Peacemonger Mom

My son just enlisted in the military. I'm a peace activist. Why couldn't he have rebelled in some other way, like being republican?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Boy Comes To Be.

I knew something was wrong – I knew something was different. I could feel it. I could feel the difference in myself, but I had no word for it. I had no way to describe it, I only knew that something was up. At 19, I had little understanding of how my body worked, and even less understanding of what would be symptoms of pregnancy, illness, “women’s issues” – I had only been regularly menstruating for about a year, as my period had gone and come with the randomness of the rest of my decisions in my life. I gave my period roughly the same amount of concern as I did any other bodily aspects of my life: it was what it was, and I could do nothing about it, whether “it” was my period, a bladder infection, or an orgasm. Such was the control that I felt and experienced in my life – even those things that truly could be controlled were outside the realm of my reach.

My first symptom of pregnancy was not a missed period – how I really envied those women who could track their cycles down to the moment. No, my real first symptom was frequent urination. I remember saying to my then-husband that I was either with child or with bladder infection. I figured bladder infection. It wasn’t until my period had gone missing for 3+ months that I became worried to the point that I went to the school nurse. One negative pregnancy test followed another, three in all. Finally, I approached the nurse again without blood, and she performed yet another test, to which the answer was resoundingly positive.

I staggered across the street to my class, for which I was now very late (along with being late for other things, I mused with little humor). Years later, in clearing out boxes, I found my notes taken during that class. As I read them, I had no idea what the professor was speaking about that day, nor was there any hint as to any real content in the words. They were whorls, twists, doodles. They were as I was, at that moment – lost on a sea of incomprehensibility, the awful truth beginning to dawn in my brain. My life was to change, and I was not happy with that thought, as I was unhappy with life as it was – bringing in another responsibility, an innocent person to also pay the price of my folly, it was the ultimate in stupidity, in ignorance, in carelessness. How could I have done this?

I was 19, the year was 1986, Reagan was declaring ketchup in school lunches to be a vegetable, and I was a month or so into my first college experience (my major was chosen as I stood in line to register in the cavernous gymnasium – it was either major in paralegal technology or oral hygienist, and I had no interest in saliva or teeth). I lived in a small apartment, with my soldier-husband, stationed at Ft. Bragg. I was a military wife, soon to be a mother, and totally, completely at a loss as to how, exactly, one does either … much less both.

As I entered the classroom, ashen faced and shocked, I fell into a desk and began taking the notes which I still have, with the header of 10/8/86 in the left margin, and the professor’s name in the right margin – just as I had been taught to do in sixth grade. I mouthed the words – I’m pregnant – to my friends in class in response to their inquires as to my tardiness. The response from all was an equally silent – Congratulations – to which I nodded numbly. I tried repeatedly after class let out to reach Ex, with little success. He was, after all, a soldier, and soldiering is rarely done inside, within easy reach of a phone. Cell phones were a science fiction dream then, and pagers were only clipped to the belts of rich doctors. Thus I was given the opportunity to ensure the continuation of the life inside me: I called my mother-in-law and my own family while I could not reach Ex. The life of my child was created and existed within my body, yet it was unreal until I spoke it to my mother-in-law. Once spoken to her, it became impossible to abort. It was the first of many acts of protection of my child.

I was “delivered of” TB in a military hospital via cesarean section. The doctors tired of my cervix’s refusal to dilate, and had me sign the forms allowing them to operate as I rode wave after wave of pain and prayed only for release – death, gas, whatever. Nothing could be worse than what I was living, and no one held my hand or anxiously awaited what might spring from between my legs – I was alone with my unborn child in the work that we had to do, and it was the most alone I have ever felt. Through my own decisions I had alienated anyone who might sit with me, who might smooth the hair back from my sweaty face. I had no one to call for, no one to work for. I did not feel that I was “delivered of” The Boy – I felt a cog in a machine, an unworkable cog. A cog that had gummed up its own works, thus the need for a surgeon, an operating room, all the extra fuss. He did not want to arrive, and I, for one, did not blame him. Already, I was searching for an escape from this place, so why, I reasoned, would anyone actively work to get here?

In the hospital, I was uncharacteristically adamant in my decisions regarding the treatment of my son. Among other things that I decided, he was not to be circumcised. While I gave no thought to the danger inherent in doctors taking a scalpel to the skin of my abdomen, the muscle and organs of my body, I did not trust them to remove a small piece of skin from my son. Nor did I think it necessary to remove, and I stood firmly by this, even as I was sternly rebuked by the doctors. Even now I think the only reason I was successful in holding off the circumcision was that TB’s father agreed with me. The politics of the penis is much easier to navigate when one has an interpreter, I suppose.

I remember finally being presented with The Baby – he had a name, of course, it had long been established he would be C, but I couldn’t stop referring to him as The Baby, even though he was in truth now both The Baby and C. His father placed him in my arms, and I awaited the wash of love to splash over me. I felt fear. I felt surprise. I felt amazement. I felt gratitude not to be in labor or pregnant anymore – already I was reveling in the fact that I could go longer than an hour without a trip to the bathroom – but no eye-crossing, jaw-dropping, pulse-pounding feeling of unending, indescribable love. TB opened his eyes and looked at me. I looked at him. I felt his eyes open, deep in my core. I felt the responsibility, the huge, enormous, unspeakable responsibility of this child settle around my shoulders, and I didn’t mind. Fall in love? Not really.

Fall into adulthood, responsibility, sobriety? Yes. There was no one else, you see…after all, his father was violent, frequently drunk, and overwhelmingly immature. One day he went out to buy a dryer (cloth diapers were the norm in our house, due to cost) and returned not with the dryer I had harped for, but instead with a giant speaker system for the backseat of the car…the backseat where the baby seat went. The speaker was great, if the goal was to deafen passerby with eye watering and hair curling bass. The speaker did not dry diapers (although it was so loud, it probably could have). It was clear early on that I was alone in my motherhood. But isn’t that the case for all women in the United States, no matter the year? No matter the president? No matter the husband? Aren’t we all alone with our motherhood, in a way?

We were in a military town, surrounded by military families and by businesses who made a living off the military families. My family was about 4 hours away, and the relations I had with them at that time were strained, at best. I struggled to learn how to care for my son, and was taught how to fold and change cloth diapers by my husband, who then abruptly forgot how to carry out the task. My son and I spent many hours alone together, as Ex’s unit was called out to maneuvers and I stayed behind, nursing TB as I watched Oliver North testify before Congress. I walked my son back and forth as he wailed through his first of many ear infections. I walked him through the house, around the yard, and I listened to the particular cry that all infants have – the cry that would wake me from a sound sleep, night after night for a feeding, the cry that could peel the skin from my body with my desire for a good night’s sleep, the cry that had me wondering if perhaps **I** had died and was actually in hell. I frequently did not understand him and his loud requests, but I did my best, and I worked hard at mothering him. We were, after all, all we had.

I studied hard in school, having taken one semester off for the birth of TB, and eventually graduated without any particular honors, other than that of mother-student (or perhaps student-mother … I think that is more applicable). My work to care for TB as I navigated those early days of my marriage now seems to me to be simple: crying baby = check diaper, offer breast, rock, cuddle, tuck – the physicalities of life. My work with my son now is different. He is 19, and for want of a better term, has been estranged from both me and his father. I have spoken with him briefly over the past year, but not with any substance. I think of his blonde curls, his chubby baby body and my work to make life as good for that chubby body as possible – my fears that he would witness the violence that eventually bubbled up in our house and would then inherit that violence and carry it with him to his own home and wife, my worry that he would do any of the thousands of things that we worry about as mothers: drugs, alcohol, failing school, bad marriage, unpleasant job . . . all the things that can make a life miserable. All my worries stay with me, and I do my best to live the life I have now – I lived through a divorce, found a real love, have returned to school – but I still feel the worry and wonder that came from bearing my son … it leads me to wish I could return to 1987 and visit my young 20 year old self, holding infant-C with a look of confusion on my face, and say this: It is worth it, what you do, and you can only make decisions based on what knowledge you have at the time. You won’t break the baby as you hold him, and as he grows, so will you.

To borrow an analogy from Andrea O’Reilly, take hold of the oxygen mask that drops from the cabin ceiling and affix it to yourself, because only when you are taken care of can you take care of others.

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