If you were to ask me about my childhood, images of my mother turning the screws that were inside of the bones of my brother’s damaged foot (from a lawn mower accident) would come to mind. I’d remember the stories of the bandage changes that sent flames throughout the entire room. I’d imagine my mother holding her six week old baby, aching to crawl into that bed to hold her oldest while he cried. I’d remember the crutches and the wheelchairs and the pain my mom had to put him through, turning those screws, to make sure his foot had a chance to grow again after recovered blood flow to the achilles tendon.
I’d also tell you about how beautiful I thought the silver stripes were that dripped down her soft stomach I didn’t know she didn’t love. I’d talk about the frozen lemonade she’d let us eat that came out the back of a Schwan's truck, and that time she lied and told us liver was steak. I’d tell you about the ballerina wallpaper she hand pressed onto my walls and those same hands that rubbed the knots of growing pains out of my shins in the middle of the night. I would tell you how she kept breathing for her four children after her fifth died. I would tell you how she woke up every morning and put microwaved oatmeal in front of us, and how she fought darkness that I never saw with my own two eyes.
I’d tell you that she was the one who taught me that the day-to-day act of parenting, the dirty work, the agonizing and the boring moments are what connected her to her children.
Eighteen years later, with my mom standing beside me, I am in a hospital room. The warmth of a rising sun is replacing fluorescent lighting; a gush of water and blood flood the sterile floors and in that second, all of the sudden, I am a mother. My 30 minutes of pushing is applauded, carrying me over the threshold into parenthood. The moment feels euphoric .. .and then I slip quietly into motherhood—actual motherhood—where, brick by brick, night by night, sob session after sob session, I do the work that begins to bind me to that baby. My swollen, overstretched hips are adorned in the mesh panties I secretly stole from my hospital bathroom, my nipples are splintering, being sliced open by tiny gums (I heard someone call them “ground beef nipples” once, and just ... yep). I have adolescent acne covering my chin, and I think I lose enough hair in these first three months postpartum to knit an 8x10 area rug. The initiation into parenthood is anything but attractive.
The beautiful baby that I birthed with that sunrise is now a four-year-old who doesn’t regularly sleep through the night. She wasn’t always a terrible sleeper, and I do think that one day she will figure out that sleep is a GOOD thing, but for now, we are in the sweet, sweet spot where it is just not high on her priority list. It all went downhill two years ago when we put her pacifier in the trash can at Disneyland between the Mickey shaped waffles and the honey-flavored popcorn. It was meant to be a distraction to this monumental transition—and it worked. The Happiest Place on Earth was the perfect place to rid of the paci, until about midnight when she forgot where it went. And instead of the pacifier lulling my girl to sleep, it became me. The half awake, grumbling, begrudging soother. I learned my lesson. My now-two year old gets to keep the pacifier until high school. She may need braces, but at least I won’t lose sleep over it.
When my girls get their monthly colds, it means Game Over on the sleep front. I lather a thick layer of vapor rub onto their chests, give them the cough medicine with the melatonin, and let the humidifier waft through their noses the whole night to try to avoid it, but as soon as their nostrils cement shut, they are crying. They want me.
With their breaths infiltrating my own oxygen, I don’t stand a chance. I feel my throat catch the first sparks of what would be a raging fire by tonight. It’s part of the job, catching the vomit in cupped hands, breathing in their coughs, and allowing all the fluids draining from their face to land on me. I wash my hands one hundred times a day, and practically bathe in hand sanitizer, but it’s inevitable, as a mother, to not be infected with what they have.
We travel to the pediatrician and rule out ear infections and asthma. My baby is so brave when they x-ray her in the terrifying plastic tube. She holds a sleeve of stickers above her head and I can see the nerves all over her face. When we get home, her brave face melts into a puddle and the sad demands begin. I offer everything I can for relief, but she just wants to be on my hip, moaning.
In four years, I have rocked colicky babies, mopped away thousands of crocodile tears, and administered gross, syrupy medicine. I have cleaned the pee out of carpets, washed vomit out of car seats, and eventually wiped the sticky concoction that lives on their faces from breakfast to nap time every day.
I have squatted near the smelly public toilet more times than I can count. I have avoided those unidentified fluids at my feet while trying to help a toddler balance atop the toilet, begging her not to touch anything as my legs fall asleep.
I have followed them around hour by hour cleaning up the play-dough and the kinetic sand and the pieces of clothing that drop like flies as they run in circles like tiny natural disasters in my home.
I have wiped their noses, and their hands, and their butts, and the vaseline that covered their entire bodies during “nap time,” and I have lost all sense of self-decency in the process.
This last Christmas my girls had been sick for weeks and weeks. Consequently, I kept buying more and more and more to put under the tree to make up for it. I wanted to create magic and manufacture smiles and embed memories into their minds that they’d never forget. I spent too much trying to make it perfect.
I was trying to adjust the ratio of happy moments to the moments that felt messy and unimportant. I wanted to bury the days I spent trying to fix something I couldn’t with toys wrapped in colored paper and sparkly bows.
But after they tore into the mountain of presents, and the thrill wore off. Balled up paper was drowning us in our living room, and they were crawling all over me, in my lap, and in my face -- it was as clear as day ...
They don’t want me because I let them eat beignets for breakfast at Disneyland, or because I went into debt providing them with more toys than they needed on Christmas. The love we share is not built on from scratch cakes, or times I went to bed feeling like I got it all right (which if we’re counting, is a whopping zero).
It was created in the back breaking discipline, in the messes, the throw up, and the ever so constant share of viruses. It was built in the dirty, inconvenient, dark, publicly embarrassing, and lonely unseen moments that are forgotten or wished away. It is in the moments that feel meaningless, when my arms carried and felt numb under the weight.
It is constructed, brick by brick, in the caretaking, the dirty diapers, and the loss of sleep. It is in my guidance to little limbs through arm holes, and cereal bowls poured.
These are the times that are hand stitching their hearts to mine. These are the moments that make them trust in me. These are the ones that bind us together.
It is why, when everything else falls to the wayside, all they want is me. Their imperfect mom. The mom who buys birthday cakes at Costco, and doesn’t let them eat cheetos for preschool snack like the cool moms do. They want the mom who can’t dance or sing and has a stupidly crooked smile when she’s overwhelmed with joy. They want the memories we built. The love we’ve created, and my arms wrapped around them.
Maybe they tell you all about it if you ask about their childhood, one day.
Words and photo by N'tima Preusser.