Browsing Tag

motherhood

Guest Posts, postpartum depression

What Wraps Itself Around

November 5, 2023
time

A rare moment of solitude: the baby is napping, the oldest child is at school, the four-year-old is watching cartoons. You turn the water up as hot as you can and step into the shower. Close your eyes and lean your head back. Let the steady stream pummel into the thick layer of your anxiety. A layer so thick it feels like a crust.

You are lathering up when the bathroom door is swung open. In his tinny voice, your son announces that he needs to go potty.

“So go,” you bark, resentful of the intrusion. A few moments later, he whines, “Pull up my pants, Mama, pull up my pants, Ma-MA!”

You breathe in the steam, your mouth stretched tight while you try to ignore his insistent demands, as well as the small voice in your head reminding you that you always pull up his pants whenever he asks.

I don’t care, you say to the voice. He knows how to do it, and is one uninterrupted shower too fucking much to ask for?

His whining increases in volume and urgency.

Just pull up his pants, the voice says. It’ll take all of two seconds and then he’ll go back to watching TV. What’s your problem?

Immediately you bristle. Your problem? What is your problem?

This. Everything. All of it.

Especially that hard something lodged in your chest that is making you feel like you do. Unable to stop the anger as the whining voice of your child whom you love beyond words pierces you, drills into you, leaving a dark hole inside.

“Mamaaaaaa, pull up my paaaaaaaaants!”

The small voice in your head is stunned into silence as out of the hole something ugly erupts, and you thrust the shower curtain aside and stomp out of the tub, swearing, water and soap dripping all over the floor, and with your soaking wet hands you grab your son’s pants and yank them so hard you think you lift him off his feet just a little, and he cries harder but all you can do is yell that now he can go back to watching T.V.

You step back into the shower. You hear sniffling. Footsteps retreating. The drone of the bathroom fan.

In the tub you collapse and curl into yourself, and as the hot water flows over your back, you recall the fear on your son’s tear-stained face and you weep.

~

Was it after the shower incident that I googled the symptoms of postpartum depression? Perhaps. That spring, the days were mashed into each other like leftover Play-doh, with their endless procession of dirty dishes and laundry, school papers and diapers, the rhythmic whine of the breast pump and never enough sleep. The kids’ needs were unraveling me, pulling at the loose threads of whoever it was that I used to be. I was sucked dry. Stretched completely thin.

I’d been yelling a lot. Each time I did I felt shitty but there was something about it that felt like release, like the sensation of cigarette smoke entering lungs, acrid and burning yet somehow so satisfying. Once, I exploded at my eight-year-old son during breakfast, sounding like something straight out of The Exorcist. Seeing his wide eyes I forced myself to laugh about the whole thing, brush it off. Yes, it’s hilarious, seeing mommy lose control in this way. I should just stab myself in the eye because I don’t deserve these beautiful children. (Intrusive thoughts, as I learned, were a symptom of postpartum depression.)

This was not the mother I was supposed to be. These feelings, the yelling—none of it was anywhere in the blueprints for motherhood I’d had in my heart since childhood.

Yet there I was. Feral. A wild animal cornered.

~

Call your therapist, the small voice inside of me whispers. I scoff. What can she tell me that I don’t know already? That first I need to take care of myself so then I can do a better job of nurturing everyone else? I know this. I know I should go to bed early, drink more water, eat healthier foods, begin an exercise routine. I even have an elliptical machine down in the basement, bought off of Craigslist after my second pregnancy but used maybe five times, so what’s my excuse? Time? There is never enough of it. Or maybe I’m just terrible at organizing it. In the morning I want to sleep as long as I can so I’m rested at least, but if I don’t get up before the kids then forget having breakfast for at least an hour, never mind being able to take a shit on my own schedule instead of holding it in because that’s when the baby is crying and needs me.

See? Obviously you can’t figure it out. Call your therapist.

What, so she can diagnose me with postpartum depression and put me on meds? I don’t want to pump my body full of pills. I can deal on my own with whatever this is. Besides, it’s not like I can’t get out of bed. It’s not like the kids are dirty and hungry, neglected. I feed them good meals, for the most part, fruits and veggies at each, and make sure they have a consistent bedtime routine. I hug them each day and tell them I love them; we read books and play games and we laugh, even on the bad days.

And it’s not like I can’t bond with the baby or have thoughts of harming my children. (Unless you count the urge to spank my son when he’s having a tantrum and flailing his body about like he’s doing the Limbo.) Of course our children are safe with me, I assure my husband after telling him what I suspect I may be struggling with. I would never intentionally harm them. (But I do wonder what pushes some women over the edge. I’m secretly terrified that I have an edge, too.) So I’ve been extra irritable lately. So I’ve been yelling. What parent doesn’t? This is nothing, I’m fine. I just miss having fun. I miss laughing—really laughing.

So go see a comedy show. You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?

Maybe you should tell one of your best friends.

And I almost do. We’re on the phone, talking about husbands and children and plans to meet up for a much-needed drink, and the words are right there, in my throat—I think I might have postpartum depression—but I know if I speak them out loud I’ll burst into tears, come unglued.

~

That spring, my husband’s friend, with whom he’d grown up together in the same village in Poland, invited us to Chicago for his fortieth birthday. I’m not sure why it didn’t even occur to me to put my husband on a plane by himself, to tell him to go, have a good time, enjoy the weekend alone. Instead, we packed up the baby, the kids, the breast pump and diapers, the jars of baby food and the playpen; we packed up the whole minivan and from the East Coast we drove to America’s heartland.

I thought a change in routine might help me.

Only now, three years later, do I understand what I was actually doing, going along on such a trip in that precarious state: I was trying to prove, once again, to myself and the world, that I was an excellent mother. See? Look at this heroic thing I am doing, driving halfway across the country while children whine and cry in the back, climbing over the bags to thrust my breast into the baby’s mouth as the armrest digs into my ribs and the mini-van speeds down the highway.

The trip, of course, did not help my depression.

~

On the third or fourth day of vacation, you and your husband take the children to the Willis Tower in downtown Chicago. The wait for the elevator to the observation floor is over an hour. The four-year-old keeps running around, trying to unhook the velvet ropes keeping everyone corralled in the line. The baby, strapped onto your chest in the carrier, begins stirring, and you begin doing the mom bounce. Knees bending, hips swaying, hand on the baby’s back. Not yet, not yet, please don’t wake up just quite yet.

A thrumming begins in your hollowed out core and spreads through the rest of your body, right underneath your skin, pulsing. Time grinds to a halt. You want to scream. How did you get here? Where’s the picture-perfect family vacation which somewhere, sometime, had been promised? By whom or what you cannot say. All you know is that you feel cheated. Betrayed. The inside of your brain feels like a roiling anthill.

Later, alone in the bathroom, you lock yourself in the stall. But still you can hear them, your family out in the hall, the kids pestering your husband for more coins to put in that machine which presses your penny flat and leaves it with an imprint of the skyscraper, or maybe of the cow that purportedly started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The arguing and yelling and crying shoots in underneath the closed bathroom door, assaulting you, drilling into you, and you lean against the stall, your shoulders heaving, tears flowing down and wetting your shirt, because you want to be somewhere else, anywhere else, you want to jump out of your very own skin and maybe even be someone else, like the type of mom who would never scream at her kids because she’d know some lame song off the top of her head which would help them behave. What if you walk out of this building and disappear into the crowd? What if you just…go? Steal quickly away?

The thought grips you, wraps itself around you, making you cry even harder.

~

Deep down I knew I wouldn’t actually leave my children, not then, not ever. But the very fact that I’d even allowed the thought to enter my head gutted me. Because what kind of a mother thinks such horrible thoughts?

Somehow, I pulled myself together and made it through the rest of that day, just as I’d been doing for the past several weeks. Getting through. Barely.

But what I didn’t, or couldn’t, admit to myself in that bathroom stall in Chicago was this: The thought of leaving made me cry harder partly because of how alluring it was, yet at the same time, how impossible. How utterly, achingly impossible. Like seeing a sliver of blue sky through the bars on a prison window.

~

On the way home from Chicago, we stay at an Airbnb on Lake Erie to break up the drive. We’ve been away from home for almost a week and our children, especially our four-year-old, are reaching their limit. Even now, first thing in the morning, as I let the door of the cottage fall closed behind me, their voices arguing over whose turn it is to pick a Netflix show chase me down the deck steps. The baby will probably be up from his nap soon, cranky because he’s teething and most likely sick of having to wake up in a new place every couple of days. I shake off the guilt and half-walk, half-run down the sidewalk. I’m sure my husband will somehow survive.

The sidewalk leads me past a few other cottages, and the bluish-gray water of Lake Erie in the distance beckons me. But as I near the beach, I hear a loud rumbling and grinding, followed by short beeps every few seconds. So much for a peaceful walk, I think, as I step onto the sand and see a Bobcat skid steer backing up and then noisily plowing ahead, its claw picking up large pieces of driftwood in what appears to be an effort to clean up the beach of debris. (Either that, or someone is planning some pretty big bonfires tonight.) I stop in my tracks, and my first thought is that my four-year-old would absolutely love to see this.

My spunky, wild middle child, who is obsessed with construction vehicles. Who sleeps in excavator pajamas and loader bed sheets, and drinks his morning milk from a mug with pictures of dump trucks and skid steers and backhoes. (Yes, I too know all the names now.) Who plays with his collection of tiny yellow machines in the sandbox, the bathtub, the grass, who exclaims and with eyes shining points through the car window whenever he spots any kind of construction vehicle out on the road.

I really should run back to the cottage to get him. This, for him, would be better than Christmas and Halloween and Easter combined.

But then I think back to our attempt to take a family walk on the beach the previous evening: my son digging like a dog and getting sand all over us, throwing rocks every which way, running around and constantly getting too close to the edge of the pier. To be fair, he had just spent eight hours in the car. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier.

I’m sure he’ll have plenty of opportunities to see a Bobcat in action. This is my morning. And god knows how much I need it.

I take two steps forward. Just then, the claw of the Bobcat picks up more wood and starts beeping as it backs up again, heaving its haul onto one of the piles. Without a second thought, I turn on my heel and rush back to the cottage. Screw it.

I burst in the front door, grinning widely.

“Sweetheart, come look! There’s a Bobcat on the beach!”

His whole face lights up and he jumps off the couch, abandoning the Netflix show he’d been dying to watch just five minutes ago.

We walk down to the beach hand in hand. As soon as the Bobcat comes into view, my son freezes, completely in awe. I crouch down next to him and gaze at his small face, his beautiful face, and I take several deep breaths, drinking him in—the way his eyes sparkle and his nose crinkles, his little white teeth peeking through his smile, his sandy brown hair tousled and falling into his eyes, and everything else slips away for a short while—memories of the tantrums and whining, his neediness, my anger. I’m here in this moment with my child. And seeing his pure, unfiltered excitement, his childish delight, does not feel like a compromise. It does not feel like putting my needs last once again. This, for me, feels like a gift.

The two of us spend the whole hour on the beach together, watching the Bobcat at first but then playing, exploring. A twisted piece of driftwood becomes my son’s excavator, of course, and I sit on some concrete steps and watch him playing, smiling at his creativity. We skip stones and find shells, we chase each other by the water’s edge, we discover a fort someone else built with the driftwood.

~

Not long after we returned from Chicago, I made an appointment to get a prescription for anti-depressants. I ended up not taking them, although in retrospect, I know I probably should have. Back then, though, you see, I was still tethered to the idea of perfection. Deep down, I ached to be the heroic mother, the myth, the legend, the one who could prove that you could indeed do it all. Figuring things out on my own and pulling myself up by the bootstraps was part of the trap of that myth.

Seven months later, the onset of the pandemic would strip me of whatever notions I may still have possessed that such a thing was feasible, or healthy, or even desirable. And of course, the pandemic would exacerbate the struggles of mothering three little humans, especially since it hit just when I felt like I was finally climbing out of the clutches of that postpartum depression. Fantasies about leaving would flit through my mind every so often—this time no longer so shocking. Because by that point, I knew they were simply a part of the landscape of motherhood.

~

On that spring morning, as we walked from the beach back to the cottage, my son’s little hand snuggled in mine, I found myself fully present for the first time in weeks. Later that day, challenging moments would come, I knew; I’d get angry again, yell, want to vanish. But right then, my frayed soul felt completely, utterly soothed. The time we’d spent together had been a balm.

And I realized how much I needed those kinds of moments, too. In that space which had become so hard to navigate during that difficult spring, that space of yelling and crying and my own guilt and fear, this was exactly what I needed: a small moment of joy with my child. I knew I needed to laugh more often with my kids, find ways to enjoy being with them, not to prove anything to anyone, but simply for my own sake. For theirs.

And so as we walked back to the cottage, both of us happy, content, I decided I would try to catch these small moments of quiet joy from now on, moments in which I’d learn to forgive myself. I would learn to sink into those moments, wrap them around me like a warm, weighted blanket—even if just for a bit.

Magda Bartkowska was born in Gdańsk, Poland and raised in western Massachusetts. Her writing has been published in Barnstorm Journal and The Tishman Review, among others, and most recently, one of her essays shortlisted in the Sonora Review Rage Essay Contest. Currently, she is working on a coming-of-age novel exploring how identity is pieced together at the intersection of immigration and girlhood, in a world that attempts to tame the wild out of girls. You can find Magda on Twitter @MagdaBart8 and at www.magdalenabartkowska.com.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, motherhood

On the Couch

October 19, 2023
couch

I was on the couch, enjoying a good book for once. It was summer. The pandemic was sort of over, and I wasn’t working without childcare, at least, as I’d been the last two years, and so sanity was hovering closer to the line of normal than usual, if you didn’t read the news.

We were in a heat wave. I basked in AC splendor, on the couch, and for most of the time I could forget about the impending electric bill—the cost of electric had gone up drastically this year and we hadn’t yet used our AC for a billing cycle, and who knew what to expect? Or the rats that had stationed themselves under our porch, probably due to the city’s construction. But also (and I don’t admit this to too many people) maybe due to our habit last winter of throwing Fuzzy’s bunny poops out the back door, one by one, when he’d mark his territory on the door mat?

I was enjoying a good book for once, on the couch. Ralph was snoring beside me, an eighty-pound heating pad, who occasionally transformed into a barking, nipping hot mess when anyone entered our home—including everyone he knew and didn’t know—eliciting extended family members to mutter, “I think he’s gotten worse.” George, a former children’s therapy dog, was elegantly splayed on her dog bed beside the gas fireplace, looking timeless, I told myself, even though, at thirteen, her clock was ticking.

I could never live without George. I could probably live without Ralph.

I was enjoying that great book, anyway, for some time, with my animal friends, in my lovely home that I was considering putting on the market, even though we’d have nowhere to go—because: rats. (I love this home, actually; I’ll never leave.

Unless I have to. Or want to.)

Such a good book, but after two hours passed, and Leo had been home from his run for one hour, the calm became too eerie, so I told Leo he could finally go upstairs and shower. He’d been drenched in sweat at first but it was now dried, and he was standing in the kitchen looking at videos on TikTok, I assumed, and smelling like onion salad, for sure. Now that he was shirtless, I wondered where he’d placed the shirt.

“It’s okay to wake them,” I said, releasing him of his purgatory, which would close the door to my splendor.

“Are you sure?”

“They’ll never sleep tonight if you don’t.” I felt low-blood-sugar suddenly. I kept my eyes on my book as he whiffed by.

Behind two glass doors before me the rabbit was nibbling on a stick of hay in his room—I mean the playroom that he’d overpowered—as though it were a cigar.

Leo descended the staircase minutes later without having showered. He had two hot muffins in tow: one, five years old and sweaty-cheeked with curly hair flinging itself free of a braid; she was bare-foot and leaning on the banister. The other, red and puffy, two years old, was in his arms.

“We,” the five-year-old said, proudly, “were in the attic! We were,” but her face changed as she watched my face, which must have been moving on its own without my telling it to, and so did her tone, “having an…adventure?”

In our attic—which is separated from the five-year-old by another room and a door that is suctioned shut by a long shard of insulation foam—is glassy-breaky-stuff, a giant air conditioner with lots of tubes that looks like the inspiration for the next Stranger Things villain, and worst of all two windows that curiously peer toward the yard and the road, and whose sufficiency I’ve still never tested. Anxiety surged, as it’s wont to do.

During my moment of rest, my children could have fallen out the windows.

My sanity equals my dead children.

I wasn’t even resting that much.

The book dropped. I examined my children. I interrogated the one who talked well: “How are you feeling? Did you touch the AC? Did you touch the windows? Are you okay? Are you too hot? Were you ever afraid you couldn’t get out?” I said some of these questions out loud until I forced myself to let the others leak out more gradually.

Leo said, “They were just calmly sitting there reading.”

“Wow,” I said.

“They had also gotten out our old wedding vases” (enter: glassy-breaky-stuff).

“It’s okay to go up there,” I said to my five-year-old, “with a grownup. There are lots of sharp things up there. Do you have any splinters?”

It is my job to worry—I think—to protect them from danger.

“I don’t think so?” said my five-year-old, whose sense of adventure was, perhaps, being overshadowed by my sense of impending doom.

It is my job to be free and joyful—I think—to keep them alive.

“Let’s go up there again sometime, all together,” I said, smiling. “I’m glad you had fun. You’re not in trouble. We’ll do it safely next time.”

Her expression suggested suspicion.

The littler one said, “I’m poopin’, Mama.”

I knew she was done pooping, and that she just had not yet mastered the use of past-tense, but I was tired, so I said, “Are you still poopin’?”

“Da,” she said, which meant yes. Which just meant she didn’t want me to change her. Which was fine with me.

That bought some more time on the couch. Leo went up to shower and the two girls and I sat on the couch and read the books they had found up there. I sat in the middle; their hot bodies warming me, so odious and sweet. A clean diaper and packet of wipes was nearby on the coffee table, a warning that this moment would never last, which made it all the purer. Their curly hair touching my chin.

George hadn’t moved from her slumber; she had entered a new stage of her life called don’t-give-a-fuck, of which I was jealous, even if it meant that attitude grew stronger, it seemed, the closer you got to dying. Maybe that was a consolation prize for it all being over some day—or a preview of the freedom yet to be.

I gave so many fucks.

I read a book about a hippo becoming friends with an ancient tortoise, which is totally against all reptilian instincts, and I nearly cried. My children were still close, and their sweat reminded me of the summer we inhabited, and the shower running upstairs hoped for Leo’s own relief, and the milkweed blooming outside kept the butterflies close, and the rabbit splayed out on his side in his room, his soft belly sighing, meant he was happy, so I was happy, and my children’s small hairs were sticking up from the cool of the AC on their backs and arms, and the sun streaming through the window made my littlest interrupt the reading multiple times to say, “I see sun, Mama,” and as I imagined their soft bodies pushed through the window glass of the attic, and landing with a thud, on the hard ground, forever, I had to imagine holding them tightly to me—I couldn’t squeeze them for real, as the older one, in becoming herself, was known to elbow me away.

Marni Berger holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University and a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Marni’s short story “Hurricane” appeared in The Carolina Quarterly 2020 summer issue and her short story “Edge of the Road with Lydia Jones” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (Matador Review). Her short story “Waterside” appeared in Issue 96 of Glimmer Train.

Marni’s work has also appeared at Motherwell, Barnstorm, The Manifest-Station, The Common, The Days of Yore, The Millions, Lotus-Eater, COG Magazine, The Critical Flame, Drunk Monkeys, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Fringe Magazine. She has been a finalist or received honorable mention in nine Glimmer Train contests and one New Millennium Writings contest. Marni’s novel-in-progress, Love Will Make You Invincible, is a dark comedy about a mother and her precocious tween, who, refusing to believe his long-lost father has committed suicide, instead becomes convinced that his father is a citizen of a secret underwater village. Marni lives in Portland, Maine.

She has taught writing at Columbia University and Manhattanville College. She currently teaches writing at University of Southern Maine.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Friendship

Yoga Pants

August 13, 2021
meryl

By Tamar Gribetz

They thought they could make their daughters’ best friends with each other.  They lived in yoga pants – Athleta or LuLuLemon, of course—and they kept the pants on all day. Sometimes they worked out and, and sometimes they just didn’t get the chance.  They didn’t work but were highly educated – Ivys or small fancy northeast liberal arts colleges.  The few who did work before they had kids had been nursery schoolteachers, social workers, or “in fashion.” A couple of them had even been lawyers, but never really planned on practicing law.  It was just a good thing to do, a “good experience” that gave you “credibility.”

Now they had a higher calling:  motherhood.  Thankless and endless.  But they all had nannies and wouldn’t have made this noble decision without the nannies.  They tried to plan to meet for dinner Saturday night with their husbands who were mainly “in finance.”

Sometimes I would look at them all cliquey like they had undoubtedly been with others in middle and high school, and I wondered what each would be without the others. Each wouldn’t thrive on their own, but together, they each shone like dominoes. If one piece fell, they’d all tumble.   I was the outsider, and I convinced myself I didn’t care. I was smarter than them, and I was my own person and more authentic. Independent.  But a part of myself wanted to be included. To be part of them.  I had my two best friends, Ally and Michelle,  who worked full time.  But that didn’t get me very far; I was standing here alone.

I remember a girl from middle school who seemed so ordinary – looks, brains, personality – but she was in the clique for some reason. Did they need a listener, someone not threatening, or was it because her mother was best friends with the queen bee’s mother?   I was so envious.  It all seemed so easy. None of that aloneness, that angst, that insecurity. She was so lucky. Maybe it was her ordinariness that they liked.  I never really got it. I tortured myself over if it was better to just be like her: an ordinary, not very smart, not very interesting girl who never had to worry socially or me, arguably more interesting, stronger, smarter.  But so alone.

The moms in the clique were into vacationing in the same places.  Not necessarily together, but they chose the same places. I overheard them talk about this at pickup. Barcelona was hot for a couple of years. Now it’s Lisbon.  The same restaurants too. There’s a new place in Portchester that they’re all trying now.  I’ve seen others insert themselves in the group simply by inserting themselves in the group.

I suppose one could say that I’m standoffish because I stand by myself. But why don’t they come up to me?  They have strength in numbers. Besides, I’m welcome if I want. I look forward to the day when their daughters no longer want to be friends with each other.  When they outgrow the nursery school set ups.  Won’t that be delicious?  “Fuck you, Mom. I can choose my own friends, thank you very much. And I can’t stand Meghan.” And just like that, their whole world would crumble.  What if.

Sometimes these moms gathered outside of preschool and hugged each other when they dispersed.  Watching them, I could feel my skin touching the inside of my jacket, craving warmer contact.

The other day, when I got home from pick up, I had to eat.  I craved chocolate chip cookies and milk, but we were out. I had a mix lying around. I wanted to sink my teeth into the butter and let it sit on my tongue, its gooeyness and its crystals of sugar that hadn’t fully settled. I wanted to just have it all to myself, all my pleasure with nobody watching.  I had to put Sophie down for a nap so she wouldn’t see, and so I wouldn’t have to share. I had to eat until I was stuffed. And, thankfully, I had plenty of space, having skipped breakfast.  And I also had to masturbate at some point after the fulness wore off. I had to be full and spent.

***

I stood in the hallway outside the Fours classroom and busied myself on my phone, assuming a serious face. Two of the moms from the group, Jodi and Lauren, were talking, trying to be quiet. But I was close enough to hear.

“Should we tell her?” Lauren asked.

“Tell her what?  We don’t even know for sure,” Jodi said.

“But we — something is up. You could just look at them and feel it.”

“Maybe they’re just flirting.”

Lauren shood her head. “So that’s bad too.”

“Come on.”

Lauren chewed on her nail. “But it could be close to happening, and if she knows, maybe — maybe she could say something in time.”

“It’s not our place. Not with no proof. Besides, you don’t think she senses it?  Sees them together at the club and at least feels a little jealous? Or something?”

“Maybe she’s in denial.  She doesn’t want to see. But we’re her friends,” Lauren said.

Jodi nodded. “Exactly, she doesn’t want to know. Remember last week when we were driving to the city and she was talking about her friend from the Hamptons who found out about her husband, and she said she wouldn’t want to know If it were her because then what?  Would she want to disrupt her comfortable life?  Her endless money, travel, and active social life?  She herself made it clear she wouldn’t want to know.”

Who were they talking about?  It must be Meryl.  Her husband was too good looking, tall, with a thick head of hair and lots of money. Or maybe it was Rachel?  She always looked somewhat sad. They all had money, so it was hard to tell.  I didn’t dare look up, kept tapping and scrolling.

“Hey ladies!”  One of the others approached them.  She was out of breath.  “I’m so glad I’m not late. I rushed like a lunatic to make it on time.”

“You could have called me. I would have picked up Chloe.”

There. That’s what I needed. That type of support. A sisterhood.

***

When we got home, Sophie laid down in front of the T.V., and I put Jonah down for his nap.  I was friends with most of them on Facebook, if not in real life. But nothing gave it away. Just loads of happy, thin, tan, made-up women with their husbands on vacation or out for dinner. All living their perfect lives. They were blessed for each other’s friendship.  Sisters for Life. Please.   

Maybe it was time for me to go back to work. For real. Ally and Michelle didn’t waste their time worrying about making friends with the cool girls like a bunch of middle schoolers. What the fuck was I doing?  I had been the head of my Marketing team at work before I decided to stay home with my kids.  This was absurd! And sad.

So I scooped up the kids and drove to Wegmans to pick up dinner and just to feel productive, busy.  To buy things we were out of but that could really wait: vanilla extract, granola, frozen broccoli, another new strange-flavor tea.  Still, an activity and a way out of my head, the endless ruminating.   

I squeezed pears for ripeness and spoke out loud to the kids, telling them what I was doing, to involve them, as the parenting experts recommended.  I felt I was performing for others when out with my kids, and I had to seem like the happy mom.  Should we buy apples, sweetie? Would you try a green apple if I bought it?  When really, who gave a fuck?  This is who I’ve come to.

“Hi, Julie.”

“Oh, hi Meryl.”

“I guess we’re on the same schedule.”  She wasn’t with her kids.

“Yeah, this is my life. Drop off, pick up, supermarket, gym, repeat,” I said.

She laughed. “Yes, we are on the same schedule. So how’s Sophie doing?  Does she like the teachers? They seem like a cohesive group.”

“Yes, they do.”

“Ben is happy, so I’m happy.”

“Yeah, that’s how it goes.”

“Are you working these days?”

“No, I’m home with the kids.”

“Oh, I thought you were working. I feel like I never see you at school. You should come join us for coffee. A bunch of us often go after drop off.”

She wore lip-gloss that was just the right color for her skin tone.  Nude with a little ruby-red grapefruit tint. I never knew what was the right color for me.  Her eyes were kind and forthright.  She really had no idea I noticed their coffee dates all year. There was a softness about her features. Her face wasn’t round, but wasn’t angular either.  Her blue eyes were a soft, pale blue.  Nothing harsh about her. Her hair, a light brown with subtle highlights around her face.

“That sounds great. Thanks.”

“Tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow?”

“Sure. Yes.”

“Great!  If I miss you at drop off, meet us at Michael’s on Main Street.  There’s a big table at the back where we sit.”

Something inside me stirred when she looked into my eyes. I was being seen. I was there with her.  Something in her eyes recognized my loneliness, my need for connection.

***

“I have plans for coffee with some of the cool moms tomorrow,” I told my husband Joe in my sarcastic tone.

“Wow! You have made it.”

He opened his eyes wide in mock amazement and smiled.   But when he turned his back to me to hang his pants on a hanger, I couldn’t help but notice – to my disappointment — that he seemed very happy to hear this news.

***

The next morning, I planned to get out of the house early so I could run into Meryl at drop off and not have to walk into the coffee shop alone. But Sophie  had a meltdown and wouldn’t eat her cereal, insisted on a toasted waffle, which delayed me just enough to have missed Meryl.

As I walked from the coffee shop’s parking lot to the entrance, I felt nauseous like I used to before a sweet sixteen party or a first date.  My heart raced as I walked to the back of the coffee shop and saw the group.

“Hey, Julie. Right here.” Meryl called and waved.

I tried to act casual and strutted over with a forced smile.

“Everyone, you know Julie . . . Sophie’s mom.”

“Hey,” they all called out.

Meryl sat at the end of the bench and had everyone move over to squeeze me in.

“We’re all complaining about how tired we are,” Meryl said. “We don’t sleep like we used to, lots of anxiety apparently.” She winked at everyone.

“Or Mommy bladders,” said Monica.

“I think it’s a combination of both. You wake up to pee, and then your mind starts racing,” Suzie said.

“Yeah, suddenly the need to pack a healthy, nut-free snack is terrifying. But my 3:00 a.m brain is convinced it is,” Jodi said.

“My therapist told me to never trust my 3:00 a.m. brain,” Lauren warned.

Jodi said, “That’s another thing: Therapy.  Mike thinks I don’t need it anymore, that it’s enough. But I think it’s the best spent money.”

“If only the good therapists took insurance,” Monica said.

“Mine does. But Mike says I shouldn’t submit in case I want to be a judge someday. Please!  I haven’t practiced law in ten years. It aint happening.  He thinks there’s still a stigma to see a therapist because when he was a kid everyone spoke about a boy who went to therapy when he flipped out over his parents’ divorce.”

“We’re all in therapy. You could tell him that,” Monica said

Jodi rolled her eyes. “He’s old fashioned. Anyway, it’s not negotiable.  He has no idea how bitchy I’d be without therapy.”

“What about couples counseling? Does that count as therapy?” Meryl asked.

“Are you and Brad – ,” Jodi asked.

“Maybe. I’m sure he doesn’t want me to talk about it.”

“Everyone should be in couples therapy. Even prophylactically.  Marriage is tough,” Jodi said.

“Anyway, I insisted on it because I feel like we’re not good.  Like things have shifted.  Like maybe he’s cheating.”

“But would you even want to know?” I blurted out.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

I raised my eyes and Jodi glared at me.

“Why, Julie?  Would you want to know?” she asked

I shook my head. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Sounds like you have.”

“Jodi!” Meryl said.

“It’s something we have all thought about, I’m sure. I’ve thought about it.  I don’t think I’d want to know,” Jodi said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because what good would it do? I’d upend my life and then what?  If Mike is cheating, it would stop eventually. He’d get bored and maybe tired of all the work.”

“Jesus, Jodi!” Suzie said.

“No really.  I see how my divorced friends struggle to meet someone. It’s shit out there. We’re older and there are so many losers out there. We’re not in our 20s anymore.”

“Wow.” Suzie said

“Complete honesty is over-rated and painful.”  She looked directly at me.

As we walked to the parking lot, Jodi ran up to me.

“Did you hear my conversation with Lauren the other day?” Jodi asked.

“What?”
“You were nearby.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Just the way you asked Meryl if she’d want to know.  It’s interesting. That’s all. The timing.”

“What?”
“I got to go,” she said.

I felt sick. My stomach churned. I fucked this up before it even began.

Meryl walked up to me as I was getting in my car.

“Hey.”

“Hey. I don’t think Jodi likes me,” I said.

“Oh. She’s always a bitch. A lovable bitch, but a bitch.  You can’t take what she says personally.”

“I really have thought about what we discussed.  I don’t think I’d want to know if Joe was cheating on me.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to know either.”

“Have you ever discussed it – with the others?”

“What?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. It’s just that I do think about it. As I get older . . . that’s all.  I think it would make things worse.”

“But it might suck to have to wonder all the time,” Meryl said and shrugged.  “I gotta do some errands before pick up.”  She smiled, “I’m glad you came.”

“Yeah, me too. Thanks.”

***

I decided to put the whole exchange with Jodi out of my mind. It was none of my business. I became friendly with the coffee group.  The women included me at pickup and drop off. I knew it was only because I was cool enough for Meryl, that it was fake and shallow. But – I have to admit—I liked having women to talk to at school. I didn’t stand by myself at pick up pretending to be reading an important text on my phone.  I had friends to talk to at preschool, to laugh with. Sophie was even asked on more playdates from the moms of the coffee group.

I was invited for coffee again the following week. I think they all assumed I would join them regularly, and when I didn’t come for a couple of days when Jonah was sick, they texted me afterwards to be sure everything was okay.  Jodi was even friendly to me as if we never had those words in the coffee shop parking lot.  I was happier all around, even with my kids at home. I got to know Lauren and Monica better. They invited me to walk with them on Sunday mornings.  I bought an expensive pair of yoga pants from Athleta to walk in. I couldn’t be seen in my ten-year-old sweats. Joe seemed happy I was making friends, though I tried to play it down for fear I might jinx it. I was embarrassed at myself for being so happy about this, but the truth was it felt good not to be lonely.

One Friday afternoon, Meryl invited the group and the kids to her house after school.  While we sat around the kitchen table, Meryl confided to us that she was almost certain her husband was having an affair — probably with someone from  the club or through work. She had confronted him, and he denied it.

“I’m just sick of worrying about it.  If it’s happening, I don’t want to be the blind, clueless wife.  I should have some dignity. Right? I mean I’m fed up and pissed off.”

“Yeah, I guess. But are you sure?  Think about it. What would be better in your life if he confirmed your suspicions?” Jodi asked. “Your life would have to change once he knew you knew. I mean, do you really want a divorce?  Do you want to split custody of the kids, fight over money?”

Meryl wrung her hands. “I’m surprised you’re so one-sided about this. Yes, you’re right. I have thought about it. But I can’t act so stupid. I should have some pride.  If I knew it would end soon, maybe I wouldn’t want to know. But what if it doesn’t?”

“It always ends.  If something is happening, it will end. But you don’t want your life to blow up because of some temporary fling.  If anything is even happening,” Suzie said.

“I think it is. Shit, I don’t know what to do.”

The conversation ended when the kids ran into the kitchen after someone fell, nothing serious, but tears and cries and blame cast.  What a convenient distraction, how we busied ourselves with our kids.  We cleared the juice boxes and pretzels, forced the kids to say, “thank you,” zipped  up coats, tied shoes.  I lingered on the side with Sophie as everyone left.

“Call me if you want to talk,” I whispered and gave her a hug.

“Thank you, Julie.  I’m so glad we became friends,” she said as she squeezed my hand.

***

For the next few days, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I should tell Meryl the conversation I had overheard between Jodi and Lauren. Part of me felt the wise thing was to shut my mouth because I knew nothing for certain.  And we had just become friends.

Over dinner, I asked Ally and Michelle what they thought.

“Are you kidding,” Ally said, “How could you not say something?”

Michelle shook her head. “Jesus, Jules.  Wouldn’t you want to know?”

I knew in my gut that I would too, no matter what I had said to Meryl. I lifted my glass of wine and took a sip, to avoid having to look at them, ashamed that I had even asked such a question.

***

The following day, after I folded laundry, cooked dinner, shuttled the kids to appointments and playdates, a familiar loneliness descended on me as it normally did in the late afternoons.  It was when I finally stopped running that I was able to feel its sting. It creeped into my gut and began its gnawing. I thought of Meryl and wanted to pick up the phone to say hi. Only it didn’t seem honest, knowing what I suspected and keeping it to myself.  I crawled onto the couch and closed my eyes as the children watched T.V.. I thought of Meryl.  I envisioned our vacations together, our kids playing in the sand, as we lay under our beach umbrellas sipping chardonnay, our husbands (her’s new) running together in the mornings before it got too hot.  I saw myself picking up Ben with Sophie at school so Meryl could go to therapy or get a pedicure.  After preschool, our kids going through lower school together, middle school, then high school. Remaining friendly, looking out for each other, referring to each other as “close family friends.”  I saw Meryl with a husband who treated her well, respected her, Meryl grateful that I had stepped in and helped her realize she deserved more.

I texted Meryl and asked if we could meet for lunch the following day, a Friday.

“Listen, Meryl, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?”  Her face appeared frozen.

“I didn’t want to say anything until now . . . because . . . well, I’m not even sure, but –”

“What?  You’re scaring me.”

“A few weeks ago, I heard Jodi and Lauren talking at school about suspecting some husband was having an affair with a woman at their club.  I didn’t know who, but given that you’re suspicious of Brad —”

“No.”  She ran her hands through the roots of her hair.

“I’m not certain they were talking about Brad, but then Jodi acted strange in the parking lot after we had coffee when she thought I had overheard.   Then you said something about suspecting someone from the club. It just seems like maybe — I don’t know. I just thought  I should tell you. You’re my friend.”

“Shit.  I was hoping, praying I was wrong.” Her voice was flat, barely audible.

“Maybe just ask Jodi. I know she’ll be pissed at me for saying something.  But it’s more important that you find out what’s going on.  You’ve been so worried and —“

Tears welled up in her eyes. I held her hand, and she hugged me for a while.   I smelled her coconut shampoo and felt a tenderness for her that I had rarely felt for a friend. I wanted to protect her from a world that she had mistakenly thought was harmless.

***

The following Monday, I saw Meryl at drop off. She wouldn’t make eye contact.

“Hey, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“Fine. Great.  You?”

“Okay.  I tried texting you over the weekend to check in and see how you were doing.”

“Yeah, I had a busy weekend.  Lots of running around, family obligations.” She looked down at her phone.

“Are you going for coffee now?”

“I’m not sure.  I might have to run some errands.  See you.”

The others from the coffee group were talking in a corner. I walked up to them, and they turned quiet.

“Are you guys going for coffee?”

“I think it’s not a great idea if you come today. Meryl is upset and I think we should keep it a small group,” Jodi said.

I walked up to Meryl as she was about to get in her car.

“Meryl, are you upset with me?  From the other day?”

“Look, Julie, I have a lot going on.  I’m not in the mood to get into this now.”

“Into what?  I was only trying to help.  I thought you’d want to know.  You said you did.”

“This is complicated. I don’t want to discuss it.  Brad and I are good, we’re working on our relationship.”

“Was it true?”

“I don’t think that is any of your business. I gotta go.”

***

We haven’t spoken since that day except for a cursory hello at pick up and drop off.  The other women in the coffee group acted like they did before. It was like those weeks of friendship had never happened.  I stood alone again and busied myself with my phone.  I ran my errands right after drop off and pretended I was  happy that I had time to get the house in order, be productive, run to the gym instead of wasting time at the coffee shop.  But when I saw the group huddled together in the morning, laughing together like sisters, I felt a nostalgic longing for something I suppose I never even had.

***

It’s been a few weeks since Meryl and the group dropped me. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about middle school, about the clique I felt excluded from in 7th grade. I remember one afternoon, the girls called me into the locker room. They demanded to know if I was in their clique or not because I spent a lot of time with Lisa, another girl in the class.  I had to make a choice, they said. Be part of us or not. I couldn’t be sort of in it.  Instinctively, I said I still wanted to be friends with Lisa, with whom I had been friends since kindergarten, that I didn’t want to choose. I was surprised by my own words; they just came out.  They also looked surprised. They had assumed I would have chosen them, been honored to be included, apologetic for making them even feel otherwise. They dropped me the very next day.

Over the years, I often wondered if my life would have been better had I embraced the clique. I’d have had a built-in sisterhood, would’ve rarely been lonely.  I had drifted from Lisa anyway over time. But now, looking back, I remember my younger self at that moment in the locker room, how it just didn’t feel right:  being tethered to a group. Being stuck like that. Having to conform, being controlled, dictated to.

Though I didn’t understand it back then, I now know that’s what I had rejected: having to compromise myself, to mold myself into something that was no better than I, just bigger. Chipping away at the best part of myself so that I could fit into a uniform block that was merely mediocre.  I had made a choice! It wasn’t something that happened to me!  And, foolishly, all these years, I had romanticized the very thing I had rightfully rejected.

The other day I noticed my yoga pants thrown over the chair in my bedroom. They would soon gather dust, and I would donate them to charity like other trendy clothing I had sampled over the years, but ultimately rejected because they weren’t comfortable or just weren’t me.  Because really, I could wear whatever the hell I wanted – even my ten-year-old sweats – when I walked alone. Proudly.

Tamar Gribetz’s short stories have appeared in The Hunger, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Poetica Magazine. She teaches writing and advocacy at Pace Law, where she also serves as the Writing Specialist. She lives in Westchester, New York, where she is at work on a novel and other short fiction.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Antiracist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, funny, parenting

Drive Home, Leave Home, Wake Up

June 11, 2021
Johanna

By Dawn Urbont

My breast pump talks to me. Its mechanical sucking noise morphs into language inside my sleep-deprived brain. Vy-vo, vy-vo, vy-vo, drive home, drive home, drive home, it commands in two-four time. Drive home from where? I wonder. I’m already home.

“Did you say something?” Alex shuffles into our dining room turned pump station, where I sit hooked up and strapped in, eyes shut, head lolling to the side. He calls it the unamusement park ride.

“Did I?” the words barely make it past my too-tired-to-talk lips. I right my head and open my eyes halfway. He’s holding a bowl of grown-up cereal and a rolled-up New York Times tucked under his arm. He sports a thick layer of stubble, striped pajamas, a robe and slippers. He’s really going for the whole fatherhood thing. “What did I say?” I ask, unable to remember moments ago.

Alex shrugs and sets the cereal bowl and newspaper on our crummy thrift shop dining table. “Fuck,” he manages as he slumps into a chair and bows forward with exhaustion. The table tilts. Milk threatens to leave the bowl. “I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? Really?” I fix my gaze on him, and he glances at me. I am attached to plastic and valves and tubing and two collection bottles that grow heavy with every painful squeeze of my darkened areolas. Alex knows not to take my bait.

“No?” he replies. We sit at the table, quiet as a still-life. Porcelain Pitcher with Wilting Flowers. Somewhere in the house, our new baby lets out a tea-kettle cry.

Drive home, drive home, drive home…

“Good morning, Mommy,” Johanna, the live-in baby-nurse we hired for three weeks enters holding Mathilda in her thick, sturdy arms. The sight of M makes us smile. She looks fresh and alert with a clean diaper and a onesie that says Girl Boss. “I’m hungry, Mommy. Did you save any milk for me?” Johanna, in her breezy Trinidadian accent speaks for Mathilda as though she were a hand puppet, which I find utterly cloying. I cast a furtive glance at Alex, who remains expressionless. He inhales a spoonful of cereal, and I watch milk dribble down his chin, navigating his stubble like a plinko ball.

Hiring a baby nurse was my mother’s idea. In fifth grade I was cast as a flying monkey instead of Dorothy and reacted by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. After the doctors pumped my stomach, I woke up and said, “Who cares? I’m fine.” And Mom said, “You know what fine means? Fucking In Need of Everything.” The seed of incompetence planted long ago, I ran the baby nurse idea by Alex.

“Hell no. You really want a stranger living with us? I won’t be able to fart in my own house.”

“That’s a pro, not a con.”

“Look,” Alex had said, “live-in’s are expensive. We can figure out our baby on our own like the fucking cavemen. Cavepeople. Whatever.”

“But what if we can’t? What if I can’t? What if you roll on top of M in your sleep? What if I drop her?”

Johanna turns off the pump. Its voice dies out like a short-circuiting robot. Time to feed my girl, but first I unequip. The collection bottles are attached to plastic shields held over my nipples by a garment that’s at once ludicrous and essential: the hands-free pump bra, a zip-up bandeau with two circular holes like cruise ship windows for nipples to—I want to say—look through. Picture the Madonna cone bra circa 1990, avant-garde, fashion forward, sexy. This is not like that. It’s the opposite and quite possibly the beginning of the end of my marriage, I’m thinking. How Alex can sit there and eat food while I pump is beyond me. Is he looking for a way out? Were the delivery room proceedings too much for him to handle? The blood, the excrement, the unshavenness of it all… If this is it, I won’t blame him.

I detach the bottles and fasten buttery yellow lids onto them. I unzip my pump bra and peel away the plastic shields from my damp skin. My breasts hang down like aged-out foster children, worse for wear but free. Three weeks ago, Johanna was a stranger in my house. Now she watches me in my most intimate of moments, all honest and raw. Some people find this act of motherhood beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s disgusting. I should be embarrassed milking myself in front of a rando and the one person who’s supposed to find me attractive. But guess what? I’m not, and that’s what’s so crazy about motherhood! You just roll with humiliation, because you have to. Because if you don’t, either you won’t survive or your baby won’t survive and neither is okay. I mean, if you had told me I would be so constipated after giving birth that I’d be begging for a colostomy bag, because it hurt too much to crap with stitches in my taint, I very likely wouldn’t have gone through with the whole “having a baby” thing. There is no dignity in child-bearing and the weeks that follow.

“So. How did Bessie do this morning?” Johanna asks holding up a bottle of my “liquid gold” as she calls it. Bessie is not my name. It’s her idea of a joke. A lame one. Alex shoots me a side-ways glance. He knows I hate when she calls me a cow’s name. In my mind, I ask her how she would like it if I called her a genetically-modified-cud-chewing-ozone-destroying behemoth. In my mind, she laughs like I’m joking, and still in my mind, I ask her if it looks like I’m joking.

Then, somehow and without warning, the word cunt falls out of my mouth like a bite of rotten apple. My eyes go wide. Alex nearly chokes on his ancient grains.

“Excuse me?” Johanna says. My stomach tightens.

“My cunt—it still hurts from, you know, third-degree tears and everything.”

“I don’t like that word, Mommy,” Johanna/Mathilda says.

“Sorry,” I say as she transfers Mathilda into my arms.

My little TillyDillyChickenBug latches onto my right breast like a pro. Her sucking reflex is strong, but Johanna tells me that sucking doesn’t equal swallowing, and I worry that I’ve pumped out her entire breakfast.

“What if my funbags are empty?” I ask, my forehead creases deepening with anxiety. Alex explodes into laughter, and my head whips around in time to see bits of cereal splattering all over the newsprint. “What’s so funny?”

“Funbags.” He chuckles shaking his head side to side. My face hardens.

“You think they’re not fun anymore? You think I’m being ironic?”

“No, babe. If anything, they’re more fun now.”

“Then why were you laughing?”

“I don’t know. It’s a funny word.”

“It’s two words,” I snap. When I look it up later, I find out it’s one.

I’m about to cry. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, a body I don’t recognize, a helpless life that’s dependent on a mildly depressed person with a sleep deficit. This is nature’s plan? Is that smart?

“Don’t worry, Mommy. Those funbags are definitely not empty. Look,” Johanna motions toward Mathilda. I look down and see a tiny mammal suckling at my teat. I watch for signs of a swallow– the subtle up-down movement of her throat. Creamy straw-colored milk pools at the corners of her mouth, and my furrowed brow relaxes. “Ten minutes on each side,” Johanna picks up the bottles of milk along with my pump parts and carries them out of the room. In the mirror on the wall opposite me, I watch as she disappears into the kitchen. Alex and I turn to each other and break into huge grins, wide-mouthed and weighted with disbelief. We hear the opening and closing of the refrigerator followed by the rush of sink water.

“You called her a cunt,” he whispers.

“I know!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

The sink shuts off, and we quickly dummy up. Is this how parents behave?  I kiss my baby’s petal soft forehead and think to myself, We’re the absolute worst.

After the morning feed, I transfer Mathilda into her daddy’s arms so he can burp her; so he can be part of the process. “Don’t pat her back like you see on TV,” Johanna had instructed us during her first week. “Rub her back, soothe her, be gentle,” she had said. I watch Alex bounce around the dining room table, cradling Tils over his shoulder. He raps on her back like she’s a storefront window. Are you still open? Can I come in? I leap out of the chair ready to take her.

“That’s not—” I catch my reflection in the mirror. Who is that? My bottom lip droops, and I gaze at Her with the crazy bed head and squinting, tired eyes. Her with the deflated double D’s, the wrinkled belly fat and that hideous umbilical hernia. I want to burn my bikinis.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asks.

“I’m taking a shower,” I say and walk out.

I don’t make it to the shower. I can’t make it to the shower. My pits reek and my pussy smells like the monkey house at the zoo, but my need for sleep supersedes my need to wash away bacteria proliferating in the warm, damp nether regions of my flesh. Alex might see things differently, but Mathilda’s the one I’m trying to impress, and Mathilda could give two shits what I smell like. I am her warm body, and she loves me in my natural state. Half naked, wearing only pajama bottoms, I sink into my unmade bed and yank the comforter up over this hard to look at mother-thing I have become. As my head falls to the side, I suddenly remember what I couldn’t remember saying this morning: we have to pay Johanna. Tomorrow is her last day. Too tired to yell, I consider texting Alex a reminder, but the fog of sleep is rolling in, and I can hear those words. Drive home, drive home… My pump’s voice lingers in my head, lulls me to sleep. Machine and I, we are one.

At exactly 10AM, Johanna, her flip-flops slapping against the hardwood floor, enters my sunlit bedroom and hands me my baby. I arrange her in a football hold as I shimmy up wormlike against the upholstered headboard, shaking off my dream-drenched sliver of sleep. It doesn’t matter that I was in a sleep so deep I could have drowned peacefully and that my nipples are raw and fissured. This baby is on a schedule, and Johanna, for one thousand dollars a week, sees to it that she will eat, play and nap every three hours until her 7PM bedtime. While Johanna’s daily duties end there, I don’t get to clock out. Ten PM is my daughter’s dream feed, when I will prowl into her black-out shaded room, tip-toe my fingers around her swaddled little body and lift her to my chest ever-so-gently so as not to wake her. Then seated and slow-rocking in a toile-covered glider, I will insert my breast into her mouth as she sleeps. Once, during my freshman year of college, this frat guy, Brad McCarthy, tried to insert his dick into my mouth while I lay passed out in the basement of Psi U. Not exactly the same thing, but similar. After the dream feed, my brain will want to sleep until morning, but my breasts won’t let me. Should I test them, they will punish me with engorgement, hot, lumpy and hardened with milk. Instead, I will wake at 4AM and pump when the house is pin-drop quiet. In those pre-dawn hours when it’s just the two of us, my pump and me at the dining table, cast in the LED glow of my iPhone, and I’m holding my head in my hands, because my hands are free thanks to my hands-free pump bra, my pump speaks in window-wiper rhythm.

Leave home, leave home, leave home

There’s this optical illusion on the internet of a dancer spinning. Most people see her spinning counter-clockwise, something having to do with whether or not you’re left-brained or right-brained. For the life of me, I can only see her spin clockwise, and for the life of me, I can’t unhear my pump speak English. I try to listen from the other side of my brain, to hear machine noise, nonsense, onomatopoeia, but all I can make out is an electronic voice spitting out words. Drive home. Leave home. Last week it said Wake up.

Alex’s heavy footfalls grow louder until he’s hovering in the bedroom doorway. His wavy brown hair is wet from a shower, and he’s dressed in street clothes and sneakers.

“I’m going to the bank. Payday, babe. Johanna’s leaving tomorrow.” He pumps his fist triumphantly until he notices Johanna standing in the corner, where she waits while I nurse. He offers a closed-mouth smile, his hand falling loosely by his side. Johanna shakes her head and mutters a curse under her breath– not a curse word, but I’m pretty sure a curse she’s placing on Alex.

“Want anything from outside?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. I want everything from outside.

“Get a frying chicken for tonight. I’m cooking dinner,” says Johanna.

“A frying chicken?” Alex looks perplexed.

“It’s just a chicken,” I say.

“Make sure it’s organic,” Johanna instructs then turns to me. “Everything you eat, the baby eats.”

“Organic,” I tell Alex as if he didn’t hear. “Go to Whole Foods.”

Alex clasps his hands together tensely. Too many instructions. He can’t handle it. “Anything else?” He exhales audibly.

“Carrot and celery,” says Johanna.

“I should write this down,” Alex grabs a pen from his pocket. Clicking the end of it repeatedly, he scans for paper. The dresser is littered with old receipts, pieces of mail, ValPak coupons, and news clippings from my father-in-law, who thinks we won’t know what’s happening in the world unless he mails us a manila envelope stuffed with articles curated from a variety of print media he swipes from doctor office waiting rooms. Alex starts pawing at papers, sending articles, mail and receipts to the floor. Johanna and I watch as he begins to unravel, his breathing heavy and erratic.

“Babe, chill.”

“I’m very chill.”

“Here.” I find a wrinkled napkin on my night stand. He grabs it and tries to scrawl the shopping list on it, but the tip of his pen tears through it.

“Fuck!”

“Keep cool, Daddy,” JoTilda says.

“Forget it. I don’t need to write it down.” He walks out leaving me tethered to our baby, her caregiver sentinelling by my bedside.

I should be high now. Above-the-clouds high, legs outstretched behind me, airplane arms, head crooning crane-like and strung out on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released naturally through breastfeeding to make mommies fall in love with their babies. Oxytocin, nature’s secret party favor, that love drug, that bonding glue, that country’s gone crazy glue. Instead, I feel pangs of something akin to road-rage. I’m not big on social media. I don’t put on blast that I ate a muffin, and I particularly loathe those “That moment” memes, but currently I’m having a “that moment” moment. I mentally update my status: That moment you realize you’re being held hostage by a baby.

“Alex!” I yell seconds before the front door bangs shut. I grab my cell phone, touch the facechat icon, and jab at Alex’s name. His oval head appears, moving against a blue sky backdrop.

“Alex—”

“What’s up?”

“You always get to do the errands,” I complain in a voice reserved more for a brother than a spouse. Alex looks at me with a blank stare and stops moving. “I haven’t left the house in weeks. I wear pajamas every day.”

“What are you saying, you don’t want me to go?”

“Go if you want to go.”

He starts to move again, and I erupt, “Why can’t I go to the bank and get a frying chicken?!”

“I’m coming back.”

We both hang up. Within minutes he’s in the bedroom doorway. “You’re in the middle of nursing!”

“I’ll be done in ten minutes!”

“Mommy, Daddy, calm down!” Johanna hollers without bothering to sound like a sing-songy puppet child. “Negative emotions poison my milk!”

“Shit!” I hurriedly slip my pinky between my breast and M’s little mouth. Unlatched, she starts to cry. “This is turning into a bloodbath,” I whimper, my eyeballs tightening as if being screwed deep into their sockets, saltwater tears rising.

“It’s not a bloodbath,” Alex assures me. “Take breathe deep ujjayi breaths.”

“I can’t breathe. There’s no air.” I grip my neck, panicked.

“There’s air all around us,” he says with a forced calm, then he turns to Johanna. “I think she’s having breakdown.”

“Let me take the baby.” Johanna plucks Matilda from my arms. She starts singing a strange little island song, cradling my daughter into a sea of serenity.

“Look at me,” Alex puts his hands on my shoulders.

“No. I’m gross,” I cry into my sweaty palms.

“You’re beautiful. You’re hot. Just, come on, babe, look at me.” I peek at him, certain my ugly-cry will to haunt him for years. “I’m sorry. I thought I was being helpful, but I was wrong. You do the errands.”

“I can’t.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.”

“You don’t understand, I’m on a schedule,” I sob. “There’s reading time and tummy time and music appreciation– we’re listening to Aaron Copeland today, then the one o’clock feed, and I need to drink thistle tea so my tits make milk, and what about my shower? I still haven’t had a shower, you took my shower!” I catch Alex and Johanna exchanging a look of grave concern. A pit forms in my stomach. What is wrong with me?

“Okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll go.”

As it turns out, anything you do alone by yourself after having a baby feels like a vacation. Taking a dump, sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank… these moments of solitude bring with them a sense of escapism for which I feel rescue-dog grateful. Who ever thought a trip to the bank could be exhilarating? I stroll back to my car with a thousand dollars cash for Johanna and a smile that feels involuntary. As I open the door and get into my Prius, I glimpse the words Lick Me etched in dust on the rear window. I look around. A sun-tanned, bleach-blonde homeless woman across the parking lot smiles at me. From a distance, her teeth look like rocks. Perhaps Lick Me was her little idea of a joke. I’ll never know, but as I drive past, I roll down my window and hand her a buck.

“That’s it?” she asks gruffly.

“Yup,” I roll up my window and drive away, delirious with freedom. Sky blue skies peek through the open moonroof, and sunlight warms the crown of my head. Thirty minutes later, there’s a four-pound organic chicken, a bushel of carrots and a bag of celery riding shotgun, and instead of driving home, I’m heading straight for the mall. Tilly’s next feed is in an hour, and I’m not ready to relinquish this intoxicating Me Time.

When we got pregnant, Alex became obsessed with the cost of college tuition in 2038 and started balking whenever I came home with items like re-usable ice cream cones or Gremlins on BluRay. He banned me from Target, where I could lose myself for hours and come home after dark toting bags of future Goodwill donations and a massive shopping hangover. When he found out how much Johanna would cost, a corkscrew-like vein in his forehead stuck out for days. He refused to fuck me for fear it would burst. If Alex knew I was mall-bound, he would have a coronary.

I step into the parking garage elevator cast in its moony glow, my excitement rising with every floor, and step off into a high-end department store, a perfume scented bistro of style and luxury. Drifting through a gallery of oddly-shaped statement shoes, floating up the spiral staircase, running my hands over iconic and classic and iconoclastic fashion stories, I feel electrified. I’ve come back to life. Old me is back, I can feel her, she’s here. I pluck a colorblocked asymmetric plissé dress off a rack, hold it up to my body, twist left then right, the ochre and berry skirt swishing side to side. Suddenly, my phone buzzes, a text from Alex. He wants to know when I’m coming home. Before I can text back, I hear a thin, buzzsaw-like voice behind me, “So, where are you going? What do you need it for?” I turn to find a waif-like salesperson, a genderless “they/them” dressed all cool in black and navy.

“Oh, I don’t need it,” I say.

“That’s the best time to buy, when there’s no occasion. Shopping under pressure gives me a silent migraine.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” they rub their lips together and part them with a popping noise. “Okay.”

“I just had a baby,” I add, suddenly feeling the need to offer an excuse. “I’ve been going stir crazy. I had to get out of the house.”

“I used to hate babies…”

I smile and wait for them to continue. “But now?”

“Now what?”

We look at each other, decades between us, only to be interrupted by another text from Alex, this time a picture of M with a pouty bottom lip followed by a picture of Alex, eyes closed, hand to forehead as if to indicate some kind of spiritual distress. Drive home. My pump’s voice echoes in my head. Drive home, a portent impressing upon me that wherever I go, I cannot be. Drive home.

“Can I get a dressing room?”

This was dumb. A post-partum body under dressing room lighting in a three-way mirror is the rudest awakening. Cellulite and skin tags and melasma, oh my fucking God. I don’t belong here. All I wanted was to look around, feel like my old self again, but here I stand, staring at stretch marks and the bulge of a sanitary napkin in my panties, while a sumptuous dress on a shiny hanger taunts me. Put me on, bitchDon’t keep me hanging on. Pun intended. A dress with an attitude, I like it. I slide it off the hanger and hold it against my body. The silk feels soft against my skin, and for a moment I feel gratitude for little white worms spinning threads as fine as a baby hair. “I’ll be home soon,” I whisper to no one as I slip the dress over my head, the material parachuting down around me. In the time it takes for a camera to flash, I glimpse who I was before I split in two.

My cell phone rings. Alex’s name comes up.

“What?” I answer abruptly.

“Did you get my texts? M is losing her shit. I think she’s hungry. I don’t know what to do.”

“Where’s Johanna?”

“She’s packing. Should I give her a bottle?”

“Are you crazy? It’s not time yet. I’ll be home soon.”

There’s a knock on my dressing room door. “How’s it going?  Do you need a different size? Bigger?”

“Who’s that?” Alex asks. “Where are you?”

“I gotta go.” I hang up, but not before a glass-shattering wail pierces my phone and hooks me like a trout. My stomach lurches and fills with molten lava. Every cell in my body begins to weep. My baby needs me, and I’m at the mall trying on a criminally expensive dress I have no intention of buying.

“Is everything okay in there?”

Is anything okay in here? I want to fake nibble baby toes and breathe in corn starch air. I want to sing about twinkly little stars and blow raspberries on a teeny tiny tummy. Another knock. Reluctantly, I slide the door latch and show myself. My salesperson looks me up and down with a quizzical expression, mouth twisted to one side, perhaps slightly amused. What does this face mean?

“Someone’s buying a dress today,” they announce before I have a chance to look in the mirror. I shake my head no.

“I’m just trying it on for fun.”

“Well, now you kind of have to buy this dress.”

Have to? I look that good? Suddenly thoughts of my infant daughter turn into a fine mist and get sucked into the ceiling vent. That a piece of clothing without an elastic waistband could look good on me three weeks post-partum makes me think perhaps my stealth detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I feel lighter, taller. I turn this way and that, allowing the corners of my mouth to curve into an I-feel-pretty smile. I actually say, “Weee,” as I spin around. “This is such a…” and as I step toward the mirror, my smile fades, “…let down.” My breastmilk has let down. My breasts have let me down. Two wet circles of mother’s milk expand in the silk over my nipples.

The salesperson is sucking in their lips, which I take as their way of preventing their thoughts from reaching my ears. “I’ll be over by the register when you’re ready,” they say and walk off.

I speed change in the dressing room and pay for the dress with cash, the cash meant for Johanna. Alex can never know about this. I can just picture him, eyes bugging, the corkscrew vein popping. You went where? And spent how much? Is that even legal? He gets so crazy, he makes me crazy! With a pounding headache and a dress I now despise, I race down to the garage, jump in my Prius and floor it back to the bank, breasts engorged, nipples leaking and twenty minutes past my baby’s one o’clock feed. As I park, I spot Rock Teeth loitering in a new, more strategic location by the bank entrance.

“What happened to you?” she studies me as I brush past. “You look like horseshit.” I pause and glimpse my reflection in the bank’s tinted glass doors: it’s Her. Her, now an adrenalin-fueled, wide-eyed, wet-chested train wreck looks back at me with an unrecognizable grimace and a plastic hair-clip hanging limply from stringy tresses. When did I even put that in? I turn back to the homeless woman and feel slightly jealous. She can rock this look and get away with it.   

“Wait here.” I hasten back to my car.

“Like I have somewhere to be,” she calls after me.

Moments later I return with a sleek black shopping bag and hand it to her. She takes it without so much as a thank you and begins digging away at the white tissue paper to see what treasure lies beneath. I have no time to wait for a reaction. I don’t need the thanks. To give is thanks enough. I run inside the bank and withdraw five hundred dollars to make up for the cost of the dress, and as I’m rushing back outside, stuffing bills into my purse, I see the sidewalk littered with white tissue paper, the silk dress lying in a puddle of itself, Rock Teeth nowhere in sight. What the hell? Where did she go? Why would she leave this stuff in the street? The questions fly at me like a cauldron of bats, which is what a group of bats is called, and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something must have happened. Something awful, and I don’t have time for a mystery. I scan the lot, whipping my head left then right. I hear a car peel out and look toward the far end of the lot. That’s when I see her perched in her encampment transferring indecipherable belongings out of a tattered plastic grocery bag into the sleek department store shopping bag. That’s all she wants? Just the bag? I really don’t have time for this. I snatch the dress up off the ground.

“Hey!” I yell across the lot to get her attention. “Do you have any idea how much this dress cost me?!” I march toward her, my heart hammering inside my chest, my baby’s lunch seeping through my tank top. She doesn’t hear me or chooses not to, her eyes focused on inspecting each item as she transfers it. “Hey!” I call louder. “Woman!” She finally looks up, and I find myself waving the dress in the air like a lost hiker trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. “Not my style!” she yells back then resumes her affairs. This triggers me. I don’t know why. I toss the dress at her, but it’s so light, the mild September breeze carries it down to my feet. I try again, this time twisting it into a rope and lassoing it into the air. It unfurls in the wind. Stretched out like a sail, flapping, dancing, it collides with a moving Subaru, spreading across the windshield in shapeless abandon. The Subaru swerves and hits a parked SUV. A horn blares, a car alarm goes off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, flee, flee, flee, flee…

People within earshot start to gather, and I can feel something like soapy bubbles rising up inside me, filling my mouth, oozing through my parted lips. Only it’s not soapy bubbles. It’s laughter, and it keeps coming and coming and coming.

Originally from New York City, Dawn Urbont has worked as a television writer of both sit-coms and dramas for over fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Dartmouth College. When she’s not writing, she is an incredibly underpaid chef, chauffeur, teacher, doctor, personal shopper, and event planner for her kids. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two boys, and an Airedale Terrier named Acorn.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

motherhood, Guest Posts, Tough Conversations

Motherhood (or Lack Thereof)

May 9, 2021
one

by  Maegan Gwaltney

My two small nephews and tiny niece climbed out of the couch cushion fortress on the bedroom floor. As the first sliver of sunlight whispered through the blinds, they jumped around me on the bed, shouting the details of their dreams. I was in my early twenties and loved my older sister’s kids- the weasels as I affectionately called them- with a fierceness I was unprepared for. It’s a testament to that love that I let them turn my bed into a bounce-house at the ass-crack of dawn, gladly trading sleep for the music of their laughter.

“I wish we lived here,” four-year-old Katie said as we sat eating breakfast.

“It wouldn’t be as fun if you lived here all the time,” I answered. “Because I’m your aunt, I don’t get to see you every day. So, when I do, we stay up late, have treasure hunts in the woods, and eat dessert pizza. If I was responsible for you all the time, you’d have homework, bedtimes, and healthy foods.”

“Like a mom,” she said, full mouth dripping milk. “When will you have kids so we can play with them?”

“Chew! You’re gonna choke,” I said.

“Cooousins!” her older brother Lee shouted.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be any time soon,” I said, thinking that no child should be born into the shitstorm that was my relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend.

“Mom says you’ll be forty before you have kids,” Lee smiled.

“What?” I laughed, nearly spraying the table with Cinnamon Life. “I’m going to ask your mom about that.”

Jake sandwiched between Lee and Katie in age, and always one step ahead, was quiet, pondering. As he took a bite of his cereal, I watched the thought arrive.

“Guys! If she has kids, she won’t have time for us!”

Their eyes grew wide.

“That’s not totally true,” I said. “I’ll always make time for you guys. But when I have my own kids, there will be fewer slumber parties.”

Not if. When. A word spent with unquestioning confidence. A safe and far away assumption, believing I’d have my own tribe to follow the paths worn in the woods by those around the table that morning, my first lessons in a love larger than I thought my heart could hold. My only lessons. Forty has come and gone, my empty arms proving my sister’s prediction wrong.

***

When I was 13, 14, 15 as my body began to curve and spread, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom with a wadded-up shirt under the one I was wearing. T-shirt for the first, and second trimester. Sweatshirt for the third. I took the business of making it look realistic very seriously. Sculpting it into a perfect mound. When I was sure it was right, I’d step back from the mirror, discovering who I had become, a calm smile spreading across my face, butterflies releasing in my true tummy. I’d turn sideways and stare at the roundness, the size of it. I’d rub my hands over it, cupping them underneath as if the weight demanded more support. I’d stand there for the longest time, enchanted by my reflection, by how beautiful I felt. Unable to take my eyes off the woman waiting for me.

I had things I wanted to do first, acting, writing. It took me years to stabilize the overwhelming anxiety that limited me for most of my life, later diagnosed as OCD. I just assumed, despite my late start, I’d find the right person, the right time for children. Neither ever happened.

***

I lived in Los Angeles for eight years. I’d moved there to pursue acting, which mostly amounted to selling vitamins to the Rich and Angry in Beverly Hills. The winter before moving home, I had my thyroid removed due to cancer. Both of my sisters flew out to be with me. Two days after surgery, weak and emotional, a bandage over my open wound, I took them sightseeing.

We stood on the stairway of The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, home of the Oscars. I’d watched countless times as actresses climbed those steps, believing the view would one day be mine. That morning, hormones raging in the key of clear-eyed reality, I collapsed into my oldest sister’s arms on those stairs sobbing. This isn’t going to happen for me. I always thought it was. But it isn’t. This same truth finds me now.

My body’s turning the page. Nature, that unrelenting bitch, does not bargain for time.

***

Motherhood, or lack thereof, was never a choice I made. I suppose, in some way, it was a series of micro-decisions, so imperceptibly small that I barely noticed I was choosing one path by not choosing another. Still, there’s no moment in the road behind me that I look to and say I should’ve done it here or that man should’ve been the one. Perhaps it would be different if I were a woman who mapped her life instead of trusting the compass in her gut. But I’m a woman who wakes in the night, panicked by some tiny mistake, my mind punishing me for something that will be meaningless next month. So, I’m grateful not having children can’t be distilled down to one moment or choice because that’s a one-way ticket down a rabbit hole I can’t afford. I cling to the hope that there was a knowing in me, greater than the sum of my regret looking back, a wisdom in trusting the compass that led me here.

***

I always believed I’d have a son. His image was born with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. I could see this little boy clearly in my mind’s eye, dark hair and deep hazel eyes, a gentle, curious soul with a tiny smile that lit up his face, sitting on the kitchen counter as he asked me a question, reaching for my hand as we walk or melting his weight into my chest, the constant thrum of my heart his lullaby, as I carried him in my arms.  Everything about him felt familiar, this little loved one I hadn’t met waiting in the future, certain though far away.

The name came almost as sudden as the image, unique and beautiful, like music running through my mind. Though I sang it inside my head, practicing for Some Day, for a long time I wouldn’t say it out loud. I felt some strange superstition as if it were a magic spell I’d cast on my future, whose certainty lived in silence, a wish that if spoken wouldn’t come true. Over the years, the mythical fathers changed like a revolving cast of characters, but two things remained, belonging only to me, this sweet boy and his beautiful name. I’d search for it in baby books, excited to find it, annoyed when it was listed for girls and not boys. I’d judge the different spellings and never remember the meaning until I’d see it in print, discovering it again every time. Mighty warrior.

***

I meet my friend at a bar for wine and writing, which we both know will only ever turn into wine. She has notes for this essay.

“No writing advice, but you should definitely get knocked up,” she says refilling my glass.

I laugh at her certainty, knowing how simple it seems from the outside. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the chaos in my head seems louder with each passing year. I’ve used every tool I have to fight my way to solid ground: therapy, medication, yoga, meditation. I need a certain amount of rest and peace to keep myself on an even keel. How fair would it be to add a child to that?

“You’re making excuses,” she says. “This sounds like something you really want, have always wanted. Life is short.”

In the week after that conversation, I sing the notes of his name in my mind. I lay down words in my laptop and discover the truth of what she’s said, somehow surprised by the depth and length of this want that’s been with me for so long. I visit the feeling of him, the weight and rhythm of his deep sleep breathing against my chest. I ask myself questions.

What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? Would a child give me incentive beyond myself, beyond my family to keep fighting the darkness in my mind? Or would it make it harder, swallowing, not only me but my innocent child? Is that just my OCD demanding the certainty of some perfect outcome before committing? Or is it logic, raising her voice above want?

***

I rush onto the train grabbing a seat, swinging my backpack onto my lap. A small voice floats over rows of winter hats to find me.

“What kind is this one, with the pointies?”

A father is reading a book about dinosaurs to his daughter, who is maybe five years old. I turn my head and watch them. I do this a lot lately, studying parents and children as if I’ve just landed on this planet, which in a way I have. I find myself staring at the way they interact, fascinated by this intimate verbal shorthand I will never speak. A language I knew once, years ago, but whose fluency has faded with lack of use.

***

“They are as much yours as mine,” my sister, Shannon, says of her children. She calls them Ours. A beautiful gift and powerful salve housed in this tiny word.

She keeps reminding me that it’s not too late for me to be a mother. Shannon had two kids by the time she was 20, her whole life built around these beautiful, needy creatures, shaped to fit their care before she’d run grooves of habit and preference into the surface of her life. I stand at the other end of this spectrum, a lifetime on my own, wondering when the grooves got so deep.

***

My dreams are haunted by the ghosts of Potential Father’s past, like some surreal Lifetime movie starring all the guys I’ve dated. My Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. The Good Guy, whose heart I dragged through the shitstorm relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend, like a selfish child clutching at both. The Republican, who I loved but wasn’t in love with, The Wine Guy, who followed me across the country to chase a dream that wasn’t his. In the dark chaos of these dreams, they are always leaving. I am on the outside, alone, soaked in sadness for what is no longer mine, unsure if my decision was the right one. One by one, night after night, they knock on the door of my subconscious, as if to ask, “Are you positive I wasn’t the one?” I wake disoriented and filled with the grief of being left behind. Still, the answer to their question is always yes.

***

I am a teacher’s assistant in a classroom of children with special needs. Before Covid remote learning, my heart would swell as I walked down the hallway, tiny bodies rushing past, loud, untamed, and excited. Everything about me vibrated to the frequency of their laughter.

I possess a strange confidence in working with kids, one I rarely allow myself elsewhere. I’m good at connecting with them, all the Auntie mojo in me finally being used again. I thought that this job was a beautiful solution, outsmarting the loss, filling the place in me that felt empty. But I slowly began realizing how wrong I was.

There was no distance to protect me. Jealousy tightened in my chest when my coworkers coddled my favorites. I’d push it down, but guilt flooded in to replace it. I interrogated my reactions. What’s wrong with me? In the halls where small bodies stampede, I felt joy lined with sadness. None of these little beings would ever be mine to build forts with or have treasure hunts. This was my job. I loved it, and I wanted that to be enough. But the place I hoped to fill only echoed louder with emptiness.

***

I spent eight years in Los Angeles torn between the future I imagined acting and the family I adored in Illinois. I always thought the decision to walk away would come to me suddenly, an undeniable mandate spoken in the deep voice of the gods. I never suspected it would bubble up from inside me, slowly melting my beliefs like ice, one quiet idea at a time.

When I think of motherhood, settling into the silence beneath thought, I feel a quiet certainty, rising up from a bone-tired body that has survived so much: autoimmune disease, thyroid cancer, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It whispers a truth that weighs more than words: I cannot do it alone.

Maybe the compass in my gut has been broken all along. But I’m choosing to listen to my body.

***

My nephew Jake, the little boy who sat in the kitchen so many years ago, took his own life at 22. In the months following, I’d look at babies, feeling a pull in the deepest part of my belly, some never-was umbilical cord tugging me towards a tiny soul I hoped to meet. Maybe it was the life force raging in me, or the echo of my best memories, longing to start again.

In sharing the devastating loss, I discovered something in the eyes of strangers, a sort of silent calculation of the amount of grief I was allowed, some strange hierarchy of mourning.

Who were you to him again?

I was his aunt. I am his aunt.

As I silently debate the correct tense for dead loved ones, the softness in their faces fades a fraction, relieved to not have to comfort his mother, sister, or wife. At least that’s how I interpret it, perhaps filtered through my own insecurity. Just the aunt. I wanted to download a lifetime of memories shared, to prove I’d earned the intensity of what I was feeling.

People forget that mother is not only a noun but a powerful verb, lifting trucks off babies, laying down lives to save them. I’m not a mother. I will never claim that noun. But I’ve mothered. A verb woven in my bones, called to life the first time I met my nephew’s eyes. If you say it’s not the same, you’re right. But my version of this verb, the only action I’ve ever been certain of, is no less real or fierce, or natural.

Ask the children. Search their eyes. Scan the molecules of their brightest moments. You’ll find me there, slowly arriving at a place where I understand how this verb shaped my life. Learning to let go of the noun that will never be mine, by recognizing the children who somehow still are.  

Ours.

***

It’s not a perfect process. I inch closer to acceptance by focusing on all I’ve been given. But the truth is, I’m still floating in an ocean of ambivalence, the waves changing every day.

When I ache for the little voices that will never wake me for breakfast, I’m comforted by the ones that did so long ago, when I believed being an aunt was meant to prepare me for motherhood. It turns out, this was the journey I was built for, the privilege of watching these amazing beings change, their lives expanding, the root of our love reaching deeper than I thought possible. No longer the children who ran into my arms, they are still the core of everything I am, saving me from myself with every call, visit, text or memory.

Being an aunt changed me. It’s a love that hums in my blood, sewn into my soul, unchanged by time, space, and even death.  But there is an emptiness in me that sometimes aches for more, a loss no one else can see.

I’ve learned to mourn the past, the lives and seasons that altered and defined mine. But how do you grieve for something that never was? How much space is this invisible loss allowed? It’s a familiar hymn on the lips of so many people reaching this season of their lives, the sun setting on Someday, the Far Away Future suddenly tomorrow, then yesterday, then out of reach.

  We can make space for that. Or we can run from it. With alcohol, sex, drama, or drugs, tangling ourselves in regret, missing chances to change the moment we’re living. I’ve done a lot of running in my life. Now I’m searching for the courage to be still and level my face at the reflection of the life I’ve created.

***

Lately, I stand in front of the mirror, staring at the naked length of myself, changed by time, gravity, cellulite, and weight. I rub my hands over my belly, a place never occupied, smooth and unstretched. My eyes follow the gentle curve of my hips, unwidened by birth. I don’t know one mother who’d trade her child for the stretch marks they caused. Still, I cling to this bikini season consolation prize, my shallow insurance against regret.

As I take in the naked truth of who I’ve become, this body home to the choices I’ve made, I search for her, beyond the shape I thought she’d carry. Meeting her eyes, I offer a soft smile, opening my empty arms to this woman waiting for me.

***

Digging through closets on a recent visit to my mom’s, I discovered a baby name book I bought years ago. The blue eyes of the plump diapered boy on the cover tucked safely away through all my moves. I turned the pages, landing quickly on the one with the corner bent, marked by my younger self as if I might need a map to find my way back. In the middle of the page, the spelling I chose for him glows bright highlighter yellow. It’s meaning below, new again. Mighty warrior.

I hear the music of his name in my head, then softly say it out loud.

Kaelan.

I would’ve named him Kaelan.

 Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer, storyteller, and reigning World’s Greatest Aunt (with the t-shirt to back that up). She’s working on a memoir about family, grief, and coming to terms with her own mental health after losing two beloved nephews to suicide. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped for from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Divorce, pandemic

Covid-19 and My Ultra-Orthodox Children

April 14, 2021
children

by Beatrice Weber

I am a mother of ten Hasidic children, and I couldn’t protect many of them from the virus. The community they live in has flouted restrictions—and while I know my children are at risk, my hands are tied.

In mid-March 2020, my 7-year-old son, my youngest child, and one of three who lives with me told me he knows why this virus happened. “Oh?” I asked. I was in bed, sleep teasing me, hoping he’d get tired, too, and go to his room. “My teacher told me it is because we don’t say enough blessings. He said that if we say 100 blessings a day it will go away.”

My son is innocent. Like kids his age, he is impressionable. He was one and half years old when I left my abusive marriage, six years ago with four of my ten children. He attends a yeshiva and visits his father, a rabbi in Monsey, New York, every second weekend for Shabbos. I am fiercely protective of him, but when he is not with me, I cannot control what he is taught or what happens to him.

Sleep now a distant memory, I caressed his face and assured him that the virus is not his fault and cannot be undone with blessings. “We need to be careful, and we will be okay.”

But the next day, I was not so sure we would be okay. On my way to work, I see a message that had been making its rounds on WhatsApp groups. In pink letters, adorned with lilac flowers and green leaves, the virtual flyer, titled “Unique Protection,” stated that rabbis encourage women to upgrade their head covering from wigs to kerchiefs (more pious), and in this merit, we will be saved.

I closed my phone and continued walking. I spotted a Yiddish notice on a lamppost stating that the contagion is a punishment for schmoozing during prayers. We must be quiet, and this disease will go away. Quiet, I thought—the one thing I fail miserably at.

For many years, I had prayed daily, fervently. “God, please help me to become a ‘Kosher woman who does the will of her husband,’” I would plead, quoting the words of the Talmud. Please help me to do this. I want to be a good wife to my husband. I prayed and trusted that things would get better in my marriage. But it did not.

I was expected to be a meek, obedient wife. When I would try to voice an opinion, my husband would shut me down and get the children to mock me, until, finally, I broke.

It was seven years ago on Passover eve, before the first Seder when I left. My parents, older children, and the rabbis vehemently opposed me leaving. When my parents found out, they worked with the rabbis to try and take away my younger children. The six I left behind were lost and confused. They were angry at me for abandoning them. They couldn’t fathom the idea that I would leave. I was their mother who had always been there for them. And I left with a heavy heart, the most excruciating decisions I ever made.

I eventually received a Jewish Get from the rabbis and custody and a divorce in family court, but the feelings of betrayal never left me. Betrayal by my own family and my own God.

I felt lost and bereft, and I searched for another way to live.

Before Passover last year, a month into quarantine, my son pled with me to let him go to his father for the Seders. “I want to be there with my nephews,” he said. I assured my son that his nephews won’t be at his father’s Seder, since it is not safe to travel now. But I was not convinced of my own words. I had heard the rumors and seen the flouting of coronavirus restrictions. I knew that his father would risk infection—for himself and his children—to host a proper Seder with our grandchildren from New Jersey, against all guidelines. And I was not wrong – he did indeed invite our  children and grandchildren and

Quarantined in my house, I lead a Seder with three of my children, joyfully singing the traditional songs and searching for the hidden matzoh, the afikomen. The sirens outside wailed, reminding me of the predicament we were in. The deaths in my former community mounted, peaking over Passover.

My friend who runs a nonprofit supporting young orphans in the community told me of the huge increase in requests for services. Families lost grandparents and parents, and communities lost rabbis, leaders, and congregants.

This became very real to me. The virus had infiltrated the community. And while I was hopeful that my children’s father and their community would take it seriously because the sheer numbers of infected and the dead pointed to a danger that required action, I was also skeptical because I knew what I would have done a decade ago. Instead of following the guidelines, I would have encouraged my sons to gather and study and covered for the men’s prayer gatherings. My belief that God would save us was so strong, I may have been compelled to trade my wig for a kerchief.

My skepticism was well-founded. By September, the second wave had reached the Haredi Jewish community in Brooklyn. My son’s yeshiva opened its doors while ostensibly following the rules that had been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. One day I found myself in front of the dark grey building. My son’s teacher had called to ask me to pick him up. He had come down with a strep throat the week before, and he was still not feeling well.

I hesitated before entering the building. Though I am a mother of six boys, I have rarely ventured into the all-boys’ yeshiva building. It was considered immodest and unacceptable for a woman to walk the hallways—and besides, I never had a reason to.

There is another reason I hesitated: I no longer follow the strict dress code of my former community. On that day, I wore my curly bob and black slacks instead of the black mid-thigh skirt and beige tights expected of me. I had never gone near the yeshiva without my hair covered and a skirt over my knees, but I had no time to go home and change. My son wasn’t feeling well, and I was going to pick him up. He needed me.

I peered into the classroom over the teacher’s head and saw the children gathered, with no sign of any social distancing or facial covering.

I suspected that the guidelines were not being followed but seeing this blatant violation of the rules horrified me. What was I supposed to do now with my son? He was required to attend yeshiva, whether it felt safe to me or not. If I chose to keep him home, my ex-husband would use it as leverage and surely come after me for custody. I was torn between doing what was expected of me by my ex-husband and the community my son still belonged to or following my maternal instincts.

I chose the latter, filing complaints with the city and state health departments. I pulled my son from yeshiva, knowing I risked a potential battle with my ex who might take me to family court, a serendipitous reason why he should be granted custody of my son.

Weeks later, a judge in family court ordered my son to return to school, disregarding the flagrant violations.  I comply, worried for my son’s health but also fearful of losing custody.

But for now, for then, I am still in charge. I do what I can protect my younger children, but what about my older ones. Who will protect them?

I don’t hear much from them. Since I left the marriage six years ago, there has been limited communication and it has tragically stripped me of any real relationship with them. They are angry that I left. I ruined their lives, they say. They went from being the children of highly respected parents to the children of divorce, shamed in the community. No one will want to marry them. They are damaged goods.

I don’t blame them; my heart bleeds but I could no longer sacrifice myself and my sanity.

Should I have stayed?

I have seven grandchildren whom I haven’t seen in years. I yearn to see and hold them. My children, too. I ache to be part of their lives and know how they are faring in these challenging times. But I am scared to call.

Will my daughter hang up on me like she did when I last called?

Will my son yell at me? I am too fearful, too vulnerable— so I sit at home and worry.

I worry that my children and grandchildren may not be okay. I am angry at a system that encourages them to ignore public health guidelines and rules meant to protect them. But I also envy them. I envy their faith and the unshakable belief that God will protect them.

But who will protect the rest of us?

Beatrice Weber is an Interspirtual Minister, writer, speaker, and coach. She empowers people who have experienced religious, familial, or community trauma connect with their own inner voice and create empowered and joyful lives. She was born and raised in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community and was married off to a Rabbi when she was 18, never having graduated High School. After 22 years of marriage and 10 children, she left the marriage with her four youngest children, despite severe opposition from her family and the community.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Ghosts

March 1, 2021
shadowy photo of woman during day

By Laura Cline

I feel her following me.  The ghost.

Somehow, it is already seven p.m.  My hands are under the hot running water, rinsing the dishes and leaning over to put them in the dishwasher.  The little girl voices swirl around me.  “Girls, time to settle down.” They don’t hear me.  I keep rinsing the dishes and the ghost wraps her arms around mine- strangling- embracing.

I’ve been here before.  This feels familiar.

Not that I have lived through a global pandemic, but my heart has been in this place, my head, my hands, all the parts of my body. My days have melted together into the longest day, the mornings weeks, months from the nights.  The rhythm of my day is need- food, water, attention, sleep.

I wake up every morning and immediately feel the fog pull me back under.  I haven’t slept enough the night before.  I was up late folding the laundry, slipping into the warm water of the bath, rocking the baby, holding her to my breast.  I hear the voices, the cries.  “Mooooooom, mommy, get me mommy.”  This day will be just like the last. I put on my glasses so I can see and pull back the covers.  The ghost sits in the rocker across the room.  My eyelids feel heavy, made of lead.

The television is always on in the background, but I barely hear it.  My daughter asks questions about what is happening. “What is she doing, mommy?”  “I don’t know, honey.  I wasn’t paying attention.” Instead I scroll though post after post on Facebook.  I stop when I see one about the virus, when I see one about the baby.  I read it and feel it sewing the sides of my rib cage together, the tightening of uncertainty.  When will it be over? Will this last forever?

After my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with PPD, PPPTSD, PPA, and PPOCD.  Four acronyms, but one feeling.  One ghost, drifting through her days. One shadow, drawn in tears.

COVID-19 is it’s own ghost, invisible, but we all know it is there.

The afternoons are the hardest.  I’m at my worst.  Most days I feel like I am giving my ghost a piggy back ride, dragging her around the house by her ankles, asking her again and again to please leave me, but she doesn’t listen.  Most days, I curl around my daughter for a nap in my king sized bed.  I leave the window open and a warm breeze blows the blinds and taps them against the window.  I feel the softness of my daughter’s blond hair pressed against my lips.  Sometimes I sleep and she doesn’t.  She wakes me up, and my heart pounds, I feel dizzy.  Where am I?  What day is today?

After nap, I feel like I’m just waiting to sleep again.  Am I awake?  I feel raw on all my edges.  My nerves jitter around in my body.  So many sounds: squeaks and screams and crashes. My daughters’ sticky hands and sticky faces grab my hands and my clothes, wrap around my neck.  They run wild, play aggressively, fall and cry, and fall and cry.  They are all scraped knees and off the wall ideas.  I look out the window again and again.  Is my mom’s car in her driveway?  Should we get in the car and drive somewhere? I crave talking to another adult.  Out in our shared yard, my mom and I talk about the news of the day, what will happen next, what did the girls do today, as we pick up weeds from the driveway, water the plants, sit six feet apart in chairs.  My youngest always runs right up to her grandma, “No, June. Space.  The virus.”  They have seen her, hugged her, kissed her goodnight almost every day of their short lives. When we go inside, some nights I break. I scream at the top of my lungs in the middle of the kitchen.  I sob until I can’t breathe.  I kick around the toys on the floor, the trash, the crumbs sticking to the bottoms of my feet.  Some nights I am even, Zen almost. Numb.  We laugh at the dinner table, play Bob Marley and Elton John, have dance parties, read books, snuggle and eat chocolate. When I look in the mirror, my face is the ghost’s.

Every night it seems we go to bed later.  The sun lingers.  It is almost summer.  It is mid summer. It is the heat of the longest of summers. Some of the voices on the news wonder if the heat will kill the virus, render it dormant, but it doesn’t hibernate.  It still lurks in our breath, on our fingertips.

My firstborn came in the summer.  One afternoon in July, I swaddled her up and put her into her rocker.  She fell asleep and I waited for her to jerk awake, like she always did.  Instead, she stayed quiet, and outside it began to rain, one of the early Monsoon storms that season.  I turned on Fleetwood Mac.  I was still.  I felt like I was flying.

One day while I am watering the bush in front of the house, a bird shoots out.  My mom tells me that she has seen the bird too.  “It must have a nest there.”  The next day, the kids and I trim back the bush.  “Don’t touch the clippers. Pick up the leaves.”  Eventually, we can see the nest near the edge of the bush, four tiny eggs inside.  “Don’t touch them,” I tell the girls, but later that afternoon, I find them in the front, hiding their hands behind their backs, a cracked piece of shell on the ground.  “I saw the tiny beak, mom,” my daughter tells me.  My heart cracks and fissures like the shell.  I hope that the mama will come back.  I tell my girl that the bird is dead; that cracking it’s shell killed the bird.  Her sister tells everyone, “The bird is dead, dead, dead.  Gracie killed the baby bird.”  “Stop it,” she shrieks, “they already know.”

The next day I go out and rustle the leaves on the bush.  The mother bird flies out and hops across the yard.  She came back.

Every morning my girls want to check on the eggs.  I feel like I am holding my breath.  I so badly don’t want them to be disappointed.  How much loss can any of us stand?

The ghost has felt the hot summer sun on her shoulders and the back of her neck.  She has felt the sting of the sweat running into her eyes. She watches like the mother bird, shooting out, anxious, to watch as giants hover over her babies, with their careless hands.  Those hands already took one of them. Will they take the others?

But they don’t.  The eggs hatch and the babies – two of them- are there in the nest, naked, tiny, eyes glued shut, organs and veins just visible under their translucent skin. They grow patches of feathers.  My daughters give them names: Tiny and Flower.  One day, one of them is gone, just a rustle in the bush.  I push the girls on the swing, my feet in the warm sand, and when we come back, both baby birds are gone.  Did a crow eat them?  A javelina? Did something invisible take them away?

There are orioles all over the yard.  Some days, we think we see the babies, slightly smaller than the others, eating at one of our feeders.  The girls stand at the window, yelling, “I see them! Tiny and Flower!”  I see them too, I think, and I almost believe it.  “I see them, too.” My ghost nods.

We leave the house just a little for a few warm weeks at the start of summer.  We go to the playground.  We play with friends. The kids are almost like kids again.  I start taking the baby places.  She is stronger, bigger.  They are the healthiest they have ever been.  While we are out, I feel alive.  When I come home to the house, I feel the energy drain out of my body.  The house is a succubus.  The ghost is always inside.

And the virus descends.  Overnight, eleven people die. I don’t know them, but I feel their loss.  Were they alone?  I know they were.

I can’t control it anymore.  The chaos descends.  Every day is a whirlwind, and I want to get back in bed as soon as I get out of it.  The laundry piles up, the floors are dirty, every thing is wet.  The clutter makes me crazy.  I throw things out with abandon.  We take out the trash again and again.  I rage.  I cry.  I laugh at my kids’ antics.  They start to talk like me, to become me.  I wait for night when they go to sleep.  When I can breathe.  The sun stays out and they go to bed later and later.  Will it end?

When I find out the kids will be going back to school, I am terrified and exhilarated at once.  This must be how the mother bird feels when her babies leave the nest?  The act of protecting them, of holding them under my soft belly, is exhausting.  But outside, there lurks the invisible danger of the virus, of the unknown, of the dark chasm of what the future will hold for them, for all of us.

The ghost sits down next to me on the couch, surrounded by the mess of the day.  She takes my hand.  We wait together.

Laura Cline is an English teacher at a community college with an MA in Literature from the University of Arizona. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, including an article about birds and babies at Motherwell, and an essay titled ‘Dear Left Big Toe‘ published in Entropy.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

I’m scrolling through Instagram while eating my oatmeal. It’s August 2019 and writer Cheryl Strayed has posted this announcement: I’ll be teaching a workshop at the @kripalucenter in April called The Story You Have To Tell. It’s for writers at all levels of experience—really it’s for anyone who wants to crack it open to get at the good stuff inside…All you need to bring is a notebook and pen. I hope to see you there!

I’m frozen mid-spoonful, her words an electric jolt to my heart. I recognize this as a moment to seize without overthinking.

I respond to the post: @cherylstrayed your words always inspire me to be brave and authentic so I am going to push aside my fear of going this alone and sign up. Thank you!

I am thrilled when, moments later, Cheryl likes my comment and responds: @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

I’ve been a professional copywriter for 20 years, though I started in advertising as an art director. Back then, we worked in teams—an art director paired with a writer—or with the entire creative department in one room, scribbling ideas with black Sharpies and tacking them to the wall. Brainstorming was energizing; we fed off one another. When our sessions got long we grew punchy, our ideas verging on the absurd. You could hear our roars of laughter down the hall.

What I miss about those days is the camaraderie. Though our group was competitive—each determined to be first with the winning idea—we supported one another, celebrated our wins and created a safe space where no idea was off limits.

Even as an art director, I approached each concept through words, crafting a headline before giving thought to the visuals. My creative director Tom was one of the original Mad Men, a copywriter who worked at some of the biggest Madison Avenue firms in the sixties before starting his own Philadelphia agency. He pulled me aside one day and told me I was a good writer, that he could see me writing a book one day. His validation lit something in me. I tucked his words inside—a glowing coal that kept me warm.

At my therapist’s I tell Dr. G. about registering for Cheryl Strayed’s writing workshop. She can see how excited I am and thinks this is a wonderful idea. She tells me, “You are someone who is open to trying new things and is enthusiastic about them.”

I like viewing myself through this lens. I’ve only recently begun the work of unpacking the fear and anxiety I’ve stuffed deep down to avoid facing those feelings head-on. I sought therapy because trauma will find its way to the surface; in my case I was spiraling emotionally, grasping at any semblance of control over my daughter’s life now that she was a young adult, her health no longer mine to manage.

Since being blindsided by her diagnosis of cystic fibrosis 20 years earlier, I’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance—on high alert for the next lung infection, medical complication, hospital admission and worse.

In my early days of therapy, we talked about my childhood. The third youngest, I watched my older brother and sister fight with our mother, whose short fuse could detonate at any moment. I navigated those years with my ears finely tuned to detect a tone of voice, a slammed door, a heavier footstep—clues that my mom’s mood had taken a turn. I learned to keep a low profile and stay off her radar. I remember hovering silently outside my parents’ bedroom late one night, having just thrown up in my bed. I needed help but was scared to wake my mom. I stood in their doorway, willing my dad to notice me first. Afraid to use my voice.

In therapy, I discovered that the hypervigilance I had assumed was born of my daughter’s illness had roots that ran deeper. My state of high alert was my mode of self-protection growing up. But here’s the thing about being on high alert: when your guard is constantly up, it’s like living behind a wall. It’s hard to connect to others from behind a wall.

I rely on written words to create order in my life. On paper, my thoughts line up obediently, no longer tumbling inside my head like clothes in a dryer.

In my early thirties, when my daughter was diagnosed, writing was how I grabbed the reins to keep us from hurtling off a cliff. I wrote heartfelt letters to raise money for CF research and crafted emails that explained the disease to her teachers. I began documenting each doctor’s appointment, lab result and breathing test in a notebook. I created lists and charted her therapies. My child needed more than a dozen prescription drugs a day to keep her alive. Writing kept me vigilant and prevented details from slipping through the cracks.

Soon after, I left my corporate advertising job to start a freelance healthcare marketing business, and I added copywriting to my creative services. My crash course in managing a chronic illness had given me an insider’s perspective on the patient experience and I recognized that there was value in what I had to say.

There is power in naming things and using words to define yourself. I had been secretly keeping that warm coal of encouragement from my creative director glowing for years, but it was only after I spoke the words out loud, I am a writer, that I stepped more fully into that identity. Still, I remained one step removed from telling my own story.

Though I write professionally, I’m not writing as myself. I am a surgeon explaining breast reconstructive techniques after mastectomy. I am a patient describing his recovery from stroke. I am a hospital president congratulating her staff for earning national recognition.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Roland M, a bestselling writer who was working on an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about cystic fibrosis. Mine was one of several families he profiled. Roland’s daughter had also been recently diagnosed, and we became long-distance friends, keeping in touch by email.

A few years later, he wrote a novel about a young woman with cystic fibrosis. As part of his research, he stayed with my family overnight—our first in-person meeting—and came along to a pulmonology checkup. He asked if I’d be willing to share notes about my experience and I remember the thrill of the invitation—permission to tell my story.

I wrote pages and pages, the words flowing like water. When I lived it I couldn’t write about it, but now it was all pouring out. After all, this was only for research—I was simply providing background for the real writer. What I secretly wished was this: that Roland would share my writing with his agent, who would call and offer me a book deal. You have a story to tell, he would say. The world needs to hear it.

In my early forties, I responded to a call for writers and became a regular guest blogger for a website about hooping. The hula kind. Blogging for Hooping.org was a way to scratch my creative writing itch. I had been bitten by the hooping bug and in a fog of euphoria, I enrolled in Hoop Camp, a three-day gathering of hula hoopers held annually in the redwoods of Northern California. A Hoop Camp virgin, I would document my experience for the blog. I brought my sister Sue along for company and a shot of courage.

On our first day, I looked around and regretted my decision. I didn’t fit in with these younger women and men with their toned and tattooed bodies, multiple piercings and outlandish costumes. Yes, I could keep a hoop spinning, but these people were Cirque du Soleil-good—light years more advanced in their hoop-dance skills. I felt myself shrinking self-consciously.

That evening, I introduced myself to a group of women and something shifted. They recognized my name and told me they were fans of my writing—that my posts were relatable and authentic. I beamed. For the rest of Hoop Camp, I felt like I belonged. I participated in workshops by day and uploaded a new column each night. Sharing my experiences through the eyes of a journalist lent legitimacy to my presence. Writing granted me permission to try, fail, and look foolish. Nora Ephron famously stated, “Everything is copy.” Today’s embarrassing gaffe would be recast as tomorrow’s humorous story.

I am hoping to find similar inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s workshop at Kripalu. Perhaps my experience navigating the trauma of a child’s life-threating illness could be transformed through writing into a story of hope. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes about the power of art. In this excerpt she is speaking about music, but it applies equally to writing:

“Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope…Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time…The transformative power of art is in this sharing…It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is what first put her on my radar, but it’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns, that I turn to repeatedly for solace. Her voice is a whisper in my ear letting me know that even when life is brutal, I am not alone.

I’ve been obsessed with reading my entire life. Books have been my doorway to escape, enlightenment and connection to the human experience. As a little girl I read under my covers, a flashlight clutched in one hand, on high alert for footsteps on the stairs, terrified of being caught by my mother awake past my bedtime.

Reading transported me to distant places, parallel universes containing other lives I might have lived. In sixth grade, when I discovered Judy Blume, the telescope flipped and I was the one who felt seen. I’d never before read an author who spoke to me in such a real and personal way. Judy had a way of validating the awkwardness of adolescence and normalizing the things we’ve all felt and done but didn’t dare speak of out loud.

As a teenager, books allowed me to connect with my mother. An avid reader, she’d take me to our local library where we’d collect our haul for the week. She’d hand me books that she loved, further expanding my world. When I toyed with the idea of being a veterinarian, she introduced me to James Herriot’s series about his life as a country vet in England. She put a copy of The Thorn Birds in my hand during my freshman year of high school and I swooned over the epic, forbidden love story. We passed Sydney Sheldon thrillers back and forth and shared trashy novels by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Even at my lowest, when my daughter was hospitalized, books provided a lifeline. I’d lie awake in the dark on the stiff vinyl daybed, reading by flip-light as the night nurse drifted in and out of our room to check vitals and reset the beeping IV pump. I seized on memoirs, looking for proof that humans were resilient. If that writer could survive her own trauma to reflect on it today, maybe I could get through the uncertainty of these days and tell my own story in the future.

Cheryl’s workshop, The Story You Have To Tell, will be my way in—the tool I use to drill past the protective barriers I erected in my mind; the walls preventing me from writing about the most defining moments of my life. Through memoir, I want to process my experiences in order to transform them. To reframe the narrative in a way that allows me to see myself not only as the timid child and the anxious mother, but as the strong and resilient woman who found beauty amidst the pain. And just like the writers who made me feel seen, I want to be that person beaming out signals in the night. Reaching the person who lies awake in the dark, seeking solace by flashlight.

My weekend at Kripalu is six weeks away. I wonder how many people will be there? I call the venue and ask. Over 200. This is a disappointing development.

In my fantasy, our group is small, maybe 30 max. I read my work out loud and Cheryl praises it. She pulls me aside after class to tell me I have real talent. We hit it off over dinner, bonding over conversations about her late mom and my late dad. We talk about books and dogs and kids. We stay in touch. She becomes my writing mentor and recommends my new memoir to her followers, catapulting it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. She introduces me to her writer friends—modern-day Judy Blumes whose words are a balm to my soul: Liz Gilbert, Pam Houston, Glennon Doyle. They welcome me to their circle. Reese Witherspoon chooses my memoir for her book club, as does Oprah (as long as I’m fantasizing).

Cheryl’s workshop will be page one of a new chapter in my life. The spark of permission granted by my former creative director has fanned into a roaring flame. Now that the workshop is 200 people, my writing had better be damn good to stand out.

It’s now late March 2020. Cystic fibrosis is primarily a lung condition and this novel coronavirus poses a direct threat to my daughter’s life. Cheryl Strayed’s workshop has been a beacon calling to me for the better part of a year, but that no longer matters. Kripalu is a yoga center built on communal gatherings. To expose myself to large numbers of people from all over the world is to put my child at risk. According to the cancellation policy, I have a two-week window in which to cancel and get a refund. I make the decision to pull the plug. Two days later, Kripalu cancels the retreat and shuts its doors for the foreseeable future.

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I had psyched myself up to push beyond my fears, befriend a group of strangers, and—inspired by Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly—embrace vulnerability by exposing my insides through writing. It’s now up to me to keep that flame alive.

Today is the day I would have driven to Kripalu. These weeks of quarantine have been stressful, pushing my brain into fight-or-flight response. Still, I recognize that we are in the middle of something historic and I decide to start journaling again as a way of processing my emotions and capturing these extraordinary moments in real-time.

I pull a Moleskine notebook off my shelf but before I write, I reach for my phone and scroll to Facebook. I’m not sure what compels me to check my newsfeed at this moment. I see a post about a project called The Isolation Journals. I click to the page and read the description: A global movement cultivating community and creativity during hard times.

TIJ is a 30-day project conceived by Suleika Jaouad, a writer and memoirist who wrote her way through cancer in her twenties. For the month of April Suleika is offering a daily writing prompt, with help from a talented pool of writers, artists and musicians. The prompts can be used for journaling on our own or we may share our writing on the private Facebook page.

I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.

We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community. I imagine Cheryl Strayed whispering encouragement in my ear. @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

By popular demand Suleika expands The Isolation Journals from 30 days to 100. My writing muscles are not only warmed up, they grow stronger each day of this project. I write about growing up with a tough mom. I post tributes to my loving dad and share what it was like to lose him to cancer. I open up about my daughter’s illness and my fear of her dying young.

As a little girl, my mother would say to me, “Will you just be quiet? Stop talking so much.” She taught me that to speak is to invite criticism and conflict.

I am no longer that child who needs permission to speak. I have learned the power of words as a tool for transformation and connection. With every prompt I am strengthening my voice and taking a sledgehammer to those interior walls. I am, in Cheryl’s words, Telling The Story I Have To Tell to a global community more than 7,000 strong.

Abby Alten Schwartz is a self-employed copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant who lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she loves memoirs and nonfiction essays and has always dreamed of writing her own. It only took a global pandemic to get her started. She is currently at work on a memoir and can be found on Instagram at @abbys480

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Fiction Fridays

Tangalooma Dreaming

January 1, 2021

By Nicole Adair

Breeze, breeze, breezes. Lotti sat on a blue, plastic seat on the top level of the Tangalooma Flyer, as the cool morning air rushed past her. For a moment she closed her eyes and just breathed in the smell and salt of sea water, her shoulder-length brown hair whipping around her. She could hear the propellers underwater alongside the boat shooting out frothy bubbles of the churning ocean. They left two long strands of white, which floated on the surface behind the ferry before dissolving back into the ocean, as the blue and white aluminum catamaran bounded over Moreton Bay.

Lotti had missed the ferry with seating at the front. From where she sat facing backwards, she could still see the Sandgate mud flats on the mainland and the urban sprawl of greater Brisbane. The ferry terminal, where the river met the ocean in brown, brackish water, the muddy, beige beach extending out on either side, had already disappeared from view. Once out of the docks, the ferry had picked up speed over water that was already bluer. But it was nothing yet like Moreton would soon be, with its shimmering translucent turquoise and the bleach-blonde sands that ran around the entire shoreline of the island. Here it was wild and deep, and the ferry’s dramatic jumps over the surface made it clear that the ocean wasn’t flat like it seemed from above. Only from the moving boat could Lotti tell that the bay’s waves, though they would never break on the sandbank, were still monstrous. Once she got to the island, to Issa’s house in the Tangalooma hinterlands, she would look out at the water below, still and glimmering, like an open lake, and the island would be transformed into a lake of land itself, wrapped inside the calm and cool and meditative expanse of blue.

On the seat beside Lotti, two little girls, already dressed in their togs, with thick white stripes of sunblock painted on their cheeks and noses, scrambled over the empty plastic in a game that involved jumping to the ground in sync with the bounds of the Flyer. Lotti moved her small duffel bag onto her lap to free up space for the girls. The older one began the game, showing her sister, who was younger maybe by a year, how to jump. She landed with her hands and knees smacking the painted metal floor of the boat as the Flyer jumped upwards. From the ground, she grinned at her younger sister who prepared to follow suit.

Out of her peripheral vision Lotti could see their mother, a young women, possibly in her early-to-mid-twenties, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a tight-fitted white polo shirt, and cropped denim shorts. She inattentively read Cosmopolitan Australia, but kept one eye on the girls who jumped from the plastic seat one last time and then changed games, now running out toward the back of the boat to peer over the side. Lotti watched their small bodies collide energetically with the railing. They began to point knowingly out toward the now horizonless water, pointing to things that Lotti couldn’t see, things that were just for the two of them. Lotti felt the urge to glance back at their mother. But she resisted, realizing in the moment that she didn’t want to risk making eye contact with her; she felt that the girl might see through her, that she might somehow guess and then judge what Lotti had been doing for the past few months, how dangerously she had been playing with fire. Feeling a wash of anxiety–also for how quickly the seventy-five minute trip would take to Tangalooma and for what she would have to say to Issa once she got there–Lotti looked back out over the water.

The mid-morning sun was beating down on the water’s surface. At sunset, the rays would flicker and catch like fire on the waves. But with the sun now already high in the sky, the ocean looked like a giant pool of rolling crystals. Lotti adjusted the light jacket she wore over her long halter dress and thought of how the air would be hot on the island, especially up in Issa’s tin-roofed home that had no air-conditioning, that was thick and stifling in the dead of summer. Only when the wind was blowing inland would the breezes up there rush stronger, the draft through the house bringing with it the air that spun up from the crests of the waves on the rough side of the island. Tangalooma had a quiet, understated temper, but it was on the east coast that the Pacific Ocean was always raging.

She turned in her seat toward Kooringal, the most southern tip of Moreton Island and the meeting point of bay and wild ocean, where the island seemed to collide with the water that reached the shore from so many angles, where the sand bank ribboned out for kilometers, just barely contained beneath the water. She couldn’t see it yet, but she knew where it would be when the color of the evergreens came into view. She already imagined the light sands swirling with the aquamarine blues of the shallows, where you could lay, cooled by the water but warmed by the air, sunbathing both in the sea and out on the sand itself. But Lotti regretted the fact that she had no front view because it meant that she couldn’t watch for the iconic sand walls of the island’s west coast to appear on the horizon line, as the rest of it came into view, the tall dunes that marked the midpoint between the Tangalooma Island Resort and the Wrecks.

She thought about the Wrecks: fifteen rusted metal ships sunk decades before, now lying just off the coast, a strong swim away from the beach, an artificially natural habitat for fish and coral. They’d named the wrecked vessels after wildlife and small Australian towns: Groper, Morwong, Kookaburra, Platypus II, and Uki, Maryborough, Bermagui. For a second, Lotti couldn’t remember where she’d learned their names–or the very fact that they had names at all. But then she remembered and swallowed. It was Issa, of course. Issa always knew the history of artifacts and monuments, random sites and stories about South East Queensland, and she loved to tell Lotti stories each time she visited the island, somehow bringing each story back to Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa, as they would always say.

And then their adventures–Issa always had a new one. Lotti couldn’t help but let her mind remember how many experiences Issa had given her: Kooringal in the four-wheeler, Blue Lagoon on quad bikes, a hike up Mount Tempest the month after the wildfire stripped it bare, a run on the beach that continued on for miles in the middle of one of Moreton’s wild summer hailstorms, learning how to snorkel at the Wrecks, to swim out from the beach when the tides changed. Her memories of snorkeling she would treasure the most. She thought then of Issa checking her printable, salt-stained timetable of the tides, as they stood on the shore looking out at the ships, mask and fins in hand.

“Ten minutes,” Issa had said, sitting back down on the towels they’d laid out on the sand.

“Then what?”

“Then we can go.”

“Why ten minutes? Does it make that much of a difference?”

“When the tides change,” Issa told her, “the current is completely still for about five minutes. We won’t get swept out into the bay or, you know, down into the propeller of the Tanga ferry.” She held Lotti’s gaze for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing.

“Fine, you queen of tides,” Lotti replied playfully, “my life is in your hands for the next fifteen minutes.”

Issa kissed her on the cheek and said, “Yes, once we get out to the wrecks, you’re on your own.” And they laughed again.

When they finally geared up and headed into the water, Lotti got a thrill, as she did every time, not just from seeing the small, white fish that darted through the shallows, but from the sand bank’s drop off, which angled downward steeply for some time until it turned into dark blue and then almost to black, and Lotti couldn’t see a thing through her mask as she swam. Only the white specks, like snowflakes, of sea dust were visible, and the translucent bubbles that her arms made in front of her as they pulled the water back to push her body forward. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of Issa’s dark arms and neck and torso gliding through the water beside her. Often Issa tried to speak to her through the mask, pointing to fish that she had seen, exclaiming everything delightedly to Lotti in an incomprehensible gurgle. But Lotti’s eyes always missed them, as the fish darted from the surface. Concentrating on her breathing, she couldn’t turn her head fast enough to spot them against the ocean darkness.

When Lotti and Issa finally reached the ships, the metal walls and hulls and rusty pieces of cabins and chains and door frames came into sudden view sitting beneath the water. Even the ocean floor would inexplicably become visible, and Lotti would examine with joy the creamy sand color that was always covered in schools of brightly colored fish darting in and around the coral or floating with the rushes of waves, which came with every passing motor boat that spun up on the surface. On special days, they saw the sea swarming with packs of wobbegongs. Speckled with patterns of orange and yellow, the carpet sharks moved quickly but gently over the sea floor, and Lotti always felt lucky whenever she saw them.

A shriek from the Flyer pulled her back to the present. Hanging onto the railing, the little girls had begun a new game. The older sister pulled the younger’s hat down over her eyes so it covered half her face. Then, laughing, she cupped her hands to yell against the wind something into her sister’s ear. The younger immediately pulled up the hat, pointed out over the water, and laughed wildly, gleefully in return. Then the Flyer bounced over a particularly high wave, and the girls swung around, one hand still gripping the railing but their bodies smacking against the metal.

Lotti’s face flushed with maternal anxiety. The sun pricked her arms, and she looked around for the mother. She no longer felt self-conscious but rather indignant, a little self-righteous, about the mother who was mindlessly, it seemed, letting her daughters be thrown around by the boat. But when she saw her, the young mother, she was waving calmly at the two little girls, a relaxed, unfazed expression on her face. The girls were waving back, jumping up again with grins on their faces. They giggled to each other and turned back to the railing.

Lotti looked away over the water. She felt annoyed at the mother, at how unrealistically collected, how unworried, she seemed. But then her eyes focused, and she saw the green strip of island coming into view on the horizon. They were forty-five minutes away. Lotti knew that Issa would be standing on the jetty already, holding lilies and wearing sandals, her toenails painted royal blue, her legs long and brown and wrapped in a sarong at the hips. The blue bikini she wore would match the color of her nails, and she would have no shirt to cover the bikini triangles that held her breasts. Issa would wave and smile exaggeratedly as soon as she saw Lotti on the ferry, and the dimples on her cheek would deepen. Lotti could picture her long braids, which Issa often pulled back into a thick ponytail, and the half-moon birthmark tattooed by her eye.

Lotti’s face flushed again, but now for a different reason. She didn’t want any of this anymore. She didn’t want Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa. She didn’t want the “escape” from real life that was no longer working. She had felt it on her last visit, the claustrophobia of the perpetual holiday, the fear and guilt that came with her attempts to flee the real world. There was something tight and bitter about the idea of Lotti and Issa forever. The mantra that she had repeated so often in her head, as a way of getting through her other life, had begun to sound dull. As fun as her memories were, she could barely tolerate the thought of having to continue actually living them. The rhythm of Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa battered her mind, now an involuntary chorus inside her head.

This trip was the last time she would see Issa at Tangalooma, she had determined. It had to be. She had felt it on her previous visit and increasingly since then, the need to catalyze her life, the real one, in some way. She could no longer pretend that she had no other life at home in Brisbane. She had a family. Children of her own. The sun was suddenly burning Lotti’s arms, and she felt sick thinking about the affair that she’d carried out for so long, how all this time she’d been playing with fire. How she was risking it all for something that would only ever be an illusion.

But then, she thought, maybe Issa sensed this too. The last time Lotti had visited, Issa had pressed her about the time she spent away.

“I wanted to work on our canvas,” she said, “but you missed spring.” She had twisted around from where they sat on the floor of the living room, where Lotti had been mediating on the yoga mat. Issa lifted a wooden box from the couch.

The box was an old miniature desk for a toddler, the surface small and angled on a slant. Issa had decorated it a while back when the two first met. Eyes from photo magazines cut out and pasted all over its top and sides, then covered over with the clear paste used for paper-mâché. The box lid was coming loose from its hinges.

Lotti took the box from her, scooted backwards on the mat. Issa came beside her to watch her lift the lid. Inside, filled to the brim, just feathers and feathers and feathers. Tiny plumage, whites and blacks and blues. Many blues, some like the royal blues Issa always wore, others greying, others almost purple. They all came puffing out. Some were blowing with the breeze. Others just swayed gently, but stayed inside the box.

“There are so many.” Lotti said. “I can’t believe you remembered to collect them all while I was gone.”

“Of course I remembered.” Issa frowned. She paused. “I always remember.” Then she looked Lotti straight in the eye. “I am always going to remember.”

Lotti glanced up at her. “Well,” she started, trying to be chipper about it, “there are so many. We’ll have so many to work with.”

But Issa wouldn’t let it go. “I had a lot of time.” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to keep working on it without you.”

Lotti inhaled sharply, but before she could reply, Issa stood, her face barely expressing the unspoken words between them, and headed into the studio. Lotti followed her in and watched as Issa pulled back the giant sheet that covered their canvas that leaned against a set of chairs, a makeshift easel. It stood by the window on top of a thick plastic floor cover spattered in paint splotches.

“You really did keep it right where we left off, didn’t you?” Lotti said, trying to laugh good-naturedly and examining the canvas. It was their ocean masterwork, a thirds of the way covered already with the small feather puffs glued as close as possible, marked by the longer feathers, some white and some black, of cockatoos. Those were the shadows that dipped and rose with each wave on the ocean. But most of the feathers were so small, some even the size of half a finger, and even the tiny ones were always colored. Lotti and Issa would dot the small white keratin strips of each feather with a cue-tip of glue and then softly pressed the feathers into the canvas surface. The smaller feathers made the rough texture of the canvas even more noticeable.

“It’s all ready for us to jump right in,” Issa said, pulling up their two chairs in front of the canvas and setting the box of feathers on a small table beside the chairs.

“Shall we ease into it?” Lotti said, trying to laugh, to keep the mood light. “Maybe we can start tomorrow.”

Issa dropped her arms, her brow furrowed. She swallowed and turned to look at Lotti. “We have a lot of work to do.” Her voice was filled with anxiety, annoyance, desperation. “You were gone so long… if we want to get through all the feathers I collected, we need to start straight away.”

“Issa…”

“Don’t you want to continue the artwork?”

“Of course I do, but…”

Issa shook her head and, without another glance in Lotti’s direction, she grabbed an empty paint bucket from the floor of the room. “I’m going to gather the macadamias before they all start rotting.” And she left, the bucket swinging in her hands.

Lotti heard the screen of the front door squeak open and then clang shut.

“You’re it!”

Lotti looked around the on the ferry as the little girls ran past her.

“No, you’re it!” The older sister tagged the younger on the shoulder who squealed as they changed direction, running between the rows of plastic seats that lined the ferry balcony.

Then Lotti heard another voice. “Ava, Aria!” The young mother was standing up now. “We’re almost there. Come back up your things.”

Lotti looked back toward the island. It was true, she could see Tangalooma coming into view. She could make out the tall palms that stood at the edge of the sand and the townhouse villas that lined the beach behind them, though they were mostly just a wash of white and blue amidst the dark green trees. Behind the first row of residences was the taller resort complex, built partly into hillside. In ten minutes they’d be docking at the jetty, and Lotti would see Issa’s face appear, her black sunglasses blocking her eyes, her black braided hair bleaching ever so slightly in the sun, the light kissing her face.

It was almost time, and Lotti thought of everything she wanted to say. That their feather artwork was great, but that she needed to find a way to be creative more regularly, in her real life; that their adventures were thrilling, but that too, she needed to learn how to make a part of her who she was back in the real world.

She imagined Issa’s cold response. “This is real life, Lotti.”

And Lotti would pause because she wouldn’t know how much to tell Issa. In her momentary cowardice, she would concede a little. “You know what I mean.”

Issa’s suspicion would appear in the scrunch of her eyes. She would cross her arms and say, “Not really. No, I don’t know.”

In the imaginary conversation, Lotti was still searching for the words. “Come on, Issa. You know what I mean. This is…”

“This is what? What is it?”

“A holiday… a special time, outside of time… it’s an escape from the real.”

Issa’s face would get tighter and darker. “I’m not real?”

Lotti would try to laugh, but even then she knew it wouldn’t be convincing. She could say, “Of course you are.” But then she’d be thinking that, no, Issa wasn’t real. She wasn’t real enough. “Not anymore,” she would say instead, letting her arms fall limply at her sides. And then she would have to watch Issa’s face fall too in the confusion and the upset and the anger that would take a hold of her entire body.

And it wasn’t just that it wasn’t real, but that it was too risky. She was risking her own children, playing with fire. She needed to be there for them, no matter how unhappy she was.

The Flyer was pulling up to the jetty now. Beside Lotti on the boat, the two little girls had been calmed. At their mother’s command, they were threading their arms into the loops of their backpacks. The young mother was rubbing another layer of sunblock onto their toes, then slipping back on their thongs.

Lotti reached down to the blue plastic seat for one of their hats. “Don’t forget this.” She passed it to the young mother.

The girl took the hat, looked up at Lotti, and smiled. “Aw, thank you so much. You must be a mother too, eh?” She shook her head with a laugh. “They’re a wild bunch, aren’t they?”

Before Lotti could reply, the little girls ran off toward the front of the ferry, racing each other to be first in line, their mother following closely behind.

Lotti watched them step off the boat onto the docks. She wasn’t searching for Issa’s face in the crowd, but thinking for the first time ever that this place was still real. It had always been real and would always be. Suddenly she could picture herself out in the real world, here, coming back with her son, with her own two daughters. The four of them renewing this place together. She could already see it, each of them gripping each other’s hands as they stepped out onto the island.

Nicole Adair is an Australian-American author, composer, and game designer based in New York City. She received her MA in English-Creative Writing and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Adair has worked closely with authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Vikram Chandra on long- and short-form fiction that explores themes related to Australia, climate change, and the different mediums of art (image, text, video) as tools of storytelling. Her fiction appears in World Literature Today.

Recommended Reading:
 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, postpartum depression

Prescriptions and Postpartum: When It’s Easier to Medicate Than Listen

December 22, 2020
receptionist

By Amanda Aardse

“You still there, hon?”

The walls are the colour of the inside of my skull, bland and jumbled, fuzzy thoughts tied in knots. I hate waiting rooms. My palms are all sorts of wet and I can’t sort myself out. It took two whole days to work myself up to the phone call, and the receptionist was on the other line, sounding bored.

“Yeah, I’m here, um, is there someone else I could see? I just need a referral to a psychologist.”

The words drench me in shame.

I gave birth three months ago. Motherhood. That should at least earn me just an inch of kindness, but so far all I find I get is reproach. You wanted this.

Everyone thinks I wanted this. That I spent my early morning hours for one long year being poked and prodded intimately by nurses who would yawn behind their gloved hands, sip their coffee during the internal ultrasound. That I pumped my body full of hormones it lacked, that I cried over an empty womb month after month for this.

No, I did not want this. I thought motherhood would make me feel fulfilled, beautiful, so in love I couldn’t stand it. This just makes me feel achingly alone from everything and everyone, even my former self, whoever she was.

I’m just Mom now.

“Well you really should see your doctor. She’s on holiday for the next two weeks, did you want to make an appointment for then?”

I picture her in the sun and sand, enjoying her two beautiful children while I have not taken a shower in three days, while my heart jitters with too much anxiety and caffeine. My eyes well with tears.

“Is there anyone else I can talk to?” I whisper and feel the eye roll on the other end of the line.

***

The nurse calls my name and I scatteredly grab my things. I’ve been staring at the magazine table rehearsing my lines – you need to do this, to advocate for your own health when others won’t.

The desire to be seen as more than just Mom is overwhelming.

She lets me into the doctor’s room. I’m explained this isn’t my regular doctor, he’s just taking her emergency patients. Am I an emergency? I wonder. What did the receptionist say about my teary phone call?

Well, that’s just having a baby, the receptionist informs me. A gatekeeper who mocks me. I use google instead, get confused by conflicting advice, and cry on the floor of his nursery while he joins me in wailing harmonies.

I sit on the chair beside the desk. I refuse to sit on the weird papered examining table like a patient. I came to get a referral. That’s all. A name and I’m out.

He enters the room and introduces himself, not smiling, barely making eye contact. I smile too widely to show I’m a happy, loving mother, that there’s nothing wrong. That is what everyone tells me they need to see. That, if I’m struggling, I must hate motherhood, must just not be good at it. I want so desperately to be good at it.

He begins to open fire. I am reduced to five questions, taken apart piece by piece and examined. Unfitting. Ill equipped. I feel mechanical, unhuman.

How often do you sleep? Well, not often, but I have a newborn, nervous chuckle.

Do you engage in my regular hobbies? If I could find the time or energy, I spiral, scrabble

Are you having regular intercourse with your husband? I –  I pick at the skin of my nail until it bleeds.

“How would you say you feel?” He turns to look at me at last. I heave a sigh of relief and decide for honesty.

“So incredibly tired. Some mornings I don’t want to get out of bed. I vomit before I’m able to accomplish anything. I love him so much, but he won’t stop crying, I just feel like I’m losing bits of myself…” I trail off and begin to dissolve.

He hands me a tissue and turns back to his computer, begins talking about prescriptions. How I’ll feel worse in the beginning, but it’s the right choice. I want to open my mouth, I just want someone to talk to, to ask if I get a choice, but I’ve withered.

Do you want to harm your child?

Amanda Marie Aardse lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband, toddler, and pleasantly round cat, where she is the third generation in her family’s custom woodworking business. She has spent her days riddled with nail biting anxiety and has nothing but a beautiful life to show for it.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen