My nipple is raw and bleeding, but my six-week-old son is hungry. So, I bite my bottom lip and let him latch on. I stifle a scream and look up at the ceiling until the searing pain passes. When I look down again, I see my daughter sidling up to the couch. She is two and a half with bright blue eyes and a mop of curly blonde hair. She flashes me a smile.
“I pooped my undiewears.”
I bite the inside of my cheek until it bleeds. I’m so tired from late-night feedings and toddler sleep regression that my whole body is buzzing. Inside, I feel like I’m teetering. Every word that comes out of me is tinged with desperation. Do you want cereal or oatmeal? We don’t have yogurt. Stop stepping on my feet.
I’m angry because she knows how to use the toilet. But ever since her brother was born, she refuses. Consequently, despite my best efforts and the guidance of parenting books, I spend my days washing poop out of her underwear. Sometimes, I just throw them away. “Look,” I say, “I’m throwing away Minnie Mouse because you pooped on her. We will never get her back.”
“We get new ones,” she says unperturbed by my threatening tone. This is how she always wins.
And now, she stands in front of me. Smiling with her little perfect rows of tiny teeth. “Be nice ta me,” she says.
I know it’s hormones. I know it’s sleep deprivation. I know it’s not rational. I know I should get a handle on myself. I should take a deep breath. But I can’t. I cry. Hot tears roll down my face as I cradle the still nursing baby in one arm and grab my daughter with my free hand. I march her upstairs and she complains that I’m hurting her. My guilt battles against the stink wafting up from her Daisy Duck underwear.
In the bathroom, I manage to remove the poopy underwear and dump its contents into the toilet with one hand. Then, I set my daughter on the toilet and lower myself and the baby onto a little pink stool. His latch slips and it feels like someone stabbed my nipple with a pin. I swear under my breath and my daughter starts singing. The bathroom reeks of poop and there is blood from my breast on the corner of my baby’s mouth.
How did I get here?
In all of my dreams for my life, none of them included sitting on a stool with bleeding nipples watching someone else poop. Hysteria hovers, nervously waiting in the backstage of my mind. I’m on the edge of falling into a place where my dreams will die, where my thighs will forever chafe and my boobs will forever hurt.
“I have a master’s degree,” I tell my toddler.
“I don’t fucking know.” She doesn’t seem to care.
“I all done,” she tells me.
I stand and wipe her bottom with one hand, still holding the baby with the other. While I wipe, my daughter licks my leg. “Stop it!” I scream a little too loudly. A little too desperately. I’ve scared her now and she’s crying. So, I hug her while I put a Pull Up on. All the potty training advice tells me not to use Pull Ups, because she won’t learn if I just let her use it as a diaper. But I do it because if I have to feel another warm turd through underwear again, I will quit.
I think about quitting. Where would I go? New York? I can’t afford that. Minneapolis to stay with my brother? I don’t think his wife would enjoy that. My mother-in-law? My parents? Frankly, I’m disgusted by my lack of imagination. I can’t even wish myself away without being bogged down by the petty details.
I’m drowning in small things. The detritus of snacks past stick to my feet. Spit-up covers my shirt. My life these days is elemental -- blood, milk, tears, poop, tears, urine, vomit, tears. Every day, I must remember to clothe and feed two small things. I tear the baby’s small nails off with my teeth. They are too tiny to clip. I wipe oatmeal off my daughter’s face and keep the glitter from her princess dresses out of the baby’s eyes. I wipe Play-Doh from the floor, kiss a pinch, soothe a fall, explain what an acorn is.
Small things. Ordinary things. Broken apart and put back together. They are the organizing principle of my life.
When we married, we moved to a town in Iowa, where my husband found his dream job building autopilots for airplanes. Armed only with an English major and experience editing for the school newspaper, I had no competing offers. Every apartment we saw was a box of beige carpet and white walls, housed in a low vinyl-sided building, tucked behind outcroppings of strip malls. The air smelled of yeast, and my husband told me that was the Quaker Oats plant.
“On a good day, you can smell Crunchberries,” he said, sounding hopeful. I cried. Welcome to Iowa.
I had dreamed of New York, of working at a magazine for too little pay and eating take out every night. Instead, I ended up in a town that smelled like Crunchberries. Eventually, I found a job writing for a martial arts magazine, then proofing brochures. Finally, I worked as a moderator for a love and sex site. This wasn’t what I had expected. There were no big stories or important work. There were only commas, internet comments about scrotums, and the cornfields.
When we had our daughter, I got whiplash from throttling between work and my child. I’d pump during conference calls -- hooking myself up to the phalanges before dialing in. Then, putting myself on mute. When I had to talk, I turned the pump off, unmuted, and spoke calmly as if I wasn’t bare chested and hooked up to a milking machine. One day, I forgot to mute myself after turning the pump on.
“What’s that noise?” My boss said. “It sounds like a robot attacking.”
“What noise?” I said hastily smashing the “off” button.
When we decided to have a second child, I quit my job. Now I’m home with both children, freelancing at night, with the crumbs of dinner still stuck to my feet. I write stories about baby products and breastfeeding. I imagine my MFA professors are cringing. I worry about what I will write about after my uterus is closed for business. Maybe crime. Maybe religion. Maybe the human condition.
When my husband comes home he asks me if I saw the news about Libya. I pretend I did. “Yeah, what a tough situation. What do you think we should do?”
He talks about military strikes and the baby cries and I’ve got to put food in the oven. I make a note to listen to more NPR and, then, I interrupt him and ask him to take our daughter to the bathroom. It’s been two hours. I don’t want to push fate. As he hauls her up the stairs, I tell him I want to write tonight.
“I have a deadline,” I yell over the cries of our daughter. He nods, flinching when a princess crown misses his head.
We try to talk during dinner, but the baby cries and our daughter insists on yelling “How your day?” over everything we say.
Finally, we give in. “My day was fine, how was your day?” I ask.
“It good. I get angwy and throw all my toys like dis.” Then, she throws her food to the floor. We do the dishes and sneak bites of cookies in the kitchen, while she sobs from the time-out chair.
It’s bath night and my husband wrangles the toddler, while I wash the infant. My husband swore off washing babies younger than six months old, after our newborn daughter slipped out of his hands during bath time and into the water. I tell him it’s instinctive for babies to hold their breath and she was fine. But he has more patience with the older child because he hasn’t had to wipe her pee off the floor five times that day.
I hear her screaming to sleep in a princess dress. So, I hurry up the baby’s bath and rush upstairs. “Just let her sleep in her dress,” I yell. “It’s not worth it.”
My husband grimaces, but he complies. I hand off the baby, so I can use the restroom. I stand too long in front of the mirror enjoying not being touched by grubby needy hands. The baby starts screaming and I rush to my daughter’s room. My husband is holding our son and our daughter is plugging her ears. “Dat baby crying too much!” she yells.
It’s time for a feeding. So, I take the baby downstairs and let my husband finish bedtime. I hear crying. I don’t investigate. He comes downstairs looking defeated. Our daughter is still crying. I don’t even ask. The baby has fallen asleep and I slip him into his basinet. I tip toe out of the room and realize that the house is quiet. I’ve made it. I have time to myself. I should write. I should read world news. I should talk to my husband. But it’s ten now. And my back hurts and I remember that no one ever picked the food off the floor. And I have to wash the diapers, which reminds me that the laundry needs to be folded and I have to make sure to pay the bill for the urgent care visit last month when I had mastitis.
These small things are the currency I deal in because the big things and thoughts that linger on the edges are too hard to fully unpack. How did I get here? Am I happy? Are my children happy? Is this life the one I want? Is this the place I want to be? I brush each of those thoughts away and instead pick up the ossified cheese off the floor. Remove a noodle from under the couch.
What can I say in answer to those questions? How can I even begin to parse them out? I can only say that there is the curve of my daughter’s cheek. There is the peak of my son’s too-big lips. His hands have dimples where knuckles should exist. My daughter’s hair is golden and curly, originating from a genetic place that neither my husband nor I can fathom.
I can only say that there are the remnants of a cookie stuck to my feet. That a piece of popcorn fell out of my bra. Only that we are out of Band-aids and nipple ointment. Only that every pain, every smell, every laugh, every crayon marking on the wall holds together this small life we live.
I do none of the things I’ve planned. I do none of the things I need to do. Instead, I go to bed without brushing my teeth. The baby will be up in four hours and this will all begin again.