I glance around my clean house; the vacuumed carpet, the slick wiped countertops, essential oils wafting through the air. Today, I handle each mess they make as soon as they come. My children’s hair is pulled back tightly into tiny rubber bands, they are eating berries we picked from the farm down the road, and cold seedless watermelon. The clouds are blanketing the sky and the light streaming through the windows is glowing atop their heads. They napped, I rested. I worked out while they watched Sesame Street. They are getting along. I took them to the library this morning. I made brownies for my husband’s birthday.
I didn’t think about dying.
I have so much control right now, but this reality is not realistic. My life is only kept in check by my fears of everything falling apart.
I am not healthy enough to find peace in chaos. And in motherhood, chaos is part of the routine.
A woman I know announces her seventh pregnancy on Facebook, at the finish line of a 5k. Her children are a blur in their recent family photo. Her face looks tired, I can almost hear the noise that lives in the background of that image, but she is beaming. I am so jealous.
I watch Parenthood, their weekly dinners around a long wooden table in the backyard, lights strung above them. The bickering, the grandchildren, the pain that is buoyed by a family with so many souls. I want that. I want it so bad.
Something happens each time I give birth. The wholeness I feel when I hold a sleeping newborn immediately awakens a desire in me I have buried down deep. I imagine all the children I want to raise; all of the faces I want around my table on Thanksgivings to come. But then once that baby starts to grow and my body shifts into a chemical mess, I have to start fighting for air and I have to convince myself each morning to stick around. It hurts to know I cannot survive the first year of a baby’s life again and again and again. That first year has almost killed me two times.
There is a different heartbreak when you know you cannot fulfill your dream. Not because your body is infertile, but because your brain is sick. When things feel too heavy, my children are the anchors that keep me on earth, but they suffer right alongside me.
Whether I am fighting or flying—they feel the intensity of my fear or witness the lack of life in my being. They see me obsessively cleaning their play spaces and donating toys they’ve barely owned a year. They are the ones who have to give up the ballet class that is across town because mom is too scared to drive on the highway. They are the ones who have to watch their mother struggle to get out of bed and see her hair tangle more each day that she is too sad to brush through the knots or take a shower.
It’s tricky when the one thing making life more beautiful is also something that makes life more painful and uncertain.
Olive is standing at the edge of the concrete where the overgrown grass begins. There is clover covering the yard and she gets excited over the sight of two bees sucking nectar. We let her hold the fireflies in the forest last night on our walk, and she doesn’t understand that honeybees are not harmless. I warn her not to reach out for them and as she steps back one flies under her bare foot.
The bee is angry, digging its stinger into her thin flesh immediately, causing blood to spread beneath the surface. I panic because I know this is an abnormal reaction and she’s never been stung before. Her foot starts to swell and she screams. My fingers fly across my phone texting my husband to come home. I worry she will stop breathing or her heart will stop beating at any moment. We rush to the emergency room that is thirty minutes away. I sit beside her in the car, she’s tired, I’m trying to breathe through my fear. I’m so scared. I run into the hospital, breathlessly tell them her name, while she is completely unbothered. They place a plastic bracelet on my arm, and then hers.
After waiting with her on the stiff hospital bed for what feels like too long, the doctors assure me that she is okay. Her swollen foot looks unusual and they are glad I brought her in, but everything is fine.
I can breathe steadily again, but the panic takes awhile to leave my body. The worry of her dying from a common bee sting will forever be pierced inside my gut.
And if I have more children, the probability of losing one of them grows bigger.
I am used to my mental illness robbing me of things, so of course it will steal peace in motherhood. It has stolen sleep, when I lie awake at night and imagine strangers murdering me or kidnapping my babies. It is the reason I obsess over mothers who are still breathing after their kids drown or suffocate or run in front of a car that ultimately takes their entire future from them. It has taken my sanity when I get behind a wheel. It has taken the calm out of being alone. It is what convinced me that my body will be poisoned with cancer at a young age, and my girls will be left motherless. It is what makes it hard to answer the phone, even when it is my own brother on the other end of the line just wanting to wish me a happy birthday. It has taken my appetite, my will ... my soul, at times. It intensifies everything I feel. It makes everything violent. It smothers me in the middle of a normal day as I watch my girls play dress up.
It only makes sense that it takes a dream of mothering a houseful of children away from me, too.
At dinner, we sit around our giant pinewood table that my husband built. It is a powerful, sturdy piece of furniture that we created together in our small apartment in Tokyo. I slathered on the mahogany stain late one night after the girls were sleeping. It has traveled across oceans, and stood up to two children’s destructive hands each day for over a year now. Ana continuously leaves the bench and dances around instead of eating. It irritates me to have to remind her to focus on the meal, but as I am paralyzed inside of my own head, I see something different in her. I may not find the peace in the wild, but she feels the joy in it. It is all over her—in her movement, in her smile. Olive laughs straight from her belly at her sister’s twirls. Eventually, we are all laughing together. The daughters I was strong enough to mother, their eyes bright and hopeful around our table. The two faces I will have with me on Thanksgivings to come. The two I conquered battles for.
When dinner is done, I will hold both of them in my lap and read them Disney fairytales like I do every night, and I will do the robust and airy character voices because I am really good at that. I will tell them stories about dragons and princesses who didn’t tolerate mistreatment and all about the heroes who were both afraid and courageous at the same time.