I remember once, before I was a mom, well before I even thought I wanted to be a mom—which was only about three hours before I became a mom—being lectured by neighbors at my local dog park about how I must not miss out on being a mom.
It was a pretty familiar conversation actually, one that seemed to come up with suspicious frequency after I got married. Somehow I'd find myself in the nearly unbearable company of people in the throes of raising kids and they'd go to no end describing how utterly amazing and thrilling and rewarding—so rewarding!—it is to raise children.
I would just stare at them as if they were saying something riveting, something even half-way intellectual, and I'd think: Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately? Look at you! You're a wreck! You're wearing MC Hammer parachute pants circa 1989 with a blueberry-stained college tee, neither of which is OK! Not even in private! I can barely see your bloodshot eyes because the flesh surrounding them is swollen, and why are you gray at age 30? And, excuse me, but you haven't had sex in how many months? Yeah, you offer a very compelling argument. Parenting looks like a blast. No thanks!
I figured it had to be a conspiracy of parents everywhere to recruit innocent bystanders into their exclusive Club of Suffering, which is understandable because who wants to suffer alone? They're just jealous of my glorious freedom, I thought. Freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want, with wild abandon and reliable birth control, thank you very much. Don't hate me because I chose the childfree life and you chose to pull the goalie. I wasn't falling for their trickery.
Of course, we all know this story took a turn, and here I am, with my puffy eyes and my splotchy skin and my dyed hair, to say that parenting is amazing and thrilling and rewarding—so rewarding! Let me tell you, there is nothing quite as rewarding as having your patience tested 23 times before 8 a.m. and surviving to cry about it on the drive to work. Did I mention that parenting is rewarding?
It turns out that this part of the equation is directly proportional to the positive feedback that the child offers. And my daughter has been distant with me of late, which greatly increases the risk/benefit ratio.
The truth is that Ruby has been straight-up rejecting me in favor of the cooler parent. Not that it's a competition. I'm just saying. In the course of three weeks, I went on two brief business trips and one quick fun trip and I've paid for it ever since. Aside from the effusive greetings I received upon my return each time, the kid has been extremely daddy-centric, not permitting me to so much as change a diaper (which I can't say I mind) or read a book (I mind this quite a bit). Everything is “No, Mama!” this and “No want Mama!” that. She's brutalizing me, and I start to figure: Well, screw her. I'm turning in my resignation papers.
Just the other night, however, it appeared we had a breakthrough. Sam was at the bar for Boys Night, and Ruby had no choice but to accept assistance from me when she awoke at 10:30 p.m. (She still doesn't sleep through the night, and I would propose to Michael Mukasey that waterboarding has nothin' on sleep deprivation when it comes to torture.) I went to her and found her turned around in her bed, laying on her tummy, whimpering that she had “pee-pee.” I lifted her to my arms and whispered that she needn't worry: Not only would I change her diaper but I would do it as well as her father. Maybe even better!
Upon hearing this, she pulled back from me, placed one warm hand on each of my cheeks and looked me sleepily in the eye, which was exactly when my heart exploded into a giant, sizzling firework and I forgave all the insufferable times she acts her age. Then she ran her left hand gently across my lips, wrapped both arms around my neck and put her head on my shoulder.I was overdosing on love. I could have cried. This was what all those people talked about! This was the indescribable reward. This was what makes it worth the struggle. Right here. In my arms. In the dark.
I held her for a bit, swaying back-and-forth, inhaling her, drawing out the moment for as long as I could, knowing there would likely be another dry spell to follow. I'd take the reward where I could get it.
I laid her on her changing table.
I removed her pajama bottoms.
I opened her diaper.
And then Ruby reached her left arm in my direction and said, “Poophand, Mama.”
Her fingers were caked in the stuff. And—as you might now be realizing, as I was at that moment—so was my upper lip, which explained the pungent shit smell I was enduring but had attributed to her nearby garbage pail.
I had a whole-body internal freak-out. Had the child's father been home, it would have been much less internal. So anti-internal, in fact, that our neighbors would have called the cops. But since I was alone and didn't wish to alarm my half-sleeping child or give her some life-altering mother-fecal complex, I got my game face on. I discretely wiped my lips with the sleeve of my shirt and cleaned the kid, while outwardly exhibiting Jackie Onassis-worthy grace and composure. On the inside, I was screaming Ewww! Ewww! Ewww! This is not my fucking life! Ohmygod! Ewwww!
I put the little princess back to bed and sprinted for the bathroom, flicked the light on and found more of her delirious finger painting already dried on my cheek. I gagged. Twice. I turned the faucet to 11 so the water would get scalding hot, stripped off my shirt and threw it as hard as I could to the floor. I gagged again. I squeezed half a bottle of facial scrub into my hand and then washed as rigorously as if I were cleaning a severe burn wound. I'm fairly certain I was whimpering, though I honestly don't remember any sound.
When I was all scrubbed up, I looked in the mirror and saw a half-naked wreck of a woman I barely recognized. And she simply shook her head and muttered, “I never knew you had it in you.” Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.