For some reason, motherhood was affecting Miranda differently than other women. Ever since they’d brought the baby home — it had been the week of Thanksgiving and an ice storm had just hit, coloring all the bare branches with dangerous sparkles on their slow drive home — Miranda couldn’t sleep.
Weeks and then months went by. Miranda still couldn’t sleep. Even when both Stevens — they’d named the baby after Miranda’s husband — were able to sleep through the night, Miranda would lie in bed, watching them both. She saw how their jaws matched. Their blond hair and pale skin took on a silky glow as they breathed together in sleep.
She had, in that one bed, the most important people in her life. She had never before felt so fulfilled — or so vulnerable. One falling tree in a strong storm could kill them all.
It was at this point that she would rise, put on a pot of water for tea, and watch the moon wind her way across the southern, and then western, night sky through the windows.
She saw things, too, in the night. Once she thought she saw the church behind their house on fire. She called 911, told them in a whisper what was happening — she didn’t want to wake the Stevens — and then watched as the red lights of the fire trucks came by and found nothing.
Another time she saw a fox walk right up onto their back deck and look at her, as if to say, “What are you doing here?”
Miranda was about to answer when she realized the fox was suddenly no longer there.
And the night after the fox’s appearance, she heard strange noises — a whirring, and a gnawing, a crack, and a boom — over and over.
She listened to the sounds until dawn, and then, still in her pajamas, she walked toward the area in the neighborhood from which the sounds had been emanating. She arrived just in time to see the bright yellow trucks leaving. Six acres of trees had been cut in the night. They were killed to make way for a new development of tightly packed houses of strangers.
Miranda stood in the place where the trees had once been, after the trucks had all left, and found herself shaking.
She didn’t tell Steven about this. “Went for a walk,” was all she said when she arrived back at the house that morning.
He simply nodded, ready to believe anything she might tell him.
Fatherhood had made him, if it were possible, even more steady and straight than he had been. This was one of the reasons that Miranda had married him. But, as marriage can do, the qualities for which one is loved become emphasized to the point that they become repulsive in their predictability.
One day, while Stevie (they’d adopted the nickname as a way of distinguishing between the two) was napping, Miranda’s mother-in-law, Lorraine, stopped by for tea.
Miranda had been folding laundry, and huge piles of clothes lay across the living room furniture when Lorraine knocked on the front door, unannounced.
“I would have called first,” Lorraine said, “but you never answer the phone, honey! So I just came over.”
Miranda had been embarrassed to let her see the house in this state, and stammered apologies.
“Nonsense,” Lorraine had said, heading to the kitchen. “How do you think these things ever get done? The woman does them, that’s how. What a waste of energy that we women spend most of our lives pretending that our houses are always clean and neat. I’m too old for that, honey.”
While Miranda continued to fold the laundry, Lorraine boiled the water, got out two clean cups, chose mint for them both, and poured the steaming water over the round blue openings.
Lorraine took the tea to the kitchen table and sat down and then called out, “Come on, sit down. Have some tea with me.”
That was the other thing. Along with no longer sleeping, Miranda also never sat down.
Every single day she found she had more and more to do: laundry, mountains of laundry, and diapering, and feeding, and sweeping, and vacuuming, and straightening, and packing, and unpacking, and cooking, and washing, and cleaning, and diapering, and feeding again.
“What’s wrong?” Lorraine asked as Miranda came into the kitchen.
Miranda opened her mouth. But nothing came out.
“Sit down,” Lorraine said, suddenly concerned.
Lorraine blew on her tea and watched the puddles her breath created. She was waiting.
Miranda said nothing.
Still Lorraine waited.
Finally, Stevie could be heard crying from the bassinet in their bedroom, and Miranda jumped up to get him.
Miranda’s tea went cold as she changed Stevie’s diaper and then his clothes because the diaper had leaked and caused a yellowish squash stain to blossom on his blue cotton outfit. She changed him into a yellow suit and the sweater that Lorraine liked so much, and then handed him to Lorraine so she could finish folding the laundry.
Lorraine followed her to the living room, holding Stevie over her shoulder and rubbing his back as she looked at Miranda for what seemed like a long time and then said, “Honey, are you sleeping?”
Miranda shook her head, continuing to bring the two ends of a yellow crib sheet together.
“The same thing happened to me after the boys were born, you know,” Lorraine said.
Miranda stopped folding. “It did?” She felt like weeping.
“Sure. At first, you are so glad not to be pregnant anymore. You’ve been lugging around all that weight for all that time, and once it’s gone, you feel so free and light. You’ve got lots of energy.”
“Right!” Miranda said, smiling.
Lorraine put Stevie down in the bouncy seat and sat Miranda down amidst the laundry on the couch.
“But the problem is, what was weight within your body has become a being that you have to care for outside of you.”
“Yes,” Miranda sighed.
“And he could choke or stop breathing or roll off the bed or stop eating at any time,” Lorraine continued.
“And you feel . . . ” Lorraine paused. She closed her eyes, remembering.
“You feel electric. Nervous all the time. On fire.”
Miranda’s eyes filled with tears.
She knew now what the fox was trying to say to her, in the night. It had been wanting her to do something about all the destruction. If six acres of forest could be taken in the night, how could she ever protect those she loved, those humans with softer skin and bodies so much smaller than trees?
“Don’t you have any girlfriends who have gone through this before?” Lorraine asked gently.
“There’s Mary Beth.”
“Well, call her, honey. That’s the first thing. You can’t do this all alone. I know, you’ve got Steven to help, and he’s my son, and I love him, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been a grandma. I saw with Samuel how Dianne needed more than he could give.”
Miranda nodded. She remembered thinking, before she’d had Stevie, how isolated Dianne had let herself become as a mother. How easy it had been to judge another woman, then.
“I’ve learned a lot since the cancer,” Lorraine said.
“A marriage lasts a long time,” Lorraine continued. “Or can, if you’re lucky. You need to find a way to figure out what you want. And then get it.”
Lorraine looked over as Stevie raised his small arm in the yellow sweater to wave and coo at them.
“Have Steven take you out to a nice dinner. Talk to him. Try to tell him what you’re feeling. Wouldn’t it be nice to eat with two hands for a change?”
“Okay then, I better get going. You get on the phone and call your friend, Mary Beth. And tell your husband what I said. He’s a good boy. He’ll listen to what his mother says.”
Lorraine stood to go.
“I should have said something like this to Dianne years ago, but we were never that close, and I guess I didn’t want to meddle. Anyway, I’ve always liked you, honey. You remind me of me. Independent. Hard working. But everybody needs a break, sweetheart.”
Stevie cried as Lorraine headed to the door. Lorraine waved at Miranda and was gone.
Miranda took Stevie into her arms, then looked at the laundry strewn all around the room, less than half folded, and suddenly felt very tired.
Stevie continued to cry, so she unbuttoned her blouse, hooked him on, and lay down on the couch, right on top of the unfolded laundry. Soon he was fast asleep, sighing against her chest, and still she lay there, awake, looking out the window at the wet pine tree in the front yard, seeing how vulnerable it looked in the early spring rain.
I invite you to use your own experience and/or the experience of other mothers to write a short story that reveals one of the unspoken struggles of motherhood. Please email your submission of 800-1000 words to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by February 21st. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 3” in the subject line, and place the text of your essay in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your piece, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication.