As I told my friend, I did not remember my childhood drama until after I gave birth to my first child. Jarys was born ten weeks premature, so we had to wait nearly six weeks before taking him home. Until then he stayed in the NICU at UCLA while Steve worked and I pumped. Day and night around the clock, I pumped my breasts to store the precious milk for our infant. It was all I could do. They wouldn’t let us hold him for very long so I spent more time bonding with my pump than my infant. But it was hardly a chore. In spite of the hand pump—I was never offered an electric model to bring home and my experience with the hospital pump was overwhelming—I got very good at using that odd plastic device.
Imagining his tiny face gazing up at me, the smell of the golden down of his head, the clasp of his fingers around my pinky and looking past the tubes riddling his miniscule frame and the antiseptic glow of the hospital, I would feel let down—that incredible fullness released in rhythm with a baby’s hunger. My breasts did not differentiate between infants. They let down at the cry of a hungry baby in church, at the grocery store, even on television. My milk seemed to flow for them all. As if through the flow I could somehow connect to my own baby so far away. The sensation of letdown would fill my heart. It’s the closest I would get to feeling love. Our bonding was broken by the traumatic delivery and long separation. Only through my imagination could I experience connection.
So every few hours, I pumped and feeling a great sense of accomplishment, I would pack up the frozen milk and drive the 90 miles from Goleta to Los Angeles. The nurses teased that I had enough to feed the entire NICU.
My mother lived closer to UCLA so often I would stay with her. Nana was still alive, although dying of metastatic lung cancer. And my youngest sister chose to live with Mom in the tiny condo rather than Dad in our big beautiful home. So it was crowded when I arrived each week after holding vigil besides Jarys’ incubator.
One night I awoke from a nightmare. I startled my Mom who was lying on the floor besides the couch. “What is it?” She asked, concerned. I described the dream in vivid detail…
I am four years old carrying the baby and herding the two-year-old twins into the bathroom. After setting the baby in the tub, I lock the door behind us, both doors, the one from the hall and the one leading to our parent’s room. Mommy is upset. Daddy is gone. He’s always gone. I sing to them and when the baby settles down and the twins begin to play, I call Nana. In my head, I call to her. And soon the phone rings and Mommy answers. It’s Nana…I wake up…
Mom confirmed that would happen often. She would be overwhelmed by the care of the four of us and worried about what Dad was doing. What he had been doing at the end of twenty-four-year marriage, not being faithful. They were in the process of getting a divorce when Jarys was born. They didn’t tell me right away waiting until I was far enough along in my pregnancy so that I wouldn’t miscarry due to the stress. But still it was stressful. We were less than a year married, both starting our careers, expecting a baby and trying to buy a home. Then Nana got sick and my parents announced their divorce, we take in my youngest sister for the summer, as the whole family whirls about in a tornado of change, and I go into labor prematurely. The stress won.
Remembering my past in its fullness not just the fairytale ideal that I had brought into my young adulthood changed me. I knew I didn’t want to be like my mother. She felt disempowered by her dependency on my father. I knew I didn’t want to be like my grandmother. She lived in a co-dependent relationship with my grandfather who was a recovered alcoholic. I had no other mother figures to model. I had to become a new kind of mom.
My parents’ divorce freed my mother. She began speaking her truth. Loudly in a very Italian way, but it was her truth as she knew it. One thing she taught me very early on was how to be in the moment. Jarys was about a year old, cruising around the furniture. I was behind him wiping up his handprints from the glass coffee table when my mother slapped my hand.
“Don’t be like me.” I looked up surprised. Like my grandmother, my mother was fanatical about cleanliness. I barely remember Nana without a rag in her hand wiping up something and Mom was just like her.
“He’ll only be little once. Enjoy it. The dirt doesn’t matter.” That was the first time I remember maternal advice coming from my mother. I took her words to heart. And I became a more relaxed, in the moment mom, trying not to worry about appearances like how clean my house was, and spent time with my precious child.
When Jarys was twelve I began a deeper level of soul work. I began to clear the dust from the inside of my light shade. I began to write poetry to help heal myself.
I called the collection: Dealing with Feelings through Verse. And through poetry I revisited the bath…
IN THE BATH
the baby is crying
the twins are spying
under the door of the bath
the water is running
she bravely is humming
to drown out her poor mother’s wrath
a mere child of four
walked in the bath door
dragging her siblings behind her
a woman emerged,
with so much to hide
childhood lost in a blur
three decades have passed
yet the pain ever lasts
will ever a child she be
or worse even yet
her own children bet
in her, her dear mother they see
she fights with the rage
turning now to the page
to pour out her heart’s pain and tears
first kissing her dear ones
then calling up dear mum
to find blessings over all these years