T.O.B.B.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve crammed a few lives into this one. So far, by a rough count, motherhood is my sixth. My fifth life, as a journalist, only happened because it took my husband and me five years to get pregnant. (The stamina on that guy!) (I’m sorry, babe.) (Not sorry enough to backspace though.)

It was 2011, I was fresh out of grad school and broke, and I was supposed to be revising a book but instead was reading Le Carré novels and meeting Jeffrey at Subway on his lunch break to hold his hands and cry into my Honey Oat loaf. (So absorbent!) So when I was offered a staff position at the Texas Observer, a venerable news magazine where I’d published culture pieces for years, I accepted. I may not have known anything about anything, but I knew that folks with a fresh MFA don’t turn down steady work (roughly) in their field. The editor assured me I’d figure out how to do hard news, and I did.

But it was rough. The learning curve was exciting, but the content was brutal. I’m an artistic soul. I have written poems about seeing a moth drowned in standing bath water. PoemS. PLURAL. Being a good journalist meant really learning how badly state government and big business treat people who already have it worst, and how nasty, bad, callous, cynical, stupid, negligent, reckless, obdurate, contemptible, ignorant and unrepentant the people who run said government and business really are. It’s hard for me to say that I used to be a journalist because I think it’s like being an alcoholic in some ways. Being that thing changes you in ways that don’t reverse, the temptation to return is always there, and it takes years for your liver to recover. Quantifying the world’s meanness, and getting to know it intimately–not in a big “the president is a dick” way, but like, sitting across from the harm-doers, and then sitting across from the harmed–hurts. I cried every day of that job for the first six months. That’s not an exaggeration. Good days I only cried once. But it was every single day, including weekends. From stress, grief, rage, frustration with my ineptitude, frustration with theirs–every day. I had nightmares every night and woke up every morning drenched in sweat. I lost so much weight from stress that a friend asked in earnest whether I was doing meth. But I stuck with it, and one major reason was that I thought any day now, I would get pregnant and at some point in the process I’d know it was okay to quit. Not okay per anyone else, of course. Okay for me, to me. I would be justified in letting go of the beautiful job that was making me miserable but also teaching me about the world and giving me a chance to help and bringing in my first decent paycheck and giving me a good answer to the question, “What are you up to now?” and, most importantly, staying the hand of the taskmaster in my mind, the one on whose whip is printed, “What are you doing with your life?”

As you can imagine, my friends noticed the toll of all this, and also, they had to deal with hearing about whatever I was working on. So when my editor asked me to come up with a name and subject for a blog, my buddy suggested T.O.B.B., the Texas Observer Baby Blog. It was to be nothing but cute pictures of babies. For perspective. For mental health. Because while ignoring or denying suffering and injustice is an unbalanced way to view the world, so is ignoring kindness and goodness and well-being, the absence of suffering, the prevention of harm, the streets safely crossed, the planes landed without incident, the good dates, the just judges, the bad ideas quietly quashed and lovingkindness manifested out of habit.

So it took five years, but here we are.

IMG_0378

What a nice place to be.

The Benji Dance

Writing about identity from a place of this much privilege takes a lot of gall. The luxury of asking what one “is” and what one “should” be doing–as if there were an arbiter, as if someone were going to take up my test at any moment and mark with a red pen each place where I didn’t do what I was “supposed” to–suggests an intrinsic significance to my life that I do not intellectually or philosophically think it has. Unless there is a book in which every other human life is also assigned an identity and purpose, and a whole hell of a lot of them are called to, say, die in childhood of preventable diseases, then it makes no sense to wrack my little brain over my calling. But here I am again, hunched over the test paper I wrote myself, scribbling and erasing answers, flinching at each shadow at the door. When is time up? Did I do it right? How about now?

That was how I lived for 36 years, and then I had Benji. Instantly, the test was real but for the first time, the task was clear and the arbiter was present. If he’s fine, I’m fine. That’s it. I remember a friend carrying his toddler into the back yard of a shitty old house where we lived for the year before Benji, and this friend, a tall guy, slammed his forehead against the inexplicably low porch roof. I knew how much it hurt because we’d all done it a few times, but he didn’t swear or shout. In fact, he barely reacted, except to say in a measured tone, with his hand on the back of his son’s head, “It’s okay. The baby’s okay, and that’s what matters.” I was surprised then. I get it now.

As I write all this in the stilted, wordy way I write when I’m nervous and out of practice, the editor in my mind has her eyebrow arched. “Hmmmm?” she says. “So having a baby relieved you of the burden of figuring out what to do with your life?” No, I say. It just gave me something to care about besides myself. “Oh?” she says. “So children are more important than the women who have them?” No, I mean– “They’re not?” Her lipstick line is very crisp. “Who has more agency? They didn’t ask to be born you know–” OKAY STOP. I won’t write a damn thing if I have to answer to the entire Jezebel comments section every time I have a thought. The bottom line is, yeah, when Benji was born, another Emily was too. I’ve always only been Emily the writer, and she is a fundamentally uncomfortable person because she has never known what she was supposed to be doing but she has always been sure she could have been doing it better and more. (A triumvirate of my college professors raise one finger and say in unison, “That’s true.”) Now Benji’s here and I’m Emily the mom, and it rules. You understand? It’s freaking great. Because I know what I’m doing. I keep him safe and happy and fed and I make sure he feels loved and safe so his little neurons prune themselves in such a way that he’ll be somewhat insulated from the hereditary anxiety disorder I have unquestionably passed on to him in some degree. He laughs and I’m happy, you get it? I’m present in that moment, and I’m happy. You know how hard it is for me to be present? But blammo, with him, I am. That’s worth rebuilding your world around.

“Okay,” says me circa 2002, swiveling her chair around. God, her skin looks great. “So why the blog?” She’s got an Audre Lorde poster over her shoulder. “Why are you sequestered in the guest room, hearing your beloved, world-bending baby squall at your mother instead of running to him? If he completes you and makes you feel so present and justified, if his smile puts pressure on the old wound, why the new blog?”

Because Emily the writer is still here, too. She is so happy to take a backseat. She could never satisfy all the judges. But she is still here. And maybe if the pressure is off, maybe she could become a sort of assistant to Emily the mother. Make notes, explore questions. Take their shared brain out to the park and run it each day so it won’t get too pent up and tear down the curtains. But nothing has to come of it, you see. It doesn’t have to be right. The things I write don’t have to be true for everyone else, or anyone else. They can just be mine. It can just be practice. But it has to be every day, even if short, and it has to be public, or else there’s no accountability and I won’t do it.

“You’re making a mistake,” says 2013 me. “You have nothing to add. You are a middle class white woman of extraordinary privilege writing about her insecurities. The world does not need this.”

“You’re really committed to wasting your talent, aren’t you?” sighs the Greek chorus of professors. “There are plenty of real things you could be addressing besides your feelings.”

“That’s sexist,” says the Jezebel commenter. “But seriously, a mommy blog?”

“It’s okay,” says a girl’s voice. It’s me, age ten. I take my own hand. “You don’t have to have a reason. And nobody has to read it. And if they do, they don’t have to like it. Just… write because if you don’t, you’ll never know what you were going to say. Okay?”

Okay.