Karl was four years old when I first met him. He wore thick coke-bottle glasses, and his oversized eyes stared owlishly out through the lenses. His speech was slurred. He couldn’t walk without holding his parents’ hands, without scraping the metal braces that held his ankles rigid. If I had been a child then, my instinctive aversion to Karl might have been excusable. But I was an adult, in college. I was old enough to have compassion for a small boy with cerebral palsy.
Karl’s mother, Audrey, and his father, Jon, lived across the breezeway from me in a graduate student apartment at the University of New Hampshire. Jon was studying for his Ph.D. in math, while my husband and I were working on our bachelor’s degrees. In nice weather, I watched from my bedroom window as Audrey, infinitely patient, pushed Karl on the swing set outside our apartment complex. He sat in the infant seat because he couldn’t hold himself upright in a regular swing. But his legs were long enough that the toes of his shoes caught in the sand below as he swung back and forth. When he wanted to leave, he held his arms up. Then he and Audrey would walk home together — oh so slowly — she holding his hand, his feet clunking on the black asphalt that wound through the complex and back to their two-bedroom apartment.
In the afternoons, Jon would sit with Karl in their little red Mazda truck in the parking lot. Karl pretended to drive while Jon graded assignments. A railroad track lay just beyond the parking lot fence, and when trains came by, Karl would bounce up and down on the bench seat. I watched them from the window, trying to do my homework. Indulgent. That’s how I thought of Karl’s parents. They catered to his every need. Spoiled is what my parents would have called him, and unfortunate is what they would have said about Audrey and Jon, their lives so sad because their son was crippled.
One day in late winter, Audrey told me at the mailbox that she was pregnant. Her thick, black hair shined as it poked from underneath her winter cap. She held several letters in one hand, Karl’s mittened fingers in the other.
“You’re going to be a big brother, aren’t you, Karl?” She looked down at him, her German-accented voice sweet and sing-songy, her consonants slightly lisped.
He stared up at her, huge eyed. “Yes,” he said. Then he said something else that I couldn’t understand, but I didn’t have the patience to lean down and ask him to repeat it. I didn’t prod him for more. I didn’t say, “Karl, are you excited? Do you want a baby brother or a baby sister?” I just congratulated Audrey, gathered my own mail, and walked the icy path to my apartment.
To my surprise, I found out a few weeks later that I was pregnant, too. The positive test came the weekend after I’d picked up literature from the Peace Corps at an office on campus. I wanted to travel when I graduated; I wanted adventure. My husband and I had planned to apply together. Now I read through the brochures again. They made it clear that having a dependent child was not compatible with Peace Corps service. I’d recently attended a conference on international agriculture in Washington, D.C.; I’d studied global food and water issues in my natural resources courses. I wanted to help solve the world’s food problems. But as soon as I realized a baby was growing inside me, I knew our plans had changed. Jon and I were barely surviving on student loans and college work-study, but I could already see that baby in my arms. Someone else was going to have to solve the problem of world hunger.
Later that spring, I cleaned house for a woman who was out of town, a friend of a friend. I was trying to earn a little extra money before the baby came because I wasn’t planning to work for a while after it was born. This woman was New Agey. She had crystals and amethysts in each room, little altars covered with items collected from nature. Her house was filled with shelves and shelves of books, and I was an insatiable reader, so that afternoon, when I needed a break from vacuuming, I pulled one down. It was Frederic Leboyer’s Birth Without Violence. I couldn’t look away from the black and white photograph on the cover: a howling, terrified infant. Sitting on the arm of the sofa, I began reading, mesmerized by the photographs. The newborns inside the book were the opposite of the one on the cover — peaceful, blissful, even smiling.
Leboyer argued that a howling newborn is actually a traumatized newborn. I puzzled over this as I read the text and drank in the images on each page. The only newborns I’d ever seen were the ones on TV or in the movies. Didn’t the doctor turn them upside down and spank them just to get them to cry? To take that first deep breath? But Leboyer argued that, with fewer medical interventions, it’s much easier to have a calm, relaxed birthing atmosphere. This notion appealed to me deeply. I didn’t like loud noises. I had a low startle reflex — my husband made a joke of approaching me from behind and saying “Boo!” loudly. It got me every time. I realized that I didn’t want anyone to scream or cry during birth — especially not my baby.
Over the next few weeks, I began reading books about natural childbirth. I remembered that my husband and I had met a midwife the year before in a human development class; we began meeting with her once a month to chart the progress of my pregnancy.
Then, one evening, as my husband and I were washing dishes, I suddenly imagined that I saw a flash — the knife in my hand stabbing my abdomen. I looked down, unable to banish the stabbing image from my head. I dropped the knife into the stainless steel sink, convinced that I could no longer hold it safely. I backed away slowly, then sat on a chair near the kitchen table. My husband was watching, surprised and confused. He calmly turned off the water and dried his hands on a dishtowel, then sat beside me and asked what was wrong. I told him what I’d seen, that I wanted to stab my pregnant belly with the knife. He sat with me in silence, holding my hands. “Let’s talk to the midwife about this,” he said. He told me later that he’d been as scared as I was, but in that moment his quiet stillness helped me stay calm.
The midwife suggested books to read and a counselor. I didn’t go to the counselor. Instead, I focused on getting ready for the birth, burying the memory of that violent impulse by bringing home armfuls of library books about pregnancy and childrearing. Each evening, after finishing my schoolwork, I mapped out my plan to have a good birth and to be a good mom. It would take me years to fully understand what had happened that night: that I had been terrified of how the baby would change my life, that a hidden part of me believed becoming a mother meant losing my autonomy, losing myself. But what I recognized immediately in that moment of self-mutilating compulsion was my capacity for violence. As a child I’d been beaten with belts by my parents and threatened with iron skillets and wooden spoons. I left home at 16. In my mother’s kitchen back in Texas, just days before I ran away, she raised her hand to strike me, but I stopped her. I held her arm in mid-air.
Before I got pregnant, I had a college work-study job at a nearby daycare. One day the director caught me saying, “You want a spanking?” to one of the kids. I didn’t mean anything by it; I didn’t realize the impact of those words, or what they sounded like to those three- and four-year-olds. It was just something I had heard as a kid.
Each choice I’d made since becoming pregnant had been another step away from the destructive legacy of my parents. But now, as my breasts began swelling, and my belly-button flattened out, and the thin skin grew shiny, I knew that if I didn’t find alternatives, I would still end up like them — hitting my own child. After that night in the kitchen, I vowed to do something different, to be someone different, to free myself, finally, of their violence, their threats and fear and pain.
One day, as I arrived home from summer school, I saw Audrey and Karl making their way slowly to their front door. Audrey and I were both around seven months pregnant, her due date a week or so ahead of mine. Karl was dragging his feet beside her. He was tired after a bad night, she explained, then asked if I wanted to come in for tea, to sit for a while. Perhaps it was her eyes, which were always so kind, or her tender, patient voice. I said yes.
Their living room was full of toys. Not only was the carpet covered with them, but the entire room was filled with indoor jungle-gym equipment. It was a playground designed especially for Karl. Audrey and I sat on the floor tailor-style, sipping our tea, while Karl, nearly five now, played with his push-popper, a toy normally enjoyed by two-year-olds. We watched him walking, navigating the toys strewn around the carpeted floor, and Audrey told me Karl’s story.
When he was born, the doctors told her he had cerebral palsy, and that he would never walk, that he might not live past childhood. After she brought him home, Audrey realized that she and Jon were their son’s only hope. If, on his own, he couldn’t do what babies normally did, they would help him. Each day, each hour, they moved his body through the motions of reaching, grasping, rolling, sitting, crawling, until, slowly, he began to do each of these things for himself. He reached every developmental milestone late, sometimes years late for his age. But as he got older, he got stronger. Patiently, Audrey and Jon guided Karl through each phase of physical development, and now, more than three years after most kids, he could walk on his own.
Listening to Audrey, my dislike for Karl began to fall away. The anger and resentment I’d felt for his parents’ supposed indulgences evaporated. They weren’t indulgences at all, I realized. They were signs of love. Karl, with his awkward, scraping gait, opened something inside me. After I left Audrey’s apartment that day, I realized how deeply I’d longed for my own mother to show me the unstinting love Audrey gave her son.
When I was five, my mother nearly died after giving birth to my little brother, and she stayed in the hospital for two months. I waited day after day for news that she would live, that she would be coming home.
But my baby brother came home first. I got off the school bus after kindergarten that day and ran inside the house. There was the basinet near the back wall, sunshine streaming in on it through the back door. I crossed the room and put my hands on the edge of the white wicker basket, fascinated by the little package of a human inside it. Then my grandmother, who had come to stay with us until my mother’s return, came in from the kitchen. I shouldn’t get too close, she told me. I might give the baby a cold.
When my mom finally came home, I hadn’t seen her for weeks, except to stand in the grass near the hospital parking lot, holding my dad’s hand outside her tinted window. But I was only waving to my reflection; I couldn’t see her.
Years later, when I asked my mom what she recalled about nearly dying, she told me she remembered floating to the ceiling, repeating the same thing over and over in her mind: “Not yet.” She knew she was going to come back to do something important.
“Were you coming back to take care of us kids?” I asked.
“No,” she said. Anyone could take care of my brothers and me. She was coming back to do something else.
“What?” I asked her.
“I still don’t know,” she said. “I still don’t know.”
I had been so angry with Audrey and Jon when I thought they were spoiling Karl. Not because they were doing anything wrong, but because they were giving their child something I’d never gotten. Karl knew that no matter how awkwardly he moved his body, or how strange his large eyes appeared beneath those thick glasses, he was loved. Even when the new baby came home, there would be enough love for Karl.
I never had that certainty, and I’m not sure if my mother ever really came home. Not the mom I was hoping would love me again, the mom who would tell me everything was going to be all right. Instead, the woman who returned to our house was distant and tired. She had no patience for me and my questions, for holding me on her lap and reading to me before I slipped away to bed each night. As I got older, as my body changed from a girl’s to a woman’s, the rift between us grew bigger. Accusing questions were now her only way of relating to me: Was I stuffing my bra? Why did I need panty liners before I’d even had my period — was I having sex? She began to threaten me with those wooden spoons and iron skillets. By the time I left home at 16, I couldn’t remember ever having a mother who had loved me, one who’d been tender or kind when I needed her.
Audrey became my model. Watching her loosened my anger and resentment about the way she and Jon treated Karl. During my last months of pregnancy, I asked her questions about nursing and cloth diapers and lullabies. I hung out with her and Karl when I could, observing the way she knelt on one knee and gave him eye contact when he asked her questions, the way she soothed his frustrated tears, the way she held him when there were no words. I began reading books about attachment parenting, nursing, and family beds. I reached out to other mothers. I asked a friend from Malawi to teach me how to carry the baby on my back after he was born.
His name is Joel.
I learned to nurse him. I held him when he cried instead of shaking him or putting him away in the next room. I never hit him.
I sang to him.
I let him know, in so many ways, how glad I was to see his beautiful face.