Authors: Amy Shearn
“Well . . .” And then would come a tickle to end all tickles. The fish-woman stories had emerged from a fit of overparenting pique, when it was revealed that while babysitting one night Grandma Sylvia had exposed my daughter to Disney’s insipid
movie, with its teeny-bopper heroine. I’d relented on a lot of the perfect parenting ideals I’d had as a pre-parent, but this was too much. Mermaids had been my favorite figures in the Slavic fairy-tale pantheon, but it was because they were weird and powerful and a little scary, not because they looked great in clamshell bikinis. I admit that I tended to neglect the girls’ wardrobes—the cuteness quotient of their coats and dresses not nearly as high as one might expect from a pair of brownstone-Brooklyn babies—and things like clipping their nails and educating them about etiquette or God or non-microwaved cuisine. But simpering female role models and saccharine fairy stories? Come on. I left out the parts about mermaids being the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be. I figured that stuff could wait at least until pre-K.
Bedtime, sleep. I never would have thought these would someday be my obsessions, occupying such large portions of my daily consciousness. Starting at around four p.m.—the witching hour, when
all down the street you could hear children begin to howl like werewolf cubs: my mind clicked with calculations:
If everyone has dinner at four-thirty and then baths at five and then cartoons for Betty during Rosie’s bedtime and then assuming Rosie stays asleep for Betty’s bedtime, it’s possible I’ll get some time to sew before Harry gets home—
and I’d start zooming toward bedtime in a maniacally unsoothing manner. The day ended definitively around dusk, and I never left the building after dark, but when your kids are little and wake up all night, you don’t ever get to clock out. I fantasized about a sexy eight-hour block of sleep. I salivated while telling Betty the part of
where the princess snoozes for a century.
Such luxurious lengths of sleep were not to be, not in this lifetime. I remember reading—it must have been soon after Betty’s birth, when peaceful nursing sessions mellowed into snuggling naps, when she would snooze on my chest while I browsed child development books (nowadays taking care of one baby sounded so easy, total amateur hour)—that infants need something like twenty hours of sleep a day, and that by four months old they will sleep through the night and take at least two naps a day. Which is how I knew that Rose was an exceptional human destined for great things. Think what an advantage it would be not to need sleep! This was what Harry and I had joked about before we were too tired to joke, when Rose was a squalling kitten balled up in blankets; we assumed this would all be an amusing anecdote someday. “We have here,” Harry announced into a rattle, “the parents of the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner, Rose Lipkin, who credits her extraordinary body of work to the extra hours she has to work, as she only sleeps for forty-five minutes a night. Now, tell us, Mr. and Mrs. Lipkin, did Rose ever sleep like a normal person?” And while the old me would have answered in some funny, snappy way, I’m sure, at the time I smiled wearily into Rose’s sweet-smelling scalp. Even Betty, who seemed to
forget about her little sister’s existence for hours at a time, eventually commented on the situation, strutting into the room on chunky toddler legs and pointing and saying, “Baby needs night-night,” furrowing her brow in droll fury. Baby needed night-night, indeed.
As a result I was worn down by exhaustion, my edges rounded, like a giant ambulatory pebble. My brain didn’t work the way it once had. I felt at all times an instant away from tears. I expended a lot of energy I didn’t have convincing myself this was due to being tired. I didn’t want to believe that it was, as my well-meaning psychiatrist sister seemed to be hoping, postpartum depression, which she insisted on calling, awfully, “baby blues,” as if describing Frank Sinatra’s eyes and not a mental health condition. Still, Sarah had called once a week from Seattle since Rose’s birth, the way she had with Betty—making small talk before edging up to the subject and finally saying, her voice taking on the queasy sheen of sympathy, “So, how are you
I knew the answer she was looking for. “No,” I’d tell her almost apologetically. “Everything’s great. I’m just tired.”
“Okay,” she’d say, exhaling. “Okay, good. Because after Max was born, I was a wreck, and I didn’t feel like I could admit it to anyone—”
“I know, Sarah, I know.”
“I hate that you stopped seeing your therapist. I just want to make sure you have someone to talk to.”
“Okay. The only reason why I mention it is because for someone with your history of depression, it’s really common. And there’s nothing at all the matter with it. You need to know it doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother or that you don’t adore your kids. Really, did you know that twenty percent of woman experience postpartum depression, which can lead to postpartum psychosis—I mean, of
—and especially women who have to go off their depression meds when they have their babies—”
“Yes, I know. Thanks a million for the cheery call, Sare, but I really have to go now. Time to drown the children in the bathtub.”
“That’s not funny. Jenny. Jenny? I do not like that joke. Jenny?”
Almost five months later, not much had changed except that Betty had taken more of an interest in Rose, so now neither of them slept. I would jerk awake in one odd situation or another—sitting in a kitchen chair while breast pump parts boiled, lying on the baby’s blanket surrounded by toys—to find Betty lugging Rose into her lap or the two of them huddled in Rose’s crib. “Betty! What did I tell you about the baby—gentle touches! Gentle touches!” I would cry ungently. Betty would stare up at me, green eyes wide, grubby fingers tangled in Rose’s scant strands of hair. Or Rose would be about to relent, her eyes rolling shut, as Betty would toddle in with the toy Harry had been entrusted to hide, a plastic meteor pocked with buttons, each triggering a mechanized song more eardrum-busting than the last. Who in the world designed those things? The wardens at Guantánamo Bay?
It wasn’t only the sleeping, either. Rose constantly wanted to nurse, but would stay on the breast for about thirty seconds before absentmindedly pulling off. Whenever I put her down, she wailed. “She’s spoiled,” Harry’s mother, Sylvia, said. “You carry her around too much.” “Early teething,” said a lady on the train. “It’s reflux,” diagnosed my sister, Sarah, long-distance. The pediatrician shrugged, not unsympathetically. “She’s a baby,” he said. “They cry.”
So you couldn’t really blame Harry when he started working later and later into the night. He swore up and down it had nothing to do with me or the girls, that he wanted to be home to help me
but things were not looking ever so good at Ever So Fresh and he was needed at the office. “Never go into business with your family,” he grimly told Betty one morning as she fed Cheerios to her plastic cash register. She looked at him for a long moment before offering a delicious choking hazard to Rose, who was doing her baby cobra pose on the floor nearby. “Nononono!” We rushed forward in unison. (It was our fault, my mother-in-law informed us, that “no” was Betty’s favorite word. Before I’d had kids, I’d never known this was a thing, how you weren’t supposed to use the word “no.” I still didn’t get it. What else could we say to her as she, for example, lurched toward the busy avenue we lived on?
What with the economy, and the recession, and the “crazy food faddists” (according to Sylvia, as if believing candy to be unhealthful were some wrongheaded new idea), sales were down at Ever So Fresh. Harry’s year-end bonus had been a bulk-size bag of stale fruit gels, disgusting enough when new and, by the time we encountered them, chewy as sugar-shellacked beef jerky. His brother was busy divorcing his second wife, one of those gently psychotic types who enjoyed visiting Disney World despite being a childless adult, and baby-talked to her houseplants. Therefore, Harry was needed at the office later and later into the night, each night, and sometimes on weekends. Allegedly.
The morning after the epic cigarette run: “You’re sure it’s only . . . work?” My friend Laura puckered her forehead. She knew Harry was working crazy hours, but I’d left out for now the part about how he’d never come home last night. We’d been putting in extra-long hours of our own at the playground. Laura’s husband worked a lot, too. Then again, Laura’s husband was a surgeon. Their apartment could have fit four of ours inside, and contained within its
original-prewar-detail-adorned depths a washer, dryer,
dishwasher, oh whirring objects of my most fervent desire.
Betty and Laura’s daughter, Emma, busied themselves palpating an anthill with bendy straws. I squinted at them, pretending to watch them play instead of mentally critiquing the cute-but-slightly-misaligned sailor dress I’d made for Betty. I would never admit to being happy to have girls strictly for the wardrobe options, but I will say that as an amateur seamstress, jacked cotton dresses for unpicky models were sort of my specialty. Betty offered Emma a wood chip, which she sucked on tentatively. I took in a breath to tell Laura about the woodsy snack and then didn’t, for some reason.
I stood near the fence, swaying back and forth with Rose sleeping fitfully in her sling. She seemed determined to sleep only when the nap could be of no use to me. I felt the sleepy weight of her body, not looking at her, and for a moment imagined she’d been replaced with a Tereshichka-like wooden block. Checked. Nope, just a regular human, non-imp-from-a-folktale baby. Phew. I wondered if all adults had similar moments of panic caused purely by overactive imaginations. It seemed like a question you couldn’t ask without seeming, you know, crazy.
“I mean,” Laura said, “Harry’s a great guy—I’m sure he wouldn’t—but—”
“Oh, please,” I said. My bravado sounded forced even to me. I felt close to tears because I was so tired, I told myself as usual, just because I was tired. “Harry hates everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. How on earth would he have a girlfriend?”
Laura smiled, sort of. We both knew this wasn’t remotely true. He was moody at home with me, but out in public Harry was the life of the party, gregarious and large-hearted. Somehow, everywhere we went, people knew his name.
“They’re really super busy at Ever So Fresh,” I added. Now
Betty was sampling the wood chips. I again took a breath and then stopped. I had learned to conserve my energy; I only had so much left, and the day was long. Besides, Betty was building immunities. I was pretty sure I’d read that somewhere. A childhood spent nibbling Brooklyn dirt could only result in an iron stomach, right? I pictured a twenty-year-old backpacking Betty impressing her hostel-mates by devouring street food in Indonesia.
You’re welcome, grown-up Betty,
I thought. My mother had encouraged quiet play indoors and endless hours of television, had suffered a phobia of dirt so debilitating that I’d never so much as seen a sandbox until I had kids of my own, had taught her girls that trying anything new would bring only trauma. I did what I could to escape her with every parenting move I made.