Archive for the 'motherhood' Category

The Naming, by Anna Wildfong

The Naming
By Anna Wildfong

We start suggesting names
for the new boy or girl
in the seventh hour of interstate 80
   the first week
   into your second trimester

Beau is too country for a kid
who will grow up in the farmhouse
we are headed toward
with cows and
a high tunnel greenhouse
   we all agree
when we stop for gas in Pennsylvania

I pass a young man crouching
over a magazine filled with
naked women on my way
to the bathroom
and can only guess he is named
after his father who has a similar
build and haircut
and eyes the same women
when he comes to fill up.
   I imagine the ladies who pose like that
     do not use their real names anymore

From your home on the farm we
head toward the city on the train
   I throw Pete out
as we pass along the Hudson
   with ice that is cracking
   and shifting with the current
but Pete was an old boyfriend
and we think about breakups
   West Point on the other side of the river

The streets in Manhattan
have numbers instead of names
for the most part and
   Madison is the only one
   I remember

When we make our way to Chelsea
and see the Hotel I suggest Patti
   but no one likes that
because it is too androgynous, although
   I liked the man
   who wore a silver necklace with
   big pieces of amber
   on 42nd

We stop for falafel after
the Museum of Modern Art
I was toying with Dorothea or Franz
   you only added that the baby
   was now the size of a falafel patti
   and took a bite and smiled

We consider borrowing names
from other languages
on the subway
   my legs touch strangers
   we inhale each
   other’s breath

We run out of names at the Greyhound Station
when security guards are
confiscating steak knives.
We figure one will come
to us in the next few months
   when I come to visit again.

Perhaps when you are in Central Park
watching men rollerskate
you will find a name to straighten
your child’s teeth,
give him a walk
that will carry him across
   fields and onto the
   train platform
   into the lettered subways
of New York City

Anna Wildfong currently lives and works in Chicago and has been published in The Red Cedar Review. She studied creative writing at Michigan State University and is originally from Ferndale, Michigan.

Poems by Jennifer Givhan

LOVESONG OF THE BARREN WOMAN

1. Shipwreck

                Water, water everywhere
                              and not a drop to drink

I sing of PCOS—
That pirate disease, launching its scourge on my red woman’s deck,
goading my dreams as they walk the plank
with a splash and a plop.

I thirst. For round belly flesh.
For a living inner-tube to keep me afloat.

Any sea creature caught in my gut would tread oil spills
and the plastic necklaces of aluminum cans,
finding no safe spot to anchor.

I met a woman who had her tubes cut at twenty-two
and has never once regretted the decision.

I could be her twisted sister. Her mirror-image. Her tocaya.
In her I see reflected my own incision, ectopic wounds.
Gloved oars slice through k-y jellies;
they navigate my shame.

Clomid pops like fish eggs on my blackened tongue,
Eucharist to the bleeding woman.
One pill two pills red pill blue pill.

Hapless fisher kings in shining yellow slickers fishhook
my ovaries, but the fish swim away, and the wires snap back empty.
There will be no dinner tonight though the villagers are starving.

Sponge pads soaking in saltwater choke the angelfish.
Mussels suction my gut.
I’ve beads tonguing my cauliflower flesh,
strings lovely and strange;

If only I could peel them off, these sticky pearls
aborted before they’ve grown protective shells,

I’d rise, I’d rise in sprays.

2. Looking Glass

                   The image in the mirror appears whole
                             though I swear I am a fragment.

Columnar self,
I am my own grotesque other body.

I fell asleep inside my pod and woke to red,
where oceans are dry as salt flats, where red means lost
and lost means dead.

When the blood comes, yet again, unwanted,
hold high the striped umbrella, and sing
rain, rain go away to passersby, to gawkers
who have never seen a bloated caterpillar
sway in quite that way.

Tell them I am growing once more and soon
will overgrow this crumbling hull.
I’ve sublet my stomach to the construction workers:

Screw the landlady.
Who owns this house?
I am a troubadour.

My plump toes are spreading,
wrapping the branches of my mildewed limbs,
and the round tips of my fingers are sprawling wildly
for I have been eating too many pitahayas.

Now the juicy seeds have planted inside my nectar bosom,
and my roots are tearing through the chalky red walls
that hold this broken house-heart up,
creating cracks wide enough
for even the snails to crawl through.

Fissures of the soul? There is not space
enough nor time to fill me—yet
I am full to flowing and overripe.

3. Shell Shock

           Mother-woman, other woman, in my bed,
                      She’s the woman, fertile woman, hollowing my head.

Caroline has a baby girl.
She’s beautiful, intelligent,
stacks Thomas the Train building blocks in perfect rows.

Our pieces wedge together and converge
in that brown haired baby with seashell eyes,
she’s yours, not mine.

I am nineteen again and barefoot on the cold pavement porch,
gray USC sweatshirt to my knees, poised beneath
the veined trellis that raises its arms in wordless salute
to a crisp desert sky of stars hung like brittle ornaments,
cordless phone pressed to my ear.

I cannot understand his hesitation—
You strayed. I forgive you. I say. We can work it out.

Across the street red and green chaser lights blink
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.
But the sound rattles my ear canal, ricochets in a tunnel,
aerial gunnery, practice in the nearby Chocolate Mountains:

You don’t understand. He tells me.
Caroline is pregnant with my child.

The phone through the earth hums softly away in a manger.
His voice, a lone coyote’s distant howl,
stabs my moon, my heart, my breasts, my womb—
bits of body stubbornly casing spirits, dead weight, crushed ice.
And all around flashes
Merry Christmas, Merry
Christmas.

 

NINE MONTHS PREGNANT AFTER FIVE YEARS INFERTILITY & ONE (BEAUTIFUL) ADOPTION

Not so different: excitement the same.
Planning the same, packing, the same.

I’d long thought myself a pitted plum rotting,
but here I’m rooting, shooting, spiraling, curling,
and still, the same.

As usual, August swamps and spits down my face,
my breasts;  it gathers under my folds and pits
and crevices like jellies within their pots
and balms the backs of my knees.

Reading a book is the same. This one’s Erica Jong’s
Fear of Flying. I’d never read it, but pleasure
unfolds, mind unwraps, unspools even pops
and pulls the same. Tentacles uncoil the same.

Plums taste the same. I just finished a deeply
purple one, spotted and bruised,
pit perfectly intact. God it was sweet.

But even sweetness, even overflowing
and hearty and arching and malting and moon
heavy and cow eyed and summer sprawled,
sweetness is the same.

My son lies napping in his bed.
My daughter sidewinds my gut.
Dreaming, both.

But hopes. Fears. Loves.
Aches like soft loaves of bread. Weight
of worlds and oceans and maternity and eternity
in my blood. And my blood. And my blood.
The same.

                 first appeared in Poetry Quarterly

 

 

Jennifer Givhan was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, a St. Lawrence Book Award finalist, and a Vernice Quebodeaux Pathways Prize finalist for her poetry collection Red Sun Mother. Nominated for the 2012 Best of the Net, Givhan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in over forty journals, including Prairie Schooner, Contrary, Rattle, The Los Angeles Review, Fickle Muses, and Crab Creek Review. She attends the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, teaches composition at The University of New Mexico, and is at work on her second novel and poetry collection. You can visit Givhan online at www.jennifergivhan.com.

A Poetry Editor In Transition: Disassembling to Reassemble

By Tania Pryputniewicz

With tenderness and much regret, as my family perches to relocate from the Sonoma County redwoods to the sunny shores of San Diego, I need to write this “goodbye” post…which, due to my absolute love for this site, and our sister site, Mother Writer, Mentor, would better be titled, my “see you shortly around the bend” post. Under the strain of relocating and the need to focus on my family, I am stepping back from blogging and participating on both sites. I will still teach Poetry of Motherhood and Poetry of Fatherhood as well as Transformative Blogging for Women in 2013 and hope to work with you then. I leave our poetry selection in the beautifully capable hands of our guest poetry editor, Kate Bolton Bonnici.

When Jessica invited me to be her poetry editor exactly three years ago this December, I had a three year old son swirling around my ankles, his two siblings barely anchored in school. While I flourished privately by exchanging poetry with a steady writing confidante, I missed the outer world of the literary community. Jessica kindly brought that world back to me via The Fertile Source.

From my quiet acre of redwoods, cornbread baking in the oven, with one child napping and two others coloring, I read through poetry submissions from around the states and occasionally from overseas, thrilling in a surge of genuine connection as each contributor photo appeared in my inbox. I’m undeniably partial, but I believe our interviews with both our mother and father writers go for the jugular, rich with intimate revelations about how to stay connected to one’s children while writing. (I’ve since discovered another poet doing similar work—check her out–this week poet /novelist Jennifer Givhan interviews married team (and editors of Rattle) Tim and Megan Green on their relationship to writing and parenting.)

Jessica and I shared a good laugh over my phone call to her announcing my need to step back for now. Within moments, we found ourselves busy brainstorming the next evolution of how we could work together, discussing workshops we might lead and anthology e-books we could compile based on our work here at The Fertile Source. Jess pulled out her mentor side and did her best to get me to honor the reason I’d called her, which was to create a pocket of time and space to focus on nurturing my own family (instead of dreaming up new commitments).

The impulse to keep playing with Jessica is a testament to how much I not only love her, but the work we do. And what to do when all of the projects in your life give you joy and call and pull equally but have outnumbered your ability to feed and care properly for them?

For now, I admit temporary defeat, succumbing to the need to disassemble to reassemble. After three years of living in two cities (my husband commuting, home on weekends), I’m eager to reunite our family under one roof, to take the kind of advice I’d give to any other mother writer: to stop, breathe, and put the family first, so that out of that bedrock of peace and renewed togetherness can rise the confidence to complete the poetry and blogging projects in my heart also vying for my for time and care.

Here’s to writing and parenting and the spectrum in-between where we all triumph or flounder once in awhile, lost or trying on various hats, in the few hours of writing time alone. I’ve seen many of those selves mirrored in the words and art of Fertile Source contributors and have thus found comfort and solace. Thank you. I’ve so enjoyed this passage with all of you.

Baby Alive

an essay by Dana Verdino

I got my first baby when I was nine years old. I named her Sara. I coddled her and I slept with her until my cousin threw her down the stairs and her head popped off. I was so mortified over my baby and its dangling head; I gave up on being a mother and buried Sara, now Baby Dead, next to our brook in the woods. It wasn’t until I met my husband and got married that I started to think about babies again. Babies that are really alive.

I dream that it comes out with a full head of brown hair and my husband calls everyone to tell them the news. I dream about dirty diapers and their rancid smells, the toys strewn about the house, and us around the kitchen table, a little life in a high chair slurping spaghetti. Then I wake up and go to work as a first grade teacher. I laugh with my children. I read them stories. I hold their hands. I wipe their noses.

Four months after our honeymoon I was pregnant.  I ran around the house waving a stick with two red lines. My husband and I, oblivious to the three-month rule, started talking about baby names and over the next few weeks, purchased miscellaneous baby books and told everyone about the baby-to-be. Big mistake. When we went in for my ultrasound, the doctor discovered “it” had stopped growing. He said it happens and there’s nothing I could have done to prevent it. I cried for myself and for my husband and for a tiny bean in my uterus that wasn’t entirely alive.  I cried for what we wanted “it” to become—a real, live, tangible, viable, growing, knowing baby. I cried for lost plans and lost diapers and lost spaghetti on a high chair.

Over the next two years there would be three more. Three more stories that I’d never finish; three more toilet burials. Four altogether. A total of eight months worth of thinking and planning, of imagining our next Christmas card, of browsing through the racks at maternity stores and Baby Gap. And a total of thirteen months in between, these months full of arguing, crying, seeking therapy, charting temperatures, tracking ovulation, and taking Prozac just to get through another month and another mourning.

The truth is, I was embarrassed. Every baby that was built inside me was defective. Not quite a woman, I was a baby-eating monster. Don’t touch me or you might catch it. It was humiliating. I’d lie down on the table, the nurse would slide a big xray wand into me, and we’d look up at the screen at a splattered mass of cells while the wall behind her boasted a collage of healthy looking fetuses. The nurse would say something like “I knew this woman and yadda yadda and then she was fine and now she has three children.” Then I’d go back to work, walk into my boss’s office with my eyes astray, and ask her for more time off.

Now I’m pregnant again and I can’t think straight, only in a snafu of red. Continue reading ‘Baby Alive’

Excerpts from This Whole Wide World is Just a Narrow Bridge by Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores

A Longer Transition

When I awoke, in a clean quiet room in ICU several hours later, nurses and doctors were coming into the room, asking me questions, making sure I was “out of the woods.”  The doctors told me that they stitched up my uterus “like a pot-roast.”  I asked Danny what had happened.  He smiled tiredly and didn’t tell me immediately.  When he did, I didn’t believe him.  Apparently, when I was delivering the afterbirth, because of the way the placenta was attached, it ripped away a part of the wall of the uterus (placenta ecrita).  I bled profusely.  I lost 80% of my blood supply and received 8 liters of transfusions.  Danny told me how terrified he was.  “They asked if you had advanced directives.”  Despite being quite familiar with such things from my hospice work, I hadn’t realized I would need these things before giving birth.  The line between birth and death is indeed quite thin.  “You were hooked up with all sorts of tubes to a respirator.  I was coaching you to breathe,”  Danny explained.

In my woozy state, it felt like the Akeda story in reverse, the story in Genesis in which Abraham receives a command to sacrifice his son Isaac, but is then spared from committing the awful deed at the last minute by an intervening angel.  I had vowed to do whatever God wanted of me in exchange for a child.  But at the last minute, the angels took pity and spared my life.

The nurse brought Sophie in.  She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I was devastated that she’d had to spend her first hours apart from me, deprived of a proper early attachment period.  She lay in a little glass-walled basinet near my hospital bed.  I loved watching her.  I also, frankly, loved when the nurses took her to the nursery to let me rest.  What would happen when it was time to go home?  Who would take care of her?  Where in the world was her mother?  . . .  Oh, yeah.

I’ve since thought about how wonderful it would be if there were a system similar to and as widespread as hospice, a care team who would come to the home to help care for the newborn as well as giving support to the parents.  True, there are postpartum doulas, whose job it is to support new parents and help with the baby, but they are not widely used (most people have probably not heard of such people —I hadn’t).  And they are not currently reimbursable by insurance.  Surely, this vulnerable postpartum period is similar to the vulnerability prior to a death: a time when all of the emotional resources of the family are challenged.  Research by Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggests that 2/3 of marriages suffer due to the stress that accompanies a new birth.  Divorce rates skyrocket in the first year after a child is born.  What a wonderful beginning it would be for new families to receive homecare after a birth.  How much it might help to prevent postpartum depression, child abuse and domestic violence, as well as lowering divorce rates. Continue reading ‘Excerpts from This Whole Wide World is Just a Narrow Bridge by Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores’

Five Poems by Kate Bolton Bonnici

ROBBERY

The children sleep, closed
faces warm and lush,
round fruits. I leave them
curled in blankets to curl
around my computer
or The New Yorker.

My husband asks me to sit with him
on the sofa. I see too late

he meant to be kind.

His voice held something
warm and timid, an offering
gone now. He licks
his hurt by saying
I’ve abandoned us.

I didn’t mean to bruise the pear.
My thumb pressed
heavy

into milky green flesh.
We flush with misread wants.

I race to catch the only scrap
of self I can still see.
It shudders away, thin
paper napkin tossed
along the freeway. I run,
breathing too fast to tell him

I’m lost.

MORNING, LOS ANGELES

Two now reach for me, want to hold
more than I can give. We stroll into clusters
of flies. Their hard, green bodies pop
against my face. My older daughter shouts,
“Shoo, fly!” I wave a pocket
of purring wings. The baby in my arms
nudges my chest, wanting. A white truck drives
past, radio loud enough to vibrate
my shoulders. I taste it in my throat,
chew on the squall of voices
and potholes. My mother went for a run
and didn’t return. She wrote a letter
from Phoenix of birds rising black
in the desert. Above us, a gold-throated
hummingbird shivers, suspended
like the dime-store Christmas ornament
on my father’s tree, glitter-sweet angel
spinning.

BLOOD LINES

Daughter, we are floating.

Your fingers whisper. Somewhere my mother jerks awake. On the yellow couch. Beside the kitchen counter. She remembers her name. You sleep with one new hand on my chest, asking for my breath. We have only just met, but you curl into me. Your lips flutter and click, nursing through our sleep.

Beneath us, Los Angeles. Lights shudder like the trilling mouths of birds. In the old place, robins swarmed South, draping an orange net over the yard and yanking berries from the hedge. Our front walk graffitied with their purple-berry shit.

I bled when you were born. Your sweet, bulging body pressed through me with all I’d rejected. An emptying. The sound of my groaning brought you caked-white, mouth searching, blue cord heaving between us: I offered up everything. When it was time for me to stand, I couldn’t, and we waited a little longer in the space of your first being.

Morning emerges now, dust fizzing on the plastic, half-closed blinds. You wake with startled arms, a beetle on her back, belly warm. You need to press your cheek to my cheek, mouth open to my neck. Breath smudged with milk.

I lie with you on the crackling chuck pad, aching where your body opened up mine to be born, sacred space stitched pink. I once wove these lines upon my mother. For days after she shuffled close-legged, torn perineum, holding her re-written body like a shaky glass egg that could lope away end-

over-end down the street.

MY FORMER OBJECT OF EVERYTHING

You tore me as you emerged a formed
person, saying masquerades, gorgeous birds
dissolve, we have strings for our antiquities
.

I forget that you are so young, that you were only
just born, in the scheme of things. I can’t stop saying
what you will remember years later to your daughter,
words frothing like yellow-jackets in the black oak,
their flashing bodies hard pebbles, stinging,
stinging into death.

You are three: Don’t hit me.
I could. I almost do. You know this before me.
Between us, the baby you once were nurses,
her mouth noisy and pleased.

You hold one hand on your hip, a painted tambourine
in the other, purple plastic heels rattling too big on your feet.
My name is Linda, smiling a thin-mouthed secret:
I am a mother too.

The baby mumbles. You play the bright tambourine.
See, I’m laughing! Don’t you see?
The tambourine chatters and skates like branches scraping
the tin roof of the barn where I hid, a sound

large enough to blanket the missing earth beneath us,
loud enough to soften
our fall.

I CAN’T REMEMBER SLEEPING ALONE

From the time you slid out with all that blood and feces,
you began to leave me. I began to leave you.

You clutch my necklace, my thumb, my nipple. A strand
of my hair loops around your ear. Outside, a green truck

heaves past. Our walls shiver. I lay you in the little-used
brown bassinet. Your cry leaps out, a coiled and trembling

deer. I wait too long to answer, air clotted like my grandmother’s
gelatin salads, tender boiled bones, my arms lost, sockets

aching, unable to reach for you again. Under the weight
of your sound I am quiet; I don’t tell everything. Dark words

skulk, broken-eyed, waiting. Some days omission
is the best love I can give.

Kate Bolton Bonnici is a writer, mother, and lawyer living with her family in Los Angeles. Kate is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University School of Law. She is originally from rural Alabama.

Hole in the Roof

fiction by Bonnie Peters

On her first birthday, Marah couldn’t sit up, or roll over, or say “mama.” Her head wobbled like one of those dash-board dolls.

“We could suction cup her butt and stick her right over your glove box.  Kinda like that Hawaiian Hula girl Dave used to have in his old Chevy.”  Karol, Anna’s mom, laughed as she kissed Marah’s toes.

Anna had to hold her daughter’s chin while she spoon fed her a piece of the birthday cake, mashed up with the white and pink icing and a little milk.  Marah’s left eye looked at her nose whenever she tried to focus on a face.  Drool and pieces of cake pooled in the left corner of her mouth and returned there within seconds after Anna wiped it away.

 At her twelve month check-up, the pediatrician gently pushed and stretched Marah’s legs into strange frog like positions.

“Marah needs surgery to correct the scissoring.”  Dr. Allen looked at Anna and must have seen her confusion. “The tightness and crossing of Marah’s legs makes it hard to position and clean her properly. After surgery, you’ll be able to take care of her easier.” 

When Anna didn’t say anything, the doctor continued.  “We’ll wait on the surgery, but I’m writing a prescription for physical and occupational therapy that she should start right away.  Lacey, at the front desk, will give you some paperwork to fill out so you can get help with all the services Marah is going to need.”

When Anna still didn’t respond, Dr. Allen put his hand on her shoulder.  “Anna, do you realize that Marah is never going to grow up normal?  Her cerebral palsy and probable mental retardation are going to require a lot of extra support.”

Anna smiled, nodded her head, and after paying the bill and sliding the therapy prescriptions behind the last twenty in her wallet, she put Marah in her car seat and drove back home.  Words kept repeating and echoing in her head—cerebral palsy, mental retardation, surgery, therapy, not normal.

A couple of months ago, Anna had been given a pamphlet explaining the medical term cerebral palsy, but it was confusing.  So, Anna had looked up each word, first cerebral and then palsy in the library dictionary—intellectual tremors, cerebrum shakes?  Marah didn’t shake; she jabbed.  She could push out her arms and legs so hard they could pierce through you if they were swords.  Continue reading ‘Hole in the Roof’

Three Poems by Molly Sutton Kiefer

Commotion

A commotion, my twin ovaries,
disagreement of movement.
In ultrasound, one feigns shy—
longer search, slide of arm-furze
against arm, tucked away, hidden bit.
They are competing now: it’s one awful pang
after another, that Mittleschmertz, unkind gentleman.
Doubled fists insisting, that one, then another,
small fingers along curvature.

I paint the Daruma in: one black eye,
yolked in ink. They say the shucking,
the every day becomes a chore, but I disagree.

Each afternoon or evening,
whenever the sun feels brightest within,
it’s a giggling secret,
our slip and summons, and that half hour after,
following the recipe—
we’re defying gravity together.

Sleeping Pill

There’s the new one whose evening glow
speaks of dim light tucked into curled frescoes,
humped ceilings painted gold and blue, robed figures,
a barrette of sound echoing against the night. Sleep is now
castle-bound, lingering with the princess in the tower,
knight’s heart locked away against draft.
Those lozenges click in my hand, beans to count at lamplight,
perched on a spindly stool: a treasure, a promise,
a beanstalk away from here to where the air
pressure reminds you down to earth. There one goes,
little sleep-bean, firefly lighting the tunnels, breaking apart
to only the glow left, captured in a bottle,
a nightlight to keep you safe.

Records

Little record books scatter in the house,
black pen making indelible,
what was chosen the day before. Whomp
of early morning temperatures,
alarm at seven, cold tip of thermometer,
seconds tick, but I’ve fallen back to sleep anyway,
the beep will wake me again and I’ll chart,
little record book, and wonder:
should it have been another day,
did I not linger enough, should I have accepted
more work, become a cowgirl, waved
my hat in the air, little white flag?

Molly Sutton Kiefer’s chapbook The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake won the 2010 Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Berkeley Poetry Review, Gulf Stream, Cold Mountain Review, Wicked Alice, and Permafrost, among others. She serves as poetry editor to Midway Journal and curates Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts | An Interview Project. She currently lives in Red Wing with her husband and daughter, where she is at work on a manuscript on (in)fertility and finishing her MFA at the University of Minnesota. More can be found at mollysuttonkiefer.com.

Read Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Molly Sutton Kiefer: Poet, Mother, Resource Maven for Mother Writers and Artists.

 

Circling Loss

Creative Non-Fiction by Amber Jensen

Sunday, March 9

I thought the process of bleeding away my second pregnancy was over.  Dressed in dark jeans, wedge heels, and a fitted black v-neck that exposed the freckled skin of my chest, I bounded down the stairs in my mother’s house, surprised at the easy flight of my feet over carpet.  I can do this, I thought to myself.  I can be happy. 

But then, as I hopped down to the final stair, a clot of blood plummeted from somewhere inside me, stopping just before it escaped my body.  This isn’t over yet.  I felt my body reel back against the momentum of acceptance I had been trying to build.  My belly hung heavy, throbbing, and empty. 

With thick red threatening the fresh denim that hugged my hips, I froze at the bottom of the stairs facing a framed collage of photos from my wedding day.  I pleaded with my husband’s dimples, his squinting, cloudy eyes.  When can I leave this behind?

Then from my left I heard a deep, primitive yowl.  I turned to find the tiger eyes of my mom’s large ginger cat peering at me from his lowered head.  His whiskers extended towards me as he tracked the scent of blood. 

 

Thursday, March 6, morning

Having called the doctor, my sister, and Blake, I replaced a heavy, red maxi-pad with a weightless, white one.  I changed from blood-stained grey cotton into fresh, black lycra pants.  Then I waited.  For my sister.  For the doctor.  For Blake.  For the news.  But I already knew.  Nothing so small could survive this. 

I crawled into the living room and lined the seat of the recliner with a tan towel before climbing in.  Then I covered myself with the quilted patchwork of pink and blue calico my grandmother made for my high school graduation.  When I closed my eyes, I pictured Blake, driving home from work after receiving my call: “Can you come home?  Something’s wrong . . . Erin’s taking me to the doctor.”  His response had been simple—“I’ll be there soon.”  He didn’t ask any questions or make me say, Blake, I’m losing the baby.  He just came.  He couldn’t have known what was wrong, still, I imagined his eyes following the painted white border of the interstate over hills, around curves, and beyond the horizon, squinting toward a place in the future where everything will be all right, seeing that place like he always does, even when I don’t believe it exists.

When I felt my two-year old son squirming up under the thin weight of the quilt, I discouraged him, saying “Mommy feels sick.  George, please . . .” Then I gave in, slid my hands around his chest, feeling the ridges of his rib cage as I guided him up unto my lap.  He squeezed out from beneath the blue floral border, nestled his blonde head against my shoulder, and raised his thick-lashed brown eyes to meet mine.  Forcing a giggle, he said, “See mommy, we are happy.”  As I drank in his expression—his dark eyelashes, raised eyebrows, lips pressed into a smile—I knew he was right.  But I couldn’t admit it yet, so I closed my eyes and watched spots of light dance behind my eyelids.  I envisioned the black, plastic bag slouched beside the dresser in my bedroom.  I remembered what was inside: maternity clothes, still dangling price tags.  I told myself, We have GeorgeIt will happen again.  And even if it doesn’t . . . we have him.  I closed my eyes and rested against his small strength. 

 

Thursday, March 6, afternoon

By the time I heard the words—“we can’t detect a heartbeat”—I had already begun to move from mourning to acceptance.  Maybe this is best, I told myself.  Maybe something was wrong with the baby. 

I lay back against a stiff mattress, abdomen exposed, eyes closed.  I imagined George sleeping over Blake’s shoulder in the waiting room outside, his body ironing wrinkles into his dad’s button-up plaid.  I summoned the soft static of Blake’s fingertips circling the surface of my skin to replace the hospital sheets scratching my lower back, the hot weight of George’s sleeping body to protect me from the cold air that poured from a vent overhead.  I tried to imagine away the steel and ceramic, machines and measurement, but the slather of thick gel, the shocking cold of plastic, and the smell of sterilization grounded me there.  Eventually, the even voice of an ultrasound technician, barely audible above the hum and click of technology, commanded my attention.  “The fetus stopped growing at about five weeks.” 

Five weeks.  I inhaled the reality, felt it echo in a hollow space at the base of my throat. 

I heard the crackling static of the black and white monitor to my right and couldn’t help but look.  Its glow reminded me of my first ultrasound and the pixilated image of George’s fingers flexing across the screen, but this time I saw no hope, no miracle there.  Only fuzzy, grey flecks spitting shadows. 

When I closed my eyes to the eerie darkness of the room, my mind traveled backwards.  Five weeks.  Was the baby was still alive those nights in February, when I fell asleep under the weight of my Shakespeare anthology, when I worried that I couldn’t keep up with work, school, and pregnancy?  When I finally started dreaming about a baby girl with my dark eyes and Blake’s wide grin, was I picking out names for a lifeless child? Then as my memory moved forward, I remembered the muscle-wrenching that I shrugged off as morning sickness, the relief I had felt that my breasts weren’t swelling so much this time.  Maybe my body had been preparing me all along. 

Still, I doubted myself, wondering, Was it my fault somehow?  Should I have known something was wrong?  Then a whispered thought: Would it have mattered if I did? 

Ever since I had seen the cotton fibers of a pregnancy test swell, watched a pair of pink lines sweep across a plastic window, I had been telling myself that it was the second baby, that I was under a lot of stress with graduate school, and that it just didn’t feel the same.  Now I began to wonder, had it ever seemed real?  My stomach fluttered.

 

Saturday, March 8

For two days after the miscarriage, I perched in a nest of blankets and pillows, pressing a heating pad into my stomach as my body anchored me in loss.  As long as I had to sit still, muscles twisting around a void inside my abdomen, it was impossible to move on.  While my head moved back and forth to maintain the steady rocking of the recliner, my thoughts rolled between acceptance and guilt.  I fixed my eyes on the tan walls, striped curtains, and shadowed blinds of my living room.  I fixed my mind on facts and statistics.  Seventy percent of women who miscarry go on to have normal, healthy pregnancies.  Now, with early home pregnancy tests, we detect pregnancy so soon—before, women probably didn’t know when they lost early pregnancies.  I returned to the idea that something must have been wrong.  Maybe this was never a viable pregnancy.  Still I asked myself, shouldn’t I feel sadder?  What kind of a woman, what kind of mother, am I?

When Blake talked to his boss, his end of the conversation comforted me:  “No, actually, she’s doing all right, really good, I think . . . but you know, this happens sometimes, and really, we’ll be fine.”  It made me believe he understood, that he wouldn’t blame me for being ready to move on.  But when my own phone rang, I ignored it, trusting that my sister would tell anyone that needed to know, not wanting to convince anyone that I was fine, doing well even, not wanting them to know that my only wish was for the cramping and bleeding to end. 

You should feel sadder.  Mourn longer, I told myself.  It had only been a few days and I already felt myself wanting to move out of my chair and leave this loss behind.  I remembered my friend, Angie[1].  It was the first week of our Intro to Graduate Studies class, when we knew each other only from in-class introductions and a few minutes of casual conversation, when she scooted her chair around the corner of the table that stretched the entire length of the classroom and asked, “So, how old is George?”

“He’s almost two.”

“That’s great,” she smiled.  “Tom and I want to have children, but we lost our first baby.” 

Her voice quivered and she lowered her eyes, but she went on to explain that after the miscarriage and after beginning graduate school, she wasn’t sure when she would be ready to try again.  I felt uneasy about the personal conversation I had just shared with a near stranger, guilty about having shared stories about my son—his love of books, baseball, and trains—with a woman who wanted but had been unable to experience motherhood.

But now our roles had reversed: Angie was five months pregnant, and I couldn’t help but wonder if now, when I returned to work and met Angie in the hall, she would feel ashamed of her pregnancy, the way it might remind me of what I had lost.  I wanted her to know that the promise of her bulging belly wouldn’t bother me, but I knew I couldn’t explain.  I was afraid to discuss it because I feared my eyes and voice would betray my secret—that I didn’t feel like crying, that I really thought it was better this way. 

 

Tuesday, March 11

            It’s Tuesday, and I’m back at work.  On my desk, I discover a bulky manila envelope—sealed, no name written on it.  I pry open the metal fingers, tear back a layer of yellow, paper skin, and tip the envelope over my desk.  Out falls a lavender book.  On the cover, above the fringe of a plaid baby blanket, the title reads:  When Your Baby Dies: Through Miscarriage or Stillbirth.  A green sticky note matching the book’s soft colors carries a message from Angie. “Here is a little book that may or may not be of some use to you.  May God comfort you in your time of grief.” 

I don’t cry.  I don’t smile.  I don’t open the book.  I tuck it back into its envelope, seal it up again, and slide it under a pile of scratch paper and junk mail in my desk.  Closing the cold metal drawer, I pause to think about Angie.  Even now, five months into her second pregnancy, she mourns the loss of her first one.  Only five days have passed since my miscarriage, and I no longer think of the pregnancy I have lost as my second pregnancy.  I have erased it.  This one doesn’t seem to count.  I’ve only had one. 

It must have been different for her, I think.  She didn’t have another child to give her hope, to make her believe it could happen again, to console her in case it didn’t.  I try to imagine the desperation I would have felt if this had been my first pregnancy, but I can’t.  Maybe she needed a book to give her hope, needed to talk about it, needed to remember the baby she never knew, but I don’t.  I have George.  George, whose heartbeat echoed through a Doppler monitor, making my skin tingle months before I ever heard him cry or saw his lips opening in an awkward smile.  I can’t equate the loss of a pregnancy to his life, this emptiness to his presence.  I don’t need a book to tell me the difference.  Without opening the pages of the book or acknowledging Angie’s carefully chosen words, I wrap a fleece scarf around my neck, button out the cold, and race to class feeling convinced that no one understands, that everyone expects me to be broken, that no one believes I can be happy with what I have.

            Not until almost a year has passed, not until I have begun to write about the experience of losing a baby will I open my drawer, notice the corner of the manila envelope hidden beneath a pile of junk, and pull it out.  When I slide the book out and begin to turn its thick, waxy pages, I will find a series of prayers and stories meant to encourage and comfort me.  And I will be glad I waited to open it.

            The book outlines the “painful clichés” people fall back on when trying to comfort women after a miscarriage; these clichés—it’s for the better, there was probably something wrong, you can always have another—are the things that continue to comfort me.  The things I continue to believe. 

The book also suggests that mothers who miscarry “view the remains” whenever possible.  View the remains.  Ask a medical professional to help search for these remains.  If no remains can be found, look at pictures of a fetus at that stage of development.  This will encourage acceptance and aid in the grieving process, the book says.  When I read this, the first thoughts that enter my mind are, I didn’t need to view the remains.  I felt each clot of blood as it escaped my body and imagined in it a small mass of tissue, an undeveloped face, limbs that would never grow.  But eventually, I will become curious and search the Internet—first for information, then for images.  I will find some form of comfort in learning that the baby that passed from my body was the size of a raisin; that its heart may never have begun to beat; that like most early miscarriages, this one probably resulted from chromosomal abnormalities.  And I will allow myself to continue believing in what others may see as painful clichés.  I will not insist that others believe them, but I will hold onto them myself. 

Only then will I reread Angie’s words—“a book that may or may not be of use to you”— and realize: we doubt ourselves enough; we have no need to start doubting each other. 

 

Saturday, July 12

I am leaving the screaming, splashing chaos of the public pool with my red-cheeked son hanging limp in my arms when I see Sasha, a high school friend, emerging from the bathroom.  The olive undertones of her deeply tanned skin and the waves of blonde hair that she flips onto her back remind me of cheerleading and math class.  I begin to smile.  But then her cute paisley sundress stretching over her round belly catches my eye, reminds me that I was pregnant, that I would have been that big by now, too.  I feel a throbbing sensation in my ears. 

As Sasha beams towards me, I shift George from one hip to the other, preparing my escape.  “Look at him!  He’s getting so big,” she begins.  “Yeah, he’s wiped out—the sun and all the swimming,” I explain.  “I better get him home, down for a nap.”  We say goodbye, promise to get together sometime soon, and then I set out across the park toward home, running away from something I thought I had forgotten.  Maybe too easily, hisses a voice inside my head. 

I recognize the pursuit. 

Suddenly, I find myself back at the bottom of the stairs, sense narrowed eyes upon me, see the cat with its weight balanced on thick pads of paws, whiskers tracing the scent of my loss.  For five months I have hated that cat, but this time, as I replay the scene in my mind, I watch his muscles flex as he stands from his predator’s crouch and skulks away.  This time I realize that it is not the cat, but the woman at the bottom of the stairs that terrifies me: the way she hesitates, holds herself back.  It is the woman who pursues me, seething with self doubt. 

Not today, I tell myself, and I slow my steps until I can feel the tickle of grass reaching up over my flip flops.  I concentrate on the sleepy weight of George’s head on my shoulder, his dangling limbs bouncing with each of my strides. 

As I pass the steel structures of a play area, our duplex comes into view across the street.  I notice Blake’s car in the driveway and feel myself eager to get home.  When the gleaming yellow plastic of George’s toy loader and flat bed on the front step catches my eye, I quicken my pace.  I leave the dizzying swirl of voices, the screech of swing set chains behind.  I allow myself space.  A warm breeze rustles the leaves of the cottonwood trees, George’s soft hair flutters on my cheek, and I relax.  I am happy. 

Amber Jensen is a wife, mother, teacher and writer.  She will graduate in May with a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans’ low-residency program.  Her essays, poetry, and reviews have been published in  North Dakota Quarterly, Ellipsis, Assissi, and Terrain.org.

 


[1] The names of people outside my immediate family have been changed to protect their privacy.

April, An Excerpt from A Million Tiny Things by Kenna Lee

a million tiny things by Kenna LeeEditor’s Note: I met Kenna Lee when our children attended the same school for a stint, and “met” her again online, impressed not only with the quality of her writing, but impressed that she was working, midwiving, and mothering three children, all while “blogging to booking.” Having chosen “April” to run (pulled in by this birth chapter’s beautiful blend of the forthright and the lyrical), I realized this excerpt happens to be missing the eco-query that dominates the majority of Lee’s book.

By eco-query I mean the kind of contortions one goes through in one’s mind with children in utero, on hip, underfoot and the future (theirs) suddenly matters, as do the choices we make as consumers: wooden toys? recycled plastic? cars that run on veggie oil? worth the choir of fighting that goes on in a smaller hybrid vs. the notorious mini-van with AC?! Lee tracks these interior monologues and more, by turns relentless and hilarious, in A Million Tiny Things. I still, however, stand behind this lovely chapter as well. Enjoy.–Tania Pryputniewicz

 

Year One, April                                                                     By Kenna Lee

Bright Eye’s roses are blooming, bringing the first year of her life full circle. No, they’re not on the rose bush we planted over her homebirthed placenta, California hippie-style, because said placenta is tucked half-forgotten at the back of the freezer still, languishing in typical third-child neglect. We’ll plant it someday, when we remember, when we muster up some of those elusive items that such tasks require, namely time and energy.

No, Bright Eye’s roses have come to be called that because they were blooming when I was in labor a year ago. These baseball-sized white popcorn roses are improbably right outside my bedroom window; improbable because our house is built onto a hillside, and so my bedroom looks out into the treetops on the downslope. This particular rosebush, in order to survive, has reached up through the canopy of trees to claim its ration of sunlight. In most locations, a sky-high rosebush would be wasted, its blossoms inaccessible to human enjoyment, and from the ground below one would never suspect the exultant profusion of blooms lurking above the tree limbs. But here is my window, from which I can almost reach out to pick them, and from here, one year ago, I pondered them for many hours as my contractions became less and less manageable.

I was reluctant to leave the bedroom when I was in labor, as it’s the room farthest from the neighbor’s house, the same neighbors that called the cops, suspecting some domestic disturbance, during my last, nightmarish labor, during which my repetitive, Psycho-worthy screams let everyone know that I was definitively not a strong, silent, capable baby-haver. This time, knowing that I lacked the self-discipline to endure the agonies of childbirth quietly, I hid out in the bedroom, encouraging The Pragmatist to distract the boys elsewhere. I paced the short feet of floorspace left between the king-sized family bed, now protected by a plastic sheet tucked beneath our least-cherished bedding, and the padded turquoise birthing tub set up hastily that morning after I woke with surreal surety, announcing, “We’re having a baby today, boys.” Within this cramped space, I paced, and stopped, and moaned, and stared at the roses.

As skeptical as I’ve always been of the idea that having a focal point would make the intense pain of contractions more manageable, it worked. Probably because I didn’t plan it and wasn’t trying to focus on something, I was just, well, staring at the roses. And of course, it only worked until I reached that “I can’t do this anymore” stage which was the secret code by which The Pragmatist knew to call the midwife, even though I had expressly forbidden midwife-calling until I was really quite farther along, having gotten very tired of having a midwife around during that first, 49-hour, self-esteem destroying labor.

But by the time the midwife showed up, I had mostly forgotten about those instructions, and about the roses as well, and was just trying to imagine how anyone anywhere is able to endure torture without immediately divulging any and all pertinent information. I knew then that I would never, ever be able to become a spy, because I would have told anything to anyone if it would have made the pain stop. I became unbearably self-pitying and bossy, to which The Pragmatist responded by announcing that if I ever had another baby, she would divorce me unless I got an epidural.

I bellowed and shrieked, and the boys, playing with our friend Rachel in the kitchen, dug out the industrial workman’s ear protectors I had bought them to prevent them from incurring early-onset hearing loss from The Percussionist’s drum set, and came dancing through the bedroom to show them off. “We’re going to Rachel’s house to sleep, mom,” they giggled in my panting breaks between the contractions, “because we are tired and you… you are TOO LOUD.”

“And it would just be too uncomfortable to wear these earphone things to bed,” The Percussionist explained.

Before they even completed the five-minute drive to Rachel’s house, we’d called them to turn around if they wanted to see the baby come out, as the baby was on the way any second. They got back just in time for Mowgli to state his preference to sleep and immediately do so, and for The Percussionist to see everyone gathered around the birthtub, watching me squatting in such a way as to prevent anyone from seeing or knowing that the head was coming out, except by the fact that I was clutching between my legs and ordering the midwife to “HELP ME BREATHE NOW.”

Once the velvet head slid out under my palm, and it was a sliding motion, though that particular verb fails to convey even a slight sense of how incredibly torturous the moment was, I sat back on my haunches and announced, “The head’s out,” somehow expecting someone to do something about it, you know, like deliver the rest of the baby. But I believe I had cowed them all into such submission that they all froze, waiting for their next order, so I shrugged with intense frustration, and thinking, “for god’s sake, MUST I do everything myself?” I pulled my daughter out of me and up into my arms.

So tiny (at 8 lb, 6 oz the smallest of the three), she nestled there, wet-warm and cheesy, head out of the water, while I suddenly shed the shattering terror of laboring and embraced the more tender terror of motherhood again. The pain behind me, I could stop fighting, lay down my arms, and surrender to the awe of her first breath of air. Not the most articulate person during times of great stress, I kept breathlessly repeating, “I’m so happy. I’m so happy,” over and over, as if I needed convincing of it.

The Pragmatist and our midwife supported me as I stood to move onto the bed for the delivery of the placenta, and I paused, towel-wrapped babe in arms, noticing with intense gratitude the treetop cascade of roses hovering just beyond the window. Even now they remind me that behind pain can lurk unfathomable beauty, just as behind the burning and fear of birthing my daughter, a great healing lay within the experience of bringing her into the world with my own hands. Something that had broken in me during my first too-long, too-scary birth was put back together by that sensation of feeling her muzzle-soft crown swell into my palm, the impossibly smooth skin bloom into her face. For days, weeks after she was born, I repeated the motion, sliding my palm over her soft hair, down her temple, and in doing so I was telling myself without even realizing it at the time: that which is broken can be healed.

It is a message she does well to bring with her, accompanied as she is by my load of eco-anxieties. Her roses are blooming again, and for her first birthday, I’ve managed to pull a few down from up high to cut for our kitchen table. On her actual birthday, as if aware that I won’t be able to remember the milestone without this coincidence, Bright Eyes takes her first reeling steps toward me, my only-yesterday newborn girl, walking. I greet this new child, this toddler, with the same words I used when I first looked into her face one year ago: “Hello, Bright Eyes. I’m so happy.” Happy, and scared shitless, but still walking forward, step by careful, brave step.

Full-time nurse, part-time environmentalist, and all-the-time mother, Kenna Lee lives in Sebastopol, California, with her three semi-feral children and several domesticated animals. Her book, A Million Tiny Things: a mother’s urgent search for hope in a changing climate (Mole’s Hill Press, 2012) is available now through your local independent bookseller; for more information, visit her website.

Read our interview with Kenna Lee: Balancing Eco-Feminism, Motherhood, Anxiety and Writerdom.

 




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