I don’t know what to do with my hands
On Motherhood: With every first, there is a last, and I am never ready
My therapist asked me a list of questions and told me to answer with the first thing that came to mind. Don’t think, don’t dwell, just answer.
What are you most proud of?
That I’m a good mom.
How do you handle conflict?
I shift my perspective until the conflict no longer exists.
Is it hard for you to ask for help?
Is it hard for you to accept help?
What do you do when you’re stressed?
What’s your body’s response to stress?
I stop breathing.
I didn’t have to think about the answers. They were there, waiting for me. I knew in the deepest part of myself that I was a good mother, and I was proud of that. Was I good a writer? No idea. Probably not. Was I a good wife? Maybe at some point. How do we know when we’re good at something? I didn’t know the answer to that either.
But one thing I knew for sure was that I knew my son, wholly, completely, as if he was me. The brightness of his eyes, the twitch of his mouth, the way his hands would open or close, the rhythm of his breath—each moment dripped with meaning, and I could always find my way to him, to us. I wasn’t a mother who worried or wondered or doubted. I just knew.
When I told my therapist that I didn’t feel like a first-time mom she said, “Of course, you don’t. You’ve been taking care of people your entire life.”
She was right. And it was one of the many reasons I never wanted to have children. My parents, strung out on methamphetamines, emotionally stunted from the decades of drug use, financially unstable—I’ve cared for them in one way or another since before I could tie my shoes. It’s in my nature to nurture. It’s all I’ve ever known. Nurture means to care for, encourage the growth or development of. I’m asking questions beyond general care, beyond what do you need? I’m asking, what can I do to prevent the inevitable downward spiral? How do I help you grow, and move past the point of breaking? Forever thinking a step ahead, ten steps, more. And I am so damn tired.
But there is no rest. No breaks. And sleep itself has always been elusive.
This is my thirty-sixth summer on the planet and I have yet to figure out how to sleep. This basic, but vital, need has evaded me. It’s been this way since the beginning. As a child, I struggled with insomnia. I found that bad things happened when I fell asleep—Mom’s missing. The cops are in our house. Dad’s gone or crying or cursing. Someone’s knocking on the door. The shadows are never what they seem. So, I learned to keep my eyes open.
I spent a lot of nights waiting, waiting, waiting for Mom to come home from robbing houses, from the high, from prison. Waiting for Dad to come in from the meth lab in the garage of our home in the Mojave. Waiting for someone to tell me that everything was going to be okay. Waiting, waiting, waiting. The shallow breaths, the strained blue of the lost hours, the choked quiet—maybe that’s where I feel the most comfortable. In the waiting and the waking. Or maybe the discomfort is so ingrained that it hurts to take a deep breath. Maybe I don’t know how to unclench my hands.
I didn’t know how to be alone, especially at night. When Mom was in prison I slept in my father’s bed, but most nights he’d be in the meth lab so I’d end up standing outside the garage door, knocking and waiting until my teeth chattered, not with cold but with fear. Then Dad had a friend of his move in with us. Don had been living in a homeless shelter off Seventh Street in the old part of town that was lined with dilapidated storefronts with boarded-up windows. He was almost twenty years older than Dad, and they bonded over their shared love of meth and loud rock music.
When Don moved in, things got better. I was no longer alone. Don would stay up all night playing video games with me or let me fall asleep next to him on the couch. But then, one day he left—disappeared—like everyone always seemed to do. After that, I slept in the bathroom with the light on and the door locked, gripping a baseball bat. Only sleep never came and I’d just lie there, shivering, knuckles white.
Mom finally came home from prison when I was nine. Then I never left her bed. I slept with her until I was in my teens. I used to go into my room in the mornings and make it look like I’d slept in my bed so when my friends came to walk with me to the bus stop they wouldn’t think I was some kind of freak. I was ashamed, but more than that, I was scared to be alone.
I don’t want that for my son, and it has led to me doing something I said I’d never do. Something that has me questioning the kind of mother I am.