I recently read Maria Semple’s Where Did You Go Bernadette, which someone had recommended as a funny, quick read. True and true. The story of Bernadette Fox, told in loose epistolary format (emails, letters, bills, FBI evidence), begins with a mother who is so neurotic and averse to human contact, she hires a personal assistant in India to take care of her family’s every need, from booking a trip to Antarctica to celebrate daughter Bee’s academic prowess, to outfitting the family for the trip, to ordering prescription drugs from a compounding pharmacy. Bernadette is a devoted mother to Bee, but just about everything else in life bothers her. She despises the bleeding-heart liberal parents in Bee’s private school, and most of all, she hates Seattle and everything that goes with it – the weather, the architecture, the people. As the story unravels, we get glimpses of what has made Bernadette’s existence seem so excruciating . Once an award-winning, talented and promising architect in Los Angeles, she crumbles after some professional frustrations and moves to Seattle with her husband once he is hired by Microsoft. The couple buy a decrepit mansion which had been a boarding school for girls, which in time becomes overrun with mildew and vines. Daughter Bee is born after several miscarriages. The baby is frail and sick, and at her bedside, Bernadette makes a trade-off that will define the rest of her life: she will give up professional fulfillment, her architect’s vision, if she can keep her baby. The realism of this scene took my breath away.
Bernadette gets her wish – Bee survives, after going through multiple elaborate surgeries during childhood. The child not only survives, she thrives, but her mother is left hollow. In a novel dripping in caricature and sarcasm (it really is funny), the process of Bernadette’s loss of self – and sanity – is sadly familiar.
I made that same barter after being told by doctors that we weren’t going to keep our little D, after having just lost her twin sister L. In the NICU, hunched over the incubator to protect a fresh C-section scar, as the whizzing respirator kept my tiny baby breathing, I unzipped and stepped out of the suit of my former self. The woman who emerged was raw, afraid, yet newly empowered to mother this fragile creature, to fight for her, with her, to experience the greatest joys and the darkest fears through the child. It is a process that special needs parents will surely recognize – the child needs, and we give, and give, and give. Time, money, energy, creativity, and love, above all. We love our children almost beyond reason, to the point of ignoring who we are, what we need. We have needs too – we need sleep. We need community, and friendship, and time for quiet contemplation. We need nourishing food. We need activities that nourish our souls (whatever that may be, in my case, travel, reading, theater, dance). We need physical activity. We need time with our partner. The list goes on.
Let Bernadette Fox be your (my) cautionary tale. You may be willing to give up everything for your child, but it won’t work. It is not true that the more you give up, the better off the child will be. And eventually, it will catch up with you.