Since February 4th when Julia Tayech and I arrived home from Ethiopia, all my friends, pals, acquaintances, and even strangers have asked the same question: “What’s the biggest change to the life of a single woman into a single baby mama?
The shift, in some ways was astounding, in others, minuscule. My arrival in the land of motherhood was in many ways natural and smooth. I’d visualized crossing the terra firma of baby formula and honey for so long, nourishing the vision in my mind into the metaphysical food needed to survive for eight years. To finally see my baby wriggling in my arms seemed the most natural thing in the world.
During our quiet times, amid the soft, silent, seductive connection we formed out of warmth, wanting and will, the sensation just slayed me. That’s where the astounding parts came in. Sure, I’d read how the mother+ baby bond formed in books and blogs. It was quite another thing to feel your irises expand in a shared wide-eyed connection with a fresh, new spirit sprawled across your lap.
The second astounding thing, was, well, the poops.
Sure I changed and cared for babies in my pre-parented time. I knew poos came in all manner of shapes, sizes and smells. But as my brother Jeffrey claimed in his parenting motto, much like the Boy Scouts: “Be prepared, especially for the unexpected.”
“You have to watch out for the blow outs,” the father of a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl said across the phone line months ago. “ Just when you least expect it, you get blow out, a diaper with poop running up their back and down their legs.”
Next, Jeffrey going to help President Obama boost the nation’s economy.
Monday morning I awoke with a plan to attend a reading by Joyce Carol Oates at the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue. I adore Oates’s work. The way many women glom over People Magazine, In Style and Gawker for celebrity news, well that’s me with the work of Joyce Carol Oates. I have worshiped at the altar of her complex sentence structure. Her use of commas has sent me over the moon and back. So a week ago when a mailer arrived at my home that announced Oates would read from a new work on February 21st, I went all giddy and dopey. I still mourned missing her at the New Yorker Festival back in October.
“After I give the baby dinner ,I’m going to the Y for a reading,” I said to my mom.
She nodded from across the dinning room table and said nothing. In the body language of Annie Holmes that minute move translated to: “I don’ t want you to go out but I can’t stop you.”
Ten days into her month-long stay to bond with her newest grand baby ,I knew my mom viewed my going out after dark as a threat to my very existence, as if a mugger or a rapist lurked just beyond the doorman’s desk of my Upper West Side building. (Such was the worldview from a 74 year-old woman whose big excitement was hitting the local Wal-Mart in Redford, Michigan just as the staff put out the fresh, made rotisserie chickens.)
Throughout my PBJ life (Pre-Baby Julia) I regular pimped out my Unlimited MetroCard, taking the subway at all hours of the day and night. An 8PM reading? For a single baby mama with a ready sitter? A walk in the park.
I left my mom to doll out the last of the cereal, and headed down the hall and made a left into my bedroom. I changed out of my sweats and walked over to the closet near the door. I selected an outfit for the evening: a soft, caramel colored sweater, knee-high matching suede boots and slim-cut black jeans, the perfect look for a writer returning to the land of scribes, no longer just a reader of Dr. Sessus and Eric Carle books.
As I slipped into my clothes, I reviewed my plan: after cereal, I’d give the baby her fruit course, take her out of the Bumbo seat, then head down the hall to her bedroom. I’d read Julia a story then settle her into the crib with a lullaby or two. Then I’d be off to hang with one of my literary gods.
I gathered the baby up from her molded, lime-colored plastic seat. A surprising bit of dampness touched me back. I’d changed her nappy an hour ago, I thought, a low-grade, uneventful event.
I carried the baby back down the hall into the first bedroom. As we crossed the plush, olive and pink flowered rug, I detected the pungent, tangy odor of fresh poo. I was not alarmed. This was Julia’s usual early evening move I thought as placed her on the pad of the blond wood changing table. I unzipped her onesie, extracted her legs then peeled back the twin bits of tape that secured the diaper.
For those of you who might be reading this post over breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack or even chewing gum, I’ll refrain from noting too many details. I’ll just say it was bad. And it was, well, nearly, everywhere. I stared at the creeping dark-green swamp that moved to conquer the lower half of the pink and white striped onesie. In my astounded state, a bolt of fear radiated off my body, jolting Julia. Out wailed an unfamiliar cry from her heart-shaped mouth— a long, pitched high note—full of fear, fear that I’d created. Shame-filled nausea oozed in my stomach.
I sucked in a cool, deep—albeit stinky—breath and pealed Julia’s soaked undershirt and sleeper from her tiny body.
“It’s okay Julia Bell, it’s okay bella,” I cooed striping the sticky clothes away from her caramel-colored skin, waddled them into a ball then shoved them toward the end of the changing table. I kept Julia in place with my left hand, kneeled down opened the middle drawer with my right, and pulled out a clean towel.
“Ba, ba, ba,” Julia said as I swaddled her in clean warmth—her standard all is well salute.
I gathered her up into my left arm, clutched the clothes, soiled and damp, with my right and headed out of the bedroom. I found my mother still sitting at the head of the dinning room table. I presented the wet wand to her.
“What do you think it is?” I said. “She had a runny blow out.”
My mother turned and smiled at Julia then said, “Mommy thought she was going out but you had other plans.”
I turned on my heels, entered the kitchen and plopped the mess into the washer, then headed to the bathroom to give Julia a much-needed bath.
“Mom, can you help me?” I yelled over my shoulder as I started the stream of warm water in the sink.
My mother headed into the bathroom and retrieved the Puj, from the shower, the milky-white, molded, origami shaped baby bathtub and placed it into the sink. Followed by a pink, baby-sized hand towel and soap. Together we washed Julia clean.
Ten minutes later, as I rocked Julia asleep, glances at my watch. It read 7:45. I mind rolled from the bedroom, out the window, across Central Park blanketed in darkness and speckled light blue lamp lights strung like pearls, over to the Y on Lexington Avenue. Joyce Carol Oates was probably slipping herbal peach tea from her favorite mug, the one that she traveled with, as she prepared backstage for her reading I thought. I imagined a multi-culti crowd dotting the hall, the typical fans that assembled to hear Oates’s latest bit of brilliance. In my pre BJ life I would’ve sprinted from my apartment, and jumped into a cab and directed the driver to floor it to 92nd Street and Lex. At less than ten minutes away, I could make the reading, just on the other side of the park. In my pre Baby Julia life, I would have. And I would have been proud to do so.
Instead, as I swayed my daughter to sleep in my arms, the words of a panhandler that regularly camped at the East 53rd street station came to mind. The butterball, middle-aged, dark-skinned, Caribbean woman issued the same edict to all those who sprinted down the stairs of the moving escalator to the subway platform.
“Take time, take time,” she said as commuters ran for the coming train then she’d announce whether an E or an F train was storming into the station. Sometimes people tossed a few coins into her well-placed basket, thankful to know whether they needed to pick up the pace to make the arriving train, or stand aside and clear the way for other commuters. Back then, sometimes, I didn’t listen to the woman. I ran down the swiftly, moving metal stairs regardless whether the arriving train’s destination matched mine. Years later, across the echo of memory, I finally listened to her.