By Sarah Layden

My brain is a box of wires.
Some connect to appropriate
portals, some fray at both ends.
I sort the tenth tragic email update from a friend
to the folder marked Baby. I begin to reply but draw
a blank, I type a few words then backspace the screen
clean. My own souvenir ultrasound picture is taped
to the monitor, little ghost in the machine. Some
machines work better than others. Mine was
broken, then fixed. Now this me-chine provides
sugar and fuel and god knows what else, fuel I
needed but expelled last night, a great
heaving, & I had the presence of mind
to clip back my hair. They say puking
while pregnant is a good sign. It feels
like being poisoned but it’s a good sign.
Best not to think of the emails left
unanswered, the failings of friendship
stretched thin by grief.
This is a moment of being
unwired, unhinged,
to anything but flesh,
to a baby technically
connected to me.
I am the host,
the server, and
the plug
only works
one way.

Back to November 2015 Issue

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Book Review

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Book Review

By Daisy Alpert Florin

Blue Jay's DanceI met Louise Erdrich in 1992 when I was a sophomore at Dartmouth College and she was a visiting fellow. That semester, I was a French teaching assistant, running “drill” sessions five mornings a week. Erdrich signed up for my section, and so I found myself in the unusual position of being language teacher to an award-winning writer. Erdrich was friendly and self-deprecating—but she was my worst student, her accent thick, her conjugations clumsy.

Reading The Blue Jays Dance, her luminous memoir of early motherhood, it is hard to imagine Erdrich tripped up by any language. Her prose is staggering, breathtaking in places. My copy of the book is covered with frantic underlining and enthusiastic asterisks marking places in which Erdrich captures both the frustrations and joys inherent in raising small children. “Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life,” she writes. Nearly twenty years after its publication, The Blue Jays Dance remains relevant; by keeping the outside world at bay, Erdrich is able to turn her focus inward, creating a story that is both her own and universal.

Divided into four seasons, Erdrich’s memoir describes a year in the life of a new mother, beginning with pregnancy and ending with a child’s first steps. The baby described is an amalgamation of Erdrich’s three daughters; her husband and three older children hover in the background. The Blue Jays Dance is a record of Erdrich’s internal thoughts and struggles, as well as the story of the natural world as seen from the windows of her office. Erdrich is often alone, her main companions the birds, insects, rodents, deer and cats she watches pass by, as desperate for their companionship as a prisoner.

Halfway through the book, Erdrich follows a wild kitten who has disappeared beneath her house through a heating vent. Slithering along the floor of the dirt crawl space in pursuit, Erdrich worries that the house will collapse on top of her. “How many women are buried beneath their houses?” she asks after pulling the kitten toward her by its tail. “How many startling minds, how many writers?”

Running beneath the lyrical descriptions is this vein of frustration, with babies who won’t sleep, home ownership, Erdrich’s near constant longing for a cigarette. But instead of launching into a litany of complaints, Erdrich leans in to the loneliness and isolation to create art. “Life comes on you all unawares while you are stuck in an interim situation,” she writes about the unexpected joy she finds in waiting for someone who is late. “Sometimes I simply feel myself vitally alive in the moment, the interstice.”

It is in this pause that Erdrich writes The Blue Jays Dance, taking advantage of the space that unravels while the baby sleeps or plays with a trail of toys spread across her office floor. “Sometimes I hold my child in one arm, nursing her, and write with the other hand.” What mother hasn’t felt this sense of division? Out of the wreckage comes this book, the words scribbled down while she waits for the peace needed to tend to her “real work.”

I didn’t read The Blue Jays Dance until I was the mother of three children struggling to find my own voice as a writer. As I read, my mind wandered back to the early mornings Erdrich and I shared learning French. She had probably been up for hours writing or caring for her children while I rolled into class each day, my unwashed hair tucked beneath a woolen hat. Did her mind wander back to the children and work she’d left behind as I drilled her on the subjunctive? While she might have been able to imagine my life as an undergraduate at the college she’d attended, it was not possible for me, at twenty, to imagine hers.

At the end of the semester, Erdrich invited me, along with other students, to a reception at her house. As we ate canapés and drank sparkling water, I sat mesmerized by her as well as by the beautiful blond-haired children who darted around the house. I had no idea, yet, what roiled beneath the surface, no concept of the immense strength required to hold up that house.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at

Notes on a Marriage

Notes on a Marriage

largeBy Addie Morfoot

It was 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve when a shot was fired and a car slammed into our front door.

This was as close to a party as my husband and I were going to get.

In the eleven and a half months since giving birth to our first child, I still didn’t feel like myself. I felt more like a bear in hibernation. My cave was a one-bedroom garden apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

My marriage didn’t feel like my marriage either. Each day got off to a hazy start at 6:30 A.M. and came to an abrupt halt at 7 P.M. when my son went to bed. After a trip to Florida, I realized that our family was more suited for a retirement community than The City That Never Sleeps, especially on New Year’s Eve.

The topic of celebrating the end of that tumultuous year never came up between my husband and me. Instead, after we put our son to sleep on December 31, Ross opened a bottle of wine while I found “Friday Night Lights” on our DVR so we could binge watch season three.

Gone were the days when we rang in the New Year overseas or at our local haunt on Elizabeth Street.

We had just endured a year that consisted of far too little sleep and plenty of financial distress. While our freelance jobs had once afforded my filmmaker husband and me—a reporter—the opportunity to travel the world, the minute I got pregnant we seemed to be in a perpetual state of instability. We had become the cliché of the struggling freelance couple: constantly depressed, moody, scared and only on rare occasions, exhilarated.

For the first time in our relationship, we were on a budget. A coffee machine replaced our morning runs to Starbucks. Then, a few days before my son was born, Ross agreed to a film project that would take him to war torn, dangerous areas of the world. Not bringing in any significant income myself, I couldn’t tell him not to go, so he left for weeks at a time while I tried to figure out how to care for an infant.

“Do you really need Pellegrino?” I hissed one evening while preparing dinner.

“No. But it’s cheaper than your $5 bottles of Kombucha,” Ross snapped back.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, we were barely speaking. Our fatigue had morphed into anger. He’d been gone for three weeks that month working on a film and when he returned he had little time for anything but work. Whenever he had a moment to breathe and actually have a face-to-face conversation with me, I invariably got a writing assignment. The only thing we weren’t fighting about was “Friday Night Lights.”

“I gotta go to bed,” I said, two and a half episodes in.

“Come on,” Ross said. “It’s only ten-thirty.”

I was desperate to close my eyes, but before I could reply, a black sedan came flying toward our front picture window, landing with a boom on our stoop. The car, which sat inches from our landlord’s front door, was perched precariously on the stairway railing. Somehow the iron gate in front of our apartment had prevented the sedan from careening into our living room.

The loud crash didn’t wake the baby, so I followed Ross outside to help what we thought was a drunk driver. But all we saw was an empty car.

“Run!” somebody screamed. I couldn’t see a face, but the voice was coming from down the street.

We were too stunned to move.

We heard frantic feet hitting the pavement. As the sound of the footsteps disappeared, we heard a voice coming from the opposite direction.

“Help!” It was a man, holding his neck and walking slowly down the block towards us. “I’ve been shot,” he said, his voice barely audible.

His left hand fell away from his neck and out came a rush of blood.

As the wife of a documentary filmmaker, I’ve seen atrocities, but I never expected to see bloodshed in our pristine, tree-lined, Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Our particular block resembled a movie set. Early 19th century Federal-style houses lined one side of the street, while the mansion where Truman Capote once lived stood opposite. Bankers who wore loafers without socks, bright Lacoste shirts and carried briefcases strode to the subway every morning, and celebrity sightings were the norm.

I ran inside to call 911 while Ross grabbed a bath towel (our nicest, most expensive one) and wrapped it around the man’s neck.

“There’s been a shooting,” I screamed into the receiver.

“Where are you ma’am?” asked the voice on the other end.

“Brooklyn Heights!”

There was a slight pause and then, “Where?”

Back outside, Ross was holding the towel to the man’s bloody neck with one hand and rubbing his back with the other. The man leaned against our busted wrought iron gate. The same gate I walked by everyday. The same gate I opened to bring my baby home from the hospital and the same gate I decorated in Christmas lights every year.

“It will be O.K.,” Ross whispered to the man.

Those were the same four words he always whispered in my ear when I fretted over an assignment. “I believe in you,” he would tell me.

While waiting for the ambulance, the man told us that he was a livery cab driver. He had picked up two passengers who then demanded the car. When he didn’t immediately comply, the carjackers shot him and pushed him out the door. They then proceeded to botch the robbery by crashing the car into the front of the brownstone and taking off into the night.

“Please call my wife,” the man had said breathlessly. “We have a baby. I need to tell my family I love them.”

I felt terrible for him, but now every ounce of sympathy I had was with his wife. The only thing I could imagine that was worse than being a new mother was being a new mother alone.

Sitting upright, his feet splayed in front of him, the livery driver would occasionally jerk his eyes open, like he was forcing himself to stay conscious. I, on the other hand, felt more awake than I had in nearly a year. The fog of parenthood lifted for a moment and I saw Ross clearly, imagining what it would be like if I lost him. The anxiety that once washed over me whenever he traveled had been redirected towards my son. Now what kept me up at night—instead of worrying about him—was making sure the baby was still breathing.

For six years it had been unbearable to be separated from one another. We were a solidified couple in what seemed to be an unbreakable relationship. Then we became parents and the bond that had once been so strong slowly began to unravel. “Can you do the laundry today?” replaced good-bye kisses in the morning. Sleep deprivation mixed with financial fright and role resentment made our pre-baby relationship unrecognizable and our home not so homey.

I kept Ross company as he continued to hold the towel to the livery man’sneck. While only minutes had passed, it felt like hours had gone by without an ambulance. I worried that the man would die before EMTs could save him. The smell of death at our front door meant that for the first time in eleven and a half months there was no reason to fight about money, formula or whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher.

“Where are they?” Ross said, looking up and down the street for the ambulance.

“They’ll be here. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” I reassured him.

It was the gentlest, most civil exchange we’d had in months. We turned our focus back to the man, who had one eye open, and told him with confidence, “You’re going to be alright.”

I didn’t know if that was true, and I imagine Ross didn’t either, but it felt good to at least agree on something again.

Author’s note: While Ross and I were told that the man survived, we never spoke to him after the ambulance took him away. Our son is now four years old and while we still struggle with some of the issues raised in this essay, we agree on a lot more than just “Friday Night Lights.”

Addie Morfoot is a freelance reporter who writes frequently for the entertainment media. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire, Daily Variety and The Wall Street Journal. She’s currently completing her first novel.


My Hard, Beautiful Love

My Hard, Beautiful Love

WO My hard and beautiful love artBy Heather Kirn Lanier

 “In America we are explicitly taught that a healthy kind of love is a removed love…. Love is the area outside of suffering, not within it. For me the experience of love has always been more primal…. Love is fire. It’s not a sigh; it’s a wail, one part caress and one part claw.” -Arielle Bernstein

I’m not supposed to tell you about the moment I wanted to give my baby up. A mother is not supposed to want to give her baby up. A mother is supposed to adore the need and mystery and flimsiness of her newborn. Photos in Hallmark cards show black and white portraits of naked babies, curled on the chests of half-naked mothers. The babies are sleeping. The mothers’ gazes are cast down toward their babies’ peach-fuzz heads. The mothers’ mouths are upturned so slightly as if to say, This is heaven.

But three months into motherhood, I was not in heaven. I was standing at the lip of hell, and I know I’m not supposed to tell you that the moment I fell in, I had the flash desire to hand my baby back to the doctor who was delivering me news. No. Here you go.

Dear daughter, I’m sorry. You might never be able to read sentences as complex as the ones here. You might never be able to read a single word. But I know at some point you’ll understand this phrase: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that for one microsecond of the turning and ticking world, which churns out baby after baby and new mother after new mother, I wanted to hand you back.

* * *

I was holding my three-month-old in the doctor’s office. My husband sat next to me. Throughout most of the discussion, I’d been nursing my baby, and our nursing became a part of the discussion. The doctor noted that breast milk trailed down my daughter’s cheek, which meant she did not have a strong seal or suck. The doctor noted that I still had to wear a nipple shield, which meant my daughter didn’t latch properly. The doctor noted that it took over an hour to feed my daughter, and yet she still wasn’t more than seven pounds. My husband and I both nodded.

“She’s three months old, and she’s the size of a newborn!” the doctor said, hands raised as though we didn’t know, to which I said,

“We know.”

But there were issues beyond just size and nursing troubles. When the doctor pressed a stethoscope to my daughter’s chest, the doctor said, “She has a murmur.”

When the doctor inspected my daughter’s naked body, the doctor said, “She has a Y-shaped butt crease.”

Finally, when the doctor handed my seven-pound mystery back to me, she said, “I suspect she has some kind of syndrome.”

And that, that is when I felt in my arms the brief exigency to extend them, along with my baby, right back toward the doctor and say, Here.

Of course I didn’t. Of course I loved my daughter already and I loved her too much. But for a fraction—oh, the slightest fraction—of a second, I wanted to hand her back. And that is a moment that haunts me.

* * *

Yesterday I carried my daughter, now two years old, into the hospital. We were not visiting her orthopedist or her geneticist or her cardiologist or her neurologist or her nephrologist. We were not getting a kidney ultrasound or an echocardiogram or an EEG. We were visiting her regular ol’ pediatrician. At fifteen pounds, my daughter is light but not easy to carry. She thrusts her body backward to escape my arms, or she bends forward at the waist and hangs like a rag doll to inspect some spot on the ground. But if I were to set her feet down and let go, she would face-plant into the asphalt. She cannot walk or stand or crawl. She is willowy, her thighs so thin that a thumb and finger can encircle them. She succumbs to gravity like it is an omnipotent god, and she prefers this position: lying face up, her hands fisted into balls.

So when I got to the door of the hospital yesterday, I switched my daughter from hip to hip as she wiggled and slung and strained against me, and I pressed the handicapped button, a sign that once meant “for the benefit of others” and now means, “Oh, thank God.” To my relief, the door opened, and that’s when I saw the flyer.

“Don’t Abandon Your Baby,” it said. “There IS Another Way.”

Since that office visit two years ago, I had not once thought of giving up my baby. But the flyer was comforting. I know how advertising works: if an audience is big enough, a sign is made.

* * *

That moment two years ago was fleeting, so fleeting in fact that it felt foreign, like for one flash second my body had been inhabited by something outside myself. And with my husband at my side, I immediately tamed the urgency in my arms with logic. No need to freak out. My daughter might have a syndrome. But she might not.

Also, the doctor told us that there were many kinds of syndromes, not just the disabling ones I knew about.

“You mean like Lincoln?” my husband asked. “Lincoln had a syndrome.”

My husband cited the former president’s exceptional tallness and thinness, which some physicians offer as evidence that he had Marfan syndrome.

The pediatrician nodded, but as concession rather than confirmation. As in, Okay, sure. I‘ll give you Lincoln. But then she looked down at my baby in my arms. My very small, very thin baby. My daughter was squirming, a writhing question mark. Her cries were so meek they sounded like a cat’s. Without even saying it, we could agree: we did not appear to be looking at another Lincoln.

* * *

In 2010, National Geographic decided to honor Mother’s Day by making even the most insecure mom feel decent at the job. It offered the following:

If a panda has two babies, she’ll often abandon one.

If a hamster has a baby with any congenital anomaly, she’ll sometimes eat the baby.

Hooded grebes incubate two eggs until the first one hatches; the other is left in the nest.

When I felt the urge to hand my daughter back, was it a synaptic impulse from the echo of ancient DNA? Was it in my bones, the behavior fossilized into the calcium? Was it in my cerebellum, that grooved, reptilian chunk at the base of my brain? I think of the leathery skin of lizards, the probing tongues. They don’t make snuggly parents. They lay their eggs, then crawl away.

* * *

We came home from the doctor’s office that afternoon and rushed into making dinner. In less than an hour, my coworker and her two kids would arrive. We vacuumed the carpet, sautéed the meat, chopped the veggies. We had no time to think about genes and chromosomes.

“I forgot how small they are,” my coworker said when I answered the door with my baby in my arms.

My daughter’s eyes were black back then, onyx as Magic Eight balls. They fixed intently on the objects any baby inspects—whirling fans, light through curtains.

My coworker asked to hold my daughter. When she cradled my baby, my coworker lifted her arms up an inch, her eyebrows raised in amazement.. “How much does she weigh?”

I told her. Seven pounds.

She told me about a child she knew who was also quite small, and how doctors fretted and worried the parents. She told me everything had turned out just fine.

Then her youngest child, nearly one year old, clutched our coffee table and side-stepped along it. Then she belly-laughed, a gorgeous ruby-red burst I desperately wanted to hear from my own kid. Instead I heard this, a small voice in my mind: The path of your daughter is different.

Who can dissect fear from gut, especially when one is entertaining guests? So I asked, because I still believed I belonged in the camp of typical parents:

“At what age do they laugh like that?” A belly laugh seemed a great reward for the grueling work of parenting.

To this day I forget my coworker’s answer. Six months? A year? I don’t know when kids first belly laugh. To this day, my daughter, now two, has not belly laughed. She offers many adorable closed-mouth giggles, especially if you dance with her to house beats. Bounce her to Jay-Z, to M.I.A., and her mouth spreads into a wide grin and her blue eyes light up. Out sneak her little giggles like secrets. But I don’t know when babies belly laugh and I don’t know the answer my coworker gave.

What I remember about the exchange is this: I felt envy. I envied the calm, content smile on my coworker’s face as she watched her child laugh and toddle and learn. I envied the certainty she had—her child was side-stepping expectantly toward a healthy future. Both of her children seemed to be known, understandable fixtures of her family, so foundational to the house of their mother’s life that I’m pretty sure she had no strange if brief urge to hand one over to a pediatrician.

My baby was flimsy, literally—she could not hold her head up—and she was flimsy to me emotionally. She felt like a stranger. She felt like a visitor. She asked of me everything and offered only unknowns.

   * * *

At what point did my daughter become a solid fixture to me? Was it when her actual body became more solid? When she could hold her head up, roughly at six months?

No—if she had never learned to hold her head up, as some of her peers don’t, I still would have found her burrowed into some un-mined and immovable part of my being. Her now sapphire eyes are imprinted somewhere in the deepest place in me. Her pink-lipped smirks and bowl-cut head of honey-brown hair rest in a territory so uncharted no ultrasound can scope it. There she is. My daughter. My love. My hard, beautiful love.

So when did it happen? When did she change from strange visitor to solid fixture? Was it during that first echocardiogram, which found the hole in her heart? Was it during the first catheter, inserted so that doctors could test her kidney function? Was it while I sang ABC‘s to her red-hot, sobbing face as the nurse tried again and again to insert a tube into my daughter’s urethra, and then eventually called another nurse?

Was it during the “swallow study,” when a doctor inserted a tube with a camera up my daughter’s nose and down her throat, and then asked me to nurse her? Was it, dear God, during that first seizure? Was it hearing the colloquial name of the seizure—grand mal? Big bad? Was it during the dark, cold walk from the house to the ambulance as I held her, bundled and pale and postictal, in my arms? Was it the weight of her in those arms? Nine pounds?

I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened, the instant my daughter found in my soul a fixed point that clung as fiercely as I clung back. Maybe it grew incrementally each day. Now I’m a mother who drives several hours to specialists for her, who sits through hours of therapy with her, who inserts seizure medication rectally for her, who offers spoon after spoon of food for her, changes diaper after diaper for her, with no promise that she will ever do these things by herself. I have no promise, that is, that she will ever advance beyond her need for me. My love is deep and raw and all consuming. Her need is in perfect balance.

* * *

After my coworker and her kids left, after my husband and our daughter went to bed, I did what one should not do when one possesses just enough navigational information to land into blackness. I Googled. I typed search terms like “wide-set eyes” and “heart murmur” and “Y-shaped butt crevice.” I unearthed from the bowels of the Internet rare syndromes like Turner and Noonan. I was convinced my child had this chromosomal disorder or that, and I read forums from parents on this chromosomal disorder and that. I learned that their kids had digestive issues or excessively bleeding gums or difficulty learning math, but that they were doing okay for the most part. They were even going to college.

And so I envisioned this future for my daughter: tummy troubles, bloody visits to the dentist, long nights at the kitchen table hunched over word problems. But also college. A backpack and a first day of classes and a new crush spotted across the lawn.

I did not, in all my searching, ever stumble across the incredibly, incredibly rare syndrome my daughter did have, does have, Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome. Thus I escaped the words usually used to describe people with her syndrome: moderate to severe intellectual disabilities or, if the rhetoric is outdated and made to cut, moderate to severe mental retardation.

No, I still had no idea what lay in store for my family.

* * *

“Didn’t you just feel overwhelming love?” older women have asked me, their faces aglow with nostalgia for those early mothering days.

When I held my daughter on day one, I felt what everyone else in the room seemed to feel: fear. Her body was so small that when she emerged, a strange hush fell over the nurses. Our birth plan requested that she be placed on my chest, but instead they whisked her away. She’d been born not one minute and already anxiety trailed behind her like a heavy train on a dress. Something is wrong, the air in the room said, and perhaps that’s when the chemicals of stress eclipsed any oxytocin-induced high I should have felt.

Yet when the doctor on duty held her body up to eye-level, rotating and inspecting her torso, he couldn’t place what that something was. “Her ears are well set,” he said.

On the highway home, the world seemed too full of steel and speed for a person as fragile as my daughter. FRAGILE, read her coming-home onesie, stenciled in a font reminiscent of the letters on a cardboard box. A friend had made the onesie as a baby shower gift, and I’d marveled back then at its tininess. How could a person be so small? But now my baby’s body swam inside that onesie, her lean torso lost in the white folds, her wrists poking out of the short sleeves where underarms should be. She was too small for FRAGILE.

Didn‘t you just feel overwhelming love? Yes. I did. But women ask about overwhelming love with glowing, smiling, punch-drunk faces because they remember this love as pleasurable. My love was shocking. It was mammoth. It was a swell in the middle of the ocean, and I was a speck in a rowboat. I loved her so much I was sinking.

* * *

Eight hours after the pediatrician had suggested a “syndrome,” two hours after my husband and daughter had gone to bed, I finally shut the lid on the laptop. The Internet had done what it does best: stirred my fears into such a strange froth that I no longer knew which way was up and which fact was truth. I mistook my fear for my ground and walked on the shakiness of it, frightened in the dark, and went upstairs to bed.

When I climbed the stairs that night, my arms, empty of my daughter, felt light the way they were pre-child, when the front door was a portal I could easily pass through, when any destination took as long as the fastest route, when all my concerns were about me. Parenthood had dropped me onto a strange new planet whose turning was no longer around the axis of myself.

As I climbed those stairs, I felt the lightness and the freedom of no child to carry, but I also felt the heaviness. The fear in my heart for this new person who now occupied a place there. There was no turning back. No giving her over, even while, just a few hours ago, some reptilian part of my brain had envisioned it. And without knowing much more about her, I sensed that she was going to demand far more from me than anything in my life already had.

So that night, when I reached the bedroom and joined my husband and our newest family member in sleep, I made a change that surprised me. I moved the bassinet closer to me. I’d been feeling almost suffocated by the night feedings, by the relentless round-the-clock-ness and inescapable-ness of parenting. Despite this, I brought my baby even closer. She was swaddled in a cream blanket with only her heart-shaped face exposed. I pressed her bassinet right up against the bed. This way, mid-sleep, I could reach over and touch my daughter. This way her heart would murmur all night next to mine. If she weren’t so small, I would have tucked her into bed with me, curled my body around her seven-pound frame. Together, we’d form the shape of that question mark that hovered above us. If it were physically possible, I would have enfolded her murmuring heart into the very beating of mine. I wanted this. Wanted her inside me again. Wanted to surround her with everything that I was.

And there it is: the painful tension of parenting. Even as I wanted the uncertainty of our lives batted straight out of the ballpark of my life, I also wanted the reason for that uncertainty—my daughter—so close I could hear her breathing. So near I could hear her heart beating. I never wanted to let her go.

Dear Past Self, I think I get it. Get why you wanted to run. You were terrified of becoming the kind of parent you would need to be. Two years later, maybe I can understand the reason for that strange, fast, foreign urge in my arms—the urge to thrust her back. One part of me couldn’t bear what another part of me knew I was going to bear: the raw, gut-wrenching, heart-bruising work of loving someone who utterly needs you. The experience of now-and-forever holding, and being held by, a love so big it hurts.


Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America, and The Story You Tell Yourself, winner of the 2010 Wick Poetry Open Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Sun, Utne Reader Online, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She blogs about her daughter, who is now three years old, at

The Lovely Beast

The Lovely Beast

WO The Lovely Beast Art 1By Jennifer Fliss

“Do you have the giraffe yet?” she asks me sotto voce. As if it were a secret. I had been asked variations of this question a few times. “Do you know about the giraffe?” At first I was expecting some allegory about parenting that would somehow make the all-nighters more manageable.

But no. Not a metaphor. This well-coiffed and perky woman in the check-out line was bestowing upon me the secret of a squeaky toy. One step away from a dog toy, but four times the cost. “Do you know about the giraffe?” As if this ubiquitous toy isn’t hanging from the grip and gob of every infant and toddler out there. Sophie. “Oh yeah,” I respond flippantly. Pre-baby, I vowed that I wouldn’t cave to parental peer pressure and invite the smug creature into my home. I can do it on my own. What did I know? Everything? Nothing? The woman smiles a knowing and vaguely condescending smile. “Oh you need it. Babies just love Sophie the Giraffe.”

Later that day. Or maybe the next day. Or week. Or every day and every week since she was born. I am on speaker phone. Gillian is crying. I’m crying. The cat. Is crying. My breasts are leaking. The acidic and acrid stench of spit-up wafts from somewhere – my bra? My hair? The answer is both. No rubbery BPA-free, phthlate-free, save-the-environment-save-your-child squeaky toy is going to save us from this place. My husband’s voice on the other end of the line does what he can. In the end, we hang up and I’m alone with her tears again. Our deluge of tears.

I hear phantom baby cries. In the shower. In bed. Many things disguise itself as Gillian’s cry. The cat. The air filter. The lawnmower next door. My own mind.

My baby doesn’t wake from sleep chattering to herself or her animals. My baby wakes up wailing. I am immediately pulled from a soapy sink of water, a half eaten peach, futile attempts at reading a book – the same page again and again, or washing my hair. I try to walk slowly. Surely my child will become spoiled if I respond too quickly. The book said so. One of the books anyway. Or maybe the internet. Her piercing cry escalates. What she is saying is that she wants me. “Help me mommy,” her shrieks call out, for she has no other way to tell me that. Right now, it’s saying “Only you. Only you can help make it right.” I know when she is fourteen, I’ll desperately want this back, but right now? Right now I am still hungry and half a peach does not a lunch make. But the baby, Gillian, is hungry. And so I nurse her until she is sated. Lunch having been served, she looks at me. “What next?” Her bright face asks. Indeed. What next? Four more hours until my husband gets home. I have to make the time go by. So. Many. Hours.

Our first trip to a public space. It took a lot of gumption. It took deep breaths and when I walked out the door I knew we had reached a milestone. Not one that people talk much about. But it was momentous. The zoo. I want to tell everyone what a feat it is that I’m even there. Hey chimps. Hey cheetah. Hey nice old lady volunteer zoo docent. It’s a big deal. This is me. And my baby. Six months. Can you see she isn’t crying? Can you see that I’m not?

I meet a friend and her three children at the indoor zoo play area. This takes a surprising amount of coordination. By the flamingos. Past the food court. Near the log. By the other newish parents. See this mother is being pulled by one child to the bathroom. Another to the coloring station. Her arms and her smile being stretched like Gumby. See this father with a laughing toddler on his shoulders playing the bongos, off key. I see them. And I am one of them.

The baby, my baby, is still not crying.

It takes a lot of self-control not to approach every parent to a young child that I see. To not say: Hey. Hello. Me too. Oh my god, me too. I feel you. You’re doing a good job. It gets better. It gets worse. This club; it’s huge. There are quite a few parents out there and they’re all just wandering the streets. Loitering. Hoping to catch the eye of one another. Hoping for vitamin D. Hoping that the sunshine will somehow make it all okay. The salvation in some rubbery swings and a playground lined with wood chips and perhaps another stroller with a crying child in it. The park. The playground. A church of the highest order. When it’s empty, you swear you can see God. When it’s full, you swear you can see yourself.

This parenthood thing. It’s often called a roller coaster. I don’t know about that. Maybe one where you walk up and down the tracks yourself. Powered by your own will and sheer strength built of exhaustion and necessity. So I’m on this roller coaster. And I guess you could say I’m coasting right now. But ask me again in a month. A week. An hour. A minute. It’s in flux. That’s the thing though. Stagnation is boring. We become complacent. You can’t race down hills if you don’t trudge up them. A piece of cake isn’t as sweet unless you’ve eaten broccoli right before. Those brilliant moments of childhood aren’t as bright unless we have seen how dark it can get too. Our kids are little flashlights. Those ones you have to hand crank. Lots of work. Bright lights whenever you need them.

I don’t need Sophie the giraffe. I just need a light for the darkness to help guide the way.

That day at the zoo, Gillian is strapped to me. She is, once again, an extension of my own worn and tired body. I point out the giraffe in the distance, the one that doesn’t squeak and she couldn’t fit in her mouth, though I don’t doubt that she’d try. The giraffe in front of us doesn’t carry a $20 price tag and hang out in strollers, cribs, and playrooms around the country. This one is unique. This lovely sweet beast is walking toward me. Towards us. I don’t think Gillian knows what exactly I’m pointing at, her depth perception not what it will be some day. Some day. Later.

But I do. And that makes all the difference.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.

Something Borrowed

Something Borrowed

By Melissa Scholes Young

Art Something Borrowed v2I once stood on my neighbor’s doorstep in the pouring rain asking to borrow a rectal thermometer.  We shared a graveled alley between our bricked bungalows in the historic district of Ohio University’s backyard.  Most mornings I sat on our cement back stoop sipping hot coffee and reading our college newspaper. My neighbor stood in her kitchen window washing dishes, packing school lunches, kissing kids good-bye. I wanted her life, but I wanted it before I was ready. Her mundane seemed so manageable from my safe distance.

“I don’t know,” I said through the screened door. I’d interrupted their Saturday evening dinner. My shirt was soaked from rain and spotted with breast milk. “I’m afraid the baby has a fever.  She seems so hot to me.” My baby was two weeks old. I drank coffee cold now and hadn’t read the paper since her birth. I couldn’t sleep, even when the baby did.  I made my husband set alarms and we rested in shifts so one of us was always awake vigilantly monitoring breathing patterns.  I didn’t know then that a rectal thermometer, like a picture perfect life, isn’t something you borrow.  It’s really yours or it’s mine; it’s never ours.  You don’t give it back.

My neighbor called later to ask about the baby.  She was ten years older with three kids of her own. She made it look so easy. “Something’s just not right,” I told her. “I’m just scared something’s wrong.” She went down a list of symptoms.  My answers were vague.  I didn’t actually know how to use the rectal thermometer.  I suspected but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t know the difference between Olympic sleep deprivation and mothering instincts.  I didn’t know that becoming a parent was something you had to grow into. Everything merited a panic attack.  The baby coughed in the middle of the night, I Googled croup.  She fell asleep nursing, I read up on failure to thrive. I kept minute-by-minute logs of her feedings and charts of bowel movements. I thought that’s what a mother did; I thought my overreaction was vigilant love. I was a mess.  “I’ll send Michael over after dinner,” my neighbor said.  Oh, to be married to a pediatrician, I thought, then I could sleep at night.  I’d have all the answers.

Michael crossed the back alley and arrived at our door with his doctor’s bag, as if Saturday evening house calls were just neighborly courtesy.  We walked to the couch together, me holding my sleeping newborn.  “May I?” he asked, indicating the baby.  I cradled her head carefully as Michael lifted the baby from my arms.  He put his knees together as a makeshift examining table and began unraveling her layers. “In April they don’t quite need this many blankets,” he said in a whisper. “That may be why she felt so hot to you.” He leaned over and pressed his lips to her forehead. “She doesn’t feel feverish.  Your lips will know.  Also, you can always feel the back of the neck and the thigh.  If she has a fever, you’ll know without a thermometer.”  Michael undressed my baby, examining her every inch, re-swaddling inspected parts along the way so that her whole body was never exposed.  He massaged her with his hands, rubbing his thumbs on her smooth skin, applying pressure to her belly, turning her neck back and forth.  Blood rushed to the baby parts he touched; white dotted skin became pink.  My baby slept through it all.  Michael asked questions about her feedings, her diapers, and my own lack of sleep.  He palmed her fontanel, looked in her ears and up her nose. He moved in slow motion, as if the exam were one well-practiced routine with order and efficiency.  Finally, he put on a fresh diaper, swaddled her masterfully in a light summer blanket with sharp creases and tucked corners, and handed her back to me.  “She’s perfect,” he said.  He packed up his doctor bag, put back on his ball cap, and walked to the door.  “The next time she cries, nurse her and than take her for a drive. You could both use the air.”  My eyes welled up.  I had actually believed I was keeping it all together. “Parenting is hard,” Michael added. “You’ll get on the other side of this.  You’ll know.”  He touched my shoulder briefly, turned his back, and walked out the door.  I watched him from the back stoop and waved a thank you to his wife who was waiting in her kitchen window. She couldn’t see my cheeks burning with embarrassment or hear the sobs I smothered in the baby’s blanket, but she probably already knew that you’re never really ready to become a mother. One day you just say ‘yes’ and the rest is on the job training.  Yes, the baby was perfect but I didn’t have to be.

And so we followed the doctor’s orders.  The next time our baby fussed, we drove her to the Zaleski State Forest, 25 miles west of Athens.  I sat in the passenger seat weeping at what I felt was my incompetence as a mother, my worries, my worrying about worrying, my impossible standards, my raging hormones, all that I didn’t know.  When we pulled up to the iron gates of the state park, my husband asked, “It’s closed.  What now?”  We both turned to look at our sleeping baby in the back seat.  Her hands were clenched in balled fists by her ears.  Spider veins throbbed through the translucent skin of her sealed eyelids. He turned the car around on Highway 50 and started back home. I rested my head on the passenger seat window, exhausted and spent, and closed my eyes for the ride.

About the Author: Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved hometown, and she teaches writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a recovering high school English teacher and spent a few years teaching in Brazil. She holds an MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University, and her work has been published in Tampa Review, Word Riot, New Madrid, Yalobusha Review, and other literary journals. Melissa is currently at work on her first novel. Read more of Melissa’s work at or laugh at the antics of her children at

The Biggest Baby

The Biggest Baby

By Natalia Cortes-Chaffin

On her second birthday my daughter Leah pushed her chocolate chip cupcake towards me: “Eat it,” she said. It was about the fifth piece of cake she’d been served in her life. Yet despite her love of chocolate and frosting and all varieties of sprinkles, and despite how infrequently I let her indulge, she wanted to share the cupcake with me. She wanted to share it with her feet, too, but mostly she wanted to share it with me. I recorded our little exchange on my phone. I replay the video sometimes when I need to sugar up my day.

Leah is almost three now and, according to the weight guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, she is obese. The CDC designates as obese any child age two to fourteen with a Body Mass Index measurement that falls within the 95th to 100th percentile. BMI represents how much of weight comes from fat, as opposed to the more desirable muscle and bone. It’s determined by an intricate math formula that incorporates weight, height, age, and gender. Studies estimate that 19.6 percent of children ages six to eleven have BMIs that fall into the obese category, and this number is climbing rapidly.

Researchers have also found that a majority of obese children were obese as babies, before they had a single lick of ice cream. Findings like these, along with early obesity’s negative impact on future health, last year prompted a Colorado health insurance company to deny a 4-month-old coverage because he had reached the 95th percentile for his height and weight. The parents were blamed. I guess they were supposed to put their baby on a diet and set him on the infant equivalent of a treadmill.

I suspect this insurance company would point an accusing finger at me, too. My daughter Leah, with an average BMI of 98 percent, has been obese all her life. A typical two-year-old girl is about 33 inches tall and weighs approximately 26 pounds. When Leah turned two, she had reached 35 inches and weighed a whopping 35 pounds—just two pounds shy of her nearly five-year-old sister, whom she loves to topple to the ground while giggling. After the birth of our first two daughters, my husband had hoped Leah might be a football-playing boy. I used to joke that he’d gotten his linebacker.

Admittedly, Leah’s toddler proportions were shocking, the kind of future surprise I didn’t anticipate during pregnancy, when I was worrying about random genetic disorders. That surprise was even greater because Leah wasn’t a large newborn. At birth, she weighed a slightly above- average seven pounds and twelve ounces, just like her two sisters before her, just like many other bouncing babies with all their ten fingers and all their ten toes. She scored the neces- sary scores to be swaddled in a striped hospital blanket and earn a thumbs- up from our pediatrician. We took her home. Family and friends dropped by to slip pinky fingers into her palm and present her with tiny clothes. We never expected that she’d outgrow those new- born clothes within two weeks. At first, we thought nothing of her rapid weight- gain. Everybody loves a fat baby.

“Way to go, mom,” her pediatrician said to me, when we put her on the scale at one month. She’d gained almost four pounds, 50 percent of her body weight. Babies are supposed to get fat, not extremely fat, but plenty fat. They are programmed to eat and sleep and grow. By plumping her up, I was doing my motherly duty. Again her pediatrician pointed his thumb at the sky. Family and friends called to see how much she’d grown, how much she’d gained. They oohed and aahhed at the numbers.

I was told horrid stories of other babies, the ones who refused to eat, who wouldn’t gain weight, who were prodded with tubes and sliced open for intestinal surgery. I was lucky to have a healthy and hungry baby. I was lucky my body adjusted so easily to the role of dairy cow and produced a farm- worthy abundance of fatty milk. And it wasn’t just that I was lucky. The subtext in every “how’s your baby doing” conversation is always judgmental, always blaming or praising the mother for circumstances that may or may not be under her control. Leah was doing well and, yes, I had a hand in it; I was nursing her and changing her diapers and bathing those ten little fingers and ten little toes. The conclusion was automatic: I was a good mother, an exceptionally good mother at the rate Leah was expanding. I expected us to be put on a poster.

I reveled in the thought that this incredible growth was the first inkling that my baby was extraordinary. My husband and I soon discovered that Leah was indeed extraordinary, with an emphasis on extra: extra rolls around her arms, extra chunkiness around her thighs. Healthy babies double their weight in four months. Leah doubled hers in two. But this was the kind of growth that usually comes with green skin, torn clothing, and gamma radiation. At Leah’s two-month check-up, the plucky nurse with blue scrubs and an I Dream of Jeannie hairdo weighed her in at 14.2 pounds. Though she’d also grown three and a half inches, month two was when Leah stepped off the edge of the growth chart and waved bye-bye to the black dot that represented the 100th percentile for weight. We have yet to swim back to the shores of that growth chart, and I can’t remember the last time we saw land.

About this time, when Leah was two months old, the Discovery Health Channel broadcast a report about a seven-year-old boy who weighed 100 pounds. It was part of a show about rare diseases that aired while my husband was away on a business trip, which is usually when I indulge my obsession with rare diseases by watching the Discovery Health Channel. Leah, who was then four months old and shaped like a giant pumpkin, looked like that boy’s baby pictures. Tragic scenarios tumbled through my mind as I watched the program. I pictured strollers collapsing under her weight, kids pointing long fingers, parents steering their eyes towards normal children. I dreaded her wanting to fly like an airplane and me not able to help her soar. For the first time I understood my husband’s distaste for these shows. I feared Leah might have a genetic disorder like this boy did, some kind of disease that would have her ballooning like Violet Beauregard turned blueberry in Willy Wonka. I raced to the side of her bassinet, watched her sleep under a white cotton blanket. Her tummy rose. Her tummy sank. My love for her was like a primal ache.

“It’s brown fat,” the doctor said with a nonchalant air that mocked my maternal instincts and addiction to WebMD. He explained that some breastfed babies put on an enormous amount of weight. “She’ll slow down at nine months. You’ll see.” I Googled “brown fat.” According to various web sites, brown fat is a mutant form of fat whose cells produce heat and thus help newborns stay warm in the absence of actual cuddly fat. Without it, infants run the risk of dying. Eventually this kind of fat vanishes. It’s not the kind that leads to chronic debilitating issues.