Sunday, March 10, 2019

"It must be hard being my mom."

Driving home from school on Friday, Vinnie said, “It must be hard being my mom.  I mean, it must take a lot of patience.  How do you do it?”

My heart broke a little, hearing him say that, and I found myself scrambling for an answer. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Of course it’s not hard, buddy!”  I really wanted to reassure him, but both of my kids have a 6th sense for when I'm not being sincere, and I know Vin would pick up on my hesitation.  Because, let's face it, it is hard being his mom sometimes.

(Side note: I don’t know if I’m supposed to be bullshitting my kids on things like this, but I tend not to.  I've tried a few times and either because I'm a bad bullshitter or because they're crazy perceptive, it doesn't go well.   Instead, I try to validate their feelings.  But that's probably its own separate post.)

In this case, I knew where the comment was coming from.  Vin had had a challenging week in school and we were in the middle of a conversation about his school day.  Things hadn’t gone well with teachers or friends, and he was feeling badly about it. 

Vinnie has a great team behind him.  In addition to well-intentioned teachers and parents, he also has a special education liaison, special education team chair, BCBA, speech and language pathologist, school psychologist, outside psychiatrist, outside therapist, school district consultants, and school principal.  And none of us know what the fuck to do.

It’s hard to describe Vinnie and his challenges to other parents.  I can’t make global statements like the one above without sounding overly dramatic.  If I give examples of his behaviors, they’re likely to respond with suggestions that feel insulting and dismissive.  Yes, of course I’ve taken away his ipad when he’s disrespectful.  Yes, of course I make chore charts and expect homework before video games.  Yes, I read with him.  Yes, there have been school meetings.  Yes, he’s in therapy.  Yes, he’s on meds.  Yes, I’ve tried that and that and that.  You know what, just forget it.  Let’s talk about your kid. 

I can’t summarize the complexities of this kid who is the kindest, most generous, most sensitive kid I know who is at the same time the angriest, most anxious and volatile child on his 6th grade cluster.

For a long time I was hung up on diagnosing, but that quickly began to feel like some kind of horrible psychiatric carnival game: pin-the-diagnosis-on-the-child.  He has difficulty separating from me and can become irrationally angry: is that borderline personality disorder?  He was fine just a second ago, now he’s a disaster: is he bipolar?  Did you HEAR that tone of voice?  He’s got to be oppositional-defiant.   His social skills are all over the map.  Am I crazy to think he’s on the spectrum?  He’s picking at his skin again and refuses to write in case he makes a mistake: maybe it’s OCD.  He can’t stop obsessing over what could go wrong: so obviously that’s anxiety. He doesn’t want to do anything and has lost interest in things he used to love: depression.  He can’t get any schoolwork done: maybe it’s just plain ol’ ADHD.    Maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe.  It’s fucking exhausting, that’s what it is.

I don’t know any other parents who are living this.  Maybe they are but they aren’t talking about it. I have one friend whose son is 18, and after years of ups and downs, finally has a diagnosis that is giving the family some hope.  I cling to her stories and pray that someday we’ll get there, too.  But for now, I’m trying to think beyond a diagnosis because in the midst of all of this questioning and googling, I lose sight of the wonderful boy that is Vinnie.  The one who asks me to pack extra snacks because the boy he sits next to in math doesn’t have one.  The boy who regularly brings me coffee in bed.  The one who gets genuinely upset when he sees the cat sitting with his tail wrapped around his feet because “he looks sad.”  The boy who just could not handle Anna describing dissecting a turtle.  He is so sweet, and so kind.  He has just the biggest heart.  So I’ve decided to try very very hard to stop asking "why" and start accepting him for who he is moment by moment, day by day.

That’s hard, too.  

Because literally moments after being sweet and kind and lovely, he can be truly awful.  If it’s a good day or a good moment, I take a deep breath and think before I respond.  If it’s not a good moment, I yell.  And no matter which kind of day it is, my inner monologue is always, “I swear to god, I don’t know if I have the patience for this.”  And I’m the most patient person I know.

So what do we do?  He falls apart and I try to put him back together.  We go to therapy every week. I talk to the school and schedule more tests.  I give him opportunities to feel good about himself and try to focus on the positive.

And when he asks me how I find the patience to be his mom, I respond with the truth, “I love you, buddy.  I will always love you.” 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

It's Quiet Uptown

My family is obsessed with the musical Hamilton.  It started with Anna baffling me by rapping in a really bad French accent.  Before long Hamilton was the soundtrack to car rides, cooking dinner, showers, bedtime.  My favorite roles to sing are Washington and Hamilton.  Anna prefers Lafayette and Jefferson.  Vinnie does a spot on King George.

The first time I listened to the full show was sitting in the car with the kids waiting to pick up Anna’s friend.  My jaw dropped at Say No to This. I laughed aloud at Cabinet Battle #2. When we got to It’s Quiet Uptown, the song showing Alexander and Eliza Hamilton mourning the loss of their son.  Anna peered at me and asked, “Are you crying?”  I was.

It’s true, there are moments that the words don’t reach.  There are moments in my history, parts of the story of Ray and Alex, which I cannot, have not, am not brave enough to speak or write.  Moments that are unimaginable. 

There is suffering too terrible to name, but it isn’t the loss of a child.  The loss of a child is intense, horrifying, and most parents speak of it as an abstract concept and say things, like, “I can’t imagine” and “I don’t understand how you go on.”  The truth of the matter is that, like so many things, you go on because you don’t have a choice.  The very unimaginableness of the event actually helps in a way, because your brain numbs itself, and you find yourself going through the motions of daily life.  You don’t smile.  You don’t feel.  But you move.  You wake up in the morning, you go to bed at night, and slowly, you learn to live with the unimaginable. 

That’s not to say you don’t have moments.  I’ve had plenty of moments.  The time ten years ago when I saw two chubby babies sitting on my kitchen floor so clearly that I had to sit down because I felt like my legs had been knocked out from under me.  The recent dinner when Jim gently pointed out that the 14th fell on Mother’s day this year.    

The 10th, the 14th, the 19th.  Those damn numbers.  They knock me out.  I fall apart.  Can you imagine? 

Horace Mann recently hosted Bill Richard, father of Martin Richard, the little boy who died in the Boston Marathon bombing.  He talked to our kids about the importance of choice.  He said, “You can’t control what happens.”  He meant that his family couldn’t control the situation that lead to the death of his son, the maiming of his daughter, the injuries of hundreds.  “But,” he told our students, “you can control how you react.”  He talked about how he had the option of partnering with counterterrorism organizations, focusing on what went wrong, trying to keep it from happening again.  But that wasn’t the approach he wanted to take.  He decided to take his unimaginable pain and loss and turn it into something positive in the creation of the Martin Richard Foundation.  He talked to us about the work they do with children who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to play on a sports team, how they’re building an inclusive park next to the Children’s Museum, how that land stood undeveloped for 30 years because of bureaucratic pettiness, but it only took Martin 6 months from proposal to groundbreaking. 

As he spoke, I marveled at the grace of this man.  He was real.  He was not a comfortable or polished speaker, but he was an effective one.  When he would pause to collect his thoughts or compose himself, I found myself holding my breath.  Our students were absolutely silent, a feat that any middle school teacher knows is damn near impossible to achieve.  They were listening to every word.  He had an aura about him, a quiet calmness.  Simply put, I liked him and wanted to spend time near him, listening to him.  But something he said rankled. 

You can’t control what happens. 

No, I suppose you can’t control an act terrorism.  Or an act of war.  Or having a fertilized embryo split on day 5, 6 or 7 of gestation.  You can’t control the uterine contraction that kinks an amniocentesis needle.  I couldn’t control when the needle slipped, perforating the lining separating my boys.   I couldn’t control my water breaking at 26 weeks. 

Those things are hard, but they are not unimaginable.  They are not the moments that the words don’t reach.  The unreachable moments are the ones I could and did control.  I made decisions, and they’ve danced in the periphery of my thoughts for eleven years, never spoken aloud or put to paper.  I pushed them away because they’re part of a story I don’t understand and they bring me to a place that is unimaginable. 

My boys were born on May 10th.  They were described to me as “sick,” but I didn’t understand what that meant.  I thought they were just premature, but they were so much more than that.  They had holes in their hearts and their brains were bleeding.  Their lungs were so weak they couldn’t exhale.  On May 12th the bleeding in Ray’s brain had seeped into his cerebellum.  Experts delivered bad news and a decision was made.  My sister asked, “Should I call Mom?”  And I nodded.  She meant, “Is there going to be a funeral?” And I nodded. 

Ray didn’t die hooked up to machines, alarms sounding and nurses running.  Ray died in my arms.  He got there because I told the doctor’s to take him off the machines.  Because I said so, they disconnected him from the millions of wires and tubes that delivered oxygen and God knows what else.  Because I said so, they stopped trying to keep him alive and placed him in my arms. 

And six days later they did it again with Alex. 

These are the moments that the words don’t reach.  These are the moments that I just swim down.  I haven’t written, haven’t said, haven’t whispered the thoughts that have haunted me for eleven years.  But if I don’t, I don’t know how I’ll ever get to the place I long for.

Did I give up on them too early? 

Did I put too much faith in the doctors? 

Did I ask enough questions?  Did I ask the right questions?  If I’d just held out another day or two, would it become clearer what the right choice was?  Why did I feel the need to make decisions so quickly?  Why didn’t I tell them to wait?  If I’d told them to wait, would they be alive right now?  Are they dead because I didn’t wait? 

Are they dead because I didn’t believe enough? 

Are they dead because I didn’t believe? 

Forgiveness.  Can you imagine?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Inside Out: A Peek into Mama's Brain

Inside Out
Go see it.  Right now.

The other day Anna asked me, "If I were an emotion, which one would I be."

I don't think she saw the Pixar film Inside Out.  (I saw it with Vinnie and absolutely loved it.  It's an incredibly powerful movie.) Maybe her friends did or maybe it's been turned into an online quiz that kids pass around. Whatever the reason, she asked, and I found myself on very dangerous ground. 

I had the choice to be honest.  Or snarky. Or sarcastic.  Or a fun combination of the three.  And there was a time not so very long ago when I could have been. We'd have laughed at my snarky sarcasm and life would roll right along.  If I had gone down that path, I'd have told her that she would be Impatience.  Or Frustration.  Or Exhaustion.  Because, honestly, that's her primary emotional footprint these days.  She's judgmental with me, short tempered with Vinnie, tired ALL. THE. TIME, and just plain Bitchy in between.

But I couldn't tell her that.  I couldn't look to my baby -- the girl who distinguished herself from her like-sized preschool peers by continuously bobbing up and down, the girl who came in 3rd in her all-boys football team "Strong Man" competition, the girl who showed me text messages from an old friend with fear in her eyes, saying she was worried about him -- I couldn't look at her and give her a label with a negative connotation. To do so may be honest, but it would also be upsetting.  As much as I strive for honesty in my parenting, there are certain truths that are temporary, and I'm hoping that Anna's moodiness is one.

Instead, I hemmed and hawed.  I pretended to ponder, looking off into the distance and tapping my chin for show, while my brain kicked into overdrive trying desperately to come up with an emotion that was both plausible and complimentary.  I thought of my bouncing pre-schooler, my football playing pre-teen, the curvy young woman who thundered down the stairs, breathing "pleasepleasepleaseplease" the day the flyer for a summer course in crime scene forensics was sent home.  And I decided,

"Excitement.  You would be Excitement."

"Really!?!" she replied, excitedly.

We laughed.  She said she really hadn't meant to use that tone.  And for a moment I had my little girl back.  She began to recall examples of her excitement, and I confirmed that her evidence had factored into my decision making. I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd done it.  I'd passed that moment's parenting test.

So I didn't see he curveball that should have been obvious.

"What would Vinnie be?"

Well, shit.

And again I'm back where I started.  Only this time, I'm praying my daughter doesn't chime in with an emotion before I can get mine out.

Vinnie is in therapy to help him manage his frustration with everyday life. He throws things. He has a history of trying to destroy or give away his favorite toys when he is angry with himself.  He's the kid whose initial reaction is negative, even when faced with something good.  "Vin, want a cookie?"  "No.  I mean,  yes."  He's sensitive.  His feeling are easily hurt.  He would rather quit than lose.  He's the boy who asks to sleep with me at 8pm every night, and the boy whose powerful nightmares find him finishing out the night in my bed more nights than not.

While I prayed Anna wouldn't chime in with Anger (Vinnie's favorite character in the movie), I thought of my friend Erin, Vinnie's biggest fan.  She often comments on his big heart.  She helps me understand that his worries and frustration come from his awareness of self and others. He has big reactions because he just *feels* more than the rest of us.

Knowing Erin would be proud of me and that my lap would soon be full of lanky, wiggling 8-year-old-boy, I said,

"Love.  Vinnie is Love."

The parenting gods must have been smiling on me that day, because Anna didn't disagree or argue. She agreed and we had one of those family sitcom moments when the kids hug the over-worked but well meaning mom and they all spend a few moments appreciating what they have.  If our life had a soundtrack it would have played while the credits rolled. But life doesn't work that way. Dinner needed to be made, TVs were turned on too loud, teenaged daughters slammed doors, and our picture perfect moment became any given evening at the Cotillo homestead.

I have plenty of parenting fails, so it's nice to be able to share a win. It felt like this was a big one.  And I hope it is.  I hope my kids know that they are more than their temporary reaction to a problem...that they are better than their worst day.  Emotions are a minefield, and I hope I can help my kids navigate them with growing confidence and forgiveness.  

Oh, I almost forgot. When I asked Anna what I would be, she thought for a while and said, "What is it called when you're happy but not like, overjoyed?  Just sort of calm. Is that content?  I think you're Content."

I will absolutely take that.   

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

18 light bulbs

Today I went to Stop-n-Shop and bought a gallon of milk, bananas, grapes, pretzels, hamburger buns, and 16 light bulbs. The milk we need for cereal.  The bananas are my saving grace now that I've gone to a no-added-sugar diet.  The grapes and pretzels are snacks for the kids to take to their summer classes, and the hamburger buns are for dinner tonight.  The light bulbs.  Well...  I'll come back to the light bulbs. 

I think it will come as a surprise to very few people when I admit that I am often overwhelmed.  This past school year was particularly challenging. Into the regular mix of single parenthood, teaching, and graduate school, I added a number of new and exotic stressors.  My son was involved in either academic or psychological testing the *entire* school year.  My daughter sustained a concussion that had her missing school time from February through May, and I developed some sort of mystery illness that sapped me of my strength.  There was good news- I got engaged! There was bad news - ice dams created puddles in my kitchen.  By the time June 26th rolled around and the school year came to a blessed end, I weighed thirty pounds more, felt five years older, and was more ready for a summer vacation than I've ever been.

I started this vacation the way I begin all summer vacations: with big plans and optimism.  The first days of summer are filled with the luxury of 8 hours of sleep, unrushed cups of coffee sipped from a comfortable couch, and the comfort of the promise of 8 weeks of calm and serenity. Given all the time not spent at school, I always feel as though I'll have hours and hours with which to clean my house from top to bottom, plant an herb garden, cook healthy meals,  teach my son to ride a bike without training wheels, go on long walks with my daughter, learn to make homemade pizzelles, volunteer for charitable causes, and start writing that novel I outlined 10 years ago.

So how do I end up here - a fridge full of hot dogs and a freezer full of chicken nuggets and ice cream, dehydrated plants wilting, my son's bike parked in exactly the same spot it was on his birthday a full month ago.  How can I fall from beautiful expectation to dismal reality in just two short weeks?

So I decide it's time to get my shit together and I start writing to do lists.  They used to be handwritten on those long notepads you can get in the dollar section of Target.  But now I keep them on my phone, each major to do item can be clicked upon to reveal the multiple smaller tasks the must be done to accomplish the main goal.  I love this app.  It's purple and pretty.  It makes lines through the things I've accomplished and saves them so I have the satisfaction of scrolling down to see just how much I've done.  It provides inspirational quotes.  It's lovely.

Of course, just making the do list isn't an accomplishment.  Unless you put "make to do list" on your to-do list.  Don't think I'm not above that.

My lists are often ambitious.  I'm not just going to clean my room.  I'm going to completely reorganize it so I can have a functional home office space and finally get my laptop off the dining room table,  I'm not just going to pick up the basement.  I'm going to get rid of the old furniture, replace it with smaller, more child friendly pieces, and carve out a crafting area for myself.

I know.  Cute, right?

Let's be honest. I don't need to "make a work space" in my room; I need to clear the shit off the desk so I can put my laptop on it.  I don't need to "sort kid clothes."  I need to clean their rooms and throw things away.  I need to clean the bathrooms.  I need to vacuum the stairs.  I need to clean the kitchen, dining room, living room, and basement.  I need to repack my basement storage that somehow belched its contents all over itself sometime between Christmas and now.

In short, my house is a mess.

Glass-half-full Mary thinks, "No problem!  I can get all of this done in a week!"  But as the days tick by and only one major to-to gets checked off, the glass is looking suspiciously less full.  Then I have to get the kids to summer classes, get myself to summer school, prepare for presentations to be given at various conferences, and try to jam in all the doctor's and dentist's appointments I've been pushing off for the past three months.  Realist Mary chimes in, "Let's shoot for donating the clothes and redoing the basement, okay?"  My 8 weeks of calm are quickly lost in summer days spent driving to concussion specialists in Boston and talking to summer school teachers about Vinnie's outbursts of temper and trying to wrap my head around how *exactly* I'm supposed to redesign the school library with no staff and no budget.  I  know serenity has flown the coop when I end up spending $50 on organic, all natural, grain-free cat food because the pet store in town doesn't stock the $25 organic, grain-free food the cats eat, and I can't tolerate another twenty minutes in the car with Vinnie to drive to a store that does.  And that's when it happens.  Glass-Half-Empty Mary takes over.  She doesn't say anything.  She just hands me a glass of wine and sits my ass on the sofa with a book.  If she did speak, it would sound something akin to "Fuck it."

So there I sit, Kindle in hand, glass of wine nearby, when Anna comes down to ask for a light bulb.  I look up at her.  "Already?"

See, sometime in the fall, Anna's overhead ceiling fan light burned out.  The CFL bulbs I had were too big to fit, so I just gave her a lamp for next to her bed.  I added light bulbs to the shopping list and headed off to Target.  There I purchased light bulbs that were marketed as ceiling fan bulbs.  When I tried to install them into Anna's room, I discovered they were too small.  I went back to the store, returned them for regular bulbs - not CFL because they don't fit under the glass dome of the light fixture.  I installed one, but the filament broke because of all the vibration from the ceiling fan.  So I hit Amazon.  I bught a pack of ceiling fan bulbs that looked larger than the ones I bought at Target.  When they arrived I discovered that they too were the wrong size. At that point I gave up.  Anna would just have to make do with a lamp.

So when she comes downstairs to ask for a light bulb a full nine months later, I feel nine months of making-do come crashing down on me.  I look at the piles of shoes by the door, still stacked atop the winter boot tray I haven't bothered to put away.  I look at the waffle iron sitting on the floor next to the pantry door instead of inside the pantry.  I look at the dirty sock peeking out from under the couch, the hay leaking out from the sides of the guinea pig cage, the dust bunnies collecting in the corners of the stairs, and I am done.

What kind of mother am I?  This is ridiculous!  Why can't I stick with a child chore schedule?  Why can't I do one thing until it's done before starting the next task?  Why can't I get my shit together?  A mother with her shit together has light bulbs in the house so her daughter can see in her bedroom, for the love of god!

So I go to the store, buy some provisions, 2 packages regular light bulbs, 2 CFL light bulbs, and 4 packages of vibration resistant, appropriately sized ceiling fan bulbs.  I install the bulb and ensure that it fits and works.  And I go downstairs to get the rest of my life in order.

The dirty sock is still under the couch.  I'll get to it when I finish this chapter.  

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Much. More. Most.

I think it's human nature to compare.  I know I spend my days comparing my body to other women, comparing the cleanliness of my house to others, comparing the behavior of my children to others.  I can't say whether or not this is also human nature, but I almost always find myself lacking in comparison. 

In the first year or two after losing the boys, I made a lot of grief comparisons.  There were so many people who had it worse than I.  Why, I'd be SO much worse off if I'd lost the boys when they were 10 or 6 or 3.  I told myself that there were so many worse losses in the world and that I needed to keep mine in perspective.

I remember a well-meaning friend of Tony's sent us an article (Vessels by Daniel Raeburn) about a couple who suffered through a still birth.  I'm sure there were many redemptive qualities to the article, but all I remember are two scenes.  The first was when the baby was born and the author recalled the feeling of the plates of the skull grinding against one another.  I was horrified.  What an awful loss those people endured!  At least I'd never had to experience that!  And then, there was the scene where the couple goes to a support group.  The grieving attendees all tell their stories and at the end of the meeting the wife says to the author/husband, "That last couple?  There is someone out there has it worse than us!"  The couple that sparked that remark had described losing twins from TTTS.  Then I was livid.  Not at the author; I understood what he was doing.  He was making himself feel better by thinking about others who have it worse.  I'd done that all the time.  But I was furious with the "friend" who sent the article.  What comfort can possibly come from knowing you are living the worst case scenario?

Even then, it took a long time for me to stop comparing.   

In reading a recent article about the passing of Beau Biden, I read a story about what Vice President Biden said when Beau returned home from war.  He admitted to feeling somewhat guilty that his son returned when so many others did not, and he said, "Not all losses are equal." 

Despite the fact that I felt that way for a long time, too, I now must disagree.  Now I say that it is foolish to compare losses.  Regardless of the ______ (what *is* the appropriate word? Depth?  Severity? Worthiness?  I'll be damned if I'm about to quantify) of the loss, the emotional toll is the same.  Loss is like a hurricane that destroys modest apartments and million dollar beachfront properties with equanimity; it doesn't matter how swanky the residence, the occupants are still homeless.

It took a year, maybe more, for me to stop making comparisons.  I was able to, in the words of a wise friend, "connect, not compare."  Once I was able to do that, I was much better equipped to interact with people experiencing loss.  A friend who was derailed from the loss of a beloved pony said, "I'm sorry.  This is nothing compared to what you've been through."  And I was able to say, sincerely and honestly, that ALL loss sucks, and that there was no use comparing.  Since I stopped comparing, I've been able to be present and (I hope) comforting to friends losing family members, pets, and unborn children.  There is no point comparing losses.  I truly believe that. 

But just because I believe it doesn't mean the rest of the world does.  And one demographic I've found particularly prone to making comparisons is children.

My children, aged 13.5 and almost 8, make comparisons constantly.  They ask if I love one cat more than other.  They ask if I think one cat loves them more than anyone else in the family.  They ask me which class is my favorite, which student. They say, "I'm your favorite, right?" and ask  "Who do you love more?"  They say it playfully, but I'm pretty sure there's an element of seriousness behind the question.  They've even asked me if, when I remarry and add two step brothers to the family, if I will love those boys as much as I love them.   

And this is where I start flying on instinct.  I didn't read a lot of books about child loss in the months and years after the boys died.  There just aren't a lot of resources out there for a loss like mine.  Instead I sort of followed my gut and went to therapy on a regular basis.  And one thing I decided very early on is that Anna needed to know that she was "enough."  That I couldn't spend the day in bed because she needed to know that she was important enough for me to get up.  That she was enough to make me happy.  And that I loved her enough that I wouldn't disappear.

I remember a conversation with a friend who had suffered a miscarriage before the birth of her first child.  She was wearing a mother's necklace and had a bead that represented the lost child.  She asked if I had any similar jewelry and I said no.  Somehow the conversation to turned to Christmas as she was surprised to hear that I didn't have stockings on my mantle with the names Ray and Alex.  I told her that I worried that Anna would feel less important if I did that. Then I made the leap from equal to better.  Anna is not equal to two dead babies.  She's more than. And she needs to know it.  I remember saying, "You can't compete with dead."    

In 2007 Anna got a brother - talk about competition!  Then her father and I divorced, and Daddy married a woman with three children.  More competition!  Last year they gave Anna and Vinnie a half-brother.  Even more competition!  Now here I go getting engaged! The poor darlings!  Now, don't get me wrong.  Anna and Vinnie love their step and half siblings.  And they love Jim's boys.  But that's an awful lot for two little hearts to manage.  For those reasons and countless others, I need my children to know that they are number one priority in my life. 

So when they ask, "Who do you love more?" I answer simply in ways that they can understand.  "I love you two both equally (yes, equally!), but I don't love any other thing or person in the world as much as I love you.  I will always love you two MOST." 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A soft place to fall

I find myself a little stuck.  I started this blog with the intention of first using it to share the pieces I'd written about losing the boys, and then segueing into writing about motherhood in general.  But the pieces I first posted were written and edited over a period of years.  I'm having a hard time with the idea of simply writing and clicking "publish."  What if it's not *good?*

I've decided to say screw it.  Screw it!  I'm gonna write.  And I'm gonna publish.  And it will be what it will be.

And I'm sorry if it sucks.

Okay.  Deep breath.  Here goes.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Motherhood by the Numbers

I wrote this piece the last time Mother's Day fell on the anniversary of the boys' birth.  Happy 10th Birthday, sweet baby Ray and fiesty Alex.  I love you. 

Numbers are important to mothers.  Take any baby to a grocery store and you’ll be inundated with number questions.  “Is he your only?”  “How many children do you have?”  Mothers-to-be ask number questions, too.  How long was your labor?  How long did you push?  How many days in the hospital?  New mothers obsess over numbers:  minutes of nursing, hours of sleep, days till doctor’s appointment, weight, height, head circumference, number of wet diapers.  

A mother’s life is ruled by numbers.  Bed time is at 7, naptime at 12.  School gets out at 2:35; gymnastics is at 4:45.  Anna weighs 52 pounds and takes 2 teaspoons of Claritin each morning.  Vinnie weighs 23.7 and has an ear-check appointment on the 17th at 11.  

I’m an English teacher by profession, a reader by choice, and someone who spends most of her days devoted to the pursuit, enjoyment, and study of words and language.  Numbers do not come easily to me.  I bungled my way through high school math classes, relieved to make it to college where a class called Critical Thinking fulfilled my math requirement.  And yet, I find my mind often drifts to numbers.  Loading the dishwasher or sweeping the living room, numbers present themselves to me.  I roll them around my mouth, wear them down until they are smooth as sea glass and as familiar and battered as the bracelet I’ve worn since my daughter’s birth.  They go in pairs or trios.  26 and 70.  4 and 9.  10, 14, and 19.  4, 3, and 2. 
Spring is the season of numbers for me.  It used to be that every month brought with it a new challenge of numbers.  Every month has a 10th, a 14th, a 19th – days that I mark as beginning and ends.  But now I’ve gotten to the point when it’s only those days in May that really make me pause.  

My twin boys, Ray and Alex, were born on May 10th, 2005.  Ray died on May 14th.  Alex died on May 19th.   If they were alive, we’d celebrate their 4th birthday on Mother’s Day.  

In a catalog I found a necklace that I’d like to receive for Mother’s Day.  It’s a silhouette of a bird on a branch with a baby bird facing her.  Customers can specify the number of baby birds to add to the branch.  I wonder for how many baby birds I should ask?  Two would make the most sense to most people, but four feels like the honest answer.  A necklace with five birds on it reminds me of the name-plate necklaces my friends wore in college; me wearing a necklace with five birds is the equivalent of wearing “Samantha” when everyone knows you as “Sam,” “Elizabeth” when you’re really “Liz.”  A necklace with five birds seems ostentatious and showy.  A necklace with five birds would invite questions.  A necklace with three birds would not result in awkward silences and me feeling the irrepressible urge to apologize.  A necklace with three birds is easier on everyone.  

But I’ve had four children.  

I cry a lot, but I don’t like to cry in front of people, even people I love.  I rely on the numbers to get me through painful conversations.  Numbers, as I appreciate now so much more than I did in Trigonometry, are safe.  I practice in front of a mirror, saying the phrases and keeping my eyes dry.   The numbers tell the story for me and help explain.  They were born at 26 weeks.  They had a 70% chance of survival.  

I avoid saying, or even thinking, words like “just” or “should”.   Numbers have no connotation.  No drama.  Numbers are factual, simple, and honest.  Numbers are finite.  Ray lived for four days, Alex for nine.  If I focus on the numbers I can keep bitterness at bay; I can fend off retrospection and doubt and fear.  If I think about the numbers, I think about what is, not what might have been.   

They would be four.   They could be playing tee-ball and wearing big-boy underwear and playing with their big sister.  They could have been starting preschool and learning letters and shapes and colors.  They could be tearing apart my house and giving me wrinkles and grey hair. 

Sometimes, I don’t feel big enough to hold all these numbers.

26 weeks.  70%   3 days.  9 days.  

May 10th, 14th, 19th.

Four babies, three pregnancies, two children.

I lost my boys four years ago.  They were born at 26 weeks due to complications from Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome.  Ray lived for four days.  Alex lived for nine.  My daughter Anna is 7 years old.  My son Vinnie will be 2 on June 14th.  

Four babies, three pregnancies, two children.  And me.