On Being a Mother
My son’s getting on a plane back to Scandinavia where he goes to school. He’s raring to go, his mind scrabbling for details. Has he got everything? Passport, tickets, phone charger? Jesus Christ, a 9 hour layover in fucking New Jersey, then an 11 hour flight to Stockholm. L.A., Tucson, back to the wicked cold, and the bleak icy landscapes of Finland, a land so foreign most people forget it exists.
But he likes it there: his friends, his school. At twenty-two he is not my baby anymore. He is not anyone’s baby. He is a young man, busting through his own skin daily and finding a brand new person. His function in the world is becoming.
Mine is remembering.
I remember his birth, every moment of it. I remember the light in the hospital room, the dyed hair of the crabby nurse reading the Book of Mormon, who became terrified when I asked her, just a conversational gambit, if she’d didn’t get a little worried about STD’s what with all the blood she had to deal with every day. Maybe they do now but back in the early nineties, they didn’t routinely test expectant mothers for STD’s. Not unless you asked. I thought that was interesting and an interesting conversation was what I needed. When you’re wracked with contractions, talking about the weather is not going to feed the bulldog.
I remember my husband on my left, always on my left, doing his best to help although really, what can a man do? We’d been through this once before and he knew the woman on the bed wasn’t really me, or was me only spiritually, hormonally loaded for bear and anything else I could take down while trying to push a nearly nine pound baby boy through a hole that up to that point, had pretty much been used just for pleasure.
It was a long night. There were ice chips, purgatorial tortures, rending of garments and oaths berating the gods then apologizing frantically for what I’d just said. There was no doctor in the morning and the admonition, repeated over and over by various nurses, once I’d finally reached full dilation, not to push. “You can’t,” they said. “There’s no one here to catch the baby!” I visualized a guy running in wearing full protective gear and a catcher’s mitt. I tried, but not pushing after all that work was like asking a wave not to break on the shore. Would my newborn emerge and crash headfirst onto the floor? Was it clean, was it soft? Could someone at least put a pillow on the floor?
In the nick of time a frizzy haired MD—at least I think she was an MD; she could have been the janitor for all I knew-- swooped into the room, into latex gloves and the sleeves of her gown. My child came into the world.
There was never any doubt that he would. Throughout my entire young life I said I never wanted kids. The world was covered in asphalt, Reagan wanted to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and bank tellers had become automated machines. But one day about age 27 all that changed. I was at a restaurant and found myself entranced by a beautiful infant on an adjacent table. All swaddled in powder blue, snuggled into his carrier, a little trickle of drool running out one side of his mouth, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His parents finally moved him to another table.
And I knew. I could no more not have kids than a salmon could not swim upstream to spawn. My lifelong maternal instincts and twenty-something fecundity made a mockery of my philosophical objections. Rene Descartes would have thrown me into a fire; my cogito ergoed nil. I was a human animal and could no longer fool anyone anymore.
I had two boys nearly 4 years apart.
Someone once said we’re compelled by infants because of the innocence in their eyes. It’s very short lived and once it’s gone you never see it again. Experience assaults it. In small ways at first, barely perceptibly. A favorite toy dropped on the floor through the slats of a crib, the disappointment and rage at being unable to retrieve it. The sharp, sleep deprived swear-word from a parent none-too-thrilled at having to change a diaper at 3 AM. Then bigger sorrows add up, sibling rivalry, school, physical and emotional pain change the wide-eyed clear gaze into something else. It has to.
Because along with innocence comes vulnerability and this is dangerous. While we long to cherish it, children themselves are desperate to get rid of it. My four year old, terrified of the garbage truck, used to run in hollering every time it appeared: this great fearsome thing churning up the dust in the alley, making a terrible racket as it flung the bins around like some kind of monster from outer space. He’d be frantic and hide behind my legs. This is a fond memory for me. Not the being scared part, but his rock-hard conviction of extreme danger and my ability to protect him gave me such a feeling of purpose. But for him it was a moment of exposure, fear, and while he would also come to understand the protective function of “mother,” as he grew into a young man the idea that he needed his mother’s protection would become anathema.
And so it goes. The times when I felt so needed and useful, sitting up nights with illnesses, emergency room visits, first cars that crashed, first cigarettes taken away. Or maybe things got heavy. Drugs, heartbreak, tantrums and forgiveness, mistakes, parental humanity--perhaps the scariest thing of all-- crashing through. As a mother all your hero moments are the moments in which your children were the most vulnerable. They don’t want to remember that. They want what we all want: self-confidence, self-assurance, independence.
Sons, anyway. Sons are like bear cubs, grown up and gone. They go out into the world and mark their own territory. They are loathe to remember a time you had to pull them out of the refuse bin they fell into on the side of the road, hell-bent on retrieving that chicken bone.
Kids grow older, putting their pasts further and further behind them, and as the childish writing on the Mother’s Day cards changes color and the ceramic bowls and keepsakes they made in kindergarten crack and crumble. As the color in the photographs fades and my confusion and loudly proclaimed objections to the intractability of time are heeded not at all, I wonder what the fuck happened. Where did it go? What was it all for? It did not make me money, bring me fame or reputation. I am now much as I was before. Just older, grayer, creakier.
The traffic is terrible at LAX. It has been all the way down the 105. At eleven at night there is no reason for it, but then this is L.A. There never is. My son’s duffle bag has all his worldly possessions and is wedged into the back seat along with a backpack containing a disassembled computer. These equal all his worldly possessions. The duffle always gets searched and it makes him mad; he’s got everything organized just so in there and they fuck it all up. I try to tell him he might have better luck if his luggage wasn’t army green, but what do I know?
My son would like it better, I think, it would have saved a lot of trouble if he’d just hopped out of the passenger seat with a peck on the cheek, but I’m not having it. I want a full standing up body hug. I want to take his smell, his height, the feel of his whiskers, his slouch, his preternaturally focused bearing. It’s a lot like his father’s, but friendlier, easier. I want to take enough in to hold me until I see him again, an impossible task.
He rambles through the airport doors. He’s thinking about Stockholm, Amsterdam. All the places he’ll go and the people he’ll meet.
His world is becoming. Mine is remembering. Tears roll down my face all the way home. The 105 West is clear. The August air smells of car exhaust and heat.
Catherine O’Sullivan, August 2014