After the failure of her third marriage, my mom moved us into an apartment complex where she would spend her days drinking and socializing with any available man—and I would eventually find myself in true puppy love with Bobby Craig, the blue-eyed boy from 314J.
I was 6. Bobby and I were An Item. We were going to get married and have two kids, a boy and a girl, and a golden retriever—right after we mastered the art of holding hands while roller skating and listening to Toto on my Walkman. I was the very first kid I knew to have a boyfriend or a Walkman. The Walkman was a gift from my mother's most recent boyfriend, a man named Paul who was a navy pilot and whose backyard bordered a cemetery. It wasn't lost on me that Bobby probably only loved me for my Walkman. I didn't care.
It was July, air heavy with the sulfur smell of fireworks, grass dying from the heat, when I was skipping to see Bobby and severed my big toe. I mistook the stabbing hunk of broken glass for a blade of dead grass. No one was more surprised than I to see my big toe hanging by nothing more than a bit of bone. I ran into our apartment, naively expecting to be swept up into my mother's nurturing arms, held close, comforted with popsicles and cartoons. Instead, she yelled at me, threw me a towel, shooed me outside. How dare I bleed on the rug.
My childhood was a revolving door of whatever guy suited her fancy, whatever booze brought the quickest relief from her misery, whatever drug would dull her depression, prolong her mania. By the time I was seven, I was diluting her tequila, burying cigarettes in the playground sand, and rinsing the cocaine off the blue hand mirror she used to snort it, before hiding the razor blades she used to cut it. Cooking eggs for myself. Catching dishtowels on fire because I didn't know how to cook eggs at all. Washing off her smeared mascara after a drunken crying fit. Delivering Pepto-Bismol with a straw to her bed. Catching her vomit in a trash can. Patting her head when yet another man let her down.
Like most young girls, I idolized my father. And so when he left her, or had a date, or moved across the country, when the weekends went by without him, I could only love him. He represented all the things that my mom was not. Possibility. Hope. Normalcy. But in the '70s not many dads were raising kids, and that included him. With some help I navigated Dallas Ft. Worth airport one Christmas and every other summer. And I pined for him. Listening to Barry Manilow and sobbing through the chorus of "Somewhere Down the Road."
But at the end of most days, it was just me and mom and the uncertainty that was my life.
When I was 14, I got a (half) sister—the product of my mom's sixth marriage. Halfway through my freshman year of college (which I left for as soon as I could, poised like an Olympic sprinter on the starting blocks), my mom showed up at my door to trade me my car for my sister. "Here you go," she said. "You can have her." She took my keys and took off with the guy that would be husband seven.
Meanwhile, I married my high school sweetheart and started to make the family I never had. By the time I was 20, I had my first child, a daughter, and was helping my fifth stepfather raise the sister my mom had left behind.
My mother was in and out of my life. There and then gone. Sober and then not.
I didn’t have any idea how to be a mother, but I loved my sister like she was mine. And when I looked into the big almond eyes of my daughter, I only knew I wanted to do better. I held her close. Nursed her for hours on end. Snuggled with her in our tiny bed. Wore her close to my heart in a sling. I clung to her like a primate clings to its mother. She was mine. An object for my stockpiled affection.
By my 25th year I had gone from one baby to three. I surrounded myself with women I thought I could model myself after. Clinging fiercely to my mother-in-law, my sisters-in-law—any women who seemed like they knew what they were doing.
It wasn't my mother who taught me how to mother, but it wasn't my acquaintances either. It was my babies.
My firstborn taught me how to cope with colic, treat a wasp sting, fix a nursemaids elbow. How to breastfeed and cloth-diaper. She taught me the pain that is leaving a child to go to a job you hate, and the joy that is reuniting with them. She taught me the selflessness that my mother never had.
My second, my first son, taught me what it must have been like to be my mother. Smart, sassy, fiercely independent, he taught me patience. He was the baby everyone swore would play football and who plays the trumpet instead. He taught me how to stay calm in an ambulance, how to wake up before the sun, how to love chocolate milk. He taught me that parents make mistakes and that kids will accept their apology regardless.
The third baby was a bit of a shock, conceived while nursing his brother, before my period had returned, while on the pill. It was three months before I connected the dots from exhaustion to nausea to a baby. He taught me that things don't always go according to plan. And that despite that, awesome things can happen. He taught me tenderness, what fragility looks like, the kind of empathy you need to employ when you're talking to a child who is sure the sun is going to burn out or that he's going to get Ebola and die. He taught me to laugh. And also that cupboards need to be locked.
The fourth child came 10 years later, the product of my second marriage. She taught me that I was powerful, and vulnerable. Born in the kitchen, she came out limp and pale. She showed me what the greatest fear feels like and the greatest relief. She made us a new family.
My fifth baby taught me to be humble. When, after two days of labor, our homebirth plans changed to hospital birth plans, he taught me that I could adjust my thinking and see things how they are, not just how we'd like them to be. He taught me that life is what happens when you're busy making plans. He taught me that things don't have to be perfect to be awesome. He taught me what it means to feel complete.
And my sister, my half sister, that strange designation of someone who only "half" belongs to you, has taught me to persevere. She has taught me that you can grow up and find your way, and be amazing, despite the absence of your biological parent. She's so much more than a "half" sister. She's my only sister. A dream fulfilled.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish I had a mom all those times in life when you need one. When you're laid up with a broken ankle, as I am now. When you have a baby, get married. When someone dies. When all the kids get sick at once. When you need a good cry or a long hug. After my fifth baby was born and I was bleeding and on bedrest and needed extra hands. And reassurance. Someone to tell me we'd be OK. I'd be lying if I said I haven't felt the need for that someone, that mother.
But I’ve been taught that things don't have to be perfect to be good. And you don't have to have a great mom to be one.