This excerpt really should count as a both a post in the Babies in Literature series and the Parents in Literature series, as it provides perfect snapshots of a baby, a toddler, and their mother. Amy Shearn has written a terrific novel called The Mermaid of Brooklyn, based on her own grandmother's life, in which a woman's husband disappears and, as a result, she is possessed by a rusalka. (According to Slavic folklore, a rusalka is mermaid formed from the soul of a wronged woman.) I laughed in recognition many, many, many times as I read it. Not because my husband has disappeared or I am possessed by a rusalka (although I do love a nice hot bath), but because this particular protagonist has two small children and exists in a state of perpetual exhaustion as a result. Amy, whose breezy style I really envy, is both insightful and hilarious. Here is a description of life with small children that didn't just ring a bell for me, it practically set off the fire alarm:
When I awoke at three a.m., Rose howling wolfishly at a blackout-curtain-defying streetlamp, Betty standing in the hallway with her hands over her ears, and Harry still wasn't there, it occurred to me to worry.
"Rosie, Rosie." I launched myself from bed, the sheets wrapped around my legs, only to step squarely on the dog. Oh. The dog. I was perpetually forgetting about the existence of Junpier, Harry's scraggly, immortal mutt. Our mutt now, of course. Had I taken her down to pee before bed? There were too many creatures' bodies to keep track of. The dog looked up at me mournfully. I apologized, stumbled into our nubbin of a hallway. My legs were stiff, Frankensteiny. I couldn't remember the last time I'd exercised in any way more significant than a walk pushing the stroller around the park, which I hoped counted for something. Every day I promised myself I'd at least stretch out before bed, and every night I was at least twelve times too tired to even consider it. Anyway, "going to bed" was more like waiting for Rose to relent and then immediately applying myself to my mattress.
Rose had hiked her swaddle up around her neck in a sort of haute couture cowl and was inching across the crib like a demented caterpillar. She stopped howling when she saw me, grinned toothlessly. "All right," I said. "You're very charming." I pulled the swaddling blanket off of her and lifted her out. Betty followed us back into my bed. I didn't even try to stop her. I nestled Rose down in the center of the mattress, and she immediately started snorting with the pre-meal enthusiasm of a true Lipkin. I lay down beside her and offered her the boob with the less destroyed nipple. Betty lay down on the other side of Rose.
"Mommy, where Daddy?"
Rose popped off and craned her neck curiously toward Betty.
"Sweetheart, please don't distract the baby," I said as dread gripped the top knob of my spine. Right. Where was Daddy? "Daddy's, um, at work."
Betty considered this. "Aren't the lights off?"
Rose latched back on. I closed my eyes and allowed the pull of sleep to drag me under the surface. Sleep was like water, my brain thought, unoriginally. And as with a river, you never stepped into the same sleep twice, it was always a different texture somehow, there was a different current tonight, something roiling in the distance. What was this dream that I --
Without really waking up, I said, "Yes, honey, the lights are off. He has a flashlight."
Rose stopped nursing to stare up at Betty again. "Please, no talking, Betty," I said, already mostly asleep. I was so tired that it hurt to wake up and fall back asleep. It was like how it used more energy to turn something off and on than it did to -- but the thought stopped making sense as I thought it, breaking apart like bread dropped in water. I was dimly aware of Juniper jumping onto the bed and coiling up behind me. Being sandwiched between little bodies this way seemed cozy for about thirty seconds, until my leg wanted to stretch and couldn't. It was another hot night, the mugginess unfazed by the air-conditioning unit lodged in the window, and here we were glued together by sweat and spit-up and dog hair. It was all very glamorous.
When I awoke again -- five minutes later? an hour later? -- Rose was snoozing with her mouth slightly open around my nipple, milked pooled on her tiny tongue. Betty and Juniper were curled together at the foot of the bed. The room was shadowy, lit by the streetlamp, the lights of night-owl neighbors, the lights of early-rising neighbors, the hazy undark of the city at night. And really, now, where was Harry? Alarm rang through my limbs. I tried to temper it with some Vulcan logic, a technique I'd had to teach myself over and over, every night of my anxiety-ridden first night of motherhood. No, no, he wasn't dead in a ditch, that wouldn't make any sense -- He had said something. He was going to stop and buy cigarettes. (...)
I was drifting back to sleep, so tired that my joints felt jumpy, my skin prickly. I couldn't process whether I'd fallen asleep or else had slept for hours when there was Betty, patting my cheek.
I opened an eye. Rose sprawled out on her back, taking up more room than seemed geometrically possible for a person who weighed twelve pounds. (...)
"Mommy? Cookies?" Betty said experimentally. When I opened both eyes, I saw Juniper behind her, wagging her tail. When Juniper diagnosed me as awake-ish, she leaped up and started pacing around. "No and no," I said to both of them. I probably fell back asleep. "MOMMY," Betty said, patting my cheek harder. Okay, hitting. Smacking my face. Her hand was sticky, somehow, already. It wasn't even light out yet. So four forty-five, maybe? Juniper jumped up onto the bed, and Rose's eyes popped open.
"Oh, God," I said. Every morning I lay in bed thinking, I cannot possibly do this for one more day. Then I got up and did it for one more day. All parents did, I told myself. My exhaustion was nothing special. And likewise, the moments in which I managed to cope in a halfway-decent way where not exactly the triumphs of maternal spirit I liked to pretend they were -- more like basic competence. "Tell Daddy to take out Juniper," I said.
Betty shook her head. "It's too far."
"What?" I lifted Rose, who belched loudly, looking surprised and pleased, a diminutive frat boy. I hadn't burped her after her last dozy feeding. Another habit Harry hated.
"It's too far. Daddy at work."
Thirty seconds later, I was wearing the same T-shirt and shorts I had worn the day before; Rose and her diaper, transformed into an anvil of pee, were tucked into the sling; Betty was dressed in her pajamas, a tutu, and pink Crocs her grandmother had gotten her expressly against our wishes; Juniper was harnessed into her leash. The whole happy family clambered out on the street. (...)
It was garbage day, and stinking boulders of trash punctuated the sidewalk, which reminded me that I hadn't taken down our recycling, a thought that filled me with despair. Betty toddled over to a rank pile, lifted up a diseased-looking teddy bear.
"No!" My voice startled Rose, who started to cry. It was easier to have sympathy for her, I found, than her sister, the toddler terror. Rosie couldn't help it. She was a baby. Her crying was uncomplicated. When Betty turned on the waterworks about one of her big-girl issues, like not getting an eighth Dora Band-Aid with which to decorate the dog, my skin curdled in irritation. But the baby I could deal with. I wasn't that heartless. "Shhh," I swayed back and forth, extracted a pacifier from my pocket, and plugged her mouth. "Betty," I said in the creepy-calm voice of fake parental patience. "Put that down right this second. Haven't you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit? Scarlet fever! Bedbugs! Death!"
Betty knitted her brow.
"Drop it!" I said. "Juniper stopped walking and looked at me. "Not you."
Betty released her treasure and poutily stuck her thumb in her mouth, the same thumb that, moments before, had been caressing the grimy toy's eyeless socket. I closed my eyes. I'd been awake for two minutes and already felt overwhelmed by the length of the day ahead of me.
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I apologize for the length of the excerpt but I just love it so much and want everyone to read it, especially those contemplating having children.
And be sure to check out the Mermaid of Brooklyn pinterest board. (Such a good idea, these pinterest boards devoted to a particular book.)