Take the Long Way Home

Photo Credit: Elijah M. Henderson

Photo Credit: Elijah M. Henderson

In my secret heart of hearts, all I ever really wanted to be was a mom.  

As little girls, my sisters and I spent countless hours playing with our dolls, mothering them with the kind of love and tenderness that only children can pour out on silent, inanimate objects.

We fed them bottles and changed their diapers. We sat them up in the highchair and patiently spooned imaginary carrots and peas into their rosy little mouths. We took them on stroller rides through the living room on our way to the zoo in the backyard. We read them stories and sang lullabies before wrapping them up and tucking them into their cribs before bedtime (we were very strict), which conveniently coincided with our own.

Thanks to our diligent mothering, we gave those little ones an endlessly idyllic childhood that seemed to last forever. But despite their being frozen in time, we eventually grew up.

School brought with it new discoveries outside my happy playtime realm of domesticity, and I began to spend more time reading books. It turns out, I was what my school called “academically talented,” so in the classroom I was steered in the direction of math and science.  It was obvious to me that I was expected to pursue something beyond motherhood.

Don’t get me wrong; I still wanted to get married and have kids, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to do more. I was, after all, the valedictorian of my high school class, voted by my classmates “Most Likely to Succeed,” and we all know how success is measured: by status, income, and influence, doled out in dollars and degrees. None of these things can be applied to someone who the world sees as little more than an unpaid nanny.

There was a part of me that wanted to believe I could do it all and have it all without having to make any sacrifices or tough choices. After college, I decided to go into optometry because it was a respectable profession that offered a generous six-figure salary and the kind of cushy office hours that make family life slightly less complicated.

Compared to the time commitment and rigors of a medical school curriculum immediately followed by the involvement of a requisite residency, optometry school was a cakewalk. It even afforded me enough free time to fall in love and get married before graduating. So in the span of four years, I transformed from mere Mary Alice Saluke into Dr. Mary Alice Portillo. (which has a nice ring, don’t you think?)

Fast forward two years, and I was pregnant with our first baby. My husband was in business school at the time, so after practicing for little more than a year, I was queued up for an extended maternity leave as he transitioned from a library in Charlottesville to an office in Atlanta. After breezing through an uneventful pregnancy (I worked full-time right up until my due date), I was totally unprepared for what awaited me after delivery.

I had been deceived into believing that motherhood would be as natural, as easy, and self-evident as arithmetic. I assumed I already had everything I needed to be a great mom: maternal instincts, common sense, and the internet. All of which, even when combined with my own mother’s (unending) advice, did absolutely nothing to prepare me for the reality of being a mom, the reality of life without sleep, or the reality of unconditional love.

It turns out all those hours spent in rapt attention watching my mother and grandmother in action, all that time spent caring for my newborn plastic preemies, did absolutely nothing to cultivate my mothering skills. I was a terrible mom. Truly awful. How could I have been naive enough to believe that my ability to care for a baby doll reflected any actual mothering skills? How could I have been stupid enough to think my maternal role models had somehow genetically endowed me with the je ne sais quoi required to be a good mom?

The problem is now obvious: the only feedback loop I had to judge my own performance was the behavior of my son, and he spent the better part of his infancy screaming for no apparent reason. I nursed and snuggled, swaddled and shushed, rocked and sang. I tried everything. Nothing seemed to help except bopping him up and down in my arms, so I was held captive for hours and days at a time. I did very little eating, sleeping, or showering for the first six months, so the fact that I wasn’t feeling very well came as no surprise.

What I needed was a break, a little me-time to recharge my batteries and reenter society as a functioning adult.  Once we got moved and settled in Atlanta, going back to work part-time seemed to be the perfect solution. But God, in His infinite wisdom, had other plans (as He so often does).

Just as I submitted my application for licensure in the state of Georgia, a trip to the primary care physician for bouts of vertigo and early morning nausea led to the discovery of a ping-pong-ball-sized tumor lodged at the base of my brain, later diagnosed as medulloblastoma.

Surgery took place the next week and was followed by six weeks in the hospital, six weeks of radiation, months of physical therapy, and years trying to figure out how to move forward now that my life had been upended. This was wholly unexpected and complicated to say the least.

For the better part of a year, I was unable to work; unable to do anything, really: as a mom, an optometrist, or otherwise. In a perverse way, it actually turned out to be a vacation of sorts (if you can stretch the definition of that word to its very limits). And this may have been God’s way of giving me exactly what I had asked for.

That was six years ago, a vague, distant memory, and time has had a way of healing those wounds. I now find myself writing these words from a place, from a perspective, I never expected. I can honestly say I’m happy to be exactly where I am, doing exactly what I’m doing. Life has taken me a thousand miles away from my childhood home in Ohio, and I’ve spent the better part of the last fifteen years moving from city to city following my own educational and career paths and then my husband’s.

After two years in the suburbs of North Dallas, Texas feels more and more like home. (Although I still can’t quite bring myself to say “Y’all” with a straight face.) I no longer practice optometry, so my official job title has become “homemaker,” which in my mind, reeks of 1950s sexism. But it’s strangely liberating to discover I no longer have to fit into the self-imposed mold of what a “successful” woman is supposed to look like. I am exactly who God made me to be, doing exactly what He has called me to do.

I really can’t imagine a more convoluted path to a destination I thought was miles in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go, where I thought I belonged. And yet, here I am: married to my husband, Raul, for almost ten years now and staying at home with our six-year-old son (and “his” puppy). The daily demands of life as a suburban homemaker are now what keep my hands, heart, and mind full every day of the week, every week of the year.

I seem to have taken the long way home without even realizing it, but the detour allowed me to find something in myself that I never would have discovered if I had stuck to my original path. What ending could possibly be better than that?