Published on January 16th, 2019 | by Rica Lewis0
At 20, I should have been procrastinating college homework, sipping something cheap and fizzy and wearing too much makeup with friends. But I was at home coiled on the bed and bulging at my middle, like a snake that swallowed a mouse. There wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to be. I hadn’t tried for a baby, but when I realized why I’d been so exhausted, why my body suddenly felt like a balloon filled with sand, why I couldn’t stop peeing, I was intrigued. When I shared my news with my then husband, we were standing outside watching the road in front of the house. Without warning, the words ascended from my head to my mouth and cold-cocked the autumn air.
I wasn’t so much as telling him as I was telling myself, tasting the phrase on my tongue — hearing my prelude to motherhood, which in turn meant midnight feedings, emotional chaos, sleep deprivation, temporary insanity and throwing small parties for first-time toilet poopers. Before the ease of Google, I armed myself with a library card. My penchant to understand all the specifics in detail left me bug-eyed and hunched over textbooks, absorbed in the anatomy and physiology of childbirth. I examined the glossy photos of somersaulting fetuses swimming like shrimp in murky seas of amniotic fluid. I learned about burping, bathing, weaning, training and when the first teeth should cut through the gums. All this before my jeans became too tight to wear. I joined a Dr. Seuss book club, quit caffeine and sipped herbal tea while quietly contemplating our future. At night I dreamed of my child, of the silk of his skin and the tiny pearls of his fingers and toes. As my belly grew and I could only lie comfortably on my side, his spastic kicks and jabs jolted me into groggy fits of sleep. One night he kicked so ferociously, I imagined his gangly, brown foot poking through my lower belly. Before I even knew he was a he and that his skin would be a chestnut shade of brown like his dad’s, I’d envisioned the foot bearing a fuzzy, blue bootie.
In my third trimester, a nurse handed me a black-and-white photo of his ghostly form. It was not like looking at a perfect stranger, a distant cousin or someone I would meet soon enough. It was like seeing the one I already knew, if only in flutters and thumps — the spirited little man who marched inside my abdomen at night, and who would march into my life with the same vigor and fury. Throughout my pregnancy, I kept a journal of poetry and musings, mostly crappy poems that seemed eloquent at the time. They’ve long since been lost in various moves to apartments, duplexes and houses. And while I don’t recall the lines, I do remember the title of the very first poem I wrote for my son: “I Don’t Know You, But I Love You.”
Then came the impossible years. Post-divorce years. I had two sons by then and I stumbled around like a sleepwalker, trying desperately to appear alert and well rested. In my mind, other mothers were doing the job better at all times — Your kid is learning Japanese? Mine is licking candy off the sidewalk.
Before my boys entered school, I became especially anxious and fearful. In a pediatric waiting room one day, I read an article about child development, in which the author suggested peers more than parents shape children’s behavior. Peers. I thought about that for a moment, recalling my fourth-grade nemesis, Willie, the kid I had deemed “the hitchhiker,” because he had two thumbs on one hand. I remembered how I had taunted him, and how he and so many other rabid adolescents had taunted me. We ate glue for sport, wrote “penis” on the chalkboard and threw origami weapons at the teacher’s backside. And now, as if karma had come at last, it was time for me to send my kids off to school, to throw them to similar wolves. I thought about it for weeks as I lost sleep imagining my sons sporting leather jackets on the school playground, puffing on menthol cigarettes like characters out of “Grease.”
But they survived elementary, then middle, then high school. We groped, often blindly, the parent-teen terrain. Struggling for a time with depression and mental illness which led to suicide attempts, my son conquered many dark days. We all did, somehow.
We are a mama sandwich. I’m at work, wedged between a twenty-something mom with a six-month-old son and a thirty-something mother with a rambunctious toddler and a delicate newborn girl. We veered off the intended topic when one of us commented on a baby photo. Someone pushed the mama button and now we are like battery operated toys, babbling about babyhood adventures. In their voices, I recognize the fear, panic, and exhaustion masked by self-deprecating humor and laughter — only another battle-weary mother can detect the frequency of pitch and nuances of body language, the stiff necks from schlepping clingy kids and diaper bags. It’s been a while since I’ve carried either. And when I reach into my purse and don’t find a Hot Wheels car or a sticky, half-eaten package of fruit snacks, I’m not disappointed.
My sons are tall and hairy and my reality is this: I will be standing in a room where stories swirl from the mouths of new mothers, or perhaps I’m in my very own kitchen piling garlic mashed potatoes on paper plates, when I am forced to remember the gap.
“I’ll take that plate, Mom,” my oldest son declares, reaching across the counter to snatch his grub at a Sunday gathering. I catch a glimpse of his six-year-old face on the fridge and realize I’ve blinked — once, twice, maybe three times. Baby. Boy. Man. The file of him flies open in my mind, as if a gust of wind has taken it. And for a moment, I watch the pages flutter by. There’s my first-grade son, his toothy, eager smile. There’s his tenth birthday party, the hamburger cake I made in layers: chocolate for the patty, yellow for the bun. He fakes a wide bite, leaning in and angling the plate toward the camera. There we are suit shopping — he’s twenty and trying on Ralph Lauren. “This looks sharp. Am I right?” he says, turning in front of the mirror.
I blink again and find my 40-year-old self back at work with the younger moms, lost in conversation. I refrain from telling them what I know, from echoing the cliches I heard from senior mothers when I was young and frazzled — they grow up so fast. “Don’t blink,” they said — as if. A little sleep was what I craved the most. But here I am nearly two decades later, resisting the urge to tell these women that today their babies are helpless birds with hungry, gaping mouths, but tomorrow they’ll be keeping secrets, making plans, flying solo. And these mamas will stand in their suddenly silent nests, well-rested and relishing the quiet but also wishing for just a little more chatter.