this was a submission to a blog post asking about “mothering outside of the margins.” it wasn’t accepted for publication, but hey, it’s the internet, anyone can publish.
The act of becoming a mother, which involves nearly a year of wonderful discomfort, capped with certainly the most common great physical pain our bodies can know, is simple compared to mothering.
My wife Robyn and I spent a year or two trying to figure out how to answer the question “how many kids do you have?”
What normal people call polite conversation, the blandest of exploratory “oh, we’re talking to each other now” material, is explosive depth for us. Here’s how it goes, almost every time…
“Hello, good to meet you. You from Tampa?”
“We grew up in Seattle, but we’ve been here 12 years now, [insert cheesy joke about Florida being hot, Seattle being cooler, and us now being used to it.]”
“Yeah, 12 years. I’m one of the ones who actually thinks marriage is amazing, but of course is also work.”
And that’s where it always gets weird.
Eventually, we settled on “we’ve had three, we’ve lost two.” Six words that beg for explanation, yet give people the grace to step out if they have to (depending which person you are, you may be surprised at how many prefer to back out at that point with a feigned “oh, sorry to hear it.”)
It started rather picturesque, I suppose. My wife (the subject of this essay, which is about mothering, after all) came into a cell phone store I was working at, needing a phone. She was stuck in her contract, and I couldn’t get her a deal, but thought she was beautiful, so I offered to bring one of my “personal stock” to her work later that week. This was an obvious ploy to find out where she worked, and a week later we had our first date.
She was impressed that I tipped well. Robyn’s mom had been a waitress for several years after her dad died of cancer when she was 9 – teaching her from an early age the value of hard work, intimacy with grief, and life insurance. I somehow convinced her (and – with a little bit more difficulty – got her mother’s blessing) to move to Florida with me, where my family had moved the year before. After a year of living in Florida, we got married. We rented an apartment near some water, started getting used to the new place, and then Robyn was pregnant.
He was beautiful, Ezra was, and born absolutely healthy. Who Robyn was changed the moment she first held him, and I suspect the moment she first knew he was growing inside her. She has said often, “I was never sure what I wanted to be, and motherhood felt perfect.” Hilarious, sarcastic, witty, and with a unique ability to find people’s intention buried in their words, she had never felt quite fulfilled until she saw Ezra’s face. Held his hand. A year later, when they told us he had neuroblastoma cancer, the fierceness of her motherhood grew again.
That first year with Ezra, before we’d ever heard the word neuroblastoma, seems dreamy in my memories, almost like someone else lived it. I worked from home, and had no set hours. We’d stay up late with Ezra, wake up at 10 or 11 in the morning, and marveled the same as any parent as he discovered ants, our dog, dancing, and laughter. We refreshed our view of the world through his eyes, surrounded by friends, young and brilliantly naïve and happy in a way I hope everyone gets a chance to feel. Robyn had Ezra on a great schedule quickly, breastfed without any significant issues, and spent hours exploring the world with him, teaching him joy and curiosity. I felt honored to witness it, like when you haven’t really seen the stars for a long while, and finally get to a place where the city light’s don’t blot them out, and you say “oh – that’s what that should look like. Wow.”
Robyn took a pregnancy test the day Ezra started chemo. Our friend Lindsay brought it to her – I have no idea how she separated pregnancy signs from the shock of your firstborn being diagnosed with cancer and starting chemo, but she did, and she was right.
A few weeks later we found out it was twins.
Watching Robyn mother Ezra is one of the marvels I have witnessed. I am not (I hope) one of those bumbling fathers who can’t figure it out and simply leaves the children to the mom to raise. But I often felt like one while watching Robyn’s constant confidence, even while exhausted, even while they told us our son had a 60% chance at life, even while she carried two more sons as they told her this. I know, from many conversations with her, that she felt broken, scared, and weak as often as I did, but watching her mother Ezra you’d never have known this. She got him.
When they put her on hospitalized bed rest at 24 weeks with the twins, I could see how crushing it was for her. Ezra was getting radiation at the time, so I’d bring him to one hospital early in the morning, he’d get anesthesia and radiation, and when we finished I’d drive him over to another hospital, where Robyn was on bed rest. This lasted two weeks. The twins were born via emergency C-section at 26 weeks – Robyn’s second C-section, our 2nd and 3rd sons.
The smaller of the two, Price Nicholas, lived one week in the NICU before the complications of being born so early meant he was the first son we lost. Written on both her and mine arms is his birth weight; 1lb130z. I sang a song at his funeral, which Robyn helped me pick out.
Charley Adin, with many of the same issues, would spend 7 months in the NICU. The first time our family was all in the same building was at All Children’s Hospital in St Pete, FL. Charley, on the 6th floor in the NICU, Ezra on the 7th in the HemOnc (hematology oncology) unit getting stem cell transplant. We’d split our time between floors – between kids.
Robyn’s heart was full with Ezra. She knew him. I’ve seen lots of moms, and many who are great. Maybe everyone thinks their partner is a great mom… I don’t know, this isn’t about everyone. What I know is Robyn is a dragon mom – she is fierce. She is fire and strength. She loved Ezra fully, and just after he turned 2, when he died, a part of Robyn did too.
They told us in the NICU one visit, about Charley, “he’s going to come home soon, and that’s when it will really get hard.” That person had no idea our whole story, and Robyn simply broke into tears. He did come home, a month and a half before Ezra died, but we had already left to try and get Ezra on a clinical trial in Orlando. Charley’s first couple months of life were without us – Robyn’s mom Vivian lived in our Tampa home for that whole time, while Robyn and I fought for Ezra’s life 70 miles away. We were not victorious.
Although she eventually loved him first, it was hard for either of us to connect to Charley. I guess I’m not saying that right – we loved him, in the way of knowing he was ours and we must protect him and strive to connect to him… but neither of us could connect to him. Carrying our freshly gaping wound of losing Ezra, of 13 months of war against cancer, of failing, of crushing loss, Charley was more a collection of medical issues than a son. It took him months to smile. More months to laugh. While everyone else’s kids were learning to laugh, Charley was learning to breathe.
We had 24 hour nursing in the home for two years. Or somewhere toward the end of that it started lessening (18 hours… 12 hours…). Charley’s diagnosis is mild cerebral palsy – he’s also primarily fed through a G-tube, although now that he’s nearly 8, that’s starting to change. He has had a lifetime of checkups, syringes, surgeries, tubes and medications. And everywhere he goes, he hands out smiles to everyone who knows his name, which is everyone. Let’s be honest – he smiles at the ones who don’t know him too.
Mothering Charley was hard. It meant picking up grief and carrying it on her back, while knowing she felt very little of that same joy Ezra had brought toward Charley, yet also knowing it was there, and she had to push for it. Eventually, Robyn found that love for Charley. She found him. And she pulled me alongside, too, to find him.
Again, she is fierce, a dragon mom. Robyn has spent thousands of hours on phones, in offices, with doctors and therapists and educators and other advocates, pushing not only for Charley’s independence and understanding, but that of kids like him. She constantly makes sure I am active and included – part of her mothering being recognizing the value of close fathering.
I can see Robyn’s mothering in the way Charley approaches the world – confident of his timing (which is slower than many people’s), curious, and caring. He’ll have a 20 minute conversation about whether we should help the man we drove by who is homeless, full of insight grown adults don’t have about how we should help when we can. But if we walk by that person, he’ll spend that same amount of time sitting with them. He’ll introduce himself, ask questions, and share about himself. He is equally intrigued by a “typical” woman working security at the hospital as he is by the 13 year old in the wheelchair in the waiting room with him.
In Charley’s approach to life, Robyn’s mothering is tangible. She always says he’s magic, and years ago said “I can’t force him to my time. I have to slow down to his time, and be there in each moment.” She has taught me so much, and she is raising a boy who will become a man you’d like to know.
We have had three sons, and we have lost two. Robyn is, to this day, mother to each of them.