The Good Mother

My daughter wants to play rough with me. We are in a friend’s garden, and she is slapping and hitting me until I have to defend myself by holding my arms in front of my face.
 
‘Why won’t you hit me back?’ she asks.
‘Because I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘But I want you to hurt me.’
‘Why?’ I laugh with unease.
‘I want to be treated roughly,’ she says.
I wrestle her to the grass and, pinning her arms above her head, tell her she should play rough with her friends. ‘But I want you to do it,’ she says.
‘Mummies aren’t supposed to hurt their children, sweetie,’ I say, getting back to my feet. I stand over her slender body, a delicate star in a sea of green. She studies me, a wrinkle in her forehead, the white sky reflected in her eyes. I hold out my hand to help her up, but she crosses her arms over her chest, and turns onto her side.

‘Mummies are supposed to make you happy, not sad,’ she says.
I feel her comment like a kick in the gut. Mummies are supposed to make you happy, not sad. She might simply be referring to this moment, her mother not giving her what she wants, but I left my husband six months ago. I broke apart our family. My husband. I left. Her father.
‘Mummies aren’t supposed to hurt their children, sweetie.’
This is not what good mummies are supposed to do.

My daughter was born ten years ago. During my pregnancy, my father was dying, having abandoned himself to the undignified aftermath of years of heavy drinking. While I woke to the new life that was growing inside me, I had to guard myself from his pernicious toxicity. My brother took over the day-to-day management of our father’s self-destruction: conversations with the bank, those he owed money to, the hospital in San Francisco and the bills that were piling up in the absence of medical insurance. When I asked if there was anything I could do, he said: ‘You’re pregnant.’ So I embraced my chance to create new life, and to revitalise my own. In those precious months, I felt new; empowered, grateful to be given a second chance. Two year later, I gave birth to a son. Two parents; two children. Square-shaped perfection. I might even live a normal life. I believed it were possible.

My daughter lies in her bed and I go to kiss her goodnight. She lifts her arms and brings them down hard onto the bridge of my nose, so hard that my glasses jolt against bone. I hold my face and instinctively move away.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry.’ But she’s laughing.
‘That hurt,’ I say.
‘Is it bleeding?’ she asks, squinting at me.
I check my hands. ‘There’s no blood.’
‘Then it can’t hurt, really.’

I wanted to give birth to her in water, at home. Water was a gentle transition; home was safe and controllable. The labour lasted two days. I embraced the pain; was prepared for it. I understood that it was the body’s way of telling me that it needed my attention. Pain forces you to be present.
I paced the flat and moved with my contractions, unaware of little else but the rhythm of my breath and my baby as she shifted and pulsed inside me. I moved from birthing pool to bed, to floor, to stairs, to toilet and back again. I rocked and rolled on a birthing ball in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, transfixed by the green of the garden-after-rain gorgeously florescent. We travelled through another day and night, and I still hadn’t reached second stage: there were mutterings of baby stuck, thumb in mouth, position back-to-back. We resisted calling an ambulance. I’d made a pact with my unborn child. She was going to have a gentle start in this life. I would protect her from the threat of the outside world, the hospital, which was crowded with ill people, those who needed saving. I didn’t need saving. My body knew what was right for my baby, and my baby, in turn, would protect me.

She asks for cuddles. I put my arms around her, but at the point that her body relents, she struggles and shoves. When I tense away, she squeezes me, to prevent me from getting up. ‘Why do you get up the minute I get into bed with you?’
‘Because you hurt me,’ I say. I am torn between wanting to tell her it’s all right, and needing to teach her that if you treat people like that they won’t want to be around you.

Mummies aren’t supposed to hurt their children, sweetie.
‘I love you,’ she says.
‘I love you, too,’ I say, holding her to me again.
‘I love you,’ she says, ‘but I hate you.’

When my daughter was finally born, she was fished out of the water and passed to me, and I laughed. My husband cried, and I passed her to him. She lay peacefully in his arms, alert, staring into his eyes, as I turned away. The birthing pool was full of clots of my blood. Her head was bruised and swollen. I cradled a cup of tea and stared into the distance. This baby had made it into the world, but in doing so, she was no longer inside me. Her placenta had been expelled. We had separated, her protective skein given up to the earth.
But she was peaceful. She slept on a fleece between my husband and me on our king sized bed. She didn’t wake to feed. I watched throughout that first night, too astounded to sleep. I was amazed at her gentle beauty; that she’d found her thumb so readily, the tender rise of her shoulders every time she breathed.
When I got up to go the loo, my foot gave way and I fell to my knees. I’d damaged my sciatic nerve from all the squats, up and down the stairs.
It took a while before I was able to walk, so for the first week we stayed in the safety of four walls, with the lights turned low, and autumn closing in around us. A week passed and my husband went back to work, and my inability to venture out turned to reluctance. I watched the world from our basement window, and felt separated, different. At home, we were safe: I could pace and rock, and replicate the security of the womb. My daughter fed on demand, and when she became sleepy I laid her on my chest and we slept together, our heart beats twinned.

Mummies are supposed to make you happy, not sad.
My father broke his neck falling down the stairs. He ended up in intensive care. He went through detox, and when he returned home, he did it all over again. He phoned me every day, a sharp ring cutting through our marshmallow world. Sometimes I cried and sometimes I held the phone away from my ear. He never asked about my baby, and I never told him.
Slowly, over time, I ventured out, but was anxious about timing my daughter’s feeds and where I might stop, how I might breastfeed privately. I carried her in a sling, because she felt distant and vulnerable away from me. She never cried. Perhaps it was because I responded to the slightest grumble. She became so accustomed to being strapped to me that her leg muscles were slow to develop. At night we slept together and when she woke I turned over to feed her. When we finally put her in her own room, she continued to wake. I dreamt from the beanbag on the floor, gazed through the grey when my husband stopped in the doorway. ‘Do you want me to take her?’
I held her close.
‘Can I help in any way?’
‘I don’t know what you can possibly do.’

My father died when my daughter was four months old, and I felt relief. He’d been deported back to the UK but had been left homeless. My brother was estranged from him by that time, and I was scared to let him into my home. Too scared to expose him to this tender new life. He died alone on the floor of a B&B, with a remote control in his hand. Crying felt like an effort, twisting for tears, wringing out a dry old cloth; the sounds from my throat were angry rather than sad. When I asked a friend, where is the grief? She said, perhaps you’ve done enough grieving already.

I’d done enough crying. For a time I couldn’t help myself every time I was with him. He had this way of reaching into my heart and gripping it between his big soft paws, tugging, pulling, wrecking. When people asked me what was wrong, I had no answer. The tears came. I couldn’t stop them. The injury was long passed, but the healing wasn’t yet done.

She shows me her bruises. There are four of them of varying colours of yellow and purple. She points them out while she’s in the bath, and tells me how she got them. There’s one that her brother gave her and when he denies it, she punches him on the arm and says: ‘You did, stupid. Look. I’ve got something to prove it.’

Wounds penetrate the skin. They turn the inside out. They bleed.

As I grew up I began to recognise this particular pain as a thing, something I could pat into a ball, contain in my hands and throw away if I chose to. I’d have dreams of lobbing it off the side of a ship, watching it bob away on the waves.

What of my daughter’s pain? She has been injured, but when will the healing begin? When my husband and I told her we were separating, she barely cried. When her father moved out six months later, she refused to talk about it.

The worst kind of pain is the pain that you can’t see. It’s the pain you may not know is there until it shows itself through an angry shove, or an elbow rammed into your rib. It is the pain that made me search out life for years after my father died, on the street, with strangers, arriving home late at night having obliterated myself in strange worlds and alcohol. My memory of my father is of absence, of not being there when he said he would, of being there but being somewhere else, with his lover, with his work, drowning himself in liquid. He paced from his study, to the living room to the telly, to the kitchen. He took a bite of cake, stole a choccy biccy, cut off a piece of cheese. He took a swig from a bottle placed in a cupboard, behind a dustbin or on a bookshelf. When I asked him for love he reassured me with empty words.
Sometimes I would arrive home drunk, having stopped at the pub to avoid the tension in the house. My children will have stayed awake to see me. I’d sing to them, my fingers stroking their hair as they settled to sleep, my eyes closing with the rock of my body, but I was dead behind those words. So many times, I went through the motions, of cooking and cleaning and clearing, and tidying, caring for my children, being a good wife, but with my mind in someone else’s house or garden.

My children stay at their father’s new place and when they come home, they find it difficult to settle. My daughter twists and turns in her bed, her legs thrashing out. ‘I can’t sleep,’ she says. ‘I can’t relax.’ She presses her hands and feet to the bed-frame. We have a lazy day at home, and she traps her thumb in the front door. Her thumb swells. She cries. She holds onto her thumb, and the tears keep coming. I take her onto my lap and hold her, grateful that she is too preoccupied to push me away. Her tears are useful. I climb into her top bunk and hold her flailing legs. I stare into her eyes. ‘Relax,’ I say as I stroke them still. I start to sing. The same song I have always sung, only this time I listen to the words: ‘Alive Alive. I wanna get up and jive. I wanna wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive.’ I am here, I want to say. I am going nowhere. She resists and glares at me, but as I continue to hold her she puts her thumb in her mouth and turns, and her limbs quieten.

I have an earache, she might say. I have a headache. And we will take her to the doctor where she will be tested. He will give her things to make her better. I have a bruise. I have a wound. You can see the blood. She pushes, she shoves, she hurts. She hurts. She wants to hurt me too. She wants me to join her in her pain. She wants me there. She wants me present. She wants to hold me, feel me, see my eyes. She doesn’t want to lose me. Push me. Shove me. Wake me up. I will hold you. I am here. I am going nowhere.

Now, when my daughter asks to fight, I push her around and turn her, so her back is to me, and strap her arms across her chest, which is where I hold onto her. ‘You can’t get away,’ I say. She wriggles and laughs.

My baby daughter smiled to everyone she met.
When she was strapped to me, she rested her cheek on my breast or my back and put her thumb into her mouth.
As a toddler, she bit her friends. It was her way of making contact, like a hug or a kiss.
‘Is she a good girl?’
She’s a good girl.
‘There’s a good girl.’
Sometimes she wasn’t a good girl, but I never apologised for her.
Is she a good mummy?
I try to be.
Is she a happy mummy?
Is she a good girl? Is she a happy girl?

About lily dunn

I am a published author, mentor and teacher. I have been published by Portobello Books and Granta. I teach creative writing at university level and also to recovering addicts here in London.

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