Contraction - Mutha Magazine

On Balance

Published on July 19th, 2022 | by Cara Howard



1. a reduction in activity or growth

After storytime ended, we browsed the children’s section of the library. My two young kids collected armfuls of picture books and dropped them into our enormous canvas tote until it was too full to zip closed. I slid the strap off my aching shoulder and set the bag on the floor.

My four-year-old daughter danced around me while I lifted my two-year-old son into the stroller seat and secured the safety harness. With him corralled, I decided to push my luck and find a book for myself. I handed each child a cup full of cheesy goldfish and we rode the elevator up one floor to adult fiction.

When the doors slid open, I glanced at my watch. It was almost naptime. Even as my son crunched the orange crackers, he squirmed, arched his back, and rubbed his eyes. I would have to make this fast. Wheeling the stroller through aisles of books, I scanned the spines until an intriguing title jumped out at me. I grabbed the copy of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Edible Woman, knowing nothing of its plot, and we headed home.

I parked the minivan in the garage, unbuckled the kids, and took them straight upstairs. My sleepy little one didn’t fuss when I laid him in his crib. Hugging his stuffed monkey, he sucked his thumb while I rubbed his back. After a few minutes, I tiptoed out of his room.

Down the hall, my daughter sat on her big-girl bed with a pile of books, surrounded by an audience of stuffed animals. I kissed her forehead and shut her door behind me, hoping her new reading material would buy me an hour of quiet. At last, I flopped down onto the couch and opened the book I’d chosen, seeking an escape into another world.

Set in the 1950’s, the novel features Marian, a recently engaged young woman who finds herself oddly unable to eat. This symptom reflects her deeper fear that, as she settles into her expected role in society, she is being “eaten.” She is slowly disappearing.

I read with interest a conversation between Marian and the husband of her college friend Clara. He tells her about the shift in his wife after their children were born. Clara now seems “hollow,” he explains, like “her core has been destroyed.” As he talks, Marian imagines her friend as a worm-eaten apple and inwardly vows not to succumb to a similar fate.

My own stomach soured with recognition.

On our first anniversary after our daughter was born, my husband and I left her with my parents and went to dinner at a nearby Italian bistro. At first, we made clumsy attempts at grown-up conversation, trying not to peek at our cell phones. When they didn’t buzz or ring, we began to reminisce about our life together and dream aloud about the years ahead. I savored each bite of my gnocchi, relishing a meal I didn’t have to cook or clean up.

We returned a couple of hours later, refreshed and ready to resume our parenting duties, only to find our five-month-old daughter red-faced and screaming. I reached out to take her from her frazzled grandmother’s arms. She pressed her tiny lips to mine and her anguished cries ceased instantly. The abrupt silence left all of our ears ringing.

Once our nerves settled, my mom confessed that she’d been inconsolable the whole time we’d been gone. She looked at my baby girl, glued to me by the lips, and said, “That was the one thing we couldn’t give her.”

It was me. I was her one thing. I had wanted to be a mother so badly. I loved her so much. But now I realized: as her source for both food and comfort, I was hers to consume.

I put down Atwood’s novel and surveyed the room. Once spacious, it had been gradually swallowed up by baby equipment: first, the Pack ‘n Play and infant swing, then the playmat, wooden toybox, and colorful plastic toys. Evidence of my own existence suddenly seemed scarce. Pages in our photo albums overflowed with snapshots of my kids’ lives, moments for which I’d been present and attentive, yet my face was noticeably absent. Their baby books sat waiting to be updated with their latest milestones. I’d become a ghostwriter, setting aside my own journal to document their days. It dawned on me: I’d been crowded out of my own home. Even worse, I’d participated in my own disappearance.

Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash

I didn’t know if I’d ever find time to finish the library book, so I grabbed a notebook and a pen and copied down the passage describing Clara’s lost identity. I needed to keep these words with me, to mark this moment: I had gone missing, but someone had seen me.

2. the shortening of uterine muscles occurring in intervals before and during childbirth

It is possible to contract and not even feel it. During my first labor, I spent most of the time numb from the waist down. After the prick and sting of the epidural needle, a surge of warmth flooded my system and deadened my nerves. Pain signals were interrupted. The cramping became visual instead of visceral, displayed in peaks and valleys on the black and white monitor beside my bed.

The doctor had to tell me when to push. Her stern commands made me feel like a low-level soldier taking orders. I did my best to comply, but I had no idea how to control my muscles. Each time I attempted to bear down, irritation and anxiety welled up. I was working blindly, floundering, while everyone else in the delivery room watched.

Brief pauses between rounds left no time for me to catch my breath. I grew more overwhelmed with each hour of fruitless exertion. When my body started to stall, I agreed to let a nurse hold up a mirror so I could see what was happening. I watched in awe as the crown of my baby’s head emerged a little more each time I pushed. Once I saw how my efforts affected her progress, I was finally able to grasp what I was being asked to do. Only then did I find the strength to do it.

3. a shortened version of a group of words created by the omission of internal letters and sounds

My daughter’s voice snapped me back to the present. “Mommy, I’m awake!”

I jumped off the couch and hurried to her room. “Shh,” I whispered. “Your brother’s still sleeping. Let’s go downstairs and get a snack.”

She climbed up into her booster seat at the table. I placed squares of colby-jack cheese and a handful of Ritz crackers onto a plastic plate and set it in front of her. While happily munching, she chattered about stories she’d “read” during rest time. I only pretended to listen, but she didn’t seem to notice.

When she finished her snack, she got down and skipped out of the kitchen. I cleared away crumbs and rinsed her plate while she worked on building a fort out of couch cushions in the next room. From my spot at the sink, I saw her attempt to make a roof by stretching a blanket from the back of the sofa to her pile of pillows. Much to her dismay, it kept caving in. “It won’t stay!” she cried.

I wiped my hands on a dishtowel, then went to help her tuck and secure the blanket until the fabric stayed taut. Satisfied, she got down on her knees and crawled inside her creation. Watching her shrink and disappear, I thought about how cramped my role had become. My little girl looked up to me. If I stayed small, I would stunt both her growth and mine. I rethought my assumption that contraction was a requirement for motherhood. 

I first encountered the concept of contractions in second grade. The teacher passed back my grammar worksheets with red circles around all my misplaced marks. I knew how to spell the words, but not where to place the apostrophe. My confusion remained until the following school year, when a new teacher helped me decode the mystery.

“Apostrophes take the place of missing letters,” she explained, and just like that, it clicked.

Contractions allow speech to flow more easily. When two words join, one stays the same. The other surrenders a portion of itself, omitting its primary vowels, even a consonant or two. In the white space above their union, the apostrophe serves as a bookmark, holding space for hidden letters, should the writer desire to expand the word once again.

Just then, a muffled voice said, “Come in, Mommy!” I lifted the blanket and squatted down to peek inside the fort. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, where my little girl patted the carpet beside her.

“Sorry, sweetie, I won’t fit.” I shrugged my shoulders and gave her a faint smile, then slowly stood back up. “I’m just too big.”

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About the Author

Cara Howard lives near Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband, two children, and quirky three-year-old cavapoo. When she’s not shuttling kids to their activities, she spends her time reading, writing, walking, and knitting. Her work has been featured in The Windhover and the anthology The Order of Us. Her essay, “Contraction,” is excerpted from her upcoming memoir about her search for meaning and her lost self in the midst of motherhood.

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