Changing Love

This weekend Andy and I had a night out to ourselves—Troy’s Cafe, a movie, 21c Museum Hotel Cocktail Terrace (with many thanks to my parents).

The day of I was upstairs, taking my time getting dressed. Sophie was in her bedroom, singing a song while moving her princess dolls around her room in serious play. Andy was downstairs with Owen and James.

The strappy blouse I chose to wear had a tiny, fabric-covered button that went through a tiny loop in the back. Because of its location, I’m unable to button it myself. I was just about to holler down to Andy for help when I heard Sophie attempt a high note in her song.

“Sophie?” I called.

She stopped singing. “Yes?”

“Can you help me with something?”

She came into my bedroom.

I explained to her what needed to be done, asked if she could help. I felt her fumbling through the pleats and ruffles of the blouse. I reached back, feeling for the impossibly small button.

“Here,” I said. “This is the button.”

I reached some more.

“And this is the loop it needs to go through.”

“OK,” she said.

She pulled the two sides together, tight. And then I felt them soften.

“Is that too tight?” she asked, with concern.

“No,” I said. “It’s supposed to be like that.”

She pulled again. I helped. I could feel her tiny, soft fingers on my bare back, grabbing for the button, reaching for the loop.

“There!” she said, pleased with herself. I expected the blouse to come slack again. I expected failure. But it remained tight. She accomplished the small task quicker than Andy ever had.

Sophie then took out a couple strands of my hair that had come caught underneath one of the straps. She fixed my bra straps on both sides, so the straps of my blouse covered them.

“There,” she said again. “That’s better.”

Changing love.

For five years I’ve been mothering this child. Her mothering me, if only for two minutes, was unexpected. She helped me do something I could not do alone. And then she threw in some acts of kindness, some brushes of love—she preened me and fretted over me, just like a mother often does.

For two minutes, our roles reversed.

Sometimes the smallest acts take up the largest amounts of time in my brain—during my early morning walks back from Sophie’s school, while stirring sauce in a pot, while in bed waiting for sleep to come.

This week I’ve found myself thinking about Sophie buttoning my date-night blouse often.

“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.” —Joni Mitchell

TIME Healthland: Mother, Protector

I’m thrilled to share that TIME is going to occasionally feature some of my essays in the Healthland section of its website. My first one was posted today and you can read it here. Check it out!

“Writing is both mask and unveiling.” —E.B. White

Mother, Protector

I’ve been reading a lot about the tornadoes that swept through our part of the country Friday afternoon. We spent some time in the basement, as the sky grew dark, but the storm spared us. Houses, and people, as close as a county over, weren’t as lucky.

An article I read today talks about a woman, a brave woman, from Henryville, Ind., who lost both her legs while physically shielding her two children from two tornadoes that destroyed her house. Her story reminded me of another mother, from a very different time and and a very different place.

Before I was a mother Andy and I spent a weekend visiting my brother and friends in New York City in December. Our friend Alan, a paleontologist, was at the time working at the American Museum of Natural History. He took us to places in the museum not covered under the normal ticket. One such place was a very large room filled with rows and rows of tall, thick metal shelving. On the shelves were dinosaurs bones. Hundreds of dinosaur bones. Rows and rows of dinosaurs bones. It was incredible.

Near an exit door in this warehouse of dinosaur bones I stopped and spent a long time looking at a perfectly preserved female Citipati—an oviraptor. Her wings were stretched wide and it was obvious that she was doing all that she could to protect the perfectly preserved eggs that were underneath her. According to Alan, she and her to-be-born children were buried in a massive dune collapse. Oviraptors lived, or at least laid their eggs, between big dunes. When dunes collapsed, they buried oviraptors and nests very quickly, hence the preservation.

I think about that Citipati all the time. As I know I will the Henryville woman. So much has changed, since the Late Cretaceous period. And yet,  so much hasn’t.

One of the first places I took Sophie to after she was born was one of Andy’s softball games. I will never forget the shame I felt that day. Someone yelled “Heads up!” This typically means “fly ball” and the “heads up” command means exactly what you think it means—look up to ensure you’re not about to get hit with an errant softball. I never do this, though. Instead of looking up I always look down, an arm sheltering my head, hoping for the best. I know it’s not smart but it’s instinctive, automatic. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been hit.

On this particular evening, though, I was holding my firstborn, a newborn. My instinct should have been to shelter my baby while also looking up. Instead, I ducked, arm sheltering my own head, Sophie blissfully, thankfully, unaware that her mother wasn’t actually a mother yet. We weren’t hit. But I was (rightfully) made fun of, without mercy. The entire situation scarred me. I worried that I didn’t have the natural mothering instinct so many other woman seemed to get instantaneously, upon giving birth. I worried that when it really mattered, I wouldn’t be able to protect my children like a mother should. I assumed the universe had made a terrible, terrible mistake.

Many months later I remember complaining about a constant backache. Andy pointed out the fact that I spent my days walking around the house bent at the waist, arms outstretched, following Sophie so that I would be able to catch her, immediately, should she fall while toddling about. “Stop it,” he said. “You’re protecting her too much. She needs to learn to fall as much as she needs to learn to walk.”

It wasn’t immediate, but sometime between that softball game and Sophie learning to walk, the primal protectiveness all mothers have for their children finally kicked in.

I was thankful.

These days, I strive for middle ground. I swear my heart stops for a moment when Owen or James takes a tumble. A little yelp almost always exits my mouth. I’m fast. I’m good at getting from the living room to the dining room—no matter how many toys are in my way—quickly so that an inspection and hugs and kisses can be given out in a timely manner. But I also know that sometimes, falls have to happen. I can’t be there, arms outstretched, always.

And yet. Should the unthinkable happen, I know—I know—I would give up my legs, my life, for my kids. And although knowing that, really knowing that, doesn’t make that softball game years ago any less cringe-worthy, it’s comforting, to me. It makes me feel strong. And it makes me feel connected to a brave and beautiful woman one state over whose children survived two tornadoes without a scratch, thanks to their mother’s arms and legs, outstretched. And it makes me feel connected to a brave and beautiful Citipati, tucked away in a museum basement, who did all that she could to save her children, wings outstretched.

I suppose all of this simply has to do with the survival of species.

Or maybe, all of this simply has to do with love.

Either way, I’m comforted thinking about this connection, this sameness we mothers have with each other throughout time—since the beginnings of time. And I’m comforted believing that this deep desire to protect, no matter the cost, will remain, tomorrow, through many tomorrows. Tornadoes hit. Softballs fly. Dunes collapse. And yet we’ll be there. Stretched wide. Saving. Protecting. Braving. Loving.

Perhaps this, this right here, is the definition of mother.

“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.” —James Joyce