Often the Look was not particularly stern. Nor scary. In fact, Mama’s Look was eerily subtle on its surface. The pain danced on the edges—dangerously jagged, sharp points skirting the axis of her wan expression. It was clear, even to a young child, that just beyond the thin layer of restraint lay a machete-like stab of pure, unadulterated, extra-strength INDIFFERENCE.
The Look rode shotgun with an audible sigh—weary and deep. A pointed and distinctive breath dripping heavily with enough annoyance and discontent to let you know Mama was so, so sick and tired of your very existence in that moment. On the exhale, an assiduous listener—like myself—might strain to make out muffled syllables cloaked under exasperated huffs. That was when her simmering aggravation was given voice—ever so faintly. Soft as a whisper, but laced with aversion, the words escaped her pursed lips: “Child, please . . .”
In other words, “Go someplace and sit down.” Child, please said, “Get out of my face.” It meant, “You don’t even warrant the energy it would take to go off on your behind.” For Mama, Child, please was also shorthand for “I’m going to smoke me a cigarette and I want nothing to do with your foolishness.” At that, she’d softly turn on her heel for a cutting exit. Pure theater. Had we owned velvet curtains they’d have closed dramatically then and there.
We did not.
For the next ten minutes or so I felt like a bothersome speck of lint on her black bell-bottom pants. Certainly there is an expert out there right now decrying the near-abusive blow to my self-esteem. But don’t give me that noise about kids’ confidence. I’m not trying to hear it. In most households these days, the children could stand to be knocked down a notch or two. Mama’s Child, please packed a powerful and dramatic lesson. She was tone deaf, but her message held poetic rhythms, like the Queen of Soul chirping: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me! Her Child, please was all about the boundaries Mama expected us kids to recognize. In an instant—before she uttered a sound, or even heaved in exasperation—I knew I’d crossed an indelible line.
My own kids? Hmmm . . . they sort of get the whole boundary thing, but it’s not quite as reflexive as I’d like. For example, they sometimes butt into grown folks’ conversation—as modern children are wont to do. And then have the nerve to give me a look of puppy-dog confusion when I call them on it. I am forced to remind them: “Dude, I dared not even look in my mother’s direction when she was talking to her friends; your head is jogging back and forth like you’re checking a match at Arthur Ashe Stadium.” Honestly, they are better than most. Usually they try to control themselves, but the fact is, kids today harbor the illusion that they are our equals. They fancy themselves smarter, shorter adults—less keys and credit cards.
Back in the day, mothers didn’t suffer the mess we put up with now. Of course, the culture as a whole was far more stringent. No one I knew was unfamiliar with the sting of a belt across their backside. Beyond that, though, we didn’t take our parents’ attention—or their affection—for granted.
I, for one, wanted Mama’s approval. And it was clearly a prize not easily won. Mama loved us. Of that my siblings and I had no doubt. But we also knew she wasn’t necessarily in love with us—at least not just because.
There was no cheering our descent down the slide. She didn’t hang with clusters of moms at the playground like infatuated groupie spectators squealing from the stands. Nor did she gush over our every stick figure drawing and plaster them all over the house. Like everyone else’s mother, Mama was happy and sufficiently enthused when we won a spelling bee or some such achievement, but she wasn’t hanging on our words or asking, “You okay?” all the time. I’m pretty sure we took up no more of her energy than was necessary. Without saying so, she let us know we kids could sometimes rock her world, but we couldn’t be her world.
That’s why Mama observes my generation of mothers with befuddled amusement. She concedes, of course, that times have changed: We mothers have more complicated lives and our kids face far more dangers. Still, the self-flagellating, all-consuming obsession to raise a child in a fashion akin to a recipe-perfect soufflé is mind-blowing to her. And it’s no wonder. Mothering as an extreme sport is a world far removed from her own sensibilities. When I stop to think about how my friends and I live, here are just some of the ways we differ from old-school motherhood:
• Mama didn’t run out of the house—as I often do—wearing ill-fitting clothes and no lipstick.
• She didn’t fret about how well I did in school, how easily I made friends, or how good I was in music lessons. (Wait . . . Oh, that’s right. I didn’t have music lessons.)
• Mama never hired a babysitter.
• She didn’t know of, consider, or care about child-friendly explanations for life’s difficulties. “Well. Your uncle Dave decided to blow his brains out” sufficed.
• She never let our displeasure get in the way of her good time, dancing the Funky Chicken till her legs tired, oblivious to our tears from embarrassment.
• Mama didn’t pencil in “girlfriend time”; she relished hours-long, impromptu chat fests whenever Aunt San or Sugar decided to drop by the house.
• She threw parties at the drop of a hat and took full advantage of our free labor, putting us to work making the deviled eggs and cream cheese celery sticks. (We loved every minute—especially those times Jimmy Mo’ got drunk.)
• She seldom took our side in a misunderstanding or report of misconduct. If a neighbor, a teacher, or any other grown-up accused us of wrongdoing, we were presumed guilty until proven innocent.
• Mama never played shrink. Her lips never formed words like “Tell me about it” or “How did that make you feel?”
• Mama wasn’t studying us.
As kids we accepted this reality. It was neither harsh nor troubling; rather, it seemed the natural order of things. As a child you knew you didn’t matter all that much in the grown-up world. If you lay bleeding, someone would probably attend to you. And if you acted out, you definitely commanded notice. But, by and large, grown-ups were not studying kids. I don’t mean the academic studying that leads to a weird analysis, like “SpongeBob linked to attention deficits” or “Daycare increases aggression in kids.” In southern black parlance, studying means “paying attention to.” And lest my siblings and I get any fleeting misapprehension that we figured into the larger scheme of things, Mama was quick to remind us: “Child, I am not studying you!”
As any fool could see, Mama had the whole motherhood thing down to a science. Her ship was tight—so tight she reminded us almost daily, “I’m the captain; you’re the crew.”
Through the lens of modern parenting, Mama’s ways may seem to border on neglect—given our national obsession with everything child-related. But they worked. The old-fashioned “not studying you” method fostered independence, self-reliance, and a generation of thinkers and doers—running circles around our newfangled, expert concepts.
Mama had balance—without really even trying—and without a gaggle of contrived self-help tips telling her how to get it. She and her friends didn’t sit around and gab about balance between drags on their cigarettes, saying, “Girrrl, I gotta get me some balance!” They didn’t wonder if they spent enough quality time with us kids. And they damn sure weren’t pressed about finding “me time.” The very concept would’ve sent them into howling spasms of laughter.
“Girl, it’s all ‘me time’! Who else’s time is it gon’ be?”
People say I’m a lot like Mama. Family and friends have always said I got her smile, her high forehead and cheekbones. Growing up, I was never able to see what they saw. I figured we looked like we were related, but I never grasped the “your-mama-spit-you-out!” so obvious to the outside world. But now, in my forties, I finally get it. In fact, there are days when a mirror catches me by surprise and I see her staring back at me. Her mouth. Her stance.
But beyond the physical markers, there are glimpses of her Mama-ness slowly creeping up on me. It is more palpable—for some reason—now than ever before. Lord knows, my kids have spent the better part of their short lives trying to work my last good nerve. It’s their job, I tell myself. No need to find the just-right response: Is this a teachable moment? Do I take away a privilege? Do I try to empathize?
No. I just take a good, long breath . . . Child, please.
Hiiiii. How Ahhh Youuu? Please picka your cullaaa!”
How sweet the sound of the Korean ladies at Seven Nails. I know the same rote greeting is showered upon every customer who walks in. Still, something about the saccharine-dipped chorus tickles me. It’s nice to know that even midweek, early in the afternoon, the trademark smiles and singsong pleasantries of my trusted nail ladies do not waver. At thirty-nine-and-a-half weeks pregnant I had no business waddling down Seventh Avenue, risking life and limb in the treacherous postnap rush of Park Slope stroller traffic. It’s true that some experts advise a pre-labor enema, but What to Expect When You’re Expecting said nary a word about trim cuticles and fresh shellac.
To my mind a mani-pedi made perfect sense. Any day now, a mess of amniotic fluid could be running down my inner thighs like hot pee. My hormone-charged imagination found me sopping it up in the aisles of Duane Reade or on the D train, while my fellow commuters pretended to look away. In the event of some horrifically humiliating scenario, a nice coat of Ballet Slippers could make the whole experience a little more, you know, classy.
Besides, I knew I was having a girl and she’d likely appreciate this ladylike gesture. I’d decided to call her Chloe. I liked that Chloe had played a brief but prominent role in the New Testament. Chloe was also Toni Morrison’s given name. Clearly, mine would be no simple child.
We were tight—my soon-to-be firstborn and me. We’d been involved in some pretty intense heart-to-hearts since around week twenty-two of my pregnancy. That was when I found out that—despite virtually every casual observer’s comments—I was having a girl. Up until then I had come to believe the extremely vocal group of Midtown Manhattan construction workers who saw it as their appointed duty to track the spread of my butt cheeks and make their gender predictions accordingly. I was thoroughly disgusted by the fact that not even the sanctity of impending motherhood got in the way of their vulgarity. But at the same time, I thought the brutes might know a thing or two. Several of the hard hats yelled things like, “Yo, Mommy . . . You lookin’ goooood, baby; that’s a boy seed up in there.” Grandmotherly types concurred. Sizing up the shape and positioning of my belly with knowing looks, they’d say, “I hope you’ve got your boy names picked out.”
Then came the ultrasound—which revealed not even a shadow of dangly little male parts. I was “scurred” as an ice-grilled Dirty South gangster rapper. I lay stunned on that ultrasound table for a good while, taking it in. How in the world was I supposed to usher that sketchy little unborn blob on the screen into full-grown Black Womanhood?
I didn’t fear actually giving birth. For some reason, I figured that would be the easy part. Of course, no visibly pregnant woman is safe from the onslaught of delivery horror stories that greet you at every turn. On occasion, these dramatic miniseries of seventy-two-hour labors and emergency C-sections did rattle me a bit. But despite a reigning consensus that my hips were too narrow for a baby to slide forth, I had a gut feeling things would go smoothly.
My hunch was confirmed when my pregnancy entered its home stretch; I was waiting for the crosstown bus on my way home from a prenatal visit. (I didn’t know then that it would be my last office check-in.) My eye caught a kindly black woman staring at me and smiling. She asked if I was ready—gesturing toward my oversized midsection. I laughed. “Not even,” and told her about my unpacked hospital bag and still-unbought baby gear. She smiled and said, “Never mind all that, baby girl. Get yourself right.” I sensed that maybe the small talk was a ruse and she was about to start ranting, “REPENT! REPENT!” like the wild Bible thumpers in Times Square. But she just kept smiling. I suppose I was visibly confused. She said, “God made you a woman, didn’t he?” I nodded and she whispered, “Relax . . . let it do what it do.”
Maybe that’s why I was bold enough (or stupid enough) to duckwalk it to the nail salon in my condition. In my own defense, though, I thought I had a lot of time to kill. Hours before setting out for Seven Nails, I’d called my doctor because Chloe was waging quiet mortal combat all up in my nether regions. I had no way of knowing what back labor felt like, but let me just say that Chloe’s sharp movements gave stark illumination to the term ass whooping.
Dr. Shaun Biggers was my OB/GYN but could well have been one of my best girlfriends. We vibed like that. During my last visit she kept going on and on about how my cervix was “nicely effacing.” I accepted the compliments (Go cervix! Go cervix!) with no real understanding of what the heck she meant. That afternoon when she answered my page, I gave her an efficient and comprehensive report of everything going on “down there,” but I could tell she was not moved. In fact, it seemed as though my litany of earth-shattering vaginal events was boring her. In a kind and professional voice, she suggested that—this being my first pregnancy and all—I might be in this “pre-labor” state for days. My heart of hearts told me otherwise, but she summarily announced that she and her girlfriends were heading out to see How Stella Got Her Groove Back that night. She was too nice to actually articulate the words, but the sister-girl tone of her voice said, and don’t bother me with no nonsense. She then ordered me to “chill.” Seven Nails beckoned.
Initially things at the salon went well, but as I attempted to transfer my wide body from the pedicure station—with its raised platform and gargantuan chairs—I felt weak and nauseated. I tried to play it cool. As the Nail Salon Lady began the ritualistic lotion massage, a sharp spasm pierced my back through to the left side of my abdomen. I quickly waved my hands—like a white flag—and announced: “I think I’m kind of in labor.” I spoke quietly, hoping that for the remainder of the session it would be our little secret.
No such luck. If the Nail Salon Ladies were a sweet girl group at the start of my visit, they were now elevated to Brooklyn Tabernacle proportions. Only I’d clearly thrown them off their rhythm. They broke out in a frenzied kind of jazz improv routine, filled with scats and such. This new tune was not so melodic as their usual repertoire. After just a couple of moments the contraction passed. And eager to restore some sense of calm, I whispered: “Skip the second coat; I should get going.”
That must’ve been music to their ears. With choreographed precision the Nail Salon Ladies went all triage on me—while one painted my right hand a colleague painted the left and another positioned a small fan at my freshly painted toes. Within ten minutes I was out of there—trudging through the crowded streets of Park Slope, desperate for the cool comfort of my living room sofa.
Did I mention that it was mid-August? For the record, let me just say that the rising mercury and overall hazy-hot-humid stench of New York City does not mix well with labor or the symptoms that usually accompany it. I was drenched with sweat soaking right down to the ample, Big Mama drawers I’d grown so fond of during these last several weeks of swollenness. My fleshy thighs—the beneficiaries of at least half of my pregnancy weight gain—were fighting again, hitting each other in a tit-for-tat scuffle so fierce I could feel the chafing. And a slimy sour cast had begun to well up in my mouth as a reminder that my morning’s breakfast wanted out.
The Great Trek finally ended as I got inside our apartment and headed straight for the shower, where I stood, as best I could stand, under the streaming water for thirty minutes or thirty hours—I’m not sure which. Still sweltering and light-headed, I opted to forgo the whole towel routine—air-drying myself instead by lying on the cold tile floor. That was where Mark found me, looking like a beached whale from a tearjerker special on Discovery Channel, when he came home from work.
In hindsight, I can appreciate how scary it must’ve been for him. But I was not in my right mind. And when he started to panic, insisting that we go to the hospital, I lost it. I really went off. “I. AM. JUST. CHILLING!” I yelled.
He was all in a tizzy. And even though I didn’t get up off the floor (I swear, the cool tiles felt like heaven in that moment), I could hear him pacing the length of the apartment.
I guess my “just chilling” explanation was not all that convincing. He kept going back and forth, forth and back—the percussion of Johnston & Murphy vibrating to shattering effects from my eardrums to my kidneys. Right about the time he rounded the hallway for the umpteenth time, I about lost my mind! (On background, just so you know, I had asked the man to take off his shoes in the house since I met him—just because I think that’s what people in civilized society ought to do. Was it really too much to ask?) Here I am in labor and I’m forced to deal with his trifling mess. I began screaming and screaming, “TAKE. OFF. YOUR. SHOES!” There was some cussing tossed in there as well, but I’ll spare you the coarse details.
Between a baby mercilessly beating upon all my organs and a husband breaking the sound barrier, I couldn’t get an ounce of calm. Maybe a trip to New York Presbyterian Hospital would do me good. “Let’s go,” I said finally.
Mark grew a little more at ease once I agreed to get up off the floor and leave the house peaceably. The fact that it was nearly impossible to actually sit my behind on the car seat struck me as just another symptom of early labor. So I went yogi; I hoisted my butt up—in a sort of lifted lotus pose—using my arms to support my body weight the entire way from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side. Along the arduous trip up the FDR, the contractions were intensifying and I braced myself against the potholes relentlessly abusing my cervix.
To my great relief, we arrived in fairly short order. But, lo and behold, somewhere on the FDR, Mark had found his labor-coach mojo. As we tried to extract my body from the car, he started prattling on in trainer-speak: “You’re doing great, babe.” “You’re almost there.” I know the intent was to encourage me, but it was working my last nerve. Big-time. Why on earth did he choose this moment to relive his college football days? The rah-rah voice? Cheering, even—“Yes! You can do it!” I do wish I could’ve been more kind. He meant well. But this was not first-and-goal and I was not some backup quarterback coming off the bench. I didn’t want to go off in public, but everybody knows that times like this bring out the evil in a sister! It took all I had not to utter the string of expletives pushing against my lips.
Meanwhile, down at my hips, Chloe was also pressing. Hard. Fortunately, my child did not need a cheering section to get her into the end zone. Once I got my whalelike hips up to the labor and delivery table, come to find out, I was dilated nearly nine centimeters, a medical way of saying “Homegirl was ret tuh go!”
To this day, I can’t be sure if Mark called this play or what. But he and a burly nurse had gone into a tag-team formation of sorts just as I began to push—each standing on either side of me. With all the grace and decorum of Fred Flintstone grabbing a brontosaurus leg, the nurse held up one thigh and Mark the other (luckily I’d had a thorough bikini wax days prior, slightly mitigating the beastly effect of the whole event). Somehow it all worked and Chloe arrived on the scene smoothly, probably eager to witness the circus for herself (to this day, she loves a drama).
And there she was. Ta-da!
I know I have no right to complain. Despite myself I’d had a safe and trauma-free childbirth experience. I mean, I’d become a mom in less time than it takes to get in and out of the Flatbush Avenue DMV and survive the surly workers who all but spit in your face. Here she was. Yessir, she was born all right. A sight to behold. Really, in her own special way, she was beautiful-ish.
Let me explain . . . She had a really cute little mouth and lots of hair. I guess I was just expecting something—well, different. Mama says I was a big baby. As my in-laws tell it, Mark clocked in at around eight pounds. Although I worked out during the pregnancy, I denied myself nary a French fry. So why in God’s name did my loin fruit, born only four days shy of her late-summer due date, pop out looking like the spawn of Posh Beckham?
Chloe weighed a little over five and a half pounds. Old black folks from down South (and not-so-old ones up North) had a name for her physical frailty. She was a “po’ chile.” Yes, my new baby was freakishly scrawny—UNICEF-worthy, even. Probably she would’ve been a hit on the late-night charity infomercial circuit—the kind Sally Struthers could just eat up. When the doctor placed her naked boniness on my chest on that sticky-hot Tuesday night of August eighteenth, Chloe’s entire being seemed nothing but pupil, round near-black planes bulging from a teensy little head. “Where did this Chihuahua-looking-wannabe-human creature come from?” I wondered.
As she shivered and bawled, Chloe’s gaze was fixed on me—eyeing me with an intent defying her minutes-old entry into the world. It lasted for all of twenty seconds; I remember the countenance to this day as she lay there staring up at me like I was the miracle. If it was not love at first sight, it was at the very least penetrating intrigue.
Before too long, though, the kid had me. Once they wiped off some of the blood and slime and she lay on my chest—still bawling, at volume levels of a baby twice her size—I could feel the Love Jones coming on. And I knew life could not get any better than that moment. To this day, I remember that awestruck feeling. And once in a while, Chloe still can make my heart skip a beat. I guess that’s why she’s my favorite child. But please don’t tell anyone, because mothers are really not supposed to say such things.
Despite appearances, her Apgar score was good and they assured me she was in prime shape. I say “they” because Dr. Biggers never did make it. I guess the chiseled hotness of Taye Diggs (in Technicolor, no less) proved too much to resist. Who could be mad at that?
Mom and baby had managed just fine. I was no worse for wear and Chloe was as hearty as any newborn in the nursery—a couple of L.B.s short of bouncy, but healthy just the same.
The next morning she was starting to “cute up” a bit. But I would not be satisfied until I got her to fill out. The prospects did not look good. I’d read every morsel of information on breast-feeding, but it seemed to me—although she was less than twelve hours old—Chloe already had attitude. Girlfriend wanted to call all the shots, like it was her world and I was just a squirrel. The books laid out all the steps and I followed them. I was doing what I was supposed to do, but this chick clearly had a rebel streak in her pint-sized self. It was as though she were saying, House Party style: “Hold up . . . Wait a minute!”
Chloe was determined to make her own latch-on rules, despite my attempts to encourage her otherwise. I couldn’t tell if she was getting any milk at all. But the raw state of my itty-bitty titties told me that this child was doing more gnawing than nursing.
Is this normal? I wondered. The lactation expert said what I’d pretty much surmised on my first full day of motherhood: Breast-feeding is natural, but—like Big Daddy Kane’s pimpin’—it sho’ ain’t easy. Some babies require more nudging than others. She talked about the “rooting” reflex and how some babies don’t automatically know how to latch on—they have to be coaxed, directed even.
It was all very troubling. I mean, clearly, Chloe was as bright as other newborns in the nursery. Right? Would she lag in other ways too? Would she roll over? Learn the ABC song? Go to college?
A bit of my mama began to kick in. “This calls for some tough love,” I thought. I tried holding Chloe’s tiny mouth open wider so she’d latch on the way babies are supposed to. But when she started to fuss and cry, I punked out. At the next feeding I tried gently pushing the breast into her mouth. But that didn’t quite work out either. She’d just clamp her gums down tight on any piece of flesh she could—sending daggerlike pains to every nerve ending in my racked body.
In my pre-delivery fantasies, I saw myself nursing my new baby and looking like one of those blissed-out magazine cover models in my OB/GYN’s waiting room. Mama had made no secret of the fact that breast was not best in her book. So I wanted her to see how wonderful it would be. Hardly. Mama would soon arrive and nursing was not fun yet.
I needn’t have fretted. Seeing Chloe made Mama as happy as I’d ever seen her in my entire life. So happy, in fact, she’d promptly forgotten I was in the room. Heaven only knows where her thoughts took her as she stared at this newborn product of her. Did she wish her own mother were alive to share this bliss? Did she feel surprised or overwhelmed by the surge of love her heart was pouring out onto this child? Did she have just a tinge of longing for the maternal bond she had never experienced?
After she held Chloe for what seemed like several days, she handed her off to the nurse and—still beaming—looked to me and said, “You look good, baby.” I couldn’t possibly have looked all that good. To a mother I suppose I did. Mama had said those four words with frequency my whole life.
But now, as an adult, I was beginning to learn that they were like a code language for Mama. I would hear them after I’d suffered my first miscarriage. Again, after the second, and on several other occasions when Mama’s heart was too full to elaborate.
They were as close as she could get to utterances that sounded anything like:
• This is a wonderful/difficult moment.
• I feel (fill in the blank) proud/touched/sad/delighted/unsettled/a brew of happiness and yearning.
• How do you feel?
It was all good, though. While she was not always easy to read, today Mama’s eyes told me that, without a doubt, she was mostly experiencing unbridled joy. She looked on curiously as I fumbled through another clumsy breast-feeding session. Then, as only a mother can, she began asking a long series of well-meaning—and maddening—questions: “Is she getting anything?” “How do you know how many ounces?” “You sure you don’t want to pack this formula and take it home?” “You know it’s free, right?”
By the time we left the hospital, Chloe had invented her own brand of nursing, quite unlike anything I’d read about in the baby books and nowhere near the steps laid out by the lactating geniuses on staff. And Mama tried her level best not to judge, which was hard—given that there didn’t seem to be all that much for her to do during Chloe’s first few days of life.
Mama didn’t like what I fed the baby. Give that child a bottle and call it a day.
Mama didn’t like when I fed the baby. It’s every four hours—not every whenever.
She didn’t like “doctor-recommended” advice. I guess common sense isn’t common at all.
She said I didn’t swaddle the baby right. Wrap. Tuck. Fold. Simple.
I held the baby wrong too: My grip was supposed to be tight. I can just look at that poor child and tell she’s uncomfortable.
And why the hell was I holding the baby so much anyway? According to Mama, I carried her too much. Fussed too much. Thought too much. Read too much. Bought too much.
Mama was too much.
In hindsight I should’ve known we might butt heads. Mama and I hadn’t spent concentrated, 24/7 time together since I was a child. Back then, she said I could be anything I wanted to be. I believed her.
After high school, I left the cold, gritty gray of Buffalo for Northwestern University outside Chicago—the only school I’d applied to. My grades, SAT scores, and essay were pretty good. Not great. Probably I’d willed myself out of Buffalo, into the Medill School of Journalism. For my entire adult life, Mama and I were separated by hundreds of miles. She liked visiting me in Chicago. When I moved East, she loved visiting me in New York. Between visits, we talked on the phone all the time. Shared secrets. Laughed. I liked to think we were close despite the distance.
On an extraordinarily pleasing August day—clear skies with a southerly wind—we brought the baby home to the Park Slope apartment my husband had renovated himself. Three bedrooms, plus outdoor space. By city standards, it was palatial. With Mama in my cozy space of new motherhood, the walls began to close in upon me. Her scrutiny lurked in every room, every nook and cranny. I soon learned I had not only failed Baby Basics, but I had a slew of heretofore undiscovered shortcomings that needed her urgent attention.
• Mama said I was not cleaning our wood floors properly. Damp mopping with vinegar was apparently the only way to go.
• Mama said I needed to “do something” with my hair.
• Mama said I should encourage my husband more often—praise him for changing a diaper, cleaning spit-up, and performing virtually every act of caregiving he bestowed upon the creature born of DNA he’d so willingly provided.
• Mama said I should sleep when the baby slept—unless of course she sent me on an errand or two.
• Mama said that from the looks of my still-bulging belly, the doctors had maybe forgotten to deliver the baby’s hidden twin. She cracked herself up with that one.
I have no scientific proof, but I am pretty sure that in most families a new baby is a sweetly moving experience, rich in promise and emotion. I suppose Mama felt some of that. Deep down. Right now, though, there was no time for snotty-nosed sentiment. This was all business. The feeding schedules, bedtime rituals, and other baby regulations required her utmost attention and my meticulous compliance—postnatal hormones, sleep deprivation, and new-mom vulnerability be damned.
We had a baby to raise. So what if the poor li’l thing couldn’t yet see straight and her tissue-paper-thin skin still peeled daily. Rules were rules. And they were made to be followed. Naptime was naptime. Period. Only a fool would risk a child’s total ruination by jumping up whenever she cried. Not on Mama’s watch. As she declared with dark foreboding on more than one occasion: “What you do at six weeks, you’ll do at sixteen!” Usually this dire warning was accompanied by a raised eyebrow—her left, which was code for Go ahead with your fool self. Don’t act like I never told you.
Mama had a plan to whip me into shape but good. She would make a mama out of me if it killed us. It nearly did.
Once while I nursed my baby in the quiet stillness of our marital bed, Mama came in to pull my tiny newborn infant off my swollen breast—oblivious to the near-industrial-strength powers of a baby’s suction-cup grip: “C’mon now . . . Let go. It’s bath time,” she cloyingly sang in a newly acquired grandmother lilt. When her grandchild wailed, Mama would simply sing louder, often dropping a passive-aggressive comment (in baby talk, of course) on her way out—something like, “Thank you, Grandma. Silly mommy doesn’t hold me right.”
Even when Mama left me to my own devices with the baby (a rarity), her judgments echoed in my head, largely because I could hear her in the next room. Mama always enjoyed gossip with her friends—“Sugar” and a core group of two or three women were like “other mothers” to my siblings and me. They called frequently to check on me. Mere seconds after gushing with grandma pride, Mama would start in. Born lacking the filter mechanism that keeps most humans from disgorging any and all brain wave activities, Mama felt she ought to share her observations of my amateurish maternal performance with everyone. In fact, she delighted in these chat fests.