Journalist. Mother. Denver’s First Lady. In three short years, I lost the self I’d always known. Could I ever find my way back?
Fortunately, I had some experience with new worlds and old worlds. My mother grew up on a dairy farm called Cornaslieve, in County Cavan. She spent her childhood herding muddy cattle down narrow lanes and eviscerating chickens. During the summers, when we visited the family who still lived at the farmhouse, my grandmother would offer us cracked coffee mugs of warm milk that had come straight from a cow. This was disgusting, as far as I was concerned, since milk was supposed to be cold and come from the fridge. My mother urged me to drink, but I wouldn’t, even though I didn’t like disappointing my grandmother by refusing her gift. In matters of the flesh, I often wonder if I can live up to my mother’s earthy standards.
My parents immigrated to the United States in 1966, when I was 1. I grew up in suburban New Jersey and spent most of my childhood reading books. The green card that identified me as a legal resident of the United States bore wavy green lines and a picture of a young-looking version of my mother, holding a fat baby—me. Once, when we were returning from one of our annual family vacations, a U.S. customs official held me back, protesting that the baby in the picture could have been anybody at all. To him, the card was an inadequate screening device. To me, it was a talisman, a physical representation of the dual loyalties that I felt, and I kept it in a box of treasures. My brother and sister were born in this country, but our parents gave all of us the blessing of two childhoods—suburban New Jersey’s bicycles and lakes and canoes, and rural Ireland’s cows and pigs and tractors. Equally exotic were our forays into my father’s hometown of Dublin, an urban world of bookstores and bridges and double-decker buses.
I was part of the first generation of first-generation immigrants to grow up with a real connection to the place that their parents had left behind. The immigrants who’d come before had cut their ties, but we maintained ours, thanks to the convenience of airplanes and telephones and emails. A tremendous amount of energy went into defeating the Atlantic Ocean’s attempt to divide us from our kin. My mother laid out patterns on the carpet and sewed clothes on the kitchen table to save money for those precious weeks with our cousins. The rest of the year, she told us stories that seemed wildly improbable in the sanitary suburbs of New Jersey—lessons from a grittier reality—such as the time that she’d accidentally chopped off her brother’s finger with an ax or the time that she persuaded a workman with palsy to cut her hair with his dirty shears, or the time when her father sent her to live with a spinster aunt for several years so that he could reduce the number of mouths he had to feed. It only occurs to me now that my mother must have been reassuring herself by telling those stories—reassuring herself that a person could go from that rural past to this suburban present and still remain intact. But not unchanged. My mother and father became different people than they would have been if they had not left. It took them decades to realize what had happened—to realize that they could never move back, to realize that they were already home.
As I got older, the intervals between my trips to Ireland grew longer. A series of writing jobs took me to Brooklyn, New York, and then to Austin, Texas. Along the way I became a person who prioritized work over everything. Of course I had the fever that grips everyone who is the first to grow up on American soil—that burning need to prove oneself. But I was also addicted to the nature of the work itself. Work didn’t mean hard labor—it meant adventure, freedom, surprises. One hot afternoon, I was hurtling along a forgotten highway in West Texas on an assignment, when I suddenly found myself in the middle of the Permian Basin—pumpers on all sides, as far as I could see. A little while later, I spent election night in a hotel room in Austin, smoking cigars with pollster Matthew Dowd, while campaign manager Karl Rove locked himself in the bathroom with his cell phone and yelled at George W. Bush. I loved the first-row seat on life that is a journalist’s privilege, loved the solitary nature of writing. Printed words have always been a refuge, the place where I have felt most at home. I feel about my computer much the same as my mother feels about her garden; I am enslaved to it, and it liberates me.
Unexpectedly—rather late in the game, to be honest—marriage brought me to Denver, Colorado. Now I was a long way from Cornaslieve, and when I became pregnant I knew nothing about birth. Along with a dozen other couples, my husband and I took birthing classes from a vivacious suburban housewife with red hair who’d had five kids. We heard about her epidural that didn’t work, her epic tear, how her breasts had become infected. Friends told me other war stories, of labors that lasted for days and concluded in emergency C-sections. I read in my medical records that I had a “borderline pelvis,” and the larger I got the more I became preoccupied with the question of how we would get the baby out. Consequently, I spent almost no time thinking about what would happen once he’d been extricated—a classic case of planning for the invasion and not the occupation.
When I asked my mother about her experiences, she told a different kind of story. She had delivered me in a London hospital ward. It was her first time, but she knew a lot about birth already, because she was working as a midwife. She gave birth naturally, while my father avoided the ordeal by watching Burt Lancaster in The Train. “I didn’t really feel any pain,” she said. After the event, my mother wrote a letter to her sister Kathleen in Ireland. “The baby was born at 11:40 a.m. today with a little help from the doctors,” my mother had written. “I’m a bit tired, but much too excited to sleep. Larry came in to see me as soon as I got back to the ward. I only saw the baby for a few minutes. She weighs 7 lbs. 9 oz., and is a healthy baby. I feel like roaring so loud I’d be heard in Cornaslieve without a phone.”
I fixed on the idea of managing birth naturally too. I didn’t want an IV, didn’t want a heparin lock, didn’t want constant monitoring of the baby. I wanted what my mother had had—a glorious, unfettered triumph. My husband, who wished that he could avoid the terrible physicality of the birth scene by watching a celluloid Burt Lancaster in The Train, became increasingly skittish. He wasn’t alone. Our obstetrician reacted to my plan with polite skepticism, as if she thought I was going to get walloped sideways by birth. And when we presented the plan to the doctors on duty at St. Joseph hospital at 4 in the morning, after we showed up declaring that I’d gone into labor, they displayed a weary tolerance, as if they’d seen this kind of wishful thinking before.
The early contractions hadn’t hurt much. “Mostly crampy, not intense,” I had scribbled in a journal, sometime around midnight. Later, in shakier penmanship, I’d written, “No pain?” After I started vomiting, however, I woke John up and said it was time. Even the doctors who’d seen it all seemed surprised that I was already eight centimeters dilated by the time we arrived. It was too late for an epidural, which was fine with me. I hate needles. In the delivery room, a large crucifix hung on the wall, reminding me of the crucifixes that my grandmother had placed all over her farmhouse. A doctor told me it was time to push. I was tired and didn’t push hard enough until a drill sergeant of a nurse barked at me to get the baby out now. Our son was born soon after. Such an easy birth seemed like a happy accident—I wasn’t sure I could claim any credit for having inherited my mother’s excellent genes, but I, too, felt like roaring.