Several weeks ago, my husband snapped a photo of our family’s new nightly feeding routine. The scene is set around 3:00 am, the dead of night, and my back is turned toward the camera. I lean over to adjust the breast pump. In the frame, the half of the bedroom we fashioned as a diaper changing station and nursing oasis is dimly lit by a single, soft white bulb. My husband holds our infant son, Charlie, as he greedily suckles a bottle, the contents of which were donated by some other mother with more than enough breastmilk to spare. I sit bathed in white light and attempt to increase my own supply, as the rest of the bedroom glows red. The night light casts bloody shadows across the wall. We are exhausted.
Prior to parenthood, I knew the breadth of change that a newborn would bring: sleepless nights, ringing ears, tested patience. I watched other mothers navigate the early weeks and months, and I thought, “I am up to this challenge.” What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the emotional rawness of the experience. I thought perhaps Charlie’s birth would be a clean slate, a new beginning. His would be a fresh life as yet untouched by the secrets and pain of his ancestors’ trauma. And, in some way, I thought my hopeful focus on the future would seal the jar on my own sadness and loss.
Instead, the experience of bringing a new child into the world was not isolated. I could not wall it off from the past year’s events. Charlie continually reminded me of the DNA discovery–a biological father I would never meet and my mother’s half truths and omissions. I stared into Charlie’s tiny face and big, expressive eyes, and I saw my own eyes reflected. Would I have been so upright if his financial stability and childhood were on the line? If I knew the truth would push him into the same cycle of broken relationships of the family’s previous generations, would I still swear allegiance to it?
I began to see the threads of connection between my own parental experience and my parents’ messy lives. Even though my biological father was no longer alive, his DNA lived on in the tiny human I held in my hands. I had yet to discover which traits of his Charlie carried, and the truth was that I might never be able to distinguish them from the genetic gifts of my maternal line. Would Charlie love dogs and travel? Would he wield a charismatic directness in his older years? Would his almond eyes remain as evidence of Japanese ancestry even as his hair turned my mother’s shade of strawberry blonde?
There was no perfect answer to these complicated questions–no new life blooming except through the roots of the old. Just like the photograph, the legacy of loss glowed red alongside the hope of an unmarred future. There was no separating them. New parenthood taught me that living fully means embracing the reality of what came before.
What the camera portrayed and what my son’s face reflected was this: death is just the beginning of hope.
Reassurance Alice Walker I must love the questions themselves as Rilke said like locked rooms full of treasure to which my blind and groping key does not yet fit. and await the answers as unsealed letters mailed with dubious intent and written in a very foreign tongue. and in the hourly making of myself no thought of Time to force, to squeeze the space I grow into.
I’m on the phone with the sixth nurse, newly discharged.
The past weeks witnessed frantic dispatches for aid via email and helpline,
while the whoosh and suck of the electric pump
Coaxes Canaan’s bounty from my damaged right breast.
My son lays in his father’s arms,
And greedily receives sustenance that my body cannot provide.
Our circle is broken, and I mourn the unnatural rift in this natural process.
Each greeting begins: “Congratulations, momma!”
and ends with, “…enjoy your precious babe,”
and my body’s screams for healing
Drown in twee wishes and sentiment.
Who advocates for the vessel
once she bears her cargo into a new world?
Who mends her battered hull while the sun shines
on the shiny, pink thing, squalling like the storm
they weathered together on the open sea?
I, and I alone, trace the lines of the stitch
That binds me to myself
looking to fix severed connections
Like a ranch hand mends a Texas fence.
I received your message:
Mothers are warriors, heroes, saints
Aloft on a pedestal of words,
A pedestal erected in lieu
of the support withheld.
I am the means to an end.
The pandemic came to town over a year ago. Like the rest of the community, I drew inward to decrease the threat of microscopic invaders ravaging our nation. We all know the stories well. The weekly happy hours and backyard barbecues? Canceled. Stolen moments around the office water cooler? Defunct. Giant wedding parties and dance floors? Obsolete. I, and so many others, staved off total despair by searching for new hobbies—painting, knitting, baking, reorganizing our bathroom shelves. As we surpassed the twelve month anniversary of collective isolation, however, I felt the loss of those little social leisures keenly.
Before the pandemic, I constructed my world around external relationships. I wove silken webs of connection among college classmates, work colleagues, neighbors, friends old and new. My chosen family. These connections were my support system, my entertainment, my first and favorite priority.
My husband, Alex, and I frequently hosted large gatherings. Jovial Halloween house parties, taco dinners before a night out on the town, casual grill-outs, and rolicking New Year’s Eve soirées. During these affairs I loved to smash disparate social universes together to see what conversations arose. These interactions thrilled me when neighbors and acquaintances discovered their shared love of a podcast or bonded over an obscure band they followed.
Then the pandemic winter froze out any hope I had of simulating this level of socialization out of doors. Not even socially distant park picnics or walks beside the lake could survive the freezing temperatures. After months of sitting behind computer screens, even the facsimile video gatherings lost their shiny sheen. I hit a wall.
Meanwhile, Alex joined a Discord channel with several male friends. Each Thursday night, he and twelve other men used the virtual platform to play online games, video chat, and participate in trivia. My heart swelled when I heard his raucous laughter from the other room, but I was also jealous.
Jealous, not of his newfound friendships or the joy he fostered in the midst of a global crisis, but of his unavailability to connect with me. Despite the relative independence we enjoyed prior to the pandemic, I realized he was my last lifeline to human contact. In the before times, I’d supplemented my social appetite with micro interactions—the wave and how are you today at my local gym, the small talk with the bartender when she had a lull between serving rounds. I craved the idle chatter at the bus stop that used to annoy me. Every time I took the dog for a stroll around the block, I yearned to let the leash go long when we met passersby.
To make matters more complicated, I was pregnant with my firstborn. The novelty of planning baby showers and shopping for empire-waisted dresses was dampened by the isolation. I thought of friends in their maternal glory who coordinated photo shoots and birth announcements while I sat at the laptop and pushed Buy on my online shopping cart. Friends and family had only seen me from shoulders up on our video calls. The lack of witnesses to my physical transformation made it feel like an illusion, somehow. I was large and round and stuck at home, a waxing moon locked in the Earth’s gravitational pull. I was a homebody.
Every few months I attempted to recapture some element of spontaneity. I learned how to create lavish cheese plates. I built a makeshift yoga studio in a spare bedroom nook. I ordered takeout and enlisted Alex to eat it with me as we sat in the car across the street from the restaurant. These self-styled car-picnic dates only served to make me more depressed.
My belly continued to expand, and I photo documented the growing girth in the full-length mirror. Tiny flutters from within became more pronounced, and I no longer had to play the game, “Is it baby kicks or digestion?” The spontaneity I searched for had been delivered to me in the form of a wildly changing physique.
If there was anything that could bring specialness to the mundane rituals of my pandemic life, it was the concept that I was housing a tiny tenant. Perhaps this unwilling house arrest could be more of an exclusive party. I began to find joy in the babe’s growth and development and celebrated the wonders of my own adaptation to facilitate life.
This revitalized daily focus brought new questions to mind. What are the things I do for this life inside of me that I’ve neglected for myself? What would I do for my own body if I loved it in the way that I do my friends, my family, my colleagues? After all, this body has supported me for decades longer than it has the stranger within. I began a mental inventory of the ways in which I could nourish and care for both of us, pandemic or no.
I blocked time on my work calendar to stand up, drink water, and stretch. I held forth the boundary that no other meetings could usurp the water break unless there was another open slot in my day to preserve it. I sought new and exotic tea-time snacks. As I bit into chocolate-dipped Pocky sticks or savored Biscoff biscuits with a steaming cup of tea, I banished lingering guilt and shame about the indulgence. The practice was imperfect, but I began to look forward to my oyatsu, a tiny Japanese tea break.
Slowly, these small touchstones illuminated the darker days. They inspired me to explore other self-care—new bath salts and longer bathtimes, slow-moving yin yoga instead of frantic calisthenics, and the freedom to get in bed at any hour of any day, even if just to sit and read. These little crumbs led me away from the abyss and back to myself. Amid the days of hardened isolation I realized the truth: I was not just a homebody. My body was this baby’s home.
The blood test results arrived, and I skimmed the summary via the online patient portal. The doctor’s professional analysis was not yet available, but I took the raw information and Googled the value for each chromosome. All chromosome pairings looked normal, as far as I could tell. I was awash in medical terminology, my head just barely above the surface. No Aneuploidy Detected. Result consistent two copies of Chromosome 21.
The magic of modern medicine was that this genetic screening could both tell me if the baby I carried had obvious chromosomal abnormalities and isolate whether the fetus had XX or XY chromosomes. I could learn my baby’s sex based on information taken from my blood. Or rather, our blood—the technique relied on the assumption that my blood was healthy and that I was female. Any deviations could be chalked up to the little stranger forming in my womb.
The sex chromosome showed an X and a Y. It was a boy! When Alex returned from work, I held the phone screen up and watched his face change slowly as he drew the same conclusion I had. I’m so relieved, he commented. I have so much experience being a boy!
Over the next months, I began to transform one of our spare bedrooms into a nursery. Prior to the discovery of our baby’s sex, I was already passionate about creating a space conducive to any gender expression our child might have. No baby blues or passive pinks for us. There would only be bright, joyful colors. I wanted to leave negative space for my future child—they could color in their own lines. I did not want to tell this future human how or who to be based on a lab test.
I chose rainbowed crib sheets and multicolored polka dot wall decorations. I painted a turquoise accent wall and splurged on a plush, green dinosaur toy. And as I auditioned different window curtains to choose the most playful shade of yellow, I realized I was scared. Unlike Alex, I did not have so much experience being a boy. But I did have so much experience being a girl. I had layers and layers of observations about the privileges boys around me received, the actions they took with and against me, and the experiences of my fellow sisterhood.
As I nested in the nursery, I felt the weight of my responsibility as a newly-christened “boy mom.” Yes, there might be dump trucks and trains and ABC blocks on the horizon. Then again, there might be mermaid tails and princess wands and Barbie dolls, too. I didn’t know yet. But what if my child did express himself in that traditional, raucous, boy way? How could I nurture in him the tools and discernment he would need to be a man in a world where so many self-purported “good guys” did heinous things to women? I swore to the good God above that I would not dismiss bad behavior with phrases like locker room talk.
The questions I had were bigger than finding the right rug for the playroom. I didn’t want to blunt the edges of my future son into a dull, dissolute mother boy. Instead, I needed strategies for how to make his discernment scalpel-sharp. I hoped I could help him wield his power in the direction of equity, resolution, and kindness. My worst fear was that he become a man who succumbs to the trends of the market or corruption of power that often pass as success. How could I become a boy mom that raises her son to be deeply attuned to his conscience? Could I teach my child to use his empathy as a sextant to chart his life’s course?
I decided to start small. I would amass a children’s library that represented varied perspectives beyond his own. This boy could both love baseball and understand the tradition of hijab. He could make finger paint messes and understand consequences and clean up. There would be no shrugging mantra of boys will be boys in this house.
I also realized that I could not teach what I did not, myself, know. I might not be able to control the behaviors of this new, autonomous being, but I could work on my own knowledge and toolsets. I began to evaluate my own behaviors and habits—was I making inroads towards a just and peaceable world? My actions were already speaking for me. What did they say?
Yes, I gave financially to causes I thought advanced equity for women and people of color. I recycled. I read anti-racist literature. I subscribed to podcasts about education initiatives and how nice white parents could elicit unintended consequences. But I started to see gaps where I could do more. The To Do list stretched much longer than I had anticipated, and the baby wasn’t even born yet. Everything already felt out of my control.
I sat on the floor next to the newly-assembled crib, surrounded by children’s books, and the realization came. No amount of parental preparation or discipline that I enforced could guarantee the goodness of my child. I could stack the deck in such a way that he was surrounded by community who loved him and challenged him, who inspired him and held him accountable. I could invest in strong education and literature. I could wrap my own morals around him as a cushion and hope he would make the right choices. But when all was said and done, I would reenact the same cycle I hoped to break.
If I attempted to do the emotional labor for my son, he would not learn how to do it for himself. I could stock his childhood library, but I could not take responsibility for his character. That would be his alone to grow.