Not Less

“Damn, girl! Your pockets are full!” Someone shouted at me. I was walking into the mall with my brother. I was thirteen, maybe fourteen. My brother laughed.  Then he yelled something to him in my defense.

“What did he mean, my pockets are full?” I asked.

“He’s talking about your butt.” I lowered my head, ashamed. I weighed less than 100 pounds. I wasn’t embarrassed about my weight. I was mortified because a man had just rolled his window down and commented on my butt. And then he kept driving. It was nothing to him. I was nothing to him. He could say whatever he wanted to me, a girl. A child.

In college, I worked at bars. It didn’t matter what sort of uniform I wore, my body was fair game for unwanted comments, lewd stares, and unintentional intentional slips of the hand.

I remember one table in particular, a table full of men, ten or twelve, a baseball team. I was friendly and funny, and could come off as flirty sometimes. I was being myself: laughing, joking with my table, probably flirting, but also giving them good service because that was what I did, when one called me over.

“Hey, hun.  Come here for a minute.” I was always hun, or sweetie, or sugar, or darling. Never Mandi, which was clearly printed on my name tag.

I walked over to him. He started talking to me and eventually put his hand around my waist and pulled me closer, then a little closer. And then his hand went from my waist to my hip, from my hip to my butt, and then he cupped it. Like he was allowed. Like he didn’t have to ask. I grabbed his hand and put it on the table.

“No,” I said. He tried to laugh me off.

I looked him in the eye again and said, “No.”

He didn’t like that. Emasculated in front of his boys, he tried to rally his table to get angry with me, but they bowed their heads and pretended not to notice. Cowards. I didn’t go back to the table. The bartender served them their check. Twelve men, several beers, several appetizers, taking up most of my section for most of my shift and no tip. That didn’t matter, but I noticed.

An hour or so later when I left to go to my car, the bartender insisted on walking me out.

“You never know,” he said.

“I shouldn’t have flirted with them,” I said, blaming myself because that’s what we (women) do. Then I noticed the man was sitting in his pickup truck at the back of the parking lot where the staff parked, assumingly waiting for me. We made eye contact, and my body went straight into fight or flight mode.

I didn’t drive to my apartment that night. Instead, I hitched a ride with the bartender and slept on his couch. I never saw the man again, but I looked. Every single night, and I never walked to my car alone again. I also never wore shorts to work again even when it was 113 degrees outside.

Early this school year, I was walking home from dropping my kids off at their elementary school down the street from my house. I noticed a truck driving past me, slowly. I looked over thinking it was a parent that I knew, and then the man rolled down his window. “Nice…pants,” he said and smiled. I was wearing workout leggings.

I looked away. He more than likely had just dropped off his child(ren) at school and before 8 am thought it was appropriate to comment on my “pants.”  I immediately heard voices in my head saying, “Women really shouldn’t wear leggings. It’s only asking for attention.”

I’m not writing this because I have a high opinion of myself or of my pants. I’m writing this because I am a thirty-eight year old woman who still struggles with male privilege and the fact that men think it’s okay to comment on my body, on anyone’s body.

I’ve had a stalker and a handful of creepy encounters. I’ve, on more than one occasion, driven my car around town rather than home for fear of being followed. I have had unwanted hands touch my body in more places than I care to name. Fortunately, I have never been raped. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still scare the hell out of me, that I don’t walk with my keys between my fingers to my car. That I don’t notice every single person I pass, that I actually think about what I wear (leggings included) because I don’t want to provoke that kind of attention.

I argue with my family members who think I’m just some twisted liberal because I don’t think dress codes are fair. I talk to my conservative female friends about how locker-room talk and what so and so said are two completely different things. I write about rapists going home when they should stay in jail. I tell my daughter that she’s strong and brave and that she can do anything. And yet, I still look over my shoulder, and blame myself every single time I get some unwanted attention.

And this is the problem with everything that we are talking about today.

Because it’s not about men vs. women. It’s not about all men being dirty perverts or all women asking for it. It’s about a choice few who think this kind of stuff is okay, and the cowards at the table who aren’t sticking up for what is right, the same ones who are questioning that a problem even exists.

This election season was ugly. On both sides, people continue to say things that are unfair and unjust and untrue. Just yesterday someone said to me that if a man grabbed me by the pussy, I would probably giggle, maybe even like it. This was in response to my defending the women who marched, and this is (only a tiny reason) why women who marched continue to have to defend why they marched.

They marched because some (Not all. Calm down.) think they are less. That we, women, are less, and therefore, they (some, still not all) can treat us as such. Less.

They marched because we are not less. (In the home, at the workplace, at the doctor’s office, on the street, in the bar, at the store, on Capitol Hill…anywhere.)

They marched because I have had this post in my drafts for over a year but have been too scared to post it. They marched for people like me, who were too afraid to march, and I thank them for it.

 

photo credit: The Boston Globe

photo credit: The Boston Globe

 

 

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The Darkest Night

You see, I wanted you long before I had you. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would lie awake in my bed and dream about holding your hand, how it would fit into mine, the softness of your skin. I saw your face in my mind looking back at me, the two of us walking in a field toward the sunset. You were mine. I was yours and nothing else existed. But us.

I planned for you. I thought of every possible scenario for us to explore, every adventure to conquer. I saw us riding bikes and hiking and swimming and laughing. I knew that you would fill the hole in my soul that was waiting for you, for only you.

And then it happened. I met you for the first time. My doctor announced, “It’s a boy!” I reached out my hands, and she placed you in my arms. And there it was, that giant empty space in my soul filled with seven pounds ten ounces of perfection. You cried. I cried, and thus began our journey of mother and son.

The first few hours were filled with oohs and awes and squeals and cries of all of the family coming to meet you. Everyone was excited but not surprised when they found out you were a boy. Constant traffic from friends and family distracted me from a sinking feeling deep inside myself. I held you and nursed you and kissed the soft fuzz on the top of your head, and I tried. I tried so hard to push the feelings away, to quiet the voices in my head, to ignore their screams.

That first night was exhausting. After a sleepless night before (labor and all), my body and my mind needed rest, but you had other plans. You wanted held and cuddled and nursed and mom, and you got it.

The sun was up before I realized it had set, and you were officially one day old. You slept most of the day, through more visitors and doctors and nurses, but I didn’t sleep. When I wasn’t entertaining friends and family, I was trying to control the hurricane building within me.

It started as pressure in my chest, that kind of pressure you feel when you’re about to write a really big check or when you’re about to give a speech to a large group of people. Your heart beats erratic, faster, and faster until you feel like it’s pounding so hard it might bounce right out of your chest. I recognized it, that sinking anxiety you feel before something bad happens.

I took deep breaths. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, but when my eyes were shut, the images came. Nothing worked.

I told your dad to go home that night, that I would sleep better without him there. He agreed, and then he was gone, and it was dark, and I was alone in my room.

The nurses convinced me earlier in the evening that it would be best for you to spend some time in the nursery. Looking back, I wonder if they could see it in my eyes, if they were trained to know that I was on the verge of breaking, or if they simply thought I looked tired. Either way, you left to the nursery. Dad left to go home, and I sat there in my hospital bed alone in the dark trying to block out the constant stream of images flashing in my head.

I hear you crying in the other room. I sit on the edge of my bed and bury my face in a pillow. I don’t want to hear you cry. I don’t want to hear you do anything. I want to run and leave you in your crib.

I stand over you in your baby bath. Your shiny chubby legs kick and splash the water. I sing “rubber ducky, you’re the one,” to you while I lift your body out and place you face down in the water.

You’re crawling around in the bar area of our home. Lucy barks to go outside. I open the sliding glass door. You start to crawl out, and I slam the door on your head and walk away.

I’m holding you in my arms, cradling you against my chest. I wear a bathrobe, and you are wrapped in the blanket my best friend gave me before you were born. You coo and smile up at me, and I smile back at you wrapping my free hand around the stainless steel butcher knife that I hold. I bring the knife up and….

I immediately hit the call button to the nurse’s station.

“Can I help you,” she said over the speaker.

“I need my baby. I need my baby now.”

“Okay ma’am. Do you need to nurse?”

“No. I need my baby right now.”

“Yes ma’am. We’ll page the nursery.”

I got out of my bed and walked around the room. I prayed over and over. “Please don’t let me hurt my baby. Please don’t let me hurt my baby.” I said to the empty space, “I love him. I love him more than anything. Please don’t let me hurt my baby.”

I shook my head back and forth convincing myself that I was wrong, that I wasn’t seeing what I knew I was seeing. My hands tensed at my side as I paced the cold tile floor barefoot. I could feel the crazed look in my eye without even seeing myself. Finally, a knock on my door.

“Come in,” I barked.

And there you were in your clear bassinet. Swaddled in a white blanket with a pastel striped beanie on your head, your mouth the perfect shape of a heart. The nurse looked at me concerned.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” she asked. I noticed she still had her hand on the bassinet where you lay.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “I just need my baby.”

“I can stay if you like?” she said in a question.

I shook my head and eyed her protective stance over my baby. My baby.

“No. I’d like to be alone with him.”

We stood there, she and I, neither willing to break the staring game.

I reached in and picked you up and pulled you into my chest. I glanced distrustful at the nurse. She nodded toward the bed.

“Why don’t you pull down your gown and put him under it. Let’s take off his shirt and let him be in his diaper. Sometimes it’s good for both mom and baby to have skin to skin contact.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and carried you toward the bed. I laid you down and unwrapped you from your swaddle and pulled the little  white t-shirt over your head. You reached your tiny hand up and wrapped it around my finger. I let you hold my finger as I used my free hand to unsnap my gown and pull you to my chest. You curled into me and started rooting at my collar bone, still holding my finger.

The nurse backed out of the room. When she reached the door, she whispered, “Honey, I am just outside if you need anything.”

Tears spilled down my cheeks. I buckled into a tsunami of emotions, love mixed with fear, mixed with joy, mixed with terror. I pulled the blanket up and tucked it behind my shoulder and held you there for the rest of the night, only breaking to nurse you when you were hungry or to change your diaper.

Each time we got back to our spot, I reached my finger out to let you wrap your hand around it, and we held on to one other, quietly promising each other not to let go, until we made it past that dark and terrifying night.

Yesterday we celebrated the day you were born. Every day you grow into an even more amazing person. You have a passion for life and a wonderful sense of humor, and the way you smile with your whole head is contagious. I love you more every single day.

Today, for the first time I can admit that ten years ago, in a quiet room in Dallas, Texas, I saw myself in clear HD vision doing horrible things to you. I recognized that night what those images were. I convinced myself that they were in fact a symptom of postpartum depression and that they would pass. I knew enough to know that my rational brain wasn’t functioning right and that the hormones and exhaustion coupled with my current fragile mental health were all working against me, fighting a war with my erratically firing neurotransmitters in my head.

While you slept on my bare chest, I reimagined every bad vision I had, and I mentally replaced the original actions with nurturing actions. I convinced myself that I was seeing those things to prepare me. That if you were crawling in the bar area of our house, I would need to be extra careful to not let the dog out while you were near the door, that all knives were to be kept out of your reach (and mine temporarily) and that I would never give you a bath if I was exhausted or stressed. I reminded myself over and over how much I wanted you and all of the plans I had for us.

I can’t tell you why I was able to rationalize everything I saw or that it was even the right thing to do, but, for me, it helped. I never admitted it to a doctor for fear they would take you away. I confided only in my sister-in-law that I was afraid to be alone with you but never shared the details of what I went through that night. Only a few people even know today what happened that night. I was ashamed to tell anyone. Who thinks those things about her own baby? A baby she wanted so badly?

It took me a while to trust myself with you. To know that I wouldn’t hurt you. To believe that I could be what you deserved me to be as a mom. Even today, I struggle to feel capable of being what you need, but I do it, and I treasure it, and I thank you for holding onto my finger and promising that together, we could conquer the night.

Thank you for giving me the most important role of my life and for continually reminding me that it’s good to be your mom.

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