It’s been a year. Almost. Both of my girls were conceived on my birthday. Mia came on her due date of June 21. Coraline showed up five hours after hers had passed on the 16th. They both came so fast. Mia in four hours, and born at home. Coraline came in a quick, white-knuckled hour, and just barely at a birth center. In the next week, Cora will turn one and Mia will turn eight.

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Photo by Logan Parson

A friend asked me once what my biggest fear was with having a second daughter on my own, and I said the exhaustion. I feared being emptied out to the point I wouldn’t be able to scrape together enough to be a good mom, or be good to myself. This morning we all sat around our kitchen table eating from a bowl of apricots, blueberries, strawberries, and plums. We all laugh a healthy amount, the baby smiles all the time and exceeds most developmental milestones, and Mia is advanced in reading, writing and math. I worked over 30 hours last week at three different freelancing gigs. From an outside perspective, it looks like we’re skating through, sailing smooth, and accomplishing life without a hitch. But a few things have become normal in the last year that I probably wouldn’t have been paid enough to do without them if you’d asked me a couple of years ago:

  1. I no longer eat dairy. Yup. I went from eating almost nothing but dairy before Coraline was born to feeling like I’d throw up if I ate any. I’ve tried bringing it back by sneaking it in here or there, but I always regret it. My diet was already limited by a lack of wheat flour, but since Coraline, I’ve removed all dairy (including chocolate), peanuts/peanut butter, pineapples, onions, garlic, bananas, most cane sugars, eggs that aren’t organic (expensive) and I think that might be it. The only explanation is a known grass allergy, so eating any plant that begins by shooting a single blade out of the dirt first doesn’t jive with me. I asked an allergist about this, and she shrugged, said that could be a good hypothesis, then added, “pregnancy fucks up your system.” Thanks.
  2. I don’t have sex. I don’t have sex with myself. The thought of it makes me nauseous. I have a hard time kissing Mia on the lips. I tried to overcome this last fall, and it was pretty exciting and great for a week or two, probably because I really really wanted it to be. I wanted Coraline to know some sort of male figure. I wanted Mia to have someone to play with. But having a horny, hairy man in my bed was not worth the trouble. He decided I wasn’t, either, pretty quickly in one conversation a week before Christmas, which totally sucked. But I’m pretty happy doing this gig with as little amount of boy drama as possible.
  3. Photo by Logan Parson

    Photo by Logan Parson

    I am always (besides one saving grace day of daycare) in a three-foot radius of a baby who cries if anyone else tries to hold her. Coraline is attached to me. She is my sweet, happy, cuddly monkey. Mia was a completely different baby. I was her caretaker and a point of reference in the wide radius that was her world to explore. By the time she was a year old, she’d mastered several words, had started walking (often away from me in large distances), and we spent a lot of time apart. She visited her dad and went to daycare. She slept in her own bed. She didn’t like to be held close. Coraline doesn’t like to lose eye contact with me. She sleeps on my chest or in my armpit. She’ll fall asleep in her car seat, but I haven’t had any luck getting her to sleep without touching me in some way otherwise. At near one-years-old, she still seems like a baby to me, when Mia was already on her way to being an independent toddler.

  4. I rarely drink alcohol, quit smoking, and don’t miss them like I thought I would in those times I said I should give them up. I also eat primarily organic, cook all my meals at home from ingredients and not a box, and, due to the recent acquiring of a dog, walk about two miles a day. I still haven’t gotten back into rock climbing, but it’s hopefully on the horizon.
  5. I don’t sleep. I mean, I do, but hardly. I stay up past midnight working most nights, and get about three hours of good sleep before Cora wakes me up to nurse or my back wakes me up because it’s in varying degrees of pain.
  6. I don’t give a shit what other people think. I don’t have a problem saying “no” to social things. I love, love, love spending a quiet day of just me and Coraline, which I often get to do.
  7. I work from home. Like, actually work on a computer, getting paid to write. People send me paychecks because I wrote something they liked. Okay, maybe this one will never be normal.
  8. We live in a two-bedroom apartment with our own washer and dryer that we can afford. Again, another thing that was beyond my wildest dreams.
  9. I don’t go out to eat. I don’t sit on patios to have a beer with friends. I don’t go out past dark. I am usually either working, taking care of kids or a dog, eating, sleeping, showering (sometimes), or watching a show on Netflix or scrolling through a Facebook feed until my vision gets blurry. I don’t read. I hardly write my own stuff. It’s a rare moment that I sit, relaxed, with my eyes closed and face pointed to the sun.
  10. I’m happy. Sure, I get grumpy, mad, sad, stressed to the point of anxiety attack, and whatever. But for the most part, I am possibly the happiest I’ve ever been. Maybe it’s the work-load. Maybe I’m just one of those people who’s only happy if she’s working all the time. Possibly. I am surrounded by laughter, ridiculously cute moments, sweet sighs, snuggles, and cute, comical antics. How could I not be happy?

DSCN1657It’s weird to be this healthy. I’m 36 and fitting into pants I never thought I’d be able to get past my thighs again. I’d love to get a vacation. Or even a staycation. I’d love to go out to eat with a friend. It’ll happen. Coraline, sadly, won’t be a baby forever, a thought that gets me through the frustration of not getting a break. I have years where I’ll be able to sit on patios over brunch and mimosas. But this time right now will be the minutes I’ll wish I could get back.
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It wasn’t at first sight. She shook in her outdoor kennel, next to that dog who wouldn’t stop barking. Next to the pacing Airedale with long, matted hair. No, this little red dog looked like any dog, except her whole back end quivered when she sat, but her eyes stayed on you.
Say you had kids with you, say you had two. One holding your hand and one strapped to your chest. The older one just wanted to go pet cats, just wanted to look through the dogs, just to see. Then you saw this little, trembling dog.
Once you put a leash on the dog and walked ten feet away from the front door, she did that thing where they sniff the air, snort at a dandelion, and pee. She ate grass. It looked like she’d had puppies recently. Her ribs showed too much. She walked a little ahead but kept her ears pointed at you. She never pulled; she was just on a walk. Same as it ever was.
Then you and the kids sat in the grass. This dog that’d been shaking from fear rolled on her back, right in between you three, and let out a huge sigh. She went from uncontrollable fear to pure relaxation in minutes. She looked up, ever so lovingly, at your older daughter, and you saw they matched. Maybe they saw the loneliness in each other. Maybe this dog knew. Maybe all those times you told yourself that the right dog would come someday when you weren’t looking like single ladies in their late 30s say about Mr. Right had truth to it. Maybe it wasn’t just a lie you told yourself when you saw other people cuddling with their fantastic dogs.
0511151640That’s pretty much how it went. I’d always told myself I didn’t have time for a dog. Told myself I didn’t have patience, or energy, or the proper space. But I asked how to apply to adopt. I filled out the paperwork on a hunch while my daughter fed her treats in the lobby. The dog’s fear and anxiety could prompt scary situations, especially with the baby who didn’t know any better and the eight-year-old who did but respected no boundary. Bringing a scared, fifty-pound dog into our little apartment could be a terrible decision. But I handed over the clipboard with my signature.
They agreed to hold her for twenty-four hours, and we had to return her to her cage. My oldest said, “Boy Mom, that little dog is going to make a family really happy. I hope she finds them soon.”
Our lease required a doctor’s note in order to get an animal. The property manager emailed me the paperwork the next morning. I called my daughter’s therapist, whose office was a block from our house, and asked if she’d fill it out. We’d talked about it already. Mia needed a dog. She had attachment and trust issues from her dad cutting their time in the summers at the last minute for three years. From her never knowing when she’d see him again every time she said goodbye. I always did my best to be the dependable one. I showed up when I said I would. I didn’t change plans. I didn’t promise things I couldn’t keep. And I’d promised her we’d get a dog someday, something she reminded me of daily.
By one o’clock in the afternoon, I’d handed in the note from the therapist that said my daughter needed a companion animal with heartbreaking honesty. The pound called and said we were approved. I drove to a box store and picked up dishes, a collar, a leash, and food. I drove to pick Mia up from school. She was expecting her Big Sister to pick her up for their weekly outing, but I stood there with a bright purple leash in my hand. Mia saw it and knew what it meant.
“Are we getting the dog?!” she said. I nodded. “Oh, Mom. Thank you thank you!”
I’d tried to talk myself out of this many times. I’d even sent texts to friends who’d also try to talk me out of it, asking their opinion. They repeated everything I’d told myself. This could go very, very badly in quite a number of ways. She was a scared, homeless mother who’d been abused. I saw too much of myself in this dog. I knew what she needed. We had that understanding already.
DSCN1642 I changed her name from Yogi to Bodhi, the Buddhist term for enlightenment, the true form, and freedom from hatred. It only took her a few days to learn it was hers. She took to us completely, and trotted after Mia from the living room, the bedroom, and back. Bodhi’s curled up body became a fixture wherever Mia settled during the day or at night. After a while, Bodhi even started to appreciate the baby for her baby ways. Coraline likes to crawl over the dog’s middle when she’s stretched out on the floor, pausing to teeter on her belly and laughing.
One night, Bodhi wanted to sleep under Mia’s bed instead of with her, which caused Mia to pout and curl up in a tight ball way up on the top bunk. We’d only had Bodhi for a few days, and I woke up just after midnight to the sound of the dog pacing the hallway, whining. I thought for sure she had to poop and started to worry over how I’d get up and do that without waking the baby.
“Bodhi,” I whispered. Her head appeared immediately in the light of the hallway from my slightly opened door. I patted my bed. She leaped up, turned around a few times, and let out that huge sigh again, resting her head on my legs. My sweet dog. No doubt.
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DSCN1692I look over at Mia and Bodhi lying on the couch together, watching TV on a lazy Sunday morning. Bodhi has her head and front leg draped over Mia’s belly. We’ll take her for a walk later, maybe to that special spot by the creek. Mia complained about having to walk the dog last weekend, but after we were out for a bit she said, “I feel happier for some reason.”
I’ve had the same reaction. I vacuum more. I find myself outside gazing up at the pre-dawn sky every morning before any coffee is made. I walk a mile a day or more. I do laundry more often. I wipe up more drips of drool off the floor. And I feel happier for some reason. A reason that comically snores. A reason that knows when I need to feel her warm, heavy head in my lap. A reason that is currently lying across my feet under the desk.
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I stayed up late a few nights last week, gathering old journal entries and blog posts and digging through notebooks I kept from when Mia was little. I’d forgotten such a huge part of her life.
There are things that happened with her dad that I just don’t tell anyone, or have rarely spoken about. When we finally got out of Port Townsend and away from seeing him every day, I tried my best to forget. Those first two years of her life have a lingering sense of a bad dream with a few images of sweetness here and there. Going back and reading my private journals and logs made me see things without the prison of anxiety. I see Mia differently.
DSC02134She was Coraline’s age when we were first homeless. We lived in this little cottage that served as a shelter with the housing authority. I had a flip-phone and a radio to entertain us. She had one basket of toys. We went for long walks during the day. She talked all the time. Up until that point, she’d been a quiet, watchful baby. After we separated ourselves from her dad, she started crawling and talking and entertaining herself.
For years, I’ve felt guilty for what I put her through. That I endured the abuse and exposed her to it. The constant moving, getting out of Port Townsend, driving six hours every other weekend for visits, her getting shuffled around so much, then moving her to Montana, all felt like I’d put her through hell for my own reasons. Because “selfish bitch” was his favorite thing to call me after “crazy.”
I found this old file I’d written in for a while. It just has dates and records of conversations or incidents. I did it in case we went to court again, and had to stop because I’d dwell on the words too much. Looking back on them now, it’s so obvious what hell we were going through with him. Not just me, but Mia, too. Back then it was normal to hear him call me names and yell. Now I can’t believe it was ever said. One thing’s for certain, we had to get out of there.
DSCN1534Last night, for the first time, I made the girls one dinner. They both ate spiral pasta with red sauce and the three of us sat at the table at the same time. Coraline added “boo” to her vocabulary. I think so, anyway. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say she put another one of her regular sounds into context. She’s gaining a sense of independence, and crawls further away from me when we go places.
This morning, Mia came in to get me up, and woke Coraline up, too. I was all hunched over on my side with my knees almost to my chest to prevent my back from complaining too much. “Cora was up for two hours last night,” I said. “She was wide awake and crawling around the bed. I had to put her in the playpen with my hand over the edge to get a little sleep.”
Mia asked if she could take her and I said a thankful yes. When I came out of my room 15 minutes later, they were both completely dressed with coats and hats on. I decided we deserved a trip through the drive-through coffee stand. I dropped Mia off in front of her school on this patch of grass and gave her a big hug and kiss.
“Thank you for being so helpful this morning,” I said. “You’re such a good kid and a great big sister. You look beautiful today.”
DSCN1541She’s been upping the ante on style lately. This morning she had on purple tights, a dress, a sweater, a purse, white gloves, a jacket, and matching hat. She looked so fancy standing there in the morning sun, unlike me and completely like her. She stood there, beaming, and blew me a kiss, holding her hot chocolate with that fancy white glove and I thought I should take a picture. But by the time I’d gone back to get it, she’d lined up.
“Elastic Heart” by Sia played as we drove to school this morning. I’d heard it plenty of times, but the lyrics grabbed me harder:
You did not break me, I am still fighting for peace.
And it’s all for you, Mia. It’s always been all for you.

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWZGAExj-es&w=560&h=315]

DSCN1452My dear Coraline Cairn,
We’re sitting at the kitchen table together. You’re eating banana pieces. You pick a chunk up with your long fingers, squish it inside your chubby hand, and raise your fist in the air. I imagine you thinking, “Behold! Banana!” but I know you’re not. Before the banana, you ate a puree that came out of a pouch. Whenever you see me take one of these out of the drawer, you start bouncing in your seat and laugh. Eating’s kind of your favorite thing in the world.
I needed to write this months ago. I should have been writing this sort of stuff down in the past nine months that we’ve been getting to know each other. I hardly have pictures of you, let alone a baby book.
What pains me is I know I’ll forget most of this. I won’t remember the sounds you made this morning as you woke up, but that you screamed at the top of your lungs for a whole month. This first year with you will fade to a blur, like your first months already have. I’ll be left with impossibly small onesies, a few photos, and some Facebook posts. My hope is, when you’re hurt by this as an adult, I’ll whisper that you’ve always been my favorite, and all will be forgiven.
Your sister doesn’t have a baby book, either. I did write about her all the time. I’ve been reading those scenes late at night. I can see your big sister at two so clearly through what I wrote. I remember how wispy her hair felt on my cheek. I remember her voice. I remember how impossible some days felt. Some minutes, even.
Even if I don’t end up writing about you as much as I’d like, or take pictures of you other than crappy ones from my flip phone, know that I am mindful of how short of time you’ll be a baby.
With your sister, I fought to own my physical space again, and spent most of the day preparing for bedtime. Almost every decision I made revolved around 7:30 at night when Mia went to bed. I sat in the next room, hoping she slept long enough to give me a break. Your sister started her years with a mom who clawed up the slippery slope that was completely losing herself in motherhood. She had a mom who struggled through depression, questioning her self-identity. Her mom was insecure, anxious, and so stressed.
You, my darling, don’t have to deal with that shit.
DSCN1431You were born to a mother who’d been doing this on her own for quite some time. Being home with you is like a sweet Saturday afternoon instead of crippling isolation and loneliness. I love our little bubble of an apartment, where I plan to keep all of us in for years, instead of moving every few months.
I kiss your sister goodnight in her own room with her big bunk bed and walk out to her Taylor Swift CD. She sets out her own clothes, bathes herself, and even ties her own shoes. Sometimes I offer to make her pancakes and she’d rather play outside with her friends. She reads to herself at night, and has math homework. She talks about boys and watches horrible TV shows that make me miss that blue puppy.
You watch her dance and jump around and laugh. And you’ll be just as big so fast, oh so fast.
So even though I lack in recording memories, know that I hardly ever put you down. I love when you sleep on my chest so I can rest my lips on your head, inhaling deep enough for your hair to tickle my nose. Know that even though we’ll forget most of these first years, you were rarely far from my arms, looking up and smiling at me.
With love.

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“I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”
And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.
And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.”
-Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Keynote Address, University of the Arts, 2012

Emilia and Coraline

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