You Were Born to Be Loved
It is a beautiful Sunday morning and you are staring out the window right now at the chiseled skyline of Manhattan, the Empire State Building a tiny spear in the center of your view, the elevated track of the subway rushing past every seven minutes to your endless delight. The sun is gaping, ready, invincible. I don’t want to get out of bed.
There should be a different word for solo mom exhaustion. It’s an accumulated sleep deficit that stretches the realm of what’s physically possible to unrecognizable proportions. Only medical students, soldiers and certain drug addicts can empathize. For the first few months you were here, so skinny and wrinkled, nothing but eyes and hair more closely resembling fur, I did not sleep long enough to have dreams. Day and night became indistinguishable from each other. I stole little sips of sleep when I could: forty-five minutes here, then up again to feed you; another hour after nursing, maybe if I was lucky. Naps really, all of them too short to check into that hotel of magic where all the garbage of the mind, the fear and anxiety, is sorted into compost.
But every so-called morning I got up with a surge of love and adrenaline and we had days I don’t remember now but pray I will see again in the moments before I die. Because they were wonderful. You were wonderful. And so I get up this morning, too, like all the others, to play with you.
It is my weekend with you, an alternating bi-monthly holiday I put too much pressure on. I feel the need to make our weekends together simultaneously care-free and enriching. Museums, libraries, parks, we’ve done the tour many times over, fueled by my guilt and shaky sense of superiority. Am I giving you enough? Am I overcompensating or needlessly competing? I don’t know what you do on those other weekends at your other home. I suspect a lot of TV watching. You come home quoting scripts in your toddler patois and I try not to panic about the effect this has on your developing brain. But it is much easier for me to focus on the things happening in your other house, much easier than looking at our own house here, now: you, needing a good hair brushing and a bath; me, unwilling to take you anywhere that requires me to put on a bra.
You have taken every single toy off your shelves and scattered them across the apartment. Our kitchen floor is a sprawling chaotic parking lot of tiny racecars and bulldozers, as though on view from an airplane flying above. You’re getting cranky, on the verge of a nap, something you so desperately need, even more than I do, after last night’s midsummer re-enactment of New Year’s Eve. I should take you to the zoo. I should take a shower. I should be giving you a more enriching experience of this Sunday. But I’m so so tired.
You have two different sets of plastic animal miniatures. One set features jungle creatures in media res, shockingly realistic (the male tiger has testicles), their bodies taut with anatomically correct muscles. The other animal set is squat and cartoonish, with big round eyes and painted smiles. I stand them up in a little menagerie, making introductions, like at a dinner party, the giraffe from one set greeting the giraffe from the other.
“Bonjour,” the goofier looking lion says to his compatriot.
“Hello,” the small-eyed lion replies.
“Oh, mais oui. je suis désolé. I thought you spoke French. Your country was not colonized by the Belgians?”
“The British,” the other lion says, rather stiffly.
“Mais oui,” the goofy lion says again, because my imaginary French is limited.
“May whee!” You repeat joyously. “May wheeeeee!”
Of the two different elephants, one is clearly a baby. He trots up close to the elder elephant and asks, “What are those called?”
“Tusks,” the big elephant explains. She is more caricature, her colors more garish. I wonder if her backstory involves a stint in the circus. “You’ll have them too one day.”
“Oh,” says the grave little elephant. “All the grown-ups in my pack were slaughtered, so I don’t know about tusks.”
“Don’t worry.” The big clownish elephant dips down to kiss the baby. “I’ll teach you.”
Both the hippos are in your hands, so they just make a lot of fart noises.
On the computer Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” is playing, as per your screeching demand, on repeat. A cloud of dread amasses in my chest when the “colored girls go do-do-do-do-do…” One day I will have to explain to you why he called them “colored girls.” You don’t yet know that I am white and you are brown and that that means, above all else, that you are not safe. You’ll learn about the vile things that happened to your ancestors, and the wretched things that continue to happen to people who look like you every day. Your history on both sides is gouged by tragedy. Racism and poverty, your father’s family inheritance from colonialism. Addiction, violence and rape, my family’s legacy of self-perpetuating trauma. There are so many things you are going to learn, things beyond my control: heroin and the N-word and murder and suicide and injustice and disease and good old- fashioned heartache. This makes me want to go outside today even less.
I skip to a Lucinda Williams song, “You Were Born to Be Loved,” and to my surprise you don’t protest. You rub your eyes. We’re getting closer to the nap. I rock you in my arms and you smile a coy smile, because you know exactly what I’m about to say. “Remember when you were a baby, and you couldn’t walk or talk or even hold up your head, and I had to hold you in my arms like this all the time?” It’s our tradition for me to incant these words every time I hold you like this, to pretend you are such a big kid now, so different from that baby I held and held because you wouldn’t sleep.
I wish I could remember those sleepless days better. The details were so piercing in the moment, the whole of existence seemed to smolder between your long eyelashes. Every gurgle you made arrested me with meaning. Every feeling a vibrant cliché, so fraught and transcendent and lovely and dumb.
What do I remember, really? Being so in love and so lonely at the same time, so afraid and so happy. And that you hated to sleep, as you do now, and that I held you all the time because I didn’t know what else to do.
“Again,” you say softly of the song playing now. You have found a new lullaby. I lay down in your bed, holding you still, and together we drift off to sleep. We dream.
Domenica Ruta is the author of the memoir With or Without You, a New York Times Bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Discovery finalist, and an Entertainment Weekly Top Ten pick for 2013. Her fiction has appeared in Epoch and the Indiana Review, and her journalism and reviews have been published by New York magazine, the New York Times, and Oprah.com. Ruta has a new novel coming in 2019 from Spiegal & Grau. She lives in Brooklyn with her son.