As families wrestle with unforeseen stresses and responsibilities during the Covid-19 pandemic, a writer revisits her son’s early years—and the uncertainties of parenting through trauma.
I will spend the first chunk of my son’s life in waiting rooms. Doctors’ waiting rooms, yes, and therapists’–-physical, speech, occupational. I will sit in the chairs in the lobby with a book I won’t read and hand them my child, hopeful that in 50 minutes they will report back that this is unnecessary and they don’t know why we are here. I will watch as they go off down the hall to play with blocks and jump on mats and play what seem just like games, but are actually telling indicators about our future. I will sit by his side at times abandoning the waiting room. I will watch from behind a secret glass so he cannot see me and be distracted. But mostly I will wait in the lobby and look around at the other moms trying to catch their eye, to engage, to form a community.
Mommy and me groups will fail me as I cannot join at the allotted playground playgroup times. I will be taking my son to therapy when the others are off bonding, growing closer, sipping chardonnay from sippy cups, as they say. And so the waiting room is where I will troll for mom friends.
Daily, I will drive to and from our house to the waiting rooms. I will hand my child off each and every time. I will often tell the story of how we got there, hemorrhaged placenta, massive blood loss in utero. Cerebral palsy? Brain damage? Autism? Developmental delay? We do not know yet. I will listen as others tell their stories and I will feel grateful or jealous depending on their severity or lack of it. We will exchange numbers, not always our own, but usually for doctors, experts who can save us.
I will often wander back out to the parking lot while my son is down the hall and wait and cry in my car. I will call my husband at work and review our son’s reports that they will have just handed me in the lobby. I will heave over bolded and CAPITALIZED words and never allow my husband to fully comfort me, for he is somewhere else, not here in these waiting rooms. I am jealous that he will hang up the phone and be able to walk down the street and get coffee or talk with a work friend and not drive back and forth to sit in waiting rooms, never really allowing that this is not just happening to me, but to him as well.
Before these waiting rooms, I will be wheeled into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to meet my son, still on a gurney. I will throw up upon seeing him, wires and monitors everywhere. I will be told he is critical. I will have called my mother informing her she has a grandson, and then I will call her back asking her not to get too excited. I will not be sure he will make it through the night. I will leave my child behind in the hospital as I am allowed to go home and he is not and I will wait until we are told he can go home too. I will wait until his 13th day of life to do so, his mini bar mitzvah, I will joke.
I will believe them when they send us home from the NICU that we dodged a bullet, that he is fine. But I will watch him and at the first sign of any delay I will call for an evaluation. I will traipse us to doctors. Day in and day out. Friends will tell me he is fine and to enjoy this time and I will hate them just a bit for having me have to point out my child’s deficiencies. I will then hate the therapist who does point out his deficiencies, confirming my fears, too glibly, too clinically, who will not see the tired, shellshocked woman in front of her with the child who does not sleep, does not grab, does not wave, does not, does not, does not, does not, all of the does nots will swirl in my mind as I sit and wait.
I will wonder who my baby will become, how this will play out. I will wait and see as my child works down the hall with experts. What do you wait for in these waiting rooms? Yes, you wait for your actual child to come back to you and each and every time it is a lovely greeting of smiles and joy. But these waiting rooms are simultaneously hopeful and dreadful. I will wait for him to be old enough to show me he did not suffer any damage from my placenta. I will wait and wonder how else it could have gone. If only I had called my doctor the day before. I will wait and wonder about insurance and reports and costs, but I will not be aware enough then to think of the actual cost to us as a family.
And I will wait. I will wait for motherhood to start or at least what I thought it would be. Occasionally I will grab at motherhood, defiantly, or what I think motherhood should be. It’s not sitting in waiting rooms multiple times a day I will tell myself. I will drag my son to museums, to classes, to the park. And they will be too loud for him, too much. He will squeal, “Home! Home! Home!” when the too-realistic dinosaur arrives for the Natural History Museum interactive show. And so we will go home. I will learn what he can handle and I will wait again back in my waiting room seat, waiting for him. Waiting for us to get started.
I will think that motherhood is happening somewhere else, without me. That motherhood is fierce, and this one, where I wait, is passive. But giving up my idea of motherhood for what my child needs is fierce. I will not realize this then.
I will worry as I wait that I am so tired, so marked by all of this that he will not know the real me, the fun me, the lovely me. He will know the harried mom, the worried mom, the grasping mom. At least my husband will have known who I once was, will my son? Will he understand the fight, the grit, the commitment? I can only wait and see if it settled deep within his understanding. And that is motherhood in a nutshell: waiting to see how it will all play out.
I will grow to be the mom in the waiting room doling out information, too comfortable at the top of the food chain for having been there too long, as if I am the high school senior of waiting rooms. I will start to go get food while I wait or boldly run an errand. I will actually read the books I bring. I will play with the waiting room toys with my younger son I eventually felt brave enough to have. I will find myself bored as I wait, the greatest revelation, no longer plagued by worry. For my child down that hall, or through that glass, will begin to emerge and show who he is and who he will become. The wait for answers will shorten as he ages and I will see the individual he is, the strength he embodies.
We will graduate from the many waiting rooms eventually, at least daily. There will be cake and balloons from his therapist. And he will smile proudly in one of those small rooms where he was taken without me to play and pose for a picture, a rarity. “No pictures, Mom!” he usually instructs, but this he will want documented.
What will not be documented is that graduating from waiting rooms does not mean leaving it all behind, even though that will be my deep belief at that moment. And that moment of hope will resurface as heart cracks when we stumble, as we most definitely will.
He will ask to go off to sleepaway camp and I will send him. He will teach himself to ride a bike on his own, falling off over and over and getting back up without asking for help from me. He will be elected to the student council after losing the year prior. He will find me frustrating and hovering as mothers of children with special needs can be.
I will eventually have a pre-teen who slams doors in my face and doesn’t allow his brother in his room, and I will amazingly long for the simple times of the waiting rooms of his infancy and toddlerhood of when he ran into my arms down the long white hallway coming back from his therapy. And then I will catch myself and remind myself this was everything I wished for and worried about, wanted and waited on: this, raising this child, this very spirited child. And I will ask time to slow down and to wait up as my child capably steps further and further out into the world away from me, as he will and as he should.
Rachel Zients Schinderman is originally from New York City, but Los Angeles has been her home for more than 20 years. She currently lives in Culver City with her two sons, two dogs and one husband. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Jewish Journal and Shondaland, among other publications.