Half a Mom

There comes a point in a pregnancy where one usually starts pondering how things will get balanced after the child is born, in terms of of time and psyche:  how will I manage to be both a wife and a mother? (Jeebus, is it really 5:30 already?!)  How will the time get allocated between my obligations to these distinct places of grocery store and nursery, not to mention work, my friends, my family?  A cold wave of early bedtime, schedule-crushed weekends, sick days, babysitters, daycare, and netflix subscriptions suddenly washes over one as she realizes things will change, radically.  There are only so many hours in a day, and while I multitask with the best of them (lifts fingers from keypad ever so slightly in order to blow toddler’s nose, take turn at Candyland, throw ball to dog, click over to respond to chat message, and realize chicken needs defrosting) sometimes things need undivided attention and take priority.  Babies are one of those things.

I remember in the weeks before Maddy was born, wondering how on earth I was going to juggle two children.   And I mean that somewhat in the literal sense of throwing them both in the air, perhaps with a banana some yogurt and a cell phone, and seeing if I could make a five-minute lunch plan out of it for all of us.  But I also mean that in the more figurative sense of balancing my time with them, and the more existential sense of how I would carry them around in my heart and my head, equally, and yet individually and appropriately.  With liberty and justice for all.  And a bit of down time for mom, who needs a good bubble bath now and again.

And so it started, pulling away from the house on a Monday morning, weeping, leaving my toddler behind for 48 hours while I went to birth her sister.  The split opened fresh and wide: guilty for leaving one behind, anxious to meet the other.

Before I could secure on my helmet, my brain began careening from one wall to the other, not only between Bella and Maddy, House and Hospital, but Well and Sick.  It became clear to us by late Tuesday that Maddy was severely impaired, and would likely require exclusive hospitalization or institutional care.   How on earth would I ever manage parenting, loving, holding two extremely different individuals under two roofs separated by distance, time, and most likely money and visiting hours?  This was not what I envisioned when I imagined pointing out to Bella that her sister had just spit up some god-awful substance on my couch that demanded immediate attention, sorry if I couldn't help her find other maraca right this second.  It somehow seemed justified, explainable, easy when both were right there, in front of me.

As the week dragged on I couldn't settle in either place.  When I was at the hospital, I simply longed to be home, snuggled with the well, knowing what sweet life could be.  While I was home, I was racked with guilt for not being at the bedside of an infant -- a tiny babe who couldn't possibly understand, but needed nothing more than her mother next to her side and I yearned to return and touch her small hands.  I was restless in both places, both in spirit and in body.  My eyes cried, my breasts leaked, my head screamed for silence and sleep, my legs found themselves heading to the door, my hands constantly picking up the phone to check on the other, my mouth always speaking of the other daughter:  "Bella, your sister is very sick.  But she is so beautiful."  "Maddy, your big sister Bella wants to meet you so much.  She used precious Dora stickers on your valentine, she must love you immensely."  There was no way to bring these worlds together -- Bella was on month three of a post-nasal drip hack.  One NICU deemed her too young, the other I didn't dare bring her into.  Maddy, with her sea of tubes and wires and machines that go "ping" was in no shape to leave the hospital.  Both children demanded my attention.  Both children deserved it.  I couldn't reconcile my obligations.

The last 24 hours of Maddy's life were spent exclusively at the hospital; I left my home Saturday a mother of two, but two split by location and health.  I came home Sunday night, the mother of two, divided by living and dead.

I wish I could announce that at that point the pendulum finally quit its manic swing, and I settled back into my one-dimensional life.  But it actually became worse.   To this day, I fly back and forth between earth and the underworld, my family room and Hades, with a surprise and suddenness that brings whiplash.  My mind smashes against one wall and is suddenly spinning pel-mel towards the other until it crashes again.  The duties I feel toward my two disparate daughters have left me concussed.

I'm still always guilty of where I am, feeling that I'm snubbing one daughter for the other, unable to spend quality time with one and pay attention to the other’s needs.  I often feel like half a mom.

I discovered early on that Bella, only two-and-a-half at the time of Maddy’s death, began associating my frequent and random griefbursts with whatever activity we happened to be involved in at the time.  Music Class, for example, quickly got scuttled when I cried roundtrip the first week back.  The following week Bella blew up and refused to leave the car, pronouncing “music makes me sad.” (Maddy 1, Bella 0) The tears, apparently, would have to stop during daylight hours lest she begin associating them with trips to the grocery or walking the dog.  I had to manage my grief, no matter how badly I simply wanted to curl in a ball and cry and remember Maddy, and hold it off.  (Bella 1, Maddy 1).

My Maddy-time is right here, right now, on the keypad, typing her name, sharing my memories and feelings.  I try desperately to limit this to when Bella is killing gray matter in front of the television, or when she’s off at school or in bed, but sometimes I need to “check my mail” – see her name, send my love, receive support.  It kills me that when Bella picked up her dad’s camera she turned it and caught me, as I must always seem to her, hunched over the keyboard.  Bella can’t you see that she needs me right now?  That she’s crying?  That she reeks a bit of stale vomit?  That her hands are outstretched?  That mommy needs a few minutes with her?  No, of course you can’t.   Truth be known, I can’t either honey.  But I just need to be with her a moment, m’kay? (Bella 2,346, Maddy 4, 578)

And then there are the times I stifle my memories, my feelings, my grief, and mentally block out the picture of my other daughter and what she would look like today stumbling across the lawn so that I may enjoy Bella attempting to blow bubbles and then eat them, or hanging upside down out of the hammock or delivering Little Miss Bossy Boss her Milk!  Now!  “Oh and some crackers too, Mom!”  So that I can pay attention and avoid a trip to the emergency room, and not get too impatient and testy and be in the moment and breathe and enjoy.  Shit Maddy, your sister’s doing that thing where she’s hangs upside down by one arm on the tree branch and tries to drop four feet, and I can’t right now!.  But the otherworld baby can’t possibly know when it’s a good time to slap me upside the head and demand attention. (Bella, 1.67x107, Maddy 1.24x107)

Sweetie, I’m in an important meeting and everyone’s looking at me, I can’t, I just can’t, can it wait?

I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but rush hour tonight is a bitch without taking that detour over the River Styx.  Maybe tomorrow night?  Ok?

I’m right in the middle of dinner, I have raw chicken yuk on my hands, the stove is on, the dog is barking, Bella is crying in front of the fridge, the phone is ringing, the cat just coughed up a hairball perilously close to the salad, can’t you see?  Can’t you see that I just need a few minutes here and then I’ll deal with you?  I’ll be there in just a second.

I know a day will come when the head-banging oscillation will cease, and that I’ll find myself firmly planted here, with only an occasional, slightly depressing venture to visit Maddy.  But I almost dread that day; it will mean we all have grown:  neither of my daughters will need me as much, and I’ll come to realize that the voices in my head aren’t really, it’s just my need to grieve finally waning.  One will no longer be a baby, and I’ll come to realize that the other never was, on this plane.  At which point I’ll only be able to look back and hope I did the best I could, by both of them.

Mother’s Day looms large right there around the corner and I can’t bring myself to celebrate and feel rather guilty accepting anything from the live daughter.  I feel I haven’t been there in full.  For either of them.  I’m constantly distracted by the other, and have yet to figure out how to hold each of them against my still poochy stomach and tell them both simultaneously, “I love you both, equally, fully, with all of my might and ability.  Recognizing that you both are quite different, of course.  You know, in case you hadn’t noticed.”