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On Mutating Into a Mother

This is the third installment of a series on writing and motherhood. Read parts one and two here.

When my son was first born, I feared he might be possessed. It seemed he roared his entire first year of life, even though no doctor could find anything wrong. Hugs enraged him. This was the first way my mind had to be rewired to be a mother. True love was not eloping on horseback as we’d been taught in childhood; it was caring for my child the way he wanted, not the way I wanted. So I named a teddy bear after my son, and held it every time I wanted to hold him.

What he did, in fact, want me to do was vigorously shake him in a manner I couldn’t do in public for fear of being apprehended by the authorities. So I spent a year hugging a teddy bear and shaking my son like a martini while agreeing dutifully that motherhood was, indeed, “amazing.”

Six months in, my husband and I made the mistake of taking him on a plane. By the end of the flight, he was howling like a coyote as we jostled him up and down the aisles. At one point, a man I’d seen down many lilliputian bottles of liquor screamed, “Do something about your baby.” I’m pretty sure he meant it in The Sopranos’s sense—like, in his whiskey stupor, he half expected me to bash my son’s head against a tray table until he positively stopped ticking. I searched for a snappy comeback, but just ended up sobbing with my son for the rest of the flight. It was one of those moments I wished I could edit out. I couldn’t see it was a crucial part of my process of mutating into a mother.

Although I have yet to arrive at the perfect words about parenthood, in that time I just sat there filling the computer page with thoughts, hoping they could build me a bridge out of that strange mental space. And they did.

The funny thing is that now all my son wants to do is cuddle, converse, connect. What sort of portal did he have to travel through to transform? And what portal did I travel through to let him? Nobody tells you that becoming a parent (and a person, probably) and getting to know your child is a long, slow process. While you love your kids when they’re born in a sort of instinctual, abstract way, there’s a deeper alliance that takes time, and many such plane rides, to form. Then, right when you feel like you’re getting a grasp on them, they transform again, and the process begins all over.

The concept that these people come out of you and you love them as much as you ever will is part of the maternal mythos that leads to airplane breakdowns. Being a mother is not something that just happens in perfect beauty at birth like a lever being switched on. It’s more like one of those water-blooming sponge animals, but the blooming takes about a hundred years and sometimes feels like you’re being electrocuted, by love or lightning, depending on the day and how much sleep you’ve had the night before.

As I gestated my daughter, my son became still more wonderful and still more spunky. When I didn’t know what to do, I just kept on writing. It helped me find my way. Plus it was fun to record the little blundering thrills of mothering a boy, like the mechanics of teaching my small son to pee. It’s like a handless person teaching you the importance of a firm handshake, which might not be the worst idea actually if your goal is innovation.

Now that my son’s three and my daughter lives outside of me, I have recently noticed a certain equation: the more he becomes Dennis the Menace, the more I become Mr. Wilson. In addition to his tornado of activity, like most toddlers, he likes to demand a series of things in a row that he may or may not want in order to test the limits of my affection and his power. In return, I figure out what I can give him to show my affection, but what I should not give him to show there are some limits in life. But I still don’t enjoy the dogma that if we don’t nip all our kid’s imperfect behavior in the bud right away, we’ll end up with a fire-starter, crime lord, dictator, or tax evader on our hands. Yes, I take action when he bats me in the face with a toy, but I adore this little fire-starter fiercely. He’s my little fire-starter.

But, in truth, the cure is worse than the disease. Parents’ corrections of their whiny kids are always whinier, and I can’t help but side with my son a lot of the time—as I often feel with my college writing students. I side with the rebels and not the yuppie with the mommy blogs and pedagogy training. What a hoax. I hope they all vanquish me in the end. What a grammar-touting, “use your words” sap I’ve become. Run for the hills. Don’t let me stifle you. What does it mean when you simultaneously want to build and sabotage the system you’ve learned and are consequently passing on? Being a woman?

Perhaps Maurice Sendak summarized the intricacies of loving a toddler named Max best: “But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!’ And Max said, ‘No!'”At the same time Max and I are both having to run towards our fears rather than away from them in order to survive. At the peak of his sudden connection and anxiety at being separated from me, he needs to learn to run away, just as I have to, at the peak of my connection and anxiety about his getting hurt, let him run away. Together we form a tragicomic loop of embracing and letting go. This is a small-scale look at the nature of everything we’ve gone through in the process of growing up together so far.

I have never comfortably accepted “the way things are,” and now, in a disciplinary sense, it’s my job to teach these ways to my son. So where does that leave us? Mommy handing Maxie the keys to a kingdom in which she doesn’t fully believe? Why should being an adult mean giving up on everything that makes the world truly shimmer? So forget that. Fortunately, my son doesn’t yet believe all the breathtaking stuff we call life is just whatever yet, and neither do I; so we have that in common: being wonder-filled children, that is. Aside from teaching him the things he absolutely needs to know to navigate this life, I see that my job is to teach him that magic isn’t just the province of childhood, but very much for adults. In fact, his belief in it might mean his survival. It has certainly meant mine.

And so this all brings me to where I sit now. I’m supposed to be doing various writing jobs at the moment, but instead I’m sitting here wanting to write a history of my motherhood, and really wanting to write a history of everything. I know this to be my unfortunate tendency towards intellectual promiscuity, a kind of openness to being entered by all matter of idea that will not land me with another kid, thank goodness. I’ve already had two bellyfuls of existence, which means I’ve been creative in a different way than usual, but which also means I’m not in the market for another child at the moment.

Accustomed to summing things up at the end of class, I decide these are some takeaways of motherhood: my body has doors that open and close, but there seems to be something that stayed open after birth. There’s a whole labyrinth in me that wasn’t there before, something that keeps receiving signals long after my old body would have shut down, that keeps loving and cleaning up poop even after I’m too tired to see straight, some part of me that thinks and feels differently about absolutely everything and always will.

Most of all it seems that my body likes to bleed and make eggs. Not like the ones I fry in the morning for my family, but the ones that make it so now I wake up as a mother of two, whoever that is, and try to feed a baby while begging a toddler not to destroy the whole house, maybe just parts of the house, okay? okay?

What strikes me most, though, is my daughter Layla’s cartoonish smile when my son dotes on her. He hears her when we don’t, jogs into her room with a burp cloth, bottle, and toy for “his baby.” I come in to find him stroking her hair or singing his rendition of Eric Clapton’s Layla, complete with flashy outfit and Backstreet Boys dance moves, and I can’t help it, I sob, because I finally see it: this is what all the growing was for.