The Secret Life

The Secret Life

By Kate Haas
Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 6.45.00 PMA few days before his paternity leave ended, my husband returned from an errand with news that would change my life. “There’s another stay-at-home mother on our street,” he announced. “I met her at the store. She says you should come over sometime.”

A month before, when I was still pregnant, I would have dismissed this invitation from a stranger as a mere social nicety. Back then, I was preoccupied with finishing the renovations to our shabby old house before my due date. It didn’t occur to me, as I scraped and spackled, that I would need a new friend after the baby was born. My own mother stayed home in the 1970’s, like most of the women in our suburban neighborhood. But she rarely socialized with the other moms, preferring to bake bread and peruse the New Yorker. I’d always been an introvert myself, and after years of teaching high school, I was itching for solitude.

But after four weeks of motherhood, I was beginning to panic. Our fretful, scrawny newborn rarely slept longer than 20 minutes at a stretch, day or night. When I wasn’t nursing him or attempting to soothe his despairing wails, I was hooked to a breast pump, trying to increase my meager milk supply. Only the presence of another adult made this frantic enterprise bearable, and soon I would be alone all day. My closest friends lived far away. We were new in town, still strangers in the neighborhood. And the rain and cold of a Pacific Northwest January had emptied the local park of parents I might befriend. The news of a potential companion felt like a lifeline.

The day after my husband’s announcement, I wrapped my son in his warmest fleece blanket and walked to the house at the end of the block. A blond woman answered my knock, a baby in her arms. Her eyes, behind wire-rimmed glasses, were dark and tired.

“Um, I’m from down the street. You met my husband?”

“Oh, right! I’m Allison,” she said. “I’m so glad you came over.” She looked down at her baby. “He’s four months old, but I’m still kind of – ” she broke off.

I nodded. “I know, me too. I’m so tired. I can barely – “

We stared dumbly at each other across the threshold, like survivors of separate shipwrecks meeting on the same desolate island.

“Well, come in,” Allison said.

I followed her into a spacious kitchen with a couch at the far end, under a bank of windows. Newspapers lay drifted on the floor, alongside a stack of magazines. A worn copy of The Baby Book sat face down on a milk-stained rocking chair. These were essentially the same components of my own home, but I was aware of a novel sense of pleasure and anticipation as I looked around, like a traveler entering a new country. I hadn’t left my house in days. Until I walked into Allison’s, it had not occurred to me that this might be a problem.

Allison urged me toward the rocking chair. She set her fuzzy-headed baby down on a cheerful Southwestern rug, and I watched him bat intelligently at soft toys hanging from a wooden contraption. My bald four-week-old could only flail his arms aimlessly, and his eyes still registered the alarmed expression of the newborn.

“Gosh,” I said. “Your baby’s really with it. And he has so much hair!”

“Well,” she said modestly. “You know, four months is pretty advanced.” Suddenly we were laughing.

I stayed at Allison’s house for five hours that first day, and she and her son spent the next day camped in my living room. I had never made a friend so quickly, but the shock of motherhood removed my reserve; the sleep deprivation made me feel buzzed and woozy, uninhibited about confiding in a near stranger. Founded solely on proximity and shared parenthood, my new friendship with Allison was like an arranged marriage, companionship our dowries.

It was my first encounter with the heady, instant camaraderie that can spring up between new mothers. I didn’t realize that. I only knew that it felt natural to tell Allison about my nursing problems, my estranged father, strained finances, and the terrible night I cursed out the baby. Only to Allison could I confess the most unsettling aspect of my new life: I couldn’t bear to be separated from my son, not even by one room, but felt no overwhelming love for him. True, I’d never fallen in love with anyone at first sight, but it hadn’t occurred to me that taking awhile to warm up to my own baby might be natural. Allison’s son, meanwhile, was inconsolable in any arms but hers and napped only while strapped to her chest in an upright position. The fabled “feel-good” hormones of breastfeeding didn’t seem to be kicking in for her, either. Confiding these things to another mother was, for each of us, an astonishing relief.

A morning phone call from Allison put a shimmer on the day ahead. I was still facing nine hours with an infant on only three hours of sleep; but now I would be facing it at her house. Allison’s home was bigger than mine, and grander, with intricate built-ins, pocket doors, and stained glass. There was a large loom in the living room, strung with moss-green thread, and a fancy German sewing machine. Bolts of bright fabric were stacked on a shelf, and whimsical arrangements of dried flowers and leaves sat in mason jars on the mantel.

The familiar disarray of new parenthood was everywhere; but there was something infinitely restful about Allison’s house. The unwashed cereal dishes on her table didn’t oppress me, the way my own messy kitchen did. Her stacks of books and magazines looked homey, not cluttered. At home, our thermostat was set to a thrifty 64 degrees; Allison’s house was warmer, and cozy, especially the kitchen, with its comfortable couch where we nursed the babies and swapped stories about our stints overseas, old boyfriends and favorite books, and where we set the babies down to play while we experimented with baking projects.

I had not expected to spend my son’s infancy testing flourless chocolate cake recipes or deconstructing the flawed premises of popular novels about motherhood. (There was no way, we agreed, that the illicit lovers in Little Children could have synchronized their toddlers’ naptimes. Much less had all that uninterrupted sex.) With Allison down the street, like a college friend on the same hall, life with a baby was transformed from the solitary experience I had anticipated – then come to dread – into an intimate, cooperative enterprise.

My husband was relieved that I had someone to keep me company; but I was conscious of a strange reluctance to tell him exactly how much I enjoyed my days with Allison, and what the two of us referred to as “the secret life of the stay-at-home mother.”

*   *   *

“How about a pick-me-up?” Allison would suggest, mid-afternoon. With a conspiratorial smile, she’d reach into a cupboard and bring out five or six varieties of expensive dark chocolate. Breaking a few pieces from each bar, she set the assortment between us in a pretty pottery dish. “This is the way to weather life with a kid,” Allison confided, the first time she broke out the Scharffen Berger.

I nodded, savoring the rich, complex flavors – and the relief of being with her, instead of home alone with my baby and the breast pump. I admired the way Allison, at only five months in, seemed to handle motherhood so deftly. I knew she was just as unhinged with sleep deprivation, yet she nursed her son with offhand confidence, while I still fretted about proper latch technique each time I unhooked my bra. But Allison did so many things with ease; she could scrutinize a piece of clothing, then draw a pattern and sew an identical copy. She could make paper from mush tossed into a blender and operate a serger, a machine I’d never heard of. “It’s easy,” she promised, demonstrating how she had sewn the striped fleece pants her son was wearing. “I’ll show you how.”

Until I actually had the baby, I’d imagined stay-at-home life as a Ma Ingalls- flavored adventure, all bread-baking and vegetable gardening. Faced with the reality, I was still trying to figure out this retro role I’d taken on and how I felt about it. But Allison wore her domesticity the way she wore her favorite red apron – with an unselfconscious flair I aspired to.

After a day together, evenings always caught us by surprise; reluctantly I would collect my baby and his gear and hurry home to make supper. As I entered my darkened house, I couldn’t help feeling that I was returning to a drabber version of reality, unlike Allison’s warm kitchen, where it seemed my real life took place; there, during those long days structured only by the demands of our children and our capacity for enjoying each other’s company. She was the one I wanted to tell things to.

Our babies learned to crawl around each other like blind puppies as the months passed, and later, to walk and play together, as close as brothers. Allison gave me homemade chocolate truffles that first Christmas, and I wrote her a parody of “The Raven,” with Poe’s ominous bird recast as a wakeful baby, vowing to sleep “nevermore.” By the following year, when our sons turned two, we were both pregnant again. Allison gave birth to a second boy, and six months later, so did I. Allison’s older son tried to stab his newborn brother with a fork. Mine suggested we take the baby outside and break him. But I could laugh about this sort of thing now, and besides, I had Allison.

Then, after a while, I didn’t.

*   *   *

There was no argument, no unforgivable parenting lapse ending in a frantic rush to the emergency room with someone else’s bleeding child. As the younger babies grew, Allison gradually withdrew her friendship. We no longer spontaneously spent hours in each other’s homes, and she grew reluctant to make plans. Scheduling get-togethers in advance made her feel hemmed in, she said. She couldn’t be in the house all day anymore. I understood, didn’t I?

When we managed to arrange an afternoon together, Allison arrived hours late, or never. Our days together dwindled. After awhile, I stopped trying to plan them. When we spoke on the phone, it was about getting the older boys together, and the conversations were brisk, logistical. When my four-year-old went to play with hers, Allison and I stood outside our houses, watching him make the trek from one end of the block to the other. I could see her down there, small in the distance, the scarlet of her apron vivid against the gray sky. When my boy arrived at her steps she’d give me a cheerful wave. Then we turned and went into our separate homes.

By the end of a year, I had been neatly removed from Allison’s life. When we met, at the grocery store or the annual block party, she talked cheerfully about her new pursuits, as if nothing had changed. I searched my memory for ways I might have offended. What happened? I wanted to ask; my hurt and my pride kept me silent.

“Let it go,” my husband urged. “These things happen.”

Not to me, though; not like this.

I’d broken up with lovers and drifted away from friends before. Those rifts saddened me, but I understood them. Losing Allison was different, bewildering. What fault line in our friendship had I missed? Or did I simply mistake the bond we shared as new mothers for a more profound connection?

*   *   *

I had other friends by then, women whose kitchens and living rooms were extensions of my own, whose children zoomed around the house with mine while we mothers talked about everything. They were the ones I told things to. But I couldn’t forget the day my son took his first steps on the fir floor of Allison’s kitchen, lurching triumphantly between our two pairs of outstretched arms, our two smiling faces. I remembered the hours of talk there, about things we never told our husbands. What had happened to that secret life, to the intimacy of shared new motherhood?

It took me a long time to recognize that my secret life with Allison probably wasn’t the life she wanted. Maybe it took her a long time, too. Truths like that are easy to miss in the tumult of life witha toddler and a newborn. Maybe, when you’ve taken the time to fashion a cozy, homespun world to make those long days bearable, it’s hard to acknowledge that in the end it was all an elaborate domestic construct, a short-term survival mechanism to pass the time. Until the day you do acknowledge it. That’s one story I tell myself.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler, more natural explanation. Allison and I met in a perfect storm of postpartum hormones and sleep deprivation. We were two new mothers, desperate to connect with someone who understood. Maybe that need obscured other factors, crucial ones, like whether we would have become friends in other circumstances. I tell myself that story, too.

Our oldest boys are in 7th grade now, still close as brothers. I see Allison almost every day, around the neighborhood and in the halls at school. We make awkward small talk or smile briefly and pass without speaking. And despite the stories I tell myself, I still wonder why; and I wonder when, exactly, she realized that the baking and recipe swapping, the hours of kitchen conversation, had served their purpose. That she didn’t need me anymore.

I weigh those questions against what I know for certain: Allison and I saw each other through the most difficult period of our lives. No one needs a friend quite like an overwhelmed, exhausted new mother. I didn’t realize that before I gave birth. I wasn’t the type to reach out quickly. But when I reached out to Allison, she caught me. We held each other up. She was the lifeline I needed, and for a while, I was hers. Ours was a temporary liaison in the end, not the lasting, arranged marriage I imagined. But we rescued each other, all the same.

Kate Haas’s essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

Illustration by Allison Krumwiede

Mad About Sports

Mad About Sports

By Kate Haas

unnamed-3My four-year-old son stands on our neighbor’s lawn, holding a purple plastic baseball bat over his shoulder, his eyes alight with excitement. As far as I know, he has never picked up a bat before.

“Throw me the ball, Mama!” Nate calls.

Reluctantly, I put down my book, get up from the porch and pluck the whiffleball from the grass. I toss it in his direction; he swings and misses. Confusion clouds his eyes.

“Keep your eye on—” I stop. This phrase cannot possibly be emerging from my mouth. I try again.

“I mean, uh, just keep watching the ball, and swing the bat when it comes near you,” I manage. It feels like an awkward attempt at a foreign language. I toss the ball again. Thwack! It sails over to the next yard. He does it again the next time, and the next. He hits that ball with the bat all afternoon. I am no judge of these things, but my kid appears to have a knack for baseball.

To some, this would be a cherished scene of parenthood: the proud mother, the eager youngster, the wholesome passing on of the sporting tradition. Not to me. The thing is, this isn’t my tradition. People in my family did not play sports. Readers all, we regarded athletics with a combination of bewilderment and disdain. We didn’t join teams or wear uniforms, and to this day we remain completely indifferent to anything whatsoever concerning professional athletes. When I was growing up, it was understood that the sports section of the newspaper went directly to the trash. My siblings and I got plenty of exercise running around the neighborhood, but gym class was the bane of my school days.

I was picked last for every team in P.E. I daydreamed in the outfield or talked with the other bookish outcasts. When the ball came my way, I avoided it. Team captains groaned when I came up to bat but I endured their scorn with fortitude because I knew my cause was righteous. They might have been popular and cool, but my strength was as the strength of ten, not because my heart was pure (it wasn’t) but because I was a reader.

As a reader, I knew what was important, and hitting a ball with a bat was not it. Nor was throwing a ball into a basket, kicking a ball into a goal, hurling a ball at another person, or doing sit-ups. Kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, wielding power wisely: these were the values I had gleaned from reading. Values which (as anyone with a claim to human decency will attest) are conspicuously absent from most P.E. classes.

The party line held that participating in the boring, arduous, and unpleasant activities of P.E. would confer indispensable benefits later on in the Real World. I doubted it. Did Lucy engage in sit-ups before opening the wardrobe door into Narnia? Hardly. True, Narnia wasn’t exactly the real world, but it felt a whole lot more real than the one I lived in. The world in which mean, loutish boys who could throw a ball received the acclaim of peers and teachers, while bookish, uncoordinated girls like me were (at best) objects of pity.

Having to throw a ball around when I could have been happily reading a book made me grumpy and miserable. But after twelve years of sports-induced misery, I escaped to college— and just like that, it was over. It was hard to believe at first but gradually the reality sank in: No one was ever going to make me run, jump or throw a ball again for the rest of my life.

As the years passed, unmarred by forced basketball, dodge ball, or even badminton, I mellowed somewhat on the sports issue. With the wisdom of age and experience, I was willing to concede that not everyone who enjoys sports is a mindless adherent to all that is worst in American culture. Some of these people, I now understood, actually find athletics as vital to their happiness as reading is to mine. Some of them are my friends.

I did not, however, expect to give birth to one of them.

At first, there was no cause for alarm. Simon, my older son, was just as attracted to all things beautiful as he was to chasing a ball. After he spent the summer of his fourth year wearing a dress, I figured my future involved schlepping the kid to and from play rehearsals and cheering him on at debate team events, a prospect I relished.

I don’t recall exactly when I realized that my younger son didn’t seem destined for the life of an introspective poet. It could have been when, at fifteen months, he hurled himself down the playground’s twisting tube slide—the same slide Simon didn’t venture on until the age of three. It could have been right after he turned two, when a stranger watching my uncannily agile little boy maneuver around the climbing structure asked, as so many had before her, with an awestruck expression, “Is that your kid? How old is he?” By the time Nate climbed onto a bike (without training wheels) at age three and took off down the sidewalk with the confident balance of a pro, I could no longer deny what was perfectly plain to everyone else: this child was a born athlete.

My older son’s delight in books had thrilled me. “That’s my boy,” I thought with pleasure, when Simon begged for one more chapter of The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the thrill of recognition. He was my boy, after all. I had never doubted that my children would inherit my love of literature. My husband, a biologist, took it for granted that they would be at home in the woods. (They were.) My husband is as indifferent to sports as I am, so watching Nate in action fascinated us both. How had we produced this astonishing little dynamo?

More disconcerting than Nate’s athletic abilities was the pride I felt as I watched him climb, pedal, and race his way through life. I could hardly take credit for Nate’s physical fearlessness, yet I was absurdly pleased each time someone complimented me on it. I did my best to conceal this. “Yeah, well, God only knows what he’ll be up to at sixteen,” I’d answer wryly, shaking my head as Nate hurtled past on his Razor scooter. Isn’t he amazing? I wanted to shout. But how could I? Hadn’t I scorned this sort of thing my whole life?

Perhaps it’s precisely because Nate’s action-oriented nature is so foreign to me that it captivates me so much. How can I help rejoicing in the fact that my child possesses something so uniquely his own? I never expected my kids to be carbon copies of their parents, of course. But that one of them has a talent for athletics is delightfully exotic. Watching Nate’s intent, joyful expression as he does anything physical, I feel like the discoverer of some foreign land. And maybe, I’ve started to believe, living on its borders will be pretty interesting.

That thought isn’t always easy to maintain. Lately, parent after parent has been prophesying my future with “a kid like that.” “Just wait till soccer practice starts ruling your life,” they say, knowingly. In the view of these seasoned parents, soccer practice and its accompanying, weekend-devouring games are simply a force of nature, like a tsunami; there is no option but to be sucked under. Even a mother I knew to be a fellow reader could offer no mitigating vision of the future when I protested that this wouldn’t be happening to us.

“Yeah, I thought the same thing, back when I was a vegetarian who read books all weekend,” she told me. “And then I had these boys. Now I’m eating hot dogs at the games and organizing the practice schedules.” She laughed merrily, as though this transformation from bookworm to soccer mom was simply one of life’s delightful ironies. I shuddered. I love my son, but watching a weekly soccer game—even with him in it—has all the appeal of an afternoon at the DMV. (Will the other parents despise me for reading on the bleachers?) Of course, it’s possible that a similar transformation will occur in my case, too. Could it really be as simple as: My Child + Soccer = I love watching him play? I suppose I’ll find out.

Still, the prospect of soccer momhood troubles me far less than the thought of how sports culture may affect my son. Sure, I enjoy the sight of Nate careening around the neighborhood on his bike and scooter. But when I picture him in a uniform, on a team, I flash back to high school and its rigidly segregated hierarchies. What if loving sports turns my son into a jock? Someone who looks down on everyone not similarly gifted? Someone who—God forbid—doesn’t like to read? It may well be true that team sports build character. But the characters of the male athletes at my high school were all pretty much the same: arrogant, entitled, and—how to put this—less than literarily inclined.

My husband has three words for me whenever I go on one of my tirades about the conformist tribal rites of Little League and the dreadful possibility of raising a mindless jock: Get over it. Growing up in our household, Nate will know full well that kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, and wielding power wisely are more important than winning any soccer game.

Of course, there are those people—several of my friends among them—who claim that sports can be the ideal venue to transmit these very values. The part of me still mired in adolescent hostility toward high school jocks wants to argue this notion. But the rest of me, the part that really knows better, can’t help conceding that my friends are right. I’ve heard their stories, after all: the fidelity to teammates, the sense of justice acquired through learning about fair play, the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal. I may have found P.E. unpleasant and pointless all those years ago, but I realize that my experiences are just that: mine. Many of my friends credit participation in sports with everything from shaping their characters to preserving their mental health, and I have no reason to doubt them. (Didn’t books do the same for me?)

As I listen to them, I realize that I want what they are describing for Nate. Not sports, necessarily, but something they and I shared, readers and jocks alike: a passion.

I’ve long believed that I’m a reader because I was raised by readers in a house full of books. But it doesn’t always work that way. I have reader friends whose parents kept the TV on all day and barely read to them. They found their way to the library, just the same. Perhaps our love of reading, like Nate’s apparent talent for athletics, is more a gift than anything to do with our upbringing. I don’t know whether Nate’s love of physical activity will be the thing that sustains him over the years or whether some new passion will be revealed. Whatever it turns out to be, that joyous dedication to something is what I really want for my son.

I see it in him now. I watch him speed his scooter around a corner, his body leaning effortlessly into the curve, his face intent and deeply happy. I recognize that expression; I’ve sensed it on my own face often enough while reading. It’s the look of someone absorbed in what he loves, caught up in the unselfconscious enjoyment of his powers, a simple moment of transcendence.

Author’s Note: At the skate park recently, a teenager watching Nate in action turned to Simon. “Your brother’s a rad little dude,” he told my seven-year-old, admiringly. I’ve sometimes wondered if Nate’s natural derring-do might ever be a source of tension between him and his more cautious older brother. But Simon reported this compliment excitedly, obviously thrilled to be addressed from on high in skater lingo. I was thrilled on his behalf.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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I’ve Earned It

I’ve Earned It

By Kate Haas
0-3A few weeks before my oldest son entered kindergarten, we attended a playground get-together for incoming students and their parents.

“This is my last kid to start school,” one mother announced mournfully. “The house will seem so empty. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.”

I regarded her with envy and astonishment. “All that time to yourself? Oh, you’ll find something to do.” I gave her the comradely grin of one mother-in-the-trenches to another.

She looked at me as if I’d insinuated that she might take up exotic dancing.

“Yeah, I’ll find something,” she said, stiffly. “I’ll keep busy.” She moved hastily away.

Clearly I had made a major faux pas.

There’s hardly a moment in the day when I’m not tending to one or both of my young boys. I chose to stay home with them and don’t regret that decision, but I’ve always treasured solitude, and I never really made my peace with the loss of it that motherhood so abruptly imposes.

My husband and I do our best to give each other breaks, and I savor every moment of these interludes. Finally, a breather. A chance to shed the ever-present sense of parental responsibility and simply exist by myself. Still, with two active kids and a slew of home improvement projects on the agenda, time alone these days is mostly like bad teenage sex: unplanned, unpredictable, and it doesn’t last long enough.

All this will change next year when my youngest starts preschool. His three mornings of singing and art projects will translate to ten and a half hours a week of freedom for me. I’m giddy just thinking about it.

For years, I’ve been in the thick of hands-on, day-in, day-out mothering. A break in the intensity, even one represented by a few mornings of preschool, has long figured in my mind as some sort of Holy Grail. Like everyone else, I have ambitions, projects that have long simmered on the back burner. Those hotly anticipated free hours represent the opportunity to start fulfilling them. But until that conversation at the playground, I hadn’t realized that some parents actually mourn the end of the daily round I’m chafing under.

A few days later, I encountered another mother, an older woman whose youngest had just entered first grade. Tentatively, I asked whether she had misgivings about all of her children being in school. She looked at me as if I were crazy.

“Are you kidding? I work from home and now I can do it in peace.” She sized up my two-year-old in his stroller. “Preschool next year?”

“Yeah. Three mornings. I’ll have ten and a half hours of free time. Not that I’m counting.”

“Nothing wrong with counting,” said my new acquaintance. She leaned closer, as if to impart a hard-won secret. “Listen. You might want to look into part-time work when your baby starts school. That’s fine later on, if you want to. Or if you need to, of course.” Her voice took on the cadence of a preacher or a politician.  “But not right away. That first month, you enjoy yourself. Watch a movie, go to a bookstore; whatever you want. As long as it’s something just for you. Because after all these years of changing diapers and cleaning up after those kids, you’ve earned it.”

I continued my walk, her words echoing in my ears. Earned it. Have I? Thanks to a combination of luck, location, and frugality, our family can live on one modest income. I do plan to return to work, but not until the boys are older. Theoretically, I could use my free time to eat dark chocolate and watch all five seasons of The Wire, which I missed the first time around. Have I earned that?

More to the point, do I regard the work of motherhood this way? As labor for which I’m racking up invisible points? For which I deserve some compensation beyond that of seeing my children grow up to be decent human beings?

It feels petty to admit, but there’s a part of me that does believe a reward is in order. Sure, I do this job for love. But it’s work, all the same. I’m not getting a salary for it. Social Security won’t credit me for these years at home. Neither am I likely to land a part-time job during those preschool mornings. Time to myself is the only payment I can expect to receive at this stage. And frankly, from where I stand, time alone ranks right up there with gold.

As a parent, I’ve put my children’s needs before my own, wholeheartedly, day after day, discovering in the process a capacity for acting unselfishly that still surprises me. I don’t like to think about how often, lately, it’s just an act. After six years, stay-at-home parenting is wearing me down. I love my children dearly, but I don’t mind admitting it: not only will my eyes be dry on the first day of preschool, they’ll be alive with anticipation.

Finally, time alone. Not with one ear on alert during the unpredictable span of a child’s nap, but for hours on end. Time to dig into long, complex novels, to compose that letter to my senator; to organize the basement (well, maybe not). Time to assess who I am, now that the intensity of the early years has lifted.

Sure, I’ve earned that.

Kate Haas edits creative nonfiction at Literary Mama and publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Learn more about her writing at

Illustration by Christine Juneau

A Little Stranger

By Kate Haas

summer2010_haasI had just finished mediating a Lego dispute when the nurse called with the results of my ultrasound. Not that kind of ultrasound. This was the sort you get for persistent gastric pain, the kind your doctor orders to make sure your gallbladder is okay. The sort of thing that makes you wonder if you’re contributing to the high cost of healthcare by getting some fancy-pants test that will likely show nothing at all.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that my gallbladder was healthily doing whatever it is gallbladders do. My pain was probably an ulcer that could be fixed with medication. But, added the nurse, her tone subtly changing, there was also an incidental finding, something they just happened to spot. “There’s a mass on your lower left quadrant,” she told me.

Simon, my nine-year-old, burst into the kitchen brandishing a Lego ship studded with weapons. His little brother followed, roaring in outrage. “Give that back to him right now!” I hissed to Simon, my hand over the receiver. “And then go to your room, both of you. And close the door.”

“Sorry,” I said to the nurse. “A mass? What does that mean?”

Anyone who has ever read Death Be Not Proud or watched the Lifetime channel knows damn well what a mass means. At that moment, I didn’t want to be someone who had done either of those things, not ever. I wanted to forget the teenager I used to be, the one who devoured not only the wrenching account of Johnny Gunther’s fatal brain tumor but also books like Eric, A Summer to Die, and May I Cross Your Golden River? Even though, to be honest, I still read books like that. These days they tend to be about dying spouses or young children instead of teens, and I find them just as morbidly compelling. There but for fortune, I think, turning each page to the inevitable, devastating end.

Those books generally contain a scene in which someone receives the Phone Call of Doom. Could it actually be that I was getting that phone call?

It was hard to tell if the nurse was trying to be evasive or honestly didn’t have any information. “You know, it could be a cyst, but I really can’t say,” she told me. “Your doctor will probably want to order a CT scan.”

My doctor agreed. “It’s likely what we call a ‘chocolate’ cyst on your ovary,” she told me the next day. “Happens all the time. Do about it? You don’t do anything about them; they’re weird-looking, but perfectly benign. We’ll send you for the CT, because there’s always the chance—but I really doubt it. And I don’t want you to worry.”

Dr. Roberts was fifty-ish, brisk and sensible, the mother of a teenager. I trusted her. I liked the enthusiasm with which she launched into explanations of obscure medical phenomena. A benign chocolate cyst didn’t sound bad. I pictured a lumpy object the color of Valrhona Dark Bittersweet 71%. I told her I wouldn’t worry.

And I didn’t, not until the Friday afternoon after my CT scan, when I received another phone call. This time the nurse informed me that what I had on my ovary was not a cyst, but a tumor. “Your doctor will be calling you on Monday,” she said, kindly.

My stay-at-home friends and I have always enjoyed mocking the peppy advice in old-fashioned marriage manuals: Clean the house, slip into a pair of heels, apply fresh lipstick before your husband returns at night! Still, I recognize that it’s difficult to transition from work to fatherhood. No matter how reprehensibly the kids have behaved, I mostly restrain myself from unloading the day’s frustrations while the poor guy is still putting away his bike. I knew it would be a bad idea to hit a tired, sweaty man with the word “tumor” as he walked in the kitchen door.

I did it anyway. My husband and I have been together fifteen years; all he had to do was look at my face. “What’s wrong?” he asked quickly.

I couldn’t quite keep the wobble out of my voice. “I have a tumor on my ovary.”

For the briefest few seconds, his face fell. “That doesn’t sound good.” Then the boys rushed in, each competing to register his presence in the loudest possible fashion. The enchiladas were ready to serve anyway. This would wait. A surprising number of things can wait, it turns out, when you have children.

After supper I sat with my husband on the front porch. The kids were playing Robber with their friends from down the street, a game involving high-speed, round-the-block bike chases and a lot of yelling. My husband took my hand. “If it was serious, they wouldn’t have you wait all weekend,” he said. “You’re going to be fine. Really, you are.”

It did not escape me that all this was happening during the Yamim Noraim, the ten Days of Awe between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of introspection and repentance. This is the period when, according to traditional belief, God decides who will be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. I’m not sure what I believe about God, exactly, and have always considered the Book of Life simply a metaphor for the unknown future, a way of making sense out of the arbitrary nature of who lives or dies. This year the whole thing felt a little less metaphorical.

That weekend we made French toast for breakfast and took the kids to the video store to choose their weekly movie. I doled out the maple syrup, helped evaluate the merits of Howl’s Moving Castle vs. The Court Jester. But there was a pressure at the edges of things, as if small, heavy objects—like the nuts and bolts I use as pie weights—were pressing on the borders of my consciousness. I avoided the computer, afraid I might be tempted to google “ovary + tumor.”

When Dr. Roberts finally called on Monday afternoon she was indignant. “They told you you had a tumor? Well, technically, sure. But my goodness! And you’ve been terrified all weekend, haven’t you? Bless your heart.” I let out a breath. This was obviously not the Phone Call of Doom. “What you have on your ovary is called a teratoma,” Dr. Roberts continued. Before I could say Sounds like melanoma! she added, “and these things are benign.”

When I was ten, I fell off my bicycle and broke a wrist. When the cast came off six weeks later, I had become so accustomed to its extra heft that my naked arm felt untethered and almost weightless, as if it might drift upward unless pressed firmly against my side. Now, with the word “benign,” I was experiencing a similarly buoyant sensation, this one seeming to encompass my entire body. I clutched the phone for ballast and closed my eyes in relief.

“A teratoma?” I tried out the word. “And what is that, exactly?”

A teratoma, as it turns out, is an egg that has decided to grow on its own. “Now, this isn’t an embryo or a fetus, since it was never fertilized. But teratomas do grow genetic material—skin cells, hair,” Dr. Roberts explained. “Yours has a tooth,” she added helpfully.

“There’s a tooth on my ovary?” I repeated. It sounded appalling, but I wanted to laugh. For days I’d been envisioning two narratives: one that I’d experienced vicariously through all those sad, sad books; or another, in which I re-entered my mundane life, more appreciative, for a time, of its very ordinariness, though that would doubtless fade as Lego disputes and meal planning took precedence again. Now, in my state of giddy relief, the existence of a third possibility—albeit one including an ovarian tooth—struck me as delightfully goofy. “How did this happen?” I asked.

Dr. Roberts couldn’t tell me that.  “But eggs are powerful little things,” she said. “They’re programmed to grow, and that’s what they want to do.” My particular teratoma had grown to five centimeters, she informed me, and would need to be removed by laparoscopic surgery in case it ruptured. After that, I’d be absolutely fine.

A renegade egg, not a death sentence. “Well. Gosh,” I said at last. “That’s … actually, it’s kind of fascinating.”

“I’m so glad you feel that way,” enthused Dr. Roberts. “Of course, we doctors find them fascinating. But to be honest, not everyone else does.”

This didn’t surprise me. The word teratoma comes from the Greek for “monster tumor,” I learned later that night at the computer. Linguistically speaking, there was a monster inside me. And since no sperm was involved, this could, I supposed, be considered a girl monster, of a sort. I thought about the egg it had grown from, that powerful little force. It had been inside me since before I was born, waiting its turn to slide down my fallopian tube and take a chance on becoming a baby. Instead, it had become a monster. A girl monster. With a tooth.

It was the tooth that freaked people out the most.

“Get out!” gasped one friend.

“Is it, like, a baby tooth? Or full grown?” asked another, gingerly.

“Please don’t tell me any more,” begged my sister, Megan.

“Oh, put away your smelling salts,” I told her, crossly. “And not a word of this to Mom. You know what she’d say.”

There was a pause. “She wouldn’t.”

“Oh, yes, she would.”

Megan giggled. “Why, Kate,” she said, in pitch-perfect imitation of our mother—a woman whose name belongs in the dictionary under grandchildren, agitating for more of—”Don’t you see? This is nature’s way of telling you to have another baby!”

“I mean it,” I warned her. “Not a word.”

“I’ll be as silent as the tomb,” Megan assured me. “Or should I say, the tooth?”

The tooth didn’t disturb me. It was the egg I couldn’t stop thinking about. Except during the four months it took to conceive each of my sons, I had never really considered those tiny orbs of genetic potential that slid out of me every month. The first one made its exit on the trip home from a family vacation on Cape Cod in 1978, a month after my thirteenth birthday. My mother wanted to break out the champagne that night; embarrassed, I wouldn’t let her. After that, it was the agonizing cramps, not the unnoticed eggs, that occupied me every month and had me doubled over with a heating pad, waiting for the Midol to take effect. In college, after I started having sex, I faithfully studied the relevant chapters in Our Bodies, Ourselves. I knew exactly when my period was due, recognized the signs of ovulation. Years later, seeking to become pregnant, I applied the same information to that process. I felt a quiet pride in understanding the rhythms of my body so well. After my husband’s vasectomy, however, my awareness of these matters evaporated. Suddenly, my period caught me by surprise each month, and I no longer noticed signs of fertility. Ruefully, I realized that the hyper-consciousness I used to possess had little to do with me as a groovy earth mama and everything to do with the now-vanished fear of pregnancy.

And yet, no matter my level of awareness, those eggs had been there, all along. The two that became my children, the hundreds more that were flushed away. And this one, the monster egg, that evaded both those fates and lit out for the territory. How, I wondered, could this have happened without any sign or symptom?

That was the other thing I couldn’t forget. This was an incidental finding. In the online teratoma forums (oh, yes), I learned that most women experience pain, often longstanding and severe. They know something is amiss. Yet I had felt nothing. How could part of my body attempt—even unsuccessfully—to grow a human being, get as far as skin cells, hair, and a tooth, without me being aware that something was happening? What else didn’t I know? The whole thing made me profoundly uneasy. I felt like one of those parents you read about whose teenager’s drug addiction comes as a complete surprise. Shouldn’t we sense these things?

In the end, it was other people who put the experience in perspective for me. My sister took to calling the teratoma “Terry” or “The Little Stranger” and inquiring solicitously after its well-being. “How’s the monster?” my friends asked when they saw me. “Still got your toothy pal?”  There was a collective relief that what could have been a very different story had turned out to be harmlessly bizarre, something we could laugh about.

“I found out what’s going on with my ovary,” I announced when my husband came home on the day of my diagnosis.

“Let me guess: You’re pregnant,” he joked.

I grinned. “In a way.”

His face assumed the alarmed expression of a man who has never questioned the efficacy of his vasectomy.

When I explained, my husband did not say, See? I told you everything would be fine.  He did not express deep relief. Or maybe he did. What he said was, “Cool! Can I have it to keep in a jar?”

“Absolutely,” I told him.

I would slip back into my life’s familiar narrative after all. I would be there to watch my children grow. Unseen inside us, cells would grow, too, and divide, regenerate and die. And sometimes, maybe, ordinary life would take a benign turn toward the odd. What’s benign isn’t always normal, but then, we don’t always face those two familiar poles: normal or deadly. Sometimes, between hope and dread, a third possibility emerges, something that—for a time—turns an ordinary narrative into something more complicated, something profoundly strange.

Author’s Note: To her lasting credit, my surgeon did not crack a smile or even raise an eyebrow when I half-jokingly mentioned that my husband wanted the teratoma to keep in a jar. (Some context: He’s a biologist. They like things in jars.) She explained that by the time Pathology was through with it, there wouldn’t be much left to see. But after the surgery, she presented me with a set of color pictures. They won’t be going in the family album anytime soon.

Brain, Child (Summer 2010)

About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

The Snip

The Snip

By Kate Haas

TheSnipThe grandmotherly woman with the Minnie Mouse lapel pin doesn’t blink an eye when we ask for the video. She coochie-coos the baby strapped to my chest, then leads my husband and me past shelves of health books and racks of earnest pamphlets, over to a small, curtained cubicle in the corner of our HMO’s Wellness Resource Center.

“Here you go,” she says with a professional smile, plucking our request from a nearby shelf. We step inside, draw the curtain, and insert the videocassette. We’re ready.

Well. One of us is ready, anyway. He presses play.

The screen brightens and a scene of suburban domesticity appears. Imagine Brad and Janet, the naïve protagonists of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, ten years later. Brad, still geeky, wears tan, too-short swim trunks that expose his skinny white legs as he splashes in the backyard pool with his two wholesome, blond daughters. Janet, her hair now showing a touch of bleach, turns from her seat under the patio umbrella to gaze adoringly at her husband. We hear Brad’s nasal, whiny voice-over: “For Janet and me, vasectomy was the right choice.”

Inside the darkened cubicle at the Resource Center, my husband and I giggle. We are here because, before granting a man an appointment to see the urologist—much less allowing him to take the irrevocable step of curtailing his fertility—our HMO requires him to watch a video about it.

So, with our seven-month-old second—and last—child squirming in our laps, we watch Brad and Janet walk into the doctor’s office to discuss the big V. The physician (henceforth referred to as Dr. Toupee) smiles reassuringly at the couple from behind an imposing desk as he explains “the procedure.”

“Doctor,” Brad inquires diffidently, glancing at Janet, “will this have any effect on our, ah, sexual intercourse?”

Dr. Toupee clasps his pudgy fingers together and assumes a grave expression in acknowledgement of the seriousness of Brad’s concern.

“Not at all,” he reassures. “There may be a slight reduction in the amount of fluid contained in each ejaculation, and the ejaculate will no longer contain sperm, of course, but your experience of intercourse will be unchanged.”

Janet nods, trying to look worldly, as if she hears the word “ejaculate” used as a noun on a daily basis. Brad gives her a tight smile. Bruce and I giggle some more.

The camera follows Brad to the doctor’s office, where he arranges himself impassively on the medical equivalent of a La-Z-Boy recliner. The nurse covers him with a blue drape. Dr. Toupee approaches with a syringe.

“Now you’ll feel just a little prick…” he says blandly.

Bruce and I are beside ourselves. “Oh my God, did he actually say, ‘little prick?’ ” I gasp. We feel like a couple of ninth graders watching a sex education presentation.

On screen, Brad makes it through the surgery, walks gingerly out to his car, and goes home to sit stoically on the couch with an ice pack. In the final scene, the family is relaxing in the tastefully appointed living room. The kids play while Brad and Janet nestle on the couch, beaming at each other in a manner that makes it clear they’ve got no problems in that department. We get the message: vasectomy is No Big Deal.

Except that it is.

Our two children frequently overwhelm us. We can imagine all too well another round of diapers, nursing marathons, sleepless nights, and the constant vigilance of life with a toddler. It’s a vision that makes us tremble. So why do I feel ambivalent at the prospect of permanently closing the door on our fertility?

It doesn’t trouble Bruce in the slightest. “I would have done this years ago if I hadn’t met you,” he reminds me. And it’s true; when we met, my husband had no intention of having children. Ever. That we are the parents of two is a tribute to marital negotiation and compromise.

I refrain from asking if he’s glad now that he didn’t get the snip back then. We are in the thick of things with two under five and there are days when I know exactly what his answer would be.

I have those days myself. The days when my patience is stretched so thin I start to wish I were a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child fundamentalist instead of a supposedly pacifist Quaker. The days when the frustration of not being able to do what I want, when I want, tempts me to get in the car and leave. Adding another child—another baby—to our family is unthinkable.

But I do think about it. The few times we’ve been careless, and each time my period is late, a flicker of anticipation stirs in me. I imagine the thrill of being pregnant again, the pervading excitement and expectation of those nine months, the drama of birth. (Conveniently, I don’t dwell on the next eighteen years.) Is all of that really over for us?

“Maybe you’d get your curly haired girl this time,” Bruce teased on one of those occasions. “Little baby Rose,” he sighed, evoking the vision of a daughter named after two great-grandmothers—a vision that vanished with the birth of our second son.

“What are you getting all mushy about?” I demanded incredulously. “You know you don’t want another. Do you?”

“Well. It would be exciting, having you pregnant again,” he admitted. “That big belly growing … another birth, seeing the baby come out, watching you be so strong.” We smiled at each other, remembering, and then he shook his head. “But the minute that baby was in your arms and nursing, you’d realize it was all a terrible mistake.”

He was right. Still, I was surprised that my husband had articulated my ambivalence so astutely. Although pregnancy made me feel more like a grumpy, avenging angel than a powerful fertility goddess, I savor the thought of giving birth again. Because really, is there anything else that comes close?

My first son’s birth took place in a haze of exhaustion. There were raised voices shouting, Push, push, push! There was pain. There was an unbearable burning sensation. And then, though I have no memory of his emerging, a gangly baby was being held up in front of me.

When my second son was born, three years later, I was more with it. This time all present had strict instructions not to yell “Push!” at me. This time I actually felt the baby—hard and soft and slippery all at once—slithering out through me. Two years later, I can still mentally summon up the exhilaration of that moment—the triumphant realization that I had just pushed a human being out of my body and into the world. I had never been more proud of myself.

I want to do that again.

Sometimes I fantasize about how it would be. After two hospital births, this time I might have the baby at home. No bumpy car ride with the contractions four minutes apart. No nurses coming around to hook me up to that damn monitor. This time I would remember to prepare the right, soothing music mix. Gregorian chants, ethereal guitars… I stop myself before this scenario gets too groovy. Some aspects of the way I labor would undoubtedly remain the same. To be strictly honest, I would probably be yelling at everyone to just shut up for the love of God, the way I did the last two times. But that would be fine.

It’s not going to happen.

Bruce will get the snip, my toddler will wean, and this exhausting phase of our lives will give way to the next one. I won’t imagine a next birth because I’ll be certain there won’t be one. If my period is late, there will be no half-terrified, half-thrilled consultation of the calendar. I’ll finally sort though those boxes of little hats and sweaters on the basement shelves. I can’t quite picture it, but we’ll move on to being parents of school-aged children. Homework and soccer practice are as foreign to me now as diaper-changing used to be, but I’ll figure it out.

Recently, Bruce and I brought a meal to new parents in the neighborhood. We cooed over the baby. I couldn’t wait to be asked to hold her. How light in our arms she was, how delicate and perfect those little fingernails! But in the car, on the way home, there was a palpable sense of relief, of escape, of better them than us. We laughed giddily, like trekkers who are finally descending the mountain.

I don’t want another child. But I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, at my belly that has sheltered two babies, at my breasts that have nourished them, and it’s strangely sad to think that never again will I feel the invisible dance of a baby kicking inside me. That from here on out, my body won’t be called upon to sustain anyone but me. That this phase of my life is ending.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for physical independence. I won’t miss being woken nightly by a toddler’s sleepy demands to nurse. I can’t imagine feeling nostalgia for the nausea of pregnancy, or the fatigue of new motherhood. My maternity clothes? Long since passed on to friends.

And then, of course, there’s the sex. Bruce and I may have mocked that cheesy video at the HMO, but we want the same thing Brad and Janet wanted. These days, sexual encounters are either triumphs of strategy or brazen acts of defiance against Morpheus. Fighting our way through the chaos and fatigue to reconnect can be exhilarating, but often enough it’s easier not to make the effort. A marriage that has weathered the pressures of two active children needs all the spontaneous passion it can get.

Graduate school, full-time work, and family life take a lot of a man’s time, and for the year and a half since we watched that video, getting on with life has pretty much precluded “the procedure.” But with the degree finally in hand, my husband has made the appointment. The seven-month-old baby we brought with us to the HMO that day is now over two years old and has become a playmate to his brother instead of an unwelcome interloper. Watching our boys race down the street hand in hand or put their heads together over some scheme, we see how far we have traveled. And with each milestone reached, it’s easier not to think about starting the journey over.

I’m ready.

Author’s Note: Shortly after completing this essay I was at the park, sharing intimate details of my life with a near stranger, as we mothers often do. Nodding toward a cluster of women with young babies, I confided—perhaps a bit smugly—that since my husband’s surgery, all of that was now over.

My new acquaintance pointed to her kindergartner. “Meet ‘Over,’ ” she said. “You mean…?” I stammered. She nodded. Her second child had been conceived eight years after her husband’s vasectomy. “I love this kid, don’t get me wrong,” she told me. “But have your husband tested yearly. No one told us that. Now it’s my personal little crusade.”

Note has been taken.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is

Art by Clover Archer

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

The Baby

By Kate Haas

NevermoreOnce upon a midnight weepy, as I pondered, O so sleepy?

Over many curious volumes of oft-studied baby lore,

It was Leach–or was it Sears?–on whose pages fell my tears,

O, but naught could quell my fears or lift the burden that I bore.

Would sleep elude me evermore?


Of those authors I was wary in that fateful January,

For I’d scanned each separate page and had discovered no sure cure.

And my weary brain was yearning, my desire for sleep was burning,

Yet how soon would I be learning that I had another chore!

Would it last forevermore?


‘Twas then I heard a wailing–but perhaps my ears were failing,

O, perhaps the babe still slept, safe behind the nursery door!

Curses! No, I’d hoped in vain, he was crying (was it pain?)

And the question in my brain was, would he sleep? (He did before.)

Quoth the baby, “Nevermore.”


“Baby,” said I, “Child of trouble! Why should all our woes be double?

Why should both of us be wakeful on the Night’s Plutonian shore?

If you must awake, well fine, but the night is also mine.

All this nursing makes me whine–go back to sleep now, I implore!”

Quoth the baby, “Nevermore.”


Damn you, William (you too, Martha), sitting round your cozy hearth,

With those eight babes all a-slumber (and you’re no doubt planning more).

Your smug sleep tips leave me cursing (yes, we’ve tried the “father nursing”),

But the night is fast dispersing; O, how long will this endure?

Quoth the baby, “Evermore.”


Then methought I heard a noise–nay, a sweetly speaking Voice,

And it prophesied that soon these midnight troubles would be o’er!

If I heard the voice aright, my babe will someday sleep all night,

O, unspeakable delight! Will I no longer nights deplore

Quoth the baby, “Nevermore.”


“Voice!” I cried, “O Phantom friend! Do you say these nights will end?

Tell me truly, is there hope still for this babe I so adore?”

Then it foretold nights unbroken, when those wails would go unspoken,

When I would not be awoken. “Never, Phantom? Are you sure?”

Quoth the Spirit, “Nevermore.”


And on spoke the ghostly Seer, bidding me to have good cheer,

Yet it warned me of the Fate that for some parents lies in store.

“Someday this babe will yearn for knowledge; he will venture off to college,

And ’tis then you will acknowledge that you miss those nights of yore.

Yes, you’ll miss these hours awake upon the Night’s Plutonian shore.”

“Are you out of your frickenfracken mind?” quoth Mama,


Brain, Child (Spring, 2004)

About the author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a zine about motherhood and other adventures ( Her essays have appeared in Nervy Girl magazine and online at Supple and She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two sons.

Art by Penny Van Horn

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.