Motherhood Is a Physical Business

Motherhood Is a Physical Business

By Rebecca Martin


When they are not on me, they are around me. Normally, three points make a triangle, but my three children make circles swirling around me, each at their own pace.


Motherhood is a physical business. And not in the way I thought it would be. I expected that my middle would swell to accommodate another person, and that my body would serve someone besides me, making me eat and sleep and ache more than I ever had. I expected that the final release of a baby would begin with a surge of energy drawn from every last cell of me, but it was only after I experienced all of that that things got physical.

It began with a sweet circle of sweat on my chest from my son’s head resting below my chin. And then, of course, there was the nursing, pacing, bouncing and burping that anyone would expect to do with an infant. But along with all of that came the running whenever I heard a cry, the hauling of twice as much laundry, the soreness in my side from carrying him in the only position he would tolerate and the dent that my diaper bag carved into my shoulder. At the end of the day, I went to sleep for a few hours feeling as if I had tilled a hundred acres with a plow yoked to my back—and my sore body was not even mine anymore. Somewhere after that first child was born, I had signed over ownership.

When I was little, my friend and I would play a game where she would hold my arms down at my sides while I tried to lift them up. Then, once she let go, they would float up on their own effortlessly until they were even with my shoulders. That is what it feels like still when I drop my kids off at school and after I put them to sleep. I move without effort and can feel the air pass over my skin again. Sometimes, I have to remind my bones of their original positions, rolling my shoulder blades until they rest on my back again because when my three children are with me, they occupy me, making a perch or a pillow out of my jaw, clavicle or hip. And I cannot deny them.

“Mommy, I want to sit on your belly,” my three-year-old, James says. As he asks, he cups my jaw with his silver-dollar sized hand and looks into my eyes as if he was making a reasonable request. Then he scrambles to sit on my sternum.

I have woken gasping for breath because Johnny’s pebble-smooth toddler head had nestled on my throat, his neck straddling my wind pipe, and I did what I could to stay still and find my breath because I did not dare risk waking him, and also because it felt good to have him be part of me. It feels less good when I am trying to read a book at bedtime and my children vie for the best place on my lap, pummeling my thighs and middle. Then, once they are victorious and perched on a knee, they shift in and out of what I imagine is my spleen and scrape their boney bottoms over my femurs.

When they are not on me, they are around me. Normally, three points make a triangle, but my three children make circles swirling around me, each at their own pace. They are the hands of my clock, orbiting me, tethered to my center: Johnny, slumping into my sides, is the hour hand; James, bouncing and wagging his head, is the minute hand; and Maeve, oscillating from one imagined scene to the next is the second hand. We move like this through the grocery store, down our street, through a crowd of people. And even with the stir we cause, I can feel each shift in the air.

I open my eyes in the middle of the night and catch my breath, because in front of me, inches from the tip of my nose, Maeve is watching me, waiting for me to wake up. She can be so still that I wonder how long she has been standing there, but it can never have been that long because I can feel her enter my space even in my sleep.

During the day, they are not so still. They seize me and my attention. James asks questions with a hand on my knee or a meeting of our foreheads, his small hands clenched behind my neck. Johnny sticks his head into the back of my shirt as if he were the back end of a horse, because it’s hilarious, and also because he needs the connection. And even though it is easier to walk when no one is in the back of my shirt—or standing on my toes, or hanging off of me, or pulling me in another direction—I need that union, too.

I sometimes watch Maeve running in front of me, naked, singing for the rafters and wonder how she could be mine when she is so loose and I am so careful; but when she collapses, it is with all of her weight and it is into my middle. Every limb finds a place to rest on me. And when I touch my nose to her hair I know that she is mine and that it is the way she comes back to my body and not the way she came from it that makes it so.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Motherlode blog,, Literary Mama, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

By Rebecca Martin

RebeccaMartin“Excuse me, I’ve lost my daughter.  She is wearing a purple dress with white polka-dots and white leggings.  Her name is Maeve, M-A-E-V-E and she is 4 years old,” I said it in a rush, but I was so clear and precise in the midst of my panic, the security guard in the Jet Blue terminal in LAX looked surprised that I had left him with nothing to ask—as if I was following a script.  And I sort of was, because the scene where I lose my daughter in a vast place where she could slip away forever, was well-rehearsed.

After four years of being Maeve’s mother, I know the lost child procedures everywhere from Disneyland to our YMCA. I know to expect that the rest of the staff is instantly alerted, in the larger places via earpiece, and that all exits are secured.  At home, I have my own protocol when she doesn’t respond to my call: A survey of our fenced-in backyard from the kitchen window; a run to the garage, including a scan of the rafters I have found her trying to reach in the past, and then a full throttle run out the front door, crying her name until I reach our street’s intersection with a larger one.  Sometimes, I race back to our house breathless and find her in the corner of the playroom, a tiara on her head and a dinosaur in her hand, her full brown brows barely crumpled in confusion at my relief to see her.

One might think I am a negligent mother, and one might be right if they were talking about bed times or table manners.  But I am not that bad about losing my children.  Maeve gives me the slip.  The LAX episode began with me locking her, my son, James, 2, and myself in the bathroom stall.  Just as I was in a position from which I could not quickly recover, she put a soft pink hand on the door latch, turned her head to look up at me from under a falling lock of chestnut hair and smiled a challenge.  Then she turned the latch and used her still toddler-solid legs to shoot out of the stall and then the bathroom, her fuzzy pink wheelie bag bouncing after her while I struggled to recover.  I looked first where I had found her 5 minutes earlier, chatting away on a pay phone. Then I circled the restaurants, before I approached the first uniformed person I saw.

After I briefed the guard, someone from behind me said, “I think your daughter is over there.” I saw nothing of the stranger but the tip of his finger that ended at Maeve, sitting next to a couple she did not know in the mid-century black vinyl airport lounge chairs, balancing her bag on her feet and looking up at the flight information on the screen overhead, as if she were a seasoned traveler in a Doris Day movie, where travel was just a delightful adventure.  I yelled, “Maeve!”  She looked at me as if to say, “Oh, you’re here too?”

I wanted to hug and kiss and scold and shake her, and say everything I have said before that made no difference, like, “you scared me!” and  “I don’t want to lose you!”  But she is unbothered by those things.  She is not afraid of being lost.  Her mother always manages to show up and spoil her fun, and besides, this is who she is.

The first time we unloaded the fuzzy pink bag from our car was at JFK a year earlier, when Maeve was three.  I told her to stay in the car until I had the stroller arranged, but as soon as I turned, she launched herself from seat to sidewalk without a coat.   She seized the wheelie bag and, without looking back, began to stride toward the terminal, dimpled elbows exposed to the February New York chill.  “Maeve!  Stop!” I yelled.  She looked at me over her shoulder.   Then Maeve, who still at three usually spoke in toddler phrases and gibberish, said, “Don’t worry.  I won’t get lost.”  Part of me was pleased at that moment. I had always wanted to give my children the world, and Maeve, for one, was ready to accept it.  I love to watch her jump off the couch and run for the car yelling, “I do!” when I have only asked, “who wants to go to the store?”  That she is game for any kind of going is a joy.  However, the larger part of me was terrified that she would run off right then at JFK and figure out how to board a plane to parts unknown, because, unlike Maeve, I know what can go wrong.

Before I found her scanning the departures board in LAX, that is all I could think of—the risk: that she would find herself someplace where I could not help her.  When I saw her, I was relieved of the fear that someone had taken her, but the fear that she would roam still gripped my heart and made me want to frighten her—to look her right in her calm-as-a-summer-sky blue eyes and lay it all out for her tough-love style, “You like to roam?!  You know where roaming leads?!  I’ll tell you … it leads to being 17-years-old and crying your eyes out in the bathroom of the Brussels airport because the people who were supposed to meet you did not show up after you waited for them for eight hours and a strange older man would not stop offering you a taste of his chocolate bar!” But I didn’t.  She has never heard of Brussels and she is too young to realize that I lived a life before her, so I just said, “Come on!” and grabbed her wrist so tightly she cried, “Ow!”

As I walked the linoleum corridor to the baggage claim with Maeve’s hand clamped between mine and the handle of James’ stroller, I thought how routine this had become: Maeve running, me searching, our remorseless reunions.  I was becoming used to it.  Maybe she was breaking me in, preparing me for the calls from Brussels, or Damascus, or Timbuktu.  Maybe the already dingy pink wheelie bag would end up covered in stickers and releasing clouds of dust from following her favorite band for a year.  Maybe by the time she was ready to really see how far she could get, I would be ready to let her go.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in the New York Times,, Literary Mama, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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Extreme Family Flying

Extreme Family Flying

By Rebecca Martin

Extreme Flying ArtI recognized the woman approaching me in the baggage claim in Los Angeles from when I’d seen her six and a half hours earlier in the terminal in New York. Back in New York she had glided through the crowd to the Business Class line, a tall exotic model-looking type, with a dark curly halo of hair and a slight glossed pout hanging below monster-sized black sunglasses. She looked perfectly composed, even with the small infant hanging off her front from a baby carrier. Beside her was a daughter of about four pulling her own suitcase and behind her a pack mule of a husband pushing a stroller with a baby carrier and carrying four or five carry-on bags covered in designer initials. Six hours later, she still had on her shades, but instead of looking chic and serene, she looked disheveled and weary.

“Did you do this yourself?” she asked me, pointing at my children. “Oh, yeah,” I said, downplaying it. Then she turned to her husband, still laden in designer bags, and said, “she flew from New York with three kids by herself!” She then turned back to me and added, “You’re amazing!” “Oh, thank you,” I said, and then looking down at my five-year old, Johnny, holding my hand and at Maeve, three, and James, one in the stroller, I added, “but, these guys were really good” as if they deserved any credit. It is a response I have rehearsed to give a sense of humility, because I hear that I am amazing for flying solo cross-country with three kids all of the time and what I really want to say is, “Yep, I am pretty incredible.”

I don’t do much else that is dazzling, like run marathons or scale mountains, but three times a year I fly with my three children from Connecticut, where I live, to California, where I grew up and my parents still live. I am an average person, until you see me at airport security. In one motion, I can remove three pairs of crocs and my own shoes, pull my electrical devices from the one bag I am carrying, place the bag on the belt, and collapse my double stroller. It is a move worthy of an instant replay. It should be named after me. I so relish this ability and the others that get me through the six hour trip, that flying with three children has sort of become my extreme sport—complete with rigorous judging. I secretly score other people I see flying, shaking my head and deducting points at solo adults who fill four bins at the security belt or parents who pack multiple bags but cannot produce a wipe on demand.

I award myself points for not needing the assistance of others—not that we are often offered much assistance. To other passengers just the sight of me so outnumbered in the terminal seems to foretell imminent disaster. As we wait and James engages in his usual pre-boarding sprints across the waiting area, chubby arms flapping at his sides, I have noticed people gesturing toward us nervously and whispering. I imagine they are saying, “Yikes! That child does not look like he could sit still for five minutes!” or “I hope we don’t get stuck sitting near them,” or, “that mother must be insane.” But there are the rare good Samaritans—they are always grandmothers, who express their fear that their own children might be stuck in my position one day—and once or twice my bladder has forced me to accept one of their offers to hold a baby for a moment.

I don’t have to fly without help. I have a husband and parents who can occasionally fly with me, but I would have to make the trip less often. Besides, help is not always what one would hope. “Was I supposed to be watching him?” My Dad said to me after James took a header into the aisle. My husband has been known to enjoy the onboard film. Once, when James was just three months old, I took a babysitter: it was heaven, but that is a luxury I cannot afford. Besides, flying without her, is like working without a net—there’s the exhilaration factor. It’s like my Everest, but how many people do that six times? And I do enjoy the praise that it inspires from other people. I may not be the mom who hosts the best play dates or be president of the PTA, but I can fly.

I engage in no doping—for myself or the kids. We fly chardonnay and Benadryl free. I cannot risk slowing my reaction time—my daughter Maeve can wiggle to the floor and dart down the aisle in a split second—and I have heard that a kid could have the unintended response to an antihistamine and end up jumping her way across country. Also, I need to be at my sharpest; my mastery lies in my recall of the location of all of the family restrooms in JFK and LAX, being able to easily grab hold of the two fully charged DVD players and three sippy cups in my single carry-on bag and to pick up matchbox cars with my toes. I am not saying that things always go smoothly on the flight, but they have never been so tragic that I have had to drown my sorrows.

When things get hairy and I am pulling a screaming child up from beneath the seat in front of us or holding someone’s legs still to keep them from kicking the chair in front of them for the hundredth time, I do as any sports psychologist would recommend, and use mental imagery to keep me going. I go to India, where I have never been, and not to some ashram where I meditate myself out of my body, but rather to an image of traveling third class across India with all of my children. I have even looked it up. The train trip from Mumbai to New Delhi is over 16 hours. If the mothers of India can endure that, then I can make it to LA in Economy Plus.

And in my favor, as always in motherhood, is that I have no choice but to go on and that, like all experiences with my children, when I look back on the trip the time seems short. I wonder if other endurance athletes feel the same way.

Of course, I do not really fly with my three kids for the feeling of pride I take in being able to do it, nor do I need to outdo myself. I have no plans to attempt a solo transoceanic flight—the equivalent of a quadruple axle. I just want to get to California, where I am able to collapse into the bed my mother makes for me. With the time change, I wake up at dawn. This last trip, the June Gloom slowly receded from the beginnings of mountains outside the window. The lushness of winter that can make the hills of Southern California look like piles of moss was already drying out to reveal the scattered cactus and the prickly leaves of Live Oak that reach up from narrow canyons. It was worth the trip. I love Connecticut, but this is my landscape and I want my children to know it, I thought and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I did not have to get back on a plane for two weeks.

Author’s Note: I waste an inordinate amount of time feeling like a pretty shabby parent. Even when I suspect I have done good, I immediately refer myself to my most recent mothering snafu, be it forgetting that the bus comes home early on teacher conference days or overcooking the nut-free spider cookies for the school Halloween party. But so many people are really in awe of my ability to put myself in a difficult situation from which there is no escape, i.e., boarding a plane with three children, that I decided to let myself enjoy this small triumph and ponder just what makes me so fantastic.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in, Literary Mama, StepMom and She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.