Writers Institute

Jumpstart Maternal Nature

Jen Herman


She didn’t look like a stripper, at least not how I thought of strippers at the time. Back then, if you were to say to me, “Jen, describe a stripper for me,” I probably would have said something like this:

Her body is frail with protruding hipbones, and a rib cage covered with skin stretched thin as a bat’s wing and oranged from a life partially settled inside a tanning bed; she is dressed in clothes tighter than spandex, and barely maintains decency; her silicone breasts are scarcely concealed behind a black tube top the size of a censor bar; she intentionally wears her pink, laced thong higher than the lip of her ultra-low-rise jean shorts, which her legs, thinned down to stalks, jut out of. Her feet, the toes of which are perfectly pedicured to match the color of her fingernail extensions—a deep, seductive red wine—are shackled in black, strappy stilettos, which try to offset the fact that her legs are the same size from thigh to ankle. And don’t even get me started on her hair and makeup.

That was a stripper to me—a floozy with a penchant for indecent exposure—who probably had more juices flowing between her legs than in her brain. But Sara wasn’t any of those things. Sara, who stumbled into the smoking section of Denny’s at two a.m. on a cold Tuesday morning in February, swinging a baby carrier like a pocket book, was plain and ordinary, and she knew it. She tried to hide it behind the red streaks, the ones that earned her the stripper name Scarlet, in her otherwise bland hair. Tried to hide it in her outfit—frumpy and covering layers of clothing that deceived the eye, making you wonder whether the rolls around her mid-section were fabric or fat. But mostly she tried to hide it behind her attitude: a cross between the womanly seductress she tried to be and the pre-menstrual symptomatic child that she was.

By looks alone she was twenty-seven, but in reality she was only nineteen—a few months older than I was. When Sara plopped down several booths away from me and two of my friends after tossing the baby carrier in before her, we thought little of it. In that moment, she was a complete stranger to us. That status didn’t last long.

I sat next to my roommate Gia, a stereotypically loud Italian (who even called herself a greasy Dego in jest), and across from our friend Justin. The three of us looked at each other silently, and then back at Sara and the woman sitting across from her, who could only be described as morbidly obese. With a growl, Gia stubbed her cigarette out, saying loud enough so that Sara and her companion could hear, “I would never bring my kid into the smoking section.”

Justin and I followed suit and put our own cigarettes out as well, and though our attention remained on Sara, Justin and I attempted to pick up our conversation—one of the many ethical discussions we always managed to have in Denny’s before Gia turned them into a tyrannical debate.

We might have been talking about politics, or what we should have learned that day in philosophy, but the conversation was hollow as we all distractedly shot disgusted glances towards Sara—so distracted, in fact, that the conversation came to a dead halt as Sara left the table to go to the bathroom.

Once Sara was gone, her fat friend gripped the baby between her meaty hands, and plucked her from her carrier. She held the baby tightly, as if she were trying to pop her, and though I didn’t notice it at the time, the baby’s head tilted back from lack of support. What I did notice was Gia as she quickly jerked out of her seat and practically ran towards the table, her giddy voice forced, “Hey, is that a baby? Can I hold her?”

Before Fatty even consented, Gia grabbed the baby from her arms and held the child differently—what I later learned was correctly: arms securely around the body, head supported.

“Sure,” Fatty said belatedly.

Justin and I exchanged looks of amusement, and then looked back at the woman. This sudden action of Gia’s was not really so sudden if you knew her; Gia rarely held anything back.

As Gia cradled the silent child in her arms, Sara came back to the table, saying rather nonchalantly, “Why are you holding my baby?”

Gia smiled, casually told Sara how adorable her baby was, and that she missed her own baby niece and nephew so badly that she felt the need to hold the baby, a half-truth—the other half being her concern for the baby’s well-being. I felt nervous for Gia—I didn’t understand how she could act so calm getting caught with a stranger’s baby randomly in her arms, but it didn’t faze her at all.

“So, what’s her name?” Gia asked.

“Grace. And my name is Sara.”

I snorted, thinking to myself that it was odd to know a baby’s name before her mother’s. As Gia and Sara continued to converse about babies and their experiences, I felt both bored and neglected. I was never any good with children and knew that I had nothing to contribute. Instead I stayed in the booth and sulked, even when Justin got up to stand with Gia. It was just a baby. What was the big fuss about her?

“You’re so good with kids,” Sara said. “Do you babysit?”

I froze in my seat as I heard these words, because I knew what they insinuated: a job offer. The last thing I wanted was a baby in the dorm room, and something about this situation told me that Gia wouldn’t be watching Grace at Sara’s current residence. Perhaps it was the sheer fact that this conversation was taking place in Denny’s at an obscenely early hour, or that the baby was in the smoking section, but somehow I knew that Sara was not the type of person to think twice about leaving her kid at a college dorm to cry and make all sorts of noise while I was trying to do schoolwork.

“Oh, yeah!” Gia replied. “I’m certified and everything. I practically brought up my niece and nephew.”

Gia went on about how she missed the babies she was constantly surrounded by at home, and I continued to hope that she wouldn’t accept the child that Sara was practically throwing at her.

“Do you think you’d be interested in babysitting for me? I could really use the help.”

“Fuck,” I mouthed, and looked towards Gia in a panic, thinking, Please say no, please say no.

“Uh, well, I’m a college student.”

I felt momentary relief as it seemed like Gia was actually thinking about this semi-rationally. Yes, you’re a college student. You have no time for babies.

“Well, I don’t really have normal working hours. I would need you to watch her at night.”

Even better, I thought sarcastically, then she would be disturbing my sleep. This was not really true—I was a self proclaimed insomniac, and rarely slept more than two hours a day.

“Oh, really? What do you do?”

“I’m a dancer.”

A stripper, I thought, as if the word was some horribly crude expletive. I watched surprise streak across Gia’s face before she suppressed it. Justin looked towards me with the slightest grin, as if making sure I heard it too. One more reason to add to the list of why this was a bad idea.

“Oh . . . okay,” Gia said, with a forced smile. She nodded her head in what Sara must have thought was approval, or perhaps she was used to such reactions and knew, like I did, that it was Gia’s attempt to act serious and restrain from laughing.

Our waiter stopped by our table to drop off our check, and as Justin and I prepared to leave, Gia continued to converse with Sara. Sara’s friend still sat in her booth, and in a strange way, I felt just as invisible as she was as I stood by Gia’s side. Sara coaxed Grace from Gia’s arms, set her back in her baby carrier, and wrote down Gia’s number.

“I could really use you on Friday night,” Sara said.

Gia looked at me, catching me off guard. She asked, “Is that okay with you?”

Now everyone was looking at me, all wishing for the same answer—it almost seemed as if Sara just wanted to pawn her baby off, so much so that she didn’t care if it was a college kid no older than herself that she had met fifteen minutes ago in Denny’s. Gia wanted a baby, anyone’s baby, regardless of the consequences. Justin probably wanted to go home, and the quickest way of doing that was for me to just say yes. The only one who didn’t seem to want me to consent was Sara’s friend, as she was the only one who remained silent. As much as I had felt neglected earlier, I wished that I could have hid behind her, and then the two of us could have stayed just as transparent as she remained.

I looked to Gia, who eagerly anticipated my answer, though it felt as though I had already agreed as she turned to play with Grace, twirling a pacifier in front of her face, not even waiting for my response. “Sure,” I said. “That’s fine with me.”

•  •  •

Friday night, Sara came with Grace, two hours later than expected. Gia waited for her with Justin by Weber Chapel from 4:30 to 6:25, when she finally showed up claiming to have had car troubles. I, having no interest in waiting with them, went about my own business in the dorm room, wanting to savor the space before it was invaded.

When Gia called telling me they had the baby, I walked to the campus dining hall with our friend Rob to meet her and Justin there. I don’t remember Rob’s reaction to the situation specifically, though it probably went along the lines of: “Wow. Gia’s pretty crazy. A baby?” The last word of course would be enormously exaggerated as his voice raised several octaves, and his eyebrows, mimicking his voice, rose as well.

Gia was in Justin’s leather coat when they got there, and her own coat and scarf were thrown over the baby’s carrier. I must have looked at her strangely, because she immediately said, “Sara only put Grace in a onesie, and it’s freezing outside.” I had no idea what the heck a onesie was, but I nodded anyway, and together, the four of us—no, five—went inside.

If you ever want people to think that you’re a slut, bring a baby with you into the dining hall of a university campus. Gia held Grace in her arms, silent as a doll, as we picked up our trays and made our way through the throngs of staring people in the cafeteria. I wasn’t sure what was worse as I walked around with Gia—the people we knew, who avoided our eyes, looking down at their tater tots as they hurriedly passed us by, or the ones that would stop to talk with us, but say nothing at all about the baby in Gia’s arms, almost as if Grace wasn’t there at all.

I also noticed the wondering looks given to Rob and Justin. Did they look to the baby for resemblance? The baby’s eyes were as blue as Rob’s, but Justin stood closer to Gia. I was the only one exempt from this. As I walked around with them, I had no label. I wasn’t the female with the baby, who of course had to be the mother, a fact that one of the serving ladies would so lovingly point out over the four months that Grace would be with us, by saying, “My favorite baby is here again. Are you behaving for Mama?” This was a statement that Gia never refuted. I also wasn’t one of the men walking with her, one of which, no doubt, had to be the one that knocked her up. Because I was none of these things, I didn’t matter. Though I desired to be the recipient of at least some of the attention paid towards Grace, more than that, I wanted to feel the desire to give her that kind of attention myself, but I just didn’t.

Several days later, Gia carted Grace to a poetry reading on campus in one of the auditoriums. Sara had dropped Grace off late again. When we walked in, the reading was already in session, and having a baby in tow somehow made it all the more embarrassing. Gia and I made our way down the aisle as silently as we could, and in my ears the sound of our shoes thudding against the wooden floor was thunderous. We took two empty seats near the front of the stage. Though Grace barely made a sound during the reading, I flinched at every slight gurgle or coo, anything that announced that we had a baby there, as if Grace were some sort of illegal goods we had smuggled in.

At the end of the reading, a woman approached us from several seats behind. I was waiting for her to rail us for bringing a baby to a lecture, but instead she told Gia that her baby was very well-behaved, and commenced fiddling with Grace’s fingers. Gia replied with a thank you, not bothering to correct her. I couldn’t understand why this woman, as well as several others after her who came over to play with the baby, weren’t furious with us. I was expecting at least one person to comment on us being disrespectful, but instead we received praise. Even men flocked over to see Grace, as if they had never seen a child before. I just didn’t understand what about babies produced this sudden affectionate nature.

Things weren’t much clearer in our dorm room. I watched Gia and Justin with Grace, acting as if the child was theirs. Rob was clicking away at his camera, taking multitudes of flash-less shots as though it were a celebrity photo shoot. Baby—the rarest thing in the world.

Sitting at my computer, World of Warcraft idling on the screen, I watched the three of them flutter around her. Even though I wasn’t doing work and didn’t have much incentive to do it at that moment, I felt frustrated that the option wasn’t there because I couldn’t concentrate with all of this commotion. I used this excuse to convince myself that the baby’s presence was annoying and that she was hindering my work, when all she really wanted was the attention I didn’t feel I could give.

The baby not only made things different, but made new things become apparent. In college the words “Gia and Jen” almost became a one-word catch phrase, “Gianjen,” so that I didn’t know where Gia ended and where I began. We were the stereotypical opposites who had become best friends. I played the part of the feminine, sweet and innocent girl, who had never had a true relationship, and was nowhere near ready to have sex. Though she never acted on it, Gia was the wild one, spontaneous and loud, who had a belch that could rattle walls, and a sexually promiscuous reputation. It was Grace who made it clear that we did not fit so succinctly into those roles.

I sat helplessly in my computer chair and watched Gia pour her affection over “Gracie.” Watched as her fingers lightly traced circles over baby fat, a motion that would produce several soft giggles from Grace. Even Rob and Justin felt this same instinct, paternal in their case, as they lifted Grace high into the air, twirled her around, and cooed at her, mimicking the sound of her gurgles.

I felt disgusted and waited for my teeth to ache from the amount of sweetness that filled the air. But even as I mentally commented on how ridiculous it was to see college men reduced to making baby noises, I desperately wanted to feel the same compassion for this baby that Rob, Justin, and Gia felt, to think that she was cute and adorable and to want to hold her and play with her. But the more I sat there wanting these things, the more I knew I just didn’t feel it, and watching the three of them huddling over her—Grace now in Rob’s arms as he held her in front of our glittering fish tank with Gia and Justin giggling over her adorable expressions, I felt myself start to hate her. Before Grace, I figured my awkwardness around children was something common, if not in women, then definitely in men. Yet Rob and Justin served as living proof to the contrary. Living proof that at nineteen, I had the maternity level of a five-year-old.

•  •  •

As a freshman in high school, my guidance counselor suggested that I should do volunteer work to get into a good college. He claimed to know just the place to do it.
I had actually gone to Kinderschool myself as a child, during elementary school, because my mother worked until six and would not leave me unattended at home. When he suggested the place, I had my doubts. Kinderschool, effectively, was a “home away from home” for children, or so the slogan read. But from what I could remember, that “home” was really several tiny rooms jam packed with screaming kids—annoying to me even as an eight-year-old. I didn’t want to go back to that place, but at the same time, I didn’t want to jeopardize my chances of getting into a good college.

If anything, I learned one very valuable lesson while I was there: I suck with children. A fellow classmate named Floriana Webb, who, retrospectively, was as Italian as Gia, was to be my workmate, and I really have to wonder if there’s something inherently in Italians, or at least Italian women, that makes them good with kids. I watched Floriana change diapers with ease and entertain and play with all of the children. I figured it must be pretty easy, but I struggled with diapers, fumbled shoving four inch sneakers on baby feet, and was barely able to keep them happy and occupied. For me, this was anything but easy.

The experiences I’ve had with babies outside of this have been, thankfully, few. But each time, I felt something kick inside of me, as though my body was trying to jumpstart my maternal nature, and it couldn’t do it.

At Gia’s house during mid-term break of our freshman year, she handed me her baby nephew Gavin, so that she could take care of Madison, her baby niece who had cerebral palsy, and cook dinner at the same time. I held Gavin’s squirming form out in front of me, unsure of what to do. When he started crying, I panicked, and called to Gia, “What do I do?”

She looked at me from the sink, Madison on her hip, and laughed. “Well, for one, you might want to actually hold him. He’s a baby, Jen. He’s not a bomb.” The look on my face must have told her that I was still confused. “Then just sit him down and play with him,” she said as she left the room to answer her cell phone, which had started ringing from her purse in the living room.

Impatient for the crying to stop, I set Gavin down on the kitchen floor and picked up a Thomas the Tank Engine toy. I held the toy out for Gavin, but he seemed uninterested, and I thought that he didn’t see it. I waggled it in front of his face, and he looked at it, momentarily silent, before his wailing continued. Before I had the chance to set the train on the ground and push it towards him, Gia dashed back into the room, Madison still on hip, and cell phone in hand.

“Oh, that’s brilliant, Jen. When I said to sit him down, I didn’t mean in front of a hot oven.”

I looked directly behind Gavin, and there indeed was the oven—piping hot and otherwise occupied by roasting a chicken. I wanted to smack myself for not noticing it sooner. It was not inexperience alone that made me set him there, but that I wanted to get rid of him. I didn’t feel like holding a fussy baby, so the quickest way out of that was to plop him down on the ground where I was standing. Before I knew it, Gia had Gavin hoisted on her other hip, Madison sitting in her booster seat, cell phone balanced in the crook of her neck. She continued cooking vegetables on the stove top, leaving me sitting on the kitchen floor and feeling like a failure.

Later, Gia would tell me a story of how Sara left Grace in the car, while she ran into the gas station to grab a pack of cigarettes, with the heat turned on high. “And the poor thing was so bundled up and there was so much heat in the car. I can’t believe she could be that fucking stupid with a kid.”

I could only nod and agree, but I could easily see myself doing the same.

•  •  •

Grace was fast becoming a permanent addition to room 241 in Smith Hall as Sara started dropping her off earlier and picking her up later. Her excuses were usually the same: “You don’t mind if I drop her off earlier so I could grab dinner, right?” or “I have an interview at Mustang Sally’s, so I’ll need to bring Gracie over earlier.” Then there was, “Do you mind if I grab something to eat at Denny’s before I pick her up? I just want a cup of coffee; it’ll be quick, I promise,” and “I had too much to drink at the bar after work, I can’t drive there now.”

I asked Gia why she dealt with it, naming all of the negatives, the inconvenience of it, hoping that she would see things my way and tell Sara she refused to babysit for her again. I told her how Sara wasn’t reliable at all, and that Gia’s grades were suffering because of it. Even though Sara promised to pay her, Gia hadn’t seen a dime from her yet. Gia would never ask for the money and was more than willing to spend her own. Sara continuously dropped Grace off for hours with nothing—no bottles or formula, no blankets—leaving Gia to buy them herself.

Why did she continue to watch Grace? Why, even though she supposedly told Sara over and over to get her act together (something that I had never seen, but Gia insisted she did), did she keep at it when Sara never kept up her end of the bargain?

Gia’s only response was “Because I love the baby.”

At first I found this response utterly ridiculous but there is something admirable about it, too. Gia had no problem sacrificing herself for a child, even one that was not her own. And, granted, though it might have been selfish of her to expect me to do the same, I have to wonder why I couldn’t. It’s not just that I didn’t want to sacrifice for Grace, to spend time with her, hold her, feed her, and so on, but that I couldn’t willingly give her that attention.

But more than just loving the baby, Gia didn’t care because she couldn’t have children. I don’t remember exactly when Gia told me that she was infertile, though I’m sure it was definitely during that first year of college. I know it wouldn’t have been in passing—no “oh, I thought you knew I couldn’t have kids” type of statement. I don’t remember how I responded, either. I might have told her that I was sorry, that it really sucked, for lack of something eloquent and meaningful to say. What I do remember is what she said to me about the surgery.

“There’s a surgery I can get that will allow me to have kids, but it’s kinda risky.”

“What do you mean by ‘kinda risky’? How risky?”

“There’s a fifty percent mortality rate, but I know that I’ll be fine,” she said as casually as she would tell a man behind the deli counter that she’d like a pound of cheese.

Until that point, fifty percent didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Fifty percent was the chance there was in getting an answer right on a True/False quiz. Sales where something was fifty percent off was a damn good deal. To me, fifty percent meant one half, the fraction resulting from dividing one by two, or any number by its double. It was a measurement found in recipes. It did not, in any way, relate to the life chances of my best friend.

I looked at her, and before I could even respond, she said, “I knew I shouldn’t have told you. I knew you would react this way.”

I don’t remember if I broke down then. I might not have because I was so angered by her statement. But I remember doing it at some point. I remember sitting at my computer, the vision of the screen distorted by my tears, trying to talk without my voice cracking.

“I just don’t want you to die,” I said. “I just don’t want to lose my best friend.” I collapsed onto my desk and sobbed.

“I’m not going to die, Jen,” Gia said.

I could tell that, while sympathetic, she was also annoyed at this display of emotion. I sat up and wiped my face, wet with tears and snot, onto my sleeve. “How do you know that? You can’t say that you know that.”

“Because I know.”

I told her to adopt a kid if she really wanted one. Or that if it was really that important to her, I would be a surrogate mother and have her kid for her. I was serious. I’d do anything, as long as she didn’t have the surgery.

She seemed to consider this last option for a moment. “You would seriously do that for me? You’d have my baby?”

Of course I would. Anything but the surgery.

She told me then that she would think about it but that she will probably still get the surgery.

Later that year, she said to me: “I lied about the risk. The mortality rate is seventy percent.”

•  •  •

At some point, Rob coerced me into holding Grace. “I think you’d look cute holding a baby,” he said. As my ego inflated, I begrudgingly consented. The baby was placed into my less-than-anticipating arms, and I held her similarly to how I had held Gavin, arms straight out. I saw Rob snicker at me, and I pulled Grace closer. Justin, Rob, and Gia huddled around me, instructing me on what to do and how to do it.

“Put your arms like this,” Justin says and positioned my arms so that I was cradling the baby.

“Wiggle your fingers likes this over her belly. She likes that,” Rob told me. I tried to do it like he has just done, but my fingers feel heavy and lethargic as they trace over Grace’s stomach; not at all like the light and nimble gracefulness of Rob’s. She didn’t giggle when I did it, and so I moved my hand away, looked around the room, somehow hoping that another person would appear and rescue me. Perhaps Sara would magically appear, and whisk Grace away, I imagined. I know that when Sara saw Gia with Grace, saw her natural ability with children, she quickly recognized Gia as someone who could take much easier care of a baby than she, because it was the same thing I recognized, too. “Am I done now?” I asked. My legs twitched anxiously, and I was about ready to throw Gracie to anyone who wants her.

“Aw, don’t you want to hold her anymore? It hasn’t even been five minutes!” Gia laughed.

I shook my head fervently. “No. I’m done. Just take her.”

•  •  •

It was five in the morning, and I had a final exam at ten. Justin had fallen asleep on my bed; the baby slept with Gia on her bed. Sara, who promised to be there by eleven, still hadn’t come. I sat and fumed at my desk, tired and exhausted from trying to study and from lack of sleep. I watched the baby asleep on Gia’s chest, rising and falling with each breath, and then turned my attention to Justin, who was completely sprawled out over my bed as though this were his room that he shared with Gia, and I were the visitor.
Though I wanted desperately to sleep, I felt that waking Justin up would be intrusive, like I was kicking him out of where he belonged. I settled for trying to sleep in the small space at the end of the bed that wasn’t occupied. Curled in a ball with my head resting on my arm, I managed to sleep for an hour, until I heard the room phone start to ring.

Groggily I trudged towards the phone, my body lethargic with sleep, and picked up the receiver.

“Gia? Is this Gia?” asked the voice on the other end.

“No, Sara, it’s Jen, her roommate,” I said, too tired to realize how pissed off I really was.

“Oh, okay. Well, I’m here to pick my baby up,” she said easily.

“Fine,” I said, and without another word, hung up the phone.

I shook Gia awake, and told her that Sara was there. I watched as she gathered the baby’s things and prepared to give the baby back to her incapable biological mother. In my mind I thought of all of the things I wanted to say to Sara. I wanted to tell her that she was a bitch and a terrible mother. Because of Sara, and Gia’s enabling of the situation, the two of us probably wouldn’t be able to focus on our finals at all, too tired to even be able to read the prompts. I sat, going over this monologue in my head. Before I realized it, Gia had already given Grace to Sara and was going back upstairs.

“Did she pay you this time?” I asked, but I already knew the answer. I followed her back into the room, waiting until I closed the door behind us before saying, “You know, this is really getting kind of ridiculous.”

“I don’t see why you’re so upset about it,” she retorted, quickly. “It’s not like you even do anything for Gracie. I’m the one who’s doing everything, and I don’t even get paid for it.”

“Then why don’t you ask for the money?”

“I told you, it’s not about the money.”

“Then what is it? It’s finals week, Gia. I don’t see why you’re still doing this if Sara keeps fucking up. Is this really that important to you?”

Gia snorted, and shook her head, a look of disgust on her face. “If you don’t know the answer to that question, then you don’t know me at all. It was never about me. It was about the baby.”

I hesitated, unsure of what she means. “What?”

“Grace is an amazing baby, not that I would expect you to know that since you never spent any time with her, but she really is. She’s perfectly well-behaved, and even you can attest to the fact that she never cries. It’s not her fault that she has a fuck-up like Sara for a mom. She shouldn’t be subjected to that.”

“Do you even hear what you’re saying? Sara is Grace’s mom. She is going to be subjected to that. She lives with her, for Christ’s sake!”

“Yeah, I know that. But when she’s with me, even if it’s for a few hours, she doesn’t have to.”

It isn’t until after I have had time to cool down that I realize the full impact of Gia’s words. In many ways, she was being self-centered and foolish in her actions, but those same actions also hold something awe-inspiring. Gia is well aware of the pointlessness of keeping Grace from Sara, of trying to be the mother Grace deserves, but she does it anyway, knowing that it will make little, if any, difference in the long run. She does it not for the baby alone, like she claims, but for herself. It pains her to see a child in the hands of an incapable mother like Sara, and even if it is a conscious lie to herself, she needs to believe that what she does for Grace will matter.

After finals week, Grace never returned to Smith Hall. A discussion between Gia and Sara in which Gia confronted her about the money, and more importantly about being an irresponsible mother, left Sara bitter and utterly pissed off, and she did not contact Gia again. Though everyone else on campus was sad to see Grace go, I was happy. No longer would I have to endure reminders of my less-than-stellar maternal instinct. It can once again be suppressed within the dark recesses of my mind.

But I wasn’t able to enjoy this happiness to its fullest potential. I watched Gia mope in our room, making comments every so often about how she missed Grace. Rob created a Facebook group entitled “Grace is the cutest baby in the world,” where he uploaded pictures of her that he had taken with his camera. He invited Gia, Justin and myself to join.

I wondered if what Gia was experiencing was similar to empty nest syndrome. Grace had been a constant addition in our dorm room for over four months, and then suddenly she was gone for good. I wanted to miss Grace as much as everyone else, to miss her even a little. But when Rob asked me, “So now that she’s gone, do you realize how much you liked having her around? You miss her, right?” I immediately replied, “Nope, not really.”

Before any of this happened, if you were to say to me, “Jen, describe a mother for me,” I probably would have said something like this:

A woman in frumpy and covering layers of clothing that deceived the eye, making you wonder whether the rolls around her mid-section were fabric or fat, who owned no more than one bra, and who hadn’t re-dyed their hair in about six months. Her life was tied to her child so that she lived vicariously through them—a new pair of pants for them equaled a new pair of pants for her as well, and no amount of time, energy, or attention would be sufficient enough to spend on her child. There could only be the giving of attention. There was no room for her to want it, too.

That was a mother to me—a woman who had no problem sacrificing herself for her kid, who probably had more time and money invested in Junior than she did in herself. And though Gia helped reshape the initial physical image of a mother, mentally I still wasn’t any of those things. I watched as Gia sacrificed her time, her sleep, her money, her everything for a stranger’s baby, and ultimately couldn’t even feel one iota of compassion. I was selfish—I wanted and needed more attention than I could ever give to a child, even if it was my own, and I knew it.

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