Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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The saying goes that laughter is the best medicine, but for me, it's walking. I like to start down the hill across from my house, circle one pond, then another, and wind my way back to my own garden. I keep my eyes akimbo for any beauty the universe might feel fit to drop into my path. We've lived in the same place for three years, but a spray of purple flowers and the year's first peas popping still delight me each spring. This time of year, the ladybugs emerge, and I spend long moments letting them crawl weightlessly up my index fingers before they lift their wings and let the breeze carry them off. I feel a slight twinge of joy at every earthworm I turn over in our garden beds: I can remember a time when this soil was lifeless, just a dry patch of dirt in the corner of our yard.

Of course, all is not ideal. Recently, as I pried up bindweed from the strawberry patch, I spotted a wasp hovering near some of the blossoms. I made a mental note to ask my husband, Marc, to spray our shed. Last year he found six wasps' nests inside it. I love bees and have even considered keeping a backyard colony, but wasps are a different story. Marc and I are allergic to wasps, and they have always seemed particularly malevolent to me, the way they sting and keep on stinging.

I stood and brushed the dirt from my hands, noting that particular satisfaction of weeding: progress I can see. My mind felt clearer, too. I'd gone outdoors as soon as Marc got home to salve some hurt feelings. My one-year-old had recently picked her favorite person, and it wasn't me. It was Dada, of course. Being a toddler, she didn't bother to try to hide it, which would have been the polite thing to do.

''Dada,'' she yelled from the crib at an ungodly hour that morning. I stumbled, hungover with sleep deprivation, down the dark hall and into her room. I picked her up and kissed her face, murmuring, ''Dada's at work, babe.'' She lowered her eyebrows, stuck out her lower lip, and glowered, like a grounded teenager.

''Yeah,'' I said, handing her a sippy cup, ''I wish Dada was here, too.''

Then she wanted Dada to read her a book, Dada to play with her, Dada to change her diaper, Dada to sit with her for meals. I tried not to let it bother me. Her dada is a great dada, I reminded myself, and I should be thanking my lucky stars that he is so involved, fun, and loving. Dada is more scarce, so that must be why she wants to soak up every moment with him. It doesn't matter how she feels, because I am her mother, and I will always love her the same no matter what she feels at the moment about me.

But wow, did it sting. I hadn't had a love so unrequited since middle school, when my hard core crush wouldn't even consent to copy off my math homework.

It made me feel so insecure, and ridden with need, and then guilty for feeling ridden with need. Then, creeping up inside, I felt resentful.

''Yep, it's only Mama, '' I told her. “The one who made you inside her body and takes care of you every day of the week. The one who would light herself on fire if it meant guaranteeing you a happy life. Just me.''

''Dada,'' she groused.

When Dada arrived home, she catapulted out of my lap, beelining for the back door. (Heaven forbid he should arrive home when she was on the changing table or strapped into her high chair: If anything held her back from immediate reunion with the love of her life, she'd scream as though I'd slapped her, throwing her body so violently that she has nearly injured herself once or twice.)

''Well, clearly I'm not needed here,'' I said to Marc, shoving on my shoes. I felt like my own child's temporary babysitter, just waiting for the real parent to get home. Everything in me felt bruised. I was out the door without another word. I circled the ponds and cleared the weeds and sidestepped that wasp. When I came back inside, I offered to nurse my daughter so Dada could get some chores done.

When I finished nursing, though, she started screaming. I handed her over to Dada. ''She wants you, of course, '' I said, feeling the old resentment creep into my stomach.

She kept on screaming though.

And screaming.

And screaming.

This is not typical. My daughter can be kind of whiny or, more typically, pouty, but this was top-of-her-lungs, barely-pausing-for-breath, red-faced shrieking.

''What in the world?'' we wondered aloud.

''Maybe she's still hungry,'' Marc said, and tried to put her in her chair. She bucked wildly; he nearly lost hold.

''Maybe she's just tired,'' I said. She hadn't napped well. I took her to the other room and cuddled her in the rocking chair. She screamed. I walked her around and showed her pictures of elephants. She screamed. Marc retrieved her favorite book. She screamed. I offered her a bite of banana. She screamed.

Fifteen minutes later, Marc said he was going to try to put her down.

''Change her diaper first,'' I called as he headed toward her room. I hadn't smelled anything when I'd checked, but I figured a more thorough examination couldn't hurt.

A moment later, I heard him yell, ''WHOA! WHOA!'' Then a pounding reverberated through the house, shaking the picture frames. I shoved back my chair and ran to her room, where I found Marc stomping a wasp to death. It had crawled out from my daughter's diaper when he'd opened it up to check.

Immediately, I felt the contents of my heart leach into my fingertips. I couldn't get my daughter into my hands fast enough, couldn't offer her my breast soon enough, couldn't stop wiping away the tears staining her cheeks while my own tears dropped into her hair.

''My baby,'' I murmured. ''Baby, poor baby.''

Even now, I can make no sense of how the wasp got in. My daughter had been wearing pants over a onesie that buttoned over her cloth diaper. Had the thing been stuck inside it when we'd put it on her? But then why didn't she start screaming until an hour later? As I nursed, I tried to see where the thing had stung her, but I could see nothing—wasps don't leave stingers behind.

When she stopped nursing, I took her immediately to the bathtub, but I still couldn't let her go, so I undressed and climbed in after her, pulling her on to my lap so the warm skin of my belly pressed against her back.

Half an hour later, her dada lifted her from the tub and wrapped her in a towel. I leaned back in the cold water of the bath, shivering a little. I watched as he gently lifted her into his arms.

Then she turned, looked at me, leaned toward me, reached out both chubby arms, and cried, ''Mama.''

My husband smiled, raised his eyebrows a little, and spoke with a note of surprise.

''She wants you,'' he said.

I stood, then, as though newly baptized, all resentment long since drained. With water still dripping from my body, I opened my arms.

Beth Malone writes about the entanglements of culture, spirituality, social issues, and motherhood. Her work has been featured in Brain, Child and Drunken Boat, among other publications. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two daughters.

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