This month, my Publishers Weekly column, Life in Comics, is about the challenges of working at home while also taking care of a one-year-old.
The end of 2010 has been very difficult for our family. At the beginning of November, Mateo’s grandfather, Brian’s father, died after being burned in a house fire. Brian, Mateo, and I flew to North Carolina to be with him during his last days and to make final arrangements. Mateo was an angel, providing much-needed solace and joy to his father during one of the hardest times in his life.
Then, on December 10, my 22-year-old niece Michel was murdered. I cannot imagine how I would have coped had it not been for him. Seeing his smile, hearing his laugh, knowing that he needed me — it has kept me going while my heart is aching terribly. At the same time, being a mother now I know how my sister, Michel’s mother, must be suffering and it makes the grief all the more painful. I am glad that I have Mateo though, grateful that my mother’s love for him helps me to understand the mother’s grief my sister is feeling, though I know I can never fully feel her pain and hope above all else that I will never have to.
Michel is holding Mateo when he was two months old in the picture on the left. It’s not a great picture of her because she was so nervous about holding him, afraid she would hurt him or drop him. (My Nana sits next to them — Mateo is her nineteenth great-grandchild. She now has twenty-one.) I am so sad that Mateo won’t get to know Michel. I have so many memories of playing with her and helping to take care of her when she was a baby and a little girl. Like all of my nieces and nephews, she prepared me for being a mother someday. I was so looking forward to seeing her at Christmas and at Mateo’s first birthday party. I miss her.
Go ahead. Call my son “pretty.” I don’t mind.
It happens almost every time I take Mateo out and there’s an older woman who exclaims over him. If she doesn’t immediately mistake him for a girl (which I don’t mind, either, and usually don’t bother to correct), she will say something like, “Look at those cheeks! Look at those eyes! Aren’t you so pretty — oh, I shouldn’t say ‘pretty’ for a boy. Handsome! Aren’t you so handsome!”
“It’s okay,” I say. “He is a pretty boy.”
And he is. He has dark, almond-shaped eyes heavily fringed with dark lashes so long they almost seem excessive; round, rosy cheeks; and tiny, pink bow-shaped lips. “Handsome” does not describe him. (Does it describe any baby?) He is pretty, and I, being a typical mother in my pride for my child and a flawed woman in my vanity, revel in his prettiness.
It’s a curious reality of culture that beauty is divided into masculine and feminine — and that the definitions of masculine and feminine beauty shift and change. There’s no use trying to contain these concepts within sex and gender, however, and I want to teach my son that traits that are traditionally considered feminine are not shameful or demeaning for a boy to possess.
“Pretty” is where we can start. I can work my way in from skin-deep.
In this article at Mothering.com, Linda Baker writes about how the very fact of mother’s bodies makes it difficult to establish an “equal division of labor” when it comes to parenting. I’ll write about the division of labor and parenting in another post, but what this essay inspired me to think about is the relationship children have with their mothers’ bodies.
When I was a child, I studied the beauty marks on the back of my mother’s neck; I played with her hands like action figures; I twined her hair in my hands. I remember being very small and laying my head on her chest when I didn’t feel well and her saying that wasn’t it nice that mommies have pillows for children to rest their heads on?
It’s only natural that mothers remain so physically close to their children since for forty weeks they were literally physically connected. Babies and small children crave the intimacy and mothers welcome it. Baker writes, “my young children believe they are me, that my body is their body.”
Someday, the merged identity that Mateo and I have now will separate. He will become fully his own person, and only I will remember the baby who covers my face in sloppy kisses, buries his face in my shoulder, and wakes up early in the morning wanting nothing more than the comfort of being in my arms while he nurses.
Last year on Mother’s Day, I was pregnant but I did not yet know. When I was buying supplies for my family’s party at Trader Joe’s, the cashier pointedly and earnestly wished me a happy Mother’s Day. She was a middle-aged black woman, so if it had been a movie on the Hallmark channel, she probably would have been a divine messenger giving a message to a woman bravely struggling with infertility. But, really, I think it was because I was wearing a black A-line Juicy Couture tunic that I had gotten for a really good price at Marshall’s and I was wearing because I was feeling a little bloaty. I was kind of amused because I was trying to get pregnant — had been trying for about seven months — but I also didn’t want to look pregnant when I wasn’t. So when I got home, I changed out of the tunic and into a more figure-hugging top.
This year on Mother’s Day, I had with me my sixteen-week-old baby boy, and I had a lovely day with my family. I have heard people repeat that platitude “You don’t know what true love is until you have children,” and even though I love Mateo like I’ve loved nobody else ever, I don’t think that it’s true. What I think is that if you don’t have children, you don’t experience the particular kind of love that parents have for their children, but there are so many kinds of ways people love each other, each true love in its own right. There are kinds of love that I will not experience. But I am happy to experience this particular kind.
Now that I’ve had the experience of giving birth to a baby and being a parent for all of fifteen weeks, I feel myself succumbing to smugness and nosiness. It’s a terrible feeling, to be that woman. Oh, now I know all about childbirth, you know! Let me tell you how I did it without any drugs! My baby is reaching a few of his development milestones early! He totally reaches for things and grabs them all on his own!
But the worst is the raised-eyebrow feelings I get when I see other parents not parenting their babies the way I think it should be done. Yesterday, I was in Target and the sound of a newborn crying attracted my attention (OK, it also made my boobs go a little crazy). There was a teeny, tiny — I mean, tiny — little girl in a huge stroller, flailing and crying in that piteous newborn way while her mother nonchalantly looked at clothes. I think the mother saw me looking, so she briefly leaned over the baby, said, “Ohhh,” and went back to shopping. My mind began racing. Tiny babies only cry like that if they really, really need something! Why is she in that huge stroller? Newborns need to feel secure! Oh my god I just want to pick her up! Lady, pick up your baby! Pick her up! She’s hungry! Feed your baby, woman!
I said nothing, of course, because I didn’t want to be that woman. And anyway, Brian was wheeling Mateo around the store, so I didn’t have my chubby little drool machine as proof that I totally know what I’m doing with the baby stuff. I hurried to Brian to tell him about it, though, and we both watched in silent judgment later as the same woman passed us at the greeting card section, her baby still crying, her face impassive. We watched her until, finally, as we were checking out, we saw the baby’s grandmother take out a bottle to feed the baby in the food court.
Now, I’m sure this baby is just fine, even if, as Brian pointed out, the were giving her formula. (Gasp!) But that urge to be nosy, it is so irresistible! I wonder what other women think of me when they see me with Mateo.
Speaking of Mateo, he likes to pretend he’s a grown-up sometimes.
“… We should not grieve, should we, baby?” said Celia confidentially to that unconscious centre and poise of the world, who had the most remarkable fists all complete even to the nails, and hair enough, really, when you took his cap off, to make — you didn’t know what: — in short, he was Bouddha in a Western form.”
-George Eliot, Middlemarch
I finished Middlemarch a couple of weeks ago, and was amused to find a completely accurate portrayal of new motherhood in it. The heroine’s sister, Celia, is the mother of what she regards as the most remarkable being in the world, and is content to sit and stare at him, to talk of almost nothing but him, and can’t think that anything is truly wrong in the world as long as her baby is safe and happy. She is harmlessly insipid in her new motherhood, and I understand every inch of her silliness.
I laughed when I read this because I’d been calling Mateo “my little Buddha” because of the serenity of his expressions. Honestly, it is quite hard to work on anything when I could happily watch him sleep and talk of nothing but him — how he has begun to smile and outgrow newborn clothes, how he watches me intently and studies his father’s face.
It is a kind of devotion that is difficult to write about — both because it is so consumingly intense and because I know it can be tiresome to people whose existences aren’t anchored to my own little “center and poise of the world.”