As a child I never dreamed of being a mother, didn’t play house, preferred my Tonka truck to dolls. As a young teacher I watched students who moved in shadow, whose odd bones and dead eyes whispered You should never have been born, whose haggard mothers seemed crushed by circumstance. Motherhood seemed like martyrdom, and I couldn’t imagine longing for a child — until I carried my own. A late-bloomer mom, I pored over What to Expect like a bible, eschewed beer and coffee with nunnish austerity, wrangled maternity leave like a fishwife.
And our first son was beautiful, blonde, perpetually smiling. Women stopped me to gasp over my “precious Gerber baby.” One afternoon I glanced around a coffee shop to see Noah had drawn every face to his, catching eyes and cooing, laughing at peek-a-boo, reaching for strangers. The YMCA nursery attendant called him “Angel Baby” and pulled him from my arms before I’d even signed him in. Between books and lullabies and walks, I basked in a first mother’s righteous assurance that I’d created the world’s most perfect being.
The crocodile’s death spiral disorients so you forget to fight back, spins you until your breath stops and you fall limp and drown. An account by a woman who’d survived an attack in Australia describes the roll through darkness and light, the thrashing bubbles of fear, her desperate gasp at the surface before being plunged under again. She fought like a beast and won. I floated through most days like a fat baby in a Sendak book, spun by darkness that was enveloping, dangerous.
Which is why, in the last hour before sunrise, I crept downstairs, laced my shoes in the doorway like some guilty lover, and ran — past sleeping houses and paperboys, past the coffee shop with its early gabbers and door breathing warmth and syrups. I loved the weariness and silence, the golden of tunnel of leaves beneath streetlamps, the last faded dahlias against a wrought iron fence. Fearing lurkers, I feared insanity more, from a husband wondering where the fun went, from a baby reaching always for me. If my skin got more porous, I would dissipate completely, but running made me powerful, contained, whole. In the cool darkness I traced beads of streetlamps, my footsteps like murmuring women: Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners.
On our shelf still is a photo of me from that year, midway through my first half-marathon. I’m grinning widely, arms stretched to embrace the crowds and winter sunshine, moments before I kissed my toddler and ran off waving. Days after the race, my husband began negotiations for a second child. I stalled, placed demands, refuted his pleas of only-child loneliness. “If we could have the baby delivered,” I said, “I’d take it.” At my final no, Dave moped until I wanted to pound my fists on his chest. He pleaded, “You know I’d do this for you if I could.” But you can’t, I thought, so you’re safe.
In my sister’s earliest memory she slides next to my mother, pinches the fabric of an oddly loose blouse, and asks, “Why are you wearing this?” She recalls the hand slap, the tight bitter words: “I’m having another baby.” It was my mother’s seventh in 13 years. I spent my childhood seeking quiet pockets amidst chaos; even now my husband calls me a “vaguely social animal.” I never expected to love my one baby well. Two could destroy everything.
And yet, on a night near Solstice — the year’s twilight, full of evergreens and revelry and gifts, the dark time when rules are suspended and uncommon mercy granted — I relented. Sniffing like a wolf, Dave knew. I knew. On New Year’s Day, when I ran up our neighborhood’s steepest hill still buoyed by race-day euphoria, I had to stop halfway, fight for breath, walk to ease my leaden legs. For nine months, my friends still laugh, I was grouchy.
To call motherhood a death spiral is absurd. I understand this, know that I write from toxic privilege, perched with my loving husband, two incomes, late fertility so casually dismissed. Even as I longed to trade baby for running, I knew I would love this child, yet I feared surrendering to the second heart beating inside me, the being determined to live.
Near Ground Hog’s Day as buds swelled on trees, I read another mothering guide, seeking the soothing wash of advice. When the (male) author suggested that a husband could participate meaningfully in his wife’s pregnancy by reprimanding her for eating junk food, the book flew, hit the wall with a satisfying thwack, and splayed on the floor. At Noah’s cry I muttered, “No, dear, we don’t throw books. Not usually.”
He pressed against the bulk that was his brother and I told of a woman, heavy with child, who stares from her window to the rich greens of a witch’s garden, gripped with longing so fierce she fears she will die. When her husband creeps through the night to gather a few forbidden leaves, he’s caught, but for once I knew how a mother could trade an unknown child to assuage unreasoning hunger. Noah squirmed, so I cut to the ending — tower, prince, happily ever after, again.
On a wall of the Utah desert, etched through red patina to yellow rock beneath, is a great whirling disk rimmed by radiating beams, suspended from a thread held by a massive horned figure. We drove to the desert for spring break, eager for sunshine and slick rock and our last adventure as a threesome, our only responsibility a midweek call for test results on my “geriatric pregnancy.” In a phone booth behind a shabby stucco, I cradled the receiver and stared at bare pink hills as my doctor’s voice turned soothing as an undertaker’s. Some markers on the blood looked suspect; he recommend amnio.
A week later, even before they’d plunged the needle into my abdomen, I was crying, apologizing for crying, refusing to wait until I’d pulled myself together. Just do it now. In ten days the results came back normal; in another week an insistent fist slid inside my skin.
In a writing course that year I filled pages with odd longings: for my childhood kitchen thick with ginger and cloves, for my first lonely apartment where I leaned out the window above a clattering creek. I wrote of this pregnancy, of my resentment at trading running for reproduction. In her scrawled notes, my professor asked why I didn’t get an abortion, why my husband got this child through me, why the man always gets his way. Chilled, I set the essay aside, then carefully traced the difference between wanting a baby and wanting to carry a baby, to deliver it, to be taken over by it.
One day as I gathered Noah from the Y nursery, the attendant eyed my belly and confessed she couldn’t have children, that her doctor had told her to give up because some people just aren’t mean to. Some mornings still as I drive to work I see her walking from her bus stop, wearing a shapeless coat over her Keds, limping slightly, like the swinging of some quiet pendulum.
On summer’s last evening, as pink light bathed the mountains and the field gave up the smell of fall, Dave and Noah played on swings while I circled them, heavy and restless, prickly in my own skin. They left for home and I walked alone, following only at dusk. When contractions wrenched me awake at midnight, I watched Dave breathe beside me, waited to wake him until the pains grew close. At the hospital my labor was too fast for an epidural, but I didn’t care. I wanted this baby to hurt, wanted to shriek with rage and something primal, needed to know every minute of it.
At dawn as the doctor stitched me up they asked, “Do you want your baby?” and I said, “Finish that. When I hold him I want to be peaceful.” Resting beside me, my son’s dark gaze held mine until repairs were done and his warm form pressed against my chest. We named him after the winter stars, the hunter’s sparkling belt and sword, the upraised club. We named him in memory of nights beside the Salmon River, years before we married, as Dave traced the pictures of the sky, on a trip when it seemed this relationship just might endure.
Almost immediately Orion was self-contained, protective of the air around his body. His head smelled different, rich and musky, loamy and warm as sunlit trees. I called him The Changeling for eyes too fierce for a baby, a smile too big for his face. When his baby curls grew long and golden, I cut them myself and enclosed them in a tiny wooden box. Though Noah is his father, graceful and mercurial, Orion’s bones are mine. He shares my love of quiet and reads books with an eerie intensity, snapping through pages at a glance yet knowing every detail.
Of course I ran after his birth, set PR’s in five races the first year, then grew tired of pushing against pain and slowed down to smile again. Even then I held Orion close, knowing how easily he might never have been but for a husband’s insistence, an evening of acquiescence.
When my babies woke wheezing with croup, I took them to the porch so the cool night air could soothe their ragged breath. Cocooned with them in blankets, I loved the dreaminess of being outside, half awake, half asleep, half in and out of the house, lit by streetlights but screened in shadow. One evening I thought of a girl locked in a room, saved by a man who spins straw to gold for a necklace, a ring, a baby. How quickly these women barter their children; how quickly I would have traded my own for speed, containment, identity; how fiercely I would have gone to the woods to find the hut and glowing fire, the dancing man.
In the forest she finds the name that saves; in this child I found grace, the name of blessings neither hoped for nor deserved. When he learned to write, Orion covered sheets with I love you I love you I love you, placed them in my hands with deep solemnity. Even now when he slips into my lap so I can wrap my arms around him, when I press my lips to his elf-lock hair, I think grace. I receive his love with a child’s wonder, with gratitude for unexpected joy.