I’m thrilled that “The Mother’s Handbook” goes live on Mothers Always Write today. This essay encapsulates my thoughts on motherhood at this point in my parenting journey and reflects back on a childhood memory that highlights the sisterhood that bonds all moms. So very grateful for all the moms in my life and the lessons they’ve taught me over the years.
I’ve long been a fan of Mothers in Medicine, a collaborative blog of supportive mama docs. Many of the contributors are still in medical training and the community is made up of various different specialities. I’m delighted to come onboard as a regular contributor to MiM. You can find my posts under “MP.” I’m so grateful for this community of mama docs who get it. If you’re a mom or momma-to-be and at any point in your medical training or career, I recommend checking out Mothers in Medicine as the candid posts are honest and instructive about the challenges of holding these two important roles.
Author Kate Ristau writes about her son’s heart surgery in “The Sink.” She starts the essay remembering her mother’s farmhouse sink, then describes the simple motions she went through at her own kitchen sink the morning of her son’s surgery.
I like how Ristau uses a common utilitarian object as a focal point in this piece. She describes in detail washing her hands at the sink in the hospital waiting room. She implies that these actions grounded her – loading her dishwasher, washing her hands – during this tumultuous life event. Ristau relays the telltale sign that her son, when well at home, has actually brushed his teeth: “That’s how I know he brushed them–the splash of color sliding down the porcelain.”
The reader is thrust into the narrator’s experience waiting for her son to wake up from anesthesia. When he does, the details she provides allow the reader to enter into her experience as the mother of the young patient: “…we used words like valves, clots, stitches, glue and morphine. Complications, IVs, shots, and applesauce, along with fluid in his chest cavity and so many possible futures balanced on the edge of his hospital bed.” Ristau reflects on how her son eventually asks for something quite surprising, out of his usual character, when he is finally able to get up and out of bed. The reader gets the sense that, on the other side of this surgery, he is changed, as is Ristau.
Writing Prompt: Think of an object in your home or workplace that is also found in a doctor’s office or hospital. Consider a plate of food, a chair, a computer, a bed. Describe the experience of that object when at home versus when you or a loved one were ill. Write for 10 minutes.
I’ve pulled them from the attic before, stored them in the basement closet. Now the youngest is standing, feeding herself, almost one. She doesn’t need the propping, the overhead entertainment. She’s outgrown the bedside crib, the Jumperoo, the molded foam seat that kept her back upright.
The equipment is garish or cutesy. It’s plastic and bright. It’s overwhelmed our home, fixtures that fade into the landscape, the background of a cluttered family environment. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye.
I know it all needs to be tossed, given away. After three babies, or more since many were hand-me-downs, the stuff is all worn, outdated. I see the new moms today with sleek strollers that keep the baby situated as if sitting on a dais, the stylish bouncers that blend into a post-modern home. Our items are now obsolete in function and style. One of our old baby-propping cushions has been recalled for safety concerns. There’s no reason to keep these things around.
I remember my oldest baby, now in kindergarten, loving the bouncer, thick legs pumping, broad smile punctuated by a high squeal of delight. Her wispy infant hair swaying with the movement like thick reeds of seaweed undulating with the tide.
I remember my middle baby, he didn’t like to be confined; any seat with openings for his legs was too constricting. Instead he squealed for release, wouldn’t sit down even in his high chair, ate his meals standing on the floor or on our laps.
I remember my youngest baby, how we couldn’t find one leg of the baby swing when we pulled it from the attic, rendering it useless. We borrowed another one whose motion was too gentle to soothe her squeaking cries. Eventually we gave up on the swing altogether. We finally found the missing leg long after she was able to sit up, roll over, stand on her own. We disposed of the swing, no longer needed.
I gather the rest of the items slowly, sequentially, as they expire from their usefulness. I contemplate the memories held within with each passing on. There’s a sentimentality to these baby relics, covered with slobber, patted with the chubby hands of three active babes over the years.
As I sort through, I wonder what the contraptions will be like when my babies have babies; how they’ll differ, how they’ll tap into the enduring infant affinity for jumping and rocking, squeezing and swinging.
She’s pumped in bathrooms, in locker rooms, in economy class on a six hour flight wedged between the narrow aisle and a couple on their honeymoon. She’s pumped on a Washington State Ferry, in the passenger (and driver’s) seat of a car, at her desk at work over a harried lunch. She’s pumped at writing conferences and medical conferences and her own weekend island retreat just to get 24 hours away. She’s pumped while consulting an orthopedist, a psychiatrist, a radiologist; she paused her pumping before calling a patient with the difficult diagnosis of breast cancer.
She’s pumped to get colostrum while her newborn was in the Special Care Nursery, to avoid clogged ducts while at a national bioethics conference, to build up a freezer supply of breast milk for the long days she’s at work. She’s pumped while reading books, while eating soup, while watching bad cable TV in a hotel bedroom. She’s pumped through frustration, through ambivalence, through hot desperate tears of new motherhood.
She’s spent the last six years pumping, off and on. She’s pumped for her three children: willful and strong, eager and growing. She’s pumped for herself: time to work, time to write, time to be something other than Mother, an unclipping of the tether, if only for a few hours. She’s hated pumping, championed pumping; she’s become indebted to the contraption. It’s allowed her to be free, to be connected, to be a distributor of sustenance and maintain her vocational and social and creative aspirations. She gives thanks for the pump, pays homage to it, lays it to rest with gratitude and an easy goodbye.
Someone just wanted it out of their house, a bargain at $100, less than a month’s membership at the local gym. Her husband had been wary; another contraption in the basement? But she was pregnant with her third baby, knew there would be no escaping once this little one came, no time to leave for exercise or much of anything. With three under five, it would be difficult to even make it around the lake with the jogging stroller anymore. So she took up the space, hoping it would run, it would work, it would fit into her new morning routine.
It’s old, dusty when she first folds it down. The belt is loud, too loud to hear the TV over the grating whir. She winces, hoping it won’t wake up the children, but down in the basement the sound that rises to the second floor must just be a pleasant buzz, converging with the white noise machines in their bedrooms.
Nothing fancy, no bells, no whistles, but it runs. She starts slow, a brisk walk, but quickly accelerates to jogging pace; no time to dilly dally. Heavy legs pumping, headphones jammed into her ears. She can just barely make out the words from the morning news, the NPR co-host waxing poetic about immigration, about divisive politics, about the latest breaking headline. It’s turned up too loud, probably not good for her ears, she thinks, but the cardiovascular exercise makes up for the auditory damage, right?
The baby monitor is perched precariously where the magazine should be set. She never understood this: how could someone read while running? It always seemed foolhardy to turn a magazine page while jogging on a moving floor, always seemed impossible to lean in to decipher the miniscule type while working up an active sweat.
Sometimes she’ll see the baby stirring on the monitor, she’ll hear a whimper from the floor above, children starting to argue over their morning cereal. So she runs faster, picking up the pace: 6.5 mph, 7.0. Must. Finish. Run. She starts sprinting. Sometimes she makes it, finishes the 3 miles before the children take over the morning. Sometimes her preschooler comes down to watch, cozy blankie and pull-up in hand, eager to get his day going. He might play with his cars for a bit, watch her quizzically, examining the contraption that lets her move so much without going anywhere. “Mama, a pulley!” She smiles, nods. Lately he’s been obsessed with finding pulleys everywhere.
She misses running outside, rain on her face, dodging puddles, watching the seasons change around the nearby lake’s circumferential path. Fellow runners are motivating and she seems to run so much faster when she’s exercising outside. But this, it gets the job done; it gets the endorphins rising before 6 a.m. She gets her daily exercise, the muscles worked, the healthy fatigue. And, a year later, she thinks: this may be the best $100 I’ve ever spent.
I found the chair on sale at a furniture store on the Eastside. Strolling past birch bunk beds and white washed dressers, I pause to consider the price and design of each rocking chair. Tucked in a corner in the back of the large display room, I sink down in the buttery striped cushions, rocking gently in a natural way. A bonus! Pulling a concealed lever reclines the entire contraption; head back I can snooze, envision holding my first baby in my tired arms.
A carefully orchestrated nursery in my parents’ basement bedroom, painted a gender neutral green. Mid-winter in a chilly basement, as a new mom I dutifully get up every couple of hours to feed my newborn, wearily lower myself into the reclining chair, sturdy in the corner. Freezing, chest uncovered, I shiver uncontrollably in the black hours of the night, hormones swinging hot and cold. I lash out tearfully at my unsuspecting husband, begging for space heaters to warm my weary body.
The chair fits two: a toddler and a newborn baby boy, story time for extra cuddles. It sits comfortably in the newly remodeled bedroom corner, flanked by a large window and floor lamp. We know better now, use it mostly for reading and rocking, not for middle of the night feeds. It’s still the most comfortable place to nurse, cocooned by cushy armrests, a gentle flex of my toes provides the soothing back and forth. I look out the window at our backyard, a hill of our city beyond; I look down and find my two arms full.
It’s wedged at the edge of the baby’s crib, a twin Jenny Lind bed frame lodged against the opposite wall. The two girls share now, eventually the oldest will turn preteen and retreat to the basement bedroom but for now she savors sharing space with her little sister. My youngest baby is almost a baby no more, a few short months and a toddler she’ll be. I savor the early morning and bedtime nursing, rocking gently in the dark quiet room. Occasionally the door bursts open with exclamations from my three year old about treasure maps, from my six year old brandishing school artwork to admire. My baby and I pause for a second, then resume the rocking, suckling. She gazes up at me through long lashes, wrapped in a patterned throw my grandmother crocheted of flowers and hexagons decades ago.
The stomp of his feet as he clambers upstairs, whiny pitch to his voice as he exclaims: “Mommy, where my clothes?” His big sister is dressing and he’s beside himself. He wants to follow suit. Three years old, he can choose his clothes and dress himself, but an older sister trying to be helpful stifles his independence by doing it all for him.
When he was a toddler he writhed this way and that, twisting his torso with wild intention as I tried desperately to diaper and clothe him. I was surprised he was so particular about what clothes he wore. The shirt had to hang just so, the waist of the pants a specific elasticity, the fabric itself not too textured, not too rough.
Now we lay all the next day’s clothes out the night before in a green laundry basket. After bedtime bath, they each choose clothes for the following day. Sometimes an argument ensues: a sleeveless dress in the chill of winter, pants that have long been outgrown, a shirt already stained and dirty from wear earlier in the week. The compressed morning requires this evening ritual, whether mommy is working or not. I’m either tasked with getting the oldest out the door to before school care or hauling all three to morning drop off by the the elementary school bell at 7:55 a.m.
The baby is easy. No choice in the matter, she wears what I choose, what the nanny decides. On work days I arrive home, sometimes surprised at what the nanny has chosen, more or less layers than I would have picked out, leggings matched with a top I hadn’t considered. If I’m home for the day, often I’ll leave the baby in her pajamas; an easier non-choice for a harried mama of three.
After dressing, my eldest moves on to accessories. She carefully selects a headband, brushes her hair, the front part at least, to a gleam, considers her reflection in the mirror. She tries on a turquoise ring, takes it off. She adorns herself with a beaded necklace, or two. Sometimes she practices her ballet moves on the blue step stool in the bathroom, lifting a lithe leg, pointed toe, reaching up behind her like a flamingo’s pink neck, extending to the sky. The elegance and simplicity of the moment gives me pause before I rush her, rush us all, finally clothed, out the door.
Audrey Shafer, an anesthesiologist and mother, writes of medicine and motherhood in her mesmerizing poem “Monday Morning“. Highlighting two simple moments at home and at work, Shafer explores the contrast and commonalities between motherhood and her work in medicine. No wonder I love this piece!
What do you think of the juxtaposition of the narrator’s young son and the cool sterile environment of the operating room? The OR is a glaringly lit, predictably ordered, pristine place. As a mother, I could picture the incredible contrast of her preschooler son’s soft body clutching his favorite blanket in the dim early morning. A home with young children is often unpredictable, littered and intimate.
Shafer comments that the one who is exposed and vulnerable in this poem is the author herself. Would you agree? What do you learn about her as a person and as a working mother by reading this poem?
Writing Prompt: Think of a moment at work that reminded you of or seemed in direct contrast to a moment at home. How does your personal life inform your work and vice versa? Write for 10 minutes.
Grainy pixels coalesce into view with the push of a button. Static and then there she is: a babe in a cushioned box. She’s still, motionless, but I can’t stop watching. I peer closer, hoping to perceive the rise and fall of her chest under the sleep sack, a substitute for the blankets now outlawed due to associated risks. Today’s crib is a barren landscape of one fitted crib sheet. That’s all. No stuffed animals, no crocheted blankets. No binkies, no dolls. We even sacrificed introducing a lovey, modern parents that we are, saturated by the tragic news of the information age, too paranoid about accidental asphyxiation.
I am entranced, can’t take my eyes away. Sometimes she moves, rolls this way, then that. I glance up, glance back to find her lying perpendicular to where she was before. One side of the crib, then the other. When her eyes open they glow neon with night vision, bright discs punctuating the darkness, signaling wakefulness. Sometimes there’s a pause before she erupts in cries that echo out her bedroom, through the house, through the monitor, ringing in my ears, ricocheting through my head.
It’s easy to get obsessed with voyeurism. I can watch her every move, scrutinize her intentions. I want to predict: Will she wake now? How long will she sleep? And I wonder: Is she comfortable? Is she breathing? Is she dreaming? What about? I peer into the pixels, as into a crystal ball, willing the future to take form. Who will she be, this rolling, round-faced, murmuring babe?