Have you ever felt closer to the divine than the first time you held your newborn child?
Masks may offer protection.
Have you ever felt more in need of protection – for yourself? For that tiny human being entrusted to your care?
Masks may allow us to inhabit new roles.
Mother: the role for which none of us can truly prepare. No wonder new moms need masks.
Many of us have hidden behind masks at one time or another. I’d been plenty awkward in my early adolescence – glasses, braces, chubby, smart and sensitive. I knew all about masks and how it was important to wear one in junior high if you didn’t want to go home in tears.
By my later teens and into my 20’s, I’d become more comfortable in my own skin, comfortable enough to leave the masks behind. In fact, by the time I reached 30, I was articulate, confident, well-traveled and married to a handsome man who was crazy about me. I was also a new mother.
I so wanted to do this right. And I was buzzing with anxiety about what “doing it right” actually meant.
Just like in junior high, insecurity summoned the mask. I was like a welder looking straight into the flames, and if I didn’t pull that shield down quick, who knows what damage might result?
The problem was that my Perfect Mom mask was like those Halloween masks from the 1970’s with the eye holes that impaired your vision. With my Perfect Mom mask, I could only see what I wanted to see. My son’s perfect, long fingers and eyelashes. His shock of soft, dark hair. What I missed were his glowing pumpkin cheeks and the yellowish tinge to the whites of his eyes.
When I brought my baby to the pediatrician’s office for his first check-up, ten days after we had been discharged from the hospital, my Perfect Mom mask was carefully in place. I had managed to shower and dress both of us in clean clothes. If we didn’t run into traffic, we should make it to the office in time for his next feeding. My husband had already returned to work, and I was on my own.
My mask stayed in place as we sat in the crowded waiting room for 40 minutes past our appointment start time. My mask stayed in place as we were finally ushered into an examination room. My mask even stayed when the doctor took one look at my severely jaundiced son and said that he was sending us to the hospital immediately. I was the adult. I needed to keep it together.
So I strapped my baby into his car seat and buckled him into the back of my car. We returned to the hospital where I had delivered him less than two weeks before. I carried him to the NICU (as there were no beds available in the pediatric ward due to an influenza epidemic) and watched the nurses strip him down to his diaper, place blue “shades” over his eyes and lay him in the bassinet under the bili-lights. All of this with my mask in place.
When the nurses sent me to the waiting room, where I sat alone, my mask may have slipped. I heard my baby’s sharp cries, his heels pricked to test bilirubin levels, tears streaming down my cheeks. I read the thank you cards on the bulletin board from parents who had been in the NICU before me, parents whose babies were faced with much more dire diagnoses than mine.
But the mask didn’t fall away entirely until my aunt walked into the reception area of the NICU. As she enveloped me in a hug, all pretense dissolved. There was nothing to hide. I was scared and felt more vulnerable than I had ever been in my life.
Finally, I had someone to take care of me.
“Welcome to motherhood,” she said as she patted my back. “This is just the beginning.”
And then she laughed a little, a reassuring laugh, a reminder maybe that since the line between comedy and tragedy is often a thin one – masks again – we might do better to choose the side that’s smiling.
Jennifer Hernandez lives in Minnesota where she teaches middle school and writes poetry, flash, and creative non-fiction. She has performed her work at a non-profit garage, a taxidermy-filled bike shop, and in the kitchen for her toughest audience – her three sons. Her recent work has appeared in The Good Mother Project, Mothers Always Write and Silver Birch Press, as well as Bird Float, Tree Song (Silverton Books) and A Prince Tribute (Yellow Chair Press).
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