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saturn devouring his son

There are seventy-nine minutes left in the day. I am clinging to consciousness as I write, half drunk, half sleepy. At least it’s almost over, my birthday that is. I didn’t have an official cake, so let this be the proverbial frosting, the telling of my forty-first birthday. I’ll tell it in one long unedited inhalation, the opposite of blowing out candles, that morbid ritual of extinguishing light with one’s breath, but not before making a final wish, followed by a gasp, and then an emptying of your lungs resulting in darkness. Blowing out birthday candles (tiny flames symbolizing each year of your even tinier existence) is a metaphor for death, right up there with a raven shitting on the Grim Reaper’s hoodie. There’s some luck in that, just as there’s luck in surviving another year. There’s also humor, but mostly the kind that laughs at you, which is fine by me. I have zero delusions of grandeur. I entered the world hysterical and naked, and I intend on dying like that too.

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When I meet the father of my children, he is muscled and brown-skinned with freckled shoulders from swimming in the ocean in the midday California sun. I am a protozoan. Soft and open. Absorbing everything. When I change, we change. This pattern will repeat. By the time our children are born, my husband is shaped like the Buddha. I don’t mind the change in his shape. He doesn’t mind the change in mine. There are other things that will come between us and end us, but the shape of our bodies is inconsequential. Later there would come the confusion of how my body would be regarded as it aged, what my shape would telegraph to the next person who loved me. When our marriage ends, I am lean and shrewd. An apex predator.

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You are in a church in the University District of Seattle. You are compulsively early, so you take a seat near the front. There are thirty other people there already. Mostly academic-looking twenty-something riot grrrls, and one guy who looks a lot like Adam Driver.1 (You are also twenty-something. You are twenty-eight, to be exact, which is also Lena Dunham’s age. You feel older than everyone around you, but it’s because your hair is not dyed anything. You aren’t wearing a single skull, and your one and only facial piercing has been healed over for nearly a decade. You have kids. You drove your minivan here from the suburbs. There are a million reasons for you to feel older, really.) The man who is potentially Adam Driver is slumped down in his seat, chewing on something. You text your husband.

JS BreukelaarI’ve heard two things about you: One, that you wear your grandmother’s necklace to readings of American Monster for luck, and two, that the book is about an alien penis-hunter. Is that true?

Yes, but—

 

No buts. Is this some kind of affirmative action female predator alien girl-power bs?

Why? Does that make you uncomfortable?

Martyrdom and motherhood are basically the same thing, sometimes. When I had surgery just four months after my daughter was born, I refused painkillers because I didn’t want Maddie’s breastfeeding to be disrupted. (Okay, this would be more impressive if it hadn’t been a laparoscopic surgery. I was sore, sure, but it wasn’t torture or anything.) When I need to finish writing a piece for my critique group, and Maddie is being particularly screamy, I let out this long, exaggerated sigh, and I say, “Well, I guess I’ll just put this aside until you’re in bed, and I’ll stay up until midnight finishing it.” Then there’s the very true cliché about making myself a warm lunch and getting to eat it around dinnertime when it’s stone cold. I’m a martyr sometimes, and I get a really annoying motherly pleasure from it. Then I ran over my toenail with the metal bottom of Maddie’s highchair, and I stopped being a martyr for a while.

dec 006 hShit, we’re late. I gun the green light. I shouldn’t be rushing.

“Shoot, we’re late!” I call to my daughters in the backseat.

Ah, what does it matter if we’re late (again), I rationalize to myself. It’s only a swimming lesson.

“Oh no!” my older daughter, Julie, says.

“It’s going to be okay,” I reassure.

“But it’s a swimming lesson!”

“We’ll get there.”

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Being a parent is hard. We all know that. Sleepless nights, hours spent elbow-deep in vomit, pressure to do the right thing by your kids every waking hour of the day. You love them unconditionally, but you’re never off the clock. Most days you’re lucky if you find a minute to sit down and breathe.

But if you think you’ve got it hard, spare a thought for the characters in AMC’s hit TV show The Walking Dead. Scheduling nap times can be a bitch, but it’s a virtual impossibility when you’re dragging your kids through a violent post-apocalyptic hell, populated by looters, homegrown gun-toting militia, and flesh-eating corpses. You may fret over how much TV your kid should watch, but trust me – you’ve never encountered a true parenting dilemma until your son has helped deliver his baby sister in a prison block, then shot and killed his mother to keep her from turning into a slavering people-eater. Suddenly an extra hour of Sesame Street doesn’t seem so terrible.

I knew we weren’t going to get good news, so I turned away. Technically, we hadn’t received any news at all—the ultrasound technician had said perhaps ten words the whole time—but that was its own evidence.

When previous scans had been normal, it had been apparent fairly quickly. Because of liability issues, technicians aren’t supposed to say much, but body language and demeanor say enough. When the technician cheerily points out the baby’s head, its chin, its heartbeat, fears are quickly alleviated.

Our technician didn’t speak and hardly looked at us. She stared straight ahead at the monitor. One hand operated the machine’s controls, and with her other arm, she somehow manipulated the ultrasound’s transducer without looking, almost as if she were an extension of the machine.

For the last few years I’ve scratched a meager living as a travel writer. If that conjures images of five-star luxury and all expenses paid cruises around the Baltic, then I apologize. The reality was more like a cut-price buffet at a roach-infested diner, squatting in the ass-end of nowhere. While there have been perks – lots of travel, a few unexpected adventures, some truly global friendships – there were plenty of bad times too. It turns out that travel writers dress like bums for a reason. Those guys you see scrawling on scraps of card at the side of the road aren’t begging for small change – they’re on assignment for National Geographic.

I used to have a infant who slept through the night. We’d put her down at 9:00pm or so, she’d sleep until 6:00am, and then I’d pull her into bed with me, feed her lying down, and we’d nap on and off until 10:00am. It was phenomenal. When other mothers told me that I looked/sounded/seemed great, I didn’t reveal my secret, because a.) I am always a little worried that someone is going to kidnap my baby, and this would only make her more attractive to potential kidnappers, and b.) it seemed a little naughty. No one else got to sleep in with a newborn, so it must be some form of illegal. In response to these women, I shrugged my well-rested shoulders and said, “Well, I really love being a mom.” Now, that part is still true, but the rest is not. Madeline doesn’t sleep anymore. She goes down at 9:00pm, and screams and screams. Then she falls asleep, and wakes up anywhere between two and eight times throughout the night. Last night was one of the really, really bad ones.

I stood on the side of a suburban swimming pool in a sweltering Texas backyard in a crowd of other parents, hefted my three-year-old daughter up on to my hip as she begged and wept, pried her tiny pleading fingers from my neck, and then threw her, forcefully, in a high, athletic arc, into the water.

Some of the other parents smiled approvingly, others clapped and cheered, and a few looked away with the strained-neutral expressions of people consciously deciding to ignore a present tragedy.

I received an email this morning from a current student at my alma mater. She was putting together a Where Are They Now? newsletter piece about some of the graduates who are continuing to work in their fields of study. Mine was creative writing. I wrote out the blurb she asked for, but I was pretty loose with the details. And with the definition of the word “working.” I write and edit, but I don’t actually get paid for most of it. And when I do, I take a picture of the check for posterity, which tells you exactly how rare those checks are. I told her about grad school and some of my publications, and that I’m juggling my writing life with my stay-at-home-mommy life, because writing with a five-month-old daughter in the picture is hard McFricken work. I didn’t actually use the word McFricken in my blurb. There are many things I didn’t tell her.

I am having my second miscarriage in a row. I am waiting for my body to expel a much wanted pregnancy that in our sense of joy and good fortune, my husband and I had already announced to family and friends. My first miscarriage this spring was very early (5.5 weeks) and I recovered from it with relative ease. But this morning, suddenly no longer pregnant at 7.5 weeks, I was flooded by a tidal wave of rage.

I yelled at my 5-year-old daughter who was impaling a potted plant with her light saber. I tried to pick a fight with my husband, who wasn’t in the mood to oblige.

And then, it hit me.

1. You are not, and will never be, a mother.

In this age of growing equality – sexual, racial, interspecies – men are still second class citizens when it comes to parenthood. Never mind that your sperm helped make the whole kid and caboodle: your lack of breasts and a vagina will forever be held against you. In fact, if you do grow breasts – or a vagina – it will only make matters worse. Men are still portrayed in the media as cartoonish fools, incompetent diaper-illiterate Stooges who are about as capable of looking after a baby as they are of making a casserole. Women, we are told, have an innate ability to nurture, which includes a genetic predisposition for cleaning up poop with moistened wipes, and a built-in Spidey-sense that detects squalling infants at a range of up to five miles. Men, meanwhile, are quite good at playing games. Or pulling faces. Or, in the case of the truly talented, both at once.

 

My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.