Photo: Jorge Santiago

The Book And The Baby

Exactly one week before my first book came out, my daughter weaned and potty trained. She did this in a day. After months, maybe even a year, of my hand-wringing about a possible eternity of diapers, about when and how to perfectly ease her off the boob, she woke up one morning and became a kid.

I didn’t breastfeed for so long out of some profound conviction of nutritional or emotional importance, although I did commit myself to at least a year when my baby was born. Mostly, I continued into the toddler years because it was easy, and The Path of Least Resistance has always been my parenting philosophy. Around her second birthday I started to feel a bit weary, and by the time she was two-and-a-half and screaming things like “Mommy, give me a pretzel and some chichi!” I was fairly maxed out, but I persisted, mostly because the thought of spending two hours to get her to sleep when I could knock her out in ten minutes on the boob kept me lashed to the status quo.

Then one morning, she woke up and wanted to use the potty, and from then on out–minus two spectacular poops she took in her pants while standing beside the toilet, devastating for us all–she just went. That same day, I sat beside her on the bed and said, “We’re not going to do chichi anymore, okay?” and she said, “Okay,” with the same kind of unconcern she has when I remind her that we can’t have jelly beans for breakfast. It appears our family philosophy is to hedge and agonize and procrastinate and continue two or three months beyond the point of necessity so that one day we can just wake up and get it done.

So I weaned, my boobs swelled, and the right one, the hero–many woman have one boob that’s more of a gung-ho gusher than the other–became pebbled and veined and agonized by the end of its rein. Both bled milk when I squeezed them and I felt strangely miserly, withholding this abundance from my daughter out of what? Weariness, entitlement, societal standards, petulance, pettiness? How hard was it to offer up to her eager mouth this flesh I’d offered for years, to press our warm bodies together, to pack her full of another few rounds of antibodies before preschool decimates us all? I felt terribly stingy. My boobs seemed mournful, their seeping droplets thick with cream. And yet how glorious it was to wake up and not be subjected to twenty minutes of aimless gnawing, to no longer worry about my daughter casually commenting, “Mommy, don’t be mean, let me suck on your boob,” at the playground.

Three days, four days, five, and my milk diminished. It no longer fountained but emerged in spare droplets, like water from a desert spring. My boobs shrunk, and my husband finally understood how much of an aberrance the last three years had been in terms of bra size. “They’re so tiny,” he said, as if they were the runts from a litter of puppies.

I was surprised that in the bittersweet diminution of my milk, the severance of that last physical tie, I felt closer to my daughter. We’d each been flailing a bit in the bonds of babyhood, which were becoming too tight. We had been clinging to each other and then pushing each other away: my first real experience of that tug-of-war in which mothers and daughters spend their lives, trying to find an impossible equilibrium between their separate yet fused bodies and identities. One moment we cuddled on the bed, the next we huffed at each other in a standoff over the necessity of socks.

One week after I sat my baby down and told her, “Elena, we’re not going to do chichi anymore,” my first book–an essay collection about motherhood–launched. The power of this juxtaposition and, in fact, the power of having a book actually out in the world had not occurred to me at all before publication day. I found myself–because of hormones or excitement or just the generally overworked state of frenzy I tend to exist in these days–unexpectedly emotional. All these years, manuscripts sent out and rejected, hopeful comments from editors, little peaks and dips of attention and hope and cynicism, and now here was this object in my hand, a commemoration of the journey into and through early motherhood. Here were the questions manifest in type, organized, their very existence in bound form making meaning of that journey.

A book is in some ways a small death: by the time it comes out the intensive period that held and fostered its creation has passed, life has tumbled on to new places and questions. And so to hold this book in my hands also felt like holding my child’s babyhood, and my nascent motherhood, realizing that I have come through it. The questions it fostered are still the central questions of my life, and I have a feeling they will be for the next decade, but they are now slightly less immediate. I am no longer living in a cabin two hours from the nearest coffee shop, no longer wholly dedicated to caring for an infant, with a few spare hours to write about caring for an infant.

I live in a city now, running around picking up groceries and going to story times and cranking out essays and cooking and admonishing my daughter for leaving a supernova of dried black beans on the living room floor. I have been sucked into the doomed but inevitable having-it-all struggle, every day a juggling act that ends with beer and Netflix. It is hard in these early years to see the big picture and yet on that Tuesday morning I saw it clearly in a smooth orange-and-yellow hardback: that transition–solid, wrought, and complete. The foundation of my current life.

I struggled with what to read at my launch party, trying out different sections of the book, until finally it became obvious that I had to read the birth scene. Who does that? I thought, and so of course I had to do it. I practiced it at night in the bathtub, my go-to spot at home for peace and insight. I was hot with steam, I sipped a beer, I read “incarnadine and screaming” a hundred different ways, and then I realized I was enacting another type of birth. (I understand all the problematic oversimplifying of the baby/book metaphor, but my book is about motherhood and contains an actual birth scene, so indulge me for a moment here.) In reading aloud her emergence into the world, all the pain and confusion and the struggle inherent in it, I was finally coming out of that period. I am a mother to a kid now, settled into my motherhood, though more confused than ever as to what sort of I exists within it and how much of me it consumes and how it fits proportionally into a life more jumbled with competing interests than ever. I am done with that intensity of infanthood. Or maybe it is done with me, for I don’t feel as though I have marched out of it so much as stumbled forward. The power and distinction of literature is that it allows me to hold this time and all of its difficult, aching transitions in my hand, renders it incarnate in the rustle of the turning page.

I read “incarnadine and screaming” on the night of my launch party and outside the bookstore it rained as it rained when my daughter was born. Afterwards we all drank little plastic cups of wine and laughed and I signed books and we went for pizza. And the next morning I felt like I had finally come out on the other side of something: not only that period of babyhood, but also a young writerhood where all the build up for years is to a book.

I love my book fiercely, I will do everything I can for it, but then it has to make its own way. People will write wildly inaccurate things about it on Amazon. They will spill beer and yogurt on it. They’ll forget about or underline it. My daughter will go to school. She’ll be embarrassed by the fact that I run in my brother’s sixth grade Northwest Kiwanis T-shirt. She’ll stay overnight for the first time at her grandparents’ farm. I’ll keep writing, just as uncertain, just as confused. But within that solid, smooth cover, the ethereal time when I became a mother will live on forever.

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  • OMG! This is magnificent! I read this and cried. It made me think of my daughter and her dedication to her children. My sister Joan who loves babies, whether they’re her own or other’s. I thought about Campbell’s dog mother who gave him away to strange humans so he could pass through many loving hands along his journey to me, and I cried. OMG! Thanks be to Goddes for all the mothers in the world.
    I made a ton and half mistakes with my daughter, I cannotgo back, but one day, God will make it so I can go forward with her, until then I raise my hands in the air, and cheer all mothers everywhere! Happy Mother’s Day All!

    The Book And The Baby

  • Mae says:

    Lovely, on all fronts. (And I think your “family philosophy” is pretty wise. I know people who labor and fuss and fight and wail and create lots of stress surrounding potty training.)

  • Misty says:

    I love how your give the book her own life and let her be her own person.

  • Priya Kavina says:

    A huge congratulations to you on your first publication!

    I am in the process of writing my first book and can relate to the metaphor you’ve beautifully crafted.

  • Emily says:

    wow – stunning piece! i’m looking forward to reading more, I’m looking forward to you writing more Xxx

  • Casey says:

    Just devoured your book in a day. I am one of the surely many who underlined it and will not forget it. Thank you for writing it!

  • Nancy Slavin says:

    I loved this essay. I related to so much of it, not the least of which was the phrase, “the boob.” I realize now, from reading this, that the only way I was able to finish my first book and put it out there was after my daughter had weaned, when I had the space and perhaps the mind power to finish it. In truth, I had breastfed her longer than I wanted or ever imagined but the trying to get her to stop seemed so much harder than get letting her nurse for a minute or two on my “hero” boob and go the f*$k to sleep. The weaning finally happened one day when declared she wanted to wear eye shadow. I said, “well, if you think you’re old enough to wear eye shadow, you’re old enough to stop having the boob. You’ll need to choose.” She chose the damn eye shadow. Thanks for your work!

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