Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

Resisting Motherhood.

It doesn’t feel as permanent as it should. I still linger at the window; I am still expectant (though of what, I do not know. Relief? Permission?). I’ve barely shaken the sense that someone left her here, some unduly trusting soul, trying to teach me something. On occasion, I anticipate that this someone will reemerge to reclaim her. The prospect doesn’t sadden me. We have never been apart long enough for me to miss her; in her absence, I feel raw obligation to return. And I do. I rush.

It is unromantic.

When this someone comes, to determine if her trust has been ill-placed, an inspection will occur, making clear just how many of my duties I perform not with particular joy but by rote. I mother because I must, not because I am given to throes of euphoria while doing so. This, I suppose, is common. But there is something else, equally obvious: I had been waiting.

I am glad that someone has come.

*  *  *

You need to make her be quiet. The neighbors downstairs will hear her jumping and laughing at this hour, and they’ll call DHS. DHS loves to take black children.

*  *  *

It has been 40 months. No one has come. It is possible, now, that no one will.

I fill the hours with embraces and photographs, kitchen karaoke and dining room dance parties. Frequent I love you’s. So many kisses. The aphorisms hold: being present, relishing the moment, slowing, rather than marking time — it all helps. But inside, a second skin is twisting against rope. Tightly bound, it is burning.

*  *  *

They are going to tell you medicate her, if you can’t learn to make her keep still.

*  *  *

Motherhood is an overlay, sheer and clinging. It obfuscates appearance, makes pre-child passions opaque, but it does not alter what lies beneath. What I cherish about my daughter is what I would’ve cherished, had I never become her mother: her boldness; her mercurial heights and depths; the scent of her freshly bathed skin; my nose in her parted hair.

I am still me underneath.

But motherhood cannot be peeled away. It wraps around, becomes a top-lying dermis and, over time, we are meant to forget its artifice. At times, the urge to lift it away from the skin begins to pressurize. There is too little air; there are too few opportunities for new breath.

Here is the truth that helps, that slices through this whaleskin and lets in a slip of light: children are not so life-changing. They are like many other things and persons adults acquire and decide they cannot live well without. Their needs are not so different: tenderness and tending. They are complicated bliss. They are blessing and barnacle.

But they are not all we are.

*  *  *

Maybe you, and your missed days of prenatal vitamin intake, lie at the root of this behavior, this delay. Maybe you need to be reminded, during your every resting, writing moment, of what you need to do.

*  *  *

It is best to pretend that I do not need silence, that nothing essential is eroding inside me without it. I smile in pinched ways that I hope my child and others understand. I am here. I find this enjoyable. No, there is nothing behind my eyes that is stricken with panic and wanting to run. If you see this, you are imagining it.

The first two parts are not lies. I am here. I do find this enjoyable. But I am also acting. This is a Method performance: I am always in character, always awaiting the time when it will be apropos to step out.

There are reasons: my only-childhood and its resulting inexperience with children; my summer transience, three months of each year spent hundreds of miles apart from home; the far-reaching tentacles of too much free and isolated time. And I am also too accustomed to things ending, especially the things someone I love has insisted never would.

*  *  *

You need to learn to do more. This — working, bathing, clothing, preparing foods, feeding, reading, entertaining, coming straight home, rarely asking for non-work time to yourself — is not enough.

*  *  *

A lifetime spent holding a part of yourself in reserve does not resolve with the birth of a child. We mothers are still entitled to unknowable parts, if we want them. We protect them by snatching time. Demanding it. Allowing ourselves to love someone other than our children — with ardor, not apology. Reading books that are not written on boards or filled with crude drawings of talking cows. Letting something extracurricular lapse. Listening to ourselves — and making sure that what we are saying isn’t always about mothering. Everyone is talking to us about being a mother; the irony is: we only get great at it by holding onto what we loved about ourselves before becoming one.

Mothering isn’t selfless. Quite the opposite.

*  *  *

I did everything myself, so no one had the right to criticize my parenting.

*  *  *

If you are an introvert, you will be reluctant to go out and away; you are happiest at home. But what you need now is counter-intuitive. Instinct says to envelop the child, make her as essential to your happiness as being alone has always been. This is a flawed approach. If you must be incrementally alone to feel whole, then you must find ways to be alone.

It does not matter if you will be harshly criticized; that is all the more reason to leave. Aloneness allows you to quiet even the cruelest critics. In silence, you must take hold of yourself, unbind the ropes and tend to the burning skin, the ancient skin, that which was with you before you were born. You cannot let it fester; it will bleed into your mothering. Something will always be pulling apart.

Mother, you must protect yourself. It was you that you watched for at the window. You are the only Cavalry coming.

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Faith, Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction, Parenting

How Deep the Mother’s Love for You?

I think that, now, you may love me more. It is possible that the older you get, the more you understand our relationship, and how it’s predicated on the faith you seem, at times, to know far better than I do.

I have watched you at church, where I didn’t regularly take you until you were well over 18 months old. When you raise and wave your hands and your face is awash in beatific reverence, I know that you’re mimicking nothing, that whatever gestures of worship you extend are yours, untaught and unrehearsed. To your guileless toddler mind, I will never leave you or forsake you is less a stray line of dialogue in a holy narrative and more an earnest incantation, a promise, a governing tenet, a truth.

With every day that you open your eyes and find me here, inches away in a bed we share, your confidence grows. I can be your dim earthly reflection of God. Ours can be a fixed and unquestioned bond. Your mother can be immovable.

This confidence has been slow, gradual, earned, but the affection that now attends it is unabashed. I have waited for you to comprehend the fathoms of what I feel for you. Every embrace is an echosounder; every kiss is understood as another nautical mile. But I suspect it will be years yet before you discover the truth of this mystery.

How deep the mother’s love for you? Like the Father’s (and your father’s), it is floorless.

In just over a month, you will be two. But if anyone were to ask me, you’d be 200, a Highlander, a water sprite, a warrior, iridescent and timeless. You have been with me a kind of forever. This is the thing so few really know about children. You presage yourselves, whirling around in the twisters of DNA and dust that compose us. And we know, long before we know, that you might someday be and also that you may never exist as more than the cells that encase the nuclei of promise we could never live long enough to see fulfilled. In this way, when we are aware of ourselves and invested in you, we will always know more of you than you know of yourselves.

Every day, mothering you takes fresh meaning, issues new instruction. Consider, for instance, the meals and how we divide the portions. We eat in genial silence, exchange smiles around our chews. But when our allotments dwindle, you do not entirely trust that I will leave you with more than you need. You stuff all that remains into your tiny mouth, so that you become, for a moment, a puffin. Your eyes grow wide and unsure. You wonder if I will be angry, if I will mistake your self-interest for greed. You needn’t fear; it’s my job to know that you are not selfish, but hungry. It’s my mission to feed that which quickly hollows, a longing that is not meant for food.

At this age, you are insatiable, acquiring time, numbers, language, love and hoarding them for a future you’ve no way to know. I am beginning to understand that more than anything, my role is to reassure you:

I am not here to take but to give. 

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Make Him a Balloon, Music Appreciation, Nonfiction, Parenting

Sojourner Songs: A Mommy-Daughter Mixtape.

In just over two months, you will be one year old. You are what I imagine you will be: preternaturally strong, exploratory (insomuch that you have made every square inch of our apartment your personal safari), and formidable (insomuch that I’m almost intimidated by the way you lean forward, stare me down, and growl at me when I scold you).

To celebrate your upcoming voyage into newly broken ground, I am packing you a satchel full of things you’ll need to know and of things I hope you’ll come to love.

I have written it before and I’ll repeat myself often: growing up a blackgirl in our country is a singular experience. It is, at times, an iridescent wonder; at other times, it’s an odyssey more treacherous than treasured.

But thank our God that you were born to this lot; it is a lovely one. And in the event that a tempest tosses you off-course and you forget how magnificent our syndicate of sisters truly is, pull back the flap of leather that preserves these mementos of self-worth and remember, my love.

Remember who you are.

1. Lena Horne Sings the ABCs

Lena Horne is our royalty, our Glinda. Benevolent and achingly beautiful even dressed down in denim. She is the embodiment of elegance, and I like to believe we are all born with a measure of what was given to her in abundance. Tap in.

2. India.Arie Sings the ABCs

You already love this. Perhaps when you’re a bit older, you will tell me what value you’ve found in it. I’ve found my own. We’ll compare notes then.

3. Patti LaBelle Sings the ABCs

I’m not a big Patti LaBelle fan, but even I can’t deny how far she dug her foot into this little ditty. For your part, when you heard this for the first time, you leaned in as you are wont to do when things are important to you, and you watched the Muppets shake gospel tambourines to what is, arguably, one of the most important songs you’ll ever learn. You always absorb the alphabet. Though you can’t yet recite it, you understand its potency, that from it, all the words of our everyday world are formed. And what better way to hear it than with flat-footed soul?

4. Paul Simon Sings “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” (with a little blackgirl accompanist)

Paul Simon is an incredible musician, but note how he’s nearly upstaged by the little girl beside him. This is the bold and expressive spirit I wish for you, the shoulder-shaking, full-lunged timbred, quick hand-clapping confidence of a girl who, at the young age of eight, has already found her space in the world.

5. Savion Glover Raps and Taps

Okay, Mommy admits this doesn’t entirely belong here, on a playlist of beautiful colored women. But Savion is always a good idea. You’ll see.

6. “Freedom is Coming” – Sarafina soundtrack

Leleti Khumalo is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever watched flit across a screen. As Sarafina, she is equal parts graceful rhythm and open defiance. Her performance is a cautionary tale about how close a young woman can come to losing her humanity in her fight for independence from injustice. Take note of this lesson and heed the position of the needle that guides your moral compass; it will serve you well.

7. “Mundeke” – Afrigo Band

We’ve danced to this. It is a Ugandan love song and you must be able to sense how much I love it, because you’re always quiet for its entire run. It’s almost as if you understand the language. Perhaps, in your way, you do.

8. “Kwazibani” – Nomfusi and the Lucky Charms

This song was written in honor of the singer’s mother, who passed away when she was 12, one of millions of victims of the AIDS pandemic slowly ebbing away so many of the world’s black women. May a reversal of this devastation reach our world within your lifetime.

9. “A Lovely Night” – Brandy, Cinderella

I can’t watch any part of Brandy’s Cinderella with you without crying. It reminds me of how miraculous it is to have a daughter, to whom I can impart all the wonders of my girlhood, with whom I can finally share all the pixie dust I sprinkled alone as an only child.

Listen closely.

Repeat all.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Beautiful… and Ugly, Too.

We have been together for 25 weeks; by now, you have discovered the bulges and sprouts of your body. I know this, because I can feel you, testing its limits. At least twice a day, you knead a tender spot of flesh, just above my pelvis, or else I feel you nuzzling a space against my navel. I can only imagine your activity: the rubbing of an eyelid with a closed little fist; the wide-armed sprawl of a yawn; a casual crossing of legs after meals; an elbow jab to clear a favored uterine space. For some reason, I rarely imagine you kicking.

You have likely noticed your size—just over one pound and one foot—and how your bones have begun to gather weight and roundness. There are new discoveries to seize in each moment, intimate observations, to which I am not privy. I know you are marking all your fine hairs and appendages, each nostril and elbow and knee, and under the gums, the buds of what will be teeth. You don’t yet know the names of these things, have not learned all the uses of a tongue, beyond taste, and how powerful and painful its lashes. But they are present to you now, these delicate and crude protrusions you will own every day of your life.

I’m sure it thrills you now as, of course, it should. But there may come a time, when you will touch your tiny nose and you will frown as its flatness or point. You will pinch at the fat ’round your hips, and blush at how much of it bunches between thumb and forefinger. You will tilt your head and lament that your eyes are not a comelier color. You will wish your breasts were larger or smaller or less prone to the slight imbalance in size you will likely inherit from me. You will accrue scars that tell stories of mishaps you’d rather forget. You’ll grow wistful of ganglier days, before newfound curves began drawing unwanted attention.

Then one day, just before you’re ready, blood will begin to seep from a sacred orifice, pulling with it a pain as acute as it is indescribable. And slowly, you’ll forget how it felt to be carefree, when just a bath full of toys and bubbles left you feeling fresh and scrubbed, when you didn’t need an arsenal of puffs and pads and antiperspirants to prep for each new day.

It’s possible there will come a time when you’ll worry over why you were created woman, why you were trusted with such power, without being afforded the series of secret codes required to successfully mine it.

Sometimes, I’ll find you crying over woes you can’t articulate. And then there will be other times you’ll catch me at the same.

I hope you won’t inherit my catalog of insecurities, and I will bear the onus of buffering your esteem.

But as a woman, little, stray laments over looks and dreams and talents will always find their way to your core. You are thinking outwardly, anticipating the expectations of others, and often unwittingly shaping yourself in ways that meet them. Even if I make you feel like Supergirl or She-Ra, you’ll still squint in the mirror at the faintest sign of acne and you’ll wish you didn’t have to face the world, wearing the shine and scar of it. Even enveloped in love, you will find some small moment to doubt yourself.

We women are different this way, ever conscious of our beauties and our ugliness, too.

I’m just glad you didn’t know me at twelve, when my skin was mottled and pocked, my hair full of poofs and unpermed. I did not believe myself capable of outward beauty—and prettiness was a coveted commodity for me. I’d just had a growth spurt, but still bore the chubbiness of childhood. I walked among a group of girls more confident than I and wondered after the wells from which they drew their worth. (It would take me fifteen years to find my own.)

I wouldn’t have been very good company for the girl I hope you’ll be.

It’s best that you’re inheriting me now, after I’ve discovered how to look at myself and see only the potential for praise or improvement. Even as I sink into fits of insecurity over the uneven heft of my breasts, the tent and the tarp of my shirts, the incremental creeping up of pounds on hospital scales, the broadness and the widening of my face and feet and thighs, I can force myself into proper perspective and see the weight and weirdness as talismans of power.

I will teach you to embrace each part, the gorgeous and the ghoulish. And you will be a force, a gale, a woman who’s mastered her weaponry.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Out My Mind, Just in Time.

You had an emergency. First you called, four minutes before the start of my last class, without leaving a message. I didn’t intend to call back. I’d made progress this week; I could feel it. I was laying the groundwork for indifference.

It started Monday, when I talked while you regurgitated rationales, things I’m certain it’s become necessary for you to repeat to yourself, a battery of reasons why you’re perfectly within your rights, withholding your interest, your assistance, your presence. I listened to you, for about twenty minutes, reminding me that this—this menagerie of isolation and worry and loneliness I’d written to you about, the day before—was exactly why you suggested that I terminate the pregnancy in the first place: I told you I wouldn’t be there. I knew you’d want a partner in this. Wasn’t I upfront with you? Didn’t I tell you it would be this way? You didn’t listen.

I was listening, then—struck dumb, as is becoming typical now. My mental synapses aren’t as quick to fire; a cognitive sluggishness seems to have settled somewhere in my cerebrum. Maybe our daughter isn’t just siphoning nutrients; maybe she’s sloughing off parts of my intellect, too. It’s a thought I would’ve liked to run by you, one of many I’d only raise just to hear you refute.

Before I knew it, I was crying. I hate how often you make me cry. Just last Tuesday, it happened in a hospital, where I was waiting for an uncle to recover from surgery. I was on a grief-bender, having just attended a great-aunt’s funeral, not 72 hours before, where I cried for the better part of a day, over all the things I should’ve done for her and didn’t. I called you about it, foolishly, stubbornly, clinging to the memories that tethered you to other family funerals, ones that awkwardly arose during your infrequent visits, ones for extended family you’d not only met, but spent time with, ones you’d driven me to, with patience, in silence.

I wanted your ear, then. I wanted your ear, at the hospital, too, even though I already knew, by the time you bothered to call back, that my uncle would be fine. I wanted your voice—the one you use when I’m wrung dry, the one that falls left of condescension and melts the tension in my shoulders till I’m calm.

But you withheld it. Even when you called back, too late, you just held the phone and let the reception crackle between us. You’d offer a question in an affect so flat it was impossible for me to pretend that you cared. And I’d answer it, like an idiot, waiting, even as I began to know that nothing I’d say would close the space you’d opened between us.

I hung up, after two minutes that day, rushed away from the waiting room full of my family, and locked myself into a single-stall bathroom nearby. I sobbed, until I had to stuff the wrists of my sweatshirt into my mouth, to muffle myself.

By the end of our call this Monday, where you pressed and pressed for my agreement that yes, you’d told me if I kept the child, I’d bear her alone… and maybe you’d come around later, I’d grown weary of the cow-like tears, sliding from some unbidden space, for the third time in under two weeks.

The next morning, I wrote you again (it takes this long, these days, for me to defend myself). I explained that, in April, I didn’t need to be reminded of anything you’d said to me in November. It’s irrelevant now; my daughter is 24 weeks grown. She fidgets at 4 am. She likes ice cream and hearing me talk loudly into phones. She has tastebuds. We’ve moved on. I told you that these things you say aren’t helpful. (If I were sharper, I would’ve used the word “counterproductive,” but I worked with what I had.) “Every time we talk,” I typed, “I feel like you’re blaming me.”At the end of this message, I asked you: “Can’t you try a different approach?”

You wrote back. It was quick, something you dashed off on your Blackberry. “I am not blaming you,” you said, “and I will try.”

That was the day the indifference began. I’d been here before, with you, at some cliff’s edge about to shrug and take a dive. I didn’t want you anymore. We’d make do, I was telling myself. Maybe I’ll even love someone else, and my daughter won’t have to watch me beg her father for an inkling of his attention. A distant ache drained out of me and, left cold, I knew I’d no longer rush to take your calls. I wouldn’t ask you again to involve yourself. I wouldn’t expect you here for her birth or her birthdays. I wouldn’t want you here, the way you’ve been, these last months.

I was ready, yesterday, to ignore the call you’d left me before my class. Ready to wait days or weeks on end, like you do, to see what you wanted, if I decided to look into your needs at all.

But then there was a text two hours later. You had an emergency. It had to do with your mother, who’d called me twice this week and left ebullient messages, asking after “me and the baby,” calls I hadn’t yet returned, in part because of this burgeoning resolve I’d begun to build against you. I needed a day or two, to be sure it would stick. I needed to compartmentalize what I was feeling for you. She needn’t know, when we talked, that I was slowly hatching a plan to cut you out of my expectations, like an unwanted guest in a photograph. I needed to be sure my voice wouldn’t reveal this.

I needed a day not to think about you at all.

And now you were telling me, via text, that she’d taken ill. I wrote back immediately, said I was sorry to hear it, asked if you were okay, and when we talked soon after, I fell into my old habit of looking up flights home for you. Like a travel agent.

You thanked me for looking into it, but ultimately decided to hold off on purchasing the flight. When we hung up, I talked to my mother, who admonished me not to get too involved: “This is a family situation. And you are not a part of their family.”

She was right; of course, she was right. Hadn’t you spent the last five months reinforcing that for me?

But we talked again last night, and I asked you if you were worried. I was thinking about my own hospital trip and the funeral that had preceded it and how amplified my anxieties would’ve been if either instance had involved my own mother. You should’ve be home, seeing after her health, yourself; it was the only way to alleviate the panic you must’ve been feeling.

We talked about other things: television and work and the content of the voicemail your mother left me. Distractions. You asked if I’d gained a lot of weight. I asked if you wake up angry at me every day. You asked if I think of you. I told you how big the girl has gotten: “Right now, she’s a foot long and weighs about a pound.” “How do you know that?” “I have books and three websites.”

We spoke of other things, too, things about myself, things I knew were falling on closed ears, but I didn’t care. I needed to say them aloud, and I was too used to saying them to you.

This morning, you texted to say that you’d found your own flight. You’d gone to LAX and purchased it there. I still marvel at the profound difference in our approaches to problems. I never would’ve gone directly to an airport and asked for flight rates for the same day I expected to depart. I would’ve been too afraid they’d quote me some exorbitant fee and I’d have no back-up or bargaining chip. But you managed to find a flight you could afford, departing one half-hour after your inquiry.

It occurred to me, then, how accustomed I’ve been to making myself seem indispensable. Over time, leaping to your aid has been less about being a good partner and more about being a necessary one. Even now, I’m willing to wager that a part of me with which I’m not ready to contend just yet, sprang to action for you last night, because it misses the old reflex of need, the muscle memory of our relationship at full function.

There is part of me that wants you to need me, simply because there is part of me—especially now—that needs you.

But as I type, you’re flying toward the coast that raised you, probably remembering a time far before us, when it was you and your mother, a duo with an unspoken understanding about what would necessary to give and to withhold. Maybe you’re thinking of her sacrifices for you; maybe you’re thinking of yours for her. Maybe you’re thinking of how much you value you her, and how it’s unlikely she knows it.

I am.

And on this plane of thought, I’m neither needed nor wished for nor known.

I’m beginning to be okay with that.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

The Chart.

Your doctor’s appointment this week was the first that felt less than magical, the first where the nurse and the third new obstetrician you’ve met told you little you didn’t already know.

You stepped on the scale, as you always do, and looked down to find that you’ve gained another eight pounds. At this rate, you’ll gain eight-to-ten pounds a month, until July. You try push down the bits of body dysmorphia that plague you, the parts of yourself that sometimes keep you from eating until twenty minutes after the intensity of your stomach’s growling has become too difficult to bear.

You can’t imagine yourself forty pounds heavier. You can’t imagine your daughter occupying that much more space. She seems large enough, larger than anything you’ve known, at the one-pound she weighs right now.

After the weigh-in, you waited. You sat, slightly longer than usual, as the nurse hunted down a less staticky Doppler, as she pushed the wand into your skin with a bit more pressure than you or your daughter liked. The girl hid her heart; she’s already learning. You both heard her moving away from the weight baring down on her, and now, you know to chuckle when you hear the swish, the record-skip.

“That’s movement,” the nurse needlessly informed you. You pursed your lips and smiled fakely in response.

“She’s testy,” the nurse frowned, and you bristled. You’re already taking offense on your daughter’s behalf. “She’s active,” you contested. “Very active…”

Because you’ve already decided you don’t like this nurse, with her loud-talking, her flitting in and out of the exam room door, leaving it open while you lie there with your shirt up, your gel-slathered abdomen exposed, and her complaints that your daughter’s moving too much, you know not to tell her the things you’ve learned about the girl since your last visit: that she likes Dairy Queen; that an Oreo Blizzard elicited her first swift kick; that she’s a night owl; that when she begins to move, you imagine her squaring her shoulders and wiggling her fingers and knocking her knees, fascinated at all these new gangly appendages and her ability to control them; that the larger she gets, the more she scares you.

And then you wonder why you’d ever consider telling a nurse any of this at all. These seem revelations reserved for her other parent. But you know, having talked to him again the night before, that he still isn’t ready to hear them.

When the doctor comes in, she seems detached and hurried. She’s holding your chart and the sight of it makes you cringe, because you know what’s in it. You hope she won’t do what your other secondary physicians have done: regurgitate the facts you gave about the father, three months ago, on your initial visit.

The last time you were here, the doctor you saw was male and kindly, with warm hands he made a show of sanitizing as soon as he walked in the room. He wore a bowtie under his white coat and one of the first things he did was look down that at that chart and say, “I understand the father’s no longer in the picture? And you… broke up as a result of the pregnancy?”

You sighed, because if you’d known this would bear so much repetition, you may have spun some less hurtful yarn. But that was the thing: this narrative sounded just as manufactured as any other: a nameless partner, ostensibly living in California and working in film, began to believe the relationship wasn’t worth it, the moment he discovered you’d decided to keep his child.

During that visit, your aunt was present. “They were together almost nine years,” she added, though I’m pretty sure that information was already there.

I never bother repeating it; it seems the most implausible detail of all.

The doctor furrowed his brow and said, “Really.” He looked back at the chart, with an almost imperceptible nod. “That is an odd response.” He smiled up at us. “These men,” he mused, “they always run, don’t they? In one way or another…”

You wanted to be cynical then. He was being condescending, wasn’t he? Pandering. This was faux-empathic mockery. This was him telling you what he’d already decided you needed to hear.

But it didn’t matter one whit whether he meant it. It was what you needed to hear—and you needed an impartial male to say it, perhaps even one of a different race and class, a different generation and marital status. You needed reassurance that you weren’t the only one being held accountable for the girl growing inside you, that there could be a universality to abandonment, dating back decades, centuries, civilizations, that occasionally, rejection just might be unpreventable.

It was comforting.

He’s different, you tell yourself, than the other male doctor you met, who was slightly older, far more detached, and firmly conservative, when he’d told you, after reading the same notes on your single status, that keeping the child was commendable. “We don’t really believe in abortion here….”

Now, you think you may prefer them both to the woman before you now, firmly pressing into your left side, swathing the Doppler wand in her other hand, rushing. “There,” she said, listening to the heartbeat she found near your pelvis for all of three seconds. She charted the heart rate at 158 and told you your uterus had stretched past your navel, without taking an exact measurement. She made a generic observation about the unseasonable weather, then asked if the nurse had given you paperwork for the glucose test you’d need to take in three weeks. After this, she said you were free to go, if you didn’t have questions. You didn’t.

You hopped off the table, feeling empty in the absence of the requisite reassurances you’d come to expect from these appointments. She’d been perfectly professional: efficient and quick, but entirely unconcerned. You felt faceless, herded and hustled, and because she’d failed to reference it, you were also without history.

This is when you began to worry about that thing your initial prenatal nurse told you: this was a physicians’ partnership; anyone obstetrician whose name was on the door could potentially deliver your child. This was the first time that statement had caused you panic.

It’d been months since you’d met with your primary ob/gyn, a young, petite, cherub-faced Black woman with shoulder-length hair, owlish spectacles, and blush slightly rosier than her plump and darling cheeks required. You’d forced yourself to make your subsequent appointments with the other partners, so that if theirs were the hands reaching into you, those hands would be familiar.

Now there was a hole in your plan. You and this doctor were as strange to one another as you were before you met, when she was a thumbnail brochure photograph and you were scrawled notes in a chart. What if she’d missed something? What if you never saw her again, between now and the day she’s paged to coax your kid into the world?

In the end, you know it won’t really matter, as long as the doctor at the helm ferries you and your daughter safely to shore. But it’s all so very odd, entrusting this sacred at task to any of four physicians who only know the parts of you that appear in the margins of their carbon parchment.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Stronger Than Pride.

Monday night, we talked for over two hours.  Just months ago, such conversation lengths were rote. Now, it seems the height of unlikeliness. I had to make myself available to you, which is a process. Mostly because of your absence, I rarely turn my ringer on anymore. I miss many calls this way, although many calls these days are just from hapless telemarketers and well-intentioned family who either inquire after you in ways I don’t wish to answer or take pains to avoid the simple utterance of your name.

I still remember rather vividly when a cursory glance at my call log would turn up no fewer than four mentions of you per day. You called so much, before, I used to screen you. You called so much, before, you used to complain about how little I answered.

I know now, what you felt.

This began on Sunday. I dreamt of you, somehow. This was rare during the near-decade we were together, but now you strut around my dreams at least twice a month, like you’re poised to take them over. I imagine my subconscious is angry; I’ve incurred its wrath on account of this child and her promised disruption of our circadian rhythms. This girl is a pebble impeding our cogs and, as punishment, my psyche has taken your side.

When I woke, I began to call you, like a zombie motivated by some force beyond my own will.  These were blank-minded calls. I didn’t know what I’d say if you answered; I never do now. All our communiques are curt and carved hollow, the phone calls particularly brutal.

It’d been weeks since I’d dialed your number; the last time, you emptied a clip of one-word answers and, absorbing the slugs, I said I had to go. That day, I learned the perils of calling unprepared, and yet here I was again, dialing without aim.

We hadn’t really spoken, not with our true voices, in months.

You didn’t answer the first time. Or the second. Or the third.

On the fourth, I left you a message: Call back, please, I bleated like a broken automaton.

You didn’t.

So that night, I wrote you one of my text-tirades, only this time, I avoided all expletives and focused on evenness of tone. I told you, as I have before, that these attempts to correspond are not for my health or your annoyance; they’re for the girl. I told you I’ve far less tolerance for suffering ambiguity; I needed clearness and closure. I needed you to deny her or deign to know details about her; this silence solves little, helps nothing, and prolonging it is an undeserved cruelty.

As I slept Sunday, I felt expectation slip out of me. You didn’t appear in my dream; my subconscious was merciful. It convinced me the words I’d written you had tumbled to your wayside and landed atop a burgeoning pile, with all the others.

After all, hadn’t I stated these same sentiments, with far superior eloquence, just weeks before? “You’ve become a closed fist, rather than an open palm,” I’d mused, “I wish I were angrier about it. I’d be less sad, less worried about the possibility of her growing up fatherless or with an antagonistic stepfather or with a general distrust of men. Like I did.” I ended that letter with familiar lament: “I hate the futility of wishing.”

All that garnered was voicemail. I got your note, you stated, also like an automaton, only after shoddy repair.

Then, in the morning, I saw that you’d called after midnight and, later, you texted to ask if I could talk.

No, I punched back, happy to have reason to reject you for once. I’m busy.

Then the girl began to flip and I felt guilty. I remembered the words I’d read her, days before, in The Lorax.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

I sighed and touched the warm, convex skin under which our daughter fluttered and recalled the things I’d told her, about the very last truffula seed and the stark grey of sky, the wizened old Once-ler and the wide-eyed boy left to rebuild the world, alone.

I am teaching her to care. How could I tell her how easy it’s been for you not to?

My hopes for her drain my grudge against you, even though it’s fairly foolish to grant you so many immunities, foolish to absorb your willful ignorance, foolish to coax you toward us in this painful, patient way, and foolish to believe the remnants of the you I used to know will disallow you to push this pregnancy to the recesses of your mind forever.

But it was this foolishness that allowed for the phone call Monday night, the first in a series of months that didn’t involve barely veiled resentment or audible tears or voices raised octaves in anger.

I listened, as you told me you “hadn’t had your phone for a few days.”

And I listened, when you said you’d been angry at yourself—and angry at me—for a while now. Angry, you said, that you’d “put me in this position.” Angry, you said, that you’d made decisions which cast you as The Bad Guy.

I listened, as you repeated with earnestness and urgency, the significance of the choices you’re making, to live in California and to continue pursuing unreliable work in the field for which you’ve been trained.

I said that I understood, parroting a line we’d bandied about in these kinds of conversations before: LA is the film capital of the world.

You couldn’t see me shrugging; I was glad.

I could hear the resignation in every small confession:

I haven’t called because I thought we’d only argue, and you should be keeping calm now.

I haven’t called because I’m unclear on what you want me to say.

I haven’t called because I really don’t know what kind of support you’re looking for.

I bit back the urge to indict you with the obvious, “You never asked.” Instead, we talked about less complicated things: the first-name I’ve chosen, the patterns of her movement, the freakishly full-grown-looking size of her hands and feet.

You whispered, at one point, I’m still having a hard time with this whole situation.

And, for once, I didn’t yell back, “How you think I feel?”

I didn’t tell you, like I wanted, how annoyed I am when you ask what I want from you. I didn’t tell you how irritating it is to have to first imagine then describe how a grown man should respond to the impending arrival of his firstborn.

I didn’t ask for the things I desire, though you insisted that you wanted to know.

That seemed too large a weight for one phone call to carry.

These types of wants are ineffable.

I want the warmth of your hand and the weight of your tenor on my torso when the girl kicks at night. I want you to talk to her and read to her and sing to her, like I do. Tell her you’ll be waiting when she gets here. Tell her that you’re glad that she’s your daughter.

I want tea when I’m too tired to make it, reassurance that I look lovely when I feel like livestock, equal distribution of worry and burden. I want daily discussion of fears and hourly infusions of courage.

I want you to plan visits without being prompted. I want you there to hold her at the hospital.

I want you to think of your daughter as more than a dollar sign.

I shouldn’t have to ask these things. But I suppose, before she gets here, I will.

The ditches of my own wayside are filled with mislaid pride. This baby has nudged me toward compassion and ebbed all my filmy deposits of contempt. She makes me remember the best of you, even though your recent self has been your worst.

She reminds me that the wounds I’ve licked aren’t the only ones that matter. This interweave of incidents has left you battered, too.

We all deserve better than we’ve been to one another.

Now we need to mend ourselves and, for her sake, move forward.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Cartography.

When you’ve been here a while, when you’re at least four feet tall and you’ve got one viewing of Roots under your belt, I’ll take your slender wrist between my thumb and forefinger, turn your arm palm-up, and tell you to sit.

There’s something I want to show you, I’ll say.

We’ll look at your veins, winding greenish and blue under what I predict will be maize-colored skin.

Every vein is a storyline.
I’ll trace them with my index finger for emphasis. Every story belongs to a woman who’s come before you. These are your grandmothers’. This one’s your aunt’s. And this is mine.

I will tell you that, just as some parts of the vein are visible and close to the skin, and others are buried deeper, toward the bone, so also are the stories of your ancestresses: some portions are knowable; others will be forever hidden from view.

These days, my own veins have become far more prominent. Beneath my shoulder blades, dozens of greenish paths are writhing and converging in a race toward the center of my breasts. As if overnight, my body has become its own cartographer, my veins a series of routes spread out, as if drawn on an interstate map.

They are paving a way for you.

Though my stomach is darker than my chest, its veins are also emerging, wider and thicker than the ones above.

I am filling with proteins and fats and stories. Years from now, when I hold your wrist and trace its risen lines, I will repeat the words my body is whispering daily.

We will start with the tale of the teenage girl who creeps off to a bar on a corner, with a few of her older siblings. Terribly shy, she feels scandalized there. The walls are sweating liqour; the moisture accosting her skin has no respect for the painstaking work of her hotcomb. She wants a stool in a corner, a quiet place to shrink away and wait for the music to swell. Her siblings have scattered, like ants in bakery littered with crumbs. The brazen suggestions of sailors, the broad, jutting shoulders of bricklayers, the bony, jabbing elbows of wire-rimmed junior collegiates are bruising her body, all over. She considers leaving, obedient as she usually is, and self-conscious enough to know that she’s too young for this scene, full of porters and rail workers and factory men, full of women she’d heard her mama whisper about at first ladies’ luncheons.

But then the band began to kick up, a trumpeter at the fore, beckoning offstage, and out came pompadoured Bobby Bland, in slacks tailored slim and suggestive. The women’s knees buckled before he even neared the microphone. The men cussed their approval, raising glasses of whiskey and gin. But the girl’s own heart didn’t quicken till he leaned in, grinning almost evilly as he crooned: I went down to St. James Infirmary—and I heard my baby groan….

Her body shuddered before she could temper it, and she pulled the collar of her green wool sweater tighter around her narrow neck. She wanted to cast sidelong glances, to make sure no one had noticed, but before she could, an arm snaked its way around her waist and the heat of a gravelly, honeyed voice singed her ear.

“Slow down now, girl.” He rested his chin on her shoulder, then moved before she could shrug him away.

But she wouldn’t have.

Now she’s gone, she’s gone and may God bless her, wherever she may be. She has searched this wide world over, but she’s never found a man like me….

She watched him pretend not to be aware he was being watched. He took a long drag off a short cigarette and narrowed his eyes at the stage. He wasn’t tall, but he was dark and handsome, with eyes at once kind and menacing, and though he wore civilian clothes, she knew he was a soldier long before he told her. She fancied herself intuitive, then.

They sipped watery gin from a clouded glass. She cringed, her entire face a pucker, and his throaty laugh carried, over the somber blues and the raucous chants of the crowd.

She loved him. She was certain of this, at sixteen, even after she found out he was already husband and father to another brown and burgeoning family, even after it became clear he’d never leave them for her and the girl he’d left growing inside her.

Your lips will part, dewy with eager inquiry, but I’ll let my finger flit to another vein and begin anew.

You needn’t investigate these tales for accuracy. Fact, uttered hastily and under cautious breath, is often imparted sparingly in families. Much of what I’ll tell you will be imaginative meat added to bare, brittle bone.

But it’s important that you know what the women who made you are capable of. We are, generation upon generation, fierce and earnest lovers of the absolute wrong men. We are women who tend to breed babies with ghosts. So you must listen beneath the fiction, beneath the fact. You must listen for the throb of the pulse, and find yourself a frequency that frees you from this unkindly inheritance.

I will hunt for new veins till I’ve exhausted our family’s stories. I will never, ever mention that the blood flowing through them is your father’s.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

… But Little Girl, You’re My Heart’s Delight.

Before you came to bring us such joy,
how we hoped and prayed that you’d be a boy
but little girl, you’re my heart’s delight;
you make life sunny and bright, Little B.
You’re all my heart sings for.

— “Little B’s Poem,” Jean Carn

I didn’t realize I was trembling until the ultrasound tech ventured, “You’re nervous, huh?” I heard myself breathe an unconsidered confession: YES. She laughed. “I can tell.”

Lying back on the crinkly white paper of an examining chair has become second nature in the past few months, but this darkened room, sufficiently dimmed for viewing the movement of a half-gestated fetus, was new.

Before your great-aunt and I came here, I sat in my apartment, savoring my last few hours of ignorance. This sounds strange and I will rarely, if ever, encourage you to “savor” ignorance, but in this case, all the things I didn’t know carried with them a certain calm. I cannot tell you how often in life it’s been soothing for me to hold fast to my little delusions. Yesterday morning was one of those times.

It’s just so true: before you know exactly who and how someone is, she can be anything.

Yesterday morning, and for many days before, you were a boy—a brown and hardy enigma I was eager to spend the next twenty years of my life figuring out. You were the long-absent maleness my three generations of women so craved. You were a towering teenage star, with fists clenched in defense of home, of hearth, of mother, if ever they were threatened.

Admittedly, I don’t get boys. Having one would’ve been something of a social experiment. Perhaps I could’ve finally cracked the codes that’ve been so elusive to me all these years. Maybe we would’ve had strangely, unexpectedly illuminating conversations and our lives would’ve been near-constant filament bursts of inter-gender understanding.

It was a silly sort of dream, one that placed too much onus on you to teach me, one born of unfair expectations that would’ve led to inevitable disappointment.

I may’ve watched you walk across commencement stages, gazing through a twilight of awe and thinking, “I still don’t get boys.” And one of my biggest fears as a parent is never growing to understand my child. With a male you, there would’ve been impediments, anatomical and theoretical; it would’ve been hard.

And worse, there was the acute possibility that I would’ve spent more time obsessing over all the things I could lose you to—premature, inaccurate learning disability diagnosis; police profiling or brutality; stray bullets; random or targeted violence; unjust (or just) incarceration; drug use or distribution—than I would’ve spent cherishing you. I know these ills aren’t unique to the black male, but that wouldn’t stop me from fretting over their heightened probability for you.

And then, had you escaped it all, I still would’ve worried that the pressure to become some great  bastion of Black societal uplift would’ve cracked you in irreparable ways.

In the end, it’s equally possible I might have ruined your disposition with all the clucking and coddling attendant to all those concerns.

There are no end of worries for Black men.

So I wasn’t too deflated in the doctor’s office, lying back and looking at the organ the sonographer was circling as she typed, “IT’S A GIRL!” across the monitor. This was the very first part of you she showed me (which is symbolic of so many private things I’ll whisper to you after you’re here). Then, she spent ten minutes identifying thigh and calf and ankle, bicep and elbow and forearm, all the bones so white and prominent, the shape of each limb all curved and defined. I could see your heart, this heart whose sound I’ve already come to memorize, then your kidneys, your cranium, the delicate silhouette of your brain. I saw your spine and its notches of vertebrae, curled against the hammock of my ever-expanding uterus.

“Are you gonna stretch out for us, baby?” the sonographer asked you. She can’t, I thought to myself, she’s a giant.

Already, you are formidable. I don’t mean that in a way that suggests rivalry or a lifelong battle of wills. I mean you’re a force. A bundle not only of joy, but of power. You have track-runner legs; your hands and your feet are overlong, like your father’s.

You will easily envelope things: moths and lightning bugs and fireflies, secrets.

You won’t tread lightly. I won’t expect you to.

Girl, there are stories. There are myths and legends and mysteries about your foremothers, enough to have us speaking in reverent and relishing hushes for the length of both of our lives.

I will tell you about the distant cousin who wandered into the woods during a storm and blew away. I will tell you of your great-great aunt who, at 19, was already Wife and Mother, who, at 19, ventured into a nightclub in Natchez and died in the fire that consumed 200+ patrons within. I will tell you about your grandmother, the evangelist; your great-grandmother, the jazz connoisseur; your great-great-grandmother who lived to be 95 and who floated about in her final years, like an ancestress with the mysteries of eternity within a fingertip’s grasp. I’ll tell you about my three cousins, all preternaturally wise, with whom I spent all my adolescent summers whispering secrets about boys and reciting lyrics to the r&b that was forbidden to me back home.

I will tell you of the first time I met your father’s mother. She wafted into her living room, in a summery sleeveless top, her skin dewy from the hours she’d spent gardening in the sun. I noticed the moles on her neck and arms, raised and round like chocolates. She told us about the hedge in front of their home and how she’d spent hours trimming it—first daintily with clippers and then, for the more stubborn stalks, she said, “I just started using my hands.” I looked closer at the hands she’d stretched out before us, and noticed a trail of fresh, tiny scratches paved from wrist to shoulder on each side.

Your grandma’s hands are a marvel. She can break trees with them.

I suppose my entire life has built toward parenting you. If there’s one thing I’m prepared for, it’s teaching a woman how to live in the relative absence of men.

You are a fourth generation Brown woman. At this point, some things are inherent. We know the longing for male validation. We know the resentment that accompanies the lack of it. We know the resignation to its dearth that you can reach quite early on.

We know how conquerable the want is.

With each successive Brown generation, there is an evolution of awesome. This means the likelihood of you being a purple-haired poetry-spouting mathematician and electric guitarist is disproportionately high.

In time, you’ll understand why I wanted a boy. In time, I’ll understand why our matrilineage just keeps spawning more women.

Don’t worry. I am not disappointed.

We can do this. We can do this well.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

The Precipice.

I’ve been writing to our child. Regularly. Twice a week on average, in fact, for the past three months. I wrote the first note, a memo I texted to my Blackberry, a day after the pregnancy test. I’ve never told you, in part because we weren’t talking, in part because it’s quite likely you don’t care, in part because while I was feverishly grasping for connection to the child, you were frantically scratching through a hole to get away from it.

And when you slid through that crawlspace, you mortared and bricked it behind you.

The words come pretty regularly, full of hopes and confessions and lofty ideals. But some days, my animosity is an impediment—and on those days, it makes more sense to write to you.

As tempting as it is, I try not to deride you in the missives I’m preserving for the child. My own mother never did that, when I was old enough to notice that my father wasn’t with us; and I’ve learned a measure of tact and grace from her. But I’m not her. And I don’t have her stores of strength and charisma. So sometimes, when I speak of you to others and often, when I speak of you to myself, the things I say about you are quite… blue. We’re talking cerulean. We’re talking FCC seven-second delay. We’re talking I hope you never learn to read minds.

I worry that even the unsaid will soak into the baby’s marrow, because it is so deeply steeped in mine.

I don’t hate you, but love, I am on the precipice. I wonder if you find yourself there, with me, feet planted at an unseen spot on the selfsame shore. I wonder if you actually resent me for making the decision to parent, because doing so shifts the terrain of your dreams and re-routes your best-laid plans.

That this is even a possibility makes my fury redouble. Rage has this way of regenerating itself, like the severed limbs of starfish. There are times when it’s difficult to contain mine.

Every day that ends without any indication that you are alive—or that you care that I and the child am—draws me closer to a cliff’s edge off which I know I’ll be forced to dive. And when I do, I promise you, the person you once knew—who was patient and tolerant and generous, who wrote you poetry and sang to your voicemail and cooked with and for you, who served as your secretary and editor and financier, who listened to and counseled and comforted you, who apologized profusely when she was wrong and accepted apologies far quicker than she should’ve—will disappear beneath a surface so cold you will find yourself shuddering as she emerges.

I barely recognize myself these days.

About a week ago, I spoke with your mother. I was a whirl of magnanimity, assuring her that I’d made my peace with motherhood and my apologies to God for our indiscretions. Because I could sense that these were important queries for her, I kept a smile in my voice as I answered them. When she told me you’d make a good father, eventually, I agreed with her, because it’s likely true; what I didn’t add is that it may not be true for our child. More than once, she expressed gratitude that I’d written to tell her I was pregnant; if I hadn’t, she wouldn’t have known it at all. She said that she has yet share the news with your family, even as she grows more excited about it herself, because you’ve asked her not to and she intends to respect your wishes.

Before we hung up, she told me she was glad that I chose to keep the child, and her tone suggested that you hadn’t told her you’d asked me, no fewer than five times, not to. I thanked her, holding the words that rippled toward the front of my tongue at bay.

It seems that I’m always protecting you in these ways: notifying family alone; absorbing their criticism alone; listening and nodding while they defend you as a “nice guy” who they’re “sure will come around” and who “just needs time to cope with the change.”

The latter is the most infuriating of all, this notion that because you are male and thereby privileged enough not to carry the literal weight of a child, you should be afforded distance, time, some mystical Benefit of Doubt, and utter exemption from fault, while I budget and buy and cramp and waddle, reaching the milestones of fetal development by myself.

Everyone expects me to wait for you. No fewer than four people have expressed their sincere hope that we “work things out.” I’ve been told that I have little choice, that it doesn’t matter if you decide tomorrow or ten years from now to insert yourself in this kid’s life; I’ll have a responsibility to accept it.

I suppose it’s this myth that emboldens you, that I will continue to reach for you and that I won’t teach our child not to; that a father’s full rights are reserved for men who decide, far too late, to be fathers; that whenever you feel that you’re ready, your reemergence will be met with resounding trumps and forgiveness.

May this myth be enough to sustain you, as you refrain from calling to inquire after the child’s health or gender, as you neglect to offer it sustenance or commitment, as you continue to pretend that it will not exist. For if you arrive unsolicited or announced, long after my dive into indifference, years from now, when our child is old enough to read and comprehend the way you’re behaving toward it right now, expect an indefinite wait at the exterior of our door.

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