Who Is Maxine? What Is She?

THE EAST VILLAGE MAMELE

By Marjorie Ingall

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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Comparisons are odious. As the touchy-feely therapist who led my new mom’s group used to say, “Compare and despair!” (I find it fun to repeat this in the flat, nerdy Midwestern accent used by the school principal on “South Park,” despite the fact that the therapist was from Queens.) Yet how can the mother of two girls not compare them?

It’s already clear that Max’s personality is very different from Josie’s. It was obvious straight outta the womb. When Josie was two days old and having trouble latching on to the breast, she’d shake her head from side to side like a terrier trying to kill a rat, screaming at the top of her lungs until she passed out. Sweaty and trembling, I would contemplate alcoholic beverages and fine narcotics until I remembered that when one is nursing, heroin is contraindicated. My mom would scratch the soles of Josie’s feet to wake her up and begin the cycle anew. Two-day-old Maxine, on the other hand, would try desperately to latch on for a few moments, then stop. Her lower lip would pooch out and begin to tremble. Her eyes would squeeze shut. Then she’d buck up manfully, take a breath and try again.

Maxine loves the bath, getting very still as soon as you put her in, then giving baby-mule kicks of pure joy. When you wipe her little head with a warm washcloth, she closes her eyes in pure bliss. At her age, Josie screamed. (These days, Josie is fine with the tub. She’s into “product,” as they say. The decision about whether to go with the Aveeno packets or the fizzy-colored bath tablets is always a thrill.)

Max is mellow where Josie is intense. When you leave Max on her play mat for a few minutes to go feed the cat, she bats intently at her octopus for a while. Then, realizing that no one is there, she starts making little seal noises. Arp? Arp? (Translation: Hey, anyone there? If it’s not too much trouble, could you smile at me? Thanks!) A little eye contact and she’s happy. At that age, Josie was just as passionately engaged with the world, but she spent a lot more time screaming. When Maxine kicks out the decibels, you know it’s because her tummy hurts. When Josie cried, it was pure existential angst.

Jonathan and I are both tightly wound. But I blame him for Josie’s rages; his furies are more on the surface. (When Josie hits her teen years and perfects her “you moron” sneer, that will be my legacy kicking in.) Maxine, I think, takes after our brothers, both of whom are laid back and pleasant. Baffling.

I think children’s basic personalities are innate. In my own children, they were apparent before I’d had time to screw up either kid. I strenuously disagree with anyone who says, “Oh, it’s just that you’re more relaxed the second time around.” I am more relaxed with Maxine, in large part because nursing her is so much easier. (When Josie was a newborn, I had to feed her through scary tubes and syringes, and then with a teeny cup from which she sipped daintily like an elderly lady at Kiddush. I was plagued with plugged ducts and breast infections that turned my chest the color of borscht.)

Fortunately, because breastfeeding is so much less stressful this time, I have much more energy to devote to being hostile toward others. Would you like to know some dumb things to say to a person who has just given birth? Of course you would. 1. Are you going to try again for a boy? (Answer: Believe it or not, we were happy to welcome this girl! Thanks for negating her existence!) 2. It seems like Josie’s verbal skills have slipped since her sister arrived. (Answer: Josie has indeed been baby talking theatrically off and on since Maxine’s arrival, but it is a deliberate coping strategy designed to annoy me.) 3. Good God, does that baby have a tail? (Uh, in a manner of speaking, yes. It was an umbilical hernia that bulged out an impressive 2 inches or so. And yes, it was gross. But it’s gone now. Shut up.)

Then there are the questions about work. When Max was two weeks old, some folks began asking whether I was writing again. (Not so much. What with being too farblonget to write my own name and all.) Now that I actually am back at my desk, people ask how it’s going — and I tell them the truth: I’m happy to be on the job again, but I find it hard to concentrate. There’s the exhaustion, and the paralysis I feel when I sit at my desk in the bedroom and hear either kid crying right outside the door. There’s the fact that Josie understands I’m working and tries to stay away, but frequently needs to inform me that we’re out of cashews, or to tell me she had a poop that looked like a badger.

Thus far, two people have suggested that I get up in the middle of the night or early in the morning to write. My response is this: 1. When I get up in the middle of the night, it is to put my breast in someone’s mouth. (Hint: not Jonathan’s.) 2. The notion of getting up earlier in the morning, when I’m already functioning on five hours of sleep and have a preschooler with extremely intense and demanding fashion needs — right now, it’s dresses over pants, every day, like a Japanese pop idol, and oh, yes, she has to be talked out of wearing her synagogue shoes even though, yes, I understand that they do make the loudest clopping noise and she’s a horsy — is laughable. (As was the structure of that last sentence, frankly.) I already knew not everyone understands that women who work at home still work. And I already knew that some people think I am the kind of writer who is dreamily, perpetually working on her novel as opposed to, you know, paying the mortgage.

Ah, it felt good to vent. Because, truly, I know how lucky I am. I have a job that lets me see my kids during the day. I may have a close, personal relationship with the Medela Pump in Style Breastpump (in the jaunty backpack case!), and I often I might feel like a farm animal, but I also can nurse if I prefer. (Maxine has gotten over her bottle issues; you can feed her through any delivery mechanism you like, just don’t call her late for dinner. She entered the world much smaller than her sister, but she’s doing her best to make up for it now.) I go to preschool conferences and birthday parties. I have two girls who are healthy and beautiful. They already have the same deep, guttural laugh. Josie’s eyes are dark brown like mine, almond shaped and heavily lashed like my husband’s. Maxine’s are hazel gray like my father’s and my husband’s, but round and surprised and amused at the world like, well, like herself.

E-mail Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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