My mom gave me soft pink puffs and white periwinkle-wisped wallpaper, pastel peach and lavender clouds. She gave me my own room. It had a window overlooking the playground that divided the neighborhood between affordable housing and the other side. My mom gave me everything she could afford and came home later and later so she could afford more. I had a canopy bed with lace frills dangling down. When I got bigger, I had a loft bed from Ikea. You could fit a desk and a Gateway computer under there, and so she moved the family computer from her room to mine. I took everything she gave me, and I used it. I don’t remember her taking much for herself.
My mom gave me a Wawa hoagie for field trips. My mom gave me a love note in my lunchbox. My mom gave me half of her bed when I was afraid at night. My mom gave me a smart mouth and punishment when I used it on her. My mom gave me a hug after that. My mom gave me a kitten for Christmas and then another kitten when the first cat was put down. We liked cats because cats don’t really need you. When I got married, I moved and left the cat with my mom. And when my mom’s house was full of empty rooms, she moved back in with her own mother. The cat couldn’t come.
The cat had an attitude and hissed and scratched and arched her back a lot. Left dead things at the door. Had blood caked often on the white of her maw. But sometimes she snuck into bed with me, kneaded her paws on my belly. Would curl up in the crooks of me and purr. Like she needed someone after all. Like everybody needs to be taken care of a little. Her name was Honey.
I spread raw honey onto a spoon. I use the spoon to lather gold onto a green candle. Into the candle I’ve etched the word SUPPORT with a straightened-out paper clip. I sprinkle cinnamon and nutmeg that sticks. Prayers whispered under my breath. “Grant me the strength to keep going. Protect me. Protect me. Protect me. Grant me the strength to accept my blessings. May the gates of golden roads open before me. Grant me the support I need to prosper. The people. The resources to meet my needs.” I hold the flame of my lighter to the wick. And it burns high.
My dad gave me $100. He gave me $200. He gave me a flip phone with the ice cream man jingle for a ringtone. He gave me a phone call. He gave Chris a PlayStation. One time, he came over and put all the pillows and blankets on the floor, and he put WWF on the TV, and Chris and I jumped off the couch onto the cushions and practiced the People’s Elbow. And then he was gone again.
My mom didn’t ask him for child support. Did she ask anybody? Did she scratch anything into her Japanese Cherry Blossom candles? Or did she just light a steady flame and keep it burning?
I don’t know what’s hardest for me as a mother. The keeping, the steady, or the burning. Sometimes my baby is a question and I am the only acceptable answer. Even if I’m a question, too. My baby is full of answers about me. Some of them I don’t like to look at. But I do what I have to do, because he needs me.
From the moment the test comes up positive, I find myself necessary. The rapid transition terrifies me. When I didn’t find myself to be important, I treated myself accordingly. Now every choice I make is a choice for another person, someone too small to make their own choices. The responsibility sobers me from my unmoored state. It makes me matter to myself, being integral to someone who matters to me. It’s a call to action that buzzes in my blood and haunts me. To get my shit together. But I meet the challenge.
Because if I don’t eat, my baby doesn’t grow. So I become a woman who eats. I give my baby three meals plus snacks, via placenta. I give my baby a well-kept place to expand in. I give my baby vitamins. I give my baby my body, my blood. When he is born, I give my baby my breast. I give my baby purées. I give my baby cute clothes. Regular checkups. When my baby needs a friend, I give my baby a brother. Two babies now. Like my mom had. When my babies misbehave, I give them a stern voice, a time-out, a talk. They don’t listen to me. I keep trying to listen harder.
Like maybe there’s a code I can crack. Something I’m missing about how to be needed with such severe and unrelenting need. How to still feel at ease. How to breathe from under it. Push through. Keep the flame going. Or how to be necessary and irrelevant all at once. To move into the background of one life and into the foreground of another. To learn by fire to be like air. So much room for tension and such swift judgement for lack of grace.
Like sometimes I don’t want to be touched and they need to touch me. Sometimes I need silence and they need to make noise. On a depressed day, I wonder whether I have it in me to get dressed, but they need me, so I get up and dress us all. Brush three sets of teeth. Sometimes I want to go for a walk and get some sun or get a coffee or communicate face-to-face with an adult who understands — but there’s a heat advisory or a winter warning and I’m not the only person at risk anymore. I make all my Insta Stories from the couch those weeks. Just to be witnessed. As witnessed as I can be through censorship about struggling. Moms aren’t supposed to talk about struggling. Sometimes it feels like the only kind of mother society likes is the silent martyr. A necessary woman with a host of unmet needs.
I’ve always seen my babies as a kind of intervention. Salvation from my path to ruin. I talk often about the pressure of being needed and how it was exactly what I needed when I needed it. How they made me matter to myself. Taught me to take care. To see myself as worth protecting by virtue of being their protector. What I don’t talk about, what’s harder to name, is how easily motherhood can translate into another vessel for self-neglect. How easy it is to be so consumed with being needed that you forget that you need yourself, too, just for yourself. That moving out of the background of your own life and into the foreground of another’s life still leaves your foreground empty.
Like one time, I got sick when the babies were sick, and my husband was at work, and, through a throbbing head, I had to take care of them. I called my grandma to ask, “Who takes care of me?” And she said, “Welcome to motherhood.”
Those days, and many days, I find myself pining for some kind of intervention. For some sentient bubble to float down from the sky and into my living room, for it to pop in my hand, releasing a tiny scroll holding a mandate from the universe to take a break.
But one afternoon, while waiting for celestial aid, my own hand arrives instead. It pens a message on a scrap of paper in hasty scrawl: “If you keep waiting for someone to intervene on your behalf, you’ll wait forever.” I tuck it into my purse to remember.
I take it out when I’m overwhelmed, and then I take a break. I take some space. I take a shower. I take a nap. I take any moment I can. I take a walk to the coffee shop. I take a Lyft to see my therapist. I take my time. I take my eldest to pre-K three days a week. I take them both to a sleepover at my mom’s. I take them both to a sleepover at my dad’s. I take them to a playdate with friends and I take my husband on a date to Dim Sum Garden. I take him to a comedy show. I take myself to the flower shop alone and build a bouquet of fiery colors. I take offerings of support. I take care of myself.
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