It was one of those days when the toddler was being a toddler and the infant was not sleeping, and there was too much yelling and frustration on all sides. As I lugged the two-year-old up to his bed for a nap, I babbled on about needing to be kind to his baby brother, Nathan, so he learns to be kind in return (a follow-up to my “Don’t ever throw books at your brother!” eruption a few minutes earlier). JJ argued with me that he really needed to get back down and eat his sandwich (he’d already eaten it) and then fix the cars and draw.
“Are you listening to me, bud?” I asked.
“Ahh, nooo,” he sang. At least he was honest.
I checked on Nathan in the nursery as JJ ran laps around the second story of our house, yelling down the stairway to our hound dog, “You can’t catch me, Zo-dy!” I wound up the baby’s mobile as tightly as possible and whispered softly, “I’ll be right back, bud. I just need to get your brother down for his nap.” He spit out his pacifier. I gave it back. He sucked on it twice, spit it back out, and smiled. I groaned. If he wasn’t going to keep the pacifier in, I was in for a noisy nap time routine with the toddler.
I took a deep breath before leaving the temporary calm of the nursery for the chaos of the hallway. I corralled JJ into bed, crawled in next to him, and picked up the book he had already started whipping open and closed. Another Dr. Seuss, I thought. When I tried to skip ahead during One Fish, Two Fish in hopes of finishing sooner, he snatched the book from me and yelled, “No! That page!”
Eager to get back to the nursery, where the baby had been fussing for too many rhyming tongue twisters already, I also wanted to fight this impulse to attend to the baby at the expense of the toddler. Will I ever learn to meet the needs of both my kids? Everyone else knows what they're doing. I took another deep breath and told myself the baby would be okay for a few minutes.
I settled in and read all the rhymes as JJ squirmed and shouted out his favorite words.
Just before I shut the door after finishing our routine, he cried “Mommy, wait!” I opened it again, exasperated and fully prepared to deflect one of his stalling tactics.
“Mommy, Mommy!” He paused, wiggling and doing his best to stay seated under the enormous Batman blanket as he searched for the right word. “Mama, sings?” He blinked, twisted his monkey lovie between his fingers and waited for my answer.
My heart exploded. My baby asked me to sing to him.
* * *
In seventh grade, I tried out for the school choir. I confidently, enthusiastically prepared my audition piece: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I crouched in my parent’s living room, held my Walkman up to the stereo speaker and played our holiday CD until my finger cramped from holding the record button down. I sang that song in the shower, as I walked to the bus stop, and as I did my chores. I listened to it in between classes and on the bus ride home. I had no doubt about my ability to rock it. The judges were going to listen to me, marvel in my excellence, and wish they’d had me in the group the previous year, too.
On my assigned tryout night, my mom drove me to school and I rested my voice, carrying half of the conversation in nods and hand gestures. When the choir teacher called my name, I walked onto the stage, into the spotlight, and froze. I faced the unending auditorium of judgment from an unfamiliar vantage point. Wait a minute! The people up here always know what they’re doing! What am I doing here? I belong down there!
The choir director asked me if I was ready and I managed to squeak out a timid “yes.”
The music began playing. I tried closing my eyes and picturing myself at home in my room. I imagined I was spread across my bed, letting my head hang off the edge just a little, my feet up on the wall. I took a breath and began singing, pretending to stare a hole into my blue suede Candies.
All I remember about the actual performance is that I made the questionable choice to add an echo. I tried to be my own backup singer, tripping over myself the entire time.
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindee-nosed-reindeer.” Someone really should have stopped me.
I vaguely remember attending a meeting in the music room a few days later, when the first round of qualifiers would be announced. I remembered the ridiculous echo I’d sung, in an awkward falsetto, no less, and shame coursed through my veins. I can’t let my friends learn how bad I am at this, I thought. Everyone else knows what they’re doing. I don’t belong here. I bailed before the director was a minute into her introductory remarks.
I never sang in public again.
* * *
One night, early in my firstborn’s life, I stood over his teeny body at the changing table, bleary eyed and swaying on legs that begged for rest. I suddenly realized I hadn’t been interacting with him. He grinned at me and wiggled in excitement and all I could think about was going back to sleep. Shame burned through me as I confronted the drastic difference between the mother I am and the mother I imagined I’d be. Everyone else knows what they're doing. I don't belong here. I can’t let anyone know how bad I am at this.
My son was my only audience and I swore I would always show up for him. So I took a deep breath and sang.
I made up two songs for my little guy: one I sang before putting him down to sleep every time after that night and another one I sang during the day as I soothed him. In those moments so charged with inadequacy, I reached back to my childhood and clung to a practice that had once given me confidence.
They are silly, nonsensical songs, containing lyrics that spilled out of me when I turned to words to find a way to connect with my babe. When I was back to work and bedtime felt like the only quality time I had with him, I sang his lullaby three or four times over, dragging out my goodnight, wishing I could stretch the evening hours just a little bit longer.
I whispered the words in desperation through the long nights he had croup. I sang breathlessly as I raced to the emergency room after he fell off a chair--at each red light, I twisted in my seat and shook him awake as my voice broke and my fear grew. In times when emotions ran high, the sound of my voice sometimes calmed him, but perhaps more importantly, the act of singing calmed me.
It hadn’t occurred to me JJ would one day have an opinion about these songs. Or that one day so soon he would be the one hoping to drag out the bedtime routine.
* * *
That afternoon, I snuggled back into bed with him and sang my song, off-key as ever and shakier than usual. I haven’t regained the confidence of that twelve-year-old dancing in her bedroom and dreaming of the school choir, but I no longer care who knows that I can’t carry a tune.
Motherhood drug me back up to the stage and left me there.