Archive for the 'parenting' Category

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.

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.

On Healing, God, Creativity, and Parenting a Child with Disabilities: An interview with Bonnie Peters

We published Bonnie Peters’s short story, “A Hole in the Roof,” several weeks ago. Here, she speaks with us about writing and raising a daughter with disabilities.

Bonnie PetersWhat was your inspiration for your short story “A Hole in the Roof”?

Years ago, I taught a Sunday school class my daughter Sara attended.  Mark 2:1-12 was to be the story for the week and as I read and reread the scripture to prepare, the words bothered me.  I knew the story held an important truth, but I was afraid the students and most importantly Sara would only see the literal message – that Sara or her family had sinned and the punishment resulted in Sara’s physical disabilities.

 I solved my problem the coward’s way by skimming over Jesus’ words to the paralytic and emphasizing the message of how far we might go to help our friends.   The story tells about faithful friends lifting up a full grown man to the roof of a house, and then tearing a hole through this roof to lower him to a place of healing next to Jesus.  The tale inspired me.  The words sin and forgiveness frightened me.

Not long after the Sunday school incident, Sara and I were shopping.  As I pushed my daughter’s wheelchair between racks of clothes in a department store, an employee walked up to us.  Without even a greeting first, the man offered what he must have felt was life changing advice.  “If you had more faith, she could walk.”  He no doubt meant well, but my anger at the man’s insensitivity kept me awake for many nights.

I held these two events inside until I worked them out in a story.  As always, the characters took off in their own direction.  I never resolved any major spiritual questions, but the scripture is no longer scratching at my heart.

 

I love the way you link a mother’s desperation for her daughter to be well, whole, healed with the biblical story of the friends who lowered a crippled man through the roof so that Jesus could heal them. The ending of your story has so much pathos, with your main character Anna realizing that she, too, would do whatever it took—anything—if she just knew where to look to find healing for her daughter. Can you talk a little bit about your artistic impulse in leaving this aspect of the story open to so many different possible interpretations?

 When we first adopted Sara, I had the arrogance to question how any mother could give up their child.  Because I couldn’t understand it, I wrote about it, trying to experience life from the eyes of a mother in a different place than the one I have enjoyed.  I wanted to know her emotions, her questions.  That is why I read stories.  That is why I write stories—not to tell my story, but to feel their story.  I didn’t want to tell the reader what decision Anna made; I wanted the reader to feel the pain of having to make such a choice and ask herself what decision she might have made under similar circumstances. 

 I grew up in a Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Cosby Show type family.  It is easy for me to love God as my Father because I have a fabulous human father that I honor.  It was easy for me to adopt and care for a child with severe disabilities because I grew up with a mother that nurtured and loved me.  As an adult, I also had support all around me, the support necessary to cope with the not so normal aspects of parenting a child with disabilities.  My husband and I had everything we needed to walk, climb, and lift another person to some level of healing and comfort, and that is what Jesus expects us to do.

 

As a teacher of teenagers with disabilities, and as a mother to a child with similar disabilities as Marah’s, can you talk about the unique challenges  a single mother of a child with cerebral palsy and possible mental retardation faces? Are there resources out there to help her?

As a teacher of children with mental and physical disabilities, I knew how difficult parenting a child with many needs would be.   And I was quite certain that I would never be up to such a task. 

My husband and I gave birth to an adorable little boy and when he was five, decided to adopt a little girl from Korea.  God had other plans and led us to Sara.  In spite of my reservations, it was love at first sight.

Sara became our daughter when she was three years old and lived with us until she was twenty-four. She has spastic cerebral palsy that involves all four limbs and is also mildly mentally challenged.   At first, Sara only had a vocabulary of ten words.  But competition with her new brother caused rapid growth in her expressive language abilities.  She learned to speak so she could tell her brother what to do or not to do and then tell on him when he wouldn’t comply with her wishes.  As with all children, you laugh, you cry, you are amazed, you are sometimes even horrified by the things they do and say.  I think these moments are intensified with children who have disabling conditions.  Sara has inspired me, energized me, frustrated me, and exhausted me. 

With her big hazel eyes, thick brown hair, and a beautiful smile, Sara could and still can charm the most hardened personality.  When tickled by something, she laughs from her belly.  When Sara is angry, she can scream with a pitch just shy of breaking glass.  She is a master manipulator, very observant of details, and has bionic hearing when it comes to things you don’t want her to hear.  She loves to know what is going on in everyone’s lives and then tell everyone else.  I learned to not skinny dip in my backyard pool ever again if I don’t want Sara’s entire elementary school to hear about it.

 I didn’t find the challenges of parenting a special needs child too daunting early on.  For one thing, I knew our daughter had cerebral palsy before she was our child, so there weren’t any expectations shattered.  I also didn’t carry the guilt many mothers mistakenly feel after giving birth to a child with disabilities.  Because Sara was a special needs adoption, financial support had been set up for us even before the adoption took place.  If Sara had been born to me, I would have had to seek out and maybe even fight for the financial help.

I don’t want to sound like it was an easy twenty- one years while Sara lived with us.  It wasn’t.  The stress of constant care-giving built over time.  Sara was tiny for her age, yet the necessary tasks of diapering, dressing, bathing, and lifting her from one position to another quickly became exhausting even with the help of her father.  At ages three, four, five, even six – it wasn’t much of an issue.  By the time Sara was a teenager, I was building up some muscles and tired of wiping her butt.

When I worked, I had a part-time helper assist me in the afternoons.  Still, I had to take time off to drive Sara to appointments at orthopedic clinics, neurology clinics, and wheelchair clinics. Sara had physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.  So far she has needed six major surgeries with week -long hospital stays and two or three outpatient surgeries.  The home care after the surgeries was often brutal.  I found myself sobbing uncontrollably after spending too many nights of getting up every two hours to change her position and/or to clean diarrhea out of the half-body cast the doctors had bound her in. 

 Sara became the major focus of our lives.  She had to be.  We made time for our son, but probably not as much time as we would have had his sister been more physically able to do things.  Family vacations had to be limited to ones that didn’t include hiking, biking, kayaking, or going anyplace lacking in wheelchair accessibility.  Otherwise, one of us needed to be left behind, making the vacation a little less family oriented. 

Wherever we went, Sara was given plenty of positive attention.  A cute little girl in a pink wheelchair is not a threat or scary to even young children.  People were very accepting, accommodating, and helpful the majority of places we went.  They often went out of their way to speak to her, tell her how cute she looked.  

I still remember the time we attended a county fair.  Alden wanted to win one of the huge stuffed animals and tried many times at various booths—penny toss, shooting range, balloon busting, etc.—but only managed to win a tiny plastic toy.  My husband and I gave him the “you can’t win them all”, “the fun is in the playing, not the winning” talk and he was buying it until one of the carnies took pity on Sara.  She had also been playing the games with a lot of help from her dad, but still hadn’t come close to winning even the smallest of prizes.  The man at the penny tossing booth gave Sara one of the coveted bears, a brown teddy as big as she was.   Alden smiled, but I could see how invisible he felt. 

Life is much easier now.  Sara moved to a group home four years ago at the age of 24.  Her home is next to the school where I teach and we see each other a couple of times a week.  She manages to text or call me a couple of times a day, and attends all family and holiday gatherings.  

We—myself, Sara’s father, step father, brother, step siblings, and the extended family- are all so thankful to have Sara woven tightly within our lives. The difficulties have only made the fabric of our existence richer, rarer, and more luxurious.  But I am well aware of how much easier our journey with Sara has been because of the support system we have been graced with. 

 Do I understand how Sara’s mom could make the decision to give her up?  Yes, I believe I do.   My heart breaks for all the Annas out there living in circumstances that require them to even consider giving up their child.  I applaud their bravery and their sacrifice for making a selfless choice, either direction they take.

Did you worry about how Alden might have responded to your choice to adopt a child with disabilities, given how that rearranged the focus of your family?

I worried about Alden feeling slighted until he showed me a paper he had written his senior year in high school.  Alden was asked to write about the most important year of his life.  He wrote about the year we adopted Sara, 1987.

In his paper, Alden told about some of the frustrating times.  “If I felt like jumping right into something and Sara was with me, I couldn’t because of her needs.”   He mentioned the disappointing times.  “They (friends and their siblings) could play on the swings or go swimming in the pool and play basketball outside, but I wasn’t able to enjoy those things with my sister.”  But he concluded on a positive note.   “Even though there have been tough times, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Sara has made me a better person, and I thank her for the things she has taught me. ”

Do you have any regrets about how your family responded to the challenges of raising a child with disabilities and a child with no disabilities?

Giving birth to my son and adopting Sara are two of my greatest blessings.   I didn’t and don’t always appreciate those blessings.   When Alden became a teen, I had regrets about giving birth to such a mean, disrespectful, ungrateful human being.   I questioned the sanity of anyone who even thought about having a child.  Why give birth to someone who hates you?  Sara to this day can become so frustrated and angry that she takes it out on anyone close enough to scratch or be deafened by her piercing screams.  Those are times I daydream about life without a disabled child.   But my moments of regret are fleeting.  I thank God for both of them, 99% of the time. 

What stories are you working on now?

Two months ago, my husband (Sara’s step father) and I were given the opportunity to share our home with a young man who didn’t have one.  It has already been an emotional ride, full of ups and downs and swift turns.  John and I are old enough for AARP cards and having a teenager living with us brings back feelings and fears we had long forgotten.

Our new charge has seen plenty of difficulties in his seventeen years, and his life story has motivated me to write.  I don’t know where his character will lead me.  I’m not sure if we will stick close to the truth or if a new story will appear in the writing.

I am also revising and updating a couple of young adult books I wrote years ago. 

The Empty Cradle

Photo by Kathy Leonard

The Empty Cradle

Kathy  Leonard says, “When I photograph, I do not consciously search out particular types of images, but I find that there is a surprising similarity in many of my photographs.  There is dark and light, great contrast, or “chiaroscuro” as the Italians call it.  I find this juxtaposition of light and shadow very appealing in black and white photography, especially when it serves to highlight the angles or curves of some object. These are the elements that drew me to photograph the wooden cradle. The natural light from the window cast dramatic shadows on the hand-carved cradle and I knew that the resulting image would be stark, simple, and beautiful.”

Kathy Leonard is a professor at Iowa State University.  She studied photography at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received a degree in Fine Arts with specialty in photography. Her photographs have been published in numerous magazines, websites, online journals, and in textbooks and have been exhibited in various venues in California, Nevada, and Iowa.

Brittney Corrigan: Three Poems

Guilt Poem: Unplanned

You didn’t want another child.
How you wept, how you weighed,
in those first undertow hours,
what you never before imagined.
You looked up the addresses
of clinics, your hand wavering
between belly and phone.
How such a faint, unformed thing
could ambush you so. Utterly
ensnare you. Knock you
sputtering into the deep.

You were already sinking.
Your boy—your difficult, discordant
child—took all you could gather
of yourself just to make it
from one end of the day to the other.
Where was there room in these riddled,
sapped hours for anything, anyone
else? Where was there room
in your heart, already compressing
with the weight of the descent? And, too,
the fear that blackened you when it rose,
would crush you if you spoke it:
what if this child was fractious as the first?

Everything you’d done up to now
was mustered from love.
You learned to assemble when
he crumbled. Shifted your orbit
to accommodate each essential,
rigid routine. You re-centered
your world to plunge into his.
Accepted the peculiar, unruly shimmer
of his being even as you wished
darkly for an easier child.

So you could not summon wonderment
or joy, feared this new child, insistent
and blazing, would sense how you felt
in the long, anxious months.
And what should you do with this
even more terrible thought that a second,
less arduous child might tamp
your love for the first? You could feel
yourself fragmenting, space debris
left circling in the black.

But with each tide your dark thoughts
were coaxed back to the depths.
As she grew and fluttered and spun,
so you grew to yearn for her coming,
urgent want flooding your bones.
It flattens you to think about now,
how she might not have been. She emerged
smiling, open-eyed and bright and necessary.

It is as if some otherworldly visitor,
sent with a message, decided to stay.
Something luminescent about her,
a glowing specimen feathering the deep.
How everything alters: your axis,
the revolving, the dizzy spin. How you
understand now the need for constellations,
the pull to make connections between stars.
They will keep each other, these satellites,
this sibilant galaxy of two.

Now the universe has two centers.
Or something like the balance of water
and air. Your world is no less difficult
for the changing. Still you dip and tread,
splay ragged at the leaving of the day.
But now you are a two-mooned
planet, spinning as they chase you
through expanding sky. Sometimes
they are too brilliant to look upon.
Sometimes they are reflected in your eyes.

16 Weeks

Waiting for the quickening, those little
knocks and bumps, a new rendering

of Morse code, our own body
language. You’re learning to control

those opalescent limbs. Little
dragonfly, my hummingbird, you hover

at my center, looking for the place
to wingbeat your first hello.

38 weeks

You are gaining an ounce a day
now, little person, growing creases

in your skin like fine folds
of cloth. My belly tightens around

you in preparation for your birth,
making me stand still, hold my hands

over your upturned limbs. Even now,
when I can’t wait to meet you, my whole

body holds you in, holds you tightly,
is reluctant to let you go.

Brittney Corrigan’s poems have appeared in The Texas Observer, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Borderlands, The Blue Mesa Review, Oregon Review, Manzanita Quarterly, Hip Mama, Stringtown, and Many Mountains Moving, among others. She is the poetry editor for the online literary journal Hyperlexia and lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. To read more of Brittney’s work, visit her website; links to her poetry on-line may be accessed here.

Read our Interview with Poet Brittney Corrigan: Second Hearts, Autism, and Mother Writer Retreats.

The Power of Domestic Realism, Male Protaginists, and The Dual Degree: Mills and Motherhood with Writer Ethel Rohan

author headshot Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan

As a female reader, I find your short stories intimately rewarding because of a dual ferocity of vulnerability and strength that comes across in many of your main characters. Discussing your short story, “Gone” (published here  on The Fertile Source) in a recent Lit Pub dialogue (view full conversation here), you write, “I’ve never had cancer or a mastectomy or hysterectomy — so why would I tell this story? Once I realized I was telling this story because I “knew” the body butchered of its sexuality, I became convinced this was a story personally worth telling.” Can you talk more about your writing process—specifically, taking on the storyline of something you haven’t directly experienced, but certainly had enough parallel experience to ignite your writer’s will to formulate the finished story (as was the case with “Gone”)?

What a great question, thank you. I’m so glad you see both the vulnerability and strength of my main characters. My stories want to be about women who struggle and suffer. It’s an honor and privilege to give such women a voice and center-stage. Victims and survivors deserve to have their stories told. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive sense that stories around women’s struggles and suffering are done to death and are irrelevant. I couldn’t disagree more. The challenge is to tell women’s stories in new and compelling ways so that readers cannot look away. The impulse to look away from suffering and the disturbing in life and in literature frustrates me. If we keep looking away, how can we ever hope to alleviate suffering, end abuse, persecution, and inequalities, and bring about positive change.

 Frankly, I try not to over-think my process. My stories are always character-driven and can be ignited by even the tiniest of phrases or observations. I’ll overhear a conversation on the bus or see something on the street and for reasons both known and unknown the words or image stay and give birth to another story. I don’t plot or plan my stories, ever, and I’m always so surprised and grateful to arrive at the finished work—something out of nothing, if you will.

 I no longer concern myself with worries regarding what stories I can or can’t tell. If I find a character and his or her story compelling I trust that sense of purpose and meaning and write down the words. Many of my stories, my earlier stories in particular, have male protagonists. This is also true of the novel manuscript I just finished. I think such writing impulses are for me an attempt, above all else, to better understand the opposite gender. As strange as it might sound, I also think my fascination with male protagonists ties into my devotion to women’s issues. I read and write fiction to know myself and others ever better and in that greater understanding of, and empathy for, what it is to be woman, man, and humankind lies the potential to end suffering.

 Along equally ferocious and illuminating leylines, your work dials deep into the heart of male/female relationships. Where do you see your writer’s obsessions/interests in this area, and which of the stories you’ve written surprised you the most (for where they arrived)? Any areas of that relationship (male/female) you see drawing your interest in the future?

 My parents’ marriage is the male/female relationship that has had the most profound affect on me, that and a five-year relationship with an abusive boyfriend. Thus far, my writing obsessions around male/female relationships center on bad marriages and domestic realism. My attempts at telling stories around abusive relationships have thus far been unsuccessful. I don’t seem to have the perspective yet to tell these stories well, but I will someday. Again, every story surprises me for where it arrives. I’m constantly amazed by the stories that come out of me and ever eager to know what other stories I have inside me waiting to get out.

Can you talk to us about The Good Men Project , how you became involved with them, and how you see your work in the context of their mission ?

 Matt Salesses is the fiction editor of The Good Men Project Magazine. Matt and I have a couple of things in common: We’re both winners of PANK’s 2010 Little Books contest and both have the same literary agent, Terra Chalberg. Matt was kind enough to blurb my PANK Little Book, Hard to Say, and thereafter invited me to submit a story for The Good Men Project. Matt rejected the first story I submitted saying, “I miss the rawness of the stories in Hard to Say.” The second story I submitted, Matt cut much of the writing and murdered many of my ‘darlings.’ The story is better for his editing though and I’m deeply grateful. As a writer, I’m a forever student.

 I’ve read and enjoyed many of the articles and stories in The Good Men Project Magazine since its inception and love the writers and work it publishes. I’m honored to contribute to the magazine and look forward to my story, “Out of the Wreckage,” which is now live on the site: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/out-of-the-wreckage/.

 This excerpt is taken direct from The Good Men Project site and gives a good sense of who and what they are:

 “Recognizing changing roles in work and family life—and the absence of thoughtful media aimed at men—the Good Men Project Magazine set out to revolutionize what a men’s magazine can be. When we launched in June 2010 the response was immediate: “The Good Men Project Magazine will make you rethink the idea of a men’s magazine,” the press raved. Finally, “a cerebral, new media alternative” to glossy men’s magazines was born, offering a glimpse of “what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century.”

 The Good Men Project began in 2009 as an anthology and documentary film featuring men’s stories about the defining moments in their lives. The goal was to foster a much-needed cultural conversation about manhood, and to support organizations that help at-risk boys. The Good Men Project has since grown into a thriving cross-platform media company, with the Good Men Project Magazine as its flagship and online hub.”

 You can read more about The Good Men Project here.

 Because we love to explore the topics of fertility, birth and pregnancy here at The Fertile Source, I wondered if you could talk to us about your relationship to writing before motherhood, as affected by pregnancy, and how your writing changes or has changed in the aftermath ensuing motherhood?

 I had just resigned from my job as personal assistant to a billionaire partner in a mergers and acquisitions firm and entered Mills College to at last gain a degree in English and Creative Writing when I discovered I was pregnant on our first daughter. After a moment’s pang of ‘oophs,’ my husband and I rejoiced in the news. My pregnancy wasn’t an obstacle to my writing and BA, but the realization of two dreams at once. It was also a time of two terrible and similar fears: What if I would fail as a writer? What if I would fail as a mother?     

 Pregnancy and giving birth to my daughter made me very aware of mortality and the passage of time. I realized I needed to stop procrastinating and just ‘do.’ It was difficult, almost impossible, to juggle motherhood, my studies and writing stories, but I never felt so motivated and rewarded. I had birthed a daughter and finally knew beyond all doubts and misgivings that I wanted to dedicate my life to her and to birthing stories.

 The beauty now of having two daughters and knowing that my family stops here is a deepening of my commitment to women’s issues both in my life and in my work. I’m a better person and a better writer because of my daughters. Because of them, I’ve come to know a depth and intensity of love I’d never experienced before. My daughters fill me with gladness and joy.   

 Any words of advice to other mother writers?

 My writing life only became routine and truly manageable when my youngest daughter started kindergarten. Since then, I dedicate at least six solid hours of my day to writing and the writing life and I’ve a lot of work both published and unpublished to show for that time. There are days I become overwhelmed and I admit I lose sight of what’s important and real. My daughters are all too familiar with the term “deadlines.” However, they also know they are my number one priority always and that the writing is secondary. The years pass quickly. Our daughters are already twelve and nine. I would say to other mother writers to simply do your best at both. Show up every day as a mother and a writer, but prioritize. At the end of my days, in a decision between holding my favorite books and holding my children, I know what I’d choose.  

 How does the mother/daughter dynamic figure into your work (forwards and backwards in time, with one’s own mother, and one’s daughters extending before one)? Are there further psychological aspects of that relationship you wish to explore as a writer?

 The thrust of my work centers on loss and absences and harks back to my mother. When I was a girl, I lost my mother to mental illness and she never fully recovered. My mother both fuels and haunts my imagination and much of my grief and sense of abandonment around her comes out in my stories. For a long time, I resisted mother/daughter stories, largely because they were painful, seemed repetitive and I didn’t have enough perspective to tell them well. Now I trust my voice and writing urges more and tell the stories that compel me and that I believe I can write well, regardless of content. If I’m condemned to tell mother/daughter stories for the rest of my days so be it, as long as they are stories that readers find worthwhile and meaningful.

 And for fun, can you talk to us about your cultural heritage—when you came to the states, how your writing life has been affected/blessed/challenged by your international lifestyle?

 I have lived in San Francisco for almost two decades and love my life here. America gave me a new beginning and a second chance at life and I’m deeply grateful. That said, I remain Irish at my core and love my homeland. My husband is also Irish and we return to Ireland every summer to visit family and friends. Our daughters love Ireland and beg us to move back there to live. It’s difficult for them to understand how different it is to visit a country versus live there. I’m sometimes sad for our daughters because they have no family here, none whatsoever. But we have terrific friends and a great neighborhood and community. I’m glad to have been born and raised in Ireland and glad to have moved to San Francisco where I can reap and enjoy the best of both cultures.

 Finally, any works in process—ie., your novel, etc., you’d like to tantalize us with a bit?

 I’m about to send my novel manuscript to my agent, Terra Chalberg. The novel is tentatively titled KISSES WITH TEETH and is set in Ireland in 1980 and centers on the Flynn family and in particular Gavin Flynn, a middle-aged, working-class Dublin City bus driver and his various demons.

Cut Through The Bone book cover by Ethel Rohan

by Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in The Good Men Project, The Chattahoochee Review, Los Angeles Review, Potomac Review and Southeast Review Online among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan is now a resident of San Francisco, California. Visit her at ethelrohan.com  to read her most recent work.

Mothers torn: A Book Review

A book review by Jessica Powers

 Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & The Conflict of Modern Motherhood

Edited by Samantha Parent Walravens

Coffeetown Press, 2011, $18.95, 270 pp.

I had a baby boy, my first, seven and a half months ago. For years before he was born, I intentionally put myself on what might be called the “artist track” in regards to my career. As a writer, I felt like it was more important for me to aggressively pursue my writing than to pursue a job with promotions, advancements, salary raises, and titles. As a result, of course, I’ve never earned what I “deserve” to earn. Writers earn jack, let’s put it that way, for at least a very long time and, possibly, forever. We live for publication. This devil’s bargain has its problems: publication is never a sure bet, and just because a book gets published is no guarantee that it’ll sell well.

 Meanwhile, my friends have started professional careers or gone on to full-time motherhood. The fact that I was in a netherworld of “neither here nor there”—a professional without the salary or title to accompany it—has never bothered me; in fact, I felt rather fortunate that long before I had children, I had negotiated extremely flexible work that I could do entirely from home without ever going into the office. I teach online college writing classes as an adjunct professor, do part-time editorial and publicity work for an independent publishing company, run a small literary press of my own, and write books and articles. Yes, I’m a workaholic.  But juggling these many roles has helped pay the bills and made me feel like I was always keeping my career options open even while I jumpstarted my writing career and then tried to keep the engine going. “If something goes wrong and we need the money,” I always told myself, “I could start applying for tenure-track positions or editorial positions.”

When my husband and I decided it was time to start a family, I happily told everyone that I had the perfect setup. “I’ll still work,” I said (subtext: we need my salary), “but I won’t have to put my baby in daycare” (subtext: we can’t afford it anyway). My dean was happy to still give me classes, my writing career was on track (I signed my second book contract when I was only three months pregnant), and I had more than enough work, even if it didn’t pay very well, from clients happy to have me work at home. Everybody agreed I was lucky and nobody told me just how hard it would be, because nobody I knew had ever done what I am trying to do. The working women I know have all needed to put their children in daycare; the stay-at-home moms I know aren’t trying to earn a living. 

I am going to be honest and blunt here and say that it is definitely possible to do what I’m doing (I’m doing it, after all) but it is very hard, I am very tired, and I am assailed with guilt on all sides that I am not doing the very best job I can do in any of my roles: writer, editor, teacher, mother, and wife.

 In short, I feel torn. 

I can’t tell you how grateful I was to pick up Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. I devoured the essays in this collection hungrily, seeking comfort from other women who all seem to feel remarkably just as I do, whether they are full-time mommies, juggling a career (part or full time) and motherhood, or (much more rarely) trying to work from home while being a full-time mother as well. I needed to know I wasn’t alone in the guilt. I needed to know that women who choose full-time motherhood or full-time careers struggle just as much as I do, that it is never an “either/or and now we’re done with it” decision. I needed to know that other women had experienced what I have: what felt like a flexible and perfect way to pay the bills while pursuing my writing career when I was childless now feels suspiciously like I’m being mommy tracked. Those career opportunities I knew were always going to be there may not be there in five or ten years if I keep doing what I’m doing. (Though, as always the dreamer, I just assume my writing career by then will be bringing in the big bucks and I won’t need those other careers that aren’t there anyway.)

But, now that I’m home with my child, I can’t imagine putting him in daycare. Recently, for example, I turned down a job interview for a full-time tenure track position as a professor of history. I told my husband I turned it down because I did the math. Once we paid for childcare, a new car, and a professional wardrobe, I’d be making less than what I currently make at home while being a full-time mother. So why be stressed with getting a child to daycare on time to get to work on time and what about when he’s sick and who takes the hit to their career to deal with sick child etc etc etc and so on and so forth? All that is true and if it hadn’t been true, I might have felt enough internal pressure to go to the interview and then, if I’d gotten the job, to take it. But the real reason I turned down the opportunity is because I looked at my little guy and realized I couldn’t do it to him. I couldn’t put him in a daycare where, as contributor Alexandra Bradner writes, the caregiver to child ratio is 1 to 6 and children “roam blankly about these toxic-foam-matted rooms, swatting at each other, consuming ‘health’ bars and juices built out of refined sugars and modified starches, looking at garish plastic toys without knowing how to play with them, and waiting for their heavy diapers to be changed. Their energy is unchanneled, their vocabularies underdeveloped, and their cognitive potential untapped. Instead of being frustrated with all the ways in which so many new constraints are chipping away at their identities, they’re prevented from forming any true identity but that of the generic company kid. And we stand back, mystified that verbal skills and creativity are on the decline while obesity and school violence are on the rise” (114).

 This is not to say I judge women who do put their children in daycare. I know that a parent’s love is the most important thing and there are some great daycares out there. I have several nieces and a nephew who have adjusted just fine and are receiving excellent care. So I could nod my head in agreement with the contributor who defensively said daycare clearly hadn’t hurt her son, he’d gone on to Princeton University after all.  And I felt sympathetic pains, along with an empathetic panic, with the contributor who now regrets her choice to stay at home with her children. Divorced now and barely employable due to her many years at home, she is kept awake at night wondering how she is going to survive financially and whether “retirement” is a word she will ever be able to contemplate. And yet, I was relieved by the contributor who quoted Gloria Steinem as saying that success is not doing it all, that in fact “this idea of doing it all is actually the ‘enemy of equality, not the path to it’” (82). I can’t do it all. But I’m still trying!

 What is a woman to do? There is no one answer to that question.

What I love most about this collection is that the editor does not try to reconcile the disparate and often conflicting emotions that the contributors express or decisions they make and, subsequently, defend. By making this editorial choice, Walravens seems to suggest that it doesn’t matter what a woman does—doubts will follow her no matter what. Although the quality of the essays was uneven, the collection contained many gems and insights. And most importantly, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Reading these essays made me feel like I was connecting with women everywhere, rejoicing in success, sadly contemplating failure, and sympathetically encountering and recounting the frustrations and joys of motherhood in the modern world. Highly recommended reading for all mothers.

Requiem

 An essay by Cameron Witbeck

Every month, I pray for blood.

            Every month I pray to God that my girlfriend is not pregnant. And every month she bleeds.

            I pray because I am afraid. I am afraid because I do not know. I can’t see the future.

            When I was a kid, I wished that I could smell rain in the air like the Indians in old Westerns. I imagined that the rain smelled like wind flowing over fallen trees, like rust and dirt.

            I still wish I could do that, smell the rain in the air before it falls, before grey clouds cover the sun. I still wish I could always know before. I wish I could know how many days that I have left before I die. I want to know the volume of blood that I will lose. I want to see every moment of pain and loss in the world before it happens. I want to know so I can prepare, so I can defend myself and those I love.

            But I can’t. I can’t know these things because I am not a diviner. I have no magic. All I have is the past.

 

 

            I was fifteen. I was a freshman and I was sitting behind the high school before the Friday night football game.

            Up above me, the sky was a tumultuous gray with ripples and shards of dark blue cut deep into the clouds like scars. The wind pushed orange and red leaves across the green hill where I was sitting. Behind me, I could hear the crowd gathered at the game. The small pieces of individual voices were lost, ground up, and smeared together in one inseparable roar competing against the howling wind.

I looked out across the endless forest that bordered my school to the north, and across the fields that surrounded the rest. Nothing seemed alive. It was as if the earth was waiting for sleep, for the cold, white funeral shroud of winter.

            I stood up, brushing my hands down the back of my jeans to clean off the dirt and grass. I walked the fence lining the football field. I used the space in the fence that all of the students used to get out of paying admission.

            Sara was waiting for me in the stands. She was dressed all in white. I loved her. She read Hemingway and Faulkner. Her eyes were grey, and never fully open. Her light pink lips turned slightly downward. She was small and frail. When she moved, she walked with fear, as though she felt that at any moment a building would fall, a dog would bark, a gun would fire.

            When she saw me, she waved and made room for me to sit down.

             “Where were you?” she asked.

            “Just out,” I said, “Thinking.”

            “Do you want the rest of my coffee?” she asked, holding out the white, Styrofoam cup. The rim of the cup was smeared with the faint pink of her lipstick.

            “No,” I said, smiling at her.

            I wanted to tell her that I loved her. I wanted to hold her in my arms and feel her shoulders beneath her clothing. I wanted her dark hair mixed in with mine. I wanted the small bones of her fingers between my own.

            I didn’t do anything. She didn’t want me to. I had told her that I loved her, and she had told me that I didn’t. She had told me that I couldn’t love her. She said that we were friends, that we could never be more than that.

            I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better. I loved with the passion, rage, and confusion of someone who was beginning to learn what love was, and how much it could hurt.

            I sat beside her on the cold metal of the bleachers. She offered me her blanket. We sat beneath the white fleece as we watched the football game distractedly.

            She was silent. I could tell something was wrong. I spent minutes that seemed to turn into hours, days, rotations of the earth, trying to force myself to ask what was wrong.

            “James broke up with me this morning,” she said.

            “I heard that,” I said. We were not looking at each other. We watched as the red and white shapes of football players blurred and collided with each other against the green grass of the field.

            “Why?” I asked.

            We were enveloped in the pulse of a hundred conversations droning all around us. And yet, I felt as if I had never been so alone. Sara seemed like she was a thousand miles away.

            “Because I’m pregnant,” she said.

            “You’re pregnant?”

            “I’m going to take care of it,” her voice was like metal. Her words were like gears grinding into motion, moving on, and never stopping.

            “Take care of it?”

            “My mom made me an appointment for tomorrow morning,” she said. “I’m scared.”

She didn’t sound afraid. She didn’t sound like anything. She looked at me and the glare of the flood-lights above the football field was caught in the tears rimming her eyes, like two slivers of light embedded in her skin.

            “You’ll be okay,” I said.

            “Can you go with me? My mom is coming, but I need someone,” she said.

            “Sara… I can’t… I’m sorry.”

            “Why?” she asked.

            I said nothing. I thought about the white room I’d have to wait in. I thought about her absence from the room. The silence. The other people waiting. I thought about the waiting. The endless waiting until she returned to the room. I tried to imagine what she would look like. I couldn’t.

            I thought of James. He had hurt her and I wanted to scar his face. I wanted to break his bones. I wanted to make him bleed.

            “It’s okay,” she said, leaning against me in the cold air. It was dark by then, and the black, starless sky seemed infinite and terrifying.

            “Can I call you tomorrow?” she asked. “After.”

            “Yes,” I said, “Yes. Please call me.”

            We spent the rest of the game in silence, and in spite of everything, the lines of her body felt perfect against mine.

            As we left, rain fell out of the black sky. I held her once again before she left. And when she was gone, I could feel the rain washing her away from me.

            When I got home, I took out the bottle of Southern Comfort that my best friend had given me over the summer. I opened my window and lit incense. I took out a pack of cigarillos I had stolen from Walgreens. I turned off all the lights and sat in the dark with the burning ember of my cigarillo floating in the blackness. The bitter yet rosy liquor made me feel warm.  

            I went to my bed, covered my eyes with my hands, and prayed.

            Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

            I prayed until I fell asleep.

            Sara called the next day at one in the afternoon.

            “Hey…” she said. Her voice was soft and weak. It sounded like she wasn’t there, as if she was speaking across the room at a phone hanging on the wall.

            “You okay?” I said.

            “No. The doctor said,” she began. “He said that I might never be able to have children.”

            She was silent before continuing in the cold, metallic voice I had heard at the game. She talked about complications, about the possibility of scar tissue. She was so small. The doctor had said that nothing was certain.

            “It’ll be okay,” I said, “I love you.”

            “Don’t Cameron. Just. Please. Don’t.”

            “I’m sorry. It’ll be okay. Okay?” I said, but she said nothing. “Sara? It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

            I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better.

 

 

            Sara and I fell apart. We stopped calling, or even talking to each other. We reminded each other of what had happened. She moved away sophomore year, and I left the year after that.

            The last time I saw her was a few years ago. She was walking with some guy at a grocery store. I hid behind another aisle. I didn’t know what to say to her. What could I have said?

            I heard she married that guy.

            For years, I would lay awake in bed and think about Sara and the child she never had. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like. I imagined that he would have been a boy. He wasn’t mine, but I imagined that he had my blond hair, my blue eyes, and Sara’s small bones and down-turned lips. I gave him so many names that I have forgotten them all.

            When I met my girlfriend three years ago, I began to imagine introducing them to each other in a park as we laughed and smiled beneath trees. I imagined him sleeping between her and I, as the sun burned behind the shades of a bedroom in some distant city.          

But these are just fantasies.

            I am 23 now. He would have been 8 years old this spring.

            But he never was. I failed to fight for him. I failed to ask Sara to reconsider. He stains me like the small drops of blood on white sheets that I pray for every month.

            I pray for blood because I am afraid that I will fail again. I have no magic. The rain still surprises me.  When it falls, I wonder how I can protect someone I love from the world. How can I protect them from deep water and wild dogs, from hunger and pain and death and loss?

            I pray because I don’t know how; because I will never know how.

            All I know is that someday, I will have to try. Someday, I will stop praying. And no matter what comes, I will have to try.

Cameron Witbeck is a 23 year old writer from Michigan. He works as an associate poetry editor for Passages North literary magazine and studies in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Cream City Review, Camroc Review, Strongverse and others.

Brood Parasite

Fiction by Scott Eubanks

AS DANNY USHERED HER through the narrow entryway, Helen considered how her life had always felt like a succession of giving up what she needed, and accepting what she had never wanted.  They entered a cluttered living room with a vaulted ceiling and mismatched furniture. 

            Danny was a short, broad man with a peninsula of curly hair on top of his head.  He wore a new polo shirt that still had the XL of plastic tape on the left sleeve.  She wondered if his wife, Mrs. Falkenstein had bought him the shirt specifically for this occasion.  Deciding not to point out the tape, she sat on a faded black pleather couch in the center of the room and smiled politely to the social worker, Ms. Allen.  On the far side of the coffee table, a moon-faced little girl with lime green barrettes in her hair sang in a low voice and played with a toy cuckoo bird. 

            “Marie will be back in a second,” he said.  “She just went to check on Willy.”

            “His name’s William,” Helen said.  Nervously smoothing the fabric of her slacks, she added, “He’s named after my father.”  Helen had never known a grown man who referred to himself as Danny.  It reminded her of an aging mouseketeer who could no longer act that happy without looking ridiculous, and had been relegated to taking care of other people’s children.   

            Pausing at the threshold of the kitchen, Danny managed a smile and said, “Would you like something to drink?”

            “No, thank you,” she said. “I really don’t anticipate staying very long.”  She looked over the assortment of magazines spread in an arc on the coffee table.  The new Time Magazine had a picture of the Shah of Iran on the cover and the caption read, Iran vs. the world.   

            Ms. Allen was arranging a stack of forms on her clipboard.     

            “That’s fine.  I hope you like cheese and crackers, mademoiselle.”  His attempt at a French accent sounded more like an Austrian one as he ducked into the kitchen, slamming doors and rattling silverware.

            “Actually, the adoptive parents can change the child’s name to whatever they want,” Ms. Allen said in a low voice.            

            “I haven’t changed my mind about this,” Helen said.  She remembered the cast of nannies, au pares, and other professional help who had raised her in her parents absence.  In high school, she had promised herself that she would never let that happen to her own children. 

            “I was just hoping that you’d put some thought into it,” Ms. Allen said.  They both watched the little girl on the floor play with her doll.  “Is your father, by any chance, Judge Marr?”  

            Helen nodded.  She winced as she rearranged the thin strap of her purse that had slid across her chest.  Her breasts were still swollen.  When they weren’t leaking, they vacillated between just being tender and aching like abscessed teeth.  

            “After we spoke in the hospital, your name sounded so familiar to me,” she said.  “It’s kind of funny because I just voted for your dad, and well, here we are.”

            “I didn’t vote for him.”

            There was a long and awkward pause before Ms. Allen perked up and said, “Did you have any trouble finding the place?”

            “No,” she said.  She glanced around the room, noting the tragedy of the suburbs, of money surpassing taste.  The walls were covered with tacky photographs in mismatched frames, and she thought of her own living room where an entire wall was arranged with a pristine collection of rare mounted insects that ranged from a protracted morpho Adonis butterfly to a golden silk orb-weaver spider with its legs held to the cloth with droplets of glue.

            She was familiar with Lancaster.  Even though she lived in L.A., Helen had driven right by the Falkenstein’s neighborhood once a week for the last three years to play alone at the golf course.  She looked forward to the long drive and didn’t know anyone in the area, which guaranteed nearly six hours of silence.  There was a man about her age with horn-rimmed glasses and spiked hair who brought his son every Sunday afternoon.  The boy would never be any good, but his father was patient with him and ruffled his hair playfully when he smacked the ball into the bushes.  She often delayed her tee time so that she could watch the two of them.  Her father taught her how to golf.

            “Do you have any questions about this?” Ms. Allen said.

            Taking a ballpoint pen out of her purse, Helen shook her head and said flatly, “You can give me what I need to sign to take my son home.”  She was used to saying what people didn’t like to hear.  She was a financial advisor for one of the largest pharmaceutical firms in Los Angeles.  The rhythmic sounds of Danny closing the cupboards and drawers in the kitchen had stopped.

            Ms. Allen nodded and looked down at the little girl playing on the floor with her cuckoo doll. 

            Helen hadn’t noticed it before, but the little girl was oddly proportioned with stubby arms and legs and mottled flesh.  The epicanthic folds of skin on her inner eyelids were thickly formed and her ears were too low on her head.

            “Does she have Down’s?” she asked.

            Ms. Allen nodded.  The little girl on the floor began to sing Jingle Bells as she played with her doll but substituted all of the original lyrics with the word “birds” with a heavy lisp. 

            Helen didn’t really see what all the fuss was about.  The little girl playing at her feet was adorable.  She wasn’t anything like what the doctor had described.  She imagined Down’s would turn her son into a drooling monster that would ultimately force her to quit her job so that she could wipe his ass until he was old enough to be shipped off to an institution.  As he spoke to her, all she could see in her mind was herself holding a handful of crap in her cupped hand—the inevitable conclusion to her life.  She had nine months of baby books, doctor’s visits, and cappuccino cravings to dream up who her son would be only to have it all discarded on the whim of a chromosome.

BY THE OBSTETRICIAN’S EXPRESSION in the delivery room, Helen knew something was wrong.  Shaking his head, he whispered something to the nurse.  Taking the baby from the doctor, the nurse glanced at her on the way out of the room, the same look that passing motorists had when they cruised by fatal car accidents with the windows rolled up, suddenly thankful for their own lives. 

            Helen was delirious with a mixture of agony and drugs from forty hours of labor.  Still smeared with blood and iodine, she felt as hollow as a punctured balloon and didn’t remember falling asleep. 

            When she woke up, she was in a hospital room with a muted TV mounted on a steel frame above her.  Her mother sat next to the adjustable bed clutching her purse in her lap, wearing two-carat diamond earrings, and high heels.  She could hear the vent by the window humming as it exhaled dry air that stunk like an autoclave.  Everything was pale blue, the curtains, sheets, her gown, even the doctor’s smock.  The doctor stood next to the bed and managed a smile.  Next to him, a short, middle-aged woman with blunt features and a box of tissues in her lap patted Helen’s hand above her IV and said, “How are you feeling?” 

            Before she could ask what the tissues were for, the doctor said, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Ms. Marr, but your son has Down’s syndrome.” 

            The social worker, Ms. Allen, explained that her son would never be normal and that there was no cure for Down’s syndrome.  He would never go to college, get married, or live anything that even approached a full life.  There was a test they could do to know for sure, but the doctor was positive that her son, William, had it.  Her mother stood up, and without a word left the room.

            Helen felt light and numb like she had been stuffed full of cotton.  She couldn’t really pick out the context of what the social worker said.  She wanted to scream that they had the wrong room.  As Ms. Allan struggled to maintain a soft, even tone in her voice, Helen looked up at the television.  A nature program was on.  One of the larger eggs in a birds nest had hatched and the first thing the fledgling did was push out the other eggs.  They shattered at the base of the tree, exposing the translucent skeletons of unborn birds with dark smudges for eyes and squared heads that reminded her of her first ultrasound.  All that the technician said was that she had a boy and that he had a healthy heartbeat. 

            She told them both to get out.

            The doctor looked relieved and apologized again as he hurried out of the room.

            Ms. Allen said, “I know you’ve been through a lot, but you suffered a serious hemorrhage during the delivery and the doctor’s worried about infection.  He’s recommended that you stay here for at least the rest of the week.”

            “I said get out,” she said.

            “You’re lucky to be alive.  I don’t mean to rush you, but what are your long term plans for your son?” she said, setting the box of tissues on the bed.

            Helen hadn’t realized she was crying.  “I was going to take some time off work, but there’s an au pair that I can call,” she said.

            “Your son may need more care than that,” she said, “With Down’s, there’s a higher incidence of everything like leukemia, heart deformities, epilepsy…”

            “…I didn’t plan on this, okay.  I did everything I was supposed to do,” she said.  She felt like she was cleaving apart like an iceberg, dissolving into an indiscriminate sea.  

            “This was out of your hands.  Women like you in their mid-thirties are ten times more likely to have a child with Down’s,” she said.  Clicking her pen and scribbling something on her clipboard, she added, “Do you think your family would take him for a while?  Maybe give you some time to get better?”

            “My mother didn’t just leave to get us some drinks.  She’s probably left the hospital, and my father didn’t even bother showing up because ‘he didn’t raise an unwed mother,’” she said.  She winced and held her stomach as she leaned forward to sit up straight in the bed. 

            Picking up her clipboard, Ms. Allen let out a sterile sigh and said, “You do have options, you know.”  Looking up from her forms, she added, “Have you considered placing your son with a foster family?”

            “What?”

            “While you recover, and get the rest of your life back on track, we can place your son with a family who specializes in taking care of children with disabilities,” she said. “Just until things become manageable.  It would only be temporary.”       

            She listened to Ms. Allen rattle off her proposal.  The way she talked seemed almost electronic, as she’d done it a thousand times that week. Helen was exhausted.  Not remembering much else, she signed the packet of forms that agreed to a temporary placement. 

THE MOON-FACED LITTLE GIRL set her cuckoo doll down and crawled around the coffee table.  Stopping at Helen’s feet, she looked up at her.  When she smiled, her puffy eyes nearly closed and she held out both of her arms for Helen to pick her up.    

            Helen wasn’t sure how she should act, and smiled.  She thought of how her secretary, Jenni, played with her son when she brought him to work, causing him to squeal every time she lifted him off his feet.  Helen put her index fingers in the little girl’s hands.  Her tiny fingers curled tightly around Helen’s fingers, and as she lifted her off her feet, Ms. Allen said, “You really shouldn’t do that.”

            Quickly setting her back down, Helen said, “I’m sorry.  I just thought…”

            “It’s okay.  You didn’t know.  Children with Down’s have low muscle tone.  It makes their muscles so loose that picking them up like that can cause their shoulders to dislocate,” she said.   

            It occurred to her how little experience she had had with children, even normal children.  Growing up, she never had to baby-sit like the teenagers she’d seen on sitcoms because she didn’t need the money, and her parent’s friends all had nannies.

            “It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind about this,” she said.  The little girl let go of the coffee table and stumbled to Ms. Allen, holding her arms out.   

            Helen felt like she had a knot of wood in her throat when she said, “What kind of person gives up their child?”

            “You’d be surprised.  They’re people who realize that their child has special needs that they might not be equipped to handle,” she said.  When Ms. Allen picked the little girl up, she looked surprised and hung limp like a chubby cat between her hands.    

            Helen asked, “Is she their daughter?”

            “No.  The Falkensteins’ adopted Sarah when she was only ten days old,” she said. “She might as well be, though.”

            A woman with wide set hips came down the stairs holding a tiny baby wrapped in blue cloth against her shoulder.  She gave her a placid smile and whispered, “You must be Helen.  I’m Marie.”  She sat down on the couch next to her.  Everything about her radiated with maternal warmth.  She even seemed to glow like a new mother, and suddenly thinking of her own sore tits and flabby stomach, Helen wanted to hate her, but it was the first time that she had seen her son.  She realized she was holding her breath and it seemed like every cell in her body was polarized towards the edge of the baby’s face that poked out of the flannel blanket.  Her son’s eyes were closed and his tiny features looked as fragile and smooth as marzipan.    

            “He isn’t exactly awake yet, but would you like to hold him?” Marie said.

            Helen unwound her purse from her shoulder and gently set it on the coffee table.  She held out her hands and gingerly took him in her arms.  After some direction from Marie, she cradled his head in her palm.  He was surprisingly warm.  She held him in front of her face and pored over his features, searching for the telltale imperfections that had already doomed him.  Aside from a dark wisp of hair on top of his head, he looked nothing like her. 

            Balancing a ceramic sombrero platter covered with slices of cheese, salami, and crackers, Danny set it on the coffee table and said, “I hope you guys are hungry because I think I got a little carried away.”  When Helen looked up at him, he didn’t meet her eyes.  Instead, looking more than a little uncomfortable, he thrust his hands into his pockets and smiled at Ms. Allen.

            “Danny is a biology teacher at the high school, you know,” Ms. Allen said. 

            “Is that where the cuckoo came from?” Helen said, pointing at the doll.

            “I thought it was more than a little ironic,” he said.  When nobody said anything, he laughed nervously and added, “I thought it was funny that Sarah liked it because cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird’s nests, and well…”  He looked at Marie and shrugged helplessly.

            “Willy’s a very good baby, you know,” Marie said.  “He sleeps through most of the night.”    

            “His name is William,” she said.  She thought the name, Willy, sounded like some pothead carpet installer from the Valley.  It had been a tradition in her family to name all of the firstborn son’s after her great grandfather, William.  She hadn’t spoken to her father since she told him that she was pregnant and hoped he would appreciate the gesture.  A part of her also secretly enjoyed the irony of it.  After she was released from the hospital, her mother had called to smooth things over and asked to meet for lunch.   

HELEN SPOTTED HER MOTHER from across the crowded restaurant, sitting in the corner by the window, watching the swallows pluck dead stems out of the hanging flowerpots that overflowed with corn marigolds and California poppies. 

            Slinging her purse across the back of her chair, Helen said, “Is dad in the bathroom?”

            “Your father’s not coming,” her mother said, taking her eyes off the swallows long enough to finish her wine.

            “Why?” Helen didn’t sit down.  She pushed her chair back in and picked up her purse.

            Standing up, her mother said, “Please.”

           The people at the adjacent tables had stopped talking and turned and see what was going on.  

           “Then why did you call me?” she said as she sat down.  

           “Just so that we can talk.”  Her mother gave the other diners a reassuring smile as she rearranged the starched napkin in her lap.

           “About what?  Having a baby?” she said.  “Let’s talk about when you left me and my son at the hospital.” 

           “I’m sorry,” her mother said.  “I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t think of anything to say to the doctor, so I went outside to get some fresh air.  After I calmed down, I was so ashamed that I’d left you alone.”  With a plaintive look, she placed the tips of her fingers against her sternum and took a series of deep breaths.

            Helen waited until she was finished.  “This isn’t about you, mom,” she said.  In a tone she usually reserved for overwrought clients, she added, “It’s about William.” 

            “I really wish you wouldn’t call him that,” her mother said.    

           “You can’t make me do anything,” Helen said.  She was suddenly aware that they had dredged up a variation of the same argument that they’d had since she was thirteen.  She was tempted to say something hurtful, a combination of words that would impale her mother on her own hypocrisy, but reminded herself that she had outgrown this. 

           Up until a few months ago, they had lunch every other Saturday.  It had always been awkward, and Helen spent the majority of their time together jabbing croutons in half with a fork, trying to remember all the subjects that weren’t appropriate to discuss.  Her mother had stopped asking about men after she got out of college and one time even alluded to her acceptance of her being gay.  She always reminded her to use the correct fork, and cross her legs, despite the fact that she wore slacks, a trend her mother vehemently opposed. 

           She ordered them both tiny dishes that were rich in fiber and ate practically nothing on her plate.  Helen was forced to listen to her mother’s stories of running into one of Helen’s old classmates at the market.  She laughed when she was supposed to, when she heard how much weight they had gained since high school.  She thought of what her old friends must have said about her mother behind her back. 

           Her mother had attended an all girls’ school until she got pregnant in her first year of college and married her father in a quiet ceremony.  She had majored in art and could talk about renaissance sculpture for hours, but she had never driven a car and over drafted her checking account once a month, despite their substantial savings.  She had lived a harmless and decorative existence that was consumed with a fifty-year-old concept of etiquette.      

           “I’m sorry,” her mother said again.  She nodded to the waiter and raised her wine glass.  “What are your plans?  Are you still taking him home?”  

           “Of course,” she said.

           “What could I possibly say that would convince you that this is a bad idea,” her mother said with a smile.  “Your father and I at least had each other to raise a family you know.”  She set her wineglass on the napkin in front of her so that the waiter could refill it.

           “I never wanted your life,” she said. 

           “I’m not saying you should be anything like me, Helen.  I gave up everything for you and your brother,” she said.  “What about your life?  Your job?”

           “I don’t know.  Maybe I’ll quit,” she said.

           Her mother laughed and put her hand against the waiters sleeve as she nodded politely.  “How would you make your house payment, or your credit card payments for that matter?  I couldn’t possibly imagine you living anywhere else than that beautiful house of yours.”

           Standing up, Helen put her hand on her mother’s and said, “I got to go, mom.”

           Her mother nodded and stepped around the table and gave her a hug.  “You don’t have to call him William you know.  My father’s name was Charles, and you could always call him Chuck,” she whispered.

           Helen rolled her lower lip into her mouth as she bit back the urge to cry, and said, “I got to go, mom.”

           Stepping back, her mother grabbed both of her hands and squeezed them.  They felt as smooth and soft as cabbage leaves.  “Your father and I are not going to help you,” she said.  “I’ll see you next Saturday.”   

           As Helen left the restaurant, her mother looked back at the birds out the window as they disappeared over the rooftops across the street.

WILLIAM OPENED HIS EYES and struggled, letting out a high-pitched groan before he settled back against Helen’s shoulder.  She knew that she was supposed to feel something as she looked into the face of her son, but instead she felt like she could have been holding anyone’s baby. 

           “He looks hungry,” Danny whispered. 

           “I’ll get it,” Marie said, going into the kitchen.  After a few moments, she walked into the living room with a bottle of formula, pinching the nipple, and shaking it until the cloudy contents resembled milk.

           “I think it’s time for us to discuss William’s future,” Ms. Allen said.  “From speaking with Ms. Marr on the phone…”

           “…We don’t have to do that now,” said Marie.  Crouching down in front of Helen, she said, “Would you like to see his bedroom and feed him?” 

           “Sure,” she said, feeling foolish for being so grateful.  She followed Marie upstairs and into a modest bedroom with a faded blue recliner positioned next to a white crib and changing table.  The walls had balloons stenciled on them, and a large bay window with a bench looked out on mountains that were covered with dusty chaparral and boulders that had been polished in the sea.  Helen thought of how much nicer the baby room in her condominium was, with handmade mahogany furniture and toys she had ordered from Paris.     

           Marie patted the arm of the recliner and handed her the bottle.  “When he’s done, you’ll know,” she said, “And take your time.”  Holding the door handle to close it behind her, she paused and said, “We’ll keep Ms. Allen entertained.”

           She wanted to thank her as she sat down in the chair.  “Do you have any children of your own?”  She felt her face flush as she realized how insulting the question was.

           “No,” she said.   “Danny and I can’t have children.”  She looked past Helen out the window at the blue jays nesting in an oak tree in the backyard.  Her face looked much older in the harsh light when she wasn’t smiling. 

           “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean for it to sound so bitchy,” she said.     

           “It’s fine,” she said, stepping back into the room.  She lingered over them for a moment, and ran her fingers through William’s hair.  “I love those birds.  Sometimes I just sit in the window and watch them,” she said.  “You know, Danny thought that it was kind of crazy when I brought up the idea of adopting a child for the first time.  I just thought that we were wasting this big house in a good neighborhood.  I’m home all day anyway, so why not?”  She crouched down in front of Helen and almost whispered, “If I were you, I’d take my son home too.”  She stood up and left the bedroom, closing the door behind her.   

           Helen wanted to thank her, but instead she stared at the door.  William started fussing again.  She balanced his head on the crook of her elbow and he willingly took the nipple into his mouth and drank the formula.  His body felt so fragile against hers.  She reminded herself that this was the most natural thing she could do.  She shifted her body in the overstuffed armchair because it was already hurting her back and she wished she was home in William’s room. 

           She had purchased a specially made ergonomic chair and ottoman that rocked gently with the slightest movement.  The sales clerk said it was perfect for breastfeeding.  At the beginning of her third trimester, Helen found herself unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time.  At first, she just attributed it to stress.  Three days later without sleep, the doctor refused to prescribe any sleeping pills because they would harm the baby.  By the end of the week, she couldn’t go to work anymore and took to drifting through her condo like a ghost late at night.  She tried sleeping everywhere; the couch, the spare bedroom, the bathtub, even the living room floor, but she was still too uncomfortable to stay asleep for more than a few moments.  She ordered takeout and sobbed helplessly as she ate, watching inane programs on TV.  She didn’t want the baby anymore.  It had become appallingly clear to her that it was ruining every aspect of her life.  On the same night she purchased a box of sleeping pills from the pharmacy, she discovered the power of the rocker.  She had wandered into the baby’s room to take another inventory of what she might need.  Sitting down for only a moment and setting the pills on the changing table, she woke up to the sound of birds chirping in the predawn sky, having slept nearly six hours.  For the rest of her pregnancy, she slept in the chair every night, dreaming about what it would be like to breastfeed her baby as she listened to the Santa Anas carry the sound of the shushing waves from Santa Monica.

           Turning pink and grimacing, William spat out the bottle and sucked in a shuddering breath before he began to wail.  It sounded thin and metallic like an old tin noisemaker.  Setting the bottle on the floor, she laid him against her chest and rubbed his back to burp him.  As if in pain, William’s cries rose into jagged shrieks that hurt her head.  His tiny, fat limbs strained against the flannel blanket he was wrapped in, and from the weight of his body on her chest, Helen’s breasts began to throb. 

           Holding him in front of her, she tried quieting him, but he continued to scream.  She started thinking about how long it would take before Ms. Allen came through the door to declare her an unfit mother.  He spit the bottle out a second time and screamed louder when she tried rocking him in her arms.  A terrible thought occurred to her as she paced around the room. What if it was her?  She set him in his crib and watched his knotted up face continue to bellow.  It would be worse if Marie came to the door.  They were both shaking uncontrollably, and tears were already dripping off her chin.  The front of her blouse was wet with what she thought to be pee, but she realized that her breasts had leaked through her bra. 

           It was a sense of inevitability that guided her movements as she stood over the crib, unbuttoning her blouse.  It was the only thing that she could do that Marie couldn’t.  She undid her bra, and slid the strap off one of her shoulders and picked him back up.  Sitting in the recliner, she cupped her swollen breast in her hand and used her other hand to hold the baby’s head against her engorged nipple.  Leaning back in the chair and looking at the ceiling, she took a deep breath as she waited for the feeling of his little mouth to tug at her breast hungrily. 

           He gagged and struggled, spitting up formula on her, howling angrily.

           Setting him in his crib, Helen understood that he was only partially her son.  As she wiped herself off with some baby wipes, she looked out the window at the thick-limbed oak tree that shaded the yard.  She buttoned up her blouse and carried William over to the window.  In the light, she could see the strange shape of his eyes.  He squinted in the sunlight and quieted down a bit. 

           She thought about the sacrifices she had made for her parents and her job as she watched the blue jays flit among the shaded boughs of the tree, under leaves that hooked like talons.  They carried bits of string and dried stems for their nests.  She knew why cuckoos left their young behind.  Like her, they had been doomed by heredity to a self-imposed loneliness, a necessary act that was in itself the only grace she was ever permitted.  Looking over the sleepy, pastel neighborhood, Helen considered, for only a moment, what it would have been like to have kept her son.  She would ask them to keep his name though, her family’s name.

Scott Eubanks lives in Spokane, Washington, with his girlfriend, four-month-old daughter and 200 lbs. of dogs. He grew up in a foster home for children with developmental disabilities and his family ended up adopting five kids with Down’s syndrome. Until he was about five, he thought he was a genius because he could walk and dress himself. He received his MFA in nonfiction from Eastern Washington University where he was the nonfiction editor for Willow Springs Literary Magazine. His work has appeared in Memoir(and), the Yellow Medicine Review and the Whitefish Review.

Read Jessica Powers’s interview with Scott, “Adoption, Developmental Disabilities, Parenthood, and Writing: An Interview with Scott Eubanks,”.

Purpose

by Daniel Ruefman

When I sign the adoption papers
I linger in the black December
dying in decimeters.

I feel him lay curl bottomed
ear against my chest

I soothe, I coo, I kiss.
his Lilliputian digits

curl around my own and
soon our time is spent

and I leave this moment,
the father to son.

I’m sorry
I’m not sorry

as forever drops
the bottom of the mail bin.

When I stop hating myself
I hear a man
rattle his racket against

a chain link enclosure of the tennis courts;
I smell the perfume of charcoal

and fresh burst hotdogs;
I feel the earth beneath me,

the sour grass,
knotted between my fingers,

and I see him,
toddling down the path

at the water’s edge,
beneath the willows

idling by soccer pitch
rolling in the crab grass

chortling, screaming,
rising, waiting, falling

living
with the father I gave him.

When I graduate
I drink in this moment,
that moment

and taste a hundred thousand
this and that moments that led me

through the mean and the mild,
and I give thanks

for the season’s drink
for the dying moments

for the life I have
for the life I have given—

for the purpose loving
and letting go.

Daniel Ruefman is a Lecturer in the Writing and Linguistics Department at Georgia Southern University and has recently completed his Ph.D. in Composition and TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His poetry has appeared in several journals, but most recently in The Tonopah Review, SLAB, and Temenos.




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