Bad Mother Bone
(In a futile attempt to stay sane after the election I’m returning to writing although I’m not sure why. Maybe in the agony of addiction in our family, writing is the only thing that is saving me.)
But first this coach. Gregg Popovich. “That’s what a seventh or eighth grade bully does. And we elected him president of the United States. I’m a rich white guy, and I’m sick to my stomach thinking about it.”
Bad Mother Bone
How do you keep yourself on track when you feel like you can still fix it?
Somebody recently told you to find an object that represented all the feelings you have about being a bad mother. So you look around for an object. Where is it? What should it be? Your friend advises you to find this object because that way – when the useless “bad mother” feelings hit – you will be able to look at the object and recognize that these are just feelings and then you can recognize them and put them down.
Because it’s not true. Repeat. It’s not true.
But the committee in your head says it is true.
You were a bad mother.
But you know it’s not true.
Make the committee shut up.
Shut up, committee!
Find an object to help you cope.
Besides, it’s just a story you torture yourself with, so the object will help.
And honestly, you’re getting a little boring.
You look to the past for answers and maybe like the old actor W.C. Fields said when caught when reading the Bible – he was looking for loopholes.
You are looking for loopholes.
Or what you missed.
Your husband and many of his siblings and his late father – had/have extremely high cholesterol even though they exercise and several are vegetarian and a few are marathon runners. Your husband weighs around 140 pounds and has run ten marathons or more but he still has to take cholesterol medicine.
You don’t run marathons and your cholesterol is normal but as young parents you both were worried about your kids getting high cholesterol – so even though you breastfed your son for fifteen months you started giving him skim milk when he was around ten months thinking that you would nip this cholesterol thing in the bud.
And one of your friends back then says to you, “Skim milk? You’re joking! Their brain cells are developing. It’s critical that they get that fat for brain development.”
You immediately feel ashamed – like you’ve been abusing the baby.
Your friend’s husband tells her to lighten up.
And she does, and you all laugh together, and she says not to worry actually since you’ve been breastfeeding, but you start buying milk with fat for the baby and skim for your husband, because you know she is right.
You are thinking of this only now to somehow prove you were NOT the uptight mother on the playground, but actually in your loose kind of way, maybe you were uptight.
The committee in your head says you were uptight but pretended not to be.
You didn’t cut up his fruit because he had eight teeth at eight months, and he could gnaw on a pear or an apple even though you felt judged by the other sandbox mommies who thought he would choke and they all had neatly cut up fruit in Tupperware containers that were clean and sanitized.
A person could live in some of those immaculate diaper bags.
“Shouldn’t you cut that up?”
“Aren’t you worried about him choking?”
Your baby’s diaper bag was so gross on so many days as much as you tried to keep it clean with baby wipes, but there was always the fermented juice cup, the dirty cloth diaper because you used the diaper service for a while and you couldn’t just throw away cloth diapers (although once or twice you did in public when it was just too much.)
But back to the sandbox mommies, your son would drop his pear in the sand and coat it with sand, sticks, and leaves – yuck. But you would rinse it out of defiance and say it builds up immunities.
Your baby so rarely got sick – just earaches.
As a baby, you rubbed his face with sunblock although it was like trying to lather a giant, ricocheting pinball because he hated it and knew how to dodge the gloopy white attack.
Anyway, you did not understand back then that sand-dipped pears or cholesterol fears or sunblock would be the least of it.
But you were always comparing myself to the smarter mothers. Your close friend who advised you to give him Vitamin D milk was the smarter mother, and her baby, was the baby to aspire to…her baby was eight months older so you could follow her baby’s milestones and make sure he hit them, which he did just fine.
In addition to being smart, your friend back then was always funny and generous, giving you baby clothes and a bouncy seat and she made you feel like your baby was so smart. She was always complimenting you on how smart he was – and she loved him. Your friend’s husband loved him too and took such beautiful pictures of him. You took your baby on play dates and you remember the feeling of sun-drenched California living rooms in a sea of healthy wooden toys where afternoons lasted forever.
You remember another play date with a British father and his three daughters – this was with your third baby – and how one of his girls, who was around three, picked up a butcher knife in the kitchen and swung it around giggling, and the father, without raising his voice a decibel, said in the most stoically British way, “Cecily, Cecily. Give Daddy the knife.”
And for years you can’t get the memory out of your head, because you found it so funny, his calm and understated request, and you can’t but think of all the ways all the parents you have known would have responded so differently.
You hear your father’s voice first. “Put that sonofabitching knife down!”
Cecily, Cecily. Give Daddy the knife.
What would you have said?
Definitely something closer to your father than the British father.
* * *
Your first baby was due on October 23rd and arrived on November 8th in the Year of the Dragon. You and your husband had just finished teaching English in China and your students wrote you letters from Ningbo that said – “oh teacher, auspicious birth, baby boy born in the year of the dragon.”
You lived on Valentino Place in an apartment in Hollywood next door to Paramount pictures off Melrose Avenue.
Aphrodite lived on the top floor.
The apartment manager was a coke-head, but you didn’t know that then.
The baby’s first room was a walk-in closet, but he mostly slept with you and your husband on the futon.
You later wrote a play about it called “I am a Futon and Other Umbilical Tales.”
Your friend from college – a guy – said the play reminded him of Erma Bombeck’s style.
You didn’t like that compliment.
NOBODY else ever described it as Erma Bombeck.
The play later became “Blood and Marriage.”
Your baby was born the day George Bush Senior was elected. You thought you’d vote on the way home from birth, since your son was born at a birth center, and the midwife assured you that having a baby was the healthiest thing in the world to do and it was much better to go home.
Plus she had stayed up with you most of the night and then when labor stopped in the morning, she made you go have breakfast at Ship’s, this very old LA diner in Culver City (and all over LA at the time).
You ordered oatmeal and felt like you were in an old Noir restaurant with your husband and you thought, “Maybe I could have the baby on Thursday.”
It was Tuesday.
(Your baby would grow up to love all things Noir and would talk back to you as a teenager using Noir phrases to distract you or make you laugh – throw you off. He was good.)
After breakfast you went back to the birth center with labor clearly still at a standstill and the midwife said to you, “How do you feel about having this baby?”
You paused and you wanted to say, “Scared – so scared,” but you probably mumbled something like, “Fine. Good. Okay.”
Then she broke your waters and labor started again with a vengeance and you described it later to friends as “cinderblock surrealism” because there were no drugs to dull the pain, and when he was born a few hours later, she put him on your chest and he gazed into your eyes, already lifting his head to look at you, and she said, “Babies don’t usually lift their heads this fast – look at him looking at you, trying to life his head. What a beautiful baby.”
It was almost too intense his gaze but you looked back and his eyes were slate blue and you wondered – are you mine? Really?
And your husband was crying, trying to hold you both.
So dragons, bad mother bones, and here you are still trying to make sense of it nearly three decades later.
Cut to age four.
Your boy breathed like a chugging espresso machine when he slept, so at age four he had to have his tonsils (which were the size of basketballs according to the doctor) and adenoids out – and tubes in his ears. You remember they gave him something to put him under and he began laughing hysterically and he looked at you and your husband and said, “Mommy and Daddy, you’re giants. You’re giants!”
And a nurse laughed and said, “Don’t ever let this kid take drugs.”
He was a blond cherub in the bed seeing giants.
How could the nurse have said that? But everybody laughed.
It was funny.
But was that the curse? Did the gods hear? As a storyteller you think that’s the curse – that’s when it happened.
You should have known.
Or you think it’s that relative, whom you love very much, but she had a big family and was chained to laundry and duty – and so when you got pregnant without insurance or a job in the middle of a move to California, she said, “You’re not going to keep it are you? You’ve got your whole life ahead of you to have babies. You’re 25. Wait a while and find jobs and get insurance.”
But you wanted to prove her wrong.
You wanted to prove you could do it.
So you look and look and finally you find it – your bad mother object. It’s sitting on your screen porch in Alabama.
It’s a bone.
This bone has been places.
You pick this one because your mother-in-law used to marinate bones in buckets of bleach on her farm to get them bleached white like Georgia O’Keefe bones.
Your husband took your kids on bone hunts at the farm, and they came home sweaty carrying cow or deer or coyote bones and bit up with chigger bites and ticks.
So you’d scrub them down – there were two children by then – a boy and a girl – and rub calamine lotion on them after they were fragrant from their baths to heal the bites.
(Your husband dealt with the ticks. Uggg.)
A boy and a girl playing on the farm where their father was a boy too.
Your mother-in-law would soak the bones in bleach and set them out to dry. She always made everything beautiful. Sometimes, she put the bones inside wreathes of dried flowers or she hung them on the side of the house or on the door. Then y’all would sit on the porch and tell stories and sip a little sherry or whiskey.
You felt safe with your kids and husband and the music – somebody was always singing and playing the guitar – and the Georgia O’Keefe bones and the smell of hay and the giant sugar maple and the mock oranges down by the creek and the dogs and the way the sun set over the farm, and you knew – at least you thought you knew – that you could always keep your kids safe because there was so much love on that farm and in your husband’s eyes.
You later brought some of those same bones to school visits so children could see them and you put the bone hunts in your children’s novels.
Bad mother bone.
So there you go. When the bad mother feelings hit, you can look at the bone and say – “okay, it’s not true, so I’m putting you down now.”
Bad mother bone.
But how do you do it on those days when you can’t put the bone down?
Do you torment yourself that there is something more you should have tried?
Some other miracle?
Something you missed?
How are you supposed to manage the pain and the crazy and the loss of someone you love with all your heart who is here but not here?
Why do you open up the Pandora’s box of ick again just to check if it was all just your imagination?
You always did have an over-active imagination.
Nobody liked “high drama” when you were a kid and freaked out over tornadoes or the thought of Helen Keller’s scarlet fever catching or the time you announced at supper that the end of the world was coming because Sister Martin de Porres told the class it was indeed coming when least expected and to be ready!
So what do you do this object?
This bad mother bone.
How do you stay on track?
How do you put down your bad mother/bad father/bad sister/bad brother/bad daughter/bad son/bad friend bone?
And learn to live again?
(Leonard Cohen is helping. His voice is easing heads and hearts everywhere.)