Ashley Wolfe is an author, journalist and ghostwriter based in Seattle. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from Arizona State University and is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She published her debut novel Pachamama in 2019 and is working on her next novel.
In my womb, he was a butterfly trapped inside a glass jar. Or an ember reaching for enough oxygen to burst into flame. Even as a thing not quite yet an infant, his energy was frenetic. And me, the mother chimera, metamorphosing for a second time into a new being, part myself, part my first child, part him. Many women experience a feeling of alien invasion during pregnancy, many become strangers to themselves in certain ways, the fetus dominating the vessel. With this boy though, it was more than that. I was filled with a tangible and overwhelming restlessness I had never felt before.
I think about that restlessness as I lay beside him. He is a big boy now, ten years of gangly arms and legs, bright blue eyes and my freckles. It is an hour past his bedtime and he is still moving, this endless pent up energy inside him escalating to the point of near panic. Mentally, he’s exhausted but his body won’t catch up to that want for sleep, won’t give him a moment of peace. I have been doing this since he was born. More than three thousand nights I have plunged headfirst into the turbulent waters of his hyperactivity, fighting against the undertow to bring him soundly to sleep.
When he was younger, I would recite Rudyard Kipling’s Seal Lullaby over and over and over until he settled. The words are still marked on my heart:
“Oh! Hush thee my baby, the night is behind us
And black are the waters that sparked so green
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between
Where billow meets billow, then soft by thy pillow
Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee
Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas!
Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas!”
Now, even though my pup is too old to curl into my ease of that poem, I am still that seal mother, rocking her tender one in the depths of a roiling sea. The words are a mantra, a medicine for me. For what feels like the hundredth time that night, I straighten his rumpled sheets. I smooth the blanket atop them and tuck it around his bony shoulders. He shakes them off instantly, then tells me he is cold. I tentatively reach out to touch his back, and he lurches away. Then, as I knew it would, the complaining begins. A flood of wrong things about me, about his friends, from that moment, that day, life in general. He is hungry. He is itchy. His mattress is not right. The pit in my stomach starts to rise, bringing heat to my chest and cheeks. Oh! Hush thee my baby… I cannot get angry. I listen, trying to stay quiet and still.
“Ugh, I’m soooooo hot,” he whines.
The storm shall not wake thee…I breathe audibly, practicing the Ujjayi pranayama I have learned in yoga, hoping the sound of it will fall into pace with his tides, with his breath, slow him down. Hoping it will also keep me from drowning in the exhaustion and my own anxiety that this episode will never end. It isn’t working yet though, and he flips from his stomach to his back. His elbow catches me square in the nose. I stifle a yelp and strive to keep calm.
At rest in the hollows that rustle between…His frustration is climaxing now. Sometime in the last few minutes he started to cry. His pillow is wet from salty tears. This was a different kind of hard when he was a baby. It stretched on like it does now, but I could hold him, swaddled up tight, so his body had no choice but to surrender to stillness. My pediatrician told us to let him learn to settle himself, but only our close family and friends who had seen him try to fall asleep knew that the standard sleep tips and tricks were simply not an option with this child. So, when he cried, I would contain his energy for him, nurse him, whisper hush hush hush into his curved little ear and leave him still, in his crib, sucking on a binky. I was of course exhausted and defeated knowing that he would waken again in just a few short hours.
At ten though, he is almost as tall as me, and I have none of a mother’s tried and true nurturing tools at my disposal. He does not want me to touch him, yet he still wants me next to him in the struggle. Then, he is dying for a back rub. He does not want to be left alone with the restlessness, or with his own suspicions that there is something wrong. That the frustration he feels with himself is a reflection of the frustration everyone around him feels when he fails to control his exuberance.
On good nights he will let me scratch his back or he will snuggle in. I relish in these moments…Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas! This night is not one of those good nights. We both know it could go on for hours. We both know that like most nights, I will try to help him until I have no more to give. His dad will take over and do the same. Still he may be awake. Then, as if some invisible hypnotist snaps authoritative fingers, his body stops and he is instantly and deeply asleep.
His energy fills every room he enters, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. It has never gone unnoticed by a stranger or new friend. During my pregnancy, this manifested in many ways. Extreme mood swings, uncharacteristic bouts of panic. The food I enjoyed became repulsive, while I craved foods I had long-past given up. Meat, candy bars, soda. Weeks before his due date, my body began to itch. It was as if an army of fire ants had burrowed underneath the skin on the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet. I woke to it one night and paced my bedroom, rubbing my hands together, then stooping to scratch my feet. The next day, the feeling spread. Up and down my unshaved legs, over the taut skin of my protruding belly. I sat at my work desk clawing at my oversized breasts and constantly running my fingernails over my scalp. On the second day of this, I called my midwife. She ordered a test. We discovered I had developed intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, a liver condition that aside from extreme itching, is mostly benign for the mother, but can be life threatening for the baby.
My midwife was practical. “You’re far enough along now that I can induce you.”
I was not ready for him yet. Something about the way he felt inside made me certain that I was not up to the task. I had no way of seeing into the future, to the times when he would put my patience, my love, my resilience, to the ultimate test. No way of knowing how later, when he was in preschool, pick-up would be anxiety-inducing. I would arrive after only three hours of respite, and he would burst through the swinging half-door into my arms. Words would spill out a mile a minute. I hugged him close and soaked in the warmth of his devotion to me. It was blissful. Until. Until I would glance up at his teacher, who stood awkwardly over us, wringing his hands, clearly waiting to say something uncomfortable. He had hit someone, said a bad word, thrown food, disrupted circle time, pooped in his pants, ran off during nature walk. Once, he grabbed a smaller boy by the neck in anger. I knew he had a good heart, good intentions, kindness. I tried to brush these things off as just a boy being a boy. But the more they happened, the more intense they became, I couldn’t help but wonder how he learned to do these things or why he couldn’t control his impulses like the other boys. What could I do to stop him from acting out towards other children? By the time he was four, I could not trust him to play nicely unsupervised. I was programmed like a Pavlovian dog—my stomach dropping in dread every time I heard another child cry.
In fits of wildness, he has screamed, “Fuck you mom!” My son, my baby, is screaming at his dad and me. His voice is so loud and shrill that my ears are ringing. I worry what the neighbors will think. He has been sent to his room, is banging on the 100-year-old white craftsman door. I stand on the other side and try to picture his blue eyes, his shaggy brown hair, his freckles, the baseball medals and trophies on his shelves. I place my hand on the door. I send my pounding heart to him through the aging wood, hoping if I can stay calm I will overpower this storm.
In these moments, when my frustration rises with impatience for the fit to pass, I try to think of him as a baby. His bright eyes and reckless smile. How he would stick his tongue out, bite down on it and crinkle his nose whenever he was concentrating or roughhousing. I wonder when he stopped making that face and try to think of when I last saw him do it. I try to remember that this wild behavior is also what fuels his wild heart, his sense of adventure, his creativity. He has an artist’s heart, like mine, is a maker of far-fetched tales and drawings that explode with color and story. He trusts in his own vision and shows his work with pride. Like his dad, he has an athlete’s agility and skill, speed on the soccer field, power and precision on the baseball diamond. He is an animal lover like his brother, tender-hearted and empathetic, doting on our pets and always asking for more to love.
Somehow, something deep inside me, the animal part of me, knew, even before he was born, that raising him would be difficult. But, babies do not delay for their parents’ worries. Just days before the midwife would induce me, two weeks before the due date, he came. He was early. My water broke before labor started and everything moved quickly from that moment. We were having a planned home birth, and I settled into a warm bathtub as soon as the contractions began. In less than three hours, I was pushing. In two pushes, at 3 a.m., he was in my arms. I was trembling, and my midwife explained that mothers often experience symptoms of shock after extremely fast births. I went through the motions, held him close to me, smiled as he was weighed and examined, tried to settle myself. When the midwife helped me up to take a shower a little while later, I hemorrhaged. For a few moments, I wasn’t sure if I was okay. I slipped in and out of consciousness, only seeing the midwife’s worried expression when I opened my eyes. Her assistant stood in the doorway, ready to call an ambulance. They stabilized me, and moved me back to the bed next to my sleeping baby and husband. I continued to struggle with a feeling of shock for days after. Still, I rose to meet his every cry, his every need. I learned and melded to him, my heart opening in ways I had no idea was possible.
Now, after a decade at this, I falter, every day. Keeping up with him is as futile as tracking a fish in the middle of a feeding frenzy. He’s not just one fish, though. He’s the whole school, every thought in his mind darting in a different direction, fluttering, getting lost in the chaos. The effect his feverish presence has on others around him is not altogether positive. He is loud, troublesome, sometimes mean-spirited, difficult to discipline. Most would call these his flaws. Maybe they are. Nobody’s perfect as they say. To me though, they are not flaws, they are him, they are perfections. They are the dreams that live and breathe and leap from within him. They may torture me at times, but I also revel in them. I long for everyone else to see all of the beauty and creativity that comes from his hyperactive body and mind, from the dreams he dreams with his body, to see the jeweled glimmer of his light when it shines on the restless sea.