We’re leaving Los Angeles soon, and we will no longer have a garage to store every scrap of clothing or broken toy my children have ever laid hands upon.
So I’ve been spending evenings sorting toys, clothes, and other kid paraphernalia into three piles: (1) take with us to New York, (2) donate to Boys & Girls Club, and (3) throw away. Pile number one has to be the smallest. We will be trading our two-story, two-car-garage house for an apartment with about half the square footage and much less than half the storage space.
I kneeled over a bin of old bottles, sippy cups with mismatched lids, and infant spoons and forks. I reached in and pulled out a pacifier that I had purchased my first night away from Quinlan, almost five years ago.
The Santa Anas were blowing that first night I left the house without my son. I stepped around huge palm fronds that had blown into the street. My red sweater had the tiniest trace of my son’s milky spit-up on the collar. He was two weeks old. We were out of laundry detergent and paper towels. As I drove down Pico Boulevard with an empty carseat behind me, I realized that nobody at the drugstore would know that I was a mother.
The wind flung my hair against my face as I pushed open the door to the drugstore. I picked up the detergent and paper towels first, and then went to the baby aisle. I looked at the primary-colored pacifiers and sippy cups, the huge selection of wipes, and the stack of tiny bottles of apple juice. My son didn’t need anything. We had a stocked kitchen, and his room was already filled with toys and stuffed animals that were probably just a blurry haze to his newborn eyes. I threw a package of size “N” Pampers in the basket even though we didn’t need them yet. Then I picked up a package of red and white infant pacifiers.
A woman passed behind me. She wore khaki pants, and a navy blue cardigan draped her wide hips. “Oh, you have a newborn,” she said.
“Yes, I have a son.” I replied. The new word “son” sounded tinny on my lips.
“Try to get some sleep,” she said and smiled at me. I felt like I was a new member of a club. I was a mother now, and nothing would ever be the same.
Five years later, I flipped the red pacifier up and down, listening to the light clicking sound and remembering that night. I turned it over in my hand, trying to decide to which pile it belonged. I wondered whether I would remember how it felt to be a new mother without the places and the objects to prompt me. Will I remember the first time Quinlan got the flu if I don’t have the Winnie the Pooh that he threw up on and then I bleached, causing some of the golden hair to turn white? If I don’t go to Douglas Park in Santa Monica, will I remember the way Quinlan looked the day he realized that ducks could fly and swim? If I don’t go to Paradise Cove on Sundays, will I remember the feeling of the sun on my head and Dorothea’s sleeping body melting into my chest?
Los Angeles is the place I was born into motherhood.
At the same time that I prepare to leave Los Angles behind, I’m simultaneously leaving behind the intellectual space of early motherhood, thanks to Adrienne Rich. I was introduced to Rich’s poems almost ten years ago, when I was laboring in a soulless job and a friend gave me a copy of Rich’s Dark Fields of the Republic, with one line underlined twice in red pen: “You can call on beauty still and it will leap from all directions.”
Until several months ago, when a fellow Literary Mama editor asked me to review a book of criticism related to Rich’s Of Woman Born, I hadn’t read any of Rich’s prose. I picked up a copy of Of Woman Born, and before I had finished the first chapter, I felt like Rich was helping me pack up the motherhood baggage I have carried. She was preparing me to occupy a new mental mothering space.
When I started writing “Mother and Other,” my son was three and my daughter was an infant. Negotiating with myself about what it meant to be a mother was a struggle often laced with guilt, unease, and discomfort. As a new mother, I felt so much pain in trying to determine where my identity as a mother began and where my identity as a non-mother ended, and it prompted me to write “Mother and Other.”
In my beginning column, I wrote, “I’ve been a Mommy for three-and-a-half years, and that’s not very long compared to the 33-and-a-half years that I’ve been Rachel. But Mommy has been known to swallow Rachel whole.”
When I read Rich’s words, I felt like she had been watching over me for the past five years. “Once in awhile someone used to ask me, ‘Don’t you ever write poems about your children?’ . . . For me poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself” (p. 31).
In her words, my angst suddenly had a voice.
After reading Rich, I felt a new peace about the hours I spent away from my children each week, making poems or fiction. I already knew that I was a happier, more emotionally available, and far more patient mother when I worked than when I didn’t, but Rich made me see that it was our culture more than my children’s true needs that spawned the guilt I felt about those hours away from them. Adrienne Rich has ushered me into a more comfortable place of being mother and not-mother at the same time.
So, as I prepare to leave Los Angeles for New York, I also feel ready to leave the topic of “Mother and Other.” I’m ready to move into a loud, always-moving city that will fill me with new energy, and Rich’s words have given me the space I need to explore what the city has to offer.
As I kneeled in the garage before those piles of objects with the pacifier in my hand, I thought about all the changes ahead in New York and all of the ways that my children and I will continue to evolve, together and as individuals. I closed my hand around the pacifier for a moment and then launched it into pile number three.