When I was a kid living in California, wildfires were a common occurrence. At camp we laid out our go bags at the end of our beds every night in case we needed to evacuate. I never actually had to live through one, but we would hike to see the massive black scars left on the mountains by the fires, and we would imagine running from them through the darkness and the heat and the smoke. Back at home, I would lie awake making lists. How would I escape if the house caught fire? What would I save? What could I save? It became a nightly ritual. Say my prayers. Kiss my teddy bear goodnight. Try to save my loved ones from the fire. When we moved away to Indiana my bedtime ruminations shifted from fires to tornadoes, and then to the more immediate terrors of math tests and oral presentations. I thought I’d put my preoccupation with natural disasters behind me until my first child was born. I would read the horror stories, and I would make lists. What if…
We were living in my brother-in-law’s one-bedroom unit on the fifth floor of a high rise apartment building. He had a balcony, which was good. I’d devised an elaborate scheme involving wrapping the baby in a sheet and swinging him from balcony to balcony to get safely down to the ground should the building go up in flames. It was preposterous, but had helped me sleep. Then one day I noticed that the neighbor immediately below us had enclosed his balcony. No good! I lay wide-eyed awake shooting terrified glances at my son sleeping in the crib by the window.
“Go to sleep.”
It was no use. “We’re all gonna die.”
“What are you talking about?”
I was giving my husband my most pathetic apologetic look, knowing I was going to sound like a hysterical idiot. I told him how the neighbor had foiled my escape plan.
“Tell me, how do I save the baby now?” I implored pitifully.
“The whole building is made of concrete, and the stairwell is faced in fire retardant tile. Just stay off the elevator. He’ll be fine.”
“Really?” He nodded.
“Oh, thank God.” He put his arm around me, and I fell asleep.
My son was screaming on the toilet again. We’d tried suppositories and laxatives and diet changes, we’d tried everything, but the problem wasn’t physiological, it was psychological. He was afraid to poop, and he was doing his damndest to hold it in. He had been pacing and moaning, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had to go. He had to go. I’d put him on the toilet several times that day trying inducements like bonbons and favorite books and videos all to no avail. Now it was an hour before we were supposed to meet his little friends on the playground for the last time before leaving for the summer to visit grandma in the US. He had to go. He had to go now. He was kicking and screaming as I tried to hold him on the toilet. I heard the voices in my head screaming even louder.
What are you doing? This isn’t normal. Why can’t you get him to use the toilet like a normal kid. How hard could it be? Everyone else in the whole world can do this without all the drama. Gorillas can do this, why can’t he? What are you doing wrong? Did you give him enough water? What did he eat? Why can’t you fix him? If he doesn’t poop we’ll have to take him to the doctor again…
He kept screaming. He had to poop.
“Please, please, just let it go!” I pleaded, holding his thighs too hard against the toilet seat.
He punched me in the face with a tiny closed fist. I slapped him back. Hard. Hard enough to leave the pink imprint of three fingers on his cheek just below his left eye. He was three years old.
Fuck! What have you done! You evil bitch! You monster!
Now he was shrieking in pain and rage. I desperately wanted to rewind, to take it back, to erase it, but in that moment with his screams reverberating around my head, I also wanted to hit him again.
I went into the hallway, leaving him on the toilet apoplectic. Was the baby watching me hit myself? Again. Again. As hard as I could. I looked in the mirror. I wanted to leave a mark just like the one I’d put on my son. I wanted to feel exactly what I’d done. I deserved to suffer.
Stop it! Stop it! Stop!
My heart pounded and my stomach clenched.
What have I done? I can’t take it back. What do I do now? Don’t see me. Don’t see this. Fuck!
I took him off the toilet, and tried to calm him down. Half an hour later, he was still fidgeting, obviously still holding it in, but he was also smiling and ready to go to the playground to see his friends—with three pink finger marks still emblazoned on his cheek.
What do I do? They’ll see. They’ll all see it. They’ll all know what I’ve done. They’ll take my kids away. Maybe we should just stay home. No! I’m not going to cancel his play date. I’m not going to make him pay for my mistake. He wants to go play, to see his friends. He should see them. And they should see him. See what I did to him. Maybe I deserve to lose my kids. Maybe I shouldn’t come back with them from the States. Maybe they’re better off without me. I deserve to suffer.
I packed up the stroller with water and snacks and sand toys and headed to the park with my stomach churning and my heart in my throat.
What happens now?
I watched the other mothers notice the marks. I braced myself. Prepared to be honest. I wasn’t going to lie about what I’d done. I deserved the guilt and the shame. I deserved to suffer. No one said a thing.
Oh, my God. I’m the fire that’s burning my babies. What do I do now? This can never happen again.
You sound just like my wife. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
But I never told You that story. I never told You what was really at stake that night several months later when the kids were screaming, and I locked myself in the toilet. I never told You how I’d asked for help, for a babysitter, for a break, for a therapist, for medication if it came to that, but instead was told to just be normal. How hard could that be?
“My parents can do what you’re doing,” my husband had told me. “I can take the kids away to stay with them if you can’t handle this.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe they would all be better off without me. Maybe I had nothing to offer a child. I never told You that story, because hitting myself in the face wishing I could take it back, I didn’t want You to see me, but you were there. I always bring you to the places I don’t want anyone else to see. I don’t want to be alone in them.
So, why then, did I tell You this story.
…tonight, after my husband came home with my son while I was trying to put the baby down, effectively preventing that from happening after I’d nursed her for about half an hour, I was done. My nerves were shot, hormones, weather. I don’t know. I went and laid in bed while the kids played with daddy, and when the baby found me and started in, I just said “I love you,” and laid there ignoring her, because that’s all I could think of to do. I took her to my husband. She found me again. I hid in the bathroom. She started screaming and crying, and I knew that me being with her would be worse for her than me staying in the toilet. Then my son started asking where I was, and my husband said “I don’t know. Mama’s gone.” So, I came out. For my son. I didn’t want him to think I’d just leave. I put him to bed and kissed him, and tried to make everything seem okay. But the whole time the sirens were blaring. The baby wouldn’t give me any peace, and I couldn’t stand to have her on me again. I went to the kitchen to wash dishes. She was still screaming.
I have never hit my daughter, not a swat on the bum, not a slap on the wrist, nothing. I’ve never left her in her crib at night screaming for me to come back. I’ve never left her sobbing at day care. I’ve never left her. I have that sickening moment I hit my son carved into my soul, and it protects her. It gives me endless patience for her, the blank slate. Yet, when I look at him, I see the guilt and shame of every mistake and false start, and it gets under my skin. He hits, kicks, scratches, pinches, sasses, fights, rages, and it’s all my fault. I know it is. I want to have the same well of patience and bag of tricks for him that I have for my daughter, but every time I find my groove, he grows out of it. Yes, I will lock myself in the toilet to protect him, but I will never leave. Not really.
“You know I love every part of you, always, even when I’m angry.”
“I know that already, Mama,” he says rolling his eyes exaggeratedly.
“How do you know?”
“I know that, because you already told me that. I know.”
He’s four. He knows everything, but does he feel it in the marrow of his bones? He’s my first, and I’ve burned him, but I would never ever throw him away. I just don’t know what I’m doing.
I feel the same way about you.
Thanks I need all the moms I can get.
Now, listen to your first born, your beautiful precious boy, grown into a kind, strong, independent man. Listen to him say that he had, if however briefly, become a–
… wandering, lonely, drunken vagrant…
because he’d never realized you actually cared. Listen to your Baby, you could have spared him that pain if you hadn’t abandoned him. Can you feel it? It’s like a shot to the gut. I’m not supposed to feel that way about You, but I do. It takes my breath away.
I had hit You hard and left a mark. I thought You were better off without me.