by Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter
I imagine my mother, at twenty five, a petite brunette with giant hazel eyes. I can picture her hanging upside down off the edge of her queen-sized bed, blood rushing to her head, the way she told me it did. She had just made love to my father and hoped gravity would work in her favor and she’d conceive a child. As she hung there, upside down, I wonder if she pictured her future. I wonder what kind of child she’d wished I would be.
I’ve been thinking about babies a lot lately, as two of my cousins, as well as my own brother, have become parents in the past three months. I’ve attended and thrown baby showers, I’ve memorized baby gift registries and product reviews, and I know more now about breast pumps than I ever wanted to.
I tell my mother I’m not going to breastfeed if I ever become a mother. I tell herthis, partially to get a rise out of her, but mostly because I know it is true. She looks hurt, saddened, but mostly disappointed. “You’ll change your mind,” she says, brushing off what I said as if she knows better. Will I change my mind? Or will I give in and let her change it for me? “You develop a bond when nursing that you can’t form otherwise,” she says. I try to rationalize, because she is making me feel guilty. If the child has lived inside of you for nine months, shares half of your DNA, and is helpless without you, I’m not sure your breast in its mouth in place of a bottle will make any difference when it comes to the relationship you will share. I tell her my breasts are the one area of my body I’m truly comfortable with. They’re the only thing I wouldn’t change about myself were I given the chance. I don’t want them to sag, I don’t want them to hang. I don’t want my nipples to get large and callused and sore. “That is selfish,” she says.
My younger brother was an accident. Sometimes I think he holds this common knowledge against my mother, though I don’t believe she has ever actually mentioned his accidentness in my brother’s presence. Somehow, he just knows, the way birds know to migrate or fish know to swim. Part of me wonders if my mother doesn’t favor my brother more because he was unplanned. Perhaps she feels guilty for this, and subconsciously tries to make it up to him, or prove that he is, in fact, wanted. My parents would have probably tried for a second child eventually anyway, maybe after a few years, but instead my mother became pregnant with Joey when I was only seven months old. I was the easy baby, my parents have always said. Joey was more difficult. If my brother had been born first, my mother admits, my parents probably would not have had a second child.
My brother’s own child, my niece, was also an accident. After my brother and his fiancé announced their pregnancy, I offered to help get my brother out of it. Those were the words I used: “I’ll help get you out of it,” as though he’d just gotten a parking ticket or a detention. He was too young, at twenty three, and too immature to raise a child, I thought. I offered to pay for an abortion. It seems horrible, now, as I think about my niece at home in her crib, giraffe stuffed animals tossed about her bedroom, and the walker I bought her in the corner. But, in that moment, filled with anger, frustration, and fear, I did what I thought I needed to do. I tried to protect him.
My mother cried to me a few weeks later, as she confessed that she had once, almost thirty years earlier, given her own baby brother a similar offer in a similar situation. She said she regrets it, now, as she thinks about my cousin, my uncle’s first child, and wonders what life would have been without her. I’m not sure I’ll ever regret what I said the day Joey told me they were pregnant, the way my mother regrets what she said to her brother almost thirty years earlier. I truly do love my niece, who is now my goddaughter. But, I don’t know if I’ll regret the offer I made, and maybe that is why I feel so guilty. That is why I am ashamed. Is it possible to feel guilt for something you wouldn’t change? For a while, I felt it came from somewhere maternal, and that I was just trying to protect him. However, maybe I was just subconsciously being selfish.
I’ve been trying to mother my brother for most of our lives. I’ve always felt the need to speak for him. I was the only person who could understand him, due to a speech impediment, when he first started speaking. I would translate his wants and needs to my parents for the first few years of his life, until he was taken to speech therapy and learned how to talk. When we were toddlers, Joey would wake me up every morning. I’d get him a bottle the way my mother taught me, and turn on his cartoons in the basement so my mother could sleep in. I felt pride in the responsibility. I felt grown up. On his first day of kindergarten, I was pulled out of my first grade classroom to talk my brother down from the large jungle gym we called “the spider.” He’d climbed about halfway up it during his first recess and froze, his knuckles turning white as they clutched the metal bars. I don’t know why an adult didn’t just pluck him off, as he couldn’t have weighed more than a bag of topsoil and was only about four feet above the ground. Instead, I had to leave my classroom, go outside, and talk to him as he took one shaky step after another. “My sister, I want my sister,” I could hear him say as I approached the spider.
I used to sign his permission slips for field trips on the bus on the way to school. He’d forget to bring them home to our mother, and remember only once other children reminded him on the day they were due. I had mastered my mother’s signature early on, and knew just where the loops and sharp angles were to go.
I received a text from one of my best friends, Jamie, the night my niece was born. He congratulated me on my newly acquired aunt status, and asked how I felt about it. I told him I was excited. Scared for my brother’s future, yes, but excited. We talked for several hours until he turned in for the night, to sleep beside the woman he has been dating for five years, the one he cheated on, with me, for over a year while they were attempting long distance. The one he eventually moved almost seven hours away to live with, following our scare several years ago.
When the test read positive, I collapsed to the floor in a crying, huddled, blob, as if all of the bones in my body had turned to liquid. I lay there on the cold tile in the bathroom of my apartment, having an anxiety attack—shaking, not able to catch my breath. After I calmed down a little, I called Jamie, who was at work and could only talk for a few minutes. “We’ll figure this all out, Cait, I promise.” He spoke, calmly, almost too calmly.
It wasn’t that we hadn’t taken preventative measures. I remember, after the condom broke on the 4th of July, how we jumped in his old diesel pickup and I google mapped the nearest 24-hour Walgreens to purchase backup. On the drive there we joked about how screwed up our potential child would have been. We decided he or she would have my emotional instability, callused feet, and butt-chin, as well as Jamie’s alcoholism, poor coordination, and the acne he had when I first met him when we were sixteen years old. It was all a little morbid, but it was the only way either of us knew how to deal with the situation. As I waited for Jamie to get off work a few weeks later, the day of the scare, I called the only person in the world I wanted to see in that moment.
My mother arrived at my apartment within half an hour, though I lived 45 minutes away. She’d stopped at the drugstore on the way over and carried a bag containing two more brands of tests and a candy bar. She asked no questions, passed no judgment, only held me like she did when I was a small child, smoothing my hair back as I buried my face into her shoulder, telling her everything she’d already suspected.
Thirty minutes, two more tests, and an empty candy wrapper later, and it was confirmed that I was not pregnant. It had been a false positive, a very rare result that occurs in only 1% of pregnancy tests. Jamie and I agreed to end the physical part of our relationship, and within two months he was gone.
I sometimes wonder what Jamie meant by “we’ll figure this all out,” though I’ll probably never acquire the courage to ask him. I also often wonder what I would have decided to do, had it not been a fluke. I had loved Jamie, in some capacity, since we were awkward teenagers, getting drunk for the first time in his parents’ cul-de-sac. But it had been a very long time since I’d thought about any kind of future with him. Then, almost a decade later, lying on that cold bathroom floor, I was contemplating having his child. Part of me is afraid to prod any further. Part of me doesn’t really want to know the answer.
Ten months ago, I told my brother he was making a big mistake. I said that, despite not knowing what I would have done. I said it, having almost been there not long before. That was selfish. I was trying to control his life. I was trying to make decisions for him. Maybe it was a “do as I say, not as I do [or might have done]” situation. I want to believe I was being protective, maternal, but that is probably not true.
I have a hard time separating my mother and my brother. I have a hard time writing about one without writing about the other. This seems like a strange connection. It would seem more logical that writing about my mother would make me need to write about my father, or her mother. It would seem more logical that writing about my brother would make me need to write about his fiancé, or my father. But something keeps making me connect the two of them together. Perhaps it is because, for the past few years when trying to talk with either, the conversation always turns to the other. They fight relentlessly. Yet, despite their often being at odds, and their relationship showing strain, sometimes I’m almost envious of it. I realize the more energy she spends on him, the more neglected I feel. The easy child is on the parent’s mind a lot less often. It is the difficult child who gets the most support and attention.
I wonder what it means to be a mother, as I watch my cousins and sister-in-law both impress and disappoint me with their maternal instincts. I have what some would call a strange relationship with my own mother, one that defies almost all boundaries. Family friends and coworkers are always astounded, curious, and jealous of our relationship. They wonder how it works and how it came to exist.
Most women will say they are close to their mothers, and I imagine they are, but our relationship is different somehow. She is my partner, and my best friend. An ex boyfriend once told me that I would never find a man to love me as long as my mother remained such a large part of my life. This ex and my mother had butted heads from the very beginning, and he said it in a heated moment after I’d broken up with him. However, what he was saying did hold some truths. In that moment, years later, when I held the positive pregnancy test in my hand, although my first call was to Jamie, it wasn’t him I wanted there with me. It was my mother. I’ve never quite made enough room in my life for anyone else to play the “most important person” role, and this might have ruined many of my relationships. I sometimes wonder, will I ever be fully ready to be a mother myself, when I’m not even ready to be weaned from mine?
My grandmother says she is so close to all of her children because she grew up with them. She was 16 when she gave birth to my aunt, and 20 when my uncle, the last of her four children, was born. My mother blames her mother for her own ideas of what parenting is. She says she didn’t know any better. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have a say in my own life. I don’t remember ever being talked to like a child. I don’t remember hating my parents the way other angsty teenagers did. There were no filters. There was no great moment of realization when I peaked behind the curtain and discovered my parents were only human. I’d known that all along.
Maybe they had it all wrong. Or maybe my mother and grandmother figured out this being-a-mom thing. Who is to say? Although I can tell you the difference between a bebePOD and a Bumbo chair, and know how to sew a cloth diaper, I don’t know much more about motherhood.
Donna, Jamie’s mother, posted a photo to Facebook of her two year old great-niece a few months ago. I sat, mesmerized by the child’s face on my computer screen. I covered her eyes with my fingers. Her hair was mine, light brown with tight curls, and her chubby cheeks, button nose, and dimpled chin were all reminiscent of my own baby pictures. Then I took my hand away to reveal her eyes. They were the sad, green, basset hound eyes that Jamie shares with his mother’s side of his family. I reminded myself I had not given birth to this child, despite the intensity of the emotions I was feeling staring at her picture. I felt overwhelmingly nauseous, until I closed the computer screen to make her tiny little face disappear. Was I mourning the loss of a child that had never existed? Or was I just missing a friend I’d felt had abandoned me?
V. EMPTY NEST
It is common for the first child to feel like an experiment, or like the first pancake in a batch, the one that is either under or over cooked, because you were trying to get the stove to just the right temperature. It is common for the first child to feel like they’ve grown up quicker due to birth order and the need to watch out for younger siblings. I had only fifteen months to be the baby and the center of my parents’ world before my mother gave birth to my brother, the accident. She was taken from me, by him, before I was ready, and I can’t help but believe that caused something inside of me to constantly associate them with one another. I must look at him as the cause for my loss of mother. I abhor the accidental.
Then why have I spent so much of my life trying to protect him? Why have I tried to give him things I feel he’d stolen from me? If he looked like less of a problem, or if he needed less from her, did I feel I would, then, receive that attention that was not given to him? Was I trying to be his mother so she would be mine again? When my brother announced their pregnancy, was I subconsciously afraid of losing further attention from my mother, which she would bestow upon this newborn?
My brother and I were fascinated with Zoobooks and animal encyclopedias as children. Joey was always much better at remembering the names of the different animals, and was able to recite where they lived, what they ate, and sometimes even their scientific names. I was much more interested in looking at the pretty pictures. Maybe this was why I chose to take an animal behavior class as my science requirement in college. As I write about my brother, I’m reminded of a species of bird the professor talked about at length, the blue-faced booby. The female booby lays two eggs, and if both hatch it is almost always the case that the older, stronger of the two chicks will push the younger, weaker one out of the nest to its death. This is called siblicide. The theory behind this behavior is that if the parents only have one chick to focus on, that chick is more likely to survive and prosper than if there were two of them to split the resources. When I first learned about siblicide, I didn’t initially think of my brother. In fact, I didn’t think about it until just recently, as I watched my mother spend extreme amounts of money on her first grandchild. I distinctly remember thinking, “what will be left for my children when I have them?” It was reminiscent of the jealous little girl whose accidental brother was taking her mother away from her. In a sense, it was another maternal instinct, looking out for the children I’ve yet to have, but also I felt a lot like a blue-faced booby hatchling, wrestling my baby brother and his newborn daughter out of the nest so I would have a better chance at survival, and be given all of my parents’ love and attention. Maybe that was why I made him the offer.
Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter, a native of the Chicago suburbs, holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago where she currently works as Coordinator of Graduate Admissions. Her essays have appeared in Animal, Sugar Mule and The North Branch. She can do a one-handed pushup, has potty trained a wombat, and owns over 200 pairs of shoes.