I. My apartment building sits on the edge of a series of connected manmade ponds which overflow into a local creek. Part of the county’s flood management system, the ponds were installed four decades ago, and have since hosted geese and ducks, snapping turtles and frogs, darting minnows, and generations of koi. On especially lucky days, one or two great blue herons grace the water, keenly standing on their stilted legs, feathers blowing in the breeze. On a sunny morning, after what seems like weeks of gray, I wake in the quiet of my apartment, the bedspread a smooth plane to my left. The children are home and the quiet is different. Limited. Usually this boundary—knowing the quiet will end—soothes me. This morning though, I am brimming with a restlessness I cannot place. I leave the apartment, walk down the long green-carpeted hallway, past the neighbors’ mute metal doors, and take the elevator to the ground floor. Outside it is colder than I expected. I make up for this by moving more vigorously. Today there is wind, but no heron. Pathways of ripples catch the light and sparkle as they blow across the water. I take long, quick strides around the pond, expanding the volume of space my body moves in to decrease the pressure of my thoughts, trying to outpace the question presses at me: how could I ever expect to be normal?
On the bank of the pond, a speckled brown duck stands beside four ducklings, just a few feet from me. Eyes nearly closed, they dumbly climb over one another, nestle and rearrange themselves while their mother stands wary, shifting weight between webbed feet. Maybe half a year ago she paddled the feathered bag of her body around the pond, thinking only of fish, asking herself about the reflection of the sky on the surface of the water. If I jumped the fence to snatch one of her ducklings, she would likely not be able to herd them all to safety quickly enough. She cannot count, but she understands the statistics, the changed landscape of her interests, the division of her attention and time. She cannot bring herself to sit.
II. Fewer than two percent of teenage mothers complete college before they are thirty. I was only technically a teenage mother, an anemic, barely nineteen-year-old kid. I finished college when I was thirty-one, and finished grad school just after I turned thirty-five. I am always surprised to discover the myriad ways in which I am not an exception.
Sam’s birth was modern-ordinary: my brown skin between coarse, bright white sheets, an open-back pale pink gown, the city beyond the window, thick gray plastic guardrails on either side of the narrow bed. Intravenously induced labor, long needle of the epidural between my vertebrae. They brought a mirror on a stand so I could see his black head crowning from my numb vagina. I pushed when told and the baby was born under bright lights and wrapped in a clean cloth. The veiny purple placenta came next and was taken away in a steel bowl.
He slept too much, didn’t want to nurse. I had to unwrap him, remove his blanket, remove his hat. Sit him up, hold his face between my thumb and forefinger. Wake up, baby! I’d say. And his face would roll between my fingers. Left to his own devices, he would have starved to death. He was a handsome baby, but not cute. Angular, un-fat. I kept him alive. Every two hours I woke him and nursed him. It was only difficult if I thought about anything else. If I thought only of his needs, of myself as an instrument designed to meet those needs, I always knew what to do next: unwrap the baby, wake him, balance him in one arm while unhooking the top corner of the triangular panel containing my leaking breast, squirt the milk onto his uninterested lips, shimmy my dark nipple into his mouth. The hunger and thirst I experienced during this time was primal. My world shrank, and the space between my needs and my desires shrank accordingly. I did what I needed to do. I wanted to do what I needed to do. The rest of motherhood has not been this way.
III. Sam is seventeen. For most of our time I have not known what he needed, have not been certain I could provide it. I have been feeling my way along. I did not know if breaking up our home would turn him into a reckless derelict. Or whether I’d regret sharing custody with his father. I still don’t know. When I tell him he must articulate his feelings, that he must not slam the door or refuse to talk to me, that we will spend time together as a family—hiking or playing board games, cooking dinner together or dancing in the living room—I am not sure whether I am motivated by his needs or my own. Sometimes our needs run perpendicular to one another. I need him close, he needs to be let go of. He needs me to be available and selfless, to exist in two-dimension, and I need to exact change on the world and get laid. I am a human, flawed and afraid.
IV. The elevation of motherhood to an ideal demands the devaluation of the mother as individual. I have been unable to succumb. My contribution to society is not formed from flesh in the darkness of my womb. But what if it is? When I admire the work of a great artist or thinker, it is not her mother I admire. But when someone is cruel or spoiled or abusive, I investigate their upbringing.
V. It is the morning of the first snow of the year. The children wake to the smell of bread baking. When Sam comes out of his bedroom, after sleeping for sixteen hours, he seems thinner and taller, several steps closer to his final form. The sink fills and empties, my hands are dry from the labor. The day stretches. They play video games, I try to compose a poem. The snow falls. As darkness descends, we begin to feel restless. Pulling on hooded coats, rubber-soled shoes, and warm hats, we take the elevator to the ground floor, emerging on the path that winds around the pond. We stop to look at the snow falling in the pools of street light; we measure its depth on the park benches. The soft snow packs easily into balls, and we throw a few, each of us an easy target, peripheral vision blocked by our deep hoods. Sam throws a snowball and it hits the back of my hood. The first instinct, when you’re hit in the head, is to be pissed. I am also panicked. Have I not taught him not to hit people in the head? Have I not taught him not to throw things at women’s heads? Have I not taught him? What else haven’t I taught him? I am furious that he isn’t better than this. That I haven’t made him better than this. I ruin half our walk with my fear and fury.
VI. The alarm rings at 4 a.m., and soon we are on the road, our little hatchback packed since last night with sheets and clothes and food, on our way to join extended family for a three-day weekend at the beach. The kids sleep, and I listen to an audiobook. Every time the narrator reads something about childhood trauma, about the effects on children of witnessing violence between their parents, about the likelihood of an experience becoming traumatic, my guilt-fed mother brain begins to pace. On our left, the sky is lightening as the sun rises over the Chesapeake Bay. Sam is in the passenger’s seat dozing, his head on a pillow propped against the window. He asked me to wake him when we reached the bridge, but he sits up, rubbing his eyes, before I can reach over to tap his shoulder. I open my mouth to ask him the question that he can’t possibly answer yet: Am I doing this right? Neither of us will know until it’s all over. Until it’s too late to do anything differently.