Stretch Marks

I want to be a grandmother. Yes, I’ve decided that is why I started this journey into motherhood. I am in a rush for the finish line. A rush for the day when I can cuddle my children’s babies as often and as long as I like — to breathe in their wildly delicious scent, to look at their faces and see pieces of all the people I love in one, to feel their soft skin — and then promptly return them to their mom. To her they can whine and fuss and vomit and talk back and give a hard time. It won’t even faze me that time around. I will be able to take it in the greatest of spirits, patience, and affection, because I know they will go home.

I want to be through with the hard part. Through with feeling so extremely angry, like when my four-year-old first made my one-month-old cry, that I want to break every window in the house, and feeling so guilty that I could have such anger for my own child that I now feel intense disappointment in myself. Through with screams for one more toy, one more TV show, one more cookie, one less minute on time-out. Through with the discipline, rage, boredom, and fear — mine and my child’s.

But maybe it’s just that way with me. I don’t want to work so hard or to hurt so much. It never really was the physical stretch marks that bothered me; it’s the emotional ones that I don’t quite feel prepared for. The euphoria, the panic, the drudgery, the embarrassment, the pride, the boredom, the worry, the love. Every feeling I’ve ever had has been magnified and it’s more than hard to cope with. It hurts to feel so stretched.

I feel like a rubber-band in constant use, because it does faze me. It all fazes me. It bothers me that it has to hurt so damn much. It bothers me that motherhood has to be backbreaking, gut-wrenching work. It’s work that I would honestly rather skip.

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At times I hear other moms asking why no one told them about this. “If I only knew,” they say. Did I know what I was getting myself into? Well, yes, a little, and no, absolutely not. Motherhood is better and worse than I ever could have imagined.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I don’t think it really registered that I was actually going to give birth to the little human being squirming inside me until the day arrived. Then there was no going back. I would say I set out to not prepare, as I just felt comfortable there in denial.

Forty-five months later when I gave birth again, I did everything to prepare. I read all I could on natural birth, the process of birth, the history of birth. I made a birth plan, birth quote cards with my favorite blurbs, and a chart of positions for labor and birth. My inspiration: “Labor is hard. It hurts. And you can do it.” — Pam England, Birthing From Within. And it was completely different. It did hurt. I did do it.

Yet, somehow, “preparing” for that big beginning moment had aided in deceiving me. Even when one reads all the critical literature, questions the constant cultural depiction of “mother bliss” and expects something of a hard time, how can anyone prepare for the other side of that first moment of becoming a mom? A first, a second, a third time around? I wanted to know.

And then I had a thought. Maybe grandma knows. Not my grandma and perhaps not yours, but some grandmas must know. They’ve arrived — and being past the point of mother-adjustment must be a nice place to be. And right then and there my fantasizing about grandmother-hood began.

I even know the exact moment. I was listening to Sesame Street CDs in the car. You know the ones, Elmo and Zoe sing the Macarena, Hot, Hot, Hot, and Do De Duck. Very “catchy”. Keeps the kids occupied. And whoever wrote the Grouch’s lines certainly knows a thing or two about parental humor, even the 8,332nd time around. But this ride I’m listening for the first time in a while. I keep these CDs in the car for meltdown emergencies or long rides, but lately they were gathering dust. My four-year old, now intrigued by games and books during car rides, had decided she had grown out of Sesame Street. I had quite forgotten about the collection of CDs, until one day my six-month old started fussing in the car. My own singing was just not cutting it, and I caught a glimpse of Big Bird out of the corner of my eye. I pulled the CD out and thought, hey, it worked once, it could work again.

And it did. Hearing Elmo tickled and preoccupied her long enough to get all the way home. It even drew out her older sib’s singing talent and made for a happy ride, and I’m feeling pretty good. This is not so bad! I can do this. These good moments, these easy successes, help me hang in there. My well-being depends on them. And they come in warm wonderful waves.

Then it all came back. I used to listen to these CDs quite often when my older daughter Ariana was two. One day we were going to the library. She was running around the children’s section in her typical high energy, spirited way: grabbing and dropping books, jumping on the stuffed toys, hopping around in the Discovery Room. (It’s a really magical spot, I might add; there’s a play room with a stage, a felt board, computers, and a craft table, all decorated with a pretend wood tree and wall to wall scenic countryside murals where kids romp about freely.) But this day there was a spark about her beyond the usual devilish grin and glint in her eye. It took a lion’s share of coaxing to get her to the check-out line. But we got there. When we were finally about to leave, she ran ahead, then behind me. She circled around, missed my hand, somehow got a step ahead of me, and she went through the front door and happily, speedily, headed for the parking lot. Missing her hand I quickened, dropped all my books, and fell flat to the floor on my backside. Immediately I jumped up, red in the face, panicked, and ran to grasp her. I managed to get hold of her little wrist, but not before both her feet had left the curb and she was in the middle of the street.

I pulled her back out of the street as she screamed. Not just any scream. Horrendous screaming. Ariana displayed her angst as fitfully as any whose gleeful plan is spoiled. She was angry, and so was I. We fell back onto the curb. Kicking in my arms, she squealed and wriggled. “No,” I said. “Stay with mommy. Cars are dangerous!” Shaken, embarrassed, sore, frazzled, I turned back toward the library doors, with screaming child in arms. I’m an awful mother. I can’t do this. How could I have let her go? I returned to the task at hand. I had to get my books, my diaper bag, and my composure.

Before I even glanced up, an older woman touched my arm. “I’ve got them,” she said. I looked up, and this is something I will never forget. The look in her eyes was warm. There was understanding in them. She walked me across the parking lot to my car carrying my things. I put my still-crying child in the car seat and buckled her in. The woman handed me the book and diaper bags.

“You’ve got them?”

I shook my head yes. “Thank you.”

“I remember my son at that age. So much energy. Parenting. What a challenge it is.” She smiled and walked away.

I got into the driver’s seat. I put on my seat belt and shakily turned the key. For a brief moment an anonymous woman’s gesture saved my sanity. Driving, crying, listening to Elmo and Big Bird on the way back home, I wished I were that woman. I wished I were anywhere that wasn’t here, in the middle of the crisis that is motherhood. The stuff of my fantasy wove itself out of one vulnerable day when a grandmother’s look of understanding gave me a glimpse of a peace I didn’t yet have.

It all came back to me as I heard those Dancing with Elmo tunes again. And thinking about it now, falling flat on my ass is kind of funny.

On a good day, on a day when things are working and my finessing smoothes us into peaceful moments, I think I am crazy to wish any single moment of motherhood away. When I’m in the car having a good time, singing, balancing, queen of keeping tears and tantrums at bay, I feel confident that I can do this without breaking in two. On a bad day, the goal of grandmother-hood in the distance is a way for me to escape.

Despite being a “birth junkie” and reading all the logical and obscure birthing and parenting books I can, despite thinking I was hip to the ways of parenting because I had done a bit babysitting, I can honestly say I didn’t do one thing to prepare for motherhood. And I don’t think anyone can. Not really. Sure, I had been to friend’s houses and seen meltdowns; I had watched kids cry for hours in day care centers where I volunteered cheerfully once a month. I just didn’t believe it would be that hard for me. Why would it be that hard for me?

Perhaps denial of “how it will be for you, too” is a syndrome that starts with the pregnant brain. Don’t we all imagine elaborate tales of own expert mothering culminating in scenes of two-year-olds chewing with their mouths closed? Of smiling four-year-olds responding, “Yes, mommy. Of course I will pick up those toys.” But it’s just the way we wet our feet, isn’t it?

It reminds me of the movie Parenthood where Steve Martin’s character is in the middle of the school play scene that crashes before him. Kids can drive you nuts, and I don’t think the film denies that reality. In the scene I am thinking of, the plot goes along that sets are falling and the two-year old won’t be caught as he runs through the scene, ruining the play. The movie focuses in on the father character, Steve Martin, who is getting hot under the collar, feeling the stress of the moment. But he finally looks around him. Some moms and dads are laughing — including his wife — and other parents are getting queasy or angry or upset. In comes a sound cut that overlays the scene with the roar and rumble of a roller coaster. And the roller coaster rides up, up, and up, rocking everyone attending. A roller coaster ride seems quite appropriate to me. It just seems true that some of us take the stressful moments more in stride than others. But, as the grandmother character in the movie explains, the roller coaster ride, unlike the merry-go-round, thrills, frightens, sickens, and excites its passengers, and I think the film adeptly handles this as a metaphor for parenting. The letting go of our expectations is so crucial to rolling with the moment-to-moment chaos that is parenting.

We all wrestle with what we’re ready to learn about ourselves at such different paces and in such different styles. We simply can’t just jump in the water at the same time. For example, the time a friend of the family gave birth. She had the baby, everything went great, and was ready to leave the hospital. “Hey, why don’t I come by,” she said. Once there, we made our congratulations and held the little one. The new mother calls over to my child. “I’ll be up and playing with you tomorrow. No big thing.” She wasn’t up and playing for the next three months. The boot camp she entered was not quite clear to her yet, and she didn’t know what questions to ask. And I didn’t know just how much to say or not say.

In fact, I don’t have a clue what to say to those coming up the ranks. I don’t often want to talk to newly pregnant women with no other children. I am abysmally bad at it. I either feel any comment I make is generic (like, “wait till you feel that warm baby in your arms”) or too strong (“birth isn’t what I expected. It’s an experience totally new and out of one’s control” — in which case I get a look of fear and dread). Better to keep my mouth shut.

Perhaps there isn’t much to say, or that there are only “tips that might help” for a journey that is just plain scary. Perhaps we can’t quite hear anything about what is ahead until we are in the middle of it. Just as the anonymous woman in my library experience had little to say. I don’t think she could have said more and still been helpful to me. She certainly wouldn’t have helped had she mentioned her child’s teenage angst, or if she had told me “this is only just the beginning.” For me, it is.

So I think I’ll stick with my fantasy for now. I’m not asking for a winning lottery ticket or a full-time nanny, not even a hired maid to help around the house (which, who are we kidding, would all help any mom keep her balance more often), because I like the simplicity of my version of grandmother-hood. It’s comforting to think someday I will have arrived.

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