by Melissa Reeser Poulin | Contributing Writer
My boots crunch the icy grass near the water as I walk, silently reciting the words from Mary Oliver’s poem “Black Oaks.” I don’t want to sell my life for money, goes the penultimate line. It’s early morning, February 2021. I’ve left our five-week-old baby sleeping in her bassinet, and my kindergartener and preschooler—terms rendered almost meaningless by the closure of Oregon schools—watching Word Girl with their daddy before he leaves for work. This one-mile loop through the wetlands near our home is my daily thirty-minute respite from the work of mothering small children, unpaid labor made relentless during the past year.
I circle my arms, pumping fresh blood to my ice-cold fingers. My eyes are sandpaper after a night punctured by the baby’s cries for milk. Tilting my neck from side to side to release some of the tension from nursing, I take the footbridge over the creek, following a raised trail between two deep ponds.
Pushing low-hanging branches out of the way, I try to clear my mind. Along with the heaviness in my body, I feel the dread of returning home, the dread a familiar companion over this past year; and, almost as if they are paired like foot and shadow, guilt follows close behind. The days are circular, similar, and inside them I feel frustrated and trapped. Each day I look for scraps of time to write, to keep up with the steady stream of ideas flowing through me, only to watch them shimmer away, like fish almost caught.
It’s this split: poet’s mind, mother’s mind. The irony is—or isn’t—that I want time away from my family so I can write about them, about all of it. The guilt masks my fear of loss, the kind mothers fear most. “Then driving home, my old fear returned,” Jeanne Murray Walker writes in “Talking to the Baby After Teaching a Poetry Workshop”:
You could be repossessed, dead in the Spring
your insistent mouth gone from my breast,
your cries packed up like bright nickels
growing dull with time and nothing under
heaven to remind us how your skin
smelled, not mint, not sage, not roses, nothing.
What if I’m wasting it, my time with them? I feel shame over my dread of the long day ahead, another bead on the endless string of pandemic days, shame because the virus makes me feel all too keenly our lives’ precariousness.
At the ponds, I’m accompanied only by birds. Robins and jays forage worms in the grassy slopes. Lanky herons nest in the willows’ winter branches, gold against gray. Mallards, coots, and wood ducks hurry to the pond’s edge when I pass by; they’re hoping for a snack, but I only carry a small notebook and pencil.
This is where I write now, in the margins: while walking this trail or wearing the baby in a sling as I referee sibling fights; during nap times, to the soundtrack of Paw Patrol; in the kitchen while I chop soup onions; in my parked car in our driveway, after all three kids have been lulled to sleep by the whirr of the wheels. There’s pride in the tenacity it takes to turn these scraps of time into art, something related to the frugality and resilience of a homemade soup stock. There’s also a bubbling up of anger over all the poems I might have written—and haven’t, didn’t—and all the lost art of other mothers too.
I scribble notes as I circle the ponds, the script wobbling in cadence with my steps: Mother-body and earth-body. Which scars are visible?
I grew up near the country’s smallest volcano. More accurately called a volcanic plug, it is over twenty-two million years old, its front half cratered in the 1900s by dynamite, an invention that dramatically changed how humans dug materials from the earth. Quarrying was once a slow and difficult process, and dynamite exponentially increased both pace and access, exposing huge stores of valuable minerals stored deep in the earth. Miners exploded the old volcano, leaving a jagged hole in its face, to access the gravel that quite literally paved the way to an automobile-dominated southern California landscape.
Like so many other landmarks in my birthplace—a territory violently taken first from its indigenous peoples, then from its Spanish settlers, and finally from Mexico—the volcano had a Spanish name: Calavera, or skull, the ceremonial representation of death and rebirth. If the cratered mountain resembled a skull, I couldn’t see it, just as I couldn’t yet see how the open space surrounding Mt. Calavera was a complicated, contested site of the natural and industrial worlds—a place where the pursuit of profit had transformed the shape of the land.
To me, the Calavera preserve was simply nature, a swathe of grass and sumac trees behind our subdivision. Growing up, I didn’t know that the small lake below the volcano was the result of a mid-century earthen dam. And where wetland plants once absorbed flood waters and filtered pollutants, there were agricultural fields instead: row after row of strawberries.
I ate those strawberries and played house in the former creek beds with a tangle of neighborhood kids. Water had carved the sand into grooves deep enough to walk through, turning them in our imaginations into a series of rooms connected by hallways. Leaving my baby dolls at home, I brought a notebook into our creek-bed kitchen and living room. On page after page, I made notes on what I saw around me: how light sieved through the scrub oaks, the way the wildflowers grew, so different from my mother’s roses. Some clustered low to the ground, some climbed blades of grass to reach more light. I loved both. I wanted to grow roses and raise children like my mother, and I also wanted to be out in the fields, writing.
What natural means, and where nature is located became more complicated as I grew up, and the borders around the Calavera open space contracted. Up went the houses, bigger and closer together, and in went schools and roads; out went the series of meandering trails I had known like the lines in my palm. I grieved their loss even as I used the sidewalks that replaced them, training for high school track. I began to understand the power of language, of phrases like wildlife corridor and protected species as I learned about the politics of open spaces and the fight to maintain them.
In the 1990s, the Willow Flycatcher and Least Bell’s Vireo, two species of bird native to the area, hovered on the brink of extinction. Reliant on uninterrupted stretches of coastal sage scrub, populations of the California Gnatcatcher also dwindled dramatically, giving rise to an increase in parasitic Cowbirds, a species native to the Midwest prairie. These birds perform a double whammy on vulnerable bird populations, competing for resources as well as slyly laying and then abandoning their own eggs in other birds’ nests, causing those mothers to neglect their own young. All of it stemmed from the rapid transformation of the landscape by the encroachment of mines, dams, roads, and houses throughout North San Diego County, including and beyond the Calavera preserve.
Preserve, as a noun, means an open space that has been set aside, protected, from the harm of development or industry. But preserve can also be an action, a verb, “to preserve a memory.” In the Calavera open space, the two meanings of the word are at odds. In rewilding a previously-industrialized landscape, like the old volcano and artificial lake, the memory of how the land was harmed is not preserved. It becomes possible to ignore the land’s history, as I had throughout most of my childhood.
It is harder to ignore a harmful process when it’s happening right in front of you.
Not far from the Calavera open space, near SR 78, an aggregate quarry dating from 1960 remained active when I was growing up, not completing its extraction until 1995. Big earth movers and blasting equipment left a series of steeply graded terraces—called benches—in the softly flared hips of the hills. Down, down, down the machines moved, digging deeper into layers of earth in pursuit of rock used for laying new roads, sorting it from unprofitable material considered waste, or overburden. I watched the earth movers through our car window as my parents drove, then later as I drove myself home from high school. I went to track practice and choir rehearsals, and I also went to city council meetings with my dad, following the efforts of Preserve Calavera, a local conservation non-profit fighting to save some of the land impacted by the mine. For over twelve years, Preserve Calavera worked to protect nearby El Salto Falls, a place considered sacred by the Luiseno tribe of Mission Indians, as part of the mine’s reclamation plan. When it had been exhausted of its accessible aggregate, the mine was backfilled and leveled to accommodate the building of the Quarry Creek housing development and a new strip mall. All of this came within ten feet of the falls, where a chain-link fence prevented public access.
I remember thinking I would beat this, somehow, as an adult. I’d raise my children near land untouched by industry, a word originally grounded in a sense of gift: labor that connected to Earth’s purposeful rhythms, rather than dividing it into commodities. Later I began to wonder if I’d even have children. The nature writers I read were childless, and I wanted my writing to make the impact theirs did, by drawing attention to the sanctity of land. I wanted people to fall in love with nature through words and want to protect it, the way I had as a child, writing on a concrete stoop in a subdivision. In a way, words were my quarry. I mined their layers for meaning, and when I made something beautiful and useful from them, I felt lighter somehow, as if the overburden of living—the debris of its many griefs—had been lifted.
Circling the ponds while my baby sleeps at home, the minutes ticking down, I keep making notes. The mother-body is a quarry, mined for labor, with no reclamation plan. Just like the open space behind my childhood home, the wetlands park near our current home is also a former mining site, last active in the 1980s. The ponds are the holes left by excavators pulling aggregate from deep in the earth to build Interstate 84—the highway we hear from our backyard, a rushing sound we almost imagine is a river. Ongoing mitigation projects slow the erosion of the steep banks, while the calm surface of the water belies an abrupt plummet to a depth of forty-two feet. Large Danger signs warn against swimming and boating, but on any given morning, people cluster on the banks to fish for trout, once stocked as part of the city’s efforts to reclaim privatized land for public use.
This land can never be returned to its original state, though, and full reclamation would include returning it to its original inhabitants. Along with the unceded land our own house sits on, this park is on the ancestral home of over thirty tribes known today as the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Most days at the pond, I see mostly descendants of white settlers, like me.
The surrounding wetlands have been carefully replanted with native riparian plants, slowly inviting repopulation by a variety of wildlife. Beside the trail, ice coats the brilliantly contrasting red and chartreuse branches of the native dogwood shrubs. Here, as in our own backyard, blackberry and ivy threaten to choke out the slower-growing dogwood; tending them takes vigilance. But not all nonnative plants cause harm, and in recent years biologists have begun to research the importance of nonnative plants for biodiversity. There’s a balance to strike. In open spaces like these—industrialized land rewilded—once-“natural” processes must be carefully tended to ensure the survival of a biodiverse population.
Maybe it’s the same for motherhood, I think, pausing on the path to shake the feeling back into my feet. For mothers living under industrial capitalism, personal time and creative energy are among the vital resources needing rehabilitation postpartum. I feel like I’m attempting to rebuild alone, from a depth of forty-two feet. Unlike the rehabilitation of a quarry, there are no formal processes, no legislation requiring a detailed reclamation plan for the mother-body exhausted of its resources by pregnancy, birth, and the relentless intensity of the early years. Yet capitalism depends on mothers to keep it humming along. And maybe it depends on our exhaustion, to keep us from fighting back.
What do we lose, in mothering under capitalism—uncompensated, unrecognized, undervalued? Not just our potential creative and intellectual contributions to the world, but also the right to raise children without sacrificing our mental, emotional, and physical health. The experience of pandemic motherhood seems to have exposed the idea of “having it all” for the illusion it is—at least for most of us. As Kate Baer’s tiny poem “Interview with Self” puts it:
Can I have it all?
Can I have it all?
Can I have it all?
Like any mother, I’d give my life for my children, but motherhood without writing threatens to break me. And truthfully, I don’t want writing without motherhood, either. My children have enriched every part of my life, including my creativity. I am not alone in feeling changed for the better through becoming a mother, in feeling as though motherhood has increased my abilities a thousandfold. I’ve often joked that becoming a mother is like acquiring superpowers, and it turns out this is scientifically accurate.
In Mom Genes, Abigail Tucker reports on a host of new research pointing out the startling ways in which mothers are rebuilt from the inside out through the process of conceiving, bearing, and raising children. While we’ve long known that mother-bodies experience dramatic physical changes during pregnancy, Tucker looks at the emerging science of how the maternal brain is rewired by motherhood—and how it continues to change and develop in specific ways over the course of our mothering careers. Children aren’t the only ones becoming new beings.
It has a raw, chaotic beauty, the process of new people becoming themselves. It happens both too fast and too slow. Like the experience of birth, the growth and development of children (and mothers) occurs outside of industrial time, along a continuum that birth coach Nancy Bardacke calls horticultural time, a clock that moves according to natural rhythms and patterns. A bean vine grows clockwise around a sunflower stalk. A sunflower acts as sundial, tracing the travel of light across the sky.
Motherhood has tuned my ears to the subtle ways my children are constantly building their world as they acquire language. On scraps of paper that collect in drawers throughout the house, and a journal kept on the kitchen table, I record my observations: the way my son says lasterday instead of yesterday. Or, sprinting at me full-speed with his arms open, a hug collision: I love you too much, so tight you can’t go. My oldest daughter exists within a musical soundtrack, making up a stream of songs as she climbs our plum tree. The baby lifts her eyebrows as we spill words into her ears. She responds with nameless sounds—tests them, turns them, checks to see how they fit—the way my son works on his sorting blocks.
There’s a photograph of a marble mine in Carrara, Italy, viewed from above. The scale is so vast, and the marble so white, it’s difficult at first to determine what you’re seeing. An orange tractor catches the eye, bright as a toy, and then you see the people. They are dwarfed by the landscape, busy with coils of rope and wire, tiny blips against the white walls, where gridded lines and angles hint at what’s missing: huge blocks of marble, methodically extracted over the course of centuries.
Mining sites all over the world mirror the landscape we’ve built above ground: absence is carved deep into the earth in inverse proportion to the structures we build on the surface (from what we take from below). Long before he photographed the Carrara mines, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky intuited this inverse relationship when he first encountered the skyscrapers of Toronto: “For things to be on this scale, I thought, there has to be something equally monumental in the landscape where we have taken all this material from,” he writes. “I felt Newtonian law implied a reciprocal action in nature.”
This is the size of the wound inside you, the nurse had told me, holding up the placenta: an entire dinner-plate sized organ I had grown, alongside my baby, over the course of nine nausea-ridden months. She stretched the heavy tissue so I could see its tree-like netting of veins. It takes a full six weeks to heal.
Three children, and I’d never once considered the corresponding absence inside for what it is: a wound. My wound is still healing, but at least I have the support of a close friend in our pandemic bubble, a full-time mom like me who fills my freezer with home-cooked meals and watches our older children for several hours a few times a week while I rest and nurse the baby—and sometimes write.
Neither my friend nor I feel especially unemployed. The stress of constant caregiving wears on both of us, and we give vent to it in different ways. Taking brisk walks alone. Texting each other snarky observations during the long days:
Me: Thinking of quitting my job
Her: Even coal miners get to leave work at the end of the day.
Me: Sign me up for the coal mining.
Her: LOL *sob*
Like my friend, I feel the privilege inherent in choosing to bear and raise children. But the choice to have children in the 21st century is also a complicated one, riddled with climate anxiety and influenced by economic factors our own mothers never had to consider. Though words are my medium, I struggle to find the right ones to describe what I experience as a mother in a country with systems that consistently, and often deliberately, devalue the work and the bodies of mothers. It can be difficult to see this work and this role clearly when I’ve been steeped since birth in the waters of industrialization.
In so many ways, the pandemic has drained those waters, exposing the pits beneath: the ways in which the current economic system doesn’t serve the majority of the population. Mothers are among the overlapping groups of people who have disproportionately borne the financial, emotional, and physical burdens of the COVID crisis. We are overwhelmingly represented in the ranks of the newly unemployed, with women of color and economically disadvantaged women making up a disproportionate percentage of those job losses.
Even mothers like me who were “unemployed” before the pandemic have felt the impact of the sudden disappearance of support networks—childcare centers, playgroups, carefully tended webs of friendship, community centers and parks, churches, libraries, schools. If anything, in the last year we’ve become more employed. How much is it worth, this unpaid labor? Growing humans inside our bodies, and then, if we breastfeed, growing them outside our bodies, too. And isn’t How much is it worth a different question than What does it cost?
“Motherhood,” Sarah Manguso writes in 300 Arguments, “is a self-obliteration that never stops and that no one notices.” When mothers must routinely and consistently deny themselves what they need to meet the needs of their families, there is a corresponding imbalance in the landscape. If no one notices, it doesn’t mean we don’t all suffer loss in some way, in an economy where mothers are not protected or sustained. This is what I intuited as a child playing in the dry creek beds: the cost of being a mother in this culture is enormous.
My boots leave the trail, trading sand and pebbles for the smooth surface of the parking lot. I’m heading home. I think of the level of compression needed to take the aggregate from the ponds and turn it into this swathe of asphalt. These are the irreversible processes on which industry depends: mining for materials to build the roads on which freight travels, bringing the goods we buy to feed and clothe our families. Are there better ways to do this?
I think of the New York Times article I read in bits and pieces over the weekend. In an interview with Jordan Kisner, feminist scholar Silvia Federici—an activist who has spent her life arguing for waged housework—is unsurprised by the ways in which the pandemic has exposed the economic exploitation of women. Her work convincingly traces the modern-day exploitation of women to the witch-hunts of medieval Europe and the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
For capitalism to work, she argues, women’s autonomy had to be “enclosed,” along with the formerly rich webs of communal relationships that supported them—just as land once held in common had to be privatized, fenced off and made inaccessible to the community. Where women once worked both in and outside of the home, often collaborating with other women, the transition to capitalism necessitated a violent and deliberate rupture with that arrangement, confining women and their childbearing capacity to the home, isolated under the authority of a male head of household. Federici argues that the path forward involves the reversal of capitalist enclosure, the return of more and more spaces—our land, our bodies, our time—to the commons. “Commoning is that idea in action,” Kisner writes, “a practice of putting more and more of your life outside the reaches of commodification or extraction.”
In an hour or so, two other mothers and their small children will arrive at our house. While our kids play, we’ll talk in low voices about the rising death toll, the Movement for Black Lives, the thousand private struggles of pandemic motherhood, and how they are connected. We’ll feed each other’s kids and feel less alone for a little while. It’s not enough, just yet, this small gesture toward commoning. It’s not enough—yet—simply to be able to see the violence of the current economic model, but it’s a step.
As a child, I couldn’t see the legacy of industrialization in the landscape. Once I recognized it, I thought I could leave it behind. Now, raising my children near a reclaimed space, I see my own story reflected back. I want my children to see themselves in this landscape, too, and take up the poet’s song of resistance: I don’t want to sell my life for money. I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.
Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review. Find her at: melissareeserpoulin.com or @melissa_r_poulin on Instagram.