A Good Poke in the Eye
It was a bottomless sleep, the kind of drooling, narcotized slumber known only to shift workers, summering teenagers, and the mothers of small babies. This was a thick, pillow-faced oblivion that claimed me, not so much restful as desperate. I might have remained unconscious in the same position for hours longer, maybe even days, had it not been for the moist thumb that was gingerly peeling back my eyelid. Instinctively I jerked my head away, still lost in a fog of dreamless exhaustion. But the thumb came again, this time poking into my eye as it pulled the lid up. A giant, blurry cartoon of a face swam into view, all fuzzy halo and cheeks, toothless, with enormous blue eyes. I shrank away, but the thumb was relentless, yanking my eyelid up toward my hairline. Panicking, and with both eyes open now, I struggled to fit together who and where I was. Was I being probed? Tortured? Drugged? Was there any hope of escape? Then my blurry tormentor leaned in closer and I could smell its sweet, faintly milky breath. “Mama!” it crowed, face splitting into a wide, gummy grin. “Mama! Mama! Mama!” Relief flooded my body. This was no alien seeking to harvest my eyeballs, but only my eight-month-old daughter deciding that it was time for mommy to wake up and join the fun. I pulled her onto my chest for a hug and tickled her under her plump chin. She squealed and giggled and patted my face with her damp little hands. If you can live with the occasional sharp poke in the eye, babies make the perfect alarm clocks—no snooze button, no batteries to wear out, and no denying when sleepy time is over. Good morning, mommy!
It took no time at all for my wild baby girl to teach me that every expectation I had regarding parenthood was off base. Instead of allowing herself to be propped up in various charming poses—the better to model her many chic ensembles—she made it clear that she hadn’t come into this world merely to be decorative, but to spend every waking moment in my arms. Rather than snoozing the days away while her daddy and I carefully researched the optimal intellectbuilding toys (or slept, ate, and showered), she insisted on remaining happily alert, her eyes never leaving our faces. She stood on our laps from birth, her legs wobbly but strong, so determined to finish anything she started. She scared us a little, to be truthful, especially me.
My first mistake came in assuming that newborns arrived without much personality to speak of, that it took them a bit to turn into people. I thought she might loll about in a knit jumper like a sweetly scented blob while I caught my breath and tried to figure the whole scene out. Wrong. Right from the start I fumbled everything, from the sticky tabs on her diapers (baby lotion renders them instantly useless), to the bewildering array of snaps on her pajamas (imagine cramming an octopus into a bagpipe). When I scratched her leg with the sharp prong of my engagement ring, the sight of her little face twisting in pain nearly ripped the heart from my chest. Afraid of burning her, I made her bath water too cold. Afraid of starving her, I woke her repeatedly to eat. Afraid of dropping her, I squeezed her too tightly. Holding her in my arms, I couldn’t believe that she was really mine, and I wanted to gobble her up, from her wee niblet toes to the silky and fragrant crown of her head. She made me deliriously happy—and horribly afraid. This was more than an awesome responsibility; this was an actual life, gazing at me with complete trust, deeply interested in whatever I planned to do next. Knowing me, how could I not botch it up?
I wanted more than anything to be a good mother, but I knew that good intentions alone wouldn’t get the job done. Not with my background, riddled with the kinds of dysfunction more common to gangsta rap and good old-fashioned country music than any middleclass family fairy tale you’re likely to hear. My mental home movies are filled with action-packed scenes of lying and leaving, guns and police, drugs and coked-out, barely legal girls with semen smeared on their faces—a picture made complete with the requisite seamy visits to daddy in prison. It was enough to convince me that I might make a poor candidate for parenthood—even pet ownership seemed like a dicey proposition.
Face it: You know when you’re screwed up, when you’ve got issues, baggage, unresolved conflicts. You know when you’re damaged goods, even if no one else can tell—particularly if no one else can tell. Having spent my twenties as a ticking time bomb of maternal neurosis waiting to happen, I slid into therapy and my thirties panic-stricken at the thought of having—and possibly hurting—a family. And I was tired enough for someone twice my age. Tired of running in place, of making everything seem perfect when it was anything but. I’d been screaming, “I can do it!” my whole life, but I washed up on a therapist’s doorstep whimpering just the opposite. I felt like one of the poorly made or damaged toys in the old stop-motion animation Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the ones who banished themselves to a lonely island, a haven for a Charlie-in-the-box (as opposed to “Jack”) or a train with square wheels. I was a misfit toy too, and it was time to admit it.
We’re the girls who’ve ducked the toughest punches thrown our way, the lost girls who’ve beaten the odds, the products of broken homes and ruined families. We’re the ones they counted out. Except, we were different. Somehow we turned the booze, drugs, violence, deceit, abandonment, abuse, or apathy of our early lives into the foundation for something strong and resilient, something good. We transformed ourselves from victims into survivors. Now, all grown up, we look perfectly normal, better than normal even. Competent. Driven. Focused. Disciplined. Perfectionist, high-achieving go-getters. Bred in chaos, we’re now the rock in a crisis. Too bad we don’t feel that way on the inside. That dark place is a jumble of noise and emotion, a place where we are terrified of repeating history.
What do we know about nurturing, stability, or patience? Our deepest fear is that we’re too ruined to be good mothers, a fear that’s magnified every time we open a magazine or flick on the television only to find yet another expert explaining how abused kids tend to grow up to be abusers themselves. It doesn’t matter that friends and colleagues consider us the undisputed master of the three C’s: calm, competent, and confident. The voices in our heads are screaming something else, and it’s that message of fear and craven lunacy that you really believe. Screwed up, it says. Ugly, stupid, useless, selfish. Not good enough, phony, fake, a fraud. Success, cash, toys—nothing drowns out that voice for long. Motherhood, the biggest, most awesome and overwhelming challenge in life might only make it louder, at least temporarily.
Even those lucky enough to have grown up in ideal Beaver Cleaver—type families have their own lurid tales to tell. There are plenty of Misfit Moms who never laid eyes on a pistol or a parole officer yet still feel like imposters, ill-equipped for parenthood, for responsibilities that seem to come so naturally to others. A Misfit friend from a happily intact family with no woeful stories in her past said of herself, “I’m like an incompetent nervous freak in a human costume. What could I ever do with a baby but screw it up?” Misfits may be born or made, but one thing’s for sure: although the Misfit Mom-to-be may look like every other hip chick browsing in Baby Gap, inside, we know we’re different. Churning, giddy to be pregnant, despairing of our own inadequacies, scared, worried, and overjoyed all at once. This is the emotional whiplash of the Misfit Mom-to-be. It would be wonderful to enjoy a serene and Buddhalike gestation, but who are we kidding? The Misfit path is never that smooth. It’s always twisted, rocky, and strictly uphill. But this time, you really don’t have to climb alone.
Looking back, let’s be honest and acknowledge that our parents didn’t give having kids much serious thought. They didn’t have strategies or philosophies. What they had was little or no effective contraception, which is how most of us made it into the world. Children today are widely viewed as precious bundles of raw potential, treasures, the very hope and soul of the future. We, on the other hand, were mouths to feed—mouths that at any moment might dare to speak, possibly bringing shame and embarrassment or worse upon the whole family. That’s not to say that our parents didn’t love us. They did, in their own way, though it’s tough to argue that their love wasn’t always of the unconditional variety. In fact, a good many of us were made to take better care of them than they ever took of us.
Lacking the sane, predictable security that kids require in order to grow up healthy and whole, we cobbled together another sort of life, one built on lies. There were the lies we told neighbors, teachers, and the parents of our friends, and the worst lies of all, the ones we told ourselves. We lived a double life, split on one side by screaming or violence or terror, and on the other by excuses, pleas, and promises not kept. We teetered in the middle, learning to control what little we could, keeping our hair and clothes clean, finishing our schoolwork on time. Too many of us became the products of the broken homes, the first children of divorce—the weary and scarred progeny of a generation’s worth of scarily unfit parents.
Our families split up when divorce was new, before anyone had had a chance to figure out the rules. We paid the price, not just in shame and self-doubt, but also in the dreary wagonloads of baggage that we’ve been hauling behind us ever since. We can’t help but wonder: Will I be the same as my mother or father? Is there some psychological or genetic trigger buried deep within me that will one day go off, turning me into the kind of parent who hits, or screams, or hurts, or just plain leaves? Is it possible to be wired for that, to be doomed by one’s own history? To answer yes is to give up, to admit defeat, something no Misfit worthy of the name has ever done. Overcoming the past may not lie just in making peace with it, but in rethinking it altogether. Can we cast ourselves as heroes instead of victims? Can we turn an inventory of dysfunction into one of strength? I think we can, and the sooner you believe it, the sooner you can harness your considerable Misfit power for good—your own good.
The trouble with Misfits is that we sometimes lack clarity on what is acceptable versus unacceptable behavior. Having grown up under battle conditions, we tend to confuse the criminal with the quirky, or view as typical what any sane person would consider appalling. For example, your dad wearing a lampshade on his head after a few too many slugs of scotch is quirky. Your dad reaching for a loaded pistol and shooting the lampshade full of smoking holes is criminal. See the difference? If you grew up in the latter family, it may be a challenge to separate the two. Misfits are so used to making excuses and lies to cover the trashy or terrifying truth that we can lose sight of just how ghastly our origins were. Since there are so many varieties of dysfunctional Misfit experience (and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many firsthand, with the possible exceptions of alcoholism, bestiality, and devil worship—and I still wonder if I didn’t get a little taste of that last one), it might be helpful to review the following examples of typical, utterly appalling, and criminal behavior.
Target shooting: typical. Quirky, but typical.
Target shooting using your child’s dolls or toys as targets: Utterly appalling.
Target shooting in the house using your spouse as the target: Criminal.
Parents shrieking, howling, and screaming at each other: Typical.
Parents cursing, denouncing, and openly threatening each other: Utterly appalling.
Parents cursing, denouncing, and openly threatening their kids: Criminal.
A beer after work, a glass or two of wine with dinner: Typical.
Three bottles of wine, dinner forgotten, kids left to fend for themselves: Utterly appalling.
A bottle of Jack, mommy passed out on the couch in her own puke: Criminal.
A parent lights a cigarette while taking care of baby: Typical.
A parent lights a water bong while baby sobs in playpen: Utterly appalling.
A parent lights the couch on fire in rage over partner’s infidelity: Criminal.
Emotional, verbal, physical, and substance abuse are the arsenal of weapons in any unholy family war. Shell-shocked veterans, Misfits have seen it all: the broken glass, the empty bottles, the yelling, slamming, drinking and drugging; the social workers and sheriff’s deputies; and for a lucky few, the spectacle of a parent tricked out in an orange county-jail jumpsuit being paraded on the local television news. Is it so surprising that we’re afraid to have children of our own? We don’t know what normal looks or feels like. We don’t know how good mommies and daddies behave. Healthy, functioning families are things we’ve only seen on television, or glimpsed with longing through the windows of other people’s homes. Our own houses were never so tranquil. The Misfit Mom-to-be understands all too well how swiftly a home can turn into a frightening place, and how easily children become the casualties of raging adult battles. We know the sorrow, powerlessness, and fatigue that come from having no means of escape. What we don’t always know is how strong all of that has made us. Having godawful parents does not guarantee that you’ll be one, too. It just means you’ll have to work a little harder to master all the basics you missed the first time around.
Misfits not only tell the best stories, they make the greatest friends, because there’s nothing you can do or say to shock them. This also happens to be an extremely useful characteristic in a mommy. My dearest friend Marsha survived two helplessly alcoholic parents, put herself through college on a full scholarship, is raising a pair of bright and beautiful children, and is the one person to have on hand should anything catch on fire, or require bail money, stitches, or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After a childhood spent prying empty bottles out of her unconscious mother’s hands, and mopping up enough regurgitated Kentucky bourbon to fill a wading pool, Marsha is a mommy who can handle anything a baby might spew.
Inspirational Misfit stories are everywhere. I met a gorgeous older woman in a grocery store whose father used to practice his amateur knife-throwing act in their kitchen, using beer as a lubricant and her mother as a target. Today, she’s polished, successful—and the mother of smart, healthy, high-achieving children. My own father once held me, my grandmother, and my boyfriend’s asthmatic and obese Chihuahua, Buckwheat, at gunpoint in the kitchen for over two hours. He was in full-blown freebase psychosis, raving and cursing, threatening to kill us all—starting with “that goddamn wheezing dog.” Poor Buckwheat. I turned out okay, if having a college degree, an amazing career, an adoring husband, and delightful and healthy kids fits the definition.
My sister-in-law found herself homeless at fifteen after an ugly divorce distracted her parents to the point of forgetting she existed. Today she’s a happily married mother of five whose oldest son is pursuing a graduate degree at an Ivy League school. Not bad for the little girl who had nowhere to sleep or eat, and no one who gave a damn either way. Would it shock you to discover that a top executive at an internationally renowned company somehow blossomed despite years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her genuinely psychotic mother? Or that the nice lady who cuts your hair, and has photos everywhere of her twin baby boys, spent her adolescence taking care of three younger siblings because her father was gone and her mother was too wasted on crack to care for the kids? In ten years of doing the Bob & Sheri show on radio, I’ve heard countless similar stories, some worse, some scarier, but all told by clever, resourceful women with this in common: They are survivors. Perhaps the best that can be said about our miserably colorful childhoods is that they were pure exercises in building character. Lucky us, with so much character and street smarts to spare. Lucky us, knowing what it truly means to go too far.
Misfit Moms look back on the wreckage of our early lives with a mixture of grief and pride. Grief for all that was wasted or squandered, for all the times our youthful and trusting hearts were dropped and broken. Pride, for the stunning and often miraculous ways in which we overcame our trashy and tragic odds. Misfits are tough and intuitive, able to spot each other using a sort of sixth sense. I met my friend Anne that way. Anne is the ultimate Misfit Mom, so freaked out by the ever-present specter of tragedy that her daughter wasn’t allowed to eat grapes, hot dogs, olives, or hard candy until she was four years old—that’s how convinced Anne was that her baby was destined to choke to death. We worked together in different departments at a television station, and circled each other like wary bears until one day agreeing to hook up after hours for a drink. We weren’t halfway into a bottle of wine before the revelations were flowing. “I’ll see you your junkie father and missing mother,” Anne offered, “and raise you my alcoholic father—also out of the picture—my overprotective mother who wouldn’t even let us have a color television for fear that it might explode and blind us, and,” here she paused for effect, “my aunt, the nun!” To claim a relative who is an actual living, breathing nun represents a level of repression that’s hard to beat. She had me.
With our demented stories, and a view of the world that tends to the dark and twisted, Misfits need to find and support each other. There’s nothing more depressing than baring your soul to a so-called normal woman, only to see her become completely bug-eyed and uncomfortable. Misfits need a friend who understands where we’ve been, and how nervous we are about where we might yet go. The pregnant Misfit needs this most of all, being essentially a jumpy bundle of hormones, worries, fears, and irrational broodings. Without a sense of humor and some trusted support, she’s likely to be a basket case. Having walked and waddled down that path, I know how bumpy and scary it can be. I’m not a shrink, and can’t offer happy meds or an exact map out of your personal wilderness. But I can walk with you, point out some good scenery along the way, and share a few tips that might make your journey a little easier.
You Turned Out Just Fine
All parents make mistakes, and that’s a good thing. If they didn’t, none of us would have any funny stories to tell at parties. You’ll make lots of mistakes, too. There is a critical difference, though, between you and your parents. You will analyze your mistakes to death and ultimately blame yourself for everything from your toddler’s bed-wetting, to your teenager’s pierced tongue, to your adult child’s inability to find and keep a job. Your parents, on the other hand, are wonderfully free of such psychological torment. They consider the having—and subsequently not killing—of children as proof enough of a job well done. No matter what kind of loony monkeyshines they perpetrated on you and your siblings, your parents will always take cover behind their five favorite words: You Turned Out Just Fine. Was their idea of dentistry a whiskey-soaked wad of cotton and some late-night TV watching? Not to worry: YTOJF. Root beer in your baby bottle? YTOJF. Home alone for hours on end with an unlocked gun cabinet? You kids damn well knew better than to get into Daddy’s prized hunting rifles! Oh, and by the way? You Turned Out Just Fine. Whether it was creepy Uncle Frank getting a little too friendly after a couple of beers, the sheriff banging on the door while you readied the latest lie, or taking a drag off of your mom’s Marlboro because really, is there anything more hilarious than watching a six-year-old attempt to smoke? You survived it all. As your parents love to point out, You Turned Out Just Fine. And we did. Okay, so we’re a little twitchy and high-strung and prone to poor judgment in matters of love. But at least we know better than to go looking for sympathy from our parents. They’ll only fall back on their second favorite line of defense: You Always Were a Drama Queen.
One thing I can promise is to never use fruit analogies to describe the size or shape of your uterus, and trust me, I’m incapable of finding the poetry in your ripe, fecund, rapidly expanding form. There are plenty of pregnancy books out there for that. This Misfit Mom looked like a walrus, felt like a breed sow, chugged orange juice straight out of the carton, and shuffled around the house bellowing demands at her increasingly alarmed husband. If my pregnancy were a poem, it could only have consisted of words rhyming with barf, bloat, and beast.
How do you transform your Misfit baggage into your secret mommy weapon? Begin by refusing to apologize for who you are or where you come from. Call things by their proper names, even when those names are ugly and awful. Especially when they’re ugly and awful. Fear and self-doubt are gluttons for deceit; starve them to the bone. Whatever hellhole you were spawned and raised in is no longer your shameful secret to keep. That was your boot camp, your own private slice of Darwinism—and look who was strong enough to survive! The very same skills that pulled you through a rough childhood, that enabled you to push forward when a weaker, less determined girl would have fallen back, are the ones that you’ll call on now to be a good mommy.
The beauty of the Misfit way is that the worst that can happen to you probably already has. That means that it’s time for new labels. Instead of damaged or crippled, think seasoned and ready. Trade dewy illusions about the instant fulfillment an infant can bring for a realist’s understanding of the hard challenges and rich rewards that can be ours when we commit to loving and living fully. Know that, regardless of your past, you deserve the love of family, and the comforts of a peaceful home. It’s never too late or too hard to open your hands and seize what has been waiting for you all along. There is no sweeter balm for the battered Misfit heart than the love you will feel for your own child. There you’ll find redemption and healing that no lover, no paycheck, and no prescription can ever equal.
The Incredible Egg
Unlike sperm, which are produced almost continuously throughout a male’s lifetime, we are born with every single egg we will ever have. A pessimist would note that our eggs are therefore every bit as old as we are and that there’s no time to waste in having a baby. But there’s another, more magical way to look at it. Your body contains multitudes, to paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman. The child that you conceive is no stranger new to the world, but someone who has been with you always. Your little egg has shared your journey, and by the miracles of timing and fertilization, will now share your life.
If that egg happens to become a daughter, you will add a link to an amazing genetic chain. There is a specific kind of DNA called mitochondrial DNA that passes unchanged from mother to daughter. You have your mother’s mitochondrial DNA, and her mother’s, and her mother’s and so on all the way back to your original female ancestor. Your daughter will have it too, as will her daughters as far into the future as your progeny are able to reproduce. It’s a bit like looking into an endlessly repeating funhouse mirror. It’s also a form of immortality. And it’s something unique to women. Think about that next Mother’s Day.
When you consider how many awe-inspiring and miraculous events occur inside the female body, the irritations we’re forced to endure—like cramps, bloating, bleeding, cellulite, pantyhose—seem pretty minor. Our bodies are the cauldrons and cradles of life. All in all, it’s great to be a girl.
Whether it’s a thumb in my eye, or the wettest, most drooling kiss on my cheek, every minute spent with my daughter has been a gift of pure joy. She is my tiny egg, my perfect wish made real, and the best, most glorious time I’ve ever had. Even when she’s throwing up on me, or wiping her runny nose on my sleeve, or stroking my clean hair with a yogurt-dipped hand. Babies are like that. You’ll be surprised at just how much fun they can be. Now let’s get busy and go have one.
HELLO, MY NAME IS MOMMY. Copyright © 2004 by Sheri Lynch. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.