On Balance

Published on May 14th, 2015 | by Malin James


STOP SMILING: Malin James is Awake in the Night

When I was six years old, I stumbled over a Buddhist concept called “opacity of mind.” Of course, I had no idea what that meant at the time. All I knew was that a chasm had opened up in my understanding of my parents, and that it scared the hell out of me. I was only able to label it when I became an adult.

“Opacity of mind” is a variation on a philosophical challenge that examines the lens of observed behavior. In basic terms, it encompasses the question of whether or not you can truly know someone. To child-me, the experience looked something like this:

I am me. My mom is my mom. I can’t really know my mom, because she isn’t me. She’s just a person. She can’t know me.. Only I know me. I can only count on me. I have to take care of myself.

When that chasm randomly opened, I caught a glimpse of an existential question that was too much for a child to understand, let alone process. As a result, my realization came with a number of frightening, imagined consequences that were made worse by the fact that my mom didn’t understand when I tried to talk to her about it.


“Many Sides, Many Voices” by Aimee Sicuro

Not long after, I dreamed that my parents became monsters and hunted me through the house. I woke up terrified, but resisted the urge to call for help. I remembered that chasm between myself and my mother and it made me fear the worst—that a monster would come in her place. I couldn’t know. I couldn’t be sure. Opacity of mind. Those memories surfaced again many years later, shortly after my daughter was born.

A bit of background: I’m a depressive. I also have a mild panic disorder. The combination of these two issues has molded my character and instilled in me the habit of using mindfulness as a coping mechanism. I knew I desperately wanted our daughter, just as I knew motherhood would claim all of my limited emotional resources. So when I got pregnant, I focused on shoring up those resources and creating what I thought would be a solid foundation from which to parent. I meditated daily, worked on awareness and tried to up my game. I did all of this work ahead of time, thinking I’d be ready by the time I gave birth. In hindsight, all I can say is that it was a nice idea, but about as realistic as trying to stockpile rest for future sleepless nights.

The first week after our daughter’s arrival went fairly smoothly, so much so that my husband and I looked at each other and said, “hey, we’re doing okay” one night while she slept in her bassinette looking pink and delicious like a tiny gumdrop.


Then things got real. It wasn’t that anything big happened—it was more that our reality started changing to accommodate the baby. By the end of the second week that change had seeped into the DNA of our lives. It was good but unsettling. In the meantime, bottles needed washing (oh my god, so many bottles, filled and refilled with 2 ounces of breast milk and then washed again) and diapers needed changing and milk needed pumping every three to four hours and, being human, you just get tired.

About two months into our daughter’s life, she woke up, on cue, for her 4am feeding, so I gave her the bottle, put her back in her cradle and started rocking her back to sleep, just like I had every night for weeks. But that night, she didn’t go back to sleep. She stayed awake and smiled at me—a sweet, open, gummy smile that beamed love and adoration.

Most nights, that would have made me happy beyond belief, but that night I was so tired that I tossed the cat out of the room (because he must be the one keeping the baby up) and rocked the cradle more vigorously. She smiled wider, as if she were on a new ride at the fair, and gave me a look that very eloquently said, “mommy! You’re so fun!”


“Don’t Speak” by Aimee Sicuro

Angry tears leaked down my face and I clenched my jaw so hard I’m surprised my teeth didn’t crack and fall out of my mouth.

“Stop smiling,” I said.

Then I rocked the cradle harder, so that it shifted back and forth like a tiny boat at sea, while my daughter continued to smile and not sleep. I lost it completely looking at that smile on her little moon-face.

I stopped rocking the cradle and I screamed Stop Smiling. I screamed at my baby in the middle of the night. And then I cried. I had a meltdown the likes of which I had never had as an adult, one that rivaled the meltdowns she would have a year later when she was learning the complicated dance of asking for what she wanted and not getting her way.


I can’t tell you what she did then, because I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I was too busy nursing my aggrieved state and loathing myself for being a horrible, impatient mother, even as I self-justified with the double excuse of exhaustion and depression.

That’s when my husband came in and told me, very gently, that he would take over. Of course, I took this as an insult. Didn’t he think I could handle it? Right then, the answer was no, so I stomped into our bedroom and cried myself dry. When I finally stopped, all I could think about was the existential panic I’d felt as a child—that fear of the monster in the other room. Except now, rather than questioning my mom, I was questioning myself. Now I was a mother and I’d just behaved in a way I that didn’t recognize. While I knew I would never know anyone as well as I knew myself, I was shaken by the realization that I might not know myself as well as I’d thought I did.

The next morning I woke up sick with guilt. I hugged our daughter and apologized, afraid that I’d broken the bond between us. She just looked at me and smiled the same sweet smile that had wrecked me the night before.

That’s when I realized two things. The first was that motherhood is inherently destabilizing. The second was that this is one of its greatest gifts.

Since then, I’ve kept a portrait of my daughter tucked away in my mind. I never want to forget what she looked like that night, smiling in defiance of my desperate need to sleep. That smile illuminates the parts of me that I would love to ignore—the jagged edges and a short temper and often-frazzled nerves. Her smile helps me know myself better, which means that, with practice, I can bring a calmer, more balanced, more open self to her.


I was a sensitive kid, and our daughter is too. She’s nearly four now and she worries about ducklings when there is no mama duck present. She worries about dinosaurs and loud cars and tummy aches. She empathizes deeply with sad and lonely things, much as I did when I was her age. Seeing this in her, I’ve realized that my melancholy and worry might actually be baseline personality traits, rather than the learned behaviors I’d always thought they were. Knowing this has given me a new set of tools with which to manage my jagged edges, along with the understanding that, when and if the time comes, I will be able to help her do the same.

Motherhood has become my greatest teacher. It’s shown me that I have to own all of myself if I’m to be fully present for her. That includes more than just the shiny bits that I enjoy looking at, but the anger and depression and shameful parts that I wrestle with every day.

Motherhood is a process and it’s brought me full circle. Who am I? I’m the person who is my daughter’s mother. Who is my daughter? She is a person who is starting to become whoever she will be. It’s true that I will never know her as well as I know myself, but I can teach her to know herself as well as anyone can. That’s what motherhood is teaching me. That, and that the work I undertook when she was a promise in my belly was neither static nor complete. The process is ongoing and I need to engage it. I owe my daughter that.


Photos courtesy of the author.

Illustrations courtesy and (c) of Aimee Sicuro

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About the Author

Malin James is an essayist, blogger, and short story writer. Her work has appeared in Bust Magazine, MUTHA, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Medium, as well as in anthologies for Cleis, Sweetmeats Press, and others. You can find more of her work at malinjames.com.

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