I clutched my 3-year-old’s fingers as we prepared to walk on her school stage. When we waltzed on with 75 other Nutcracker dancers – Zelda in her minuscule Victorian slip, me with my 38-week pregnant belly – the auditorium burst into laughter. What was I doing here? But as my daughter and I chasséd in sync, my racing heart melted. This show was our last hurrah, just the two of us.
That night, my husband and I sat by Zelda’s bed. I touched my stomach where a can-can session was in progress. This would be one of the last times Jon and I would sit together with Zelda at night, give her this unified mass of charged attention.
I’d been ambivalent about having children, as my own relationship with my mother was difficult. Born on my grandparents’ route after escaping the Nazis, my mom was a depressive hoarder who barricaded herself in between walls of Kleenex boxes and VHS tapes. Her Montreal den’s maelstrom of Dollar Store clocks and old newspapers swallowed my report cards forever. Her bed was stacked with old clothes. I couldn’t reach her if I had a nightmare. She worked at a government job, leaving before I woke up and asleep on the sofa when I came home. Mom loved me as she could, but was increasingly moody and unreliable. Always on guard, I hid among the clutter. When, at 19, I moved to another country, we connected by phone, an easier umbilical cord. On her good days, we analyzed books and later my romantic exploits. But my visits home were ever more fraught.
When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I panicked, worried I’d lose my hard-earned independence, not to mention the white-walled, nearly-empty apartment I’d created with Jon. I was afraid I had no idea how to parent. Yet once I had Zelda – named for Mom’s mom, who raised me day-to-day – I nursed and cared for her with ease and pleasure. I was determined to be the opposite of my mother: organized, on-time, clean, calm. I hand-scrubbed the floors and maintained elaborate play schedules. I took Zelda to school and back every day, creating for her the security I never knew myself.
My kinship with Zelda – this chance to redo the mother-daughter dynamic with affection and attention – was healing for me. I learned to be patient, less anxious, more open. We discussed our days over frozen yogurt. I taught her to express emotions by revealing mine. I knelt by her tantrums and yawned calmly through her sleep-regressions. Sure, I made mistakes, like sanitizing the highchair instead of reacting to Zelda’s gentle attempts to feed me, but her life filled me with confidence.
Once I had one child, I wanted two. Growing up, my younger brother had been my ally, the person who most understood my messy reality and saved me by playing imaginary characters. We hadn’t lived in the same country for two decades but were in touch almost daily. I wanted to recreate this sibling bond, the longest of one’s life. My girls would be three years apart, just like my brother and me.
Zelda constantly asked questions. Why is she a girl? Will she always be a girl? Was I always Zelda? How does she pee if she isn’t wearing a diaper?
I laughed but wondered if her desire to understand emerged from a deep anxiety. Her life would undergo so much change as she lost her position, my attention. I feared transitions, having witnessed my mother’s progressing mental illness, her personality leaking from her like a deflating balloon. I did not want Zelda to lose me.
I attended a sibling seminar for second-time moms. The leader reiterated the accepted wisdom: keep Zelda’s world intact. Talk about the baby a bit. Do not hold the baby when Zelda visits after the delivery. Bring gifts for her from the baby. Make her feel involved by teaching her to swaddle her dolls. Do not make any major household changes. Certainly don’t tell her you’re transforming her toddler bed into the baby’s crib. I followed the advice. I threw Zelda a birthday bash, inviting 29 toddlers to our apartment. I upheld this fragile, ice-castle world in which she was the special star.
I badly wanted a second child, but now could only focus on protecting Zelda from this kicking invader who would steal her innocence, her place – her mommy. Was I greedy to want more, stockpiling fortune like my mother did junk? Was I also a hoarder, collecting distractions instead of committing to what I already had?
I’d grown up among stuff, but feeling empty inside. I spent three decades filling my void, learning to love. Now I’d already poured my memories, passions, my milk into my first — what if I was depleted.
I was afraid there was no more room in our 2-bedroom apartment or in my heart.
The next morning, I hobbled Zelda into preschool. I’d reached the point where people were afraid to get close, worried I’d explode at any second. I showed the school director photos of the show. She laughed at the image of me, less Sugar Plum, more Winnebago. Then I explained that after two weeks at home, I’d be bringing Zelda to school again. “I’m keeping everything as normal as possible.”
As I chatted with the director, she put her hand on my shoulder. “Everything Zelda knows, everything she’s relied on as constant will shift,” she said, as I nodded, dizzy. “This is emotionally cataclysmic.”
“The worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not.”
“I’ve seen parents try to keep everything as-is, taking children to swimming class in the middle of labor. But your family will be in turmoil. Let there be chaos. Zelda knows what’s going on.”
Let there be chaos jolted me in its simple directness. In Zelda’s future, she would be second-place, she’d be jealous. That was why I wanted her to have a sibling: to practice the hard stuff. I reminded myself that Zelda had been asking questions to cope.
I also had to practice the hard stuff. I’d have to learn to divide my attention, to find new pockets of affection. I had to admit the gravity of the change and help both of us manage the transition.
Billie was born big-eyed, robust, hungry and large – entirely different from her lithe ballerina sister. Jon was home with Zelda while Billie and I stayed at the hospital for five full days, a new mom-daughter cocoon. I was confident, smitten and giddy, full of old tricks, trusting my instincts.
A week later, Jon had to travel – my first time alone with my two girls. At 7 am, I nursed, staring out the window at the sleet storm. I was feeding constantly, the ground was slippery. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t take you to school,” I apologized to Zelda. Here I was, sacrificing her education because I couldn’t figure out a nursing scheme. I felt her world crashing, slipping away for the sake of her little sister. But then I remembered the director’s words and breathed. I had to improvise, create our own messy pas-de-trois.
Zelda shrugged and brought her favorite books into my bed as Billie began to cry. “I know it’s frustrating,” I said, “but I need to feed Billie. Afterward, I’ll read to you.”
“Can I hold her?” she said. “I’ll use hand-itizer!”
Zelda tickled Billie’s toes, initiating their lifelong rapport. Zelda sat on me, and I held the baby in her lap, a Babushka-doll pose, and there we were, we three, on my bed, room for us all.
Judy Batalion is an author and performer living in New York. Her first memoir, White Walls: A Memoir about Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between published this month. You can find her atjudybatalion.com and on Twitter.