Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Love, Mom

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To my girl, my bunny, my sweet sailor mouth Cracker Jack, my Pooh Bear, my love, the bane of my existence, and the entirety of my heart—

Photo by Daniel Reche. See more of Daniel's work at danielreche.com.

Your tummy, the one I filled with burnt toast and ginger ale and teaspoons of honey when you were sick, is now solid and round. As I sit here, you've gone into labor. You're in a room with your husband and two nurses and one doctor whose face is covered with a green mask even when he comes out to talk to me in the waiting room. My area, as I think of it now, has a long vinyl sofa and television sets that are too loud. Down the hall, there's a vending machine that hums noisily and I eat Kit-Kat after Kit-Kat, enjoying the smooth chocolate and the noisy crunch, while I wait for your daughter to be born.

A nurse has wheeled you in a chair that squeaks slightly down the white hall. Your hair piled in a high ponytail, the way you wore it when you cheered for high school football games. A brown line stretches from your breastbone to the abyss beneath your stomach. You've complained so much about it, and I couldn't remember, couldn't recollect, if I had been stained in the same place. So I googled it. It's called a linea nigra, but the name means nothing to me. It still doesn't haul back the memories.

You have griped about all this for weeks. I sat helplessly, unable to make you less pregnant. Unable to take away the pain that rips down your spine, even though I want to believe I have protected you from hardship. To busy myself, I thought I would tell you some secrets of this exclusive club you're joining, the one where you give your time and energy and sleep and, yes, even your body for moments so simple. You won't believe you'll trade all that for a giggle—a toothy exhale that's brief, but shows four blocky white teeth floating in a pink ocean. Or a kiss, which is really all slime on the apple of your cheek. Sacrifice will become part religion, part mantra. My sweetheart, these are the secrets no one will share. Motherhood is a lot like staring directly into the sun, it's blindingly beautiful. The pain and pleasure so intertwined that you can't distinguish one from the other.

 

On your first birthday, I bought yellow balloons and streamers. I dressed you in a white dress with frills at the hem and tied your thin, blond hair in a satin bow.

 

You won't bond immediately and yet, that's the closest you'll ever be to your child. In the beginning, as you heal from the stitches and your body tries to correct itself, bonding is hard. You were a good sleeper. You fit into my willing arms like a cog in a clock. But when I looked at your long blond lashes and the murky eyes trying to focus, I didn't know you. I didn't know how to stop your crying or how to feed you or when you were supposed to sleep. Nana offered help and I wanted to refuse her but couldn't. She ran the vacuum and made bottles in advance and took you for walks in a stroller down our tree-lined street. She found your preschool that first week, signaled by the pink and orange hand prints plastered to the glass. She chatted with babysitters at the park about referrals. But as the pink sky faded to navy, I was alone with you. I sang "Dream a Little Dream of Me" in my tone-deaf alto too loudly. You preferred the record. I made your food too hot. Steam rose from the surface of your bath water.

On your first birthday, I bought yellow balloons and streamers. I dressed you in a white dress with frills at the hem and tied your thin, blond hair in a satin bow. Your daddy blew up an inflatable pool, and we had water balloons even though you couldn't throw them, even though you could've choked on the plastic carcasses left behind. The Big Bird cake I baked looked wobbly and deformed with misshapen white eyes. His feathers more closely resembled fur, and his beak drooped before eventually falling. Big Bird as a stroke victim. I made your aunt climb into a costume. It was a 100 degrees outside, and she scared the children, sent loud piercing screams over our freshly mowed lawn, and provoked tears when she tore the head off to wipe her sweaty brow. When she changed, we soaked her down with water balloons, and Daddy gave her a beer with icy particles slipping down the side. I wanted the party to be perfect, to highlight what a good mother I was. I wanted it to show that I knew you. But the truth was, my entire life has felt as if it was a bizarre game of catch up.

Applying sunscreen to tiny, wriggling bodies is a form of parenting purgatory. And there are others. Practicing "Twinkle, Twinkle" on the violin with you for a year to hear you squeak through it at a too-long concert in a too-hot church. Teaching you to use a fork, tie your shoes, drive. Watching you leave for college. Let me be clear. Many lives are worse than a normal one. Many are hellish.

Once, when you were barely a year old, you had a seizure. I went to collect you from your nap, and your fingers were clenched claws against the pink muslin sheet. Your eyes were wide globes bulging slightly. You could barely breath, so a purple circle highlighted your mouth. I was sure you would be brain-dead or you would die in my arms. Twenty minutes. I waited 20 minutes for EMTs. They told me to count your breaths. I counted the shallow inhales (86), the number of days you'd been alive (310), the number of words you could say (8), the number of years I'd lived without you (32), the years I could survive if I outlived you (0).

The EMT was handsome. He had deep-set blue eyes and a black beard and a full head of sculpted black hair, but I hated him. He kept telling me febrile seizures were "normal." He repeated the word six more times on the two-mile drive.

That was hell, but motherhood is purgatory. It's the everyday nonsense. It's the bath that ends in a watered-down bathroom and wet jeans and moldy rubber ducks. It's the dinners that devolve into schoolyard arguments over green beans until negotiations end with three bites and a smattering of beans littering the kitchen floor. And it's applying sunscreen once every two hours even though you claim you don't need it. Even though you wear a sun shirt. Even though your skin is a deep olive hue like your aunt's.

 

Still, some other life haunts me. The possibility of things I could've done better. The possibility of how I could have been better.

 

Your life will be haunted. I took 12 weeks off after you were born. I breastfed even though my nipples cracked and I smelled like a three-day-old milkshake. I worked and enrolled you in Montessori. I hired tutors when I couldn't teach you myself. I bought corsages when your prom date forgot—pale pink and white roses to match your taffeta gown. I introduced you to powerful women. Sandra Day O'Connor. Liz Taylor. Wonder Woman.

Still, some other life haunts me. The possibility of things I could've done better. The possibility of how I could have been better.

I think of your five fat fingers intertwined with the babysitter's. How you cried for her when she left each evening. How your hugs when I went to work were light, not lingering. How relieved I was after I fired her, even when she cried. Even as your tears made salty semicircles on my t-shirt. You asked for her the next week when we went to the circus and on a picnic a few weeks later. A flimsy kite parallel with the ground that kept getting slapped from the sky reminded you of her kite-flying prowess. Each time you asked, I shrunk. I was microscopic in the realm of your adoration. I told you she was with a new family, a new little girl. The babysitter Facebooked me recently. She has a teenage son with piles of black hair and the beginnings of a mustache. As I accepted her request, I wondered if she would do the same thing in my situation. I wondered if the request was a signal that she'd forgiven me. I wondered if I would be able to forgive myself.

I hope motherhood shapes but doesn't define you. Before you were born, your father was lazy but charismatic. My mother called him The Car Salesman as he peacocked around the hospital carrying you like a loaf of bread. After we brought you home, he took a new job. Then, your father became determined and charismatic. He traveled weeks at a time. I pictured him eating in extravagant restaurants with candles lighting his tanned skin, lobsters or porterhouse steaks steaming in front of him. I cast a perception. I was the martyr. Alone with you trying to force-feed mashed carrots and whole milk and scarfing down a hot dog while he was sipping martinis. To this day, I've never actually seen him order a martini.

I envied his ability to cruise into work for eight hours without thinking about the logistics of your life. I found the camps and the sitters, and I was the room parent. I packed healthy lunches and read I'll Love You Forever. I sat beside you and taught you to write. I proofread college applications. Yet when the door swung open at the end of the day, you ran headlong into his arms. He twirled you through our house, pecking your cheeks like a barnyard chicken. He let you dance on his black dress shoes. He scooped you from the grass after soccer games when the coach's yelling bruised your ego.

The truth was, he loved you too much. Or rather, too much more than he loved me. On the day I married him, he wore a gray suit that fit him perfectly, like the candy shell that coats M&Ms. His shoes glistened in the afternoon sun. He looked like Cary Grant, and as I slipped down the aisle, his eyes skimmed my body taking in every inch of my petite frame.

When you came, he stopped seeing me as that girl. He saw me in stained t-shirts and ratty pajama bottoms. I wanted someone who would roll up the cuffs of his shirt and change diapers, fix a tire, rock you at two o'clock. Your father wanted someone who would sip champagne at the company Christmas party and buy concert tickets for a Tuesday night.

There's a natural evolution within people. In the course of my life, I was a wife and a mother. A librarian. A room mom. A lover. An argument. I was angry and lost and, within you, happy and found. I was useful and useless. My darling, I have learned a lot and I know nothing. Your father was my only other great love. I was a shitty wife. He was a terrible husband. Still, I regret telling him to leave, angry and pointing with a throat sore from yelling. My only other real regret was allowing myself to be two-dimensional, a cardboard cutout of a mother.

Loneliness isn't synonymous with being alone. Deep into my pregnancy, I saw a news story about a blue whale that sang so high other whales couldn't hear her. The image on our black and white screen showed a long, graceful mammal cutting through the water with her massive tail. I fingered my belly button, which had recently popped out while I listened to a reporter call the whale the "matriarch of loneliness." You swam into my hand, brushed my palm as I silently sobbed, blowing my nose on the thin white shirt I wore.

I carried you for 42 weeks. You were with me as I rode subways stuffed with people exuding pungent body odor. My womb cradled you as I discussed books and wait lists and author readings in a chilly library where I continually wore a shawl. I slept on my side because my belly was so large while your father interrupted sleep with snores so fierce they rattled the mattress. Once you were born, I secured you in a tight wrap and carried you against my chest. Sometimes you slept there, your blond wisps matted with sweat and your cheeks the color of raspberry macarons.

 

Your daughter is innocent to all this, and I momentarily want to crumple this note and shove it further into the shadows, into the category of the things we shouldn't say.

 

I was always with you, but loneliness seeped from my pores. I thought people could smell it on me like booze on a frat boy. I kept a journal during that time, a bound leather book where I wrote my feelings each day alongside your schedule. The first entry read, "I cry because I feel lost despite my newfound purpose. Baby slept: 9:30-11; 12-12:15; 3-4:30." Another read, "Wanting to leave is eclipsed by her smile. I wonder if that will always be the case." The entries became shorter and further apart because writing about desolation felt like a recording of my everyday state. I was the blue whale, constantly looking for a matching song but never quite able to locate anyone else.

Your child won't make you whole.

Your husband just came to the window outside my room. He held up your daughter, her hair twisted like a cinnamon bun at the crown. Engraved divots in the chubby flesh where her knuckles will soon be. She cried a high-pitch, gaping wail revealing pink tonsils. She opened her eyes, her mouth forming a wide O as I looked at her. I cried, tears tattooing my cheeks and jawbone, because she is perfect. Because perfect should be enough.

Your daughter is innocent to all this, and I momentarily want to crumple this note and shove it further into the shadows, into the category of the things we shouldn't say.

But one day, we will all shift forward. I will be gone and you will sit in my chair and your beautiful girl will be in a room you aren't allowed in. You'll want to pass along the things you know but that knowledge will feel expired. Irrelevant. The curdled milk of advice and you'll write it anyway. You'll write because love and money and parents who stay together won't save your daughter from any of this. Because as women, as mothers, we're constantly waiting for the world to change. We're consistently searching for acceptance and love and purpose. And mostly, you'll compose a letter because you long for her life to eclipse your own.

Love, Mom


Katie Sherman is a journalist and an award-winning author who covers fine food and parenting—two things rarely related—in Charlotte, North Carolina. Katie has an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her two daughters. Katie has published stories in The Same, Mothers Always Write, Chaleur Magazine, Bluestem Magazine, and the Remington Review, among others. She is working on her debut collection.


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An exquisite piece of writing. Thank you for your honesty.