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It's A Jungle Out There and A Zoo In Here

by Cheryl Demas

The Jungle

My Life as a Working Mother

In between cheering for Billy Jean King and singing "I Am Woman," I went to college and graduated with a double major in math and computer science. In keeping with my feminist life course, I had chosen two of the more nontraditional female courses of study that I could find. However, I do have to admit that I had also calculated that I would find the most favorable boy/girl ratio in my math classes. How's that for sisterhood?

After graduation, I went to work in the avionics department of a large computer company. My main job while there was modeling— no, not like Cindy Crawford—I did mathematical modeling of pressure transducers. The avionics group produced computers that are used on airplanes—you know, those black boxes you always hear about. Each transducer had slightly different characteristics over pressure and temperature ranges, so the flight computers were programmed to adjust for these differences. My job was to write software that would "fit" each transducer with an equation that matched its output. To collect data on each unit, we would run them through temperatures from minus forty degrees Fahrenheit to about two hundred degrees in huge industrial ovens. It was probably my most productive kitchen work to date.

I met my future husband my first week of work. I had had orthodontic surgery a few weeks before I started my new job, so my jaw was wired shut and I could only nod and smile. I was his dream girl.

By the time the wires came out and I could talk again, it was too late. We were in love. We were married the following year. We knew we wanted children right away, maybe two or three. I got pregnant and expected to continue working through my pregnancy and then search for day care. I honestly didn't think that I would even consider staying at home. I remember my mom saying to me, "Well of course you'll want to stay home with your babies." And I remember looking at her as if she had sprouted horns.

But life had different plans for us. My mother died of breast cancer that summer. When things were looking particularly bad for Mom, her doctor gave her some alternatives. She could cease treatment altogether, or they could do more surgery and extend her life for a short while longer, but the cancer had gone beyond any hope for a cure.

"Could you keep me alive long enough to see the baby, until October?" she asked the doctor.

The answer was no, and so with that prognosis, my mom decided that her fight was over. She died June 30. I was six months pregnant and at her side when she died. "You are going to be the best mom in the world" were among her last words to me.

A couple months later I went into labor. It was a little early, but my obstetrician didn't seem to be too concerned, even when she observed that the baby was breech. Everything switched into high gear. The staff became quiet and efficient, prepped me for surgery, and wheeled me in for an emergency C-section. Just before they put me under, the nurse asked, "What would you like us to tell your baby when he gets here?" "Just tell him to be healthy," I answered.

Mike arrived at the hospital just after the birth. He was armed with his video camera, ready to tape those first precious moments. The nurses met him in the hall with bad news. Our baby boy had just been born and he was going to die. There was nothing they could do to save him. His condition was what the medical community calls "incompatible with life."

There are times in life that you can't possibly be prepared for. The death of a baby is one of those times. They put Mike in scrubs and brought him into the delivery room. I was still under anesthesia, so he was alone. The nurses asked if he wanted to baptize the baby. He did, but we had decided to wait until we saw our baby before we made a final decision on his name. Since I was still asleep, Mike didn't want to make that decision without me. The nurses brought him a bowl of water and Mike baptized our baby, saying that we didn't have a name picked out for him yet but that God would know him when he got there.

I was awake by then and the doctor told me the news. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. It had to be a dream. "I don't think she heard you," the nurse said, "tell her again." So it wasn't a dream. "No, I heard."

Mike was holding our son, and I got a chance to hold him too before he died. Looking at his precious face and not being able to do anything for him was the hardest thing I've ever done. I was his mom. Aren't moms supposed to fix everything for their kids? Here I was, a brand-new mom, and I was already screwing up.

The nurses took Polaroids, our minister arrived, we held our baby a little longer, and then they took our son away. I guess my mom got to take care of her grandson after all.

Now, even on the craziest days, when the house is a wreck and I have way too much to do, I think back to that day. Having held my son as he drew his last breaths, it's pretty hard to get upset about crumbs in the car or fingerprint smudges on the windows.


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