Lessons in Parenting

Photo of an unspooled roll of photo negatives

My mom said if she died and the house caught fire, I should go into the basement and save the negatives. The ability to reprint the family photos mattered more than the photos themselves. I was 9. Or 7—elementary school is a blur of treehouses and fashion anxiety and having teeth pulled by an uncle I knew, on some level, to fear.

OK, I said. She wanted us to remember her and our childhood. Her own family was chaos.

You don’t need money to have a baby, she said a few decades later. Just a few cloth diapers and two dollars to rent a car seat from the shelter downtown. Make friends with the bank ladies, because they’ll babysit while you do errands.

OK, I said, though the bank near us had closed during the pandemic, and my insurance did not cover IVF.

There were other tips, folded into stories. It’s nice if the barn is close enough to tie the clothesline, so you can hang the diapers on your way to muck the stalls. Sew with Neighbor Kay, even if she smokes, because she’ll modify the hand-me-down carrier. Then when the second kid comes, you can run the farm (one baby on front, one back) without your husband taking a day off work.

Walking across the AstroTurf to our home office sometimes felt like the old Kentucky slope blitzed by wild dogs. My mom would barricade all of us behind the big barn door until the horses settled. Animals smell danger better than anyone. Mothers, even. In Los Angeles, I had coyotes and paranoid cats and a fear of hiring strangers to hold my child. My first day back to work, I turned off my camera every two hours to sob like everyone else staring into the abyss of split identities and cleaved hearts.

I’m so happy for you, she said over and over through my second pregnancy. She was taking care of her dying sister, the Democrat who always made sure we kids knew we had a home with her. I’m really, really happy, she said, sobbing. There’s just a lot happening. I have something serious to ask: Will you get tested for BRIP1? It’s in our family.

To prevent ovarian cancer, I recommend an oophorectomy, the genetic counselor said, scanning my positive results. But have this baby first.

You don’t have to come, I told my mom. Once hospice had ended, the ashes spread, the house sold, I wanted her to take a vacation. I knew her brother would be tyrannical about the death, because my aunt hadn’t told him about the cancer.

But I needed my mom. I had gotten pregnant with the second when the first was eight months old. Such a surprise, after IVF. I wasn’t ready. I was scared of repeating my last postpartum experience—sleepless in a pandemic. Haunted by the possibility of something heavy hitting my child’s head. A boot, a rock, a skillet. Attempting to uphold the legacy of my scrappy genetics when I was tired, tired, tired. And now, I had siblings to raise. My own had not yet met my firstborn, had made no plans to meet the second. How do you make people care?

My mom came. She always comes. I wanted to ask her if she craved the chance to die for her babies, to prove she would. Did she also, simultaneously, want to live forever so those babies would never be alone? But my mom needed to talk about her mother’s children. Since my aunt’s death, my mom had drawn a line with her brother. Meeting a certain type of brother’s gaze is the accomplishment of a lifetime. She and I unraveled this in the office-cum-guest room, a place to hide the new baby’s cries from the other’s confusion. I had given birth there, and I’d barely moved since. A converted garage: the modern red tent.

To feel solid as a parent, you must know you can care for your children if everything else were to fall away. If the house burns down and you go dead broke and your husband abandons you and the wild dogs scratch the barn door. If your brother is cruel. You can only know this while leaning on bank ladies and Neighbor Kay—or lactation consultants and your coworker who wants so badly, inexplicably, to know your kids that she lugs over pasta bakes, delighting in milestones. Maintaining the confidence that you can care for your children is, in fact, impossible to do alone. You listen to the absurd advice. You hope your children love one another as much as you love them. You hope as birth and death reshape their identities they have something good to hold onto, at least one photograph they want to reprint a thousand times.

Kate Erickson ’05 is a TV writer based in Los Angeles, where she has written for shows such as Mr. Robot and See. She is the mother of two hilarious kids.

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