by Peggy O’Mara
As part of Mothering’s 30th-anniversary celebration, Tanya Taylor Rubinstein, artistic director of LifePerformances, produced an evening of monologues on the universal topic of mothering. The performance was a benefit for Many Mothers, a nonprofit group in Santa Fe that provides free postpartum care to new mothers. Tanya asked me to do one of the monologues because she wanted to know more about my own story as a mother.
Mothering: The Monologues debuted at the Armory for the Arts in Santa Fe on May 13. Six other women and I performed autobiographical monologues about experiences related to motherhood. I’d like to share with you the monologue that I performed.
I fell in love with him because of his smile and I wanted that smile to shine on me forever. We were looking for the same things then: a farm, babies, a life that made sense. We wasted no time getting pregnant, outside in the backyard of our farmhouse. The farm was on two acres and cost $17,000. We could barely afford the $250 monthly mortgage payment—or much else—so we put our cash in labeled envelopes to make sure that it would last.
Our farm was in La Luz, in southern New Mexico, surrounded by desert. We had an orchard and we canned the fruit and put it in the root cellar, and I won a blue ribbon for my canned cherries at the Otero County Fair. We had goats, chickens, ducks, geese, a lone turkey. From time to time, the goats would get loose from the barn and run through the orchard, biting snips of leaves from the fruit trees as we chased them.
The goats gave birth a couple of months before our first child, Lally, was born. More than perhaps anything else, it was the goats that gave me confidence in my own ability to give birth. I woke up one morning in May and there they were: two baby goats. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just another day.
I figured if the goats could do it, so could I.
On the last day of June, my water broke to a thunderstorm at dusk as I sat on our bed on the porch. It began to rain. I had invited way too many friends to the birth and none of them were midwives. Maggie and Veronica wanted to be midwives and had delivered their own babies, but they lived 100 miles away and never made it to the birth. Eventually everyone went home or fell asleep. I sat alone having contractions in the middle of the night as I watched a mouse run across the floor.
After a six-hour pushing stage, we didn’t know what to do, so we went to the hospital. I begged for them not to strap down my hands and feet and asked to take my baby’s placenta home. I was accused of trying to be just like my grandmother.
It was because of these kinds of things that we delivered each other’s babies then. There were no midwives. There was no Internet. My husband, John, and I delivered Marlo, Marsh, and Lelaña—our friends’ babies—before we realized that we had no idea what we were doing.
I was in an ecstasy of babies then. I was on a long prolactin high. No one told me about this. No one told me that I would feel like a wild animal ready to kill or be killed at a moment’s notice, with no hesitation at all, right now, for my baby.
I would sit on the bed at night nursing Lally and imagine a lion jumping through the window. I would plan how to kill him. I would tear him limb from limb. I knew that no matter what, my baby would survive.
My first children were born in that house in La Luz. I was so happy there. In those days I couldn’t see the obstacles that lay ahead. I didn’t know that the smiles would fade, that the marriage would end. I didn’t know that I would give birth to a baby with a birth defect, a cleft lip and palate.
The hardest thing I have ever done was to carry my three-month-old, blue-eyed baby boy in my arms to the doors of the operating room to have his lip repaired, to give him up to strangers, and then to see him come back hours later changed, the same baby but not the same. A different baby. To bring him to the operating room again at 16 months. At 11 years. Bram’s best friend, Elijah, almost fainted when he saw how he looked right after the last surgery.
It was at Brammie’s first birthday party that Addie asked me if I wanted to buy the magazine. She told me about her dream in which she passed the torch to me. Of course I wanted to buy the magazine. I had always wanted to, but I had no idea how. I went to the Small Business Administration to borrow the $5,000 she wanted as a down payment, but they didn’t loan to publications. I went to the bank and showed the loan officer a financial statement that was $60,000 in the red while my three children under five played in the ashtrays.
I didn’t get the loan.
Neither my father nor my cousin agreed to loan me the $5,000, and after Bram’s birth, we had no savings left. So I reluctantly told Addie that I couldn’t come up with the down payment and gave up the idea of buying the magazine. I was happy to be “just a mom.”
Addie sold the magazine to someone else, to a Canadian couple, and had already shipped all the Mothering files to Ohio when the deal fell through. She called me as we were in the middle of moving out of our house to ask if I still wanted to buy the magazine. This time I got on the phone and convinced her dad that we were a good enough risk even without the down payment, and he wrote a contract that made sure that we would be.
In January of 1980 John and I became the owners of Mothering. I remember the dress I was wearing, the moment after we signed the papers in an office building in Albuquerque. Except for births and weddings, it was the happiest day of my life.
It was because of the magazine that I saved Nora’s life. It was because of the things that I had learned when I was researching and preparing issue no. 20, a special on self-care. It was because of the letter to the editor from the reader whose baby was brain-damaged because of spinal meningitis. She accused Mothering of being one-sided, too anti-doctor. Her letter troubled me. I wondered if she was right. Her letter made me watchful as five-month-old Nora, my youngest child, got sicker and sicker.
“She’s not the same baby,” seven-year-old Finnie said when he looked at her. She was ashen. She didn’t have a high fever, but she was not herself. And, the fontanel on the top of her head was pulsating.
In one of the books that I’d read for the self-care special, Taking Care of Your Child, I kept coming up with references to meningitis whenever I looked up Nora’s symptoms. I called my pediatrician’s office, and the nurse assured me that it was just a flu that was going around.
A chiropractor friend adjusted Nora’s neck, and as we left his office, she cried in a strange, high-pitched way that I recognized from my vaccine research as the cephalic cry. By the next day she was refusing to nurse, and when we listened to her heartbeat with a stethoscope, it was irregular. I had read in Taking Care of Your Child that an irregular heartbeat was a danger sign, so we rushed Nora to the urgent-care center, where we were told: Go right now to the hospital. Don’t stop for red lights.
Our doctor met us there, immediately gave Nora a spinal tap, and said that she had just developed meningitis—even though I now realized that this is what she had had for days.
He told us that she might die. The perimeter of that room and the tone of his voice will be vivid in my mind forever: the room seemed dark and his voice far away. A huge steel trap went shut in my mind when he said those words. It would not happen. I would not let it happen. I would will it not to happen. Nora would not die.
So I camped by her crib in the pediatric intensive care unit, where the doctors and nurses took Nora’s vital signs every 15 minutes. I wept as I pumped my breastmilk. I wept not only because of the danger Nora was in, but because I feared that—like Bram after his first surgery—she would never nurse again. I prayed over her incessantly.
After three days she began to come back, and by the fourth day she was nursing again. We moved into a private room for another week and, days before Christmas 1982, we went home.
John, Lally, Finnie, and Bram met us in the orange Volvo station wagon with a song they had made up on the way there, set to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”: “Oh, bring us a Mama/Nora, Oh, bring us a Mama/Nora. Oh, bring us a Mama/Nora. Oh, bring them right now!
Later, the doctor told me that Nora would always be my “upper respiratory child,” but in fact she appears to have suffered no ill effects from the meningitis.
. . . .
In the early 1980s, when I’d just bought the magazine, my father would ask why I printed the “naked pictures.” At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then I realized that he meant the birth photos. My mom simply hid the magazine in a basket under a pile of other magazines until her friends started telling her how cool it was. Then she put Mothering on her coffee table.
Growing up, I lived in 45 houses. I wanted my children to grow up in one home. They have. My home is the kind of place where we can let down our hair, get rowdy, fall apart. The home I have made for my children is a place where we can talk about anything, where we have old friends over for barbecues and my children know that I will take care of things, know that I will be there, that I will stand by them no matter what.
This is the kind of home I have made. This is where I have lived for 22 years. I feel lonely here sometimes. I feel wonder here. Mostly, I just feel grateful. This is the home that I have made for my children. This is where they have grown up. This is where I have grown up too.
Peggy O’Mara is the mother of four grown children. She has gained international celebrity as publisher, editor and owner of Mothering Magazine. She is also the author of four books: Having a Baby Naturally: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting, The Way Back Home: Essays on Life and Family, and A Quiet Place: Essays on Life and Family, all of which can be purchased in the Mothering Shop. A dynamic speaker, she has lectured and conducted workshops in conjunction with organizations such as the Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche International, and Bioneers. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has been featured in national publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Mother Earth News, and Utne Reader.
Read Peggy O’Mara’s editorials for philosophical information and practical advice about Natural Family Living