I need to live in a new paradigm as a mom. I want a both/and. I want to be both a good mom and a good model of how to honor yourself.
Is it enough to just survive a pandemic? My best friend lost over 30 pounds. She is radiant. My neighbor launched a children’s book publishing house. Me? I got through as best I could. In a blink, I became my son’s primary playmate, teacher, and social worker in addition to my solo parent role. It left me depleted. And searching.
* * *
Years ago, long before my son and I adopted each other, my mother told me that I was not strong enough to be a parent. Her rationale was that I cried too hard, too often, and for too long. Today, at 52, all three are still true. It’s how I came into the world: open, sensitive, empathetic. I no longer think that it makes me weak. I believe it makes me real.
This fall will mark my seventh anniversary as a solo mom, and like the coleus with its new stalk of tiny purple buds, I can no longer push down what hungers for expression.
Hunger was once a constant companion in our home. My son and I became a family when he was 34 months old. He weighed a mere 20 pounds. Born in Haiti, he lived in a creche with 50 other infants, toddlers, and school-age children. He wore 12-month-old clothes. His face was narrow, his belly fully distended. The bright orange tennis shoes I bought him, which he refused to take off even during naps, were sized for an infant. Not a soon to be three-year-old.
My son knew hunger. Daily hunger so common and pervasive, his mind paid it no heed. He learned to ignore it in order to survive. There was nothing he could do to alter his meal plan. Like the other kids, he ate what he was served. No one asked him if he liked it. No one made him a pbj with the crusts cut off when he didn’t. Older children often swiped the occasional special treat—a shortbread cookie or slice of fresh pineapple—right out of his hands.
A deeper terror gnawed at his insides too: I could go away.
We had no choice but to face it together, navigating both severe malnourishment and early childhood trauma—all the experiences he lived through in his early years that upheaved his sense of safety and belonging. It took several months to kill the tapeworms that made a home in his gut, and many more years before he learned to advocate for himself at a friend’s house and say: “Excuse me, I am hungry.”
Our earliest days together required a reset. He had to learn to trust me, first as his mom –a concept that was equally novel to him (and me), and second as his primary source for food, compassion, and fun. Ideally, I wanted him to believe that he would never again have to fear a shortage in any of the three. I hoped it would all happen quickly.
But on our first night together in our home, after 16 hours of travel, special immigration offices, and his inaugural ride in a car seat, he devoured three bananas in rapid succession. The next day, and every day thereafter, he licked his bowl clean, literally. Haitian red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs. Despite popular belief, it is not easy to “fatten up” a malnourished child. His body expelled everything he ate, multiple times a day.
A deeper terror gnawed at his insides too: I could go away. Food could go away too. From his lived experience, the unthinkable had already happened. When we became a family, Haiti “went away.” Some of his friends and other children at the creche who were adopted before him went away, without any real explanation. His family of origin disappeared too.
On the advice of our social worker, I launched “cracker therapy.” Every morning my son got his very own bowl of Keebler Clubhouse crackers. He loved them. They sat on his little blue table in our kitchen, in clear view and easy reach. I explained to him in Kreyol that he could eat crackers whenever he wanted to. And he did: two at a time, one in each hand, while adeptly building block towers and rolling our suitcase up and down the hallway.
Once his bowl was empty, which happened frequently, he cried hysterically and pointed wildly toward the green Keebler box that sat atop our refrigerator. I eventually took to hiding the box in the cupboard, out of sight. But I always refilled his bowl with fresh crackers. I needed him to understand that I was his protector against hunger, that I could spare him this pain. It’s what moms do, I told him. We feed you. We love you. We play with you. I started texting friends to drop off more Keebler boxes on our front stoop late at night so I could sneak them into the cupboard without any unwanted trauma.
Then one day, it happened. He stopped eating the crackers. They sat in the bowl on his little blue table, untouched. The social worker had assured me this would happen, but after eight weeks of nonstop Keebler mania, I’d grown weary. I was already panicking about sending him off to college with crackers in his suitcase. But the next day, he ignored the crackers again. The day after that, the same. I was astounded, and still uncertain.
Three weeks passed, and a friend told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to throw out the ridiculously stale crackers that were still sitting in the bowl, untouched. Perhaps I needed to learn something about trust as well.
Building trust, I learned, is not a one-time event. It is a daily practice, a constant recommitment, sometimes hourly, sometimes minute by minute.
We enjoyed our Keebler-free days until he started indiscriminately announcing: “Mama, m’grangou.” (I am hungry.) This was declared at every transition point: getting dressed in the morning (even after eating a full breakfast), walking to the park, walking home from the park, cleaning up his cars and trucks before getting ready for bed. I tried naming his emotions instead. “You are tired right now. You are feeling sad because you had to say goodbye to your friends at preschool. You do not want to leave the park.”
“Mama,” he consistently replied, in varying tones of agitation. “M’grangou.”
I soon learned how common this phase is, too. The social worker said, “You need a snack pack.” Enter the small yellow zip pouch filled with Cheerios, graham crackers, and a strawberry cereal bar that accompanied us everywhere we went: to and from preschool, the park, a quick drive to the airport to pick up my brother who was coming for a visit. We never left our home without it. Whenever he said he was hungry, he got access to food. No questions asked.
Building trust, I learned, is not a one-time event. It is a daily practice, a constant recommitment, sometimes hourly, sometimes minute by minute. We still keep a pack of emergency graham crackers in our car. Trust is what grounds our relationship to ourselves and to those around us—and fuels us with a growing sense of safety and belonging. It allows us to flourish, to bring our full selves into the world. It is what binds my son and me together.
Two years passed, and the yellow snack pack was no longer required. His body caught up with his peers, his shoe size too. Today, at nine years of age, my son listens to hunger and can feed himself, grabbing a snack from the cupboard when he needs it. It’s me who has forgotten how to trust my hunger. I ignored it in order to survive the pandemic.
* * *
I really don’t know how I let it get this bad. And, yet I do. It’s nearing the end of the summer and this is my first child-free, work-free weekend since we became a family almost seven years ago. I waited way too long. But for the pandemic which canceled my 50th birthday trip, it would have been five. These days when I look in the mirror, I am startled by the steeliness of my eyes, gray and cold. My smile is flat, my face thin. Even my fake-it-till-you-make-it grin is limping. I have lost interest in pretending. I am tired. Period.
The terror that gnaws at my insides mirrors that of my son: I can go away. I can lose myself. It’s already happening. For nearly seven years, I have put the needs of my son before my own, his hunger over mine. I have pushed through, again and again and again, as a solo mom to protect him, to build his sense of safety, to soothe his fears, to honor his needs without heeding the wisdom of my own. It is him or me, and in my mind, he is the automatic choice.
It’s what a good mother does, I told myself.
But today on my solo weekend, I make a different kind of decision. I listen to my gut and invite my oldest friend to go ziplining. I’m hungry for a story. A story of adventure and trust. I’ve never gone ziplining before, and even though I read the website and sign the waivers, I somehow miss the fine print. I imagine that ziplining means you just sail down from high above. How you get to that high above place—and to the next one and the next one after that—I do not consider. Nor do I fully calculate in my fear of heights.
Strapped into our harnesses, my friend and I soon find ourselves ascending over 40 feet ladders and making our way across suspension logs, tight wires, nets, and floating bridges in what they term “tree-to-tree crossings.” Why there have to be so many crossings before you get to the zipline, I do not know. All I know is that sometimes I strain every muscle to steady myself, and other times, I repeat the word “trust” and my body visibly relaxes as I lean over gaping holes in between the suspended pieces of wood that sway wildly as I cross to the next tree.
“All I’m thinking,” my friend hollers back at me once when her legs are trembling badly (and my heart is racing), “is that we could be at the spa right now getting a massage!” The treetops erupt with laughter. “I’m sorry,” I holler back. Only I’m not really sorry.
On one particularly terrifying tight rope, I crouch down and grip the tether line. Every time I reach for support from the knotted ropes to my right, I lose my balance. I hear myself holler out to my friend, panicked. Then I sink down deep inside. I stop speaking. I stop thinking. I laser into my feet, even though looking down is not exactly what I want to do so high above the ground. I move my foot an inch. Then the other foot the same. It takes a mighty long time to traverse 25 feet of tightrope at that pace, but I do it. I practically hug the tree when I reach it. Standing on that platform, I am shaky and tired—and alive.
My job as a mom is not only to protect and serve, but to live. No matter how shaky or tired. No matter how long the pandemic lasts.
By the time we finally get to the zipline, I am no longer afraid of it. It is over 500 feet long. My heart beats loudly in my chest, but I lean into it and let the zipline carry me, arms outstretched, exhilarated. I have not smiled like that since before the pandemic—full, genuine, real.
I realize, walking back to the car, that I am much more than who I remember myself to be. I feel the energy in my toes, the lightness of my thoughts. Today, I trusted my hunger and it brought me to new heights within myself. This is the “me” I want my son to see and emulate.
I need to live in a new paradigm as a mom. I want a both/and. I want to be both a good mom and a good model of how to honor yourself. I want him to see me take breaks every day, so he learns that it is good to take breaks. Wise, too. I want him to witness me trusting my instincts and taking risks, so he learns to stretch beyond himself. I want him to marvel as I work toward my dreams, so he learns to commit to what he loves most.
My job as a mom is not only to protect and serve, but to live. No matter how shaky or tired. No matter how long the pandemic lasts. No matter how many Keebler crackers, snack packs, and emergency graham crackers are needed. Hunger matters. It builds lasting trust.
I may have survived what I hope is the worst of the pandemic, but now I yearn for my own transformation. “After the final no,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “there comes a yes.” This is my yes, my reset, my sliver of transcendence. The pandemic does not get the last word. Neither does hunger.
Karen Skalitzky is a writer and adoptive mother of one. She currently serves as a communications director for a national education leadership nonprofit. A former educator and coach, she has over twenty years of transforming underperforming schools into the kinds of schools all children deserve. She loves books of all kinds and reading with kids of all ages. She lives in Chicago with her nine-year-old son.