a shot of our complementary features, offering the world evidence that he was part Tsai, part me. Here, try to say you don’t see any resemblance.

It would be four months before Toni finally says, “He looks more and more like you.” And more than that before everyone else agreed.

When we are out together now and someone gives Richard claim to Oliver’s face, Richard does his best to turn a sole proprietorship into a partnership: “He has Emma’s nose.” Usually he is met with a quizzical look, as if he is speaking a foreign language. In fact, he is: he is speaking Emma, and all they know is Richard. It is the Chinese in me, in Oliver, they don’t see. The very reason Oliver looks the way he does is because of my mother’s American heritage and mine, not in spite of it. You’re just seeing color, I want to shout, there’s more to us than that. But am I talking about Oliver or about myself? Am I really asking others to see me as something more than the sum of my parts?

That majority ruling pulls at my heart more than the pain in my abdomen or the pulsing in my nipples after a long feeding. It’s a feeling that lasts longer than the days Oliver cries for hours without a pause, or pees all over the bathroom walls. All of that lingers in the background, as Oliver smiles and erases the identity theft of the immediate past. This feeling of disconnectedness from my child—in the eyes of the world—comes back again and again. They are subjecting him to a label that does nothing but segregate him. From me.

Eventually, Oliver becomes a part of the world, his own person, even though he’s only seven months old. He looks like Oliver, a growing boy who could be something out of a Precious Moments catalogue, with his round nose, huge eyes, and a lower lip that he likes to tuck in. As his hair comes in, it appears to be different shades of dark blonde and red—reminiscent of Richard’s hair, but not identical to it. His face has the delicate roundness of a baby’s. He has a tiny belly, unlike Richard, and long legs, very much like the both of us. Now and then, someone will say he looks like me; now and then, someone will say he looks nothing like me. In his very own way, Oliver has become more about Oliver, and less about us, and that’s what we had wished for all along.

Emma Kate Tsai is an editor and writer in Houston, Texas. She has been published online and in print, including an essay entitled “Chinese-American Girl: Drinking from East to West” in the anthology Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, and the lead essay in the self-published anthology Loving for Crumbs entitled “Spell of Starvation.” Emma has an essay upcoming in Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, pending from Seal Press, and is currently at work on a memoir that focuses on identity through the lens of an identical twin.

Photo: Lesley Shone


Potting Season

Potting Season

By Emily Grosvenor

Pine bonsai on whiteIn the months after I became pregnant, my husband, Adam, introduced a forest of 37 tiny trees into our life. As I sat reading parenting books propped on my expanding belly, he was rescuing them from the sale section or pulling stray seedlings out of the mulch.  He gave them new pots on the brick patio of our 1910 cottage. There, he would train them in the styles of the great bonsai masters: formal and informal upright, cascade, exposed root, windswept, literati, clinging to a rock.

To me, they were just one more thing to take care of, worse than a puppy. Given the right care – years of training and attention – they can live forever.

“Don’t you think you should be reading some of these?” I asked him, shaking a book on the Bradley Method in the air.

“Nah. You read them and tell me what you find out,” he said, humming and trimming.

A few weeks later, after 68 hours of labor, a hemorrhage, and four units of blood from a stranger – our baby was there. We drove him home as if we had an IED in the backseat, and in a way, we did. Adam lifted him gingerly and cradled him in the glow of a scraggly, 1.5-foot-tall Christmas tree.

When Adam gives you his attention it is as if your own personal sun is shining down at you. I could always feel it, even across continents and through a five-year long distance relationship.  He’s a talker. He’s a listener. I had never known such connection before Adam.

From the beginning, though he had never before held a baby, he jumped into fatherhood with his whole being. He danced with the baby for hours. He rocked him to Johnny Cash’s “Run On” on repeat. I caught them once, laying on the couch in the dark.

“In a way, he justifies every mistake I have ever made,” Adam said. “If I had made the tiniest decision differently he never would have been.”

He carried the baby outside to his tiny forest and dangled him over the tops of the trees.

Adam snuck out every chance he could to spend time in his forest of azalea, juniper, maple, pine, santolina, devil’s tongue, flying dragon, crab apple. He trimmed, he repotted, he watered, but more than anything, he just looked at the trees, remembering what they looked like before and seeing how the changes he made to their structure would make them prosper. In the tiny forest, the trees were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were becoming more and more like themselves, like full adult trees but on a smaller scale.

Inside the cottage, though I was deeply connected to my baby, I found myself feeling increasingly out-of-sorts. The baby’s screams were so piercing they made my arms tingle. When my milk let down, I broke out in hives.

Adam took the baby for me as much as he could, but I was always expecting a cry, always on edge, always waiting like a bell to be struck. If Adam took him outside so I could rest, I could tell you which brick they stood on. This is how it is supposed to be, I thought to myself. Every cell in my body has turned over. I am a good mom. Every day I thanked Adam for giving him to me.

With my child strapped to my chest I was free to never sit down again. I baked soufflés and fermented my own yogurt. I canned blackberry preserves. I outlined a novel. I cleaned behind furniture. I worked through every recipe in the Bride & Groom: First and Forever Cookbook. My hunger went away, as if my frantic activity was enough to take sustenance from the air around me. I had figured this motherhood thing out. I had more energy than I had ever had in my life. But when I held my crying child, I thought about everything there was to be done, and when I worked during his naps, all I could think about was my child, about to cry out.

The night the baby slept through was the first I could not. I thrashed in bed until 5 a.m. The next night, the same. The click of a door latch. The mewl of the cat. The clink of a coffee mug. The sounds in our cottage amplified to Hitchcockian levels and sent my skin crawling. As the leaves changed color outside my mind latched on to increasingly more disturbing images, as if my mind were a movie real of worst-case scenarios.

“What can I do to help you?” Adam asked me more often each day.

“Get me some time to myself so I can work,” was the only answer I had.

After three months of not sleeping, the walls of our cottage seemed to close in. So one bright September morning I decided on the spot we had to get out of the house. We raced to pull together car seats, diapers and extra clothes for an overnight trip. It wasn’t happening fast enough for me. By my projections we should have left at 8:45 a.m. It was already 8:53.  That’s how I ended up on the hardwood floor, breathing into a brown paper bag of branches from Adam’s lavender bonsai.

It might have been a tad late for aromatherapy.

That spring, Adam repotted all of his bonsai as I sat staring at the television. I watched him as he petted them gently and spoke to them. I seethed as he stood in the rain, looking joyous and entranced in his work, covered in mud. Did I remember what the juniper looked like before he coaxed it into a cascade? Could I envision the way the fig had all but shriveled before he poured himself into its care? When he held me at night – as he always had – I felt nothing. During the day, with him gone, working a 12-hour shift, I would rock with our baby at the window and imagine all of the pots – smithereens.

“Can I be your bonsai?” I asked Adam one evening as I watched him hack away at the root bundle of a burning bush. I was aware of how ridiculous I sounded.

He tucked my hair behind my ear, looked straight in my eyes and said: “You don’t want to be my bonsai.”

“Yes, I really do,” I told him.

“You wouldn’t want your roots pruned,” he said.

Bonsai are not very menacing, you know. They’re not some sexy co-worker or flirty neighbor. If you find yourself unraveling and you get it in your head that your husband’s having an emotional affair, you would do well to find out it’s with bonsai. With a bonsai, you have to look into its future and anticipate how it is going to grow. If you try to change a bonsai too quickly it dies. It requires years of focused attention with each individual tree to get it to get that wabi-sabi look of transience and imperfection.

I was desperate to look like that, desperate to be everything and perfect and under control. but felt more like a mass of seaweed tangled around a piece of driftwood, floating, always floating, with the storm.

Adam had never once in our relationship forced me to do anything, but for the first time, all I wanted was for him to shape me. Rewire me. Repot me. Look at what’s happening to me and fix it. Care for me like I’m doing for this plump, wailing ball of skin.

“What are you thinking about when you’re out there with them?” I asked him one night, and on many nights thereafter, as I stood on the porch step watching him with his bonsai.

“I’m not thinking about anything. I’m thinking about what I’m doing,” he said.

This sounded like baloney to me. I have always dreamed while I was doing things: sweeping, laundry, perhaps even typing this very sentence. I wasn’t sure I was capable of it for very long. But I began to try anyway. As I was driving, I would sense the grip of my hands on the leather wheel. Doing dishes, I would feel how the water slipped over my hands. I did less – every day even less than before – but I began to really do it, was there as it happened. When I held my child I caught the scent of soap and skin with a hint of fir. Over time, I was able to rewire myself, but not without some mistakes.

“I’m glad you have time for a hobby!” I yelled at him once as he shuffled pots around.

When I look back at Adam in our first year of parenthood my heart crumbles for him. He coped with a colicky baby and an exasperated new mother in his own way. He watched me wither before his eyes and didn’t have the tools to bring me back. Still, he was playing out a scene of something I needed that every new parent figures out eventually, with or without nervous exhaustion: constancy, presence, the repeated cutting and trimming out of all necessary things we must do in order to shape a beautiful life.

“I know and control nearly all of the variables in which those plants live,” he tells me one night when I ask him again if I can be his bonsai. “Everything I do is with the idea of keeping them as healthy and contained in as small a space as possible, which may not be in tune with their natural growth. If you know how a plant grows, you can predict how they’re going to react. You can’t do that with people.”

Adam’s been watching his plants a lot lately, and I’ve been watching Adam.  I see him out there working on our spruce halfway to Christmas.  God, are they gorgeous. It looks more like a real tree now, with tapered branches, a bound and determined habit, every one of its needles stretched to the sun.

These days, we joke about what kind of bonsai we would be if we, too, were tiny trees. We both agree he is totally the style called “informal upright,” with a trunk that can be bent in many directions. I’d like to be the “literati,” which has a refined elegance despite looking like it is about to blow away. But I’m probably “clinging-to-a- rock.”

Emily Grosvenor is a magazine writer and essayist based in McMinnville, Ore. She is working on a humorous travel memoir, Pioneer Perfume, which shows what happens when you try to maintain the attitudes of a globetrotter in a world that has shrunk to a 30 ft. radius. You can visit her at www.pioneerperfume.com.

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By Beth Malone

Shield Art 2The first thing the baby does is split in two.

One half—through some miracle from beyond the fringes of the cosmos—will multiply, cells popping out of nowhere, until there are tiny fingers, shoulder joints, hammers beating in her ears, blood pummeling through her veins, the doors of her heart opening, closing, opening again. This half will write itself into a bent toward music, an aversion to crowds, a hunger for the wild things of stream and sky. She will emerge from the womb hundreds of days later to shock you with her matchlessness, the way you cannot predict or control her, the way she reflects you and then doesn’t, her being so intricate and exact, a whole person written from the code folded and tucked into that first tiny cell.

The other half will become a shield against her mother.

The baby never attaches to the mother; the shield, which is the placenta, does that. This is the barrier meant to separate the body of a baby from her mother. The blood of baby and mother never mingle. The mother shall not oppress the baby with a policy of territorialism, assaulting the alien body; and the baby shall not announce herself a foreigner in a land not her own. The shield is crucial; without it, the baby dies. This is how the system is designed.

For hundreds of days, the shield grows, red as the strength and fury of mother-love, bursting with blood. It sends out fingers to grip the mother’s veins, sucking and drawing on them, devouring her nutrients and her oxygen along with things more subtle: her anxieties, her chemical transgressions. The shield is not impervious. It is not iron erected between mother and daughter. And so the shield lets these things pass, and they transmute a baby’s brain, molding it for survival. It whispers how safe the world outside might be. Or not.

In time, the shield will grow old. Parts of it will whiten, harden, grow fibrous and tough. It is not meant to support the child forever. The way a mother passes her food and breath to baby, the way the baby presses her feet against her mother—it is not intended to be permanent.

Listen, my darling, so be sure to understand. It is not intended to be permanent.

In time, the shield grows old; it cannot sustain its position. The baby becomes impatient, cramped; there’s no more room to grow. Hell, there’s no room to turn around. Something or someone sends out a signal. Like the voice in the crowd that begins a riot, the origin is uncertain.

Right before it happens, there’s a whistling in the air, like the sound of a missile, the sound it leaves in its wake, the sound of a space no longer occupied.

And then the shells hit. The mother’s body explodes in civil war.

She will understand what is happening. She will grip her hand in the hard vice of her teeth, drawing blood. She will gasp and cringe, the shelling toppling her constructs: Now she does not feel strong. She does not feel able. She wishes to abdicate, abandon her body in exchange for peace. She begs for a bullet to the head.

The baby is malleable; she will arrange her skull into a torpedo. The mother, though, is feral with pain, unquenchable; she will tear herself to pieces to build her baby a tunnel out of that country. The baby—slicked with mother’s blood, her hands balled in fists—punches her way into the world.

She drags the shield out after her, ripping her mother open as she goes.

Some mothers eat the shield afterward. They press its pieces against their cheeks and suck. They chew and swallow. Or they package it into something sterilized, a casing of plastic, and eat it without connecting to its nature. Other mothers bury the shield, plant trees by its disintegrating body. A tree is a more permanent fixture than a child.

Me, I felt my daughter’s shield fall, pulsing, out of my body, while I held my baby girl, warm and wet, in my arms. The shield was hideous. I had expected something like a pancake and instead found myself confronted with something like the skinned body of a rabbit. I remember being truly amazed with how large it had grown. So large my baby couldn’t live there, with me, anymore.

I did not want to touch that shield. I only wanted my daughter, her body wet with my blood, streaked with vernix, warm as the sun on my breast. That night, I couldn’t sleep without her beside me.

I don’t know what happened to her shield. I assume someone threw it away.

Here is one other thing about the shield though: It does not do its job perfectly. Migrant pieces of the baby slip out of the barrier, passing silently as spies into her mother. The baby’s cells circulate the mother’s system, passing the landmarks of bone, teeth, heart. And somehow, somehow, the mother’s body does not attack them. They survive—for months, years, decades.

Maybe they swarm to the places of pain—a burgeoning tumor, a damaged heart—and there transform themselves. Their future is full of opportunity, for like stem cells, they retain the ability to choose whatever destiny they wish. They might heal a mother’s broken places. They might be her cure. Those cells that survive.

So goes one theory.

Maybe instead, those cells chafe against a mother’s bones, inflaming joints and calling for a mother’s defenses to send soldiers to the scene. The mother’s army flares up, roaring. But even though the cells of her baby are fundamentally different, written with alien DNA, the mother cannot kill them off. Instead, she fights her own body. It translates as arthritis, lupus, inexplicable autoimmune disruptions that blow her body up into a warzone. And yet, the baby’s cells survive.

There are many hypotheses. Maybe the mother keeps those cells around on purpose, because she sees potential and she has hope they might help her. Maybe she fights them but her heart isn’t really in it; there’s pain but never extermination.

Or maybe the mother’s body simply doesn’t notice them.

Scientists just don’t know. But I do.

Of course the mother notices. She only pretends not to. This is how she keeps from breaking in half.

I know this because I have held my baby girl in our rocking chair, patting her back and humming long after she fell asleep, long after she could have gone peacefully to her bed. I know this because I have nursed her just as we almost finished the terrible process of weaning, because she asked and I wanted to experience her as a baby again. I know, because one day she will pack her things in boxes, jump in a car, smile at a future stretched before her, and leave my home forever. And her room will not be her room anymore, and I know I’ll go in there and pick up the pieces she’s left behind, pieces I’ll never be able to sell at garage sales, pieces I won’t call her to come pick up. I will hug her old favorite stuffed dog to my chest, and cry into its fur the way she did when she was a baby.

Nature gave me no shield to cushion the blows of my love for her. These left-behind pieces: They are all I have.

Beth Malone is a working writer with a background in journalism. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Literary Mama, Salon.com, Drunken Boat, U.S. Catholic, Wanderlust and Lipstick.

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