With the epidural finally taking effect, Carson drowses, her head cradled by the dark nest of thick hair I tried to tame when she was young. “You’re doing great!” Nurse Sophie says as she places a pillow shaped like an hour glass between her knees. “Just push when I say push. And breathe!” Then she breaks into pop singer Anna Nalick’s song—”Just Breathe”—before giggling and pushing up her glasses with her index finger.
Sophie seems impossibly young, only a few years older than my 19-year-old Carson, and maybe that’s why I trust her. When I had Carson, you were supposed to hold your breath when you pushed. Back then, we didn’t have specially-designed pillows to help turn breach babies. It’s a new, unimagined world—who would have thought my daughter would fling herself so willingly into motherhood at such a young age?—and that I need a new, young guide.
“You too, Mom.” Sophie turns to me. “Don’t you stop breathing. You and I have leg duty.”
“And you,” she points to Carson’s boyfriend, Sam, “are at the head!” She giggles again. “Carson’s, not the baby’s!”
Sam is in position already, squeezing Carson’s hand and whispering encouragement. His tall, ultra-thin body seems even more bent than usual. Practicing to protect? To bow out? That story is just beginning, but I’ve been up for twenty-two hours already and what I’d like is to bow out for a nap.
What I’d really like is to go back in time, before Carson met Sam and fucked with her future. Before she grew too self-conscious to tell me about her crushes or first kiss or to let me see her naked.
Until today, that is.
When Sophie whisks the pillow away and says, “Now!” I forget leg duty, stop breathing, and find myself pushing. When she reaches down to check for the baby’s head, I feel queasy.
Carson grunts and howls through a storm of contractions and then suddenly yells through the supercharged air: “My hair! Get it out of my face!” Sam, who has been trying hard to do everything right, jumps back in surrender, while Nurse Sophie, naturally, looks at me. Come on Mom, her look says, fix your girl’s hair.
But I never could fix hair, Carson’s or mine. Simple arrangements like low ponytails left us both scowling into the mirror, while the slightly more complicated high ponytails sometimes required scissors to get out of. Strange, the things I thought I could gloss over, both before and during the long season of child rearing; humiliating, the mundane things that still scare me. Is this the never ending story, that you never really get away with anything?
“Your hair is so cute!” people complimented Carson often over the years. “Did your mom do that?”
“Oh no,” my six/ten/twelve-year-old always boasted: “I did it myself!” And then, not understanding that it cut me: “My mom can’t fix hair.”
Her mom, comfortable with any art but the domestic ones, couldn’t—can’t—fix a lot of things.
When I told friends about Carson’s pregnancy, I guess I expected empathy. What I got, almost unanimously, was a grief that felt hijacked. As if it were happening to their daughters, to them: college dreams killed or at least postponed; daughters taking on too soon what some mothers secretly wish they themselves had never taken on at all; the fear grandmothers harbor that they might have to raise yet another child. If I had become a teenaged mother, I would have been mortified that everyone knew I was having sex. Today, the shame seems to lie in letting the consequences dictate lives. “She had so many options!” friends wailed, referring to both the pregnancy and her promising future. But the shame passed over Carson, who never wavered in her choice, and settled on me. How did it happen, that the woman who waited until her thirties to get married and have children failed to pass down her twin true loves, learning and independence, to her only daughter?
In the delivery room, I don’t yet know what the next hours and weeks hold—an emergency C-section, Carson’s gall bladder surgery, Sam’s collapsed lung due to some combination of stress and cigarettes and a skin-and-bones body type. I don’t realize that the only easy thing, contrary to expectations, will be a baby who sleeps through the night and smiles even when he’s sick, a grandson I’ll bond with more recklessly than I ever have with anyone before. All I know now is that I have to do something with the beautiful, unfathomable mass of Carson’s hair.
“Mom, it’s okay.”
Between contractions now, Carson’s voice is soothing—knowing—forgiving. A mother’s voice.
“Any way you do it,” she promises, “it will be fine.”
At 52, still bewildered by the things that are supposed to come naturally to me, it’s hard to believe her. But I am her mother, and so of course I step forward anyway.
Author’s Note: My grandson turned one this month. He and Carson moved back home in May, and while he tears around the house, I bounce from one emotion to the other. There are so many joys—his kisses and giggles, the way he lunges into our arms after a triumphant walk—but there is also grief. I worry about Carson being a young, single mother. But my daughter recently started a great job, and like so many grandmothers before me, I’ve chosen to accept my place in the village it takes and rarely indulge in “If only” thoughts anymore. After all, if Carson had waited as long as I did to have a baby, who knows if I would have gotten to spend much time with him or even been around to meet him at all. We are all so lucky in this way, even if I still have to remind myself, at times, to breathe.
Lorri McDole lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, children, and grandson. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Offing, Eclectica, New Madrid, Epiphany, and Brain, Child, as well as several anthologies. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny.