Today is my son’s first birthday.
I never thought I’d say that.
Firstly, because I always swore never to bear offspring, and secondly, because surely it hasn’t been an entire year since I revoked that oath.
It doesn’t seem possible.
At 7:05 p.m., he will have been outside of me for one calendar year; I over here and he over there. At that evening hour, scheduled for tonight, he will cease being my baby, my infant, and officially become my toddler, my young child.
I want to write an epic letter, mother to son, waxing philosophic on how the past year’s changed me and how the future will change him. I want to promise him things, stop and remember moments, and breathe in the last of this day.
But I can’t.
I can’t face myself.
It’s stupid; it’s just a birthday, simply a calendar notch, only an anniversary. It was bound to happen. We’ve known it was coming.
Yet here I am, 1:22 in the morning, typing random crap into this blog editor and crying my silly not-as-little-as-it-used-to-be ass off.
I think I know why.
Nobody told me–or if they did, I didn’t hear them–about the bizarre instinctual forces at play in a mother after birth. I mean, I admired the hell out of anyone who’d done it, and I would never have laughed off the task. (That’s why I wanted no part of it, remember?)
There’s an animal fierceness that takes over once the parasite is removed from the host. I expected to be relieved when birth was over; I expected to be celebratory and thankful.
Instead, I became terrified.
I was transfixed by the tiny grubworm of a human before me, the one who needed everything, at all times, in all measure. I loved him more than I was prepared for. The world began scaring the shit out of me.
Jerry had said that before, when we once pretended to talk about having more kids. Neither of us was serious at the time, and we were shy ninety percent of the resources we’d need, anyway. It was a daydream and nothing more. But one of the things he had said was that he feared bringing another person into this world, and adding to the two he’d already made. He said that he didn’t think he could handle being afraid for a third. Not again.
His first two weren’t mine. They are now, but they didn’t start that way.
I didn’t birth them; the hormones were not my own.
I laughed at him then, and told him he was paranoid. I asked him who would keep the world safe if we didn’t make more decent people. I silently figured he was too sentimental, and it was a single daddy thing, made whole by his not being in the girls’ day-to-day lives anymore.
Now, I get it. Now those thoughts have come back to kick my ass.
Every time he bumps his head, Natasha Richardson flashes through mine. Every time he screams, I weigh the decibel against pain value and worry quotient.
When he sleeps, I watch him breathe. I check, I count.
Carseat straps are yanked upon with every muscle fiber I possess, regardless of the length of trip or the span of time (five minutes) since we’ve been to the store. Eggs, honey, and peanuts strike cold blood into my veins, imagining the hives, the rashes, the pupils, the still chest. Popcorn and raisins have switched from their former place in my diet as healthful options to the upstairs cupboard that’s not anywhere near the kitchen; exiled as choking hazards, punished for their possible, if unlikely, threat to my young one.
I don’t even have words for what the evening news does to me. Babies killed, babies thrown, babies found. One was eaten recently by his mother, at three weeks old.
For a very little while, I took a job with a Gannett company near where I live. (Money was tight, and freelancing doesn’t afford a writer any decent health insurance.) It was about an hour long commute–to a much more metropolitan city than mine.
One of my side jobs in the newsroom was to compile and handle the city’s obituaries. When someone died, they called me, and the next day everyone else would know. I thought myself a minister, speaking to the funeral directors and the families with grace and hushed tones. There were so many…
On the day that triggered my last, a funeral home employee called me to submit an obituary for an infant. I don’t recall now whether it was a stillborn death or a newborn, but in my head, they’re the same anyway. Loss is loss, and this was a baby like the one I’d left with the babysitter the same morning. Whether in the womb or without, this person’s baby had been alive, just like mine, at the beginning of the day. Now it wasn’t; its entire life was now permanently over.
I fought my emotions as I typed in the info, and gave the funeral home caller the total. If I remember correctly, it was thirty-five dollars. (The paper charged a prescribed amount for each section used within the obit format; accomplishments, survivors, grandchildren, club affiliations. It’s a rather short list for someone who wasn’t given the option of developing a personality at all.)
We closed the sale, and I typed and punctuated the copy, then went back to the story I’d been writing. Most of the words were blurry. Some of them made sense.
About a half an hour later, the funeral home called me back. “We need you to strike that two-day we called in,” they said. “The family doesn’t have the money.”
As the new girl and relative piss-ant, there was nothing I could do. Even if I could get the permission to waive the fee, the funeral home still planned to charge the family the same amount.
There was nothing I could do.
I took my lunch break, at the odd hour of 11:18, and cried in the common room for every second of the sixty minutes. Here was a family who’d been pregnant yesterday or last week, waiting with an empty and freshly repainted nursery, looking at it month after month and daydreaming about the person whose room it would be, the person they’d come to know later. Later, you’ll be walking, and we’ll make the crib a racecar bed. Later, we’ll teach you how to ride a bike. Later, we’ll cry at your wedding.
Except there was no later.
There was no anything.
There was nothing.
And these selfsame people, in all their anguish, had been told by a cold man in a black suit that their son or daughter didn’t deserve an obituary, because that son or daughter had parents that couldn’t cough up the cash.
The thirty-five dollars.
I put more than that in my gas tank every couple of days.
I wonder, in that moment, which was worse? The feeling of having missed the chance to know a still and blue child, or the failure and self-defeat of not even being able to have provided the single and only time she’d have an unexpected need, as children do. I wonder if that mother thought about how she would have had to scrape up money for school supplies and torn clothing to be replaced, and felt that she was too weak, too poor, too lacking to have made a good mother; I wonder if she internalized it all, and titled it shame that she’d carry forever.
I’m sure she did.
I don’t know her pain, and I would never profess to.
But I know the internalizing trick, as all mothers do.
When my mother speaks with a catch in her voice and says, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”, in it goes. When my mother-in-law rolls her eyes at the insane idea that I won’t give my ten-month-old whole milk, that gets cataloged, too. When Jerry reacts too quickly to a tumble, I tell myself that I’m lacking in empathy; too slowly, and I feel ridiculous and overprotective.
Motherhood has made me insane. And, having chosen to be a writer, I was pretty damn near it already.
I don’t contain issues. I spill them, and let them go.
That’s what I do.
I live, breathe, and in successful pursuits, spend catharsis.
My life is built around it.
Suddenly, here’s this infinitesimal man, living in my house, for whom I cannot capture my feelings. I can’t wrap them, I can’t phrase them. I sure as hell can’t release them.
For my younger and non-kiddoed friends, I compared it to the love you feel for a band. Maybe this wouldn’t work for those who didn’t love music as a teenager, but for most of the friends I keep, this computes. That love…
Not now, as an adult, but at a melancholy fourteen, when it’s four in the morning and you’re lying on the floor with your head against the speakers, vibrating every note through you, pulsating with the color of the tones, reeling back and forth in the brutal and vital need of the singer. I’m talking the singer or band who understands you more than anyone, more than any relative you’ve ever had, more than your best friend or your latest crush; more than any God your parents have. Force, and passion.
It’s that, only live, and everyday.
It never dampens. It never levels off.
I love him so much it hurts.
I think of Fairuza Balk, in Almost Famous, not eating fried chicken.
I’m not a baby person, I don’t “ooh” and “ahh” over tiny blue clothing, and I don’t pretend that anyone else on the planet should think my kid is any cuter than theirs.
He is, of course, but that’s not the point. 🙂
I’m not your typical mother. I never meant to be either of those things; typical nor a parent.
Since his birth, the majority of what I’ve written is what Jerry calls “dead baby stories”. He thinks it’s morbid, and he’s probably right. That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have a choice.
In every scene of daily life, in every corner of every intersection, at any meal when solid food is involved, during all walks and each bath, I fear intensely for my child’s life.
I see the ways it could play out; and I’m not so sheltered to know that for many mothers, this has been reality. If only they’d closed the gate, if only they’d checked the blind cords or walked in on a SIDS event in progress, if only they’d not watched a FreeCreditReport.com commercial for those thirty seconds instead of glancing at their children as they choked to death.
I think this way. Constantly.
It’s rather exhausting.
And, after much reading and internalizing of even this fault (stack the levels), I have decided that I’m not alone. In fact, far from it.
As terrifying as it is, this is perfectly normal.
My problem is that I’m a writer, so I admit these feelings freely and do not edit their pallor. It’s the only difference; the singular reason the world isn’t even more full of morbid tales than it already is.
All mothers would write this.
This pain is impossible. These feelings are hard.
Every mother that has ever lived has been desperately afraid for her child. (Personally, I have no idea how anyone could have two.) The mothers of the pre-dawn haze, the mothers during the Renaissance, the mothers in Persia, in Salem, in Chernobyl, in 1970s Chicago. They all have felt this way.
My logical self knows that it’s hormonal. It’s a byproduct of the chemicals that are coursing through the blood, the ones that keep the baby alive those ten (yes, not NINE) long months and through the subsequent birth, and that add to the survival instinct in the bleeding days afterwards.
After birth, I was a cat, and a wolf.
That knowledge, however, doesn’t supersede the rawness and its taking over.
As these days have wound down, slowly and spinning all at once, into a year, I am baffled.
I cannot fathom how I’ve managed a year with this precious wound.
I cannot understand that the SIDS danger is past, that my baby can finally have a pillow of his own, that his infant carrier is now not the safest place to be, and that my food is his food.
I do not have a baby anymore. I only have a son.
And part of me loves that–like I said, all the twelve-month-and-under dangers have passed, and we’re safe.
We made it.
But more of me is afraid. Afraid for the future, afraid of the new choices and decisions I must learn about obsessively online before making, and afraid of the new heights he’s bound to want to climb to.
I’m scared shitless.
What breaks my heart the most is knowing that this, right now NOW, is the smallest my little lover will ever be. There is no going back. There is no stopping.
And already, and for about a month now, I can feel the mother-blood remnants dissipating through my skin. I have found that I can let him try to get onto the couch himself. He can hold a whole cookie and be trusted to take little bites. He didn’t drown in his sippy cup.
I’m becoming his parent, as I knew I’d have to when we conceived him. But the guttural, physical motherliness is fast becoming memory.
I don’t want that.
I want to wake in the middle of the night, just because his rhythm changes to a tenth of a beat off. I want to be the one who has to feed him, because I am capable and because I am his food. I want to be the only one he loves, the only thing he knows.
I want to keep him. And keep him safe.
Mostly, I want him to stay. I need him to; I cannot love this much and be faced with an empty hole, which is what all mothers’ sons’ cribs become.
Today marks the first step. This day is the first chronological milestone toward that adult person he will become, that unassisted flight. I suppose it should be a goal, but if I’m being honest, it’s not yet. It will be.
For now, his milestone is my millstone. His feathers are my granite.
There will be more days, God willing, and more years before my son becomes not my own, and chooses instead to identify as her husband, their father, our granddad.
(This thought alone is enough to make me feel guilty for having ever married Jerry. How dare I take him away?)
But we’ve done it.
We’ve made it a year, we’ve learned each other, and we’re strong and safe.
I almost typed “for the moment”.
I don’t know what the future will hold. I can’t promise what life will be, or will not.
But suddenly, my boy, we have a past.
A past that has seen you grow and change, fall and rise, melt and tense. A past which has been my greatest blessing, my darkest fear, and brought me my closest ally.
We have a past together, and it’s marked.
Congratulations, my son. You did it. You made it. You amaze me, scare me, and force me to love way more than I’m comfortable with. You fought your way into and through this crazy world, and you made me a mother.