I am so good at everything.
This is a confidence I developed over years of pristine dance performances, high-flying cheer leading jumps, A+ papers. I knew with no uncertainty that these feet could spin superbly. I had full faith that I could damn near kill a quarterback with my dazzling chants. And always, always, this mind of mine could sculpt and mold, knead and stretch something from a simple pile of words.
I’ve lived what those around me would call a winning life. The secret to this success has been, quite simply, to only do things I’m immediately excellent at doing. One attempt at half a soccer practice and I quit. One mediocre grade in a science course and I decide with a swiftness that science is ridiculous. Who needs science anyways? Really, the world needs more English majors to contribute to all those significant advances in the field of English. These were the private failures I tucked under stacks of brilliant short stories. But Flash! Cheer! Distraction! Shine that spotlight on me while I pull off an impossible turn sequence. Leave my less glorious bits in the dark shadow off stage right, please.
I liked this image of perfection so I wore it every day. I changed shoes and lipstick shades, but the general look of a pulled-together person remained. When I became pregnant, the growth in girth didn’t faze me. I would be the best at being pregnant. I would win it. Audiences would toss roses at my swollen feet. Shaking admiration from their baffled heads, they’d marvel, “How does she do it?”.
I was so good at pregnancy. I didn’t smoke cigarettes. I ate enough pizza to fuel a small army of fetuses. I kept my heart rate in the low, safe zone by consistently not walking. Nine months later I arrived at the hospital with all the arrogance of a mama mutt ready to spit out her 12th litter. I played, trying to guess how high each contraction would spike on the electronic chart. I pushed. I laughed. I basked in the glow of glory as nurses applauded my vagina’s ability to get a whopping, ten-pound baby here all on its own. I readied myself for the expected onslaught of praise, heard the crackling cry of a stunning son I’d been so good at making, and then? A peculiar change.
I got quiet as we drove from the hospital. I rolled my wrists, cracked my neck, and spilled heavy tears onto the boy’s cotton cap. Online I read the sweet words from other mothers, my mother, her mother. Isn’t it the most special feeling in the world? Are you just so in love? Isn’t this motherhood gig the very best job? I didn’t answer. I was too busy failing quietly.
Weeks passed. We moved. I felt some relief to be in this strange place. It was easier to stay silent, to be left alone. I kept calls short and scripted. I avoided the sugary status updates of fellow new mom Facebookers. I stayed cooped up with curtains drawn. Shut everything down. I cannot say that I don’t like motherhood, that I’m no good at it. I cannot express to anyone how much scarier this was than that one-half of a soccer practice. Stay quiet. Stay quiet. Because I’d like to suck in the privacy of my home. My hands trembled over a bottle. This heaping scoop of formula is too heaping. I dump it out.This swaddle is sloppy. This tiny laundry is folded crooked. This creature cries different cries I cannot decode. I just cry one big silent cry into the sink as I fumble with soap, rub his small scalp too hard, spray too-warm water on his butt, a butt I still can’t seem to wipe correctly. I hold the boy, saying the only words I’ve said in months: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I am in all ways uncomfortable. I’d like to leap or write a poem, anything that feels natural. This must be what failing feels like. And this is the fear I’ve whispered around, that this was the one time I cannot quit something I don’t have the talent for. This is the one defeat I cannot dance around. My lack of skill wouldn’t just lose a game or warrant a bad grade. It could ruin a human. For every way I’ve managed to shine in my life, this parenting might be the legendary flop that out burns them all.
I don’t make eye contact with the cashier at the supermarket. She is a sight, taller than most large men. Her makeup is thick: eyeliner painted into curly black cat tips, lips harsh and pointed by ox blood stain. She’s be frightening if it weren’t for the honey skin, her bright smile. She dresses up her blue work shirt with a rhinestone necklace. I notice the glittery shine of her glossy, blue nails as she pecks keys. I don’t know her name, but I decide I like her. She wears the freakishness I’m feeling, the strange displacement I keep zipped under my fleece coat.
I am wordless still, worried I’ll tell the first person who asks how miserably I’m getting beat. She scans cans of peas. I shuffle my feet, eye the baby and realize I buckled him into his carrier wrong again. With a scrunch of his nose, I feel my chest grow hot. I’m begging him with my eyes, again: Please. No more problems I can’t fix. Please. He’s furiously wailing now. She scans more cans. I turn to face the cashier when she asks for my card. I am flustered. I am failing. I forgot pacifiers.”You’re a good mom,” she says smiling as she waits for my card.
And after all this time of quiet all I can hear is “Mercy. Mercy”.
I want to ask her, “You. Are you God?”. I want to grab her as we exchange cash. I want to climb into her blue-fingered hands. I want whatever comfort I feel from her right this minute to cover me completely. I wouldn’t, truth be told, object if she rocked me like a baby. Mostly, I want to tell her this is the very kindest lie she’s ever told. Instead, I cry.
The girl stares up but keeps bagging my apples. “We. We can help you to your car? It’s ok. It’s ok,” she assures the sobbing lady in Lane 8. I can’t answer. I’m crying and crying. I think I’m rejoicing. I think I’m finally losing loudly.
I left the store that day no wiser to the ways of soothing my son than when I arrived. I still, three years later, am forever doing this mother thing wrong. But I made a point to choose the blue-nailed girl’s lane every week on our shopping excursions. I told her I loved her nails, her new clip-on ponytail. She said I look thinner. I think her ponytail is silly. She knows I don’t actually do yoga in these yoga pants. I do not know, even now, what it was about this moment with a blue-nailed stranger, why I heard her when I couldn’t hear anyone else. When we moved again, I took with me this inexplicable experience in a supermarket, an even more unexpected understanding that I am not good at everything and this sucking isn’t a loss. It’s learning. I can trust that my skills and talents are lacking, my shortcomings are high and tall. I can fumble and still enjoy the practice all the same.
In this new town I spot a tired mom chasing kids. I veer to make sure we cross paths. Her little girls are throwing bags of chips at each other. I mention the weather and Fritos. I try to be subtle when I tell her she’s doing a good job. I hope she really hears me: “Mercy. Mercy”.
When has simple kindness from a stranger had a BIG impact on you?
A very special Tiny Spark Post this Friday.