‘A Mother’s Musings,’ by Taylor Evans
Taylor Evans ‘24 MSN placed second in the prose category of the 2022 phm health professions creative medical writing and art contest. read her piece “A mother’s musings” in full below and read more about ysn winners in this contest.
Let me be clear. This is not an apology. It is an explanation. Your father has likely woven a tale fit for a leather-bound tome to explain my absence to you since you were a girl. He has likely told you that I had to leave. That it was for the best, portraying me as some grandiose and selfless heroine. He likely said that leaving was the right decision, though it remained the hardest—this is the only thing that is true. You’re a grown woman now, and from what he tells me, soon to be married, so it’s time childish fantasies were replaced with the truth of who I was and who I am.
I did leave, but I did not leave you behind. That is impossible. Though you are only half me, you are wholly of me. Songwriters often talk about how the people they love are inscribed on their hearts, but I will always carry you in form of stretchmarks—a much more permanent echo of when we had been closest. Though, you must know that my decision was not one I made overnight. On the contrary, I thought about leaving for the better part of your life. You see, there are some things that we can predict with clarity. The leathery feeling of the air when a summer storm rolls in. The rush of blood when your knee is grazed. The disappearance of a sandbank off the shore in hightide. I had the same kinds of premonitions about my own life, and I knew with the same kind of certainty that I could not be the mother you deserved. Though, I’m also realizing now, that, nor did I want to. I imagine that’s difficult to understand, because it’s difficult to admit. Still, I won’t apologize for who I am, just as I won’t ask for your forgiveness. Both would be ingenuine, and if I can ask anything of you, it is to be nothing other than yourself—fully, painfully, truthfully. Now, let me explain.
My mother, your grandmother, wanted to be a writer, and she tried to impress the same passion on me. When I was a girl she bought me a pink journal, and every morning she would have me record my dreams from the night before and expand on them so that after a while, I had accumulated an anthology of them. Sometimes the dreams were magical, like falling down a tunnel to the center of the Earth, which was just a ball of cotton candy. Sometimes they were terrifying, like being chased by a headless dog. They all went into the journal. My mother told me she would never read something so private, but when I was older, I noticed a fingerprint of lipstick, her notorious seal she left everywhere after thoughtfully tapping her lips before touching something. If your father hasn’t moved it from its place in his study, look on the fifth page in, you’ll see what I mean.
“A woman’s dreams should be known only to her.” She would tell me after I finished recording the events of the previous night’s subconscious wanderings. She’d saunter downstairs with her hair still in curlers and wrapped in a Turkish silk scarf to start frying eggs and bacon and put on the coffee pot. When I had finished my morning routine, I joined her in the kitchen and wondered what kinds of things she had in her own dream journal. To this day, I still don’t know. I never had the courage the ask. Still, I wanted to know if her pages were filled with fantasies of mopping floors and clearing plates. Did she long for anything more than the vacant kisses from my father when he left for work, or the procedural nature of his love making which he initiated twice a month? I only knew as much because my mother told me.
I was offering my father a mug of acrid coffee, which he took without glancing up from his newspaper. “I hope you feel better, Daddy.” He dragged his eyes from his paper to peer at me.
“I heard you making funny sounds last night.”
“Your Dad isn’t sick, Darcy. He just makes those sounds when he’s having sex. Sex,” she said again when she caught a glimpse of my expression. “S-E-X. Look it up in the dictionary.”
My mother said it so casually that my father’s coughing fit startled me. He had choked on the coffee, which was probably a combination of what my mother had said and its scalding temperature. He started sputtering at her, but she waved him aside with her greased spatula.
“She’s old enough to know what sex is. Don’t you know sheltered children have a higher risk of developing psychological disorders. No child of mine will be stunted because they are being lied to about something so normal.”
I learned about many mature topics in this manner, with my mom handling them nonchalantly, while my father grumbled under his breath about how inappropriate it all was. Their approaches to parenting me, as with deciding what I should know at the age of eight, diverged dramatically. By age ten, my father finally left my mother to marry his secretary, adultery so cliché that it became my mother’s punchline when she told the story to her clients at the hair salon where she worked. Still, I liked to think that she must have seen herself as being more than an abandoned woman. I believe she aspired for things larger than confining herself to a home that she did everything to emasculate. Rose curtains went up in the kitchen. A pink bathmat went into every bathroom. Doilies her mother had sown became coasters, decorative throws on the couch, and place mats on the dining table.
I never missed my father, or perhaps I was never given the chance to miss him, because he quickly became the villain in her story. If I ever brought him up, she would ridicule him so miserably that it became easier just to avoid him altogether. Their divorce was bleak and short, much like the end of their marriage. He didn’t fight for custody of me, and my mother told me it was because he didn’t want the responsibility of a child.
“He loves you, Darcy, he does, but he never wanted children,” she told me after returning from the settlement at the lawyers’ office one day.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I shouldn’t have minded the brutality of her honesty then, because she stayed true to her word, to never lie to me. She instilled her unwavering commitment to transparency in me, and to this day I’ve been unable to break whatever contract we had formed in that kitchen so many years ago. It’s probably why I’m telling you all this in the first place. She more than made up for the love of two parents, but still, she had to revise the image of my father when she discovered, through gossip at the salon, that my father’s new wife was already pregnant. Though she had no qualms about relaying the facts of the divorce to me, she seemed unable to confront the fact that it wasn’t that my father didn’t want children, he just didn’t want her children.
That day, school was closed because of heavy snow fall. I wanted to ask my mother if she could make pancakes, her typical Snow Day tradition, but when I walked into her bedroom, I found that she had piled pillows on my father’s side of the bed, and was snuggled up against them. That morning I ate dry cereal, since the milk I poured in the first bowl came out in sour clumps. She stayed curled in bed for most of that day, and the mugs of Chamomile tea I delivered to her nightstand went untouched, the steam no longer curling from them in wisps.
My father became immortalized in our family albums as a scratched-out silhouette in every picture he appeared. I had watched my mother one night when I was eleven as she alternated between pouring herself more wine and using an uncoiled paperclip to scratch her husband away.
“Darcy.” She had said it as though just realizing I was in the room with her. I had been sitting cross-legged on the carpet doing my Algebra homework when she slouched off the couch and knelt next to me on the ground. Her wine breath hung suspended in the air between us. “Never forget what I’m about to tell you.” She paused to take another sip. “All men are selfish bastards. They will court you, fuck you, then leave you without a second thought.”
Trust me, the irony of my absence and your father’s presence throughout your life is not lost on me, but bear with me. This kind of thinking likely informed her decision not to let me hand out or receive Valentines at school. She’d take me out for the day, and I’d sit in the hair salon, where I usually spent sick days or school holidays anyway, and I’d listen to the other suburban women complain about their husbands’ various transgressions and failures in the bedroom. Despite no longer being married, my mother commiserated right along with them. During these episodes, I tried to make myself useful around the salon by offering to take the trash out, sweep the floor, or even wash the windows, but the scorned women would make a fuss, saying the knowledge they were imparting was more important than any maintenance the salon might have needed. Stories of marital disturbances and partner inadequacy colored my time at the salon with my mother and her clients, so that by the time I was of dating age, the women had convinced me that finding a good man was a fool’s errand.
I hadn’t known I wanted your father until I had him. Our paths crossed in college, and I’d never encountered someone so mediocre. He wore sweaters and khakis so often that I began to wonder if his mother lived in his dorm room with him and picked out his outfits every day. He ate bologna sandwiches on white bread, and walked with his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched towards some undesirable future. I became intrigued by this figure who slouched around campus and had the coordination of a newborn giraffe. My previous high school boyfriends, if you could call them that, had all possessed personality traits that made them
wholly unattractive to everyone but me. Phillip had the lovely habit of flirting with other girls in front of me, Jason spent more time cleaning the backseat of his car after we fucked than he did on foreplay, and Damon made seductive attempts to get me to drop acid with him in his stepdad’s tool shed. In the end, or beginning, they would all disappoint me, and it was a satisfying culmination to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your father, however, was different. Unsurprisingly, I found him in the corner at a party in my senior year of college one Saturday following midterm season. I glanced down at his empty hands and handed him my cup, sloshing the neon blue drink in his direction.
He took one sip and recoiled violently. “I’m surprised you haven’t dropped dead from drinking this,” he said in between coughs.
“I’m going to be a doctor. I know what’ll kill me.” I shouted over the pounding bass that made the walls hum.
I quickly learned that he had no foresight, nor experience, with how to approach a woman, never mind satisfy her appetites. So, it became my personal mission to school him in the ways of pleasuring me. It seemed unnecessary to provide general knowledge. He only needed to know my wishes, my desires, know what made me bend and sigh. Here, finally, was a blank slate I could customize into perfection and avoid the fates of the unhappy suburban salon women.
We stumbled into his dorm room, and posters of the solar system and 80s rock bands plastered the beige, pockmarked walls. I stared down Freddie Mercury’s stoic gaze the first time we had sex. Freddie seemed to ask me if I was sure, and even as I climaxed, I knew I was. At this point, your grandfather would ask why I was writing pornography to my daughter, while your grandmother would ask why I was omitting more of the intimate details. We fell into this pattern, almost effortlessly, and soon, our time together became expected by our friends.
But your father’s hesitant gaze soon became a nuisance, and his glancing touches irritating. My friends couldn’t seem to understand my tirades at night while we passed a joint between us. They only saw looks of yearning to be nearer and soft touches promising more. Perhaps I had been searching for confirmation of my mother’s drunken advice all those years ago, even while your father and I grew increasingly dependent on each other’s company. Though, he was so unlike my father in almost every way, so I found myself doing homework with him on the artificially green Quad, or going to a cringy, smoke-filled stand-up comedy show. I fought the urge to seek him out and knock on his door after class, even as my body ached towards him during review sessions, or bristled against him at raging frat parties. Three short months is all it took to crave his presence. Dopamine had completely hijacked my brain.
For our one-year anniversary, he brought me out to his parents’ lake house, a few hours from Blue Ridge Parkway, a famous scenic highway route in Virginia. There should be a white speckled mug with silhouettes of pine trees on the top shelf of the cupboard in the kitchen. We used to have two, but one broke during a move after one of my promotions. But I remember we enjoyed steaming Blue Mountain coffee in the morning. Away from the city lights, I understood why he had covered his room with posters of constellations and nebulas. The galaxy hung suspended over our heads, so close that if I reached out my hand would come away with stardust in the creases of my fingers. As we embraced each other in the lapping ripples of the lake, he touched the corner of my eye with his thumb and whispered that he loved me. He didn’t need me to say it back, and I loved him a little more for that.
After I finished medical school, much to your grandmother’s chagrin who was still sending me emails with applications to MFA programs, your father went to business school. Our lives twisted around each other, but they never suffocated us. Years spent sitting in a parlor filled with gossiping women steered me clear away from psychiatry, but the need to understand the turning gears in a person remained. Radiology, with its clear precision and black and white definitions became my haven. My friends in my cohort didn’t understand why I was so drawn to staring at screens and X-rays all day. Didn’t I miss the direct patient interaction, they would ask me. I told them I didn’t. I’d interacted with enough people’s problems growing up. Now all I had to do was read about them on a screen in silence.
While the body can be scanned and have its most hidden parts exposed by some beams of radiation, the fissured mass that is our subconscious remains impenetrable by even the most sophisticated imaging. I’ve harbored many malignant thoughts over the years that remain, thankfully, in my conscience alone. I thought about this luxury of privacy as I annotated a gray spot on the X-ray of Garret, Mary’s CT scan. Cerebral contusion. She’d had a traumatic brain injury, a spot recognized as easily as a beauty mark on someone’s chin. I could circle it and annotate it on every scan of her brain, but what I could never tell is how she was feeling. Was she afraid? Grateful? Hopeful? Did she long to be home, or like the attention she received from the nurses and doctors giving her round-the-clock care? No, I would never know, and sometimes the limitations of my insight frustrated me, always seeing the slightest sinews and cleanest breaks, but never really getting to understand the person behind the body. That information belonged to them alone.
I used to sit in the sun room with a cup of coffee and think about the lives behind the scans and bones. I’d imagine my patients’ darkest secrets and deepest wishes—hidden affairs and abandoned dreams. Such fantasies never amounted to anything, aside from feeding the imagination my mother had instilled in me as a child. I have X-rays in my office drawer from residency if you ever want to try coming up with skeleton stories of your own.
You have probably reached the point in your life when the topic of your conversations with your friends shifts from dream vacations in Napa Valley, to where to buy BPA-free sippy cups and teething toys. As my friends started filling their homes with spouses and children, my time started filling with more hours spent in front of a monitor. I’d joined a private practice, and my patient load more than doubled. Late nights spent at the office didn’t bother me, especially since I could order takeout. I hated and still hate cooking. You ate enough frozen dinners growing up to know this.
Sometimes your father would call me just to say hello. “Another late night, Darce?” It was during my third year at the private practice, and I was trying to become a partner by the following year. He was always patient and understanding. “Don’t stress, honey. You’ll get through them, you always do.” His words marched on, never betraying any irritation or anger, even as I stumbled through a conversation with him over the phone while my eyes flew over cerebrovascular accidents, pulmonary embolisms, and fractures. “Did you hear me?”
My eyes reluctantly pulled away from a subdural hematoma. “No. Was it important?”
He sighed. “Just letting you know dinner’s in the microwave when you get home.”
I glanced down at the half-eaten plastic container of Pad Thai from Thai King down the street. “I’ve already eaten, can you throw it in the fridge? And don’t wait up for me.” Whenever I told him to just go to bed without me, I always heard him falter while he said goodnight. I could have been a better wife in those days. I could have made the effort to leave the office before
8pm, or try my hand at cooking with some of the spices I had alphabetized one rainy afternoon.
It became clear that your father should have been the one in the how-to-raise-a-family group chats with my friends when he began to point out infants on the street, or when he cooed in the face of a child at the park, and all I could think about were the greenstick fractures he could get if he fell on his arm wrong. Other women might have loved to see their partner take such in interest in starting a family. Other women might have seen their husband eyeing the stroller aisle at Target and rushed home to conceive something to populate such a contraption. Other women might have sighed at the sight of a grown man so eager to engage the imagination of a child, but his fantasies were a real threat to me. I was excelling at work, climbing the ranks with every annual review. My partners applauded the volume of scans I turned out each week, though that was likely because I would continue reading them at home, when most of them were off the clock and putting their own children to bed. I didn’t see mothers at the grocery store, wrestling with toddlers over what belonged in the cart, or mothers in the parking lot calling their children back as they narrowly evaded getting hit and wish to have such experiences of my own.
On nights when I was home by a reasonable hour, your father often brought up the topic of moving to Evendale. Evendale was one of those neighborhoods where moms pushed their children in impossible-to-collapse strollers, where dogs fit in handbags, and where people unabashedly parked their luxury cars in their driveways. But your father, to his credit, was not after the pompous lifestyle, but the larger square footage that would allow for a nursery, a playroom, a backyard.
“We love our lives here. Don’t we?” I would ask him. I would try to distract him by speaking soft and low and sweet as I rolled onto him and straddled him with my legs. He liked to rest his hands on my hips, and I began to wonder if he was measuring their girth. When his hand grazed my stomach, it felt like a sharp reminder that my uterus remained, to my relief and his disappointment, vacant. I angrily wondered why he was so determined to have our home filled with cribs, our cars with car seats, and our cabinets with sippy cups. Once I uttered my frustrations aloud, and my voice shattered the dreamy space we had created between one another.
As if in retaliation for disrupting the dream, he said, “This comes so naturally to most women.”
Maybe I’d flinched. Maybe I’d recoiled from him. Maybe I’d whimpered. Whatever reaction, the stumbled over apologies were useless. As he tried to coax me back to his side, I drew farther from him.
“I’m not most women, remember? That’s why you asked me to marry you.” I rose from the bed, wrapped my robe around me, stomped into the kitchen, and poured my third glass of wine. Then, I collapsed onto the white couch, free of stains and toys. I returned to the X-rays, pulling up an ultrasound first. I wondered if Whitehead, Denise was excited about the children she would bring into the world, or dreaded the prospect of being called Mom for the rest of her
I was cubing celery and carrots for Thanksgiving stuffing in the kitchen with my mother a few weeks later. Your father chatted with cousins and family friends over the low hum of that day’s football games. My mother rubbed seasonings into the turkey as though she were its masseuse when she said, “You mean to tell me your womb doesn’t ache when you see that?” She jutted her chin in the direction of our friend’s one-year old son slobbering on a toy car.
It certainly did, but only once a month and not when I saw babies winding their fingers in their mothers’ hair just before tugging.
“Is it fertility problems, honey? Is that why you two haven’t conceived yet? You know your aunt had the same issue before—”
I silenced her with one look. I often had to cast it her direction when she became carried away by fantasies, but she would say she had the soul of a writer and couldn’t help herself. I hadn’t been afforded such a frivolous soul. Instead, I seemed to have inherited my father’s stoicism and rationality. “We are not going to discuss my fertility at Thanksgiving. We are not going to be that family?”
“Well I’m not going to be around forever, you know. Would you really deprive your poor mother of grandchildren? All your friends are doctors, go visit one of them and find out what’s wrong.”
Our voices raised enough to prompt your father to enter the kitchen. I’m not proud of the way I turned on him, accusing him of persuading my mother to talk to me about why I wasn’t pregnant. At this point, surely, you must be wondering why did I marry someone who wanted to have children if I didn’t? Didn’t we talk about it? Of course, we talked about it, but it rarely got resolved. I thought our love for each other would be enough to sustain us forever, but I was wrong. Yes, the tears were manipulative, I will admit. But your father reacted to them every time. He was too good a man to push me into something I didn’t want. So, diplomatic as ever, your father managed to calm, rather than stoke, what could have become a full-blown diatribe that Thanksgiving.
At the time, I didn’t know it was possible, but I loved him even more that day. Several months passed and I slowly realized that he had stopped waiting up for me at night, as Evendale receded into the place where lost dreams go. I’d worn him down to the point where he stopped asking. I don’t suggest watching the person you love give up something for you, unless you can live with the resentment that is likely to follow. I feared this outcome, and then, I watched your father cradle the hands of his dying, grandchildren-less father. A few nights later, your father perched next to me on the bed, and I realized how earnestly he wanted to gaze into the eyes of his child, how desperately he wanted to be woken by small feet pounding on the hardwoods, and how miserably he would keep living in a house that echoed with potential. How could I keep denying him happiness when it was all he had given to me?
“Maybe one wouldn’t be too bad,” I whispered to him in the velvet darkness.
A few months later we left the doctor’s office with our first glimpse of you. It was the first and only time I think I really knew you, because the black and white and grey lines and shapes convalesced into an image I could decipher and understand. If you look in the blue photo album on the built-ins in the family room, there are two ultrasounds in the back. One is me. One is you. Take a look, and maybe you’ll see how you looked as alien as my body felt to me. You can decide if you want there to be a third to add to this generational collection.
Did you know that a woman’s sensitivity to potential contaminates intensifies in her first trimester to avoid ingesting anything dangerous while her immune system is compromised? An evolutionary advantage that seriously inconvenienced me. I vomited so often I began to wonder if this was how my body was rejecting you. The nausea came in waves, and never at convenient times. It happened while I was watching TV at night, or in the middle of calling billing at insurance companies, and never when I had to go to the post office, or had a dinner party at our neighbors’ who had the terrible habit of discussing money and politics.
They warn you about the swollen ankles, and the sleepless nights, but they don’t prepare you for how cushions gasp under your weight, or how your gait falters when you walk. The essential oils my friends suggested I rub onto my belly were essentially useless. At work, it grew increasingly difficult to find a comfortable position to sit in as I read scans. Dull pains bloomed at the bottom of my spinal column. Sharp pains shot through my shoulder blades. I wanted to submit myself to the X-ray more than once, but I already knew the cause of my discomfort, and I already knew that I’d just see your curled body inside me. I really tried not to resent you for the ways you were eroding me. Your father would remind me that nine months was a short and temporary amount of time. But he also didn’t have to deal with sleepless nights because you had decided to lodge yourself against my bladder. He didn’t understand the horror of watching your body morph and sag and expand, after having spent the majority of my adolescent years in front of a mirror trying to figure out how to rid myself of fat pouches.
When I ran errands, doors were held open for me, people stepped aside to allow me easy access, and strangers offered to help me carry things. Once, an elderly woman approached me while I was sniffing the navels of oranges at the grocery store. Without warning, she placed her hand, marked by ripples of skin and sun spots, on my protruding belly.
“God bless you.” She said, as if sanctifying me.
I smiled at her the way I smiled at your father if he pissed me off when we were in public. “God had nothing to do with this.”
I wasn’t even allowed to forget you at work. Patients would ask how far along I was, and mothers would offer advice or try to commiserate in the middle of me telling them about their Barton’s fracture after a cycling accident. My medical degree receded into the shadow of my new title. I had spent over thirteen years earning one, and less than thirteen minutes earning the other.
Scientists say that women have evolved to forget the pain of childbirth. Not me. I remember every contraction, every urge from above, every searing tear from below. As soon as I was admitted to the labor and delivery unit at St. Augustine’s, I was only referred to as Mom. How’re you feeling, Mom? Want more ice chips, Mom? Need to use the bathroom, Mom? My blood pressure would spike, which the nurses attributed to anxiety or pain, but I knew it to be anger. Your father, however, reveled in being called Dad, but made sure to only address me by my actual name. I was relieved when my mother arrived, because I knew she would divert my irritation away from you and towards her. She flitted around the room as she told me about how she gave birth to me on the kitchen floor, amniotic fluid splashing across the linoleum tiles.
“You were so fat, the neighbors called you for Buddha Baby for weeks,” she told me as I grunted through another contraction. She held my clenched hand, and patted it patronizingly as she counted down to the next contraction. “Buckle up, here comes another one.”
When a flood of pain washed over me, I chanted, “I can’t do it,” like a satanic mantra.
She crouched next to me. “Don’t be ridiculous. Women have been having babies for centuries—and you get drugs to help you.” She rubbed my shoulders, and before I could tell her to leave, another wave dragged me under.
I spent the night like this, oscillating between people who seemed unable to recognize that my pain had little to do with my pulsating uterus and everything to do with the fact that I was hurtling towards a life I hadn’t fully accepted. Every time the doctor peered between my legs, it seemed more an affront than the last time. Your father’s encouraging words became taunts, and my inability to cope became overwhelmingly obvious when the nurses brought in another woman to explain the pain I was feeling. It was productive. It was powerful. It was bullshit. And when your father held one leg and my mother held my other, I felt strapped into a vice, but I guess that birthing is the same thing. At the end, you were laid across my swollen breasts, as a lactation specialist hovered in the corner. It was as though she could already sense my incompetence. I wondered then, as I often do now, if you had known at birth, when you were placed over my heart, that you were never going to get the nutrients you needed from me?
When I gazed upon you for the first time, I couldn’t understand why you weren’t as beautiful as everyone said you would be. Blood and amniotic fluid covered your wrinkly skin, and your pupils were much too large for your eyes. Your father cooed towards you, wringing and unwringing his hands just waiting to stroke your tuft of hair. My mother followed the nurse around and asked questions just to fill space between the incessant beeping of the monitor hooked into the spindly veins of my hand. You were brought the NICU for observation that night, because you were underweight. Your tag from the NICU is still in the top drawer of my dresser. You can wrap it around your finger to get an idea of how fragile you were. That day I was afraid I would break you, leaving you with internal wounds that would never show up on any X-ray. Concealed wounds that I couldn’t heal because I’d caused them.
You were two weeks old when I tried to go back to work, but the partners at the office refused my offer and congratulated the newest addition to my family. They wanted me to spend time with you, and I didn’t know how to tell them that their dismissal felt like a sentencing. I was tired of having put my career on pause to spawn a human. It’s been happening for thousands of years, and yet the novelty of babies still seemed to affect everyone but me. I wanted to get back to work. But you had become my responsibility. You depended on me for warmth and safety and food, a bond that would captivate other women. Yet, every time I looked at you, I didn’t see a bright future, at least not one in which I was involved.
Even when you suckled at my chaffed breasts, I couldn’t feel the overwhelming, sacrificial love my mother kept telling me I would. I’d confess this to her as she held you while you screamed. It was such a ridiculously shrill sound coming from something so small. I tried endlessly, tirelessly to please you, to appease you, but I could never decipher your gurgles and vacant expressions. If I offered food, you cried. If I offered a nap, you cried. Every sniffle made me feel more inadequate than the last. The hormonal fluctuations in my body still hadn’t regulated themselves, and I’d read enough articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry to know that depression after childbirth was becoming increasingly visible and legitimized. Still, I wondered how much of what I was feeling could be attributed to a neurotransmitter imbalance, and how much was just the knowledge that I was unfit for this job. When, at last, I admitted to my mother that I thought I might have developed postpartum depression, she dismissed my concerns.
“Our family doesn’t get depression,” my mother said, as she bounced you in her arms.
I tried not to think about how natural my mother looked, and how at ease you appeared cradled to her. I also tried not to think about the nights she spent with a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other as she lounged on the couch and stared out the window, as if waiting for my father to climb the porch steps at any minute. I’d grown up observing the silhouette of her against that window, backlit by the streetlights.
“What do you think your patients will say if they find out you’ve gone to the nuthouse? They’ll stop coming to you. Just find a mommy and baby group you both can spend time with, and drink some wine like the rest of us did.”
She thrust you back into my arms then. I should mention here that every moment of your infancy was not wrought with these kinds of questions. I did, and do, love you readily, but still wrestled with thoughts that contested such a blind and unfathomable bond, and effectively disrupted the independence I so adamantly carved out for myself ever since I became the child of a mother reeling from her own personal losses. But I was reminded, as would happen in waves, that loving you, though more effortful on my part than most, was easy. That much was not difficult to understand.
As you grew out of your toddler years and into your pre-teen years, you started to look like me and it broke my heart, because I didn’t know how to keep those pouches of fat from your thighs, or erase the frizz from your hair. When you scraped your knee playing tag with the neighborhood kids, I didn’t know how to comfort you, because I knew nothing was broken. But you were still inconsolable. I’ve set the bones of three-year olds with broken arms who didn’t wail as loud as you did that day. But your father pulled you into him, called the injury boo boo, and gave it a loving kiss before getting you a scoop of ice cream. You ran straight to him, instinctually knowing that he would be able to comfort you. Watching that, like many moments before it, I had no doubt that any maternal instinct was extinct in me.
I hadn’t learned how to be soft and gentle. I hadn’t been afforded such luxuries as I tried to navigate the treacherous waters that were my home life growing up with my mother. But I kept seeing parts of her in the way I parented you, and I hated myself for doing to you what she did to me. You were twelve when we came back from the pediatrician’s office, and they told you that your weight was in the 90th percentile for your age. I remember telling you in the car that you should try taking up track and eating more celery, but you stared ahead, unblinking the whole ride. When you came down for dinner that night, I tried to ignore the red rims around your eyes, but your father couldn’t. He coaxed a smile from you after offering to take us all to Eddie’s to get the best Root Beer floats in town. I tried to protest, as subtly as I could, but your father was a formidable defender of your happiness.
“It’s summer, and a Root Beer float isn’t going to kill anyone,” he had said. He was so good at pinpointing exactly what you needed, and never took things too seriously. Perhaps it was projection that made me say what I did, the fear of watching you eat without considering the pounds that could add up later, and the taunts bullies might throw your way.
“Remember what the doctor said about her weight.” To spite me, at least I hope it was to spite me, you went with your father anyway. But when you two returned, you only drank half of your float and put the rest in the fridge where it sat until the cream spoiled and went sour. The look of betrayal I received from your father silenced me for the rest of that night. And when your grandmother visited, bringing baskets of muffins and cookies, the guilt on your face as you munched on them gnawed at me.
I could have made a better effort to come to your middle school plays, even when the office became backed up with patients. I could have validated your dreams to become an artist, but, unlike your grandmother, I’m too much of a realist to indulge those fantasies. Your father would say you could be whatever you wanted to be, but I always added that what he said was true, as long as you could support yourself too. We often argued, after you went to bed, about the things I said. He encouraged your lofty dreams, and I couldn’t bring myself to dismiss reality in their interest.
Your father, ever the peacekeeper, came to me one night. “I know you’re unhappy, and I know you’ve been this way for a long time.” It was a truce, an olive branch. His eyes swam with tears as he confronted the truth I had begged him to hear since before you were born. It was the truth that was pushed aside for fear of appearing like some aberrant woman who didn’t love her own child. It was the truth that existed in every glancing hug and empty kiss I’d given you over the years. “I will still love you, and I will make sure she still loves you, even if you have to leave.” As with you in the beginning, loving you father was effortful and laborious, but it grew into something reflexive and foundational. It wasn’t simple, but it had always been enough.
The rest of this story you know. When you were thirteen you woke up to a note saying that I had gone, and I didn’t know when I’d return, but that I loved you. What you don’t know is that you became a phantom limb in my life. I missed watching you do homework at the breakfast nook, or hearing your music drift down the stairs from your room. I missed the passion fruit shampoo you used, even when I told you it had all kinds of polyfluoroalkyl chemicals in it. I missed how you wrinkled your nose when you disagreed with something, or how you chewed pen caps while you read. The years that have passed are unbridgeable, I know this. I did not write to try to mend what I know cannot be mended. I know what I’ve done has left breaks and fractures that will never appear on any X-ray for which I could identify and recommend treatments. I know this.
You might not believe me, but I do love you. I always have, even underneath any unfair animosity I’d harbored, because in the end it was never your fault. Now, as you prepare to become someone’s wife, someone’s other half and start a new life with them and perhaps one day become someone else’s mother, I needed you to hear this. I know this is likely not what you were expecting to get from your mother on your special day, but it’s important all the same. Perhaps you don’t want to listen to my advice anymore. I’d understand. I don’t believe I’ve earned that right, to be the only one whispering in your ear. Still, what I wanted for myself, I want for you—to stay true to yourself, your ambitions, and your aspirations, but I would caution you against clinging to them so unrelentingly that you lose a part of yourself that you love. For me, that part has been and will always be you.
With love, your mother.