I don’t want to read Moby Dick, she thought while sitting on her balcony enjoying a cup of hot coffee. It was Saturday morning, and she had a long list of tasks to cross off her to-do list. Sunrays warmed her body, encouraging her to rest. But the to-do list nipped at her like a gadfly.
She had fourteen books left to read from the Western Canon. She had to practice arpeggios to keep up her piano playing. She had to finish watching the last three Academy Award winning movies so she was in the “know.” And that was just the arts. What about that new restaurant downtown? And next month’s looming half-marathon? Not to mention signing up for that work conference to network with other professionals in the industry.
There were so many things she had to do on that sunny Saturday morning.
Until she realized she didn’t have to do any of them.
All she had to do was pay her bills… file taxes… and die.
She didn’t have to scratch and claw her way to the top of the corporate ladder. She didn’t have to become the first woman CEO in her field. She didn’t have to do it all before the age of 40, either. She didn’t have to keep up a musical skill she’d never enjoyed. She didn’t have to beat her personal record running twelve-plus miles (she hated running—in fact, she had never felt that runner’s high after finishing a run—it was simply hate, hate, hate, misery, misery, misery, every damn mile).
And she certainly didn’t have to read a long, boring book that completely misrepresented an entire species.
There was nothing else in this life that she had to do. And as long as she didn’t break the law, she could do whatever she wanted.
I’m free, she realized.
Besides, it’s not like anyone cared about all she’d accomplished. People would smile and nod, be impressed for a moment, and then move on.
What’s it all for? She wondered. What a waste of a life—chasing goals, accomplishing for the sake of accomplishing?
And with that, she put her feet up on the balcony, taking another sip of coffee, and closed her eyes.
Screw Harold Bloom, she thought with a smile.
There’s no going back once you become a mother
There’s no unseeing every child as your own
You cannot bandage your aching heart
As you watch a child cry out alone
That second glass of wine don’t taste as good now
And you’ll never sleep soundly again
Local news will keep you up all night
You pray keep my babies safe, please Lord, amen
There’s no going back once you become a mother
In every way it changes you
And you wouldn’t wanna be anyone other
Than the mama your babies made you
Now your body is different, can’t recognize it
Gone are the days when you looked your very best
What was once tight and firm is now tender,
A soft place, a pillow for rest
And you can’t stop smiling when you witness
A child learn something new
And your eyes won’t stay dry when you hear
A mama tell the story of her baby’s first breath
And you won’t think twice to open your arms wide
To hug a child who needs a little extra love
There’s no going back once you’re a mother
And for that I thank God up above
There’s no going back once you become a mother
In every way it changes you
And you wouldn’t wanna be anyone other
Than the mama your babies made you
“You found me!” I shriek, watching you two speedily crawl toward me. I hadn’t been hiding from you, but after watching you play so nicely together, I thought I had a moment to slip away and pour a cup of coffee.
But you found me, and now you raise your arms to say, “Hold me!”
I sit on the floor, hugging you on my lap, and I whisper a prayer of thanksgiving. I thank God you found me—that your two tiny little souls found your way to mine.
I remember when I held you in my arms, baby boy, as your skin turned the shade of dusk, and you ceased breathing. In a flash, the NICU nurse whisked you away, flicking your heels until you began to cry, your lungs filling with air again. I looked at your tiny little body, only a few days out of mine, but saw your soul from someplace else—you’d always been part of my heart, before the before, and now you’ll always be a part of me.
And you, baby girl, I’ll never forget cradling you at the end of a long day, watching my tear drop onto your pink cheeks. “Do you know who I am?” I said to you. “I’m your mama.” But you kept sleeping. I hated leaving you at the hospital those nine nights. I cried into my pillow, wishing for you to be next to me. I hoped your spirit heard me—hoped you felt I was right there next to you. I’m your mama. And I know our souls are connected.
You’re both older now, and never far from reach. I worry less and laugh more. We play until the sun goes down: peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek. Sometimes I wonder how I got so lucky; I don’t deserve to call you mine, to be your mother. Patience and warmth were always traits I had to work on, but now with you two, it’s easy. Maybe before I was merely lost.
All I know is I’m so glad your souls chose me to be your mother.
I’m so glad you found me.
She’d only been in Yellowstone two nights when she locked eyes with the wild cat. It was three a.m. and she had hoped to walk the short path from her family’s tent to the outhouse, there and back, without any trouble. Having birthed two babies meant every night she woke up with the urge to empty her bladder. Now, she ignored that physical urge as she watched the mountain lion watch her—the lion’s eyes like opalescent marbles reflecting moonlight. The woman was frozen, afraid even the slightest breath would cause the cat to pounce.
But the cat stood as still as she did. A rustling from nearby bushes sent the mountain lion’s ears up; one ear turned toward the sound while the lion’s gaze remained on her. Within seconds, the sounds amplified until two clumsy cubs emerged from the forest, playfully slinking toward their mother.
The woman’s body shifted as she watched the oblivious twin cubs lick and paw at their mother. The mountain lion didn’t flinch, and the woman dared not blink. They stared at each other—connecting in some metaphysical way from one species to another.
She could almost see the exhaustion on the mountain lion mother’s face. Even though the nocturnal creature slept during the day, she was never truly at rest. Predators much larger than she dominated the park: grizzlies, wolves, moose, and bison. It was a full time job to keep her cubs safe in Yellowstone. If other animals didn’t kill them, the weather or starvation would. And when she wasn’t protecting her young, she was hunting and killing other animals to feed her babies. Grueling work.
The woman almost smiled. Sorry to bother you, she thought, hoping her thoughts would telepathically communicate to the lion. I know how you feel.
Of course she didn’t. And she didn’t have to work that hard to feed and shelter and clothe her own children. Not as hard as the mountain lion mother. But there was that same primal urge—she often felt like an animal when it came to her babies. Everything she did, she did for them. Even at times, when she was too tired to eat, she’d force herself to make some vegetable-laden concoction, knowing she had to stay healthy to take care of her children. And when the nine o’clock news rattled off long lists of terrible things, she couldn’t zone out anymore because that was the world her children were inheriting, and she had to make it better.
And when anything posed a danger to the wellbeing of her children, the woman bared her fangs and protruded her claws, ready to tear the predator limb from limb, just like the mountain lion mother.
The mountain lion mother’s shoulders eased. Her ears perked upright again. She didn’t glare at the woman as a threat anymore. She knows I’m a mother, too.
It was a cruel world, they both knew this. At every turn, there were hungry beasts ready to attack, to drag them into the depths and devour them.
But it was a beautiful world, too. Filled with mothers and children, friends and neighbors, animals and plants living in harmony—working in synergy. If only we all realized how connected we truly are, the woman thought, letting a quiet smile tug at her lips.
The mountain lion licked and nuzzled her cubs, and the woman watched as the lion sent one last powerful look her way—a look that said “I see you”—right before she slowly turned around, sauntering up the path with her cubs at her side, the moonlight guiding their way.
On that sunny day in the park, he appeared like he had it all figured out—this parenting thing. Behind him, a Mima Xari Stroller to hold his precious cargo; on his back, a leather diaper bag to carry a cashmere blankie. In his arms, the perfect baby. At his side, the perfect wife. He did something with hedge funds, she knew this for certain. She would see him every morning on the same 6:00am train as she was coming home from her hospital night shift. She was just a nurse whose scrubs were covered in vomit and viruses, but she was a good listener. And she listened to his morning phone calls, knowing he made a lot of money. It came up in his client conversations. So did his baby. And he had the perfect baby.
But as she neared them, on that sunny day in the park, she realized appearances aren’t always as they seem. She watched him, with his perfect wife at his side and his perfect baby in his arms, and she saw him for who he was.
His baby, old enough to reach for his glasses, swiped them right off of his face, whipping the spectacles in all directions, jabbing and poking his father in the eyes, the nose, the ears. Frazzled, the hedge fund father tilted his head back as his petite wife failed at her attempt to control their infant.
He looked so naked. So vulnerable. Without his sleek, black glasses, his eyes looked so small. She noticed him squinting, as if his vision was blurred. Without his glasses, he was feeble. And in that moment, as she watched that tiny, chubby baby terrorize his parents, giggling all the while, she felt sorry for that man. She saw his dignity erode. She saw his weakness exposed. She saw him for who he was: a parent completely leveled by his child—knocked to the ground by the truth that he had absolutely no control.
He was just like her. He was just like every parent. Covered in newborn spit-up. Hurt by teenage insults. Vulnerable to the whims of their children—and yet, there, nonetheless, ready to take it. Ready to let their infant smash their glasses to bits—ready to be blind for the day.
Because children have a way of demolishing egos. Of forcing humility. Of stirring doubt into even the most confident man’s mind.
She knew this. She saw that he knew it too. And in that moment, on that sunny day in the park, she realized he didn’t have it all figured out. And that made her only like him more.
There’s no going back—once you become a mother.
There’s no unseeing every child as your own.
You cannot bandage your aching heart as you watch a child in pain.
That second glass of wine will never taste as good.
You’ll never sleep soundly again.
Fireworks will send shockwaves of anxiety through your body, and local news will keep you up all night.
Your body never be the same—once firm, now soft pillow for rest.
And you won’t be able to stop a smile from tugging at your lips when you see a child learn something new.
You’ll never have dry eyes when you hear the story of a baby’s first breath, a child’s triumph over adversity.
You’ll never think twice about opening your arms to hug a child who needs a little extra love.
Because there’s no going back—once you become a mother.
And thank God for that.
An icy gust burned his weather-beaten cheeks. Under his dark complexion, redness poked through. Like a ripe berry drooping on a low bush nearly touching the ground. Up and down the asphalt he walked. Up and down. Zigzagging between traffic. Shoulders sore. Nails brittle. Bits and pieces of last night’s dinner caught between the hairs on his chin. It had still been hot when the BMW driver threw it out of his car. A crinkled up fast-food bag, soaked in grease. But the chicken sandwich was half-eaten. And it tasted good.
Just like the other greasy piece of meat someone threw at him the day before. It was always like that. Rain or shine. Snow or sleet. Brittle winds or suffocating humidity. Every day was the same. Every day he was worn down just a little more. Life was mundane, even when it was utterly unpredictable.
He wanted to be anywhere but there. A beach in the Caribbean. He remembered life before. It was easy. Carefree. He owned a hotel, ironically. Was never alone either. There was always a beautiful, tan woman hanging on his arm.
But even then every day was the same.
Wake up before dawn to the sound of a piercing alarm. Hear birds chirping on palm tree branches outside the window. Drink two cups of coffee. Eat a quick breakfast. Out to the office. Keep the numbers out of the red. Keep the customers happy. Schmooze all day and night. Eat so much it hurts. Drink so much it hurts. And do it all over the next day under the burning, tropical sun.
Now, he woke up because he never really slept. The blaring sound of car horns all night kept him grazing just above the surface. Pigeons cooed above him, perching on viaduct beams. He sipped water from dirt-covered bottles. Nibbled on granola bars he’d been hoarding. Out to the streets. Keep inside the yellow line. Keep the drivers sympathetic. Beg all day and all night. Eat so little it hurts. Drink so little it hurts. And do it all over the next day under the angry, cloudy skies.
Because life was mundane, even when it was utterly unpredictable.
I love you so much it hurts.
I feel the immense weight of my love for you. It pushes me down. It crushes me.
What will I do when you grow up? Who will I become?
I might shrivel up and die.
Because I feel we are still just one being. My heart still beats in synch with yours.
But we were never just one, were we? Three hearts. Three brains. You were always your own beings. I just kept you safe inside me.
I can’t do that any longer and it terrifies me. How will I keep you safe now? Keep you safe forever?
Sometimes, at night, when you’re asleep, and your father is nowhere nearby, I cry. But I don’t have time to cry alone in bed. I need the sleep too desperately. Instead, I cry while doing other things. Being a productive mom. I cry while washing bottles. While scrubbing the floor. Folding laundry.
I cry because I love you. And the weight of my love is immense. Like trying to understand the vastness of the universe, I can’t comprehend my love for you. It mixes with sorrow—knowledge that my love won’t keep you from the cruelty of the world. Or from leaving me one day.
And though it hurts so bad, I still love you so much. It crushes me, this immense weight. This love for you.
I might just shrivel up and die.
Golden hour never looked so beautiful, she thought as warm, ginger sunlight haloed around the emerald firs and cobalt waters of Puget Sound. In the distance, snow-peaked mountains jutted into the sky.
She was the lone person sitting on the rocky shoreline that evening. She only had twenty minutes or so before she’d have to leave to meet the girls for cocktails at some expensive downtown restaurant. She’d forgotten the name, and had vowed not to look at her phone until the sun had set. Not even to take a photo. She didn’t have much storage left anyway from all the drunken shenanigans that weekend she had felt compelled to record. Just a bunch of moms gone wild—a reunion weekend with her college sorority sisters—women who were all married with children, bogged down by stressful jobs and never-ending piles of laundry, who needed a few carefree days pretending they didn’t have any responsibilities.
But she wasn’t a very good actress, and she’d left her days of make believe behind her. It was hard to pretend to be carefree, even when she’d flown halfway across the country to the stunning Pacific Northwest, surrounded by natural splendor and manmade novelties. All the artisanal chocolate, richly brewed coffee, and indulgent cheeses didn’t do the job she’d expected them to; she still couldn’t shake this feeling that had settled deep within her bones.
She watched the surf roll in, bubbling water over smooth rocks. Over and over. After enough time, the slow tumble of water would wear away the rock. Wear it down to pebbles. Over and over.
Fleeting pleasures couldn’t wash away her weariness. Over and over.
As the sun sank lower into the sky, ever inching toward that deep blue horizon line, an ethereal glow illuminated seagulls circling above her, harassing each other with their high-pitched squawks. They scattered as soon as an enormous bald eagle intimidated them with his majesty. Plop! Nearby, harbor seals were swallowed up by water, bobbing up and down, watching the sunset alongside her.
She was never alone, was she? Not even on this supposedly relaxing trip. (It was not at all relaxing; one of her Type A friends had planned out every minute of that weekend.) Even when she’d travelled to the ends of the earth in search of solace, she was joined by coastal riff raff. She thought she’d heard the seals call out to her. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” That seagull over there—it sounded just like her husband asking what was for dinner.
What would it feel like to be carefree again?
A shot of adrenaline pierced her heart. Was that what she though it was? Her eyes darted to the spot where water had spouted from the ocean like a geyser.
Yes! It was!
Light glimmered against smooth, black hide. Fwwiisssshhhhhhh. Again, water sprayed toward the heavens. This time she caught it—a majestic orca, swimming gracefully in the bay. It dipped under water and rolled, its white spots visible against the sunset’s rays. Its dorsal fin became a silhouette, like the fir trees and mountains, as the hot pink sun began to be swallowed by the horizon.
The word rang through her head as she watched the magical creature. To be free in vast waters—what was that like?
No needy kids clawing you, lazy husband shirking chores, slobbery dog nipping your toes. Instead, free to glide alone through refreshing Pacific Northwest waters. No incessant work emails, their chimes waking you from sleep like some sort of torture. Instead, free to explore underwater realms.
This life, this life of hers, was not as she’d imagined it would be. In another life, she was living in Oregon tending to her vineyard, selling spicy Pinots to local restaurants. In another life, she was a free woman. A single woman. Maybe she gallivanted with a rugged wine-connoisseur boyfriend who cultivated the winery with her.
Fwwiisssshhhhhhh. Another breath of air shook her from her fantasy. Fwwiisssshhhhhhh. Then another. Fwwiisssshhhhhhh.
Three more shiny, black and white bodies momentarily rose above water, joining the first orca.
She laughed to herself. Even this killer whale couldn’t be left alone. Did this orca feel like she did—seeking respite from her overwhelming life?
Her sorority sister friends had each separately confided in her their own miseries. Insecurities. Failings. Had she been so self-absorbed that she thought she was the only one who ever felt worn down and depressed? As if she was so important. More important.
This spark of solidarity rose in her as she witnessed her original orca join his friends. Together, they swam synchronized dances as the sun dipped lower and lower. The seagulls were gone now; the bald eagle perched on an alder branch at the shore; the seals bobbed silently. Everyone watched the orcas plunge and whirl, dip and jump.
It was breathtaking.
They played together, exploding through pink and orange rays that sparkled against ocean water. It reminded her of Lisa Frank art—so colorful, so dreamlike.
Her original orca moved quicker, seemingly delighting in his large yet nimble body. He was rejoicing while sunlight waned and moonlight waxed. What had made him so happy? Was it his pod?
Was it that he was no longer alone?
Then, another fwwiisssshhhhhhh caught her attention. This one was smaller. Sweeter. She watched as a miniature orca swam beside her original friend. The original orca nuzzled his head against his calf.
Her head. Her calf.
The orca was a female. A mother. Just like her.
She felt her eyes sting. Yes, of course. Of course she was a mother. Of course she had a pod. And why would she truly want to be alone? The sunset was so much more beautiful when it was enjoyed beside others.
Memories washed over her. The birth of her first baby. And her second. And her third. Sweet little babes, like the calf who glided alongside her mother. She thought of her wedding day. Of college graduation.
She had just needed a little break. A little alone time. A moment of solace to remind her how much she loved her life.
In one gulp, the sun was finally swallowed by the horizon, leaving amethyst and cherry streaks in its wake. The orcas took one last breath, then dipped below the serene waters, disappearing with the sun.
Taking one last look at the dark water, which now reflected moonlight, she deeply inhaled, deeply exhaled. Life is beautiful and miserable all in the same breath. And we are lucky if we are never left alone.
In a February blizzard, I traveled down US-30 on a Greyhound bus. Headphones blared Vampire Weekend, stared out the window as a white-out enveloped us.
When I got to you, your Valentine's gift sat on a chipped dormitory desk. A Ben Folds CD, a box of Russel Stover chocolate, a single CVS rose.
We couldn't go anywhere, and that's exactly what we'd wished for. Tangled up in bedsheets with you, I imagined our future.
And this is what I saw.
A February blizzard, in our cozy home. Me and you. And another two.
Tonight, our memories shake from the sky like silent snowflakes. So many. So perfect. Some glitter. Some sting. But when they reach each other, they melt together as one. Just a single blanket of history covering our lives.
You and me. Together. Forever. And that's exactly what we'd wished for.