To Crash Brazenly, Crackling
My infant twins had just spent an undefinable, sprawling length of time screaming, red-faced and rigid, their cries overlapping and escalating, and as they whimpered, finally, into sleep, I kept holding them to my chest as securely as I could. One trembling arm under both butts, one behind their newly more stable necks. One thought circling back on itself: If they start crying again, I will actually die. That's when it occurred to me to record a video.
It came from a bitter place at first. The place I tried not to visit too often. The bottomless pit that called out in despair, "I never wanted twins. I didn't ask for this." Mothers are reminded at every turn to cherish our babies, even when -- no, especially when -- we most want to run or cry, or both. With only one baby, I bristled at such platitudes. With a toddler and infant twins, I was ready to burn the world down.
Although twins are actually pretty common, people are still majorly enamored with them. They seem special. And there are certainly times when they feel special to me. But overwhelmingly, particularly during my heavy, painful pregnancy and their live-wire infancy, having two babies at the same time was simply daunting. Those sweet baby moments, those adorable twin moments, too, came sandwiched between a lot of crying, a lot of feeling torn in two or three different directions, and a lot of failure, each one mounting and deepening the stack.
When I opened my camera on my phone, what I really wanted was a record of the grating, ear-piercing squall of two babies screaming in stereo. I envisioned forcing everyone who told me I was so lucky to watch it at full volume. I wanted to capture the wild panic in my eyes as I struggled to soothe them, as they each kept wailing because the other one was still wailing. I recorded the moment anyway, even though now they were settling. I still looked wild. That moment was a piano wire on the verge of snapping. I was on the verge -- always, every day, waiting for the moment when I would just... break. And I was so lonely, always in service of three children, anticipating needs and meltdowns, rarely ever able to sit and breathe. If I was going to break in that moment, as my arms burned under the weight of my two writhing babies, damn it, I was not going to fall silently in the anonymous forest that was my motherhood. I was going to crash brazenly, crackling, knocking loose a suffocating cloud of dust and musty floor cover.
Everyone was going to see me. Really see me.
With my first baby, I was the mom who updated my Facebook and Instagram feeds multiple times a day with pictures -- and that was just a fraction of the photos I took. I experienced postpartum depression and anxiety with him, too, but taking pictures made me feel like a good mom. I was also trying to give myself a piece of what PPD/A were stealing from me, like a thief breaking in in broad daylight and waving hello as she got to business ransacking the place. I believed I could guard his infancy by documenting everything so that when I came out of the fog and my memories blurred and overwrote each other, I could pull up images and see that he was okay, that I was there, that I loved him enough to pin down what otherwise would have fluttered away on the smallest breeze.
But with my twins, my impulse to document the experience was not motivated by the fear of losing my memories or missing out on the days that were supposed to be so wonderful. I was angry. I was aggrieved. I didn't want to remember them screaming, my body aching, the way the air around me buzzed with a threat I could not fend off. This time, the documentation wasn't for me. When I turned my camera on my kids, on me struggling with my kids, I was making ammunition. I was striking matches. Something burning in my chest came alive and fanned its wings at the thought of making people look at me, not at my best as a mother, but at my worst.
If I was trapped in the van with all three kids screaming, I recorded it. Yes, I thought. Just wait til they hear this. If I had just showered for the first time in five days and one of the babies immediately spit up all over my clean shirt, I took a picture. Yes, baby. Thank you for this gold. When I reached for my phone to document the little disasters of my everyday, I broke the moment open long enough to step away, see it from a safe distance. Instead of swallowing down a silent scream, I turned my focus to framing the scene, observing -- neutrally.
A funny thing happened. In the midst of chaos, I began to hope it got just a little bit worse. And it wasn't because I had given up and was ready for a quick, clean end to it all. I was beginning to find everything kind of... funny. Like, Here I am in the backseat of my van in the Target parking lot with my breasts out, one baby crying and trying to nurse, one baby crying and about to writhe off the seat, and my toddler at the front of the van, bumping the heat to 85, shouting the Alphabet Song at the top of his lungs. How ridiculous do we look right now? What if someone peeked in the window? And just like that, I was the person peeking in through the window, marveling at the shit-show for a moment, and then walking away. When the story wasn't happening in the claustrophobic intimacy of my tiny bubble, I felt less victimized by it.
And so I became eager for the drama to ratchet up just a bit more, to make a better -- funnier -- story. After all, I am a writer. Story is my gold, and I was practically sitting on a glory hole of material. I grabbed my phone for everything. I didn't want to miss a single, terrible moment.
The more I documented our little house of horrors, the more I caught the sweet things, too -- the twins holding hands across my chest while they nursed, their brother kissing them; and me, there, loving them in a brief, rare interval of calm.
I made a little movie when my twins turned one to show at their birthday party. It included a mix of video and photos set to various instrumental songs. It included the heart-warming parts of our first year but also a hearty helping of the other, less Instagram-perfect material I'd accumulated. And I was there among it all, smiling and crying and glaring, feral, at the camera. Because it had been a transformative year for me, too. The babies had grown and hit all kinds of milestones, and so had I. I no longer fantasized about shocking those around me who thought of my twins only positively, as double the blessing; I just wanted to celebrate what I was still in the process of over-coming, and of becoming.
Our party guests were understandably quiet during the stretch of crying I had melodramatically set to the funeral march. Afterward, my father would pull me aside and say, "I had no idea what it was really like for you." This was exactly what I had been searching for months before, when my little project started -- a witness. As it played, though, I stood at the back of the room, fighting back an absurd wave of laughter. The edges had softened on those moments. The relentless accumulation was, now, completely ridiculous.
Although the mission to record the ugly parts started as an airing of grievances, I ended up truly loving these pieces that are often forcefully forgotten by parents. So many of us struggle in a culture that tells us to appreciate every aspect of caring for our children, and we aren't sure what to do with the days that feel like epic failures or the nights of colicky screaming that make us afraid to move or breathe too deeply. With my first baby, I felt ashamed of those unspeakable parts. I made myself give gratitude for my baby's health, for our home, for anything that might make my problems seem small instead of massive, like I could beat back the despair with the fear of enduring worse. This made me feel guilty for struggling in the first place and angry that I wasn't supposed to complain. There's definitely value in putting our problems into perspective and giving gratitude, but it's not a full-stop solution to feeling ambivalent about the complexity of motherhood.
I no longer think of ambivalence in motherhood as a problem to fix in the first place.
I try to simply be honest, place the beautiful images right up against the messy ones, assigning them the exact same importance and the exact same appreciation. I love that, in addition to holiday photos and back and forth baby giggles, I get to see my raw vulnerability and fear, my determination and resilience. I have a record of things that are so easy to forget -- limits tested, moments of humility, the steadying breath you take before you open a door and walk through. I get to see my own progression from frazzled and fearful to more assured, even hopeful. Do you know how powerful that is?
I thought I was documenting my hardest parenting moments to eventually gain vindication, to guilt the world around me, to prove that my life was unfair. In the end, of course, this wasn't what happened. Just like the first time, when I took all those pictures of my baby to gift my future self with proof of my love, the documentation of my twins' first year ended up being an unexpected gift for me. When I face obstacles now, I can pull up those images from my crash course of parenting three little people and see, right there, in all that evidence, that I struggled and endured anyway.
And it's not about the nobility of maternal suffering because I reject the myth that mothers have to suffer, like it's an essential part of the identity. It's about the neutral fact of my own resilience. When the story I want to tell myself is that I am not capable, that I am going to break, I instead look at the proof. I have been capable before. So I can be again.