On motherhood, generational martyrdom, and choice.
By Antonia Welsch
My memories of my mom are of a thin-lipped woman sitting across from me at the doctor’s office holding her spiral notebook of my symptoms. She would sit quietly, lost in her own thoughts, waiting for the next diagnosis, or run of prescriptions, or newfangled machine I would have to breathe through.
I was born with limited lung capacity, and every sniffle I got as a kid, every cough and cold, turned into severe bronchial asthma. My gasping for breath kept us both up more nights than I can count. I didn’t understand how serious it all was until later. Or how tired my mom must have been. I was just a kid, swinging my legs against the examination table, hoping to get French fries after the appointment.
Recently my son’s cold turned into a cough, which turned into a wheeze, which turned into a seven-day ordeal with three doctors, a nebulizer, and sleepless nights strung in a row. We were back in urgent care again, for what I hoped would be the last emergency for a while.
I looked down at my iPhone where I had typed my notes: “3 days green mucous. Temp. Wheezing. Cough worsens in evening. Wakes self up. Difficulty with nebulizer. Eggs. Milk. Formula. Strawberries. Toilet Paper.” There was something else we needed from the store. What was it? I don’t know. I didn’t sleep at all last night. Or I did, but only for 90 minutes. I was breathless with exhaustion. My bones ached. I lost focus of my list and stared blankly at my hands. The cold of winter had dried them out, making them look much older and more worn than I had noticed before.
In a rush it all came back to me. My mom. The endless waiting rooms. Her grim expression. The sleepless nights coughing. Me hooked up to an ancient nebulizer that was so loud it shook the floor.
It was the same. These hands were her hands. My expression was her expression. This exhaustion, hers passed down. I hadn’t breathed or smiled or showered in a week. And there I sat, every fiber of my being worried and frayed, waiting for the next step. The next to-do. Not a second for joy or rest until my child was well. I had given everything I had and there was nothing left.
I once heard someone say the only choice we have, from one generation to the next, is just to try to do better. It won’t ever be perfect. Our children will always find faults and issues and there will be mistakes. But we must simply learn and try. That’s all we have. My mom had a tremendously caring heart, but she gave too much away. She didn’t keep anything for herself until her nerves were shot and her spirit depressed. She spent years just getting through day by day because she was empty. The well had run dry. In many ways, this cycle broke her.
Henry and I got home from the doctor about an hour later, and he went down easily for his nap. I crawled into bed and grabbed a notebook. I started to draw circles. The way I figured it, I had to start moving in smaller circles. If I hadn’t checked off the four at the center — sleep, nutrition, peace and quiet, and hygiene — I couldn’t move on to anything in the outer circles. No cleaning. No chores. No “it has to get done.” No “pass go.” The stuff on in the outer layers was all good and important, but I couldn’t do any of it unless a foundation was there. I had to carve out a life that was sustainable.
When I was done I looked at what I had drawn. The emotion that had been lodged in my throat bubbled up as big tears that rolled down my cheeks. “I’m doing it,” I thought. This time, I looked proudly at my worn hands. There are no rules in this game. Just the urge to learn and try again. I set down my spiral notebook and promptly fell asleep.