the other mother

“Where are your socks at, bud? You need socks.”

I rifle through the pile of freshly laundered blue, yellow, green hand me downs for the lone pair of socks. Tiny socks that are still impossibly big on his newborn pink feet. We don’t wear socks in our house. I was raised barefoot in the country, dirty calloused feet in the creek, in the woods, in the house. To this day I can walk on gravel without wincing in pain. (They aren’t pretty though, so don’t look too closely.)

I never put socks on Rosalyn’s feet as a baby either. I could barely keep up with the onesies, swaddles, muslin blankets, cloth diapers. Ain’t nobody got time for hunting down and matching baby socks. We live in Georgia, it’s 60-90 degrees most of the year – perfect bare feet weather. People stopped me all the time though, so concerned about her bare feet. “You put some socks on that poor baby’s feet!” “What a pretty girl. Tell your mama to get you some socks.” Some how, some way she survived her sockless infancy. Even now, if I can’t find her socks and I need the sweet serenity only a iced chai sipped in the clean, bright aisles of Target can provide I just toss her in the car and she swings those naked piggies to the market and all the way home.

Socks are important though. Not everyone shares my devil may care attitude about them. We talked about socks in foster training. “When you bring babies to visitation they need socks.” It seems so trivial and harmless. But when you see your child for only two hours twice a week every detail matters, everything becomes a message. Are their clothes stained, do they match, did I buy them or did you, how much did they cost, is it something I would have dressed them in, is their face clean, do they have any scratches or bruises or rashes, is their hair tidy and styled appropriately? Do they have socks?

Did you know foster parents are not allowed to have the child’s hair cut without explicit permission? It is a strange balance beam we walk – all of the responsibility and none of the authority.

I had to find his socks.

I finally find them tucked inside his bag from the hospital. They are white and in the babiest of blues read, “I Love My Mommy.”

Did she pull back pieces of baby shower tissue paper to find these at the bottom? (“Aw, thank you, Karen!”) Did she walk into Babies R Us post pregnancy test, desperate for something tangible for the poppyseed in her uterus? Did she buy these for him, his other mother? No, his mother. His other mother? His mother. I am the other.

We have an invasively one sided relationship, her and I. I have on my kitchen counter a thick envelope with intimate details of her labor and delivery, of his hospital stay and discharge. She doesn’t know my name. She doesn’t know I type this with one hand as the other rubs our son’s back after his bottle, mildly terrified because I am bravely/stupidly wearing my favorite sweater.

Our son. Her son. All of the responsibility and none of the authority.

As we feel joy at how seamlessly he fits into our family, is every moment of her existence filled with panic, anxiety, sadness? Where is her son? Is he ok? She doesn’t know.

I’ve thought about dressing him in Mommy clothes for their visits. Will she see it as my intention of honoring her place in his life? Will it sting of mockery and overcompensation? Is it wrong if he wears them while he is in my arms, being cooed at by playground strangers? (“Aw, thank you Karen! He’s a week and a half old today.”)

I put on the socks. His toes look nothing like mine.

Walk the balance beam, hold the baby, don’t slip.

baby duck

It is incredible how much Rosalyn has to say, and how well she expresses herself when I just slow. down. and listen – when I can get on her level and speak her language. Today I said yes to (almost) everything she asked. We went for a walk and practiced riding her tricycle. We drew colorful shapes outside with chalk. She got chocolate almond milk instead of regular unsweetened. We played with her penguin coin bank and funfetti playdough. She ate her lunch in my lap. After nap time we got chocolate chip cake pops and ran all over an indoor play place for two hours. While in the Starbucks drive thru she clapped and exclaimed, “Mommy, I am so excited!”

Our house has been hectic the last two months as we work to get certified for foster care. It’s taking its toll on all of us, including or maybe even especially Rosalyn. Her eating, sleeping, digestion – it’s all out of wack. She’s a little extra sensitive and grumpy, though being two and a half it’s difficult to discern what’s age or circumstance. An entirely new development for her is the way she clings to me when we enter a new place or see new people. She’s always been a quiet observer before launching into insatiable energy and volume levels. But now she’s made a safe space tucked behind my legs and burrowed between my neck and shoulder. Her house is changing, her parents are shushing her while having Serious Conversations, the air is thrumming with nervous-happy-anxious energy, and (it bears repeating) she’s two and a half years old. It’s so much, it’s all so much. I worry with the deep guilt of a tired mother if I didn’t consider her needs enough before making this enormous, invasive, heavy choice for our lives. Should we have waited? Shoulds are suffocating.

Today, I said yes without hesitation.

“Will you play with me?” Yes, darling. “You play with me! We play! We do it together!” Her eyes lit up like Christmas and it is a joy burned into my chest.

I followed her exact instructions while molding the playdough. We made three ducks. We made a blanket. She tucked them into bed and named them. “Mommy duck. Daddy duck. Baby duck. They snuggle.” She looked down at them and cradled dimpled toddler hands to her cheeks. “Ohhh they’re so sweet, Mommy!” We fed them carrots and veggie burgers. They exchanged kisses and hugs. She had me make a fourth duck. “Mommy duck. Daddy duck. Baby duck. Baby duck.” They all snuggled again.

I’m not sleeping or eating well these days, either. As she wakes through the night and refuses to eat dinner and screams until her face is dark I just want to curl up and cry. What do you need from me? Ok. I hear you. I’m so sorry. I’m here.

We can’t have cake pops and trampolines every time she feels upset. And the number of times I have to divide my attention is just going to grow, exponentially. But maybe we can have yes days – and yes minutes. You and me, kid. We do it together.

holy shit

After reading a book and singing a few favorite songs and lovingly scratching her back, I gave her a kiss and walked out of her room. Ah, naptime. Time to sit and relax for a bit before tidying up the house. I sat down on my bed, sipping water and scrolling through Facebook, checking the notifications from my Gentle Humor Parenting Story of the day. Earlier in the morning Rosalyn had gotten ahold of the french press and dumped out the used, wet coffee grounds. Oh, toddlers.

It wasn’t long before she called out to me through the monitor. Unicorn needed a diaper before they could take a nap. Of course, how could I have forgotten? No matter, I’m a pro. I diapered the stuffed animal and soothed her back to a heavy lidded state before quietly padding across the carpet. Once on the other side of the door I chuckled and shook my head. Oh, toddlers. What a cute little scamp I have. Resume relaxation.

Somewhere, God laughed.

Approximately 4.5 minutes pass by and I’m about to consider turning on some Netflix because hey, the bathrooms can wait a little while longer, yeah? Especially after the action packed morning we had.

Softly, her voice comes through the monitor again. “Need help. Mommy? Need help.”

Aw, sweet angel. She needs a little more love today and that’s fine by me. Motherhood is a blessing!

I click on the camera to check where she is in her room. Sometimes she lays by her door and I’d hate to open it on her precious cherub face. That’s when I see it: a large dark mass sitting in the middle of her bed. Strange, the only stuffy she had with her was a white unicorn. Both her teddy bear and hedgehog are in her playroom, waiting patiently for a magical playtime session.

Once again, her small voice pleads over the monitor. “Mommy help. Poop.”

No.

No.

NO.

I leap up and span the distance across my room and down the hallway in four steps and fewer seconds. I slam the door open with little regard for the precious cherub face that was, thankfully, not in it’s path. (Email me for the address you can send my Mother of the Year trophy to.) Rosalyn stands in the middle of the room, her shit covered arms extended out to me. There is a package of wipes to my left. I grab it and begin to extract them in quick succession, throwing them forcefully towards the daughter-shaped feces monster before me. “Why?!” I ask her, deliriously expecting a response. “Why did you do this?!” If she had a much more advanced capacity for communication I imagine she would’ve said something like, “I don’t need a fucking reason, lady – I’m two years old. Try not being so stingy with the cookies next time, huh?” With her limited fine motor skills she tries and fails to make any sort of dent in the layers of excrement, dropping the wipes to the floor and reaching out to me again. “Wash hands? Rozzie wash hands?” She takes a step toward me and I’m unable to harness any sort of calm, gentle response.

“NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. YOU STAY RIGHT THERE. DO NOT MOVE. DO NOT TOUCH ME. NO. NO. NOOOOOOOOOOO.”

You’ve seen Chris Pratt taming the velociraptors in Jurassic World, right? That. Except covered in shit.

(Once again, I’m happy to accept any and all parenting award nominations. Call me.)

The next few minutes are a blur but when I come to Rosalyn is in the tub, fully clothed, water running. She gingerly sticks a few fingers into the stream and shouts victoriously, “All clean!” Omg no, child. Not even close. How have I failed you? I leave her to her rudimentary hygiene abilities, comforted momentarily by the containment properties of the tub. Once back in The Room I find myself dialing my mom for some sort of guidance because I’m on the quickly crumbling edge of a panic attack. I try mightily to give her childhood freedom from my OCD but my anxiety has a line and that line is poop. The phone rings and I inspect my surroundings for the first time, taking stock of the damage. It is smeared on the pillows, the bed rails, the sheets. The carpet, the window sill, the door. Bless her heart it is smeared on drawer handles as she undoubtedly searched for something with which to reverse her horrifying mistake. I’m now able to piece together the poop clues and discover what transpired in absolute silence during those 4.5 minutes. It wasn’t the diaper she had been wearing but one she had somehow retrieved and unwrapped from the garbage can. I imagine the first minute was play-based and then quickly derailed into a mission to wipe her hands clean on various surfaces. Naively, we never got a proper diaper trash can for her room as 90% of her diapers are cloth. Most poop is flushed into the pipes and away from me like God intended, not wrapped up neatly like a potential E. Coli hot pocket. Idiots.

Mom talks me down from the ledge and I then call my husband who is sitting at a grown up desk, talking to grown up people, and not covered in shit at all. Fuck him. While giving him a detailed tour of the horror in front of me because I desperately need someone else to suffer, Rosalyn cries out from her bathtub prison. “Raining! It’s raining, Mommy!” Um, what? I enter the bathroom to find she has discovered how to turn the shower on and is dancing in confused wonder. She has pulled her towel into the tub and proudly explains, “Towel bath.” Water is everywhere. But at least it’s not shit.

Oh, toddlers.

She is bathed and napping in my bed. Her room is disinfected. The carpet is pretreated, waiting to be shampooed. The sheets, pillows, and clothes are in the wash. I need a shower, I can feel poop smeared in the wrinkles of my brain. I’m hungry and need to pee but dare not to leave the bed in case it wakes her up.

Motherhood is a blessing. A shitty blessing.

naptime diaries

I pull the curtain shut. It is heavy and thick and promises to block out the noonday sun; it does an ok job. After we read a book about bunnies (because it’s almost Easter and I try to do cute things sometimes) and before I can pull the brightly colored quilt over her chest, my lemon drop 2 year old looks to me. “Back? Scratch Rozzie back?” Given our history, there isn’t a single atom of me that would say no.

She has been uncharacteristically glued to my side today. She is fiercely, stubbornly, dangerously independent. She spent her infancy screaming in my arms, fighting against unconsciousness with all her tiny might – the only survival instinct she came equipped with. She knew before I did change is just another word for destruction.

“Of course.”

“Of course!” She parrots back and curls up on her pillow. As my fingertips graze her spine, she relaxes. True to form however, she forces her eyes to stay open for an impressive length of time. True to MY form, I feel relieved and victorious when she finally gives in and allows her eyelids to slowly, ever so slowly close.

I stay awhile longer, watching my hand rise and fall with her lungs. What a gift she has given me. Unknowingly.

As a self righteous teen I once held the opinion that this was the work of boring women, women who didn’t have much to offer the world.

Well, I am not terribly interesting but what I have to offer is this girl and the woman inside her cells. She rattles cages, hers and yours. I’ve come to learn that scratching sleepy backs is great work. It is holy work. Ripples that turn into waves.

dear daughter: a letter to my wildfire child

Dear daughter, the world cannot and will not love you like I do. It is simply not possible. You see, your veins are continuations of mine. When I was growing in my mother’s womb I held you already inside of my own, matryoshka nesting dolls of women.

Dear daughter, you are golden like honey and also flame. People will try to consume you then pull away, scorched. Do not let them douse you to ashes. Do not let them have your sweetness and not your heat.

Dear daughter, you are not broken. At least, not any more so than the rest of us. You are not to be fixed. You are to be taken whole and loved entirely.

Dear daughter, I have patience enough for you and when my stores run low I will dig deep and find more. You are worthy of time and understanding and effort.

Dear daughter, know your flaws but neither justify nor apologize for them.

Dear daughter, listen to the voice in your belly when it prods you to speak louder. Understand that passion can scare people who are not ready for it. Get loud anyway.

Dear daughter, there is peace and goodness in silence, too. Understand that reserve can scare people who are not ready for it. Be still anyway.

Dear daughter, do not subscribe to the mistakes of the world. Intelligence is far superior to beauty. Pretty is not your purpose.

Dear daughter, do not subscribe to the mistakes of your mother. Kindness matters far more than intelligence. Superior is not your purpose.

Dear daughter, know that God is love and love is God’s work and above all, above all, above ALL it is what we are called to do. Your self, your family and friends, the man who cut you off in traffic, and the people you cut out for your own peace and health. Let love humble and restore you with the rise and set of the sun.

Dear daughter, balance is a facade. Behind its serene mask a toxic perfectionism is haunting. Let yourself bounce freely and at times wildly from one state to another. Label your days good or bad but never yourself. Allow yourself to be human – hung intentionally between animal and divine.

Dear daughter, remember wherever or however you wander there is a place for you by my side or in my arms. Come what may, I have always been and will always be a home.