Growing Up Together

We work side-by-side, taking yogurt and peanut butter out of the cart and placing them on the conveyor belt. They roll away towards the counter and we place bananas and almond milk in their empty spots. His dark brown hair is not quite as black as mine, but it is thick and straight. We high-five when the grocery cart is empty and wait on the man in front of us to pay. It is a regular Tuesday afternoon.

The man leaves and we step up. The cashier, an older woman, smiles at us and asks the typical question,“How are ya today?”

“Doing well, thanks,” I reply.

She scans and bags. We wait and smile occasionally.

“You know,” she says. “It’s so sweet you brought your brother with you to the store. Most moms would kill for a daughter who helps out around the house.”

I smile and nod, hoping he hasn’t heard. I look down and casually glance his way. He’s looking at her with a furrowed brow and squinted eyes.

“Who were you talking to?” he asks, real question in his voice.

“Your sister,” she says. I hold my breath.

“I don’t have a sister,” he says. After a pause, he asks, “Do you mean my mom?”

The cashier looks like she wants to crawl under a rock.

“Oh, yes. Your mom,” she corrects herself then looks back up at me. “You know, you must be graced with aging well. I knew you were related because those eyes, but you just look so young.”

She finishes bagging. I pay and my receipt prints.

I smile a sad, apologetic, embarrassed, honest smile. “I am so young,” I say, take the receipt, and walk out of the store while he rides on the back of the cart.

When we get to the car, he recounts the scene and laughs. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard—that someone would think I’m his sister. Of course I’m his mom. What was she thinking?

 I smile and laugh, too. I don’t want to cry about it anymore.

***

My son and I just moved into our first place together four hours away from my parents. I started graduate school, he attended the local kindergarten, and I felt the insecurities and transitions of a new mom all over again, minus cluster feeding and diaper changes. We survived on my school assistantship, barely, but I determined we would make it. So we did.         

Maybe it’s part of living in the deep south, but when you get pregnant at 17, everyone stares at you with wide eyes. People question everything about you and frequently feel they have the right to say, You’re too young to be raising a baby. Most of the time, they don’t even know the whole story.

This grocery store exchange is my story, one that happened more times than I remember.

Later that night after the grocery trip, I wound up in a burst of emotions. I wasn’t even angry at the cashier. I was only 23 and looked like I was 16, never having given up t-shirts and all-stars. I never wore makeup and had my nose pierced. She just assumed what I probably would have as well.

Even though I understood others struggled to understand our journey, I was angry and sad for my boy and the situation I had put him in. I always knew growing up would be much different for him than it was for me. I lived a typical childhood with both parents. And while Ethan’s dad loved him, we never married, and our child never knew us together in one house. Even with the support of all my family and friends, I was the one person who had always been there.

I was Mom.

I figured once we moved out of my parents’ house, things would seem more “normal.” I would be authority and advocate, but things felt just as difficult as before. Truthfully, life was harder. Graduate school and work demanded much of my time, and the same little boy who adamantly declared me to be his mother at the grocery store also adamantly wanted to play or read together. I wanted to succeed in school for our future and be a great mom in the meantime.

I sat on the tiny back patio of our little place after he had gone to bed. I felt defeated, as if the whole charade was up. I could pretend it was easy to balance single-parenthood and school. I could pretend the cashier’s words didn’t sink into my heart. I could pretend I didn’t fear they pierced my son’s heart as well. But it wasn’t true. I drank a glass of wine and prayed. I thought we were going to be fine on our own, but I was questioning, asking God if I could really do it. Was I too young to be Ethan’s mother? Could I pursue my dreams and love my son well?

As I sat there, frustrated and doubting, I got a text from a friend back home who knew life was hard.

This is the only plan He has ever had for your life. Trust Him. You got it!

If I trusted Him, then I had to believe this was exactly where Ethan and I were supposed to be. This four-room house was meant to be our home, and home was a place to grow. And growing was exactly what we needed. I was still in school, still in my early twenties, still trying to figure out a career. He was just starting school, growing inches each year, and learning to let others have a turn.

We ate popsicles together on the front steps and raced down slides at the park. We had dance parties and jumped on the bed. In truth, we were more like siblings than I wanted to admit.

In that moment, I realized every relationship was about growing and learning together. Ethan and I were on the same journey as everyone else, our route just looked a little different.

If I didn’t let the difficulty make me hard, I would be able to give more grace and understanding, and in turn, Ethan would as well.  It was this hard providence, this weird, non-traditional mother-son thing that would enable us to love others in a unique way.

I cried then, my heart broken open with tears of relief, of sorrow, of joy, of hope.

I glanced in his room on my way to bed then stopped to reposition and cover him, his head at the foot of the bed and his blanket in a heap on the floor. He briefly opened his eyes and said, “Mommy, I love you,” and wrapped me in a big hug. Then he drifted off while I pulled him closer, because time did nothing but push us forward so quickly we could barely open our eyes.

“I love you, too,” I whispered, and though he wouldn’t hear me, I spoke the words aloud so I would know they were true, “We’re right where we’re supposed to be.”


Guest post written by Melissa LaCross. Melissa is a wife and mother who spends most of her time chasing three boys and drinking black coffee in Charlotte, NC. She loves a well-prepared meal, red wine,  a real conversation, and can often be found hiding in a corner with the other introverts. Melissa writes to make sense of the world around her and contributes to Darling Magazine.

Photo by Annie.

Mama Heart

Shifting nervously in my paper gown, I search the room and realize there isn’t a clock. I wonder if that’s intentional, if it is meant to bring about calm for people like me and my husband, as we sit in this windowless, cloud-colored room.

The clinic is quiet as we wait for the doctor who will interpret our ultrasound. The minutes slow and stretch as I take shallow breaths with my hand on my stomach. We were supposed to hear the baby’s heartbeat by now. Our midwife hadn’t been able to find it, but she said that wasn’t unusual in early pregnancy. She sent us to this specialty clinic as a precaution, to make sure everything was progressing as expected. She told us she had seen two other women in the same situation just this week. Their babies’ heartbeats had been found, no problem. I turn her word choice over in my head. Those heartbeats were found, but if a heartbeat is lost, where does it go?

My husband and I start talking to each other and then trail off, afraid to voice our fears that there might not be a heartbeat, there might not be a baby anymore. There is a tap on the door and the doctor enters. She leans gently against the sink, compassion softening her voice and drawing her gaze right into mine, as she tells us that the baby has no heartbeat. It could be a mistake in dating the pregnancy, so we should make an appointment in two weeks to come back and check, just to be sure.

Tears run hot down my face as I choke on my jumbled thoughts. I press the doctor for numbers she is reluctant to give. How much of a chance is there that this baby will live? “Less than ten percent,” she finally admits, “but we will hope for the best.” I excuse myself and rush down the hall, fumbling with the bathroom door as my sobs come out loud and fast.

“I’m so sorry,” say the doctor’s words and face, as she tells us she will see us in two weeks. We will keep hoping.

Two days later, the bleeding starts. We cancel the appointment. There is no baby. There is no need to check for a heartbeat.

***

A few months later, I find out that I am pregnant again. Joy and terror chase each other around my head. I spend the next six months afraid to say anything concrete about this baby. I begin my sentences with, “If this baby is born,” and, “Maybe …” Fear clenches its relentless grip around my heart as I furtively research pregnancy symptoms and baby registry checklists. I cannot believe that we will really get to meet this little person growing inside of me. But the heart carries on, regardless of the emotional state of the person in which it beats.

At each appointment with our midwives, I hold my breath until we hear the baby’s heartbeat. Every time, it is strong and clear and definite. At our 20-week ultrasound, the doctor tells us, “You have a beautiful baby.” Despite my fear, the baby’s heart is pumping away, a miraculous flutter on the grainy black-and-white screen. There is still a tiny heart cradled in my body, beating and growing, sustaining life and bringing healing.

***

Our son with the strong heart sits in his high chair at breakfast between my husband and me, looking from one to another. My husband puts his hand on his chest. “Ba boom ba boom ba boom goes Daddy’s heart!” He does the same thing on Julian’s chest, and our little boy dissolves into giggles. “More!” he shouts. “More!”

Later that day, I sit with our boy again in his high chair. He looks at me with earnest concentration, his ocean-colored eyes clear, his forehead furrowed. He touches a small hand to my chest. “Mama heart, “ he says.

Mama heart. These words from my son’s mouth articulate the joy and pain and uncertainty that dance daily within my being. How much can a mama heart hold? How do we make room for all the love, fear, and wonder that welcoming little ones into our lives can bring? I used to think that my heart could not contain it all. The heartbeat we could not hear from our baby who did not live closed my heart down in despair for a time. But it is the work of the heart to open as well as close, to carry us through both the hard and the good times, because that’s what the heart does. Hearts are strong and made to endure, to expand and contract with the changes of life. They keep persevering, leading us on, with each new moment. We grow, life shifts, and our hearts adapt.

My heart is not the same as it once was. I know that this little boy and the baby who came before him have made it bigger. This business of being a mama is the hardest and most glorious work I’ve done. It is a daily, moment-to-moment way of being in the world, and it teaches me that my heart can carry more than I imagined. Joy and pain expand and contract the heart, and the spaces between make room for strength and courage. I celebrate the small joys, and when I stumble, I get up to try again. My mama heart is strong, like my boy’s, and day after day, my heart beats on.  


Guest post written by Jordan Miller-Stubbendick. Jordan lives outside of Buffalo, NY with her husband, toddler son, and golden retriever. She is a writer and Lutheran pastor who loves books, daydreaming about her next meal, and the transformative power of stories to humanize and connect us to each other. She is learning to exhale, stay present to what is right now, and take this thing called life one day at a time.

Putting Fear In Its Place

My son has a severe phobia of thunderstorms, and I like to say it’s all Daniel Tiger’s fault.

Three years ago, when I was in the throes of adjusting to life with a newborn and a three-year-old, Daniel was our third parent. I could turn on an episode during long nursing sessions or while I went to put the baby down for a nap, and my son Nathan would sit for 22 minutes, mesmerized. Daniel encouraged trying new foods, sharing, and there was a whole arc that summer about a new baby sister that seemed divinely ordained. Nathan soaked up every lesson, and I patted myself on the back for choosing the perfect show: equal parts educational and entertaining.

It was all great, until the thunderstorm episode. Nathan had been blissfully unaware of the existence of thunderstorms until this point. He never batted an eye at a rumble of thunder or flash of lightning. The loudest storms wouldn’t wake him in the middle of the night; I can remember carrying his sleeping form downstairs during a tornado warning more than once. He didn’t know to be scared, so he wasn’t. That all changed as he watched Daniel and O the Owl become afraid of a thunderstorm in the Land of Make Believe. His eyes were opened to a previously undetected threat, and he learned a new lesson: fear.

At first, his reactions were pretty typical: he would jump at the first clap of thunder and scurry to sit next to me. I’d give him a reassuring hug and distract him with a game or toy, and he would quickly forget the storm as he immersed himself in playing. Three years later though, his fear has grown into full-blown terror. He eyes anything other than a cloudless, blue sky with suspicion—could a thunderstorm be imminent? On cloudy days he’s reluctant to play outside or stray far from home, because sometimes clouds mean rain and sometimes rain means storms. Nathan doesn’t decide to do something based on whether or not he thinks he will enjoy it, but on that day’s weather forecast.

Meanwhile, my husband and I have tried every tool in the parenting toolbox to assuage his worries. We’ve talked about how thunder is just a sound and sounds can’t hurt us. We’ve checked out books from the library that explain the science behind thunderstorms and lightning, knowing that sometimes we fear what we don’t understand. We have encouraged safety rules: stay indoors, away from windows, when there’s a storm. We’ve made concessions: yes, if a storm wakes you up in the middle of the night, you can come sleep on the floor in our room.

It’s a heartbreaking thing to see the fear and panic in his eyes when the first roll of thunder rumbles. My arms wrap around his thin shoulders and I whisper in his ear that he’s going to be fine, and that the storm won’t hurt him. Without fail, our conversation unfolds the exact same way every time.

“But how do you know, Mom?” he will ask. “How do you know the lightning won’t get us?”

“Nathan, bud, remember: what’s my job?”

“To keep me safe.”

“That’s right. I promise I will keep you safe during this storm.”

Usually my reminder is enough to keep the crushing fear at bay. And then of course, no storm lasts forever. As the thunder fades and the rain lets up, Nathan visibly relaxes. The sun breaks through; the threat is gone, at least temporarily.

We’ve tried everything to help Nathan manage his fear, and while some of what we’ve tried helps, nothing has calmed his anxiety completely. As you can imagine, we’ve received various nuggets of well-meaning advice.

Why don’t you tell him there’s nothing to be afraid of? Well, that’s not really true. Lightning can hurt you. His fear is disproportionate to the threat, but the threat still exists.

Why don’t you just distract him? We do some, but first we validate the fear. At the core, it’s an instinctual self-preservation. Nathan’s gut is telling him there’s something to be afraid of, and we don’t want to completely invalidate that. It’s more about managing his response to fear and less about pretending the fear doesn’t exist.

As challenging as it is to help Nathan learn to control his panic and anxiety about thunderstorms, there’s something to be said for a fear we can see and name. There’s also the satisfaction of being the antidote: my arms, my calming words, my presence is enough. He trusts me to keep him safe, and, so far, I’m able to do so.

It won’t always be so simple.

Someday he will learn I can’t keep him safe, not really. There are dangers in this world that I’m not strong enough to guard against, and then there are also the threats that come from his own mind: self-doubt, guilt, lack of self-worth. He will see there’s plenty to be afraid of in this life and how easy it is to let fear draw the boundaries of our lives for us.

Dreams go unpursued. Love stays unrequited. Differences remain misunderstood. The chance of a storm keeps us from seeing the world.

In the Daniel Tiger episode that ruined everything, Daniel’s mom tells him, “Close your eyes and think of something happy,” during the storm. Maybe she meant it as a distraction, but it’s also a profound truth.

Fear is heavy and oppressive. It crowds out everything else if given the chance and will absolutely revel in calling the shots. It takes a deliberate effort to focus on joy to put fear in the proper perspective.

It’s a lesson I could stand to listen to as well. Nathan and Daniel are only afraid of thunderstorms, after all. My own fears—of failure, of missed opportunities, of embarrassing mistakes—those are the ones that lead to a life that feels woefully unfulfilled when they’re the loudest voices in my head. When I’m whispering, “Remember bud, we can’t let the fear win,” it’s as much for me as it is for him.

That’s the funny thing about parenting, though. You think you’re shaping their character when really, they’re shaping yours. Together, we’re talking more about joy and less about fear. Joy in other people, in experiences, in accomplishing something that requires bravery and strength.

We don’t have to vanquish our fears, but we can’t put them in charge, either. Fear gets a voice, but not a vote. It can come along for the ride, but it sure can’t drive. That’s joy’s job.

Fearful moms raise fearful kids, and I want more than that for my children. I want more than that for me. Together, we are choosing something different.

We are choosing joy, and that’s no small thing.


Photo and words by Jennifer Batchelor.

Wild Things

I can recite Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak in its entirety. Sometimes when I’m exhausted, I keep my eyes closed through the bedtime ritual. The words have worn my voice into a song-like cadence when I turn the pages. Long before bedtime stories were anything more than a blurred lullaby of voice and closeness, I’ve been reading this book to my sons.

I reach for it on tired days when I’m ready to send my kids into the far-off realms of sleep. I understand Max’s mother, trying all day to instill love and discipline and nourishment, when he just wreaks destruction and defies her. I’ve shouted, “I don’t care!” to whining and complaints, and held the door shut to keep them in time out. The irascible nag I try to suppress overrules the patient, smiling mother I aspire to be. When it’s finally bedtime, I pick up Where the Wild Things Are. My voice rises and falls over the familiar words and phrases as my kids’ bodies go soft and heavy and they become sweeter and quieter. We rock in our soft recliner like a boat on the sea, sailing into the safe harbor of sleep and a new start in the morning.

I have hazy memories of my mother reading the book to me before bedtime—the colorful leaf design on the endpapers, the weird beauty of the wild things. My bedroom was carpeted in blue, and after being kissed goodnight, I would imagine my bed was a private boat rocking me across the sea to mysterious lands.

***

I’m sitting in my parents’ garage, sorting through boxes of books. They used to be piled on the bookshelves in my room, but it isn’t my room anymore. Vintage records are no longer tacked to the wall, and the lime green accent wall I painted in high school has been subdued to pewter gray. My prom dresses are still stuffed in the closet, but my mom has been asking what I plan to do with them.

It’s a natural process. I don’t expect my old bedroom to be preserved like a shrine to my childhood, but the lack of a permanent touchstone leaves me unmoored. I move a lot—my husband is in the military, so every home is temporary. A part of me loves the change and adventure, but another part of me feels blown about in the wind.

When I go to my parents’ house—what used to be home—I lose my impulse control. I go through the cupboards, looking for the hidden stash of Oreos and M&Ms. I stay up late reading in bed, even though I know my kids don’t sleep well away from home and will undoubtedly be up through the night. Sibling rivalry rises up between my sister and I as if we were still toddlers tussling over the prettiest Barbie dresses.

***

I wrap the towel around me and step out of the shower. My sister is at the mirror, arranging her crown hair extensions. “Have you seen these before?” she asks (as if she hasn’t been tagging me in Instagram giveaways for them for the last six months). “Alan got it for me for Christmas. Mom has some too, I think.” She unzips her makeup bag, pulling out sponges, foundation, a couple of mascara tubes.

“Your hair looks great,” I answer. “So much extra body.” I rub on eye cream, tinted moisturizer, bronzer, mascara. Done. Before I pull my hair out of its top-knot, I hear a shriek. My sister applies her second layer of mascara as I throw on a bra and t-shirt and rush downstairs.

My mom is sitting at the dining room table with her vanity mirror. She never does her makeup under the fluorescent bathroom lights. My oldest sits across from her, peering at his magnified face on the other side of the mirror. “Are they okay?” I ask. “I heard a yell.”

“Nolan took a toy from Cal,” my mom answers. “They’re fine now.” She unscrews her mascara (waterproof only—the regular kind makes her lashes go straight). “I want to talk to you.” Always worrisome words. “I’m going to take your sister shopping this afternoon. There are some stores downtown that she’s been wanting to go to.” She pauses. “I don’t want you to get jealous about it.”

“Um, okay?” I scoop up the baby. “I need to change his diaper.” The critic in my head starts ranting. They have more fun without you. You’re the odd one out in this family. They don’t want to shop with you because you’re fat. I tell myself that I wouldn’t have been bugged by this special shopping trip if it hadn’t been pegged as a special shopping trip, but I’m pretty bothered now. Even when my sister tells me she wants me to come with them and I find a great outfit (on sale!). Insecurity drips through the rest of my interactions with my mom and sister like poison. I pout as they swap makeup tips and laugh together, feeling like a martyr as I haul dirty diapers out to the dumpster in the snow.

***

My sister is a first grade teacher and and has to leave a few days earlier than I do for work. The morning after her flight, my mom’s fraying patience snaps. She tells me my attitude has soured what was supposed to be a weekend of family togetherness. She details my selfish actions: my inability to let offenses go, my jealousy, my obtuseness in thinking a mother could love one daughter more than another. Hurt, I only hear the accusations and ignore any undercurrent of love. I don’t know how to expose the vulnerabilities fueling my moping attitude, so instead I yell accusations of my own.

After the fight, I go upstairs and scroll through my phone, searching for flights home. I can’t imagine staying here for another two days, but I give up after a few minutes—the prices are exorbitant, and I knew my boys wouldn’t understand why we had to leave Grandma’s house early. The rest of the day is an awkward dance of playing with the boys while avoiding eye contact with each other. By dinnertime, we’ve reached an unspoken truce, but our talk remains stilted. We are both hurt and surprised, I think, at how easy it was to build walls and hurl stones.

That night, my toddler pulls my old copy of Where the Wild Things Are from the bookshelf. I zip through it, trying to get him to sleep so I can retreat to my room with a novel and escape the horrible day. Usually as I read this book, I relate to Max’s frazzled mother, who sends him to his room without dinner after a day of wildness. But tonight, Max resonates with me. Sentenced to a lonely night in his bedroom, he escaped to a faraway place populated by a coterie of monsters who crowned him their king. Finally allowed to do everything he wanted, he nevertheless found himself longing for home. He had complete freedom and complete power. He was in charge. But after a day of rumpusing through the bushes and trees, “he was lonely, and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” I choke through those sentences.

Once the boys are asleep, Where the Wild Things Are back on the shelf, I lie in bed, journal open on my lap, and escape into my own faraway land peopled with monsters.

They roar their roars and gnash their teeth and roll their eyes and show their claws, and I’m not quite as bold as Max. I want to hop right back into my private boat and sail away home into comforting arms and external assurance that I’m good enough. But the wild things have me now, and they won’t let me skulk away unnoticed.


Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. This summer she is moving from Washington state to North Carolina. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured in several publications including Mothers Always Write, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.