Motherhood - The Early Days When I Knew Everything
I got pregnant in 1989, when I was 32
I got pregnant in 1989, when I was 32, the same age as my mother when she had me. I was due in early June, which inspired a flood of Gemini well-wishes from the On Our Backs readers, who were as surprised and curious as everyone else.
“Did you inseminate or did you party?” asked Marika at our magazine Xmas Party.
I laughed so hard, she said, “Oh! You partied.”
I did party. But I also was falling in love. And then out of it. My bisexual heart was in a bit of torment.
It was the eve of a baby boom— I didn’t know any other women my age who were taking the plunge. They’d either done it a lot earlier, or had foresworn the whole racket— the latter included me.
My daughter-to-be, Aretha Elizabeth Bright, surprised me in every way— including her late-June Cancerian arrival. She had eyes like dark moons and when the midwife put her in my arms she looked into me, like no one has ever looked at me before.
When Aretha was six months old, an old neighbor of mine saw us walking home from the grocery store, baby tucked into her stroller, a loaf of bread sticking out between her curly head and diaper bag.
“Look at you!” he exclaimed, as if a figure of the Madonna and Child had sprung to life. Well, I didn’t mind if he wanted to make a fuss. The oxytocin was flowing through my veins.
This old codger, Mr. Hera, had always taken a dim view of what he knew about me from the newspapers— he’d make a chauvinist ”what’s-the-world-coming-to?” remark whenever we ran into each other on garbage night.
He leaned over to admire Aretha’s little face, then looked up at me with a smile: “Now isn’t this the very best thing you’ve ever done with your life?”
I covered my eyes with my hands and laughed, “On no, Mr. Hera, please, don’t ruin it.” Then I straightened up and touched his shoulder. I'm a few inches taller than him. “You know, Mr. Hera, you’re right, you’re right, more than you even know.”
My pregnancy and my daughter’s life worked on me like True North. I had to protect The Baby, but I ended up Protecting Me. My maternal certainty was a tonic. I knew who I had to defend. Malingerers, fakers, and self-destructive impulses were red-tagged and booted. I had a magnet in me for doing the right thing.
When I was pregnant and staring at my enormous navel, I wondered if this was my comeuppance. All the time I spent as a child, fuming, crying, hiding, swearing I would never put another human being through such cruelties as were visited upon me— would I now be humbled?
I did get pregnant unexpectedly. I spent the first thirty-one years of my life being either lesbian or a complete martinet about birth control and all of sudden, I got sloppy. It was out of character. So was my pregnancy test. I burst into tears when I got a (false) negative. “It can’t be true, it can’t be true!” I sobbed in the car next to my friend Lisa who drove me away from my doctor’s appointment.
She was bewildered at my rage and tears. “But you never wanted to have children!” she said.
That was true. I could convince anyone about zero population growth; I would rant about the narcissism of parental conceits. I’d written articles on why a woman’s worth is not the sum of her womb. I’d write them today, too.
But the real reason I couldn’t imagine having a baby was that I was afraid of my temper, afraid of doing those things you can’t ever fully apologize for. I knew that my mom had been “sorry” that she had hit me (after all, it wasn’t as bad as she’d been hit). She didn’t remember threatening me with the end (after all, we did survive).
Maybe it was my fault sometimes; isn’t that what kids think? Mommy, I'm sorry, I’m so sorry. It changed nothing. Her actions had very little to do with me, after all.
If I remained pregnant, if I kept the baby, I had to take a vow. But a real vow entails keeping your promise. Could I keep a pact that had been broken to me, however much in sorrow? Could I say to my daughter, “I will never hit you, I will never lose you. I will never hide the truth from you, I will never try to extinguish you?”
It’s not like anyone “planned” to do differently with me.
My conception appeared madcap to many of my friends. Yet I think I had a better idea of what I was getting into, than my mom did when she was 32.
I had a blind spot for the man I conceived with. We weren’t destined for longevity, nor he for parenting. He asked me to care for his family belongings before he went on the road again. The Responsible One. He was the High Plains Drifter, shimmering into disappearance in the heat.
I met my lover Jon shortly before I got pregnant; we became lovers and friends and stayed that way for the next thirty-some years.
I met Jon because my tires needed balancing. He will tell you I arrived at the mechanic’s garage in a black catsuit, like Emma Peel, and that I tried to lure him away to a beach down the coast where everyone strips off their clothes and huddles, making love in driftwood caves that other nudists erected to protect themselves from the wind.
He didn’t come away with me the first time. The remembrance from the tire shop is that we kissed goodbye, my low-profile tires beckoning. I don’t think I’d ever kissed my mechanic before.
He kept my number that I’d scrawled down on the credit card receipt, and six months after our meeting, he left a message at my office: “Do your tires need rotating?”
My whole life needed rotating.
We both had other lovers, we both had messy breakups, we’d both recently ended relationships with older women whom we cared for dearly. We also had a talent for putting ourselves in peril by climbing into bed with some scary characters. I remember once when my current shady character and his, sought each other out, and took each other to bed. It was two con artists sizing each other up. They wanted to see what the other one was capable of. Maybe they wanted to compare notes on the thrills of knowing Raggedy Ann and Andy. It was a draw.
It was in my 30th year that I started seeing a therapist, and even though she barely said a word, there is something about sitting in a room talking to yourself with a kind face nodding at your every word that is bound to reveal a few things.
I made a joke to her one day, “Well, I have to say, at least my new friend Jon isn’t trying to kill me.”
He was— in favor of living— so to speak. He took great care. We loved each other.
My first trimester was biblical. Each promise made in great sincerity, came to pass. The family members who drew close to me at that time were in love with Aretha from the time she was an unnamed twinkle. Jon. Honey Lee, her second mom. Aunt Becky. Auntie Shar. My dad, his wife and family, And my mom, too. For an only child without a ring on my finger, I was loved and Aretha was cherished in one abundant circle after another.
My mom’s the one that sealed the deal on picking her name. I’d been reading “Naming” dictionaries until my eyes were crossed. I sent Elizabeth a list of a few that I liked, including “Aretha.”
My mother wrote back the next day, with great excitement. “Oh Susie,” she said, “Aretha is Greek for ‘the very best,’ the most outstanding and virtuous. That is the perfect name for the perfect baby.” She wrote the Greek letters out in cursive.
Neither of my parents knew one thing about R&B— or most popular music. The day after my mother’s message, my father sent me a color travel postcard of the stone ruins of Goddess Aretha’s Grecian temple, which lies in what is now Turkey.
Only Bill and Elizabeth, of all the people in the world, would respond to the name of “Aretha” with the enthusiasm of the Antiquities. After all, that’s how they met, in Classical Greek class.
I knew family ghosts don’t go away. I’ve enjoyed the beneficial ones. But I knew that family trauma loves reruns. Penance and exorcisms don’t work. I still needed a plan to keep my promise to be “a good mom,” something stronger than good intentions.
I would probably lose my equilibrium— or come close to it. I confided to Jon, “If I fuck up, I have to tell another adult what happened, right away; and get some help to pick up the pieces.”
It made Jon cry; he knew how hard this was. He was raised with the same “discipline methods” and tempers as I was. We were sitting on my bed; I was folding my grandma Bright’s pillowcases back and forth in my hands.
“Plus, if I lose my temper, I have to tell her that I was wrong— and that there’s no excuse for it…” I looked up at him. “You know, I think you can tell your kid those things no matter how old they are. They know what’s going on.”
And it came to pass. I remember calling Jon from the pink bathroom in our apartment when Aretha was three. I had yelled at her and scared her. I was a dragon. It was over nothing, of course. I had done the full Halloran Vicious Verbal Intimidation. It was like falling off a log.
I can’t see the truth when I’m losing my marbles— but a minute after the explosion, I can. You imagine you’re going to feel so great when you unload on someone—and instead you feel despicable. And the kid is the one who’s important, not you.
Jon came over. He stayed and stayed and stayed and I realized—wow, proximity to another grown-up was 90% of the battle. If there’s more than one of you in the house, one can go crack up and take a cold shower while the other steps in.
People talk all the time about the benefits of a “couple” taking turns to cope with parenthood, but let’s face it— there were lots of times we needed a third, a fourth.
I broke the physical abuse regime in my family tree. That gives me awestruck pause. But I didn’t stop my mean mouth. I could take a time machine back two centuries and there is probably a redheaded woman with her freckles practically popping off her face when she loses her temper.
When Aretha was eleven, she’d reached that age when we could start to have deeper talks about stuff. We were driving to the drugstore for shampoo and lemonade. I parked the car in the shade and said, “You know, I realize things are usually fine, we work things out when we have a problem— but there’s times when I go off on a tear and you probably know by now, there’s a tone to my voice when I’m not being rational.”
She nodded, wary that I was considering showing an example.
I wanted to continue without crying. I felt like I was handing her a secret weapon. “I know you can tell from one word, when I’m messed up.” I exhaled. “And I want to tell you now— ‘cause I can’t tell you when I'm angry— that you should just turn your back and walk away from me.
Aretha’s brown eyes got just a little bit bigger. “But you won’t . . . ”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, “I won’t like it. I’ll try to get you to stay and argue with me. It won’t be cute.”
She nodded her head like, duh.
“But don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. As soon as I’m standing alone in a room with no one to hear my bullshit, it’s like a pail of cold water. I sober up fast. I don’t want you to stand there and take it, like I used to; it’s poisonous.”
Aretha winced. She didn’t like hearing about my history, like we had a hereditary bad seed.
“Honey, seriously, if you stand up to bullies, sometimes all it takes is turning your back on their nonsense. Let’em try talking to your dust.”
“But what if you get mad?”
“I’m already irrational when I’m in that zone. But when I can’t lash out at you, I come to my senses sooner. I’ll be so proud of you for not putting up with it.”
“I don’t know, Mom, why do you have to go there in the first place?”
She had the pre-pubescent wisdom.
I think now, as an adult, she would have more sympathy for an irrational outburst. But children’s innocence is correct. Why would I need to tell my loved ones to take cover and spray me with Mace— if I could just control myself?
I have to hoe my own row, the Sisyphean Fields. I can’t undo all my knots, but at my age now, I can finally run my fingers through them.
People ask me all the time about how I’ve parented my daughter, hoping for some sex education tips. “When should I say “x”, when should I tell them “y”?” They want their kids to be confident, sexually savvy, not neurotic like their own generation. But sex ed is not really the point.
What you tell your kids is secondary. It’s what you do, what you do every day, that they’ll learn from. Whether it’s sexuality or anything else.
My daughter is capable and caring— I bask in her virtuous light quite unfairly. She is her own doing.
But if I had to answer parenting questions, how new parents might have a fighting chance to raise a sexually-or-otherwise mature and wise young adult, here’s what I’d say:
Don’t hit them.
Don’t lie to them.
Respect their privacy and your own.
Good food would also be nice— birthday cakes, warm coats and mittens, all that— but I’d say those three actions are the most important.
Since I first contemplated parenting “advice,” I’ve been hearing people’s confessions. In order of damage, the biggest problem in people’s family lives— is when they have been abused in their own family or church.
Following the heels of that crime, is the sin of growing up with terrible lies about who you are, where you came from, what’s happening right in front of your nose. Violence is always part of that original lie: “We’re punishing you because you were bad and everything is fine and you better not tell anyone else because it’s all your fault.”
Finally, privacy. That pearl of quiet and self-awareness. That’s the most nuanced aspiration. Kids need time to be on their own, to read, to play, to talk to themselves and their stuffed animals, to masturbate, to write, to daydream, to kick a can.
And we, their parents, need the same. People who don’t know how to have private moments of clarity are in a difficult spot to grow up.
When Aretha was fourteen, she came home from basketball practice with another girl, Lorraine, a year older than her. Lorraine looked so different from Aretha— physically mature, a head taller. But she followed behind my daughter like a younger sister.
Aretha took Lorraine’s hand. “Elle’s worried that she might be pregnant— and she can’t tell her parents, they’ll throw her out.”
Lorraine took her hand back.
“I told her to come home with me, that you could help her.“ She turned back to Lorraine and took her arm again. “Really, it’s going to be okay.”
I looked at the two of them. I had not taken a girl to the Free Clinic for a pregnancy exam in thirty-five years, since I was in The Red Tide.
I offered Lorraine a chair. “I’ll help you; we both will,“ I said, “there’s a clinic just down the street that will give you a check-up for free, private, and all the birth control or medical help you need. That’s their main thing, helping teenagers and people who don’t have their parents to turn to, or a lot of money.”
Lorraine looked at me through her long blond hair. She had perfect eye makeup. I couldn’t read her.
“Sweetie, we can do this right now, or tomorrow if you like.” I wanted to bite my nails but I didn’t want to do that in front of her. “But I have to ask you, are you sure you can’t tell your mom?” — Because even if I wasn’t getting along with Aretha, when it comes to something like this, I would want to be the first person on her side.“
Lorraine shook her hair vigorously.
“Your mom loves you?—” I started.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Yeah, but not this. She couldn’t handle it.”
I said, “You know, we’ll do this, and you’ll get whatever you need, and next time you’ll know how to do it on your own or with your lover. But this kind of thing happens all a woman’s life.
“You might be shy to see me later on, that’s okay.” I traced a letter on her chair. “But if you ever tell your mommy, like when you’re thirty, call me and tell me it’s over, so I can exhale.”
She laughed, the first time. “I’ll never tell her!” As if, And you and her would never be friends.
We took Lorraine to the Planned Parenthood clinic. She turned out not to be pregnant but she had Pelvic Inflammatory Disease and she was anemic— along with four or five other things. The doctors weren’t surprised. I was.
Aretha and Lorraine giggled over an enormous bag of condoms they were given at the end of the appointment. I looked inside the bag: “God, who’s going to live long enough to use all these?”
My activism was maternal and I never knew it before Aretha. I knew the fight in me was creative, erotic, intellectual, historic— but I never knew it had a nurturing engine.
Motherhood is not fit for all. I wanted to be parented, mommied, very much— and thought I wouldn’t be good at giving it to anyone else.
It turned out the opposite: I could mother someone, more than one— it was a balm that makes the burn go away. I turned out to have a thing for mending, and pressing tears away, and holding on tight.
You can house their bodies but not their thoughts.
They have their own thoughts.
You can house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls live in a place called tomorrow,
Which you can’t visit, not even in your dreams.
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