“I worry about you, that’s all. So shoot me.”
Hmmm. Tempting, Kara mused. It’s either her or me. MOTHER NAGS DAUGHTER TO DEATH.
Kara cannot help thinking in headlines. Morbid ones, mainly. Death and dying. The occasional maiming, crippling accident. She is a newspaper reporter, after all. At least she was a reporter, before the baby. Now she just thinks in headlines. There is no time for lead paragraphs. Analysis. The inverted pyramid of the news story, where the most important things come first and the least important last.
“Mom, I’m fine.” Kara clamped the phone between her chin and collarbone, unfolding the tabs of the disposable diaper with one hand and holding the squirming toddler with the other. “I like being home with him. He’s... I don’t know. He’s incredible. Brainy. Adorable. Funny... ”
“And he’s almost two years old...”
“Twenty-one months, Mom.”
“... and he’s driving you crazy. A little. Admit it. It’s normal. I felt that way when you were little.”
“I just don’t think you should be so isolated. In my day, mothers had a network, you know? Coffee in each other’s kitchens. The kids played together. A little break.”
“I tried the mom’s group. It wasn’t me.”
It was about eight months ago, when Caleb was just starting to toddle. The Tuesday morning get-togethers. “M.O.M.: Morning Out for Mothers.” There must have been a hundred women there at the Methodist church. The children were dropped off in rooms according to age and the mothers were free, free, free for two glorious hours. Free to chat, listen to an educational speaker, take time out from the relentless demands of motherhood: breastfeeding, diaper changing, picking up pacifiers. A break from the packing of Cheerios, juice, teething rings and toys, an arsenal to stave off the irritable — weren’t they often just so irritable? — moods of infants and toddlers.
She didn’t fit in. She had thought she might. After all, a hundred moms. There had to be some that still thought about their former lives, didn’t there? Being a mom was fabulous. Amazing. The most creative thing she had ever done. And the hardest. But mostly, she still felt like a reporter. A writer trapped in a mother’s body.
At that first meeting, the six moms at her table had been told to take five strips of paper each. Then they were instructed to write down all the relationships or roles in their lives. One per strip. There had been some pauses. Chewing of erasers. Small uncertain glances between the mothers seated around the circular table. Then the leader had asked the women to begin by putting one of their strips of paper — what each deemed their “least important” relationship — in the middle of the table. To explain the choice. The women were to continue in this fashion until the last strip was put in the center. The most important role of their lives.
Friend. Sister. Daughter. Wife. The strips of paper had flown fast and furious around Kara’s table. She had broken into a sweat. Mother. It was round four. She had put in “Mother” and met stony silence. What could be more important than that? The
faces looked at her. Questioning. Pitying. Round five: Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Writer. She the odd woman out. She was odd.
Afterwards, the group had — with nervous laughter — moved on to making a child’s birthday favor out of thin sheets of colored foam. Kara gloomily glued three googly eyes on her lion. Simba. Nala. Whatever the hell that Disney lion’s name was. AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST SUICIDAL OVER FAILED PARTY FAVOR. Then she had left it there, excusing herself to go to the bathroom. Instead, she picked up Caleb, who met her at the door with arms raised, ready to go. “You and me, both, kid,” she had said. She never went back.
“Have you tried a playgroup?” Her mother’s voice was a bit too spritely, Kara thought, trying to make the suggestion sound offhand. Fun.
“Mother. Kids this age don’t play. At least, not together. Best case scenario is what the experts call ‘parallel play.’ Playing side by side. Worst case? Biting, screaming, crying, tantrums. No concept of sharing. I call that hell. Not play.”
“But you’re alone all day in that house with Jack working so much. It would be good for you to get out. Caleb, too.” She paused, waiting for the rebuttal that Kara was too tired to produce. “Promise me you’ll try something. Anything.”
Kara stood the baby upright on the changing table and hugged him tight, patting the round little bottom, smooth and crackly in its paper diaper. She held him back from her, marveled at his blond curls, brown eyes. He blinked. Then struggled to free himself from her grip for the chance to leap off the terrycloth-covered table. ‘SUPER BABY’ CRITICAL AFTER LEAP OFF SMALL BUILDING.
“Mom, I gotta go.”
Bedtime. Caleb would snuggle into Kara’s lap for as long as she would read. She usually called it a night after a half dozen books. Or one book read a half-dozen times. WOMAN O.D.S ON GREEN EGGS AND HAM: “SEUSSED TO DEATH,” CORONER REPORTS. But she loved how his body went limp against her chest as he listened to the cadence of her voice, concentrating on the pictures. Then: “Again. Again, peas.” His favorite book right now was “Is Your Mama A Llama?”
Every night it was the same. Poor Lloyd the llama, trying to figure out what his mother was. A bat? A swan? A kangaroo? Kara understood this perfectly. What did a mother look like, exactly? What kind of animal was she?
As Kara turned the pages, she pitied Lloyd as he interrogated his various well spoken animal friends. One after another, the calf, the joey and the seal pup patiently explained the differences between their mothers and his. Lloyd wasn’t the brightest bulb, Kara reflected.
At last he finds his llama friend, Llyn, who sets him straight. Long eyelashes? Check. Big ears? Check. Curly fur? You bet. Finally, Lloyd gets it. “My mama’s a... llama!” he bleats joyfully. “And this is... The End.”
So there you have it, Kara thought. You’re a mother and then it’s all over. The End.
HUSBAND COMATOSE AFTER BLUDGEONING WITH NEWSPAPER: “HE NEVER LISTENED,” WIFE STATES.
It was late. Too late. Caleb was asleep. And Kara was talking to Jack’s profile again. It was a good profile, though, she had to concede. His hair was dark and thick, with a mind of its own. It gave him the rumpled-but-earnest-and-sexy lawyer look. Endearing. Especially with the glasses, that he pushed up on his nose intermittently with his index finger as he read the newspaper.
They had met in court. That was her beat at the paper. He was still in law school, clerking for a judge downtown. She didn’t like lawyers. Occupational hazard, she supposed. The bastards gave terrible, convoluted quotes. If they spoke to you on the record at all. But she had been amazed — blown away, really — at how much they had had to talk about after they got through all the usual legal banter.
“I asked what you think.” “About what?” Kara sighed beside him on the couch. “Time out versus spanking. Like today,
when Caleb was in his high chair. He was eating goldfish crackers, then he started dropping them on the ground, one by one. And I said ‘no,’ and he looked at me like ‘Oh, yeah?” and did it again. And then again.
“I put him in the corner and held him for a count of thirty, but Mom says a well- timed smack on the bottom is more effective. I said I would never spank, though. I mean, that we would never spank.”
“Spanking. Mmmm. Sounds good!” Jack folded the paper in fourths, dropped it on the coffee table and reached his arms around her in a big bear hug.
“Jack, I’m serious. I mean, could you spank without getting caught up in the heat of the moment? Spanking in anger is abuse in my book. Period. I don’t know about you.”
“I like it when you spank me in anger.” Jack was nuzzling her ear, his hand finding its way beneath her bulky sweatshirt. “Please abuse me. Please?”
“God, just forget it.” Kara pushed his hand away, flounced over to the far end of the couch. Her eyes were brimming with tears and she didn’t even know how it had happened. More than anything, she just wanted to be held. Touched.
“I was trying to have a serious conversation with you. Like adults, all right?” She threw her hands up. “You just make some joke out of it. Whatever.”
“Whatever?” Jack took his glasses off, pinched the bony ridge between his closed eyes with his thumb and two fingers. Sighed. “Look, Kara. I love you. But this is not adult conversation. This is adults talking about toddlers. I just want to make love to my wife once in a while. Not to Caleb’s mommy, you know?”
“Sorry. We’re the same person.”
She could not keep her voice from rising, her throat tightening around each word. She remembered how they had laughed, she and Jack, just a couple of months ago when they had both emerged one morning from their bedroom exhausted after another near-sleepless night with Caleb. Jack had mistakenly poured the bottle of blue- white breastmilk on his cereal. “Breakfast of champions,” he had mumbled, grinning, mouth full of Grape Nuts. And the time last week, when Jack had held a delighted, hiccuping Caleb over his head like an airplane, both of them making zooming noises until the boy had thrown up directly into Jack’s open mouth. Was this all there was now? Sharing a chuckle over some misplaced bodily function or other?
“Are you sure?” Jack was headed toward his briefcase now, another hour of work on some legal brief before bed. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love Caleb’s mom. But I really miss my wife.”
Me, too, Kara thought. WOMAN DISAPPEARS IN BABY PUKE, PISS AND SHIT; PRESUMED DEAD. But she refused to say it out loud. That would make it real.
She had found the playgroup notice posted at the coffee shop. Caleb was hoisted on one of her hips, his legs reaching halfway around her at a slant, like a low-slung belt and holster.
“Good kids. Good coffee. Good conversation,” the flier had read. Hmmmm. Is that possible? It reminded of Kara of a sign she had seen in a print shop. “Good. Cheap. Fast. Pick any two.” You could not have it all. Or could you? Impulsively, she had ripped off a tiny rectangle at the bottom of the sheet that had a name and phone number.
Ginger. That was the name of the woman who had answered when she called about the playgroup. She had dialed twice that morning and hung up before she had actually spoken to Ginger. But by late afternoon, she gritted her teeth and tried the number once more, prying the piece of paper from her pocket, along with an impressive handful of gravel that Caleb had brought her one piece of gray slate at a time. Like gifts. What did she have to lose? Her self? Her mind? Too late on both counts, she thought, ruefully. That’s why she was calling, she reminded herself. To keep herself afloat. WRITER NARROWLY ESCAPES WOOLF-ESQUE ENDING. She tossed the gravel in the garbage.
Oh, she sounded perfect, Ginger exclaimed. A reporter! A real writer! Kara could hear a child in the background, “Juice, peas. Juice, peas. Juice! Peas!” Ginger’s daughter was two. Just a bit older than Caleb. There were two other moms, a kindergarten teacher and a bank vice president. Both stay-at-home moms now, of course, Ginger said. Ginger had worked at a local vegetarian restaurant before her daughter was born.
Anyway. There would be a pot of good coffee. Sumatran, okay? A snack for the kids. Organic, okay? Bryn, don’t bite the doggie, okay? See you Tuesday, okay, Karen?
“It’s Kara.” Kara had replied to the dialtone. Then shrugged. Okay.
And then it was Tuesday and she was knocking on the door of a small brick house in the cool, eclectic part of town. Near the university. Like hers and Jack’s first place, she thought. Before Caleb. Kara noted the stickers on the back of the old Volvo: Visualize Whirled Peas. Old Hippies Never Die; They Just Get a Little Higher. My Other Car Is A Bicycle. Why Be NORML?
The door opened by itself. No. There was a two-and-a-half-foot tall cherub with dark hair and eyes with her hand on the doorknob. “Bye-bye,” she said cheerfully, closing the door again. Well. That’s that, Kara thought. Wished. She was beginning to regret her decision to come.
The door was reopened quickly. By a woman, this time. Ginger. Her hair was black with a purple sheen to it, like it had been highlighted with Jell-O. She had black cat-eye glasses and her Doc Martens matched Kara’s. A remnant from her funkier reporting days.
“You must be Karen! Come in, if you can get past Bryn.” She nudged the toddler away from the door with one knee, exposed through a curtain of white threads in her worn jeans. “Everyone else is here.
“Everyone, this is Karen and Caleb,” Ginger announced in the living room. Two other women were sitting cross-legged on the floor with a little boy and girl playing with wooden blocks between them.
“Actually, it’s Kar-,” Kara began.
“Cindy and her daughter, Madison.” The younger mother in jeans and a flannel shirt waved. “And this is Felicia and her son Rex.” This woman had streaks of gray in her brown hair. Her clothes had a studied casualness, as if she had been picked up from the L.L. Bean catalogue and deposited against her will in this foreign land. She smiled somehow without moving her face.
Kara sat down like the others, placed Caleb in the nest between her knees. He sucked his hand, studying all the new faces somberly.
Screaming erupted. Madison and Bryn were pulling on opposite ends of a doll-sized stroller.
“No-no. You need to share, girls.” Cindy’s voice was like SweetNLow. Too sweet. A little unreal. “No, Madison. No, Bryn. Share.”
“Uhm. We don’t say ‘no’ to Bryn,” Ginger broke in, beaming forgiveness. “It’s like... too negative, okay?”
“Oh. Well. Sure. I mean, that makes sense.” Cindy was young, Kara could see that. Impressionable. Not wanting to misstep.
Kara pointed Caleb toward the blocks. As she had predicted to her mother, the two little boys played blocks alone together. Both made separate shaky towers, then each knocked his own down, shrieking with delight. She was glad Caleb was warming up to the group a bit. Wished it was that easy for her.
She didn’t know why it couldn’t be. She was a mother, after all. These women were mothers. She was smart. Well read. Attractive in an unremarkable way. No grossly misproportioned features. Two brown eyes. Medium brown hair. Jack said it was her smile that transformed her. Made her beautiful. She didn’t use it enough.
“So, what do you do, Felicia?” Kara hated small talk. It was so small. She liked big talk. Ideas. Philosophies. Politics. Religion. Really good books. But you have to start with the small, she reminded herself. Just like you don’t give birth to teen-agers, Kara thought. Thank God.
“Well, I was vice president of commercial lending for FirstBank,” the older woman began. Kara felt herself blush. Of course, she remembered Ginger had said they all stayed home with the kids. She knew that. She hated feeling she had already said something wrong. WOMAN CHOKES TO DEATH ON OWN DOC MARTEN.
“Oh, yes, Ginger mentioned that.” Kara felt herself scrabbling for a foothold. Somehow she had gotten herself on shaky ground.
“I used to make multi-million dollar decisions every day,” Felicia continued. “Now I get to decide if we’re having Blues Clues or Rug Rats macaroni for lunch.” She seemed to be waiting for a laugh. The other women obliged. Kara forced a smile.
“I know exactly what you mean!” That meant Cindy was the kindergarten teacher, Kara surmised. She could certainly tell in the way her inflection was so over the top. Designed to be heard and understood by the five-year-old set. “It used to be curriculum writing, lesson planning, classroom management, parent conferences. Now it’s just Pampers versus Huggies, you know?”
Yes! Kara felt her heart skip a beat. This is where it would begin. They would talk about the conflicted nature of motherhood. The amazing love you feel for this small human being and the way it takes over, carnivorous, insatiable, swallowing you whole you until you don’t even recognize yourself any more. How you begin to forget that you even were someone else before.
“I don’t like the plasticky-feeling diapers,” Felicia said emphatically. Kara thought she didn’t look like she would touch any diaper with a ten-foot pole. “The Huggies are the most diaper-like.”
“Except for cloth diapers!” Ginger was off and running. The next half hour was a blur for Kara. Diaper services versus disposables. Nannies. Home schooling versus public versus private education. Toilet training. Pacifiers or thumbs. Thumbs down, Kara thought. She said three words, total: “More coffee, please.”
She watched Caleb toddle over to a corner by himself and knew it meant time for a new diaper. Great sense of irony, kid, Kara thought. But what a perfect time for a change. Ha. For both of them. This would be her chance to get up. Get out.
“Gosh. Look at the time.” Kara was a terrible faker. She knew that. “I better change this little guy and head out. We’re meeting Daddy for lunch.” A bald-faced lie. Jack never took lunch unless it was with a client. Not to mention the fact that it was barely ten in the morning.
She felt the women watching her back as she quickly grabbed Caleb, laid him on the floor and reached for the diaper bag. She was fast. Efficient. Desperate. And outta here, Kara thought. She slung Caleb up on one hip and the diaper bag strap over her shoulder. Grabbed her purse.
“Nice to meet all of you.”
“You, too, Karen.”
“And Caleb, of course!”
Ginger walked her to the door. “You’re not coming back, are you? It’s fine, okay?” She brushed a long fringe of purply-black bangs from her eyes. “I mean, I don’t know if this is going to work out for me, either.”
“It’s not you...”
“It’s you. Yeah, I know.” Ginger laughed, a little bitterly. Kara hadn’t noticed the pierced tongue before. “Anyway. See you ’round.”
“See you.” Kara felt unnerved. It was her. She knew that. But still.
Kara stopped, shifted Caleb on her hip as she turned once more toward the door. “Love the boots.”
“How small do they make these things?” Jack had asked her, his finger tracing the yellow-stitched edges of her oversized black boots. It was before they were married. He and Kara were sitting under a large pine tree in the city park, the overripe remains of a picnic strewn over the plaid blanket. It smelled like spring. Like a fresh start.
“Oh, I don’t know. Why?”
“I think our babies should each have a pair, don’t you?” Jack’s tone was serious, but his eyes had a naughty little sparkle in them. “So they can kick other babies’ asses, you know? Like their mom.”
That was the moment Kara had fallen in love. She had not meant to. Just like they had not meant to — later — make an actual baby. At least not then, with Jack just finishing his last year of law school. She had had to quit the paper when the baby was born. It was nearly impossible to be a part-time beat reporter. Everything that mattered happened when you weren’t there. Law of nature. Her boss had said he was sorry. Offered her some part-time lifestyle section bullshit. But Kara was not fluffy. She was not human interest.
Yet when Jack had landed his first job as an associate, she knew she would stay home with the baby, although she had never considered this before. Law of nature, she had thought, a bit ironically. But then, she had not planned on Jack, either. Or getting married. She was a reporter, after all. A writer. An unbiased observer and recorder of life. Not a direct participant.
Kara was not ready to go home yet. The playgroup experience had made her want to laugh hysterically. To cry. To rip off her too-big sweatshirt and her stretched out nursing bra and scream out the window of her sport utility vehicle: “I’m not who you think I am!” to anyone who might listen. MOMMY GODIVA BARES ALL IN BRONCO. That, she had to admit, was a less-than-appealing image. With the stretch marks and the extra five pounds around her midsection. No one could see the stretch marks on the inside, though. Those were the ones that hurt.
Caleb jabbered in his car seat. “Ma-ma, Ma-ma, Ma-ma. Uh-oh. Uh-oh, Ma-ma.”
“Uh-oh is right, my little friend,” Kara looked at Caleb in the rearview mirror, which she had trained on him instead of the traffic behind her. Sometimes she thought adorable kids were more of a driving hazard than cell phones. She spent at least half her time behind the wheel looking at him. She thought of the diamond-shaped car window signs that had been the rage a decade before: BABY ON BOARD. So what? Now, CUTE BABY ON BOARD. That was something worth warning other people about.
“Let’s get a cup of coffee. An adult beverage.” Caffeine had been the one thing Kara could not give up during pregnancy. She had given up the cigarettes as soon as she knew she was pregnant. But the caffeine was what kept her awake. Kept her going. Coffee cups were like natural extensions of the hands of all the reporters at the paper. It was the common language in a community of people who were just a bit odd — all right, strange, Kara admitted. From the introverted logophiles to the glad-handing, in- the-know good ol’ boys. To her, a cynical nail-chewer with a passion for boiling down reams of legal briefs and hours of brain-numbing testimony to their essence. Into a story. A tale not of simple truths and justice served, but of the people that made each case complex. More multiple shades of gray than black and white.
She pulled up to her favorite coffee shop, which was also a bookstore. The front was all windows, with the coffee bar and tables where you could sit for hours and watch people pass by along the busy downtown street. But the back was dark, crowded with overfilled bookshelves that seemed to be leaning over the aisles as if reading over your shoulder. There were large overstuffed armchairs and couches where you could curl up and read. The occasional reading lamp shone like a muted moon against the black stacks of books.
Kara fed the meter, opened Caleb’s door and unfastened the straps of the car seat. Should she put him in the stroller? Or just get a high chair when she got inside? She opted for the high chair. One less thing to take in. One less snap-and-unsnap routine.
She pushed open the glass door, heard the metal bells announce their arrival. The dark smells of roasted coffee beans and fresh ink hit her nose at the same time. At the counter, there was a short line. Caleb alternately hugged her leg, then said “Bye-bye, Mama,” before dashing across the coffee shop floor, his small hiking boots squeaking on the pine plank floor. He stopped, flashed a winning smile at Kara and then a curmudgeonly newspaper reader at a front table, ran back and hugged her leg and began the whole cycle again. God, this line was taking forever.
“Kara?” A voice behind her in line. Mel. From the paper. She covered the state legislature. “How the hell are you? Oh my God. This must be the baby.”
Kara had a sudden irrational urge to deny her relationship with the little blond boy running gleefully across the room. Baby? What baby? Kara felt like a double agent whose cover had just been blown. She had to remind herself that being here — and being a mother — wasn’t illicit, like seeing your P.E. teacher in a porn shop or something. She belonged here, too. Kara hoped she didn’t look too mom-ish.
“This is Caleb.” As if on cue, Caleb squeaked to a halt, faced Mel and promptly put his finger in his nose all the way up to the second knuckle. BABY EXTRACTS RECORD-BREAKING BOOGER FROM NOSE; MOTHER DIES OF SHAME.
“Is Your Mama a Llama?” Text copyright © 1989 by Deborah Guarino, Scholastic Press, New York, NY.