I didn’t sign up for this. I mean, I did. I did. I volunteered my time and what had hitherto been my underachieving womb to the creation of the most incomprehensible miracle in life: Life itself. Yes. I became the giver of life. But I didn’t sign up for this…this thing my life has become now.
I’m not sure exactly when it sank in that my life had been irrevocably changed, but I know precisely when the change happened, right down to the minutes, pounds and inches: January 19, 2006, 11:37:46PM, 8lbs 10oz, 19inches. Happily, I was knocked out cold for the whole event. Okay, not SO happily. With the naïve ignorance of one who has never had to pass a watermelon through her hooha while having her lower lip pulled up and over her eyes, I kinda wish I had been, you know, “there” for the whole event. But circumstances conspired and I was spared – or denied – experiencing the actual moment, eyes as wide as my legs were spread. But on January 19, 2006, at 11:38:01PM, I was still out cold while my womb was being closed for business (at least temporarily) and my baby was being Apgarred up the wazzu. (Later, much later, when I am forced to realize by the deluge of put-off paperwork carpeting my dining room table, that there is life outside of the unending loop of nursing, burping and changing soiled nappies, I will read that the technical term for the cute little curve to one of her toes is “hammer toe.” Yeah. Nice. Thank you very little!)
But when it sank in and I realized that this new strange planet called Motherhood was now my new home and not necessarily as cozy or effortless as I had imagined it to be when I was only 24 years-old and blissfully naïve. This was when I did a quick little mental tap on my left shoulder and whispered: “Beam me up, Scotty! I’m not quite ready to live on Planet Motherhood just yet.” Nothing happened. No buzzing and suddenly disintegrating into a billion points of light before I was reintegrated back into my old life on Planet Earth where busy meant I had double booked a friend with another and where tired meant I needed to sleep an extra hour, maybe. On Planet Motherhood, all that took on a whole new devastating color. “Busy” loosely translated into, Please God, make me sprout a third arm NOW! And “Tired” was, Oh my God, I can’t open my eyes and I’m pretty sure someone stole all my bones while I napped for the three minutes I could eke out between feedings!
My mother took off a whole two weeks to marass me. Two whole weeks! T-w-o weeks! What are we…suddenly Dutch!? In fact, three months into the boot camp gently referred to as “motherhood,” I was thinking: Seriously!!? After all the mesheleling about progeny and how it is one’s true purpose in life and how we-are-all-gonna-be-there-for-youing me…after ALL the don’t-you-worr- nones…abandoned! Yep. There is no other word for it. I was unceremoniously, bald-facedly, unapologetically, even, a-ban-doned.
So, there we were, me and my wee one, whose mode of communication with me – screaming and screaming louder – was already beginning to wear thin. There we were on Week three, Day one, staring at each other, both of us hoping that the other was not going to ruin her life. Scotty! Where the hell are you!? I am in pain!!! Point in case…?
No, it didn’t come naturally. For either of us. She wouldn’t latch properly, and after two days of mislatching, I didn’t want her to latch on at all. So, pretty quickly, she was put on the bottle. But when the 15th formula we tried still gave her gas and me headaches and anxiety attacks from her constant crying which began every night at 10:30PM, like clockwork, I decided to give the breastfeeding thing another go. Mind you, this was no easy thing for me to decide. You have to realize that only the purest of pure loves could make me allow this fire ant in the guise of a helpless colicky human infant to latch back on to my tender (read: cracked and bleeding) nipples. But let her latch back on I did, and with the liberal use of Lansinoh ointment, I was able to prevent possible future nipplectomy from necrosis due to nursing! Now I had two great loves: reading and Lansinoh!
Which brings us to the delicate subject of…
Well, let’s just say it didn’t happen at first sight…nor at first bathing, first changing…certainly not at first feeding. It took me some time to feel that…that thing that’s supposed to happen between mothers and their babies…that sudden, inaudible yet loud click! …that A-ha! moment of permanent kinship. At first, I blamed it on the bags of blissful morphine that had kept me in a delirious loopy field full of magenta butterflies pollinating aquamarine marigolds. And three weeks later, when I was sure the side-effects of that legal heroine they had dripping into me intravenously had worn off and I still didn’t feel it, I decided that fatigue was the culprit. I mean, water-boarding who! Pish! Try acute and relentless sleep-deprivation punctuated with fire ants nursing on you between changing poopie diapers and listening to the incomprehensible, unreasoning and unreasonable squalling of your little…joy. Yes. I think I would have done well at Gitmo. In fact, my rejected applications for extraordinary rendition? I keep it in her keepsake box just so I can remind her when she’s fifteen and in the unfortunate grips of teenage ‘tude, that I am this tough and that I can take whatever she can dish, and then some, and still come out on top.
So, when it happened, exactly, I’m not sure. But it did. She stole into my heart, crept in quietly, possibly while I slept one night like I’d been shot…twice… in the head. She crept in on her butterfly-wing-soft hands and knees, squeezed in there between my aorta and my soul, carved an indelible niche in the shape of her smile and made herself a permanent home.
Tri-athletes and Cumquats
The funny thing is, I didn’t gain that much weight during the pregnancy. At 41 weeks (yes, dear reader, she stayed in Mama Motel an extra week!) I barely looked like I was carrying kittens let alone nearly 7lbs of new human life. My feet, on the other hand, looked as though they had been freshly fashioned out of brown clay to exaggerated proportions. And, if I began to suffer any doubts that I was pregnant (as so many people had already expressed to me) all I had to do was attempt to take a shower or sleep on my right side. After a shower, my heart felt as though it had run a marathon (but my feet would clearly negate that possibility) and if I slept on my right side, my happy little fetus would put enough pressure on my vena cava to make me feel as though I were going into cardiac arrest. But that’s neither here nor there. Unlike my own mother, I am quite good at forgiveness, so I’m pretty sure that the lack of instant bonding had nothing to do with my adorable little bit trying to commit matricide in-utero.
So, once we parted ways and we were no longer sharing food and blood supplies directly, and I actually could eat more than two bites of anything before feeling full because my stomach now actually had room to expand, well, I did what came naturally: I ate. At first, I was very careful— just like when she was still inside me. I insisted on organic and fresh and no added sugar or artificial coloring or ingredients I couldn’t pronounce without breaking them down into syllables. But once I was a-ban-doned and realized that my little cherub’s extra unfunny idea of a long nap was 15 very short minutes, I began to graze…on cookies…and cakes. I ate cereal for breakfast, and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch chased down with ice cream for an afternoon pick-me-up. And I gained weight. At first, only a pound here and a pound there. I had lost all the “baby” weight and then some when I delivered, so I figured I had some room to grow…literally.
The visit from reality came one fine day in the form of another new mother out with her baby in a stroller. As new mothers are wont to do, we stopped and tried to insta-friend. Her baby was just three months old, too, and yet this new mother looked quite…fit. In fact, if you are indeed what you eat, she looked as though she ate a tri-athlete for breakfast and a marathoner for lunch. To her, I must have looked like I was on a steady diet of cumquats. In that moment, I decided, I didn’t like her very much.
If there were ever a child being raised by “the village” it would be mine. My entire immediate family is rather immediately locatable not three minutes away “just down the road.” I kid not. There are obvious minuses and some pluses to living “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” every-damn-day. On the plus side, theoretically, you are never scrambling for a babysitter so that you can indulge in luxuries such as a five minute (rather than a 35.8 second) shower which usually ended with you still dripping wet and yet somehow attached at the nipple to your bundle of satisfied… joy. On the minus side…? Well, let’s see, how much time do you have?
The Village Matriarch
As a villager, I realized pretty quickly that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has an opinion and the only one that doesn’t matter is mine. My grandmother, the knower of all things natural and good, the keeper of all feTo cures and endless neCH shnkurt and telba recipes for what ails you, was so rabidly eager to feed the baby herself that she began a subtle campaign to dissuade me from nursing her myself. If the baby cried 15 minutes after nursing, it was clearly because I was not producing enough milk for her. If the baby cried while she was being changed, it was clearly because her feeding three minutes ago left her feeling unsatisfied and deprived. If the baby cried because…you know…that’s what babies do! then it was clearly because my milk didn’t agree with her….You get my drift? These subtle salvos were ever so gently punctuated with the virtues of the TuTo. In her opinion, much verbalized, it was non-scientifically clear to anyone who cared to look askance that I was not producing enough sustenance for this baby. Ergo: TuTo!
The Village Idiot
So, like the sleep-deprived, over-tired, unbonding, slow-lactating, cumquat-eating idiot that I am, I decided, in a moment of deranged brilliance: I’ll pump! Think about it – here’s a win-win plan. So, after a long day of flying solo and nursing every 18 seconds, I decided to graciously allow Grandma to feed our precious VP (Village Princess), not formula, but my own milk. I pulled out the state-of-the-art pumping tools and sat right there, in front of Grandma’s critical eyes, and began pumping. It started out well. Isn’t that how false hope is built? For the first five minutes I could prove to Grandma that I was not starving the VP. See that there, filling up this bottle? That’s my milk. I made that! In 10 minutes, I pumped out one ounce of mother’s milk. One ounce!! I thought, okay…I’ve got another 10 minutes to go. Half an hour later, I finally dragged my eyes away from the taunting measly ounce of milk in the bottle to Grandma’s self-satisfied, smirking face. Yes. Here was proof positive that I was starving my – our – little angel. I tried to explain, of course, that the machine was not as efficient as a four-week old at getting the milk out. I tried to explain that it was the end of the day and all the internet readings I had done had advised (advice that as the village idiot I was destined – nay, obliged - to ignore) that the best volume was gained first thing in the morning. I tried to explain all this while my baby guzzled the ounce of milk down in seconds and started crying. I wanted to join her.
The Village Advisor
Now, as we are all aware, every village has an advisor – the know-it-all of all know-it-alls. This advisor will never hesitate to impart his or her opinion and s/he will always let you know that s/he knows better – you are just the village idiot that happened to give birth to the Village Princess. Such accidents, no matter how frequent, cannot be prevented, but rest assured, they can be mitigated.
In this case, the advisor, who also happens to be the VP’s uncle, feels impelled to impart all sorts of advice on all sorts of things at all sorts of moments. A baby, he may pontificate, needs to be changed just so…gently, slowly, so slowly and gently that the infant doesn’t ever realize it’s being wiped, powdered and diapered. In fact, it is best if the baby thinks it is on a tropical island feeling the warm breeze of the ocean air right before it is transported off on a brief cruise. Never mind that the village advisor has never had the pleasure of raising his own offspring let alone changing a diaper. In fact, this particular advisor seems to be just that, and only that— an advisor. My request for assistance once was met with a stone-faced: I don’t do diapers.
The Village Mogzeet
A.K.A…The Limited. Of course, she’s Ethiopian, (the Village Matriarch would work with ONLY an Ethiopian and as the Matriarch is much better than any Nanny-cam system out on the market, what other choice did I have but to acquiesce?) and so fresh off the boat her ankles were still wet from wading ashore and, apparently, directly into my employ. And it showed in everything that she did, from the infuriating fact that she could never master the microwave to the way she would routinely countermand me in that you-may-be-my-employer-but-I-know-better- how-to-raise-your-baby way. Oh, and never, nevernevernevernevernever! will she ever manage to measure up to the Village Advisor’s proscribed level of hygiene. She doesn’t even measure up to mine, and I’m the village idiot! Even I could tell that cleaning your teeth with the nail of your pinky right before you prepared the baby’s night bottle is transgression enough to get you dismissed on the spot, village advisor or no village advisor.
The Village Mogzeet routinely started her flagrant disobedience with these words: inE indanchi balawqim…after which she was compelled to prove her own words wrong by flagrantly disregarding my instructions. One day, she said: inE indanchi balawqim, yhE TuTo wetetun ayawerdilatm. I told her not to worry about it, that the baby will manage. What I wanted to tell her was that babies were designed with the sucking capability of a Hoover on steroids and that if we put ‘em up to it, they could probably suck the atmosphere right off the earth – that’s how powerful these little suckers are, just ask my nipples. But my Amharic is limited and her mind even more so, because my basic response, gd yelem, yiwerdilatal simply fell on deaf ears. Next thing I know, my baby is choking on milk and all her mogzeet could say was: Ayeeee… qedadawn beTam asefahoot meseleN. Que!? If I could have killed her with the darts shooting right out of my constricting pupils, the judge would have pardoned my actions as justifiable homicide. I took immense satisfaction in my last words to her: gwazishn Teqliyi. Except of course, I didn’t say them out loud and they were not the last words I ever uttered to her. It will disappoint you to learn, as it disappoints me to acknowledge, that I retained this woman’s “services” for a year and let her go only when my husband finally moved to the U.S. to take up the mantle of baby-daddy-nanny.
The Village Immigrant
The VPs Papa is not Ethiopian…nor is he American…and as such he was always treated with equal measures of high esteem and complete disregard. He would often tell me how in his family of seven children and nine grandchildren, the grandparents never interfered with how their grandkids were raised, that they routinely withheld opinions and instructions and advice and left their children to the difficult task of figuring it out on their own. Now imagine the diametric opposite, then add two tablespoons of Mts! and a dash of neCH shnkurt and you would get an idea of my tribe and our modus operandi. My poor husband didn’t. I still feel mild sympathy for him when he gets that bewildered look on his face when I try to explain to him why my brother could not override my grandmother when she decided to feed white flour injera to our VP. I tried to explain the unimpeachable status of the Ethiopian Azawnt, tried to illustrate that grown man that he is, my brother, 41-years-old, even, could not trump Grandma, not even when he waved the laminated 4 x 5 piece of note card with our instructions on it. No? Asked my poor immigrant. No, I told him. Why not? He asked. I bit my lips. How, I ask you, do you translate grandma’s ere wedeziya! to my brother’s valiant attempt at sticking to the VP’s parents’ rules? So I did my best. I shrugged and admitted: It’s a cultural thing, you know. For example, if I were to tell Grandma that your parents do not even offer advice, she would look at me in exactly the same way you are looking at me right now. I could see that this only deepened his perplexity, so, deftly, I changed the subject, to our other favorite topic…
She is work…a lot of work…like a second full-time job. Only, if you screw up this one, it ain’t just a bonus you don’t get. I mean, as a parent, you are raising another human being. This is huge. It’s monumental. And the weird part is there is no Parenting 101 class. You don’t have to have a degree, not even an associate one or even a certificate, to get this job. No applications. No interviews. No one asking about your past performance. You are suddenly left at the desk of parenthood with only Google and Wikipedia (and, oh yes, The Village) to guide you through the rough patches.
Don’t get me wrong…I love her. Oh, I love her, in ways I cannot even begin to wrap my arms around. Her “Mommy…I ya you”s turn me inside out and right back up again until I know that my life has more meaning in it than I can read in one sitting – which is how I used to live it. When she points to the moon and says for the hundredth time, with undiminished enthusiasm and wonder, Moon, mommy! Mooooon! I look up with her and I see it as she must – an intriguing, mysterious, distant orb of light shining down on us wherever we go, following us home, even, as we drive away from Grandma’s. When she crouches down on her tiny haunches and examines with such new and curious eyes the wondrous creatures that ants are, I want to get down there with her and discuss in great detail the endless meanderings of the industrious bugs. When she drags over her extra large edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and tells me “Up! Up!” so I could put her on my lap and read it to her for the nth time, I feel as eager as she to count the number of fruits and sundry on which the caterpillar gorges himself until he is sick. Then he eats a nice green leaf and goes to sleep in a cocoon and wakes up a beautiful bu’fly! It never gets old. Ask me why not. Because it never gets old for her. When she teeters on her new legs and reaches out to me to steady her, reaches out with her tiny starfish hands, with those impossibly tiny fingers and thumbs, this miraculous little human being that I must have incubated in my womb but still find impossible to rationally imagine, when she reaches out to me, I feel…honored. Yes, honored. There is no other word for it. When she presses her tiny nose to mine in the dark of my room when I try to put her to sleep and I say: Good night….I love you. And she replies, Gooonigh…I ya you…too and punctuates her sincerity with a wet kiss on my left eye…well, there are no words I can use to describe that. If only I could take the rise of what can only be pure love that clogs the back of my throat and curves my lips into a smile of pure contentment and hold it in my hands and examine its light…if only… .
Thanks, Scotty. You can beam me right back down, now. I think I’m gonna like Planet Motherhood after all…even if it means she’ll be 30 before I can have a good night’s sleep again.