Around six years ago Abby was a couple months old and I was still trying to acclimate myself to motherhood. I had heard the horror stories: you’ll never sleep again, your sex life will die, you’ll lose your sense of self, you’ll always keep that extra ten pounds, and your nipples will harden and crack like dirt during a drought. I was also given wonderful promises: you’ll finally feel complete, you’ll understand your true purpose in life, and the love you’ll feel will surpass anything and everything you’ve ever felt before or will feel again.
Every mother I met had a story to tell or an opinion to share and I was shocked when I’d look in the mirror and still see my own reflection staring back. Motherhood was not a total transformation, not for me. I still liked reading about 20th century politics, I still cared about showering and combing my hair, and when Monty sneezed I was usually cognizant enough to say “Bless you.”
I was still me, more or less.
“Nobody ever talks about how hard motherhood is,” my neighbor, Eileen told me. She always had her youngest son, Atticus, propped up against her hip, and he’d tug on the strap of her tank top whenever he felt like a sip of breast milk, as if he was the customer and she the self-service buffet.
“Actually, pretty much all I hear is about how hard it is,” I replied. “I mean, of course it’s challenging, but I guess I was expecting the first few months to be worse.”
Eileen nodded her head while Atticus suckled. He was about to turn three, so he was huge, five or six times the size of Abby, who I held against my own chest. She was swaddled in a blanket and had just nursed, but I could hear her whimpering. Whether she was still hungry or needed to be burped, I was not sure.
“Well, that’s great. And the love you feel for your baby makes it all worth it. But you’re not at the really hard stuff, not yet. Like, have you decided whether or not you’re getting her vaccinated?”
We were in Eileen’s backyard, where they had a chicken coup so they could harvest the eggs. There was also a hand-built playhouse and I’d heard that Eileen’s husband had made it from oak. Eileen’s daughter sat in that playhouse, coloring on construction paper with crayons made from recycled candles. Crayola and coloring books, especially Disney coloring books, were not allowed.
“Umm…” I stuttered as Abby began to fuss more loudly, so I put her abdomen against my shoulder and began to pat, trying to get a burp out of her. “Why wouldn’t I get her vaccinated?”
“Because there are other options,” Eileen said, her voice rather soft. “And that’s the hard part. You have to funnel out all the sound and the noise and figure out what’s right for you and your family.
Atticus finished drinking his mother’s milk and pushed himself away. Eileen put him down, wiped her dripping nipple with the hem of her shirt, and covered herself. But when she looked up she saw that Atticus had found a toy lying on the ground.
“Atti, give that to Mama.”
“No!” Atticus stamped his foot, looking like a defiant little rocker, with his long, blond locks and black hemp t-shirt.
“Babe, that toy was supposed to be thrown away. Please give it to me.”
“No! I want it!”
Eileen’s mouth set into a grimace and she leaped towards her boy. He tried to squirm away but she wrapped herself around him and pried the toy from his grubby fingers. Atticus howled, bereft, like someone who’s just lost his soul. “But I want it,” he moaned.
She held out the toy to me. “Here, would you like it? I thought I’d gotten rid of all our plastic toys, but I guess I missed this one.” She waved it, trying to get me to take it. “If you don’t mind chemicals, you should take it.”
It was a turtle with a blue head and legs and a green shell. It had big, black eyes and a friendly smile, but the remarkable thing was the tiny baby turtle that rose from its back, identical to its mama except it was faceless, entirely green, and completely reliant on its mother for everything. There was no separating the mother from the baby; I couldn’t even decipher where one began and the other one ended.
Atticus pounded his fists on the ground, and then turned his dirty, tear-streaked face towards me. “But I want it.”