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WE WUZ ROBBED
It's Christmastime. A shiny bright apple of a day in San Francisco and the three of us--me, my husband, Jeff, and our one-year-old son, Max--are at a concert. Max's in red corduroy overalls and a striped shirt, his hair long and golden as the day ahead of us. The concert's been going on for an hour already and the whole time Max has been contentedly sitting on his father's lap, so enthralled by the music, he seems hypnotized. Already, a woman has come over to compliment us on our well-behaved baby. "What a love!" she coos, chucking Max under the chin. Someone else crouches and snaps his picture. And then Jeff quietly looks at me and says "I have to pee."
We both know what that means. He quietly lifts Max up and sets him on my lap, and startled, Max looks wildly around. Jeff hastens to the bathroom, and almost as if on cue, Max begins to scream.
He wails when I try to rock him. He tries to peel himself off my body when I croon. And when I stand, trying to gently dance with him, he flails his hands. "Is he okay?" the person next to us asks with great concern, and I nod. "Colic," I lie, my mouth quivering. "A little stomach bug." I try to walk with Max, just to get away from all the concerned stares, and then suddenly there's Jeff, who takes Max again, and all the crying stops. We all sit back down, and even if no one is looking at us, I feel as though they are, and I feel as if I've failed, as if I'm some terrible monster of a mother that my own son screams when I try to hold him.
I halfheartedly hand Max a pacifier and he swats it out of my hand. "Fine," I snap. "Do without."
Jeff blinks at me. "He's a baby," he says quietly. "You know better."
I did know better. I knew that for the first three months of Max's life, I was critically ill and in a hospital, so all the bonding we were supposed to have just never happened. I knew that for the next three months I was still too sick to hold him, to feed him, to do more than talk to him and that, despite what magazines say, babies can recognize their moms by scent. This particular baby was more likely to recognize his blanket than he was me. The truth was, I didn't really know him. He didn't really know me. And what's more, he didn't seem to like me and I hadn't a clue what to do about it other than to sometimes, to my great shame and bewilderment, not like him back.
I tried but I wasn't always a good mother. I didn't look the part, bloated from the steroids I had to take for my illness, my skin gray, my hair falling out. To bond with him, I began to care for him, changing his diapers when he'd let me, giving him his bottle because I was too sick to breast-feed. One day, I was leaning over him, tickling him with my hair trying to get him to laugh, when a hank of my hair slid off, dusting his belly. Horrified, I grabbed for the hair the same time Max did, and jerked it out of his hand so hard he whimpered, and within minutes, we both were weeping.
Jeff soothed me. My friends soothed me. "Mothering is exhausting," a friend told me. "One day I was so tired, I put Sammy in the laundry hamper and left him there." She quickly added, "But I took him right out. Don't be so hard on yourself."
How could I not be?
It was Jeff who pushed us together, who made himself scarce. Max, of course, wasn't happy, which in turn, made me tense. But I was determined. I tried to do all the right things, to read to him, to splash him in his bath, to keep a smile on my face. One day, when I was reading to him, we both fell asleep on the bed together, and when we woke, we were gazing into each other's eyes, and I felt the shock of connection, and then, he lifted his small hand, like a starfish, and laid it against my cheek. He snuggled against me, and though I wasn't sleepy anymore, you couldn't have moved me with a forklift.
The great myth is that mother love comes instantly, as natural as breathing. Oh, maybe it does, for the lucky ones. All I know is, as they say, "We wuz robbed," Max and me. I missed out on the first few months, the plans I had had to read to him, to talk with him, the time I had arranged to be no one's but his. And he missed out, too. He had the adoration of his dad and his grandmothers, and a devoted baby nurse. But he didn't have me. And when we got to have each other, we each found a stranger in our midst. We both had to grapple with a person you get to know, you come to love. You realize you can no more do without them than you can without the oxygen you breathe.
Max is eight now. We spend almost all our time together and I take nothing for granted. I listen to him. I make him laugh. I watch him sleep. And every time he calls for me or seeks me out or takes my hand, I feel undone by my happiness. We're the love of each other's lives and I know the struggle it took to get there; I know what it cost both of us, and maybe that's what makes it all the more sweet.
UNFIT FOR MOTHERHOOD
I wasn't over the imperfect birth of my first son, as a planned cesarean, when I learned that my second child was sitting breech position in my womb at eight months pregnant. Although the C-section resulted in a healthy, six-pound baby boy, I still felt gypped of my dream of a natural, vaginal birth in a birthing center with my baby's father cutting his umbilical cord.
The first time around, I failed miserably at all my attempts to turn the little guy's head down. Nothing worked. Not even my constant flips at the swimming pool, or my lying on the ironing board upside down for half an hour every day. A screaming baby arrived from behind the blue drapes hiding my split-open belly. I could only kiss him and rub my cheek against his for my arms were tied to the operating table.
This birth of my first son had taught me, at the gut level, that not everything in my life was under my control. Since I saw my second pregnancy as a chance to finally make things right, I was devastated upon learning that I should not attempt to deliver baby number two vaginally either. Following my doctor's instructions, I scheduled a cesarean at the hospital. And I was even more terrified, because in addition to the recovery of a major operation, I'd have a toddler running around the apartment.
Still, I did not give up. In my search for the perfect delivery, I read plenty of material to better understand the breech presentation, and why it happens. Some experts believed that it could be a result of tension held in the mother's lower abdomen, caused by excessive fear over something.
I spent hours at night wondering what exactly scared me so much. So many things bothered me. How could I find the one, that magical point that could transform me into the perfect pregnant woman? Clearly, something needed fixing, but I could not pinpoint what it was. In a bizarre twist of my mind, I began to consider my inability to carry the babies properly as a testament to my many failures, to my sheer imperfection.
I would have continued my pointless wondering in this mental world had it not been for my cheerful toddler and the most unreasonable urge to nest. As the beautiful weather approached, I was busy walking my one-year-old to the park, picking up daisies and bugs, cleaning the sand from his toys. I cleaned up the apartment, changed around the rooms, did a lot of groceries and laundry, sent lots of parcels with birthday presents and notes to our friends, and made new curtains. At night, as I lay exhausted on my bed, I touched my huge belly and felt my baby's head up close to my heart and his little feet kicking softly down my pelvis. This all kept me grounded and connected to the real world.
It was in the middle of one of these busy summer days when I climbed down from a city bus, waddling onto the sidewalk. A strong breath of air caressed my face, messed up my hair, and draped my blouse softly around my belly. Caught by surprise by my reflection in the mirror, I smiled. Strangely enough, I suddenly felt lightness in everything around me. For a moment I was a little girl giggling and skipping down the street saying out loud, "So what??"
"So what if I cannot find the missing piece in the breech baby puzzle?"
"So what if the baby is born by cesarean?"
"So what if I am so imperfect?"
"I am happy being here, being myself, carrying this little baby inside of me."
That night I felt an irresistible urge to write a letter. To whom I didn't know, but it was one of rage: against myself and against my own imperfect mom. As I contemplated my relationship with my mom, so much anger and pain surfaced. But then I began to envision her as a little girl, crying by herself in a room where the noise of my grandma's sewing machine was all she could hear. And then I saw my imperfect grandmother, making a wholehearted attempt to support her eight children, running up and down the house trying to make ends meet.
I cried for a long time, acknowledging all the love used up in trying be good mothers. At the end of the night, my desk was covered with stories of imperfect mothers woven together: their mistakes, vices, and love twined onto a fine thread woven down to my own experience with my sons.
The next morning I went to visit my midwife. As she massaged my back to release tension that day, she noticed more room in my pelvis. She said my body was ready, and began to try to turn the baby inside of me. He responded and positioned his head down the birth canal, in preparation for a natural birth.
When the happy moment of the birth arrived, we were all there: my deceased grandma, my mother living an ocean away, and myself. We were breeding life, and I embraced our imperfection as I did my new son.
I'LL GET TO IT TOMORROW
As if pregnancy weren't uncomfortable enough, Mother Nature and her twisted sense of humor blessed me in my third trimester with a case of bronchitis, complete with violent coughing spasms. This, combined with my ongoing battle with insomnia, deprived me of much needed rest. One late night, while plopped in my favorite chair, I had another hacking fit. As I reached up to cover my mouth, I felt a warm gush between my legs. A sickening feeling washed over me, as I had experienced water rupture with my first child and knew instinctively what had happened. I scrambled for the phone and called my ob-gyn. I was connected to his answering service (not surprising, as it was midnight), which blandly took my message and said they would page the doctor and have him call me. "Make it sooner than later," I muttered while hanging up the phone.
I rushed upstairs, shook my husband awake and explained that my water broke, and I needed to go to the hospital. He barely stirred--the seriousness of my words did not register in his groggy state. He was not in the high alert mode of most fathers-to-be, no cliched bag packed and waiting by the front door, to be ready at a moment's notice. Why was he not immediately springing out of bed? Why was he not already out in the garage, warming up the car? Because it's eight weeks early, that's why, I reminded myself. Rousing him again, he questioned my diagnosis.
"Don't pregnant women have bladder issues? Maybe that's what this is," he said.
"I think I would know if I had only wet my pants," I growled, my irritation increasing exponentially.
"Yeah, but I remember reading something about--"
He noticed my hands moving to wrap around his neck.
"I'll get ready to go."
Just then the phone rang. It was my doctor. As I was explaining what happened, he interrupted me and asked to remind him how far along I was.
"Are you sure?"
Oh, gee, now that you ask, ha, ha, silly me, I thought it was December, not February--of course I'm sure, are you kidding me?!
"Yes, I'm sure," I said with great restraint.
I was waiting for him to comfort me, perhaps tell me that this happened more often than you would think--we can fill your amniotic sac up with saline, pop a cork in there, and you can go back home! But instead he said the words that I already knew in my heart, but was hoping not to hear.
"Go to the emergency room right now. You're going to deliver this baby."
I've always been a procrastinator. I'm sure it is a deep-rooted subconscious rebelling against authority--I'll reluctantly conform and follow The Man's rigid timetables, but I'll be damned if he gets it early. Certainly a better explanation than simply being lazy. I only work my best when chasing a deadline. In college, papers and exams were always preceded by a late night fueled by coffee and cigarettes. At the office, I was the one standing by the printer, looking at my watch, waiting for the last pages of the report I had completed minutes before the big meeting. These words you are reading right now sneaked in just under the wire. Favor-seeking friends who append their requests with "whenever you get a chance," receive my warning that they need to pin down a date, don't worry about decorum, if they ever want the deed completed. I am the exception to the rule that slow and steady wins the race. I am Indiana Jones, just making it out of the cave before the big stone door crashes down, still managing to grab my hat.
As such, having my timetable shifted and heading to the delivery ward two months early threw me into a panic attack--not only because of the concern for the health of my child, but because I was not emotionally or physically ready to have this baby. Procrastination and premature birth are not two things that go together. I had not even thought about things that some women take care of before the zygote stage. Child care? Nothing lined up. My mother's promise to come visit when the baby was born? I hadn't even made the plane reservation yet. I had purchased a total of zero items in preparation of the baby. The unassembled crib was buried deep within our storage unit. Dirty laundry was piled in the basement. A myriad of things at work needed to be wrapped up before even thinking about maternity leave. I had not even made arrangements for someone to stay with my older son while I was giving birth. It looked as if my bad habit was finally biting me in the behind.
From the Trade Paperback edition.