By Genalea Barker
The harsh whirring of the nebulizer breaks the gentle quietude of nighttime. The Mentholatum I applied to my toddler’s chest moments ago coats my fingertips. I rub my hand across the jogger pants I’ve been wearing for three days straight, realizing too late the massive grease stain this will leave, but far too exhausted to care.
A wet cough erupts from my toddler, and he cries out in pain. My voice scratchy and tired, I offer soothing words, rubbing circles on his back with one hand while holding the mouthpiece near his face with the other. A cool mist of albuterol gradually opens his lungs, easing the tight barking which, in recent days, has replaced free-flowing giggles. “You’re okay,” I tell him. “It’s all gonna be okay.”
He relaxes, his face burrowing into the softness of my frame.
It’s not always like this. Sometimes, everyone’s relatively healthy, and I’m merely fatigued from the daily bustle of our routine. Then there are weeks, or even months, where a never-ending cycle of sickness inflicts unmeasurable chaos on my household. Ear infections, pink eye, strep throat, stomach flu, or—currently—croup. It hasn’t stopped for four straight weeks, and I’m running on minimal sleep, caffeine, and E.L. Fudge cookies. I don’t have to wonder where these extra fifty pounds came from.
Pent-up mucus finally breaks free from my little one’s lungs, flying onto my arm. I don’t even flinch. I’ve developed a resilience no amount of bodily fluids can faze. On any given day, my hands have touched unspeakable things, and I’ve tackled toxic-level disaster clean-up.
“There we go,” I say, wiping my arm across the fabric of my shirt. “That’s better, huh?”
He breathes clearly for the first time in hours, and snuggles back against his mama. I silently praise the Lord, and ask—no, beg—for the miracle of sleep. Please let him sleep.
The nebulizer sputters to a stop as I flip the switch, letting pieces fall haphazardly onto the floor. Gently rocking my youngest, I struggle to fathom how he’s already two-years-old, when it seems like only yesterday he was a newborn.
I remember when he was merely a vision of my future. When all my children were wishes, deep in my soul’s core. I ached for them. Prayed for them. And just two weeks after my one-year wedding anniversary, I found myself staring at a positive at-home pregnancy test. I called everyone. I bought onesies. Made lists. My in-laws brought over a crib. The title I longed for more than any other—mom—was finally within my grasp.
Then, I lost the baby.
And the next.
And the next.
I saw their heartbeats on the ultrasound just hours before they died. I saw tiny hands waving at me. I was told everything was fine, not to worry, to go home and rest. Yet each time, I wound up sitting over the toilet, bleeding, vomiting, helpless as my babies slipped away.
Ten years and four children later, I have the family I longed for. But every pregnancy, the painful memories of my miscarriages governed my enthusiasm, or lack thereof. Excitement ebbed and flowed, fighting with the ever-present fear I’d wake up in pain, lying in a pool of blood, forced to say goodbye to another part of me.
Motherhood doesn’t come without a cost. Some dedicate years of their lives to the process, enduring unimaginable loss, or risking financial ruin. And most of them would do it all over again. I would. This little man snoring softly on my shoulder wasn’t simply a figment of my imagination all those years ago. I knew him, and I would gladly go through Hell again to get him, or any of my children.
Maneuvering my tank of a toddler back into his crib, I can only hope he sleeps another few hours without a horrid coughing fit. I check on his sisters, also afflicted by croup, sneaking more Mentholatum onto their chests before refilling the vaporizers and diffusers. My six-year-old seems still for too long, like she’s struggling, and I hold my breath in a silent panic until she rolls over, sighing.
Everyone secure in their beds—for now—I collapse between my sheets, the weight of motherhood crashing down on top of me.
I carry my family on my weary shoulders. Their every little need is also mine. I care for their health at the cost of my own. A multitude of alarms on my phone help me ensure this house runs—barely. I know the individual cries of my children, and what they mean. As any loving mother would.
But somewhere in my deepest, darkest fantasies, I long for a broken bone. Appendicitis. Anything requiring a minor surgery and a one-night stay in the hospital. For just a few hours, I want to not be the one who knows everyone’s social security numbers and allergies and medication dosages and where spare boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese are kept in the pantry. For just a little while, I want nothing to be expected of me.
But then comes the guilt. “Isn’t this what you asked for? Prayed for?” Not only a voice in my head, but the voices of society, telling mothers who cry, “I’m drowning” that her children didn’t ask to be born.
It’s what I tell myself constantly. I lie awake in bed while the house sleeps, listening for the next whimper, over-analyzing my mistakes, making lists, descending into a storm of depression and anxiety, all the while thinking, you wanted this. You have no right to complain.
But loving my children beyond measure shouldn’t mean there’s no room for anything but unrelenting strength. Motherhood is isolating. It’s literal blood, sweat, and tears. Fighting constant battles no one ever sees in a never-ending war in which there are no winners. Day after day, we teeter on the edge of a breakdown, on the cusp of reaching out for reassurance, before telling ourselves to suck it up, and power through, because that’s what mothers do. But we shouldn’t have to. We should be free to ask for help and admit shortcomings without fear of shame or retorts of, “You wanted this.”
Society places moms on a pedestal they have no wish to stand on, then silences all cries for help with, “I don’t know how you do it!” The narrative needs to change. Granted, moms would be the ones in charge of organizing said revolution, and we’re already booked solid for the next eighteen years. I checked.
For now, I think I’ll start by merely being my own advocate. I’ll tell myself it’s okay to relax and let the laundry go unfolded. Leave the dishes for another day. Sleep. That is, until the next child coughs, and I do it all over again.
Genalea Barker is an author, freelance editor, and full-time mom with an Associate’s Degree in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Gemini Magazine, Bookends Review, Grande Dame Literary, Writers in the Attic: Rupture, and others. She is the author of two novels: Life After, debuting February 2023 with Immortal Works, and Lovehurts, releasing July 2024 with Vine Leaves Press. She resides in Southern Idaho with her husband, four children, and two dogs, where she enjoys small town living, playing music with her family, and occasionally getting caught behind farm equipment on the highway. Find her on twitter @genalea_barker and her website: genalea.wordpress.com