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Saving Lee, Finding GraceA Mother's Journey
By Anne Marie Hamming
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Anne Marie Hamming
All right reserved.
Chapter OneConception and Misconceptions
On a cloudy Saturday morning in March 2009, I put my car in reverse and began to back out of my driveway. I stopped halfway down to look in the back at my son Lee, who was strapped in his car seat next to Big Teddy, his stuffed bear who was the same height as him.
I lingered to take in my blond-haired, blue-eyed five-year-old. I was fully aware that this tiny, pale boy who had failed to thrive might never return to our home. I was fully aware that he and his older sister might never see one another again.
I also knew I might return to that very spot with him cured, healthy, and whole. In my mind, I looked even further into the future to the day I might catch my breath at the sight of the beautiful young man who had defied the odds. I planted the vision in my mind of that day ten or more years in the future when I would stand face-to-face with him and look up to him because he was taller than me.
"We'll be back," I murmured to Lee, to the empty house in front of me, and to my heart. I took my foot off the brake and let the car roll backward again.
Moments earlier, I had sent my seven-year-old daughter on a 120-mile trip north to live with my parents in my hometown, McBain, Michigan, for an unknown number of months. My son and I were heading nearly 350 miles south to Cincinnati, where he was scheduled to receive a full bone marrow transplant to cure him of a rare, deadly autoimmune condition that I had unknowingly passed to him through a mutated gene.
I still shake my head when I look back on all Lee and I would experience in the months that would follow. I still feel disbelief that I, of all mothers, would face this journey. After all, I had been ambivalent about becoming a mother in the first place, and I had come so incredibly close to not having this boy.
My life with Lee began when I awoke wet and cold the day of his birth. I awoke at four thirty that January morning in 2004, and I knew immediately that my water had broken, even though it was three weeks before my due date. Heavy with fatigue, I heaved myself from my side to my back and looked wide-eyed at the ceiling.
"I'm having a baby ... today," I said.
I spoke to the ceiling because my husband was sleeping at the other end of the house in the spare bedroom. Five nights earlier, he had called me at work to say he was leaving. He would stay until a few weeks after the baby was born, but that was it, he said. Strangely, I still wanted him with me when Lee was born. I wanted him to look at our son and realize he was being a fool to walk away. But how would I make it through labor with a man who had turned on me? And on only four hours of sleep.
It was hard to imagine I was bringing a second baby into that kind of marriage; it was tough to believe I was in that kind of marriage at all. Most of my life before Lee had been quite uneventful, and while I can't say I was always happy, I wasn't miserable. As a newspaper journalist, I could almost step back from my distress and feel I was watching another woman's life—not mine—because it didn't add up. I was a smart, well-educated, hardworking woman with a career. I had pluck. And I came from a peaceful family where people didn't argue. I was a sincere woman who valued sticking with a marriage for life though it all. I thought my own hard work would get me through damn near any challenge, and I honestly thought my background and choices made me immune to being left alone with two babies. Boy, was I wrong.
As I look back, I can see that Lee's very existence was based on wishful thinking disguised as hope. It was the wishful thinking that my roller-coaster marriage would turn into a slow, scenic train ride through the park, and we would raise two beautiful children in a stable home. I simply refused to accept that it wasn't going to work out that way, so I ignored many signs to the contrary. And as skeptical as I was that the conventional path of two kids, a marriage, and a nice home was as satisfying as people made it out to be, deep down it had become what I really wanted.
At the time Lee was conceived, I was working full-time on the night desk at the Kalamazoo Gazette, and my husband was the fire chief in a small town near Grand Rapids, Michigan. We already had a daughter, Katie. Not quite two years old, Katie's deep brown eyes and dimples melted me beyond all reason. The first time I looked at her, I said, "Oh, we have to have another one of these. She's marvelous."
Five years before Katie, I married a man who seemed sensitive, funny, bright, and intuitive even though, by his own admission, he was not good looking or successful with long-term relationships. His candor was refreshing. I remember our early days as a time of laughter. When we married, he was the thirty-four-year-old new deputy chief in a growing fire department, while I was a reporter and an adjunct writing instructor at the local community college. Our plan was to move eventually to a suburb of a large metropolitan area—him a fire chief and me a journalist. If we had a child, we would have the means to hire people to do housecleaning, laundry, yard work, and maybe even the grocery shopping. Because I was twenty-five, I was in no rush to have a child. Parenthood at that time seemed like an event in the far distant future just before I was too old to have a baby. Still, I was pretty sure I wanted one eventually, possibly two, but no more. We agreed that we would not take extra measures to have a baby if we were unable to conceive, and we probably wouldn't even adopt. But if it happened, we would embrace parenthood and give it our best.
This willingness to become a parent represented a gradual shift in my thinking. In my teens and early twenties, I never had a burning desire to be a mother. I was never one who dreamed of having a family. I was never one who felt her life would be incomplete without a child. And I was never one who dreamed that the perfect life was a spouse, a nice house, and two kids. That dream certainly did not drive my career or life-partner decisions. When I was dating at Calvin College, the small Christian college I attended, I was repelled by men who told me they wanted to settle down and have a family. The very thought brought on panic. I felt like I couldn't breathe. As a teenager, I avoided babysitting jobs, and I was relieved when I outgrew the tedious church nursery duty. In college, the caring professions of nursing and teaching sounded, well, dull. They sounded too much like mothering. And many of the women who were studying in those fields chose those fields because they were conducive to juggling work and a family. I just didn't feel like I fit in with them. I felt a bit like an oddball because I was beginning to grasp how pervasive the standard life plan of marriage and kids was in my part of the world, and I felt like one of few who questioned it.
Toward the end of college, one of my best friends was taken aback when I said I could envision a life without children. At that time, I was deep into English literature studies. I realized how writing or some other meaningful work could fill up one's life in a rewarding way. The work would be the gift that made the world a better place.
Then I laughed.
"What if I devote my life to writing and totally suck? Then I would wish I had a child. I better go that route," I said, and we both burst out laughing.
I suspect I inherited some of my ambivalence about motherhood from my own mother. Growing up, I loved my mother dearly, but I wished she were happier. I wanted my mother to laugh as much with me as she did during her infrequent lunches with her best friend. I wanted my mother to show her playful side a bit more and her dutiful side a lot less. It bothered me that she was doing a job she seemed to value greatly, but she still didn't seem very satisfied by it.
I was intensely loyal to my stay-at-home mother who valued her four children in a highly protective way. When I was small, I could count on her to be an anchor of conviction and composure when others in my world became ruffled. And compared to other teens in my small, rural hometown, I had opportunities because she made sure of it. It bothered her greatly when she saw parents who didn't sacrifice more so their children could have greater opportunities. From her, I learned that I was worth the investment in music lessons and nice clothes. She made sure that school was my top priority, so I did not have to work on our family farm as my older siblings had and as she had when she was a girl.
While some of my friends didn't even consider college because their parents could not pay for it, my parents paid every dime. My mother made it clear that I was going to college, and I was worth the expense. Dropping out was not an option. Partying hard and getting Cs were not options either. It worked out, because her desires for me matched my own desires. I couldn't imagine not attending a rigorous college, and I couldn't fathom squandering the opportunity my parents were handing to me. I wanted a meaningful career. I wanted success.
Still, it was confusing. My mother was telling me not to do what she had done, which was to remain in her hometown and get married. It didn't occur to me until many years later that getting married a year out of high school was her best option, considering she was a shy girl in 1956 in a small town many miles from a college with parents who barely scraped by. So she did her best. She followed the conventional path of marriage, and my parents had three children right away.
Just over a decade later, as my siblings approached their teenage years, my mother could have sought more hours at the part-time job she held on Saturday mornings. She might have even sought schooling, but she chose to have another baby—me. On the one hand, the fact that my parents planned me filled me with purpose and a deep sense of being loved and wanted. (Their first three "just came," my mom once said blushing.) On the other hand, her encouragement to walk a different path than hers caused me to wonder if maybe she regretted her choices. The message was be a mother but don't be a mother.
When I compared my mother's life to my dad's, motherhood looked like settling for second best. My dad was experiencing modest success and happiness as a dairy farmer, which in the 1980s meant survival as farms all around were dropping like flies in poop. Where many farmers borrowed money at high interest rates to modernize and add acreage, my dad paid cash for as much as he could and held expenses down. He taught me not to be fooled by the appearance of success. The ones driving the shiny new tractors and pickup trucks were not necessarily the successful ones. In that era, they were more likely to go broke amid easy but costly credit and volatile milk prices. He also taught me never to show disdain for the man with worn jeans and a rusty pickup; that man could be paying every bill on time and have a million dollars in the bank. My dad wasn't just blowing smoke. He could point out examples in my hometown. And in his later years, he could point to himself in his own rusty pickup if he weren't so humble.
In addition to my dad's business gratification, I witnessed his freedom for community involvement, and that lit my fire. He dutifully served as treasurer on the board of our church. But his real delight was in the public realm, including fourteen years on the county board and two terms on a regional farm credit board. I saw his opportunities and his happiness, and I knew both were in store for me. But it did not escape my notice that the church board did not have a single woman elected to it, because it was still against church rules at that time. In the public realm, only one woman served on the county board during his long tenure—and she was a one-termer because she was deemed too liberal. It was clear to my teenage mind that the institutions of my childhood in rural Michigan were stuck in a time warp. I knew my opportunities would come, but they would come in a different location. So when I graduated from high school, I was happy to go. But I confess to shedding many tears from wishing there was a place for me close to my family in the town where I had five generations of roots.
A few months before our wedding, my soon-to-be husband and I held our first baby discussion as we stood in the front yard of a house we considered purchasing. It went something like this:
"This house is cute, but it's small ... if we ever have a baby," I said.
There was silence. We glanced at each other, nervous and blushing, before our eyes darted to the ground.
"Do you want to?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, grinning.
That was our baby decision, and we didn't talk about it again for three years.
Five years later, in 2001, I was expecting Katie. After the weeks of twenty-three-hour-a-day morning sickness faded, I was radiant and content for the first time in my adulthood. I felt beautiful. I was stunned that I could be happy with something as conventional as having a baby. In addition, I was awestruck by the changes in my body. I realized nature knew a whole lot more than I did about this process. Above all, I was grateful that I wouldn't die without experiencing motherhood. I would do motherhood on my terms and be happy, and it was going to be in balance with my work. I felt honored with the chance to enjoy something as timeless as motherhood and as thoroughly modern as a career. It looked as if I would have it all.
My husband was a sweet, loving daddy to our infant girl. But late 2001 became a tough time for us. He lost his job when Katie was eleven weeks old. My rising star of a fire administrator had fizzled. I was paying the bills. And we started living separate lives. I went to work. As soon as I got home, he handed Katie to me. He went to the basement to work on cover letters and scour fire journals for job postings until the wee hours. We didn't even eat dinner together. When we were together, the wheels were spinning in his mind. This continued for six months until he got a job sixty miles away in Middleville, a small town just south of Grand Rapid that was growing rapidly as a home construction boom drew city- and suburb-dwellers to the country.
Once he started his new job, our separate lives continued, and we drifted further apart. Because of long work hours and the distance between his job and our home, we barely saw one another. There were two or three nights a week he didn't come home. On those nights, he stayed over with a family from the fire department, because he had to attend evening meetings and teach classes. Six months passed with this routine until I got an offer for a transfer and promotion that allowed me to move and have my family together. I told myself I should be excited about moving, but I was conflicted about taking the new job. Gradually, I had realized I was happier when my husband wasn't home. I was more relaxed and confident because no one was there to second guess me. When he was home, I was edgier and nervous. I became aware that I was walking on eggshells all the time when we were together. When he went away for two weeks for a special training, I slept peacefully. The day he came back home, I didn't want to leave work. This was a problem, because just as I was finding peace with motherhood and my career, I could no longer avoid facing major problems with my marriage.
Few people realized that my marriage had been difficult from the start, and the marriage had barely lasted to our daughter's conception. Several things kept me in it. First, there really were some good times that kept me going. I held out hope that the good times would gradually become much longer and the rough times would get much shorter, despite five years of evidence to the contrary. But mainly, I was afraid of failure and being alone, and I hated to concede defeat, so, by God, I wasn't leaving or giving up. This conviction caused me to gloss over problems and ignore the truth that was becoming clear: I didn't want to be married to him anymore. I also feared my coworkers would think I was crazy to pass up a promotion and the chance to build a new home in a nice place. Wasn't that a dream come true? So many people were excited for me that I couldn't let them down, and I certainly couldn't bear the quizzical looks over my decisions. I surely couldn't let down my family either, not with something as important as marriage and a child.
Last, I was trying to honor my promise for life, through the good times and bad. I was struggling to hang onto the teachings of my childhood and the Golden Rule, which I still truly believed in: Do for others as I would have others do for me. If I had lost my job, I would want my spouse to have faith in me that I would rebound and we would be happy together again at some point. This charitable part of me won out over the voice I had begun hearing in whispers. That voice was saying, "Get out."
Excerpted from Saving Lee, Finding Grace by Anne Marie Hamming Copyright © 2012 by Anne Marie Hamming. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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