“There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
They don’t let me write publicly about them anymore. Not by name, anyway.
They captain their own ship now. Except, of course, when they’re steering toward rocky cliffs or when the sea is too stormy, then I get the helm. Or maybe they are the stormy sea, and I’m the boat. Or vice versa. Or maybe I’m a particularly powerful head wind, slowing their course, and try as they might they can’t steer out of it.
Or maybe I don’t yet know what metaphor to use for this time in our lives – a time when our intertangled selves, which has been one whole thing for so long, are disentangling into three separate beings. (But whatever the metaphor is, it involves being yelled at for “all my rules” in the same thirty minute period that I have to remind them – yet again – not to leave trash, dirty socks, and a pile of papers strewn over the living room floor.)
All of which is to say: they’re teenagers now.
By the time I got married at 25, I’d already put two babies up for adoption and gotten one of them back five years later (which is a story I’ve never written, but that lives inside of me, wordless, threatening to erupt like a volcano or boil.) I didn’t want more babies. My ex-husband and I, on our honeymoon, sat in lawn chairs on a golf course in Maui drinking mead in the middle of the night and discussing how we were just going to raise Sierra and then live out the rest of our lives alone, together, traveling the world. But then, on that same island, we had unprotected sex – the one and only time in our, at that point, 4 year relationship. When I went to the doctor to discuss my sterilization options when I returned to Portland, I had to take a pregnancy test. And, of course, I was pregnant. And, of course, I happened to produce two eggs that month.
Only, I didn’t know it.
It took my ex-husband and me a long time to adjust to the idea that we would have a baby, after so adamantly agreeing that was the last thing we wanted. But after discussing options and possibilities, we agreed together that we would love and raise our child.
Over the months, I swelled with what I thought was one really healthy baby. I often stood in the shower until the water ran cold, stroking my belly, talking to it, watching the sharp body parts of my son poke out as I spoke.
“I get to keep this one,” I said to myself, often through the happiest tears I’ve ever cried. “I finally get to keep one.”
Then, ten days before I gave birth to my baby, at 36 weeks pregnant, I passed out at work. I’d been doing everything “right” and without insurance – eating healthier than I ever had before, not smoking, drinking plenty of water, and seeing a midwife, who my husband and I paid for out of pocket. I had all the procedures that were necessary, but an ultrasound was never needed. I didn’t care about the sex of my baby and I didn’t want to pay the high out of pocket cost just to see an unclear picture of a human-shaped blob. As far as hearing the heartbeat, I was able to do so at every appointment with my midwife. She would play the sound of a single, strong heartbeat on the monitor, and that was good enough.
But when I passed out at work, it became critical that I get an ultrasound. My midwife was worried about blood clots or some other danger that could harm me or the baby. I made an appointment for an ultrasound that day then called my husband and asked him to please pick our daughter (who he adopted after we got married) up from school and meet me at the imaging center.
A few hours later, I lay on an exam table in the private office of a naturopathic doctor, my husband and 9-year-old daughter by my side. We were all quietly worried. The doctor put jelly on the ultrasound wand and turned on the machine. He placed the wand on my belly and swooped it over the entire surface in big arcs, pausing here and there for a better picture of a specific place. He didn’t say a word, but looked deeply concerned. Finally, he said, “OK. Here’s the problem.”
He ran the wand along the right side of my giant belly and said, “Here’s a spine.” Then he swooped the wand over to my left side and said, “And here’s a spine.”
“Oh my god, my baby has two spines!” I thought, but remained quiet. My husband and Sierra remained silent as well. We all stared nervously at the doctor, not understanding.
He moved to wand to a spot way down by my mons pubis. “Here’s a head.” Then he swooped up near my sternum. “And here’s a head.”
Six confused eyes stared at him. He sighed. “Twins,” he said. “You’re having twins.”
“What?” I asked, feeling the blood drain out of my face. I looked at my husband. “What?”
Then there was laughing and crying and stunned proclamations of, “Holy shit!” followed by more tears and laughter. We three stayed in this trance-like state of giddy disbelief and shock for ten more days while my husband and I acquired extra diapers, clothes, and car seats. We canceled the birthing tub we had reserved for the birth, as, at that time, home births for twins was illegal. My husband called every clinic in town until he found one doctor who was willing to attempt catching twins naturally, even though one of them was breach.
On Valentine’s Day 2002, at 10:30PM, I gave birth in a bright hospital room surrounded by my husband, my daughter, my doula, my dear friend Elaine, the doctor, the nurse, and six residents who stood alongside the wall in surgical scrubs, observing. We were at a training hospital and this was a concession I had to make in order for a doctor to even consider not scheduling me for an immediate C-section. But I didn’t care. Invite the fucking media if need be, I thought. I am having the last babies I’ll ever have. And I get to keep them.
I was prepped with an epidural in case something went wrong and they had to perform a cesarean section after all, but in the end they didn’t. After seven hours of labor, I delivered Baby A, who came out headfirst, gooey and perfect. The nurse cleaned him a bit and handed him to me. It was the first time I got to a hold a baby I gave birth to immediately after his emergence into this world. The nurse placed Baby A on my chest, and right away, he began inching his way toward my breast. I pulled him up to it, with no idea what to do next. But it didn’t matter. Baby A latched on instinctively. He couldn’t even open his eyes yet. He was smaller than a lot of baby dolls. Yet, somehow he knew how to nurse. I began sobbing.
Meanwhile, down at the business-end of my body, the delivery team were preparing for Baby B – the only one I’d ever felt moving. The one way up at the top who did wind-sprints the last month of my pregnancy. The breach one.
A woman I’d never seen before sat down on a stool and faced the target. She slowly and gently reached inside of me all the way up to her elbow. Even with the epidural, I was uncomfortable as she jiggled and punched around inside my womb, feeling around for Baby B’s feet. I was in full-on sensory overload. I clutched Baby A to my breast and watched in the strategically-positioned mirror on the wall in front of me as the woman’s arm slowly withdrew until her hand emerged – and, with it, came feet. Then came a butt. The woman held Baby B by the feet and reached her other hand into the birth canal and carefully twisted out first one, then the other hand. Then the head came out and the woman caught it.
But something was wrong.
I looked from the nursing baby at my breast, who I was never going to let go of, to the residents, nurses, and doctor and tried to make out what they were saying, hearing only a low hum of whispering voices. I heard “not breathing” and looked to my husband, who had joined the crowd of professionals. They had their backs to me and formed a wall over the table where Baby B had been placed.
“What is going on?” I said, panicking. I looked at Baby A. Then at the wall of backs muttering about Baby B. “What is wrong? What’s going on?” I repeated.
“It’s okay. Breathe. You just take care of that guy. We’ve got this,” my husband reassured me.
He walked up to where the crowd of medical professionals stood, assessing, and grabbed Baby B by the foot, then shook it. He called Baby B by name, gently. “You can breathe now,” my husband told our son. At exactly that moment, in what is either a miracle or a coincidence, Baby B took his first breath. Soon after, he was handed to me.
Baby A was already asleep at my breast by the time I got Baby B into my arms. Just like his brother, he instinctively crawled up to my breast to nurse. I held them both there for the first time, staring from one to the other over and over, my mind trying to make sense of what was happening. I looked at my husband and through both manic laughter and heavy sobs, I said, “I get to keep them.”
“You do,” he said.
And then we were a family.
But as things sometimes go, my marriage couldn’t sustain the weight of all the changes and ensuing stress. The attrition. And, anyway, maybe it wasn’t even meant to be. Except that these boys were meant to be. And my daughter and I finally having the same last name and all of us connected as Harrisons – that felt meant to be. My family – the first one I ever wanted – was meant to be.
I left my family home ten years ago, in March, 2007. My sons were five and my daughter was 14. But like my marriage, it was too late to save her. She and I were unable to find our equilibrium in my first post-marriage home, I as a single mom. The animosity between my ex-husband and me was poison, and the imbalance that had created in my relationship with my daughter was incurable. Less than a year after we all moved out, she left and never came back.
My first post-marriage home was a tiny, two bedroom duplex in a part of town where used syringes littered the gutters and prostitutes hung out at the local convenience store. More than once, someone was stabbed to death at the bus stop around the corner from my house. My daughter took the downstairs room, while my sons and I co-slept in the upstairs room, which soon proved to be uninhabitable. It was freezing cold in the winter and sweltering hot in the summer.
After Sierra left, the boys and I moved down to the bedroom on the main floor. I had been co-sleeping with them since they were born. This was a choice I made intentionally. My ex-husband and I read up on natural attachment parenting and focused on outcomes: a strong bond between children and their parents results in more confident, secure adults. Though my ex-husband and I came from extremely different backgrounds – him, from a financially comfortable upbringing in Oak Park, Illinois and I, from a sometimes impoverished, violent, blue color world in the desert Southwest – we both felt like we “didn’t want to do things the way our parents did.” This meant finding an alternate paradigm, and one that focused on happy, well-adjusted children.
The boys began leaving to be with their dad every other week right after I moved out. This was the most horrifying adjustment of all my post-divorce adjustments – worse than all the firsts (first post-divorce wedding anniversary, first post-divorce Christmas, etc.) I started dating some and tried to find hobbies. But for at least the first six of the last ten years, the ache to see my children again the last three days before they came home was visceral. And the moment they came through my front door at the start of my week, I’d swoop them up in my arms and kiss their beautiful heads.
I co-slept with the boys in the downstairs bedroom until, one night, as I was cuddling A, who was 6, as we were falling asleep, he said decidedly, “Mom. I love you, and I respect you, but I just can’t kiss you anymore.”
“Okay, baby,” I said. And the next week, I got us a bunk bed. I took the top.
The first two and half years in that little duplex were a struggle. I made too little money and there was always too little of everything. Eventually, I got a better job. Then I got promoted. Soon after that, we moved into a new duplex in one of the best neighborhoods in Portland. All the rooms were usable and, for the first time since I left my marriage home, I had a room all to myself! This was the start of the boys sleeping in their own rooms.
We lived in that duplex for four years, and all of us thrived. My sons turned from little boys into just boys.
And I grew from a young woman into just a woman. I grew more confident. But I also drank a lot, a habit I’d formed just before my marriage ended, but that continued during the 26 weeks a year that I didn’t have my boys. I was lonely without their sweet heads to kiss or their loud, boisterous boy noises. But I also often was de-stressing and detoxing from the other parts of parenting them. The parts that involved fist fights, IEP meetings at their school, repeated calls from their school, their multiple suspensions every year until 7th grade, disagreements with their dad about how to handle the behaviors, or B running away from home in the middle of the night to go on his “adventures.”
The years in the second apartment were the years when I couldn’t slow down. I had to fill up all my time. I felt like I was riding a wave of a typhoon – like I was being pushed toward a shore that I’d soon crash upon. When the boys would come home is when I would calm down. Even though they overwhelmed me – and god knows I wasn’t and am not always a good mom – I couldn’t find my center without them.
It was around this time, though, that I’d found my community on Facebook. It is comprised of friends, many of whom I haven’t met in person, but who I’ve known virtually for years. Some are from my writing universe, some are from my parenting universe, and others are people I’ve known for years or met through college. All, though, are pleasant to know. And if they’re not, they’re not one of my Facebook friends.
I mention this because I believe social media saved my sanity and, in a way, became my co-parent. When my water heater started pouring out water, social media came to the rescue. If I needed to vent about my children before I lost my cool, I could take it to Facebook (often to one of several private groups I’m a part of) and be witnessed. But also, I often got great advice. Though, honestly, the commiseration is worth it alone.
I’ve also been able to develop a type of writerly voice via Facebook, one that is lighthearted and often funny. But because of all of this, over the last several years, Facebook has gotten to know my sons by proxy. My friends are often entertained by the boys’ antics, and being able to post about the tomfoolery is a sanity saver. For many years now, Facebook has been my parental saving grace.
The boys and I moved into our third and final post-marriage house four years ago, in 2013. It’s a whole entire house in a price range I can afford, and not only is the neighborhood safe, but my neighbors are lovely. I’ve moved up into progressively better paying jobs with more responsibility. Two years ago, I quit drinking alcohol and I got a cat, Lump.
Lump has been the answer to all my boy-free-week loneliness. And we are kindred.
The boys haven’t been suspended from school in over 2 years. As a matter of fact, two days from now they finish their first year in high school, and they are crushing it.
Overall, my life is great.
That is a hard-won statement.
About a year ago, A informed me that I can’t post about him on Facebook anymore, except our annual family photos. For a while, I would bug him for his permission to post a story here or there – to not have to keep the experience of raising these two magnificent, gigantic, loud, hilarious, curious boys all to myself. I’ve been sharing them with a very important part of my world for so long, it feels like a personal loss to be forbidden to continue. But, eventually, A said no more. He drew a hard line in the sand. The end.
I still post about B here and there because he’s more generous with his privacy. But in some ways, it’s just not the same.
I guess what’s hardest about this change in my well-worn, much-loved pattern is that I know it’s a beginning of an end. It’s A telling me, “Mom. I love you and I respect you, but I just can’t be intertangled with you anymore.” It’s more of the same development we’ve always been going through, but it’s the final one.
They have their own agency now. We are not one, but three. Yet, we are three that still lie in my bed before it’s time for sleep and do Mad Libs and make sure all the nouns are sexual or scatological (fun fact: “butthole” works as a noun in almost any scenario) and laugh until someone falls out of my bed, which used to be big enough to easily contain all of us, but which we have all, finally, outgrown.