At 11 a.m., the playground is already half full of youngsters, my barefoot and sleeveless Cleo among them. She mucks about in the sand while her big sister Zoë sits demurely on the grass reading, and I slouch on the bench to write in my journal. Bright sunshine highlights every grain of sand in the box, and under my black fleece jacket, my shoulders are pleasantly roasting. It’s Berkeley’s February Spring, and in two months come The Birthdays. We conceived Zoë around the time of our wedding, and Cleo on our fourth anniversary, so their birthdays come on consecutive days in the first week of April; Zoë will turn nine and Cleo five.
These are big birthdays. They are both old enough to remember, and I want the memories to glow. I, too, was an April girl, and I remember Ma’s Betty Crocker layer cake and the crepe streamers she taped up. We all took turns cranking the ice cream maker while Ma played lifeguard to ten screeching girls for the first icy swim of the year. Next morning, when we crawled groggily out of our sleeping bags, she made the pancakes. My parties were the best, and Ma made them that way.
As Cleo jumps off the slide into the sand next to two toddlers, I heave a sigh. Now a gentle giantess in the baby sand box, she’s undeniably grown, almost ready for kindergarten. I glance over at Zoë, who brushes aside a stray hair as she reads, her body moving with a subtle poise that emerged just this year. Zoë has changed in ways I hadn’t expected so soon: her moods now cycle with mine, as does her body odor. Her new scent tells me this: she is still of me, but now distinct; she is entering pre-pre-pubescence, and her body is already beginning to pulse with the same rhythm as mine, that hormonal wax and wane, by turns exhilarating and familiar, that helped me make her, in 1996, the year we married.
I was 34 years old, and I was, albeit willingly, a biologically driven soul. Every month like clockwork, I entered a period of mid-cycle frenzy, when I found Patrick insanely attractive. So it was, one night just days before our wedding, when Patrick returned home late from a business trip and quietly crawled into bed with me. It was late June, and even downtrodden little post-industrial Waltham, Massachusetts, felt luxurious and silky with the warmth of early summer. The air had softened, leaves rustled gently in the trees, and I had kept the windows open, so the perfect air could move gently through the room as I slept. As Patrick sneaked in under the covers and softly kissed me, the monthly tide of hormones swept in.
I surrendered immediately, absolutely. Clothes became intolerable, as did condoms; I had to be naked, I had to touch. As I turned to him, multiple chemical messages urged me: make a baby, make a baby. My ovaries were already sending the monthly swell of testosterone and estrogen into my blood, and the touch of Pat’s lips, his long hair sweeping across my skin, caused another hormone, oxytocin, to rush in as well.
I knew that our touching triggered oxytocin release, and that it heightened both my sensitivity to touch and my desire for more, in a delicious upward spiral of positive feedback. I was conscious of the chemicals in my system at the very moment I ripped off my pajamas. It’s true: I am a huge nerd. I think like a biologist, even in the most intimate setting. But I believe estrogen itself infused me with that clarity and perfect energy required to think amidst the heated confusion; estrogen kept my senses sharp as I paused just long enough to think very clearly, We could really make a baby, just long enough to say “condom?” to Patrick and hear his response, “Why bother?” before the spike of oxytocin pushed me into full delirium, causing my nipples and clitoris to engorge with blood, taut and sensitive, excitable, readying. Meanwhile testosterone, like a whip at my back, drove me toward the goal, the pinnacle, of fullest bodily connection, every muscle of my body driven to writhe and thrust. I was an unstoppable, intelligent force, and together with Patrick, I entered a furious crescendo of motion, heat, elation, and gratification.
Afterwards, as I lay smiling in the dark, my uterine muscles continued to pulse reflexively, and I knew that with each delicious involuntary contraction, my cervix was dipping down into the sperm and sipping many millions of little swimmers up and in, for the dark journey through my sweet, slippery womb and into my fallopian tube, where a mature egg was being shepherded downward by gently waving cilia to greet them. I swear, I could feel it. My midwives would later estimate Zoë’s conception date to be our wedding day, but I believe that a part of her was already there, with the other guests that crowded into the little white-steepled Vermont church, a tiny ball of cells in my belly, whirring with the momentum of new beginnings.
With a kind of sad synchronicity, Zoë’s birth brought my mother’s illness to light. When she came to take care of us after Zoë was born, Ma could not work the microwave. She was afraid to go alone to the grocery store, and she had all but forgotten how to cook. She had Alzheimer’s disease, and four years later when I left work on maternity leave to have Cleo, it was time to take care of her as well.
Now Ma is gone, and my kids are so big; I’m not really a Mama in the Middle any more.
I ask Zoë how it feels to be a year older.
“Great!” she replies, “but I’m really looking forward to ten. Then I’ll have two digits.” Maybe she’ll turn out to be a huge nerd, too.
When I ask Cleo how it feels being almost five, she says, “You can call me five now, Mama. I am ready for kindergarten.”
I take a deep breath and sigh again, happily defeated. I want to plead with them to slow down, but I know their eagerness is a good sign. Before we leave the playground, I hug them both, breathing in the scent of their skin — Cleo’s still sweet and bready, Zoë’s now a spicy, slightly exotic older-kid flavor. I brush sand off Cleo’s feet, though she’s old enough to do this herself now, and then I reach out to touch Zoë’s cheek. I know the sloppy full-mouth kisses she still gives me from time to time are on the way out; she and her classmates are already discussing Valentine’s Day in a whole new light, and those kisses will soon be reserved for someone else. I must look stricken; she shakes her head as though to say I am a pathetic case but then pulls me back for one more hug.
Sybil Lockhart is a compulsive journal-writer. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood Literary E-zine. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and two daughters.