The Moment I Learned to Really Love My Child

My mom was on a plane 39,000 feet above me; my husband was at work on the other side of The East River; my nearest friend was one state away; my baby was screaming in the crib, and I was on the living room floor completely losing my shit.

***

She was only a few weeks old, and I lacked experience. I read books, but no parenting book can prepare you to actually be a parent. It had been a nearly sleepless week, and we were both trudging through exhaustion. That day, I tried everything. Everything. Still, she cried. Frustration bubbled up, consuming me, and before the thought of doing something I’d later regret had the chance to wiggle it’s way into my head, I remembered what the nurses said: it’s okay to let her cry sometimes. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe. And never shake the baby.

I couldn’t attempt to soothe her for another bloodcurdling second, so I put her in her crib, shut the door, and walked away.

I pressed my forehead against the cool wood floor, curled my legs into my chest, and left my arms limp at my sides as I wrenched tears from my eyes. I heaved words assembled into desperate pleas at the universe. I prayed to a god I didn’t even know I really believed in for determination and strength to be the mother my crying child needed and deserved.

“Please help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make her stop crying. I’ll do anything,” I begged. “What do I do?”

I rolled over, spread-eagle, and stared at the ceiling. Her cries were reaching decibels so high that the glass chandelier was swaying ever so slightly, reflecting bits of light off the brass. I imagined melting into the floor to disappear from my new role as mother, to hide from that hideous light fixture, to hide from life.

“What do I do?” I repeated in a whisper. I pinched my eyes shut and searched my brain for advice I’d been given and chapters I’d read on this sort of thing. I couldn’t come up with anything that I hadn’t already tried. “Why do I suck at parenting so bad? What am I doing wrong?”

Someone – not me, not anyone in the hallway – someone outside and inside my head simultaneously in the most loving, calming voice said, “Just love her.”

I sat up, eyes wide. I knew that advice. It was something my mother had said to me once.

***

We were taking my dog on a walk through my neighborhood, urging contractions to kick in. I remember flashes of four-family brownstones as the words left her lips. I thought it was awful advice. How could I not love my child?

***

My eyes darted around the living room to see where the voice came from. “Hello?” I asked. No one answered, but I didn’t imagine the voice. It was as real as the cries resonating from behind my child’s bedroom door.  Was it God? Was it my own conscience?  “Just love her?” I asked back. As I repeated the words out loud, something clicked. In the moment when my baby needed me most I wasn’t loving her.

I carefully stood and pushed wet tangles of hair from my face with a fraction of new determination and strength. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, I’m alone, but I have to do it. She and I only have each other.

I opened her door. Her squishy arms, tiny fists, and face the color of confusion, were the first things I saw. Remorse twisted its way through my gut. Am I a horrible mother for letting her cry? I went to her crib with breath stuck in my chest, new tears falling from my eyes. I knew I had to comfort her.

I knew I had to love her.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

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Grandpa’s Garden

Before his stroke, Grandpa was my favorite. I would sit on his belly, round like Santa’s, and ask him if the battery above his heart hurt. I’d lightly press my fingers against the square shape protruding from his chest, and Grandpa would smile wide, toothlessly.

“Naw, Baby Girl. That’s my ticker,” he’d say. I imagined a tiny clock inside his chest, sort of like the Tin Man.

Grandpa was a self-proclaimed botanist, without using so many words. He planted tomatoes and other vegetables, mostly for canning to keep Grandma and him fed through the harsh winter months when the junkyard didn’t need his help sorting metals. I used to walk behind him. I watched Grandpa whisper to his green babies and touch the leaves carefully. He taught me about them, but I can’t remember his lessons.

After my grandpa’s stroke, between first and second grade, we moved in with my grandparents. They owned a duplex, and we lived on the second floor so my mom could care for him.

There were times I wanted to climb back on his belly, but Grandpa’s new oxygen tank made my belly do flips. I thought I could catch whatever was making him so sick. If I get too close, I’ll need one of those tubes in my nose too.

I don’t have a single picture of the stairs in my grandparents’ house, but I remember them perfectly in my mind: hand carved wood painted the same shade of red as fallen leaves just before they turn brown and crumble. I wasn’t allowed to play outside, so when I wanted to get away from everyone I would sit on the landing. I could hear my mom on the phone above and my grandparents’ television below. I sat there playing with dolls or staring at the cracks and chips in the yellow walls pretending they were a part of a roadmap to someplace magical where Grandpa wasn’t ill.

His ticker stopped that autumn. I was in school when it happened. He was there when I left and gone when I got home, crumbled and blown away with the leaves.

All I kept thinking was that I didn’t get a chance to hug him once more, or to really listen to his lessons.

This year, I planted an herb and vegetable garden. It’s nothing like Grandpa’s, small in comparison. I thought about him while I was out there with my hands in the dirt. I touched the plants with care like he used to. Small bits of food have managed to grow, regardless of my natural knack for killing anything green. Although, some of them are limp, hanging on for dear life. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, or right for that matter. If only I could remember what he taught me.

If only we had more time.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

When You Mom So Hard…

Today I literally mommed so hard I smelled like corn chips.

***

I was in the middle of some deep, dreamless sleep, drooling like a puppy onto my Egyptian cotton sheets when my kid startled me awake by tapping me on the temple.

“Mommy. I neeeeeed breakfast right now,” she said. I looked at the clock. I slept in again. Crap.

“Okay, okay,” I said groggily, swatting away her hand. “I’m up.” I stumbled down the stairs with one eye opened, served microwaved mini-pancakes for breakfast, and choked down day-old coffee. Once I was adequately caffeinated, the late-start morning routine looked like a circus on speed. Little people were running half-naked, dogs were dancing on their hind legs, waiting for morsels of food and attention, husband was walking a tightrope between all the living things, trying not to get syrup or slobber on his freshly pressed suit, and I was the acclaimed ring mistress at the center of it all.

At that point, I could feel the underneath of my arms moisten. Yes. I said moisten.

After my husband and oldest child headed off for the day, the toddler and I meticulously built a six-foot-tall rainbow Lego tower. Well she watched and chewed on some Legos while I built. Then my half-blind Beagle knocked it over and the toddler cried, so I quickly built it again.

My pits were no longer only moist, but the underarms of my shirt were sticky too.

Then I watched an episode of Shameless during the toddler’s nap while elliptical-ling. Yep. I multitasked the shtuff out of my kid-free time. BOOM. I washed the dishes without breaking any (a feat any day with my butterfingers), mopped the floor whilst calmly shooing the dogs to stay away (thanks to my stress-relieving kava tea), and did two loads of laundry. That’s washed, dried, folded, and placed in a basket until further notice. I don’t bother putting it away, because that, my friend, is a total waste of time.

Sweat was sticking to that…place. You know the one, ladies.

After that, I chased my oversized Double Doodle past two houses, and three acres, down the street in the pouring rain (because it always rains after I mop). The dog, a muddy mess, was chasing an elderly neighbor with a cute little fur-ball of a pup. They were wearing matching rain coats, for God’s sake. I knew he only wanted to play, but their faces were all twisted in terror so I figured it would be best to rein him in before he tackled the frightened pair in a puddle.

When the toddler woke, I corralled my dogs into their kennel, rushed my oldest daughter to dance practice, and shimmied her sweaty legs into tights in the ‘cozy’ bathroom stall.

That is precisely when I noticed the unpleasant smell coming from under my arms – I forgot deodorant.

I know what you’re thinking, but seriously I wasn’t even embarrassed. I had done enough for the day. If the worst thing I did was forget some personal hygiene, then I’m pretty sure I was momming like a master.

I smelled like corn chips and owned that shit like Mary Catherine Gallagher – superstar! I wore my stink like a Girl Scout badge, or a Supermom cape – with pride. I talked with my hands flailing in the air like those inflatable tube people at the car dealers. I let my stench fill that tiny closet of a room with moms and dads piled in like tuna in a can.

 

Photo courtesy of Seth Doyle/Unsplash

Her Bravery

I distinctly remember the day my mom first showed me her bravery.

We were in my parent’s Chevy Celebrity. I think I was five. The corduroy seats itched the back of my knees, so I kept tugging on my skirt hem. I played with the hand-crank on the window, turning it up and down repeatedly. Each time it was down, warm air seeped inside and got stuck in my nose. And despite the floor being out of reach, I kicked my feet back and forth trying to touch my toes against the carpet.

We were car-dancing to Madonna when my mom gasped and slammed on her brakes. Our heads flew forward then slammed against the seats with a thud. I stopped kicking and car-dancing. Stopped playing with the window. Stopped breathing for the shortest moment.

Everything stood still as our eyes connected in the rear-view mirror. There, I saw concern and love, then determination and strength. All before she blinked.

“Oh, God!” she shouted. I exhaled and the world rotated again. “That car hit the little girl so hard she…” her voice trailed off. I heard the clicking and clacking of the car going into park and her seatbelt being unbuckled, then the slapping of the belt raveling up.

She climbed out of her seat, slammed her door, and stopped in front of my window. “You stay here,” she said, using her voice that meant business. Perseverance filled each line on her face in a way that I had never seen before.

I gulped down a breath bubble and scratched the corduroy seat to feel the fibers under my nails. I nodded yes.

“I mean it, Danielle,” she said.

“Okay, Mommy,” I whispered to her, but she was already jogging away.

I craned my head up to peek out the window and the smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed me. It was a busy street that felt close to home, but I couldn’t tell which one it was. I saw my mom approach a girl lying face down on the pavement. She wasn’t much bigger than me. And behind the girl was a car. Its windshield was caved in and shards of glass glittered against the street. I looked away, afraid and unsure of what was happening.

Time isn’t the same when you are a child, so I don’t know how long I sat there avoiding the scene out of my window, but it felt like hours. I heard sirens and voices just beyond our car. I saw the flashing lights, but I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch.

Eventually everything slowed. No more sirens, lights, or commotion.

My mom opened her door, sat back down in the driver’s seat, and cradled her head in her hands. “I couldn’t save her,” she wept. “I couldn’t save the little girl’s life.”

Photo courtesy of Pexels

When a Friendship Burns

After high school, I moved in with the person I considered to be my best friend. She and I had the same blue corduroys, pixie haircuts, and infatuation with Brandon Boyd from Incubus.

We were inseparable. We’d go out dancing three nights a week, get wasted, and take turns vomiting in the bathroom after too many margaritas. We screamed Linkin Park songs as we drove around aimlessly in her little white pickup truck smoking cigarettes. She was my soulmate, the Thelma to my Louise.

During the height of our friendship, we made a promise that if we never found love, we’d be there for each other, no matter what. We thought we’d end up two old kid-less ladies in a flat downtown with one cat and two dogs. We’d be chain smokers with curlers in our hair and sparkles on our cheeks. A couple of cougars on the prowl, we’d hit the bars night after night getting trashed and having fun.

Oh, the dreams we have when we’re young and stupid.

Our wild behavior only managed to last so long, before we ran out of money. When that happened, I regretfully returned home to my parents. She started dating a guy she met at the club, and stopped spending time with me on the dance floor. There were no longer midnight cruises with our favorite rock bands. Instead, she stayed home watching movies with him.

I’ve learned over time that one person cannot be the sole communicator in a friendship. Without taking turns listening and talking, without being there emotionally, there isn’t much left to hold it together.

Our friendship was losing importance to her, and our communication was dwindling. Each time I asked her to hang out, she claimed to already have plans. It was a sign that she didn’t want me as her friend anymore. I kept trying, leaving her message after message, but she stopped returning my calls.

Eventually, I stopped dialing her number.

Cherie Burbach, a friendship expert, says lack of communication is “one of the biggest reasons” why friendships end. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t figure out how to put the pieces back together. Especially after we had already put each other through hell, and made it through without a single burn.

She took boyfriends from me and lied about it. I took jewelry from her and kept it. We fought over who got to wear the neon pink leopard halter almost weekly, and who got the last beer in the fridge every time we were running low. But we always picked the friendship over the fight. Nothing could tear us apart, until we didn’t have that willingness on both ends to communicate anymore.

Then we had nothing.

Today, we both have kids roughly the same age. We’re both married. We both have our version of white picket fence perfection. Our paths have been similar, but in opposite directions.

I wonder if our relationship would have lasted, had she and I had been raised today. If she could have texted me when she didn’t feel like talking, or messaged me on Facebook, would we have been better off? Or would it have only delayed the inevitable? In my heart, I know even in modern times with better access to communication tools, she would have eventually stopped responding.

So many times I’ve sat in front of my computer with a half-typed message to her, asking simple niceties. But my fingers hover over the enter button, never quite ready to reopen that line. We weren’t destined to be forever friends.

Our relationship was like throwing kerosene on a bonfire: it was intense, fun, and full of energy. But a fire like that can only get so crazy, before someone has to suffocate it. 

Maybe after all these years, I don’t want to find my matches.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Earle/Stocksnap.io

Just Below the Surface: My Relationship With Alcohol

I have this frequent nightmare where I’m underwater, just below the surface of a pool. The water is as grey as the skies above, and I’m cold. So cold. There are brown autumn leaves resting on top of the water, gently rippling from the breeze above. Somehow I know that they are from my parents’ Catalpa tree.  I’m in their pool.  I stretch my hand toward the air, but for some reason I can’t reach the space where water and breeze meet.  And throughout the dream I’m calm. Too calm, even though I know I’m drowning.

Awake, I know the dream isn’t real.  But it is.

It starts with the sound of the cork squeaking out of the bottle, making my heart skip with anticipation.  Even as often as I hear it, it still feels forbidden and exciting. As I pour it, the weight of the bottle feels as familiar as that dream, down to the gurgling sound of the pool filling up.

But it’s the first sip that really gets me. The taste of the tart white or bitter red on my tongue. The feeling of warmth that coats my belly, gives me courage and makes me believe I’m funnier. It tells me I’m better with it, and I nod my head yes in agreement. I know I should stop at the bottom of the first glass, but I pour another and sometimes another.  My head is still above water, I think. I keep drinking.

And when I do, it drags me swiftly down. Instead of thrashing to save myself, I go calmly with chagrin upon my face. I know the place it takes me all too well, and I’m comfortable there, despite knowing the extent it holds me back and pushes me down.

At the bottom of my third glass, the numbness comes. Pain, hurt, bills, everything is gone. It’s only me and my stemless glass. Eventually, I sink.

I’m drowning again.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about how my grandfather loved the bottle a little too much. He would come home angry from the bars night after night, frightening my mom into tears.  And my mom started smoking as a young girl. She tried to quit for years, but never could.

Am I addicted? Hell if I know. I know I don’t feel addicted. I feel stuck. And I know I don’t want to be an addict. I don’t want the blood of an alcoholic, or a smoker, or this ticking time bomb of DNA to define me.  I want my work, my mind, and my kind nature to define me.  I want me to define me.

I am so fucking tired of the cycle. I’m tired of the headache every morning. And I’m tired of that nightmare. I want to dream of blue skies and rays of sunshine instead of grey waters and chill in my bones. I want to watch my children play with clear eyes, instead of through the fog induced by last night’s choices.

I’m also completely afraid. Afraid of knowing who I am sober. Afraid of regaining control. Afraid of asking for help. Afraid of not drinking. Am I ready to commit to that? Is that what I want? What I need?

That’s it. This is where it ends. It won’t control me, like it controlled my grandfather. I will not drown at the bottom of the bottle. It stops today, I swear.

Right after I finish this glass.

***

I wrote the essay above months ago with editing help from the folks at Yeah Write, but didn’t share it out of fear. And my situation hasn’t changed. I drink at least two glasses of wine five nights out of the week. I hate to read that on paper, but I don’t know how to change. Or where to begin the change. Maybe this essay will be it. Maybe not. But I have to start somewhere, because I deserve the chance.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Why Target Moms Are My Tribe

Hey you, Mom in the yoga pants with her hair pulled back in the perfect messy bun, baby strapped securely to your chest in her Ergo while you sip your PSL. You’re perusing those clearance racks because you needed to get out of the house. That’s me, too.

“How can I help you, Ma’am?” the Target employee smiles.

“Hi, I’ll have a tall caramel macchiato with a double shot.”

“Coming right up,” she says. I hand her my REDcard to save 5%.

And what about you, Mom speeding through the aisles at record pace with two kids holding on to the back of the cart for dear life, because you’re late for a birthday party and forgot to buy the damned gift? Last weekend I forgot the wrapping paper. I know the struggle.

“Have a good day, Ma’am,” she says, handing me my coffee.

And there’s you, soon-to-be Mom. You and your hubs are planning the baby shower and maybe, just maybe, you’ve gone a little crazy with that scanner.  But the baby really does need a brand new Kitchen Aid mixer. How else will you make him all those delicious treats? I understand.

“Mama!” my youngest cries out. I hand her a toy to keep her busy.

Then there’s you, newly-minted Mom with your brand new baby. Overly protective Dad is pushing the Peg-Perego and putting the fear of God into anyone who steps within a two-foot radius of your bundle. He wanted to stay home and shelter the kid, but you needed a new t-shirt that said something trendy about working out, even though you haven’t worked out in more than a year. “It will be motivation,” you tell him. Besides, the baby needs to get used to Target because she’ll be here at least twice a week for the rest of her life.

“Diapers are on sale!” I say, tossing some Huggies into the cart.

And you, who’s already opened the economy-sized package of individually-wrapped Market Pantry raisins to keep your toddler from screaming while you load your cart with crap you don’t need, but also can’t live without. Like those really pretty Threshold curtains you’ve been eyeing that are now on Cartwheel. Even though none of your windows need treatments, you may need them one day and you can’t pass up such a good deal. And you found a mediocre red blend on clearance, so you grabbed that to drink after the kiddos are tucked in and you’re watching American Horror Story on your DVR. I’ve been there. So many times.

Then there’s you, who’s finally out of the house without children. You have the look of crazy in your eyes because you are free. What do you do? You come to Target sans babies. You shop at your own speed with your child-free red cart. You’re buying nothing but underwear and applesauce.

I look in my cart. “Diapers, wine and fancy hand soap,” I say out loud.

And you. The one with a kid having a nuclear meltdown in front of the cashier (who amazingly still has a smile stuck to her face), because he can’t have those Legos. Damn, I’m sorry. Last week mine was screaming over a new pony.

“I know I’m forgetting something,” I say to my toddler.

Finally, there’s you, the Coupon Queen. You are in front of me paying for a cute Merona fall jacket. It’s on sale, plus on Cartwheel. And you have a coupon. You pay just $2.27, look back at me and wink.

I see you, I get you and I AM you.

One definition of tribe says that a tribe is “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”

It’s human nature to seek out places and people that make us feel safe and welcome. It starts with cliques and sports in school, then moves to nightclubs in our twenties and finally department stores in our thirties. When I go to Target, a sense of calm washes over me. I can count on Target like an old friend who greets me warmly with fresh coffee, no matter what time I get to her house, or how I look. No matter the city or state, Target is always the same and I get exactly the kind of quality experience I was expecting to get. So to all you moms doing your thing at Target, I get it. Because I’m there too. You are part of my tribe. The cute little dog is our friendly leader and the Target employees are our pseudo babysitters while we pick out our cheap wine.

“Crap. Dog food. I forgot the dog food,” I shrug my shoulders, because I know I’ll be back.

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So until tomorrow, when I see you again. We’ll meet under the big red bullseye and sip our Starbucks while we shop.