Generations The Stink of Motherhood
After a few moments of fawning and cooing, I interjected from outside the circle with a shy raised hand: “Hi, I’m the mom.”
We pulled up to the house and parked facing the New Jersey Turnpike, making for a smooth getaway by midafternoon.
I unlatched the baby’s car seat and gathered the discounted gifts we would give to Michael’s grandparents. Michael got out of the driver’s seat and dragged a stunningly large Army-issued laundry bag, a relic of his father’s, toward the front door. It was fitting to have that bag in that “something borrowed” sort of way that kicks off a daunting commitment; in this case, a Christmas party with Michael’s side of the family, whom I’ll call the Meyers. I could tell it wasn’t going to be a white Christmas; the sky was an unambitious shade of cigarette smoke.
Walking into the Meyer home, I made way for the bags and the baby by nudging the front door and hearing it bang against the wall. “Sorry,” was the first thing I said as I stood in the entrance, having forgotten that the door was hollow. I purposely swung our bags to occupy the space where conversation should have been.
During previous holidays at the Meyers’, I would spend the awkward idle moments petting their subdued cocker spaniel with a tumor on its foot. Once the dog fell asleep, I would loiter around the coffee table with my arms crossed behind my back, gazing at pictures in silver frames as if they were on loan from the Met.
“Who’s that?” I’d ask whoever was standing near me with my eyebrows raised to imply interest.
Before the baby I was only obligated to show up and make short, upbeat observations. I felt accomplished by stretching colorless conversations with The Tall Uncle by saying things like: “Yeah, the traffic was rough, but we made good time.” I was fake and it was exhausting.
By the time Michael Jr. was born, the cocker spaniel had died and I was officially part of the family, so I had to branch out. I said generic things about being well, about how the food smelled great, and “You’re right, the baby should be hungry.” Michael’s grandmother, better known as “Mama,” offered me privacy in the back room to breastfeed. The constant job of tending to our son usually reeked of silent resentment toward Michael Sr., but here in ranch-style-home New Jersey, it was the task that kept me busy and secluded. That Christmas, I was content with nursing in that back room and savoring the gift of boredom.
I went to the end of the hallway and unbuckled Michael Jr. from his car seat. Even his diarrhea had the bizarre smell of freshly buttered popcorn. His body, of course, radiated that newborn smell that is somehow conquering in its softness. I changed his diaper then scooped one heavy tit out of my bra, a bra that my mother bought a year or two earlier when she was still buying all of my underwear. After Michael Jr. was settled, I could hear the front door swing open from the other end of the hallway. More people shuffled in with smacks of exaggerated kisses and the crinkle of large gift bags. I prayed silently: Don’t come in, don’t come in .
When we started living together, Michael insisted that we bring every shirt, panty, blazer, bedsheet, hat, and sock we owned every time we visited his grandparents. We would clog that camouflage bag with any marginally soiled clothing and Michael would unload it in their basement. As a college student and too-young mother, I was relieved to save money on laundry, but our clothes would come out smelling like conglomerate rocks spritzed with aerosol fragrance. It was foul only because my own clothes would smell like someone else.
Still, I knew to be grateful. When Michael would wax poetic about how the clothes smelled and hold a freshly dried article up to my nose, I would take a long whiff, or a fake one, and nod in agreement. I did this to affirm his intuition that every quarter we saved on laundry was an investment toward keeping our little family from floating apart.
I knew Michael’s sense of smell was different from mine from the start. Four years prior, I agreed to meet him at his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, for the first time. Far Rockaway is a place made dimly electric by competing vibrations: There are mansions built for New York’s wealthy in the 1930’s, some of which are still inhabited by single Orthodox families with many children to tend to their many responsibilities. Other mansions are subdivided with Sheetrock walls and the many languages of their many tenants.
Michael lived on the beach in a manicured apartment complex with his aunt. A few days after I met him at the mall, he had broken his ankle and had been fitted with a cast. Since he couldn’t leave his home with ease, it was the perfect excuse to be almost alone with him, a plan I knew to keep secret from my mother. When he opened the front door to greet me, I probably flashed my practiced nonchalant smile, as seventeen-year-old me wanted to impress twenty-year-old him. As I stepped inside, a notable scent hit me: It was as dense as an uncooked slab of meat forgotten on a countertop. The apartment was buffed to a high shine, so I understood it wasn’t unkept, just different.
Every home has a smell. Growing up in my father’s house, it would smell like his cologne or the static scent of heated frozen meals. At my mother’s, it was Nag Champa and cumin cracking open in her cast iron. Their smells clashed, only making sense when separated. If I wanted to stay in Michael’s apartment, it was my job to just get used to its scent, to integrate it with my own. After Michael Jr. was born, we moved into the same apartment complex overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, seemingly the edge of the earth, all scents covered by saltiness.
If I wanted to stay in Michael’s apartment, it was my job to just get used to its scent, to integrate it with my own.
I stunk as a mother, and Mama suspected it. If it wasn’t because I hardly combed Michael Jr.’s hair or because I forgot to pack a fourth onesie, it was because I was actually pretty smelly. For the first month or two of Michael Jr.’s life, I was drenched in nervous sweat. I couldn’t even be bothered with using the bathroom the way I used to. I would sit and wonder if my baby stopped breathing while I was selfishly wiping myself.
Pull up my pants, check on Michael Jr.
Lather the soap, check on Michael Jr.
Rinse the soap off my hands and sprint to Michael Jr. in a panic.
I was so convinced that my eyes on him were the only force keeping him alive, so I was too busy to worry about non-mom things like deodorant and shaving my legs. I remembered reading somewhere that a mother’s scent is imprinted in her child’s mind almost immediately. I wondered how I smelled to Michael Jr., but it couldn’t have been worse than how I looked: a wiry 105-pound woman with milk stains on her shirt and eyebrows so unkempt that they curled up on her forehead.
I found solace in the fact that I can hardly recall what my own mother smells like. I’m sure Mommy’s aroma is mounted in me somewhere—like a melody that I can’t precisely recall but that’s always playing in the edges of my mind. I can easily bring myself to feel the roughness of her long black hair: thick enough to suffocate a small animal and long enough that I can remember tasting the ends without her noticing. It was scratchy and bland, and it quickly puffed back to its original form like a sponge fresh out of its packaging.
I can also hear her voice in my mind, always with the indescribable and unintentional tone of worry and hopefulness that mothers portray, especially when they ask over the phone and you are young and they aren’t able to discern your face: “Are you okay?” “Are you sure?” “What do you need?” “I can hear it in your voice.” I can concentrate on my mother through these other senses until they encase me like a lullaby.
Yet to describe her scent, I’d be at a loss. Maybe that has something to do with her staying in Brooklyn after the divorce while the rest of our family moved to the suburbs, the land perfumed with freshly cut grass and my father’s Acqua Di Giò .
Mama Meyer, I assumed, carried with her the old-fashioned motherly scent of cornstarch and lard. Both before and after Michael Jr. was born, I never got close enough to smell her; we hadn’t yet developed any genuine interest in each other. She was merely honoring the role of the great-grandma—make nice and keep ’em coming with your food. I saw her life as the probable projection of my own: We both had children young, perhaps before we had a plan for ourselves.
From what I gathered, parenting was based on instinct and momentum; maybe after years of birthday cakes baked and math homework solved, I could tumble into the effortless motherhood that was Mama Meyer. Maybe after loads of laundry sorted and softened and folded back in its original place, just like magic—except that magic is the kind of work that is only noticed when neglected. Maybe after hearing your name less and less with each passing year, until you think Ma was the name on your birth certificate. Maybe.
I asked Mama if she needed help in the kitchen finalizing our holiday meal, but Mama politely declined. I was relieved as the odor of simmering pork dishes was dense and strange to me, having come from parents who grew up Muslim and abandoned the faith but kept the diet. The Meyers and their cuisine were distinctly African American, as Mama came to New York during the Great Migration. Although she arrived as an infant, she was steeped in Southern Black culture, down to passing on the tradition of cooking black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day and alchemizing intestines to taste like fine dining. My partial Caribbean heritage was tolerated, but not to the extent that I’d be welcome to bring the collared greens to the next event, which would have been the right call. Even the foods and spices that were familiar to me came in odd combinations that made my stomach nervous, like the flouncy yet cutting smell of vinegar mixed with hot sauce.
I’m sure Mama made a side dish just for me and my foreign palate, as she was that hospitable. She was a great cook and a great baker. She probably knew how to churn butter and knit mittens. If it was her face on a box of the “home-style” TV dinners my uncle used to serve, it wouldn’t surprise me. She was the wonderful, capable, trademark-able “Grandma Classic.”
I was not that. I was deciding if I should make an appearance in the crowded living room or go back and see if Michael Jr. was hungry again. I hoped she would intuit, or search her own experiences to consider, that my unwillingness to open myself to her was not a sign of stinginess but of emptiness. I was a girl and a girlfriend, now a mother and woman overnight whose image might land in a silver frame on their mantle. All this while I had yet decided on a major for my bachelor’s degree.
The role of Grandma Classic also involved acting as a guide, dragging me dazed and overwhelmed to what should have been my goal: to connect with my “better half,” which was what Mama called Michael to sidestep the fact that we weren’t married. During a particularly difficult traverse, I initiated one of the two real conversations Mama and I ever had. I asked her if it was normal to have petty arguments with your partner on a regular basis.
“Oh, it’s very common,” Mama said as she sat on the lopsided loveseat in our living room in Far Rockaway. It was a hand-me-down from Michael’s child-free aunt when she left the tristate area to appease her “free spirit.” I relaxed my shoulders.
“I’ll give you an example,” Mama continued. “The other day I asked my husband to wipe the table after he left a mess. And yeah, he muttered under his breath before cleaning it up. Then he stayed in his den for the rest of the day. I knew he was mad. But,” she sounded sunnier, “the next day, he apologized, and that was the end of it.”
I asked her if it was normal to have petty arguments with your partner on a regular basis. “Oh, it’s very common,” Mama said.
The next day? I thought. It was that kind of scenario that had already pummeled me into a corner, ready to play dead on some days and chew off my own foot to escape the trap on others. We fought about poorly ironed clothes, about flirtatious acquaintances, about who ate the last egg. A fight as baseless as whose job it was to place the baby in his carriage could start with me screaming until my lungs were sore and end with me promising myself to only speak when necessary.
I thought for a moment that I could learn to become as reticent as I thought she was. I knew that meant becoming a diluted version of myself, and I wondered with a shriveling heart how many of those decisions I had already made.
I thanked Mama for her advice, but it left me wanting to forfeit her version of adulthood. I liked my parents’ version better, the one that would give me space once in a while, say every other weekend.
Weeks later, as we stood outside of a Turkish restaurant in Brooklyn, Mama and I had our second real conversation. She told me that Black men in their early twenties don’t care for their children the way Michael does. She meant that most wouldn’t care to sign the birth certificate, let alone a two-year apartment lease. Most wouldn’t be so attuned that they could catch the baby from falling off the bed, with one tattooed arm, without even waking up.
The implication that Michael’s parenthood was benevolent and mine was obligatory was unfair, but what I failed to see was the equity in some of our differences. I could have set his PlayStation ablaze with the evil eye as I pumped milk and changed diapers, but Michael happily cared for the baby while I worked evenings. I blamed the patriarchy when Michael insisted that he needed his degree more urgently than I did, but as he gained earning potential, I was granted the elusive modern ability to stay home and bond with our infant. I hadn’t considered the demands of becoming a better half and interpreted it as a life of confinement. I was beyond dispirited. I was stank.
The urgency in her eyes made my mind opaque with guilt. She smelled my weakness. I wanted to be comfortable enough to ask her if she ever felt that marriage and family kept her from knowing who she was. If she ever felt stuck as a supporting character in her own life.
Before the look in her eyes could smother the thoughts in my head, her husband cried out from a few feet away: “Come on, darling! Come on! Let’s goooo! I want to beat the traffic.”
Before Michael Jr.’s first Christmas, the Meyers threw a summer party to celebrate his birth. We were still standing on the curb, yet to drag the laundry bag into the house, when Michael’s extended family crowded around our newborn. After a few moments of fawning and cooing, I interjected from outside the circle with a shy raised hand: “Hi, I’m the mom.”
Once inside the house, we congregated in that back room, where I stood not knowing where to settle my gaze or if it was acceptable to find a seat on the crowded bed. Instead of going back for a third helping of Mama’s chicken wings, I managed to make a few forgettable introductions. In the middle of my tried-and-true small talk, Mama asked to hold Michael Jr. I handed him to her, and she immediately held him up like Simba facing the flatlands. She looked at Michael Jr. and said, “I am the matriarch. None of this would be here if it wasn’t for me.”
Perhaps that was an appropriate introduction to her great-grandson. Perhaps it was an aside to an aloof girl of a woman who had yet to integrate into the family, who’d never touched a chitterling. I could understand her desire to affirm her hard-earned position, but I could have assured her that the position was hers, forever and always; I was pretty sure that they didn’t even make “matriarchs” anymore.
I reached out my arms to hold my baby and buried my nose into his sweet, milky, soapy, new-baby-smell neck and let it take me over. Maybe a trace of the aging washing machine lingered on his neck, or the smell of a newly unwrapped plastic toy. Maybe my natural scent was home to him; maybe he would grow partial to anyone who smelled like pork. What I did know for sure was that I was ready to leave.
I had to wait for my better half, as I didn’t know the way home.