Published on February 12th, 2014 | by Frances Badalamenti2
MIL by Frances Badalamenti
The morning after enduring twenty hours of sober-no-pain-drugs labor, two months after my mother died, I am sitting on the couch near my front window in loose-fitting pajama pants and a tank top pulled aside with the baby nibbling at my tender nipples like a newborn puppy right out of the wet sack.
Staring at this pile of glorious flesh that my husband and I had made, I was giving close friends and family the play-by-play. I hadn’t disclosed to my family that we were going to have a home birth. Instead, I dished them a giant crock-of-bullshit that sounded like I was going to a birth center in a hospital, our initial plan. My family is pure East Coast. In order to avoid Fox News-style horror stories, I was forced to return to the original narrative.
My older sister and I were sitting in my father and stepmother’s backyard in suburban New Jersey the summer before my son was born. It was hot and muggy and my stepmother was serving us her usual luncheon of cold cuts and dry sliced bread and the most lame-ass macaroni salad on the planet. It’s the same goddam macaroni salad that you can get at any deli in America and it is the same goddam thing she has made since I have known her, which at this juncture is thirty plus years. Can you imagine making the same thing for thirty plus years plus however many years you made it prior to that? If I ever reach that point, please take a sharp pencil and jam it into my eyeball and continue doing that until I fold.
I tell them that we might just ditch the hospital and have the baby at home.
The baby will die!
You will bleed to death!
Frances, how could you be so selfish?
That’s all I needed to hear, that everyone involved would bleed and die, even my husband I am sure because he would just implode at the sight of all the gore.
Fine, I’ll have the baby in a goddam hospital.
So when I did tell them that the baby, a healthy boy, was born at home, by that point, my family didn’t even wince. They were happy and relieved and probably thought that I just didn’t make it to the hospital like people who have babies in taxicabs and on dusty roadsides.
We did tell my husband’s family about our plan to stay home and they didn’t give us too much shit. My own mother had just died, I thought it made sense to enlist my mother-in-law as second in command (with my husband at the helm) to assist in the post-birth triage. She lives with her husband two hours north in Tacoma, a simple drive down to our home in Portland, Oregon.
I’m stuck on the couch, which has become my island, with the tiny baby lost in a sea of body heat and clothing and blankets when I overhear my husband talking on his phone.
Oh, you’re on the train already?
Yeah, if you could just take a cab, that would be easiest…
Love you too!
The record comes to a halt.
Now I need to take you back to a fall afternoon a few weeks after my mother died and before our child was born. My husband and I are sitting on stools peering into the small galley kitchen at my MIL’s house. I was relieved to have access to these people, to these blood ties. I felt solace in knowing that we had family who could actually get in a car and save us should things get out of control. My husband and I were well into our thirties and were about to have our first child. My mother had just died. Before that, it was a year of the up and down cancer game. I was grief-stricken but strong-willed, readying for this birth like an Olympic athlete.
My MIL is cooking and her husband is puttering beside her, the two of them preparing a dish, which involved the soaking and cooking of rice and the sautéing of seasoned beef in a stovetop skillet. My husband’s mother is a moderately stocky and Korean woman in her sixties who still holds some of her youthful beauty and glamour. Her husband, my husband’s stepfather, is a quite tall and equally gentle Mexican-American man with salt-and-pepper hair.
As they prepare food, I remain seated on a cushy stool on the opposite side of a kitchen island. My husband is somewhere in the periphery. I clear my throat and attempt to gather attention, an executive selling an idea to a gaggle of clients. I wait for my in-laws to take a pause in their busywork. I recall looking into my mother-in-law’s eyes.
I tell them that we have decided to abandon the idea of going to a hospital, that we are going to try our best both labor and give birth at home. Yes, yes–we know, sometimes you have to go to the hospital anyway, that is part of the home-birth package deal. We have brokered certified midwives.
And most importantly, I tell them that I need a day or two after the baby is born to be alone with my husband and my child. I tell them that I need this time in order to honor the loss of my mother. She would have wanted to be there herself. I need this space.
When my mother was still alive and I mentioned that my MIL would be available to help after the birth, my mother was despondent. She insisted she would somehow make the trip even though she had stage-four fucking lung cancer. The thing is, my mother was so stubborn that had she somehow stayed alive, oxygen tank in tow, she would have walked the three-thousand miles from New Jersey to Oregon just so my MIL wouldn’t be able to take her role.
* * *
My husband gets off of the phone and tells me that his mother is on a train. I have been cold-cocked. I weep into myself and onto the baby and then I scream, she can’t come, she can’t come, she can’t come, she can’t…..not yet!
I tell my husband to call his mother and tell her to disembark the train and return herself to Tacoma until further notice. My husband is pacing the room, blowing steam, a son and now a father, torn up in the field that lies between wife and mother.
She doesn’t answer.
I am angry at my own mother for getting cancer and dying.
Couldn’t she at least hold out until my baby was born?
I am mad at my MIL.
Couldn’t she at least wait a few days?
My husband and I negotiate through a pause in my rage and sobbing that the only thing we could do is tell her that she needs to leave when she gets here.
* * *
I’m peering out the front window when the taxi pulls up to the curb. It is clear that we need to welcome her into our home. She wants to meet her grandbaby and there is an air of desperation.
Like a flash of warm light, I feel the presence of my mother. She always taught me to do the right thing.
My MIL runs from the cab. I see her straining to look through the panes in the glass that line the top of our front door. She is on her tippy toes, like a small child climbing and clawing and wanting. I’m confined to the couch and bed and should I strain myself by getting up to answer the door, my nether regions might just bottom out, so my husband greets her at the door.
My husband and I don’t say a damn thing.
She spends the first few postpartum days with us. She coos over the baby.We keep her busy with errands and laundry and the heating up of food Our friends and neighbors stop by in droves, delivering us the amazing food and showering us with delicious warmth. I feel my mother-in-law bristle at this attention.
After about three days, when she feels ready, she departs.
I crawl up into our attic, even though I was instructed not to climb stairs or to engage in any household tasks for two full weeks. As a matter of fact, my husband had caught me putting on my brown clogs and bounding down our side porch stairs to take out the garbage.
He looked at me and said, I saw what you did.
But he doesn’t see me head to this attic. I hide up there and I weep on the phone to my midwife, Why did she do this to me? The midwife says, People sometimes go bananas when babies are born—a new baby tends to drudge up a lot of old shit. I’m like, that’s for fucking sure.
At some point during her visit, I was lying in bed nursing my son, one of the most beautiful yet awkward and challenging things that I had ever experienced. I was raw and broken and frightened. My MIL sat next to me, watching closely as my son desperately drank the early fluids from my body, the fluid even before the real milk.
I felt so invaded and exposed.
* * *
During those first few years of motherhood, I was riddled with sleep depravation. I was grieving and I was anxious and I was depressed and I was bone tired from nursing and I was in constant pain from holding and carrying the baby. During the day, while my husband was off leading a normal life, I would wander around my neighborhood with the baby strapped to my body and I would dream of other places, other lives.
And then, out of nowhere, my mother-in-law would turn up at our back fence.
It was worse when I would have notice, because then for the days leading up to her visit I would be in a state of utter panic, afraid of what I would do wrong. The baby is not warm enough. The baby is too warm. He is too fat. He is too skinny. He cries too much.
When my son was about six months old, my MIL came down with her mother, my husband’s grandmother. They were coming down a lot back then, the Korean grandma posse. For the days leading up, I had been mentally preparing for the worst. If I had the therapeutic and meditative tools that I have now, I would have used these visits as an opportunity to be fully conscious of my triggers and the subsequent emotions. I would be fully present with whatever came up.
But, I didn’t have those skills, I had a giant load of grief and I didn’t have my own mother anymore and I felt stupid and insincere and cliché bitching to people about this MIL bullshit.
So that one afternoon, I was walking in a daze with the baby and I saw them drive by, two generations sitting there low and small in a Honda Accord Hybrid. They didn’t see me and so I just kept walking away from our house. I could have kept walking for days, as long as my son was safe and protected and as long as nobody knew where we were. But, I didn’t. I eventually went back home and I let them fawn over my child and I counted the minutes when my husband would be home from work.
My husband didn’t save me in those days. He just distracted them.
My son cried a lot in the first months of his life. I often wonder if he understood the need to grieve with me, to cry to me, for us, for our loss. When he would cry, I would do whatever it would take to console him.
The grandmas are in the sunny living room and my son is on a floor cushion and he begins crying. I run from the kitchen and proceed to pick him up. Out of nowhere, my husband’s grandmother jumps on my back and tackles me to the ground, yelling who-knows-what in Korean while my MIL translates, It is harmful to pick up a crying baby! My mother-in-law is yelling, My mother knows what she is doing, this is the Korean way of raising babies!
If you look up the term “cultural difference” in an encyclopedia, you will see a Korean grandmother climbing on the back of an equally petite Italian-American woman leaning over a crying baby.
* * *
One of my favorite movies is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a minimal and stylish Japanese film made in the 1950s. Centered about an elderly couple and their grown children, everything about the film is exotic and strange, mostly around the way that this family relates to one another, which is proper and cold and polite and seemingly hurtful. Truths and feelings are present but are never spoken. One character in the film stands out. Her name is Noriko and she is the widowed daughter-in-law of the elderly couple whose third son, her husband, died in the war. Noriko continues to play the role of daughter-in-law even after her husband is gone, doting on the elderly couple, scrambling around her tiny hole-in-the-wall apartment to make sure their needs are being met. The couple’s own children do not treat them with this level of respect and dignity and gratitude. Noriko is a martyr, in servitude for life, and the couple ends up telling her that she needs to move on, to find another husband and a new set of in-laws. She appears broken, lifeless.
When I would get really bummed out during the grandma visits, I would pretend that I was Noriko. I would remain quiet and I would nod my head in agreement and I would make them cups of tea and I would cut them fruit and I would smile.
My husband’s stepmother, a lovely and accepting woman once said to me, you’re a great mother, don’t be so hard on yourself. It brought me to tears then, it brings me to tears now because I know that’s what my own mother would have said. Sometimes all we need is a small hit of validation to get us through the muck.
My MIL doesn’t visit as much as she did when my son was a baby. Her own mother has since passed on. But when she does come down and if she tells me that my son is too skinny and should be eating red meat, I look her in the eyes and I tell her that I know her intentions are good because I am certain that it wouldn’t be any other way.
And then I go upstairs and I sit on my fucking meditation cushion and I hold my hands to my heart and I tell myself,
you’re a great mother, don’t be so hard on yourself.
Photos by GOo (c)