Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Stacia to Appear on NPR’s “Tell Me More” on April 16.

Tomorrow, I’ll be a guest on NPR’s nationally syndicated radio program, Tell Me More with Michel Martin. I’ve been invited to join author and family therapist Lori Gottlieb to discuss single motherhood for the show’s weekly Parenting broadcast.

Beyond nervous. Beyond excited. I’ll update when a link to the audio becomes available online. You can stream Tell Me More live at WAMU FM from 2 pm to 3 pm EST. Use the NPR station locator to find out where you can catch it on the radio in your area.

UPDATE: The audio for the segment can now be heard here: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/16/177468617/single-moms-on-making-it-work.

Advertisements
Standard
Nonfiction, Parenting

A Refuge Among Amazons.

I am always allowed to ease in, a toe-swirl, a finger under a temperamental spigot, a cube of store-sample cheese in a paper cup: trial before the error inherent in commitment.

This has been no different.

The child slides out of you, glittery with water and blood, and that should be that. No slow dawning, no grace period, no casual distance.

Single mothers are typically dropped right into the throes—in medias res. Before the baby, there was languidness, was leisure; now there is chaos and combat.

But this was not the case for me. I’ve had my mother. First, she moved into a home I had other help to make, with its rooms meant for one and its meager resources stretched thin, and when the bough broke there and the cradle did fall, we moved in with her mother, where we remain.

We are a kind of convent, a cloister: three women, one girl, all sequestered. The role of Mother Superior vacillates with the caprice of wind. There is something each needs from the other. An electric support, high voltage and warming but open and crackling, is conducted between us.

This way I am raising the girl is also the way I was raised, generations of doting women, tending her needs in a home absent the filament of fathers.
I am allowed to fail here, allowed to gingerly approach the hot and whirling core most mothers eventually capture. I am not required to run at it, top speed with flailing arms. I need not be singed and disoriented, do not have to isolate my daughter through a series of  miscalculated scoldings, an irreparable tangle of hair, an insomnia born of my inability to sleep-train, a tantrum escalated rather than quelled.

There is always someone here. I am never alone. This is the cure and the curse of it.

Now that she is nearing two, I want more of her, more of the deference to a mother’s voice than I have, more of the adoration she sections and cores and passes in equal share like a snack made of apples in preschool. I want to be the lead matriarch in this as-yet-unfinished play, but often–especially at night, when after I’ve scrubbed her to a lotion-slicked gleam, she scurries away to be rocked into slumber by my mother, or when she awakens irate and our standoff is decided by my grandmother’s anticipation of a need I have yet to recognize (breakfast)–I feel relegated to understudy.

Of course this is vanity, is ego. It’s unimportant who’s on first if she’s healthy and tended, and she most assuredly is. And there is no way to calculate whose voice she heeds first, whose heart she holds dearest, whose arms she’ll seek out before all others when in distress. She is dearest to us all: I passed her into the world; my mother cut her cord; my grandmother shelters us, each one.

I shudder to think what our relationship would be if I’d been left alone with her lo, these 21 months, forced into a crash course in motherhood that wouldn’t have been aided by instinct.

I am not much of a test-taker. And the relationships–their inception, their solidifying, their maintenance–do not come easily to me.

I am grateful for women, for mothers, grateful for her father’s frequent phone calls, grateful for time, for do-overs, for concave nets and cushioned mats into which I can topple, if need be.

And I know that the day will come, as it did for my mother and hers before her, when I will be pushed from the nest, darling girl in tow, and expected to rebuild a residence of my own. There will be no reading a novel while she meanders into other occupied rooms, no writing while my mother braids her hair, no child care without fee while I teach, and no escaping her impatience at my clumsy attempts to pacify her.

Soon, this play at boot camp will be over. And I will be wistful for their graces when the true battles will come.

*The title, “A Refuge Among Amazons,” refers to the matriarchal society revered in Greek mythology.

Standard
Fiction

My Body, Broken for You.

Note: I wrote this in December ’11 for a contest I didn’t win. It’s strange that fiction was my grad school discipline; all I’ve written since then has been creative nonfiction. I haven’t given up on fiction, but I think the work it takes to perfect it through revision is work I’m not always successful at seeing through to the end. Anyway, after a couple of rejections and no-response-to-submissions, I’ve just decided to post it here. Let me know if you think it has potential.

My Body, Broken For You

Once, just after their father left, I wished they would just slide out of me, like so many of the other eggs before them.

Perhaps that caused it.

They were fully split for a time, identical but separate, two girls already playing pranks, daring the ultrasound techs to tell them apart. One darted here then wriggled left, and the other followed so close behind we’d all have to wait a half-hour to distinguish one’s vitals from the other’s.

But three weeks after I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped to find them floating among my fifth forceful pee in an hour, they had fused, clinging to one another for the love I’d denied them, clinging so tightly they’d joined at their hips.

When they were tugged out of me one month early, I peered over the surgeon’s partition and spotted one wriggling thing, a tiny, too-wide, creature that looked for all the world like a Hindu talisman I’d passed in the window of a rug shop once. I didn’t know it then, but later, when I’d stopped fearing them, I would look up that Sanskrit idol and find that I was thinking of Kali: six-armed black goddess of change and of death.

That was my daughters.

They were covered with thin, furry pelts they would shed in the month that they would’ve been full-term. Viv didn’t cry for two full minutes. Nadia was born with a veil.

A resident gasped before he caught himself. An intern fled, retching, from the operating room. My obstetrician apologized, looking slightly green himself.

It was good that their father left me when he did. If he couldn’t bring himself to settle into co-parenting when the idea was purely conceptual and when we both thought I was carrying a single fetus we’d assumed would ripen into something more cherubic than grotesque, he did not have the constitution for this.

They were not fun, upbeat girls–and they can’t be faulted. They’d come home on more than one occasion, each year of grade school, with bloodied welts where some uglier, pretty-faced, one-headed child had stricken them with stones. Once, when they were nine, Viv veered toward a van where a man promised them fame and five hundred dollars, while Nadia, who knew better, asked him the name of his circus. Before they were seven, seven doctors begrudged them their hope for successful separation.

And they were saddled with me as their single mother.

The girls found it impossible to hold their heads high, because I couldn’t. Everyone seemed to blame me for their condition, especially them.

They wanted answers. Why had I carried them all those months, knowing the quality of life they would have? Why, when I saw Viv’s one listless eye, had I not seen fit to correct even that? Why was Nadia brilliant, when Viv could barely concentrate on a passage of literature long enough to grasp its basic meaning? Why did they feel so unworthy of more than anyone’s sidelong glance? How could they live, knowing they might spend many years, graying and shriveling with age, without ever knowing the full flush of romantic love?

There seemed no end to their injustices. And they wanted it known that they blamed me.

I could never bring myself to tell them the truth: I’d kept them because I thought they’d never be able to leave me. I’d kept them because their every infant embrace felt like a Ferris wheel and my heart missed the joy of a carnival.

It was their father who found them the doctor, long after they’d stopped hugging me, long after they’d vowed to move someplace remote and live like queens in a village who’d believe them to be deities.

I would not have given my consent to the surgery, had I not believed they’d kill me in my sleep if I didn’t.

Here in the waiting room, I have been sitting across from their father and his new West Indian wife. She is speaking patois to her own teenage daughter, who glances at me before sucking her teeth and snickering.

We have been here for twelve hours, pining for news of a successfully reconstructed pancreas, of the lengthening and shortening of intestines, of two fully functional diaphragms.

I try not to stare too long at the girls’ stepsister, as I imagine them strutting on either side of her through a mall. I force a smile at the pep in their gait, their chins buoyed by the confidence that no one there knows what they were. Their sister is, for once, at ease being seen with them.

They would’ve been seventeen soon, but often, I imagine them at forty, sharing a chair, still conjoined, ’round a campfire.

They have husbands and undamaged children.

They are telling ghost stories and their laughter swirls with the embers.

Standard
Nonfiction

How Angry Single Black Mothers With Little Hope of Marrying–Ever!–Spend Valentine’s Day.

We spend it loving, spend it splaying schoolhouse Valentines into arcs on the carpet, prancing around them in circles wearing wings.

We spend it grinning, giggling, pressing our foreheads to our children’s, conspiratorially. No one else knows, we whisper, how rich we really are.

We spend it working, for work is love made utilitarian. There is no more steadfast expression of care than rising with the dawn and pressing into day to serve and to earn for ourselves and our babies.

We spend it placing phone calls, hearing voices. Some will remain in an echoing past, never to receive the intimate attention we once bestowed with relish. Others may prove part of a hopeful future, their laughter a boon we’ve earned with our wit and our charm.

We reach for our grandmothers, aunts, sisters, mothers, thank them for teaching us how inconsequential opinions should be–even theirs, in many cases, and how there is as much dignity in being alone as there is joy in being healthy and coupled.

We hold our men–our sons, their fathers, our own–and make clear to them just how profoundly they are loved. We teach them, either through doting or measured distance, the many ways to be caring, invested, supportive.

We treat ourselves and others: soak in candlelit tubs filled with salts and rose water, take copies of Essence and Ebony’s black love issues to girlfriends, buy our own confections, compliment the ladies at the office who’ve had gifts delivered, buy a new book, watch our favorite shows, and love and love and love.

We spend it knowing. There is nothing pitiable about self-preservation. We do what we can to withstand intense scrutiny and treat ourselves with the understanding and care often denied us. We do not require society’s affirmation. We are lovable just as we are.

Standard
Nonfiction, Parenting

Motes and Beams.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? — Matthew 7:3

Last night, a woman cradled her abdomen and revealed the life growing there, as vibrant and as certain as the crimson of her Lanvin gown. You are too young to know her, but she is an icon for my generation, in much the same way that the triumvirate of divas–Aretha, Diana, and Tina*–are for your grandmother’s. Her husband is similarly eminent and, as they took to yet another of what, for them, must be an endless strait of red carpets, the radiant woman basked in the rarefied air that only exists under an arc of flashbulbs.

It was a seminal moment, not at all spontaneous but with just the right amount of coyness, delight, and pride. Responses were immediate–and as polar as they were predictable. Opinions were divided along moral lines. The couple was applauded for being married before deciding to procreate: “They did it the way God intended.” and “They did it the ‘right way.'” Many offered up their hope that this would “start a trend” in the black community, of valuing marriage (as though the reason black women and men remain unwed is because they thumb their nose at nuptials). By extension, unmarried mothers were inundated with presumptuous gloating: “This is what you should’ve done.” and “Never have a child with a man who doesn’t even offer to marry you.” and “You’ll never have this moment.”

But even the couple, so lauded for their pristine ordering of life events, did not escape the critical gaze of their public. They were blasted for releasing their news in as public a way as possible; some detractors went as far as suggesting the news was meant to boost their respective album sales. Others still wanted it known that they would not be engaging in any excited, celebratory antics “over a couple they didn’t know” and wondered aloud if they were the only ones who “didn’t care” about this announcement.

Darling, there is something I should tell you.

Every decision carries with it a value judgment; every action is first magnified then dissected. This is true of the famed and the civilian, of the leader as well as the follower. There is always someone watching, always someone desperate to compare, and to come away from that comparison looking superior. As much as I will teach you that the language of “better than” is dangerous, this language is unavoidable.

There is no sense in defending yourself against people who are certain they are better than you are. That is the worst kind of futility; it not only leaves you spent, but also unnerved and inadequate. But it is no better to seek solace in your own “better” circumstances. This renders you dispassionate and smug in ways that never fail to mortify you during life’s inevitable reversals of fortune. These are slopes that descend into hells; it would behoove you not to slide down them.

I spent much of your first year of life, and the nine months before your birth building an immunity to Better Than. I am still susceptible to the lesser of its side effects, but there are some nerves I have protected from its paralysis. There are some criticisms that I will just not allow to bring me low.

I am a third generation single mother. In high school, I was lauded for escaping teen pregnancy. In college, the voices grew louder, the compliments more flowery. By grad school, I’d “escaped a generational curse” and “broken a cycle.” I was half of an “upstanding couple”–a fine Christian man and a wholesome, Proverbs 31 woman; it was only a matter of time before we married, before someone suggested that we become youth leaders, before we were asked to educate others on purity. I didn’t protest; that wouldn’t have done much good. There was no baby then, to confirm what we weren’t. But I didn’t chime in, singing solo in a chorus of my own praises, either. I knew who your father and I were to each other, and it wasn’t husband and wife. And there were few days we would’ve described ourselves as “wholesome.”

You will find that people love their narratives. They need for your life to have meaning; it must provide them a teachable moment, whether cautionary or aspirational.

But you will never be who they think you are. The more you allow their expectations to dictate to you what you should be, the more unfamiliar you’ll become with your own reflection in a mirror. You must know, even as a grade school girl—and perhaps particularly then, as children can be cruel—that you are not pitiable because your parents are not married. You shouldn’t feel excess pressure to excel because “the odds are against you,” nor does my marital status require you to defend me or yourself against the assumptions of your peers. But it also does not give you license to exalt yourself over other children whose circumstances are different than your own. You will find soon enough that all homes, whether married or single-parent, are not created equal. There is no greater example of this than this red carpet couple whose little one will be swaddled in cashmere receiving blankets, with diamond pins fastening its handwoven diapers.

We are ourselves. That is all that we are, and that is enough.

There will be days—like this one—where I will feel like I am everything others assume I am: jilted, irresponsible, and unworthy of a man’s unerring commitment. And then I will remember that I am the woman who writes to you. I am wise and intuitive; artful and accomplished; nurturing and nourishing; strong enough to tear apart and reassemble myself for you; and beautiful in ways the naked eye cannot observe—particularly if its gaze is obstructed with beams.

Standard
Nonfiction

Self-Portraiture.

i've been taking self-portraits since my 27th birthday, when i got my first digital camera.

they're confidence builders.

sometimes, i forget who all i am. photographs provide evidence that the you you suspect is buried within actually exists.

 

Story seems very conscious of the placement of cameras.

 

unlike me, she isn't a ham in front of them.

 

she doesn't rely on the camera to show her who she is.

 

she is already well aware.

 

 

Standard
Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Make Him a Balloon, Not a Ball and Chain.

It’s jolting how easily a desired ideal becomes delusion in the face of reality. My mother says my life has been, comparatively, charmed. I was an only child with a father who was only semi-absentee. My extended family was instrumental in helping to raise me, which meant I began to fly at the age of four and saw city and country and interstate early and often, whenever my mother needed the space to inhale an “un-tandem” breath.

This kept her from wholly resenting me and made me feel both exponential love and fierce independence.

When I went off to college, I incurred about $40,000 of debt, because the scholarship my father’s employment was supposed to secure for me fell through when he quit his job in a huff of ego and indignation. Neither of my parents helped me finance my education. But during my senior year, when my student loans wouldn’t cover the total cost of my degree, my grandmother took out a $7,000 private loan to insure that I was able to graduate in four years.

I was the product of a very healthy village.

At graduation, so many people from my father’s family showed up that, had it rained and I had been forced to use the four tickets I’d been allotted, rather than the unlimited standing room our sunny outdoor ceremony provided, at least five people would’ve been unable to watch me walk.

I know the singular joy of making those closest to me proud. I know how it feels to be encouraged to succeed, from birth to adulthood. I suppose this means that my mother’s right. My life has been, comparatively, charmed.

Things derailed a little after I got my BA. I’ve always been a little adrift. I’m a writer. I’m morose and meandering. Definitely not a Type A personality. Not particularly ambitious. Certainly don’t kowtow in order to insulate myself from demotion or downsizing; I usually don’t care enough about where I am to be sad about leaving, when the time comes. I pursue and maintain employment because it’s important for me not to have to ask other people for money.

People I’ve loved ask me for money, a lot. I almost always have it. I almost always give it. Occasionally, this bothers me–but usually only in cases where I feel like I’m being treated like a solution instead of a person.

Anyway, after my BA, I moved home to help my mother financially recover from a divorce. I spent four years on that and during that time I learned what it was like to financially and emotionally defer to someone’s needs other than my own. Twenty-one was a good and fair age at which to learn this lesson.

Some girls have to learn it in the womb.

Then, at 25, I started a master’s program. In creative writing. At one of the most esteemed arts schools in the country. That was the kind of whim that would’ve needed to wait, had I prioritized a family then. I didn’t think seriously of beginning a family then. In fact, the low rumbling of wanting had only just begun to surface. It had no shape or direction, only a distinct pang to attend it, every time another friend or cousin or acquaintance married or began to thicken with new life.

I incurred another $32,000 of debt for that endeavor. Just as I’m not particularly ambitious, I’m also not particularly practical or forward-thinking. I don’t plan very far into the future. This is not to say that I’m entirely short-sighted; I’m not.

But you should know that thinking far ahead has always been pretty difficult for me, as my life has been a series of unexpected, unforeseeable events I couldn’t have insulated myself from if I’d tried.

So I don’t really try.

Which brings me to this: there are some decisions that erode the supposed “charm” from the lives of those fortunate enough not to be touched by true calamity or affliction.

I made one such decision when I made you.

Listen: because I was a mistake, I know better than to call you one. You absolutely weren’t. You were no happy accident. You were no accident at all. You were, quite simply, a spectacular outcome. I want you to hear that, even now, even before you grow ears. You were a hope that burgeoned early.

I didn’t plan for you. But God knows I dreamed of you. Like I used to dream about an MFA, when it seemed I’d never be able to earn one. Like I dreamed of hitting all the milestones I somehow deferred, because I depended on the wrong people or believed the wrong things or thought myself unfit or incompetent to achieve them. You, like everything I’ve ever pursued but never truly envisioned myself attaining, were an iridescent abstraction, something beautiful in the background of a life I thought, maybe, someday, I’d be fortunate enough to attain.

Sometimes, you felt like an impossibility. I wept for you, longed for you from a pit so empty and echoing I was certain you’d never come and fill it.

When you were only a wanton hope, I romanticized you. I thought of making your bedroom a castle and taking you to grocery stores in a tiara and tulle skirt and purple galoshes or a cape, with a scepter, and cowboy boots. I thought of reading you Goodnight, Moon and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Then, I thought of all the years you’d say you hated me, of all the desperate prayers that whatever you were doing behind your slammed bedroom door would be healthy and normal, not destructive and unconquerable.

Because I’ve known your father my whole adult life, he flitted through the foreground of every dream I ever had of you. I dreamed a two-parent home for you–as most women do–filled with money, teeming with love.

On the day I discovered you, growing–just days after my 30th birthday–this fortuitous wonder, this prospect whose depths my mind seems entirely incapable of plumbing–I began to name you. You were here, as certainly as I and your father are here. You are a part of the world, because you’ve been created.

I couldn’t bring myself to even entertain the idea of not bringing you from one precipice of being to the next. I couldn’t–I still can’t–see you as anything other than a beginning.

But for the first time ever, in my erstwhile “charmed” life, I have come to realize that I’ve always been right to assume that I’m not like other people. I am not strong and determined like all my single cousins who parent, or practical and wise like my cousin who chose another practical, wise person with whom to parent and partner. I’m not hopeful and happy and of a sound temperament, like the friends I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, who find the necessary grace to maintain relatively decent and workable relationships with difficult partners, for the sake of their children.

I’m not much of anything, except a woman who waits too long to do most things and not long enough to do others.

I don’t feel particularly cherished. I’m constantly paranoid about being someone’s burden. I feel resented, even by those who declare their undying love. I am this way because I’m a reader–of actions and deeds, as well as words.

I am not the type of person who would be able to keep your father’s sudden and utter unwillingness to raise you a secret until you’re old enough to handle it. And, because you are part me, you’d sense it even if I hid it with the stealth of a host of illusionists.

I am not the type of person who can guarantee you I’ll be industrious enough to earn enough as a single mother to avoid subjecting you to the world’s (and the government’s) crueler indignities.

I’m not even the type of person who knew, after nine years, what kind of man your father was, before I literally opened myself, to the possibility and the reality of you.

Even at 30 and even with a terminal degree, I am entirely unfit. Uninsured. Impractical. Immoral. Vaguely depressive.

Your life may not be as insulated from harm as mine.

And what worries me most, for you, is that none of this ever occurred to me when I longed for you here, in this home, in this life.

This barely occurs to me now, as you are here and I still want you so, though I know it would cost us both so much emotional deficit, so many rejections, so few days of light, in these first years.

It’s strange, to float about, untouched by much of anything at all, vaguely happy and only superficially sad, until making the one choice that has abruptly tethered me to a surface so hard and coarse and cold, so crumbling and concrete, that I wonder if we’ll ever know floating again.

Standard