American Nesting Doll

Featured image: Robin’s Egg, by Kiley Brockway

At the age I am now, twenty-one years plus two months, my grandmother was pregnant with my mother. A fetus with XX chromosomes grows all of the eggs they will need over the course of their own life by just week 20 of gestation. Half of the cipher that makes me up was written two lifetimes ago. My first flickering light in the dim room of the universe. I cannot imagine having two generations trapped inside of me.

My grandmother is as sharp as glitter. Her hair is always dyed a deep maroon, so dark it’s almost black. I’ve never seen one of her gray hairs. She weighs herself every morning and chews on gossip like Violet Beauregaurd chews on bubble gum–though she’d deny that she likes that kind of thing until the day she dies. Her house has always been sparkly and immaculate. She deep-cleans when she’s stressed and never fails to tell me if my makeup is the wrong shade for my skin tone. She makes my grandfather use purple shampoo so his gray hair never looks yellow.

My mother is smaller and softer than her own. She pushed me out of her body when she was thirty-three. At twenty-one and two months, she was going to school for Early Childhood Development. She’d tell me later that she would’ve had more children if God hadn’t told her to stop.

I am the third of three.

My grandmother had two pregnancies and three children. She’s told me she smoked through both of them. She’s told me she’s hit all three of them. She had a body that belonged on a magazine right up until her own kids were having kids of their own. I tried on her wedding dress when I was eleven. I was too big for it.

My mother was made for motherhood. As a kid she reminded me of the smooth and graceful black button of an overcoat, holding our family together. She has perfected calling the school’s front desk and the doctor’s office, can plan a vacation itinerary in 48 hours, and whip up a stellar pot of chicken noodle soup in under two. She gives the best back rubs and has the ideal voice and cadence for bedtime stories. She makes time for all the neighborhood kids. She’s been using the same perfume for so long, they don’t make it anymore. I don’t know what I’m going to do when it runs out.

My mother doesn’t know how to apologize. She doesn’t know how to say sorry for texting my crush off of my phone in middle school to demand him to stop contacting me. She doesn’t know how to regret forcing me to get rid of piercings acquired after I turned eighteen. She makes sure to remind me to watch what I eat because I’m not growing any taller. She eats her children’s resentment for breakfast.

My two older sisters tell me I’m too smart for my own good. Apparently my elementary school test scores agreed. At the end of my second grade my mother sat me down to inform me that I had been accepted into the Gifted and Talented program that our school district ran. I felt so special and so excited to go be way smarter at a different school.

But I couldn’t do it. By the first month of third grade, I had closed in on myself. I followed my mom everywhere around the house. Every day, I would beg my mom to let me stay home from school from my waking moment until her minivan was in the drop-off line. All of these smarter, more intimidating kids were waiting inside to brag about the logs or branches or whatever they were learning about in Advanced Math and I couldn’t do it.

I was supposed to go to college to become a doctor. I loved learning about how your arteries are connected to your heart and how your heart is connected to your lungs. What each piece inside of us is called. I loved everyone knowing I had my life planned out. I loved that no one had to worry about me, and I especially loved that no one was questioning me.

I still had to quit. I am smart and I am capable, but I have never wanted to be anything other than happy.

A mother’s brain shrinks in the first two years of her child’s life. Specifically, the gray matter, the part of your brain that holds information, shrinks 6-8%, decreasing a mother’s memory and her awareness of social signals. It’s meant to let her put all of her attention on her new bundle of joy. It is a phenomenon that does not happen in fathers. Similar to pulling apart the top and bottom halves of Russian nesting dolls, something must give, must change to allow room for another. Yes, Russian dolls are identical for the most part, their designs shrinking to adjust with each smaller repetition, but there is not just one doll. If one puts them together outside of each other, they are easier to count.

If I was a mother, my house would be a mess. My children would have no manners and know lots of facts. I’d read them books and blow dry their hair on winter nights so they wouldn’t go to bed cold. When I’d brush their teeth, I’d point out the zoo animals I see back there.

Something would always be baking in the oven, and we would go to libraries and museums and parks way more than school. I’d clean up their vomit in the bathroom even if the linoleum hurt my knees. I’d lose my patience. I’d push them too hard. I’d misjudge and misunderstand. They’d grow up and tell me all of the things I did wrong. They’d still come over for Christmas.

I don’t know if I’m going to be a mother.

I don’t care about neatness. I lose things all the time. My sleep schedule is a mess. It’s hard to concentrate on things I’m not completely enthralled by. I don’t know how to discipline a child. I wouldn’t want to. I think I’ve had buttered noodles for dinner every night this week. I have my grandmother’s pickiness and my mother’s stubbornness.

After leaving the gifted program behind, my parents and I decided I should try again in 5th grade. At the beginning of the new school year, our teacher introduced something called the “40 Book Challenge” in which students were challenged to read 40 books over the course of the school year. I wasn’t doing multivariable calculus like some of my classmates, but this? This was something I could do. I finished all forty books before Halloween.

In the first grade, I memorized Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for fun.

In high school, I took the ACT once and got two points away from perfect. I’ve been a lifeguard. I’ve been a kid’s camp counselor. I’ve been a kid’s camp director. I wanted to be a doctor.

And I could be a mother, too.

I already know my body can make an iteration of itself from something smaller than a piece of fuzz on a sweatshirt. And I know I would love that little piece of fuzz so damn much. But even if I am not going to be a doctor anymore, I am still a scientist.

And I have many other hypotheses to test first.


Caraline Anderson is a junior at Marquette majoring in Cognitive Science and English. When they aren’t writing, they can be found reading, crafting, or waiting for their roommate’s cat to sit on their lap. This is their first appearance in the Marquette Literary Review.

Kiley Brockway is a student in the Marquette History and Digital Media departments. More of her work can be found @kileypluscamera on Instagram. She can be contacted at Kiley.brockway@gmail.com.