Middle Passage

First appeared in “Three Ring Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work, and Family”. Edited by Dawn Comer Jefferson and Rosanne Welch. Foreword by James P. Comer, M.D. Published by Seal Press, 2004.

I am neither here nor there. I am neither mother nor writer. I am neither wife nor girlfriend. I am stuck in a netherland of in-betweens. It is a terrible place to spend one’s days. When I think about what it is I want, I am struck by how little of what I wanted makes any sense now. My ambitions of the garret apartment in Paris, the sidewalk bistro with my copy of Fitzgerald and notebook as companion, seem like the far-fetched dreams of the old woman’s wish to dance with the Rockettes.

No one told me motherhood was supposed to feel so elastic. The daily tugging and releasing seems to be gathering speed now. Every morning I awake, hoping the elastic band has expanded to the breaking point, releasing the tension with a snap. I hold on to the belief that once the band is merely shredded rubber, my new life will feel more natural.

I remind myself to enjoy the moments, however fleeting. And every so often when I am down on all fours making faces at my child, who responds with a beatific smile, a stab of pleasure pierces my cloudy brain, reminding me this was no mistake. This pinprick of joy is too quickly replaced by so many questions. Doubts about my mothering instinct haunt me each time I notice a blemish on my child’s skin with no idea of how or why it got there. The only security is in taking my child’s temperature three, four, five times a day.

The desire to flee crops up at unexpected moments, the panic building, stamping out any semblance of rational thought. But to flee would mean miss seeing my child’s face light up when I say his name. Or the way his hand reaches out and grabs at my face, as if he could take a piece of me with him. Little does he know he has already taken such a large chunk …it’s just that he won’t know how much until it will most likely be too late.

Again, neither here nor there. Just stuck in this middle passage. Interesting those two words, middle passage. They conjure up such a tragic place, those forbidding, sinister ships of the slave trade bobbing and bending, desperate to get across the treacherous vast expanse of water. Lives being expended both above and below decks.

Old friends, who might have described me as independent, driven, curious, now see this new fractured person as fragile, unreachable. My drive to make all the puzzle pieces of words, commas, periods into coherent expressions of my emotional life, is no longer in the present tense. Bonds, which seemed impenetrable, forged over glasses of wine, sharing in life’s ups and downs, now seem tenuous, ephemeral. They have the fuzzy quality of an old family photograph of relatives from the Old country, whose clothes, hairstyles and even postures seem dated and quaint.

Phone conversations are now stilted, one-sided. I find myself deflecting questions concerning me, or worse, my work. I am at a loss to share my world, days metered out by my child’s naps. Or how those few brief minutes or sometimes an hour are filled with the sound of my breath being exhaled in relief and exhaustion. And how I barely muster the energy to sit down at the computer, only to hear the faint cries of my waking child grow louder and louder. Fear of being judged as irrational or crazy prevents me from revealing my desire to ignore his cries, as if blocking out the building crescendo from his room can restore the order of my previous life.

New friends, those with strollers feel more reassuring. The diverse group, drawn together by the experience of new motherhood, forges instantaneous intimacies like war veterans whose engagement in bloody battles erase all the lines of division found in their everyday lives. My not so kind judgements about “stay at home” moms evaporates as quickly as the lone ice cube floating in a glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. In the end, even these friendships seem fragile, elastic. Nothing seems certain. Change seems to be the only constancy as our babies evolve daily. I try to picture sharing first birthdays and perhaps even a second, a third too ideal to imagine. My longing to connect with another mother, who also shares in a private world of in-between, propels me down the street of motherhood. Each face I seek makes me wonder if this will be the one who will share this walk with me for the long haul or just the length of this city block.

As I push my child in his stroller, barely able to observe everyday life as it swirls and lifts around me, I notice only those women with children. And how few of them are the mother of the child they are pushing. Although all of us are out for a stroll to pass the time between naps, a gulf separates me from these women whose job is to push the four-wheel contraption around our neighborhood. I notice that my child’s cinnamon colored skin resembles these women more than my own, bringing up all my previous doubts about raising a biracial child. How will I help him maneuver a world as African-American and Korean? I cannot help but wonder if my child will forever pay for our selfishness by living a lifetime of in-between, straddling both cultures, colors and never wholly adopting one or the other, his experience so alien to me and my husband.

Again neither here nor there. Just in between. The elasticity of my life expands once my child is asleep for the night. The long tussle between motherhood and my writing life, such a constant during the day, comes to a quiet finish as I allow myself these evening hours to try and recapture my drive for my work.

I sacrifice adult conversation with my husband, who’s barely home in time to read our son his bedtime story, for a stolen hour in front of my computer. I can see the resentment and disappointment in my husband’s eyes as I try to shut out the reality of my life for the created reality of my work. Resentment seems to have replaced affection between us now.

The sentence that had unexpectedly come to mind as I was changing my son’s diaper, is now elusive, one word coming to my mind, nothing more. Still, to give up trying to retrieve even a thread of that line is to give up my identity as writer. An identity, which becomes more precious each day you are seen by others as just a mother, an identity I’ve been conditioned to view as second class. Although I understand how motherhood has been devalued unjustly, I still find it impossible to accept that this could, should be the most significant accomplishment in my life. I am enraged to realize that no one expects my husband to define his life so singularly.

What I thought had been a flash of brilliance, which had reassured me during the hundredth diaper change, now stares back at me in all of its self-indulgence. Secretly I wonder if I shouldn’t give up this writing business altogether and totally succumb to the world of strollers, Mommy and Me and endless afternoons at the park. I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier. Or would I find myself like one of those women, who end up on an afternoon talk show, frustrated and angry, realizing they had settled for a life that had seemed full of promise, but is now compromised, unsatisfying. But in the end, their disappointments are existential, much more universal that befalls each of us, regardless of whatever choices made.

I enter our kitchen where my husband is eating his dinner alone with the television as companion. In the past, our enjoyment of these few hours before bedtime was the glue which had kept our marriage intact despite the demands of two careers and two divergent ambitions. Somehow we had been able to meld his life of structure with my more amorphous existence into a form that seemed wholly unadulterated. Our cockiness about our marriage had allowed me to live three thousand miles away for two plus years, single minded in my pursuit of my work. The two people who had reveled in the autonomy our marriage provided shadow this new couple, whose lives are dangerously intertwined, autonomy replaced by heavy burdens. The apparition of our former selves idealized each day our life morphs into a shape that is unrecognizable, taunts us like a mirage in the vast Sahara. I can’t help but wonder if we will suffer the fate of most marriages in our world, divorced, shuffling our child back and forth, each house with identical bedroom furniture to make him feel less displaced in this new in-between family life.

Again neither here nor there. Just in between. I wonder if he, too, is living his days in a netherworld of not unlike my own. Neither a father nor lawyer. Neither a man nor boy. Neither a husband nor a boyfriend. Just in between. I sometimes imagine him driving past our home, needing time to decompress from a day where telephone calls and faxes are the measuring stick for success and failure. A world where a silent phone signals a death toll far louder than the shrieking siren of the ambulance. And a world where his after work life as a new father is never shared with others, too revealing in all of its messiness and complications. Where his growing fatigue is masked behind yet another cup of coffee and hyper bravado that his life is perfect.

As he circles our neighborhood, the drive affords him control of his life, something that becomes more impossible each day. Perhaps he turns on a Run DMC CD on ten, the familiar bass of the music reminding him of his days when rap music helped to express his place in the world as angry, black, militant, bristling against the privileges of an Ivy League education. His fury channeled into his black fraternity and rap show on the campus radio station. I wonder if his new role as a father has depleted his anger, or if it was all neatly folded away to put the world at ease. With his music blaring, tie slung over one shoulder, his head bopping to the bass coming from the speakers of his European sport coupe, I imagine the rest of the world looking at his effort to recapture his youth with amusement and empathy.

His loneliness with his new life is palpable each time he answers the phone to another telemarketer. Invitations for a beer from his friends, most who are childless, have ceased. His few ventures out with the husbands of my new mommy friends are awkward, filled with forced laughter about the chaos of our new lives. He is unable to test these new friendships, trying it on for size as one would a new suit, for fit and comfort. Every bit of the disastrous lunch signals this would not be repeated.

His confidence and boyish swagger are now replaced by the weight of tremendous responsibilities for his new family. The dark suits, which used to look awkward on his boyish frame, now fit his serious demeanor. His easy laugh is no longer so easy or frequent. His ability to crack a joke to dispel a tense moment has also disappeared, his emotional outbursts unnerving to us both.  I can’t help but notice a new spray of gray in his closely shaved head. He seems to have aged since our child’s arrival. Each night he arrives home, his eyes plead with our son for some recognition as he kisses his moist cheek. The nakedness of that look crushes every morsel of resentment I’ve had all day to collect. But too quickly, his cursory peck on my cheek reinforces all of my disappointment with his humanness and frailties.

Each time he struggles with the zillion pieces to a new toy, I see his assurance being sanded down another layer, stripping away the defense he’s built up through the course of his life. Every task of caring for our son, bath time, diaper changes, feedings, brings out a new vulnerability. Our child’s cries of protest reveal a rawness that ignites my own fears about his ability to protect his young family from all the world’s dangers new parenthood seems to expose in all of its grittiness. I wonder how he is able to gather his tattered confidence each day to face a world where insecurity spells failure, especially for a man of color.

The rational part of my brain recognizes it is not his fault he gets to leave for his office, where I imagine all sorts of interesting things to take place. Funny, how his office has now taken on mythic proportions of intellectual stimulation and freedom; an office that in the past had been not unlike a physical and mental prison for me, the writer happy at home with just a computer, her books, but more importantly, her solitude. I imagine all the impromptu conversations in doorjambs where he exercises his intellectual muscle with a peer, all of this far from the reality of his days where conversation among coworkers exist in coded business language, problem solving crisis after crisis.

In the past, I had relished the fact he left each day to spend twelve hours in a building that looked as if it were constructed entirely of glass. Those twelve hours were precious to my independence, but more importantly to my work. Now, the hours between his departure and arrival are no longer the bookends to my freedom, but instead are now imprisoning.

Again neither here nor there. Just in between. We have not yet crossed over into the territory of matrimony where all conversations evolve around children and the scheduling of car rides to games and birthday parties. And yet, we’ve lost the ability to recapture the effortless flow of silences and words that had made us smug in the certainty of our marital bonds. Instead, unspoken words, taboo words, hurtful words, seem to be building between us. The suppressed words, all impressively stacked, resembling the Great Wall of China, engulf the entirety of the kitchen. Whatever words manage to escape come out in spurts, making them sound like accusations. Even the simple question, “How was your day?” is now loaded with too much subtext of who’s day is harder. Neither of us recognizes this new bruised person. Both of us wonder if we will ultimately still love one another or if our previous belief in our marriage was the folly of two selfish people who believed that marriage was simply an extension of our individual needs and wants and nothing more.

Car rides, a favorite pastime where we allowed our floating thoughts to direct heartfelt talks, are now filled with tension. Somehow the confined space of the car with the cityscape flying past provided an intimacy far greater than in our own bedroom. But now the slightest whimper from our child rattles to the core of our marriage. Too many outings end up with a tearful ride home, where our child magically stops crying the minute the car pulls into our garage.  In the past, both of us would have recognized how ridiculous to overreact to a few whimpers and shrieks. But now, both of us too exhausted by these months fail to see the humor in the many intrinsic ironies of parenthood. Again, neither here nor there.  Just in-between.

Exhausted by our day and from the effort of not giving up on our shattered marriage, we get ready for bed quietly. As my body sinks into the mattress, I expel a small breath, which comes out like a sigh. My husband turns, question in his eyes. Unexpectedly, I run my hands over his smooth face, the well of love for him and for our child spilling over the frustration, fears, and exhaustion. I grab his face and kiss him, hoping my lips will elicit a memory when such a display of affection was unremarkable, but everyday. Satisfied, we both murmur “goodnight’. I turn over praying that tomorrow will be less elastic. And that our world of in-between will now feel less tenuous, more complete.