Repost / Lie to Me: A Story About Birth Stories

There is something of the fish tale in birth stories. Women in labor can be unreliable witnesses: minutiae make big impressions, big things pass by unnoticed. Even if women in labor were the most objective chroniclers, people still wouldn’t listen. In our culture, there’s an undercurrent of mistrust in women’s testimony—from doubting rape victims to steamrolling women in business meetings.

I felt this keenly during my first son’s birth. Story-wise it wasn’t even that interesting: a labor and delivery nurse made fun of my name while I pushed, a doctor game me a vaginal exam with one hand while holding a Starbucks cup with the other. If anything, it needs exaggeration. It needs to become a really big fish.

What I would like is a world where women felt less monitored, unconcerned with being dubbed liars, freer to exaggerate, to let it rip, while we all sat around and listened, moony-eyed as stories emerged, made great by bending the facts to fit.

It is possible I feel this way because the story of my own birth is a whopper of epic proportions. My mother didn’t lie. It was a damn doozy.

It was February in Dallas, Texas. My mother was a week past her due date. It showed as she unloaded groceries in her driveway. A man approached her. It took her a moment to see the knife. When she did, her panic was complete, incoherent. “Who are you?” she demanded, but he didn’t reply, just kept advancing, so she took the brand-new O’Cedar mop she’d just bought and beat him over the head. Maybe he realized she was pregnant, maybe she was getting the best of him with that mop, either way, he changed tactics, begging, “Lady, please just give me your purse!”

My mother was stunned. Her purse? So simple! She threw it to him. He fled. After shelving the groceries, she realized she should probably call the police. They came, along with a few concerned friends. She told and retold the story to clucks and dismay, until, eventually everyone left. Alone she prepared for motherhood, my father long gone.

Alone she ate ice cream, watching a soap opera. Alone her water broke.

Check-in was a nightmare: her ID card and insurance cards, all thrown to the man with the knife. When she told the nurses she wanted a natural birth, they laughed; she hadn’t yet had a contraction. Start walking, they said. So she did. She walked and walked and walked.

My mother was not well-prepared for natural childbirth. Her birthing teacher said it’d be the greatest pain ever experienced, worse than dropping a bottle of orange juice on your foot. The teacher’s main concern was ensuring my name was numerologically fortuitous.

Her labor coaches were friends, a couple who’d become my god-parents. The nurses assumed Bill, my godfather, was my actual father, and they were in a fury when he kept leaving to see his “girlfriend” in the hallway. They whispered in gossipy horror, but my mother, who finally submitted to Pitocin, was in heavy labor, unable to explain.

Meanwhile, my grandmother, who was very drunk and had a low, gravelly voice, kept calling the hospital, demanding updates. The nurses assumed she was a man, asked my mother’s permission to release information to her father. My mother’s father had been dead for fifteen years. “Sure,” my mother cried between contractions, “if he found a way to call, tell him whatever you want.”

My mother’s labor progressed. She believes she was given an epidural, against her wishes, and without relief. The main problem was she’d now gone forty-eight hours without food or water. Ice chips, they finally relented. She got a stingy cache of ice chips. What she wanted, desperately, was a shower.

“By the time you were born,” she said, “I hated you.” Bill held me first. The nurses cooed, “She looks just like you.”

Just then, a local talent agent named Ivette Stone burst in wearing a fox fur coat. How she had flouted security was a mystery, but she’d come with a contract, determined to sign me at birth. My father was an actor and my mother was very beautiful; Ivette felt certain I was destined to be a child star. My mother signed the contract, mostly so she’d leave. Finally she did, followed by my godparents. Soon even the nurses stopped fussing. She was alone with me and it was perfect. Every mother knows that singular perfection: those first moments alone with a newborn child. Nothing compares.

My mother and I both developed fevers from the long delivery and stayed in the hospital for several days. One of my mother’s dearest friends visited, along with his somewhat catty boyfriend, who asked why my mother still looked pregnant. My mother slapped him. “I had never slapped anyone before,” she said, “and I have never since. But I slapped him, and the look on his face was pure shock. It was worth it.”

I’m not interested at all in how my birth actually happened. Did Ivette Stone really burst in moments after I left the birth canal, contract in hand? Did my mother’s friend’s boyfriend really speak so thoughtlessly, and if so, how did he say it close enough to my mother’s bedside that her slapping palm could reach his face? I don’t care. I don’t even care whether or not my mother had an epidural, a failed one. What I care is how it all seemed to my mother. What that day was like for her.

I would give her a check-book filled with blank lies, if it would help her explain that day, tell me how she became my mother in that chaotic, hilarious, sad, brutal world. I revel in the stories of my mother, of all women: their birth stories, their fish stories, their perfectly unreliable testimonies. They seem precious to me, and I have never understood why others just toss them aside, unconcerned with their value, as though gold were just many dirty yellow rocks.

 

 

*This is the follow up to a piece I wrote last year called Divorce. I was born wanting to go to Paris & went on to live several mini lifetimes scattered over 4 days – always 4 days- there throughout my twenties but the first was with Mum. The entire trip we walked & walked & rode the open air bus happily people watching until it grew dark and the driver asked us to get off so he could go home. It was one of my greatest dreams realised. 

Healing comes with time, but is mostly hard work, Mama

One day I parade about the house scant, awkward, a tentative exhibitionist. My body has shed the last of childhood but is only on the cusp of being womanly & has the boring perfection that we are taught to covet. An unused vessel.

I’m dramatically stating that I want Closer played from beginning to end on vinyl at my funeral and to be cremated in the cheapest coffin available. Commercialism is bullshit. People have robbed minimalism of its politics. The dull ramblings of a teen idealist. 

I don’t even think you are actually listening until you yell at me, voice box hot full of fire, eyes wet full of tears. “I will not be at your funeral Luana, I am your mother so I will not be there” 

I acknowledge you with a shrug of ambivalence.

A daughter is a mothers torturer.

One day you sit me on the end of your bed and tell me that he is leaving. I almost stifle a laugh because I’m configured incorrectly and because the fact was so obvious to me but mostly because it hurts less to be hard. Your face contorts with blindsided agony, it steals the breath from my lungs. I want to grab you and run so that we miss everything that is aimed, but of course I know that we will be finding shattered pieces of you all over and for years to come so I say nothing and let you break the way you need to. 

One day I wake in the middle of a sweltering Roman night to find you trying to negotiate a computer with my aunt. I turn back to bed without disturbing the scene knowing that you are going to take me to Paris, my greatest dream.

It’s not real to me until we are flying in over the Eiffel Tower and I can’t stop crying because it is here and it is so beautiful but mostly because in this moment I thought that everything you sacrificed just to make ends meet would be worth it. Ofcourse it doesn’t feel that way, there is no such pay off between a single parent and child. I look over to see you ignoring the view & staring directly at me, you whisper “You’re here, I fucking did it” and I understand that it is in fact your dream come true we are in. 

One day the doctor tells me he has to take the baby out of my womb before the sun sets today or she will die. Despite the fact that I know you are absolutely the worst person to call in an emergency, I cannot properly concentrate on anything that is being said until I speak to you. And your reaction was worse than mine but there is a certain comfort in that. Everybody is so calm I say and you tell me they are ridiculous, the first words that feel true. You tell me I’ll have to be strong for the baby and that fits just right too. 

Not long after I hang up the phone you burst through the ward door, having driven here despite me saying not too and the pain on your face mirrors my own. This is how I learn that my daughter does not belong to me alone.

And so she is born and she is perfect and everything will be ok but I still manage to find the deepest part of that and drown myself in it. You are stoic the whole time, patiently waiting for me to surface. 

One day is today, a long lunch in the summer sun, a rickety old home once yours, now mine. The girls & the baby tugging on our aprons, I roll the gnocchi just like you do only not as well, the way we are all taught. Maybe this is what you meant when you lied & said you knew it would all be ok. No one in the throws of despair dares to dream so big but here we are. Nothing is perfect or easy but the beautiful calamity of an expanding family feels like a rebirth. Young children do not let you live in any moment but theirs, here, now. 

There is debris fucking everywhere, broken parts of an old life pieced back together as best you could. But only we can see it. There is also peace in the way we prop each other up, quietly, just by being together. Healing comes with time but is mostly hard work, Mama. 

Parenting my Tween Through a Filter

 

    As soon as my daughter hit Middle School, I knew things would be different. I knew she would demand her space and her independence. I knew her focus would move away from our family and center around her friends. I knew she would most likely start dating. But, what I did not know is how closed off this would make me feel. I am not a helicopter mother at all, I try to give my kids the space they need to fall down, fail, explore, and discover the world around them. I am not the type of person that likes to be needed. Quite the contrary, actually, which is why this new way of life with my tween gutted me so.

    I thought I was ready, really. I thought I was ready to watch her handle her own issues with school, friends, whatever would come her way. However, what was so hard to adjust to was how isolated I felt from her. My kids have always told me everything, too much sometimes, so this newfound notion of limited information was odd. Rather than dropping her backpack and regurgitating her day, she would drop her backpack and head up to her room. After about thirty minutes, I’d head up to chat, but met a closed door every time. Most times, I took a deep breath and turned away. I figured she needed her space and I was trying to respect that. However, day after day of this closed door was hard to digest. I was not being nosy, I was concerned. Why this sudden door in my face? Was it normal? Was there something wrong? Do I respect her space everyday or does doing this send a message that I no longer care? My stomach churned with these questions. Was there a balance between respecting her space and showing I’m still here?

    One day, I decided to knock and she let me in. I asked about her day and got only curt responses while she looked at her phone. I sat there in silence, not really sure what to do. My feelings were hurt because I did not want to be shut out completely. I  wanted to be more important than what was on her screen. I sighed a deep sigh and walked away. I closed the door behind me and began to cry. I’m not really sure what I was crying for, the time passed so quickly from infancy to tweenhood, the nostalgia of simpler times, the loss of my little girl, the fear of the future, or the abyss of the unknown going forward. Maybe all of it put together. As I wiped the tears away, the door opened. There stood my girl staring at me in wonder. “Why are you crying?” The only thing I could get out was, “I just miss you.” And, that is exactly what it was. She stood there for a minute then gave me a huge hug. We both cried a little bit, because just like I was having a hard time with this, so was she. She wanted her space from all of us, but still wanted to feel valued and appreciated. She wanted to spend the weekends with her friends, but still never missed a sports game of her siblings. The push and pull of growing up was just as hard on her as it was on me. We both just needed to honor our feelings to each other. By doing so, we realized we were both feeling the same exact way.

    I liken tween parenting to that of a photo filter. You have an image of what you’d like, what you hope for, what you fight for, but the tweens are in control of that image. It is like taking a picture on your phone, handing them the phone, and letting them use the correct filters to produce the image they want to project.

    Tweenhood is a time of self-discovery and I owe my girl the time and space to do just that, whether behind closed doors or not. Being a tween is not easy, especially in our current environment. Being a parent is even harder. I still struggle with this balance every single day, but I’m getting much better at handing over the photo to my girl. Some days, she may choose a black and white filter and block me out. Other days, she may choose a vibrant filter and want to share it with me. What I hold on to is this: no matter where she goes, what she does, I know her foundation is solid. I know she will make mistakes, get her heart broken, and struggle–she has to in order to grow. But, I know whether it be in front of a closed door or next to a phone screen, she can always lift the barrier and know I’m there. That is the only thing I can do, that is the only thing she wants me to do. I’ve stopped focusing on what I’ve lost but rather, started to focus on what I’ve gained. I’ve gained a girl with a heart so compassionate, a mind so creative, and an intelligence beyond her years. I no longer wish for the simplicity of toddlerhood, but relish in the complexities of this new relationship. Yes, there are hard days where we both cry. There are days we both have no idea how to deal with each other. There are days we both say mean things. But, every day ends. A new day begins. The door sometimes opens. I’m always there when it does with open arms.

Old Woman Nature

de3e0b6db167048a99da390d884517c3
naturally has a bag of bones
                tucked away somewhere.
                a whole room full of bones!
A scattering of hair and cartilage
               bits in the woods.
A fox scat with hair and a tooth in it.
               a shellmound
                      a bone flake in a streambank.
A purring cat, crunching
               the mouse head first,
                       eating on down toward the tail–
The sweet old woman
               calmly gathering firewood in the
               moon . . .
Don’t be shocked,
She’s heating you some soup.

On Self Respect

 

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals with one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.

Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem