In line at 10:30 pm at the A & P, I stare at my items on the conveyor belt. Three types of milk. Yogurt bars for the lunch box. Stool softener and cranberry juice for my oldest—the reason I am here. The pediatrician supposes his chronic constipation is causing his growing colon to intrude on his bladder, causing painful urination and poor control. Awesome. So, here I am, buying everything and anything I can to eradicate the issue, solve the problem, make my boy better.
However, I will learn in three days that the stool softener doesn’t make him poop more, it just makes him poop faster, and so in addition to pee accidents, he will have several poop accidents in and out of school, at the park or in the kitchen, proximity to a toilet notwithstanding. I will realize again and again that because he hardly ever poops and because it therefore hurts, his mind has taught him to try not to do it, and so my job is not remedial. My job is to retrain his thought process, to teach him that his body needs to rid the waste; that once we get him going more it won’t hurt, that the poop is coming no matter what he wants. Not with a frustrated and even angry voice, but with kindness and understanding, with the sweet Mommy tone that somehow is supposed to be available to me regardless of how tired I am or how badly my day has gone. And because he is one of three, I need to do it in two minutes flat, when he needs it, for as long as he needs it. No matter how many loads of stained Ninja Turtle underwear come my way.
Being an overachiever, albeit emotionally and physically taxing, had always been a really good thing for me. It allowed me to escape a bad upbringing, become educated, earn money, and so forth. You might imagine, then, my continuous state of shock and paralysis when I learn daily that overachieving and motherhood are mutually exclusive concepts. Enemies, actually.
Standing here at the grocery store, drop-dead tired after the 1300th straight day of 15 hours of child care and facing a dirty kitchen when I get home, the internal struggle takes over and my thoughts change from “How much stool softener is too much?” to “What have I done to my son to make him so anxious to use the bathroom?”
As a baby, he had acid reflux—he wouldn’t eat and couldn’t poop. It was unsolvable and I was a mess with twin newborns, no sleep, and no clue. What nonverbal messages did I send him that he translated into truths about his failure to please me, be a good boy, get things right? I cringe at these thoughts, berating myself for not knowing better, not learning from the past. I commit to being better tomorrow but that is no solace because yesterday’s commitment got me here.
After shopping, inthe car now, I take my time. The boys are asleep, my husband watching TV. I am allowed to breathe, to sit, to listen to a song. I roll down all the windows in the mini-van and light a cigarette. Every other day or so, I will do this, usually on the back porch. I don’t care that it is unhealthy or that it defies all current social convention. It is my secret and I protect it at all costs.
It is a placeholder for a self that is cryogenically frozen, to be thawed and reshaped at some future date when everyone knows how to poop properly and can cut his own meat and clean his own fingernails and doesn’t need a referee every minute. A self who boasts success after a long day or is bashfully fulfilled after a weekend of no sleep, who has many facets to her life and tales of interactions with people and friends, chats that go beyond lessons in self-control or helping our body do its job. Of course, motherhood is sacred and miraculous and a privilege beyond all others in this world. Many will say it is the hardest job they have ever had. But for me, it is almost as though its pan-ultimate ranking comes at the price of being the most profound mind-fuck ever, for I have never worked as hard at anything and felt so much a failure as I do mothering. At night before I fall asleep, my last thought is always what I did wrong with the boys today. I know that is destructive, but it is automatic, or seems so. And I know I am not alone.
My sons are beautiful creatures. They are handsome, smart, loving, and kind. They are everything we could ever ask for and more. From the outside, you might say that my husband and I (which he gracefully and of course accurately attributes almost entirely to me) are doing a good job with them. We will get past the poop problem. We will make our mistakes but we will love them unconditionally and apologize for being too intense. They will forgive us and we will forgive ourselves so that we may live to fight another day.
In the morning I stir Miralax into six ounces of cranberry juice and with my son’s breakfast, place it on the table. I tell him: “This is going to make your penis feel better and help you poop more easily, Buddy.” He tries the juice and likes it, does not notice the undissolved specks floating in it. Thank God this is not his twin brother, who puts nothing to his lips without a three-minute inspection and a series of follow-up questions, any one for which a wrong answer will render the item non-ingestible. We exchange a smile and he asks me:
“Mommy, what if this doesn’t work?”
I suppress a wave of sadness for his worry. “Well, I think it will. But if it doesn’t, then we will try the next thing. And we will keep going until we figure this out.”
“OK,” he says. He chews, then: “Cause that’s your job, right? Cause you’re my Mom?”
I smile, almost laughing, but he wants an answer. I get matter-of-fact in a hurry. “You’d better believe it, Little Man. And I take my job VERY seriously.”
Eating, he nods, content, in agreement, aboard my train. He always gets on my train and I love him for that. He will soil himself later that day but I will remember to tell myself that it’s nobody’s fault, that he will get it when he gets it, that nothing is wrong. And because I remember that instead of trying to overachieve and solve the problem I should just let it be and love him, he handles it like a champ. The only result that ever mattered. Duh.
When I go to sleep that night, I am at peace. So is he.
Belinda Wilson-Greer is a stay-at-home of three living in New York.
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