by Nancy Vazquez
Every night my husband and I read a few poems from Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends to our two-year-old before he goes to bed. I'm not sure our son cares much about the words, but he likes the funny drawings. I like them, too, except the one that accompanies a poem called "Magical Eraser." That one troubles me. In the drawing a silly girl -- the one who doesn't believe the pencil has a magical eraser -- is getting her due for doubting; she's been almost entirely erased.
Some days I know just how she feels. Some days I think motherhood has erased me. In two-and-a-half years of mothering my son, I've lost so much. My career, or at least my pretense of a career, disappeared first as I realized no one else could care for my son the way I could. As a result of my decision to stay home, my career wardrobe soon worked its way to the back of my closet. For a while I made an effort to wear something other than Jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, but I learned better. The last time I put on my expensive suede flats, my son promptly threw up on them. I've also stopped trying to zip up my once-favorite skirt; I mourn the loss of my waistline. I gave up necklaces and dangling earrings when my son, Carlos, reached the grabbing stage, and I abandoned trying to watch adult TV when he discovered Sesame Street.
But that's the superficial stuff. Who needs a paycheck? Who needs a flat tummy? I knew motherhood was about sacrifice, didn't I? What I hadn't counted on were the more subtle shifts, the ones that get at my center, my sense of who I am. For instance, my trademark sarcasm seems to be fading; verbal irony, I've learned, is lost on a screaming toddler. I'm a former English major, but I don't read novels anymore; my son moves my bookmarks and I'm too sleepy at night to find my place again. I even put off writing or calling old friends, unsure of what to say about myself. All the phrases that describe me rely on a possessive construction: I'm Jose's wife, Carlos's mom, the preschool's designated snack provider.
Or at least that's how I felt until one night after a long, boring day at home. After Carlos was in bed, I went into the basement and dug out my old letters and journals, even the papers I wrote in graduate school, back when I thought I was going to be a writer and live an unconventional life. What struck me most as I read through my past were comments from one of the writing teachers I had in graduate school. Over and over she talked about how self-absorbed my writing was. Oh, she wasn't that blunt. She used phrases like "need to broaden your outlook" and suggested that doing research would help me see beyond my own experience. It was only ten years later, sitting in my basement, that I realized she meant I needed exactly what motherhood is giving me. Erase yourself, she seemed to be saying. Stop putting yourself at the center of everything. Looking back over my journals, I could see that being self-absorbed was a problem of mine that went far beyond my writing.
Like a lot of women of my generation. I'd always been encouraged to think almost exclusively about what I wanted, even being told at times that thinking about what other people wanted was old-fashioned or just plain wrong. Being naturally introverted, I found it easy to take that message to heart and put other people's needs in the background. The ultimate question about anything -- a job, a relationship, or whatever -- was always: Is this good for me? For centuries women have been expected to serve others, but by the time I came of age the pendulum had swung hard in the other direction. To me -- and, I suspect, many other women my age -- the idea of sacrificing for others was anachronistic and the notion that such sacrifice could be fulfilling was positively quaint.
Nothing, therefore, had prepared me to cope with the unrelenting neediness of my newborn. I remember thinking that if only I could live without eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, or having any social contact, caring for an infant would be a breeze. The first months of motherhood were a crash course in selflessness.
I resisted the lessons and complained about my son as if he were an inconsiderate house guest: He interrupted my dinner and wouldn't even let me talk on the phone! Eventually; however, I started to give in. Sure, I could defend my right to take phone calls, no matter how my baby protested. But I learned that when I "gave in" and let his needs come first sometimes, I got rewards: spontaneous smiles, at first, and then, as he grew, belly laughs and baby words and appreciative pats on my back from his tiny hands. Slowly, I began to let someone else have center stage.
And now I realize my new attitude spills over into other areas of my life. I'm not as quick to take other people for granted; the isolation of being a full-time mom makes me value friends. And differences between people seem less significant. Who cares how you voted in the last election, as long as you're willing to trade information on preschools! And I leave bigger tips in restaurants, knowing what it's like to do a job that goes unappreciated.
It's hardly a complete transformation, as those around me can no doubt attest. But I think, thanks to motherhood, that I'm becoming almost . . .nice. That's not a word I admired much in the past, thinking it meant bland and submissive. Now I know better.
I've also come to see that the old me isn't completely lost. My sarcasm, for example, isn't really gone, just tempered a little. I'm learning not every situation calls for a caustic remark. And I'll read novels again someday; for now I'm happy to scan the morning paper before emptying the dishwasher.
And you know what else? After years of only dreaming about it, I'm finally doing the writing I always said I wanted to do. And I'm staying home with my son, a controversial choice for a woman today. What do you know - I've become a writer, living an unconventional life. So now when my son demands my time, my energy, my self, I try hard not to resist. Go ahead, I think. Erase me.
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Copyright by Nancy Vazquez, 1998.