Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom

Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom


You are doing okay. You are doing great.

You are not actually losing your mind. Okay, you are, but you will get it back. For the most part.

He will sleep, I promise. He will one day be an amazing sleeper. (His yet-to-be-born sister is another story. Worry about that later.)

It doesn’t matter if he watches a second episode. Really. Close your eyes for a little while. You’ll both be better for it.

When you first begin to wonder if you are depressed? You are. Ask for help, accept it, as much as you can. You will be okay.

Staying home will be good for you both. Returning to work, when you do, will be good for you both.

Your first day back, you will go to a conference and forget everyone’s name. It doesn’t matter.

Those women in your moms’ group will still be in your life ten years from now.

The remarkable young women you hire to care for him will love him like no one else. You’ll get to watch them grow up, too, and go on to have families of their own.

When you briefly meet a single mom in the coffee shop who tells you, with a teary smile and newborn strapped to her chest, that she’s trying to do it all on her own, you will write down the moms’ group info for her. Ask for her phone number. You will worry and wonder about her, years from now.

You will find moments to relish, like when he falls asleep in the car and you have nothing to do, in these low-tech days, but sit and wait. And rest. And breathe. You will relive these moments on a far-off, bittersweet evening when he falls asleep in the car after a long day and you have to ask his dad to carry him because he’s grown so heavy you simply can’t any longer.

That favorite pacifier you can’t find when he really needs it? You will come across it a long time from now, when you reach into the pocket of your heavy brown sweater. He will have long forgotten it by then—but you will savor the slight weight of it in your hand for an extra moment before you tuck it in a drawer.

He will fall out of love with fire trucks but continue to love dogs. One day—not yet—your little family will be ready to get a dog of your own that he will love and you will remember these days, how he scans the park for dogs and squeals softly and pants at them.

Your instinct to surround him with the kids who make him laugh and delight in himself—that is a good one. The time will come when you can no longer choose his playmates; you’ll want him to look to the friends who are kind and funny.

Watching him become a sibling will make you see and understand and love your own siblings in a new way. Watching him torture his sister, well… He will love her and he will be cruel to her, except when they are banding together against you. But she is the one who will make him laugh most even though he will never admit it.

The thing that terrifies you most, the fear that you could lose him, will almost come to pass years from now. It will come close. But after the surgery, the hours in the ICU when you watch him sleep, when he gets better, when he comes home, you will be a better parent than you have ever been because you will really know that you cannot control these things. You will become a freer parent. A freer person.

In the future, there will be nights when you will sneak a kiss on a sweaty, sleeping forehead because he won’t otherwise allow it and you will watch him sleep (remember—he will sleep) and you will know: I did okay.


Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

All This Rocking

All This Rocking

WO All this Rocking ARTBy Jessica Latham

One hundred rocks. My husband tells me that’s how many times he sways our nine-month old son when it’s his turn, when my back is too tired from strapping our baby in the carrier, when my hipbone feels bruised, when another hour of our baby attached to me will make my skin crawl.


It’s a Thursday afternoon and I am putting my son down for a nap. I must have rocked him at least one hundred times. The carrier cups his meaty legs as his head tilts to the right and parted lips quiver on my breast. Yes, he must be asleep. Past his head, I stand and stare at the phone in my hands. Which part of the story did he fall asleep to? On my phone, I read from books, novels and self-help, parenting and inspiration. The sound of my voice seems to soothe him and I hear my own life in the words of other women, strangers tied into the same web of motherhood.

His lips slip off my skin as I alter my stance from swaying to stillness. Now that he’s asleep I will finally have time to write. But where? How? Texting on my phone takes too long, but the sound of the keys on my computer might wake him. I rock. I sway. I look. On the bedside table is my journal, hidden under a stack of books – Anna Karenina, Simplicity Parenting and Hafiz’s poetry, The Gift, each of them sadly neglected since his birth. Bookmarks are shoved into the front and centers of each book and in the journal, which has far fewer words than I’d like. When was the last time I opened it? I slide the books aside to reach for the journal and a pen. I glide and rock, sway and shake my way ever so gently not to wake him. I decide to leave him sleeping on me. Still standing, I open the book of blank pages, prop it against the dresser and begin to write.

My nipple presses against his cheek and his ear is folded on the lip of the Bjorn. Our stomachs press toward one another like the delicate contents of a sandwich. His tummy, so pure and full, hits the scar above my pelvis, the one I press with my fingers, hoping each time it will somehow disappear. My bellybutton, almost perfectly aligned with his, still projects outward.

“A hernia?” my aunt asked me once.

“I don’t know.” I gave up searching for answers a long time ago and have come to terms with the disappointment of my battered body.

I must be at three hundred rocks now. My son sucks the air, his lips pursed around an invisible nipple. I press my phone to check the time and a light highlights a prompt for my password, one I put in so my son would stop accidentally calling people from the thrill of biting, sliding, pressing and hitting. I’m ashamed he already uses my phone, copying the constant use of mommy’s life raft. I’m ashamed of what others would hear if my son dialed unknowingly. Not unkindness to my son, but the tiresome bickering between my husband and me, both overworked and overtired, projecting our anger and pointing fingers at one another.

“It gets easier,” my mother told me, “after six months.”

But it’s been more than six months. Did she lie to give me hope during the first weeks because she couldn’t stand the thought of what her daughter had endured? A difficult delivery, swollen labia, stitched stomach, numb left foot, bloody breasts, constipation and a CT scan showing signs of an infection, a blockage of the intestines due to an internal cut during surgery resulting in pain worse than contractions.

“Most women are gone by now,” the doctor had told me after my sixth day at the hospital.

“And do most women go through this?” I cried, fragile and wounded.

“I think it’s time you think about possibly getting some help.”

“What do you mean?”

“An anti-depressant. Your records show you’ve tried and done well with Zoloft.”

“I don’t need anything.”

“What do you say we get you back on ten milligrams to start? Women in your situation often need some assistance when bonding with their baby begins with difficulty.”

“I’m not having trouble bonding with my baby,” I said. “He is the only bit of light I see in my new life. My problem is not my child. My problem is the pain. The frustration. The shock. I cannot eat. I cannot sit up, move or walk. It appears I cannot even feed my child from my own body.”

“This will help with some of your frustration,” he said, his tone softening.

“Fine. I’ll take it.”

“We need to get you better so you can go home.” He continued scribbling secrets on a pad then walked out of the doors into a hall of women walking about, smiling with visitors and planning their departures.

The lights seemed too bright, the wall too white. Was I in an insane asylum or a birthing recovery room? Were the balloons, flowers and stuffed elephants in my imagination? Were my meals and medicines part of a new life here permanently? Or was this all a dream?

I left, still swollen despite three days of starvation, only morphine and water filling my aching body.

“I don’t even have body odor.” I said to my husband the day we left.

“That’s because you’re not eating anything, love.”

Those nights in the hospital I sat thinking, how long did we dance during labor, rocking rhythmically as one? How many steps did I take, my son’s body wedged into my own? And, once home, how many sways in the night did we share, his tiny folded wing across my shoulder, my distended stomach shifting like a bag of sand?

After two weeks my shocked body, previously unresponsive to cups of warmed prune juice and three laxatives per day, finally awoke and began releasing wildly during our newborn’s photo shoot. I wanted to laugh, but this was not a joke—it was bullying by some sort of a wicked god that sent me back questioning my actions in this life. This isn’t how birth recovery is supposed to be, I thought. Was I naïve and ignorant to have hoped and wished for some other reality of birth?


I turn the page of my journal, my hand scribbling memories I’d pushed aside. Words I’d locked away now emerge like wild birds that have been caged for far too long. The rustle of the thin sheet of paper causes my son to stir and his eyes flutter. “Shhh,” I shush as I rock and sway. I drop my pen and cup my two hands around the base of his head. My legs bend and straighten, shift and shake until his eyes are still once more. I pick up my pen and continue piecing together bits and pieces of my life on the lined paper as if the words themselves will comfort me when I see them before my own eyes.

A friend came over last week to meet the baby, but mainly to talk business over beers with my husband. No break tonight. After eleven hours with my son, he’ll be bathed, dressed, fed and put to bed by me. I bring our friend upstairs and don’t know why. Perhaps because I’ve forgotten what adult interaction entails. Is it appropriate to tour just the downstairs of a home or must I lead him up the stairs? It’s so silly to think of the tiny interactions forgotten when handshakes and home-visit formalities are traded for wiping bottoms and celebrating shaky first steps. As we tour the home, my husband’s friend politely says, as if hearing the conversation in my head, “No need to apologize about the mess, you have a baby.” How long can I use my boy as an excuse for my messes, my pain, my exhaustion, my bolts of unhappiness and shrills of joy? How long must I defend and explain my parenting decisions?

“He sleeps with us,” I tell him as we enter my son’s nursery. I see the shock in his eyes. “He runs the house,” I say and laugh, trying to make light of his judgment. The crib is bare, covered in long black and white hair, used each night only by our two cats. Why do I care what this bachelor thinks? Because he’ll judge me? Because, as I feared, he’ll tell my husband later that night, “You need to be tougher, you need to let your son cry-it-out.” Because I cringe at those words. Because, when I’m alone, I imagine myself, like a lioness laying beneath a tree with my cub curled into the crevices of my body, where I can rest without the need to explain co-sleeping, carrying, or any other modern label.

We move into the master bedroom. “We did some rearranging a few days ago.” I tell my friend as he glances at the folded bed frame and box spring leaned against the wall of our bedroom. So our active crawler does not fall, we deconstructed the bed and left only a mattress on the floor. A blanket is spread between two pillows on our mattress, a mini bed where my son sleeps between us. A battle I won—my son and I won. He fussed when we tried the crib and the co-sleeper, and so between us he went.

He still wakes two to three times each night. After nine months, I still wake as foggy as the mornings when he was a newborn. He turns and I turn. He begins sucking slowly, then picks up speed, waking me, bringing me back to the reality that my breasts, like my body, only provide half of what he needs – just as I couldn’t push him through after the countless hours of labor. I tap my husband’s back.

“He needs a bottle,” I whisper.


He slides out of the bed. I hear his sleepy stride against the floor, the stairs and then – POP – the sound of the microwave opening. It takes eleven seconds for the water to match the temperature of my own milk. With moonlit eyes, my husband mixes the powder and comes back into the bedroom. With my son’s eyes closed, I guide the bottle into his mouth and pull my shirt down. He sucks methodically.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper as my husband settles back into bed. I’m sorry that I cannot provide enough milk so that our son needs a bottle that you have to make. I’m sorry that I cannot go downstairs myself because he’ll wake up and I no longer have the energy to put him back to sleep, or the courage to ask you.

I had tried mixing formula with cold water from the bathroom sink, but he wouldn’t drink it. Another battle won by our son. I’m tired of changing diapers on my hands and knees because he cries when he’s put on his back, so to the floor we go, as if playing a game of chase. Tired of screams in the car that come out of nowhere. Tired of the constant lack of breath. Breath. Breath. How often do I forget to breathe? How often do I apologize that I cannot do everything for everyone? I’m sorry for all of my faults – the ones I can control and the uncontrollable. And I’m sorry, in all of my exhaustion, that I’ve lost the love for myself.


My husband will wake two hours after heating the bottle and leave for a meeting with friends at a coffee shop before work.

“And what about me?” I asked him again last night. “How can I want to make love with you when we can’t even talk? We are strangers to one another. I am a stranger to myself. Do you hear that I need time? Just an hour to myself. Even less.” To shower. To go to the bathroom. To write. To be alone. To do nothing.

He gives at times, but I’m in an extreme state, overworked, exhausted, and I pity myself for having no family around, for spending one of my only free hours in counseling, during which I worry if my son’s alright or if he’s crying. For wondering when it will get easier, if it will get easier. Though my body is healed, so they say, I still take my frustration pills and share stories of highs and lows with a kind woman who lets me cuss and cry, who lets me lay down on her couch and then get back up a bit more refreshed. The tiny blue pills, and the tiny moments in these sessions, like my tiny boy, hold a power that magically changes my perspective.

I lift my pen and look down at my son’s eyelids, like shells of pearl. How could such loveliness have come from me? From within me? And for me to learn from, watch grow, and raise?


“He’s an angry baby.” The doctor’s judgment and conclusions, just days after his birth, made before my son was even given a chance, echo in my head. If only I could show that doctor now. If only I could show him my nine-month-old’s sweet laughter, his smiles and peaceful face. Each time I give more and more of myself to see my son’s contentedness. When people comment, “What a happy baby!” I want to give myself the credit, I want, out of all my selflessness, to at least be selfish in owning the fact of my son’s happiness. I want to tell them how I’ve given up showers and manicures, trips to the hair salon and gym – I trade all of this to wear him, hold him, feed him, play with him and tend to his requests. Will it all pay off in the end? When he’s grown, will he carry on without a therapist? Will he feel independent and safe?

I try to find the courage to imagine a sibling in his life. But each time a moment of good passes, a sleepless night returns, a cry in the five-minute car ride sends chills down my spine, making me realize that for nine months I’ve completely forgotten how to breathe.


I gasp and drop my pen. A slight sting pierces my breast, my son’s growing teeth biting down. I try to rock him back to sleep, shoving my other breast toward him for just another tiny moment alone, not truly alone, but at least silent, for more time to write. But he purses his lips, hits my shoulders with his hands.

“Ok, you’re up.” I say.

I look down and he smiles, four teeth showing now. I set down my journal and, like most things in my life, my thoughts remain half-complete, unfinished and hanging. My life is a series of interruptions: showers stopped, split ends hanging from my head. Like an orgasm ending too soon, a plate of dessert dropped on the floor, a plug pulled from my body – I feel taunted, stuck between on and off.

As he wakes, my eyes focus. I am broken from my memories, taken out of the hospital and back into my bedroom. I unfasten him from me, set him down. He stands with his hands in mine and we walk together, his chubby feet shuffling across the floor. Our bodies rock from side to side, like a boat lilting back and forth. As I steady him, I imagine for a moment that the tiny life between my hands could believe I am a steady anchor.

Using writing in all forms as an essential and gratifying outlet for her busy mind, Jessica Latham writes regularly for Mothering Magazine. She is assistant editor of Yukei Teiki Haiku Society, a Japanese poetry journal, and her work has been featured on NPR’s local station, in Literary Mama (forthcoming) and various poetry journals. Learn more about Jessica’s work at

Not One of Those Mothers

Not One of Those Mothers

By Kate Trump O’Connor

Not Your Mother WI08The late afternoon sun spills across our table in the corner of the café, near the window. I’m going to confess something very important to you, so ignore the hovering waiter and lean in close.

I never thought I could do this. I never wanted to do this. I never, ever would have chosen this for me, for my one and only life, for my son’s one and only life. This? Mentally and physically handicapped? No way.

I lean over my coffee to emphasize my words as you clutch your cup, uncertain. I confess, before Thomas, my world was largely untouched by disability. Shamefully, I went on with my life, unaffected and unconcerned, and I never had to face my own ignorance. It was easy enough to turn my head the other way.

Then, one beautiful June day, I was forced to face it—and the face it wore looked just like his older brother’s, with smooth round cheeks, a tiny nose, and the deepest brown eyes.

*   *   *

Thomas arrived three weeks early on a sunny Friday in June. After an uneventful pregnancy, my early labor was a surprise, though not worrisome. We made it to the hospital with just enough time to drug me up, something for which in hindsight I am extremely grateful. Not for the physical pain of delivery—as a second-born, his birth was quick and almost too easy—but for the heart-wrenching pain and grief that came after.

Dr. T. is a calm and gentle man. He broke my water, saw meconium, and calmly explained that he would keep the baby from crying until he had suctioned our little one carefully and thoroughly. So when they rushed our new son (another boy!) across the room and huddled around him, we weren’t alarmed. Dr. T. betrayed nothing while, as I now know, he and the nurses worked to resuscitate my baby. I was too giddy to notice as ten, then fifteen minutes passed.

“He’s having a little trouble breathing, so we’re sending him to the special care nursery,” my doctor explained. I remember thinking that it was okay, that it was not a big deal, that these things happen all the time.

Then they brought Thomas to me for the first time, pink, swaddled, and crying. As I took him into my arms, he looked up at me and stopped crying. His dark, solemn eyes stared into mine, and we knew each other without question.

I had no idea, as I handed him back to the nurse for his trip to the special care nursery, that our brief minute together would have to sustain me for the unbearable weeks to come.

Maybe we should have been more concerned in those first minutes and hours. Maybe instead of making giddy phone calls and rejoicing in our new son’s birth, we should have been preparing ourselves. There were warning signs. His initial Apgar score was five. When I finally held him and said, “He looks just like his big brother,” my OB replied, “He does?” Only much later did I realize why he sounded a little surprised.

Hours passed. I was moved to my postpartum room, and still we waited to see him again.

*   *   *

I have to stop here for a minute. If I plunge ahead into the next chapter, you’ll pick up your coffee cup and hold it forgotten for long minutes, staring at me wide-eyed. It’s vital that I get this right so that you don’t do what we all want instinctively to do—put distance between my life and yours.

It’s not personal, I know. But as soon as I say anything, your imagination will stand at the mouth of that dark tunnel, the one my husband and I found ourselves hurtling down when Thomas came into the world. You’ll shake your head to clear the vertigo. Not your path in life. More power to me, but you could not imagine it.

I understand. Before Thomas, given the choice, I’d be leaning over your shoulder looking at some other mother with that same sense of sympathy and awe. “How do you do it? You’re amazing,” we’d echo in unison to that other mother who, but for the grace of God, the universe, Mother Nature, and random chance, could be us.

That other mother (who is not me, if only for one minute) sits a little apart. When she talks about her kid, there’s a certain look in her eyes, like she’s seeing something we don’t. She deals with so much, this special mother of a special child. She speaks a foreign language—of sats and meds, of OT and ST, of IEP and inclusion— that you don’t want to understand. It’s so hard and she’s such an amazing woman to deal with it all, and you know that you wouldn’t have the strength to do it.

You mean this as a compliment, this admission of weakness.

It’s not. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing salt over your left shoulder. It’s a fervent and silent plea, Don’t pick me. I’m not one of those mothers. I’m not strong enough, I don’t have enough faith, my heart isn’t unselfishand radiantly kind. And what—oh, surely, I am the shallowest mother on earth, another reason I can’t be chosen—what will he look like? And will I be able to love him, truly love him?

You wish desperately to believe what we all say: Special mothers are chosen. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Even more, we seek to find ourselves lacking, wishing for the first time to come up short and prove ourselves unworthy. If God or the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle, and I know I couldn’t handle this, then I’m safe.

I know all of this makes you uncomfortable: my child, the future you can’t or couldn’t have imagined for yourself. For your child. Two years ago if I had been told that at two days old, instead of being discharged home with me, my baby would be put on a lung bypass machine that circulated the blood out of and back into his body; that at two and a half months he would have open heart surgery; that at fourteen weeks old he would come home from the hospital, alive but fragile, with a feeding tube and an oxygen tank; that instead of holding him warm to my breast, the tiny infant I’d felt kick and roll inside of me would be nourished by the milk I pumped five times a day for months—if you had told me all of this, I would have said, Nope, can’t do it, find someone else please.

And if I had been told that my newborn son would be disabled. And if we’d known the first gift we would receive after his birth would come from the chief geneticist at the big-shot hospital, a book titled Babies with Down Syndrome? Certainly I would have paled and looked around. Me? I can’t be the mother you intend for this child. Surely you mean someone else—someone who hears all this and doesn’t turn away in fear. A woman who instead hauls out her breast pump, grabs a medical dictionary, calls the local early intervention program, and gets down to the business of mothering her special child.

Call the waiter over, I think you need a refill. I can see you’re still skeptical. You won’t let go of your certainty that somehow I am a different breed of mother. I know you’re wondering, so I will tell you. No, I didn’t get all the prenatal tests. No, we didn’t want to know. Yes, we chose the uncertainty and accepted the risk. We never really imagined our baby would be born anything but healthy and perfect.

Now, after all I’ve told you, I must concede: I am a different kind of mother. (“Ha!” you cry. “I knew it all along!”)

But let me explain.

Thomas is twenty months old now. At night I sit by his crib and watch him sleep, mouth open, the sleeve of PJs exposing too much wrist because he’s growing so fast. His pudgy hand rests on his baby-blue sheet, the one with the owls. His dark blond hair, exactly like his brother’s, curls in a cowlick over his smooth forehead. His plumpcheeks are covered with white medical tape, which holds the oxygen tube tight in his nose. I glance at the display on his oxygen saturation monitor, the numbers holding steady at 100 where they should be, the bar of green LEDs rising and falling and rising again with his every heart beat. Nearby, my husband stirs in his sleep. The baby is still in our room so we can respond when his alarm goes off, signaling a drop in his oxygen levels. It’s easier than stumbling down the long hall. I should be sleeping, too. Yet I sit and watch Thomas sleep. Because I can. I know when he wakes in themorning, he’ll pull off the oxygen tube (he needs it only when he’s sleeping) and greet me with a loud good-morning babble. His big brother will come in, asking to go downstairs and watch cartoons. “Bring Tommy down, too,” he’ll say, because to my amazement, after all we have been through, they are as close as brothers can be.

If you had told me two years ago that this child would come into my life, I would have wished I could be the mother you thought I was, but I’d have known deep down, and most ashamedly, I was not.

And if you had told me about the woman and her eight-year-old daughter who rushed up to us in the grocery store and said, “Is this your baby? He’s so cute,” I would have looked at you sideways.

And if you had told me that I would sit here today by Thomas’s crib and say that on most days I don’t think much about his having Down syndrome, I would have said you had a fantastic imagination.

But the truth is, whoever or whatever force is in charge of baby placement didn’t see anything in me that is not in every one of us—the capacity to love our children beyond measure and reason, beyond diagnosis and fear, beyond uncertainty and self. I wasn’t picked to be Thomas’s mom because I am special; I was made special because I am his mom. When I took him in my arms for the first time and gazed into his eyes, I saw only my beautiful, perfect son.

So I settle back in my chair here on this side of the café table. It may be hard and unyielding some days, it may wobble a bit when I lean, but it is my seat at the table. I don’t want to trade places. Because what you can’t see from your seat on the other side is the breathtaking view I have gazing out over your shoulder.

Author’s Note: Since Thomas’s birth, I have struggled with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the increasingly early prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. I do not want to impose on the personal choices of others, and yet I do not want fear—the fear of differences and the fear of our own inadequacy—to make life and death decisions for us. We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s something Thomas, with his determination and persistence, shows me every day.

Kate Trump O’Connor is a writer, photographer, and artist who lives outside of Boston with her husband, two sons, and twin daughters. Her website is

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

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WO resemblances artBy Ellen Painter Dollar

“Look at those fingers! And her toes! So long and skinny…just like yours, Ellen.” I don’t recall how many people uttered those words during the early weeks of my firstborn’s life. Maybe only two or three. But I felt bombarded by this innocent observation. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, my husband, who accompanied her for a bath as I was stitched up after my c-section, had mentioned that her eyes were a “funny color.” At that first hint that my darkest fears would be realized, a heavy door slammed shut in my brain, locking away my dread about what, exactly, my daughter had inherited from me. But every time someone noted the resemblance between my daughter’s digits and mine, a dank fog of fear seeped in around the cracks.

My daughter’s long, skinny fingers and toes, the bluish color in the whites of her eyes—these were signs that Leah had inherited a scrambled gene that would wreak havoc on her skeleton.  When she was six weeks old, we received official word that Leah had indeed inherited my bone disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta (OI)—a condition that would likely cause her many fractures (I had about three dozen before the age of 11) and possibly painful corrective surgeries. I clutched her fiercely against my chest and told God that he had damn well better take care of this child. That day 14 years ago was the hardest day of my life.

Because of Leah, I have spent 14 years contemplating inheritance—all that we pass on to our kids, the ways that we both hope for and dread evidence that our traits live on in our children. Over those 14 years, technologies that allow parents to control what our children will or won’t inherit have become increasingly sophisticated and available. Today’s technology tempts us to believe that genes are destiny, that a particular combination of amino acids can predict what a child will look like and be like and live like. But genes are far more slippery things than that. My daughter Leah inherited my gene for OI. But the mutation that resides in every cell of both of our bodies has affected us in vastly different ways. Besides the three dozen fractures, I had a dozen surgeries to put metal rods in my leg bones to straighten and stabilize them. Leah has fared far better than I did. She has had 12 fractures and only two surgeries. Leah’s experience with OI has been far milder than mine—which doesn’t mean it has been easier.

Between her second and fourth birthdays, OI battered Leah particularly hard. She had six broken bones in those years, three of them occurring one after another over a particularly brutal summer. As we endured that fracture cycle, we were also contemplating a second child. The thought of having two fragile children, of going through the wary scrutiny of my newborn’s digits and eyes and skeleton again, was enough to send us to the fertility clinic to undergo preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Physicians, nurses, and lab technicians collaborated to help us produce four embryos by in vitro fertilization (IVF). The four embryos were tested for the genetic mutation causing my and Leah’s OI, and only one didn’t have it. We had a single shot at having a child guaranteed to avoid my OI gene. The shot missed its mark; I didn’t get pregnant.

We ultimately abandoned PGD for reasons both straightforward and complicated. We went on to have two more children naturally, each time having an amnio done at 16 weeks just so I wouldn’t have to face the awful scrutiny of my newborn’s skeleton, trying to figure out if he or she had OI before the lab tests could confirm it. Our second daughter got my husband’s blonde hair and blue eyes and my maternal instincts. Our son got my brown hair and eyes but is otherwise a carbon copy of his dad. Neither of them, to our profound relief, inherited OI. Our family complete, I could stop obsessing about whether or not my children would bear the weight of my genetic baggage. But I never stopped watching to see how the dreaded inheritance of OI would sit upon my oldest daughter’s fragile skeleton.

I am fascinated by how Leah’s body and soul have borne our identical genetic destiny. Where I was emotionally resilient as a child, almost ridiculously optimistic and cheerful in spite of so many fractures and surgeries, Leah has grappled with depression and anger, particularly after an accident one June caused multiple broken bones and effectively cancelled our summer. But now, as a teenager, she is far more comfortable in her own skin than I was, accepting (even celebrating) her place on the fringe of middle school culture, where she hangs out with other self-identified “nerds” more interested in music, art, and books than boys and fashions. By my standards (and those of OI), she is tall at five feet. She moves with a grace and steadiness that I, with my more damaged skeleton, long for.

I wonder if it is normal to be so mesmerized, so charmed by watching one’s teenager grow into herself. I regard Leah with particular intensity because her height and poise, her strength and straightness are so different from my crookedness and limp, proving that genes are most definitely not destiny. Watching Leah, I understand that inheritance is not a blueprint, precisely dictating a finished product. Inheritance is more like an artist’s toolbox; our children’s genes shape but do not ordain their lives. The genes Leah was born with, including my OI gene, have influenced where she started but do not determine where she will end up.

A couple of years ago, when I was speaking to a group of women with OI about my childbearing decisions and experience with PGD, one woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t understand why you would go through so much  [the process of PGD] to avoid having a child who is just like you.”

That Leah and I share such an obvious and momentous genetic trait (and probably, because she is my first teenager), I watch her intently, greedily. As it turns out, in many ways I did end up with a child just like me in Leah, and not just because of her fragile bones. Like me, she loves to read, thinks critically, looks for solace in music, and is attracted more to those on the outskirts of the action than in the middle. She also inherited the expected-but-unexpected snap of bone after a minor fall, the sinking feeling of knowing that a fracture has just derailed plans for the coming weeks or months, and the irritation of knowing more about what you need than the fresh-faced residents in the ER do. Eventually, she will inherit the worry that her own children could inherit this bone-cracking menace. Why was I so desperate to have a child who is not like me? Because while I know I cannot protect my children from all pain, I so desperately wanted to spare them from this pain that I know far too well.

People ask if I feel guilty for passing OI on to Leah. I have honestly never felt guilt; OI is not something that I willed or desired for her. But Leah’s pain—the physical pain of OI, the psychic pain of bodily betrayal—pierces me in a unique way because of how intimately I know that pain. There is a cliché that when you have a baby, you must endure the sensation of having your heart walking around outside your body, subject to all the world’s beauty and pain. I sometimes feel like my own skeleton is walking around outside my body. Leah is old enough not to need reminders to be careful. Indeed, even when she was much younger, she was innately careful. But I still admonish her to take care when it’s icy or wet. I can see in my mind’s eye and feel in my own bones the sensation of slipping, falling, hearing the snap, feeling the searing pain. I have a visceral reaction to Leah’s fractures—nausea, dizziness—that I have never had after my own fractures. Leah’s leg breaks and I feel it—not in my leg but in my gut.  Then her heart breaks too and I am undone.

When Leah fractures, I can be so overcome by lightheadedness that I end up discussing Leah’s care with ER personnel while sitting with my head between my knees so I won’t pass out.  I hope she gets some comfort from knowing that I understand, in the deepest, most visceral way possible, her pain. I am just beginning to glimpse an unexpected bright spot in the muddled inheritance that has passed from me to Leah—her ability to offer me the same deep, visceral empathy.

One Sunday morning several months ago, I slipped on some black ice when going to get our newspaper. Landing hard on my back, I broke two ribs and a shoulder bone, and partially collapsed a lung—the kind of injuries that stronger-boned people incur when they fall from trees and roofs. I managed to crawl from the frozen front walk into our entrance hall, but couldn’t go any farther. While I lay there waiting for the ambulance to arrive, as my husband reassured my two younger children and called my mom to come stay with the kids, as I struggled to breathe, Leah sat next to me on the floor. She just sat there, silent. At one point, I said to her, “You know, Leah, don’t you? You know how I’m feeling.” I wasn’t talking just about the pain, but also the crushing disappointment of a regular day ruined, the weightier knowledge of the ruined days to come. I was talking about feeling powerless in the face of something as stupidly mundane as ice, and being betrayed by the fragile body gaining the upper hand on the strong spirit. Leah nodded. Yes, she knew.

That Sunday morning, I understood that Leah’s inheritance is not merely a faulty gene and fragile skeleton, but also the truest kind of compassion—the kind that arises when you recognize your own pain in another, and vice versa.

Empathy and compassion are the most important legacies any of us leave our children, the inheritance we most want them to receive and treasure. Leah has received this inheritance all wrapped up with a far less desirable, far more insidious legacy of literal brokenness and daunting pain. Does this gift of empathy mean that Leah’s inheritance of OI is “worth it,” because of all it has taught her? Many people insist that it should mean that, trotting out all those tired clichés about what we learn from pain. But for me, no good thing can make the pain I’ve passed onto my firstborn child “worth it.”

Here is the paradox that I live with: I am in awe of this child—her groundedness, wisdom, and grace. I have no doubt that what shines in her character—what drove her to sit quietly next to me as I suffered—has been polished by pain. But if I could take her pain away, I would, her groundedness, wisdom, and grace be damned. Why was I so desperate to avoid having a child just like me? Because even if wisdom and empathy are forged in the crucible of pain, I am intimately acquainted with the crucible’s agonizing heat, and no parent would wish such a thing on her child.

And I understand that is impossible—despite the promises of today’s reproductive and genetic technologies—to hand-pick our children’s inheritance, ensuring that they get only our thick hair or talent for math or optimism, and not our anxiety or dyslexia or propensity toward substance abuse. Our children’s inheritance is a massive, many-tentacled thing that cannot be contained or predicted by even the most sophisticated technologies.

I look at Leah and see myself in her spidery fingers and odd gait. I see myself in the way she sat with me that Sunday morning, quiet and steady, mirroring all the times that I sat with her as we, together and also terribly alone, absorbed the harrowing fact of a new fracture and all it would mean for the days to come. I see the effects of my faulty gene that go far beyond a fragile skeleton and the grief of (literally) shattered hopes. I see the wisdom, poise, and empathy that come from intimate knowledge of pain and disappointment. I also see, with a measure of envy, how much straighter and taller she is than me, how little she seems to care about how others perceive her.

I can never be grateful that my daughter inherited my brittle bones, even as I understand how the pressures of living with our disorder have shaped her in beautiful ways. But I am grateful for who she is. And I am also grateful that parents don’t get absolute control over our children’s inheritance, that we don’t get to pick and choose what they get from us, With my anxieties so focused on what sort of bones my child would have, with my vision so limited, I could never have predicted, much less devised, the wounded and gracious person my daughter has become.

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). She blogs at, and regularly does media interviews and speaks to community, student, church, and book groups. Learn more at

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Welcome to the Club

Welcome to the Club

What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

06_Eileen_6403 copyI unlatched the bucket baby carrier and heaved it out of the stroller. It was only three weeks since my C-section, and I swore under my breath as I felt a pinch. But the stroller wouldn’t fit into the community center’s tiny bathroom and I didn’t have much choice.

“Oh look at him! How old?” a voice exclaimed over Brennan, and then, “I can take him for you.”

A blonde-haired woman with chic glasses smiled at me. She looked … not crazy. Looked, in fact, much saner than I must have in the moment as I stood there sweating with the adrenaline, exhilaration and exhaustion of brand-new motherhood. She had with her a baby of her own, a girl of about six months old. I left Brennan with her and darted into the bathroom. And I thought about how impossible it seemed that I had just handed my newborn over to someone whose name I didn’t even know.

Days before, my mom had climbed out of my car at the airport terminal for her flight back home, both of us weeping. I had no family nearby, or even close friends with children, and my husband’s two weeks of paternity leave were up. I was looking at a week of ten-hour days, all on my own.

A coworker had given me information on a new moms group months before and I had tucked it away. I’d never thought of myself as the support group type, whatever that means. But when I faced down those first long days alone with Brennan, I looked up the meeting location and set the goal of getting us there.

The blonde woman, Kathleen, led me through a door to where the meeting had already started. Moms and babies were spread out across a sun-lit room with wide windows. Some were cooing, others crying (babies but also, probably, a mom or two.) The smaller babies lay on their backs kicking while others crawled across the rug or even practiced standing; compared to tiny Brennan, the older ones looked like giants. Many of the moms looked more or less like I felt, as though they were seeing the world through the fuzzy veil of sleep-deprivation. But they also looked relaxed.

The group facilitator welcomed me and then said, pointedly, “We usually start at ten,” — it was a few minutes past — and I wanted to punch her in the face, or just leave. But I found a spot and sat down (I was too tired to leave again, anyway). Following the lead of the moms around me, I unfolded a flannel blanket and set Brennan down on the floor.

In the meeting, we simply went around the room and said how things were going for each of us. If someone had a question, the facilitator (who was actually great, despite her initial brusqueness) would respond, and then others might chime in. People had a whole range of ideas and approaches, ways of parenting that worked for them. But we shared a lot of the same worries, big and small. We were on the same learning curve. And we were kind to one other.

You could ask paranoid-seeming questions about eczema or poop frequency or cradle cap or how many layers for sleeping, and no one would roll her eyes and think, First-time mom. You could say, “Will I ever freakin’ sleep again?” “Does yours cry this much?” or, “I think I am losing my mind.” And people would nod sympathetically. No one would judge.

It’s hard for me to describe how these simple discussions and interactions impacted me. If the world opened up when I had a baby, so did my fears, self-doubts and insecurities. That day, the nagging feeling that I wouldn’t get it right — that there was a “right” way to be, as a parent — began to quiet, both during the course of the meeting, and after.

As I was packing my bag up, Kathleen came over.

“Hey,” she said. “We usually go to lunch afterward. You should come.” I hesitated. This was already a big outing for me. Up to then, my boldest destinations were the coffee shop and the CVS near my house.

“Really, it’s the best part,” Kathleen said, convincing me.

At the restaurant a few doors down, the staff exclaimed over us as we came in. “They’re so great here,” someone said. “They’ll even play with your baby while you eat.”

People began to put their baby carriers on the floor or onto chairs wedged solidly between the wall and table. I watched, enthralled. Fidgety babies were nursed or given a bottle or a toy. Menus appeared. Favorite dishes were discussed. And then —then — a couple of moms ordered Diet Cokes. It was like we were regular people.

That day that I had dreaded was the beginning of knowing that I would figure it out. And that I wasn’t, in fact, alone. Those women would go on to be my first real mom friends, and their babies would become Brennan’s first playmates. Most importantly, I realized that we could play both roles — caring, thoughtful, attentive parents, and women who just needed to set their babies down for a while and laugh over a Diet Coke.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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 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

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