I have been a bad mother. Not in the literal sense. But in the important sense.
For many years, I think that I have evaded being any kind of mother. I have only a cat. But somewhere in the body, the part that wakes up in the middle of the night and spits in my face, I fear that I can evade motherhood, like a cold, for only so long. The best people I know wrestled with their children when they were infants. Most of us ignored the more difficult truths as long as we could. And then, because the universe is nothing if not a fine balance, their difficulty bloomed commensurate with our avoidance.
So it happens that as I am leaving the apartment I share with my cat and two other childless women one damp morning in March, I open the door and find her there. She is sitting quietly on one of our plastic chairs on a slim deck overlooking Lake Merritt, swinging her legs and clutching a dirty gray stuffed rabbit. I have no idea how long she’s been there. Little sparkling orbs of dew are clinging to her white dinosaur sweatshirt, like she’s a human spider web. Of course I know who she is immediately.
“Uh uh,” I say, balancing a small mug of coffee, a stack of notebooks, and the bowl of yogurt I’d planned to eat on my walk to work, my other hand still half pulling the door closed behind me. I think about running. She might not have it in her to chase me. And if she does, I can always drown her in the lake. “I have work,” I add. Like saying, I have this deadly virus, nothing can be done, you should leave while you can.
The stubborn set of her mouth—the one I know so well, the one I got from her—tells me that I can run, but I can no longer hide. Still, I do think about hiding, like I think about hitting the snooze button or swiping right on Tinder. One more go could be the delivery I have been waiting for. And then I give up. I think, I am tired of hiding from this tiny fiend.
I set down my coffee and balance the bowl on my knee so I can grab her backpack. “I’m not coming in today,” I tell my boss over the phone, and hang up before she can respond.
“Alright,” I say, turning to her. “You get one night.” She says not so much as a “thank you,” but jumps off the chair and pushes past me, shoving her shoulder into my torso as she goes. I roll my eyes. No one would notice, I reason, if I tossed her little body over the rail.
But the better part of me, the good mother that I know must be inside, otherwise the logic of life would not compute, follows her in the door, instructs her to sit on the couch, and hands her a jar of shea butter. “Put that on your legs,” I say, pointing from the jar to her dusty knees. “Look at me,” I say, pulling out my phone. She looks vaguely towards me, like she couldn’t care less about anything other than the tops of her own eyeballs. “They’ll stay like that,” I warn, and snap a photo. Then I back away slowly, making sure she’s not going to hurl the jar at my head as soon as my back is turned, and close myself in the kitchen. I try to assess the situation rationally.
Guess who’s here, I tap into my phone instead, and send my sister the photo.
Wow. Looks just like you, she replies. I can picture the eyebrows raised, the “are you sure you’re ready for this,” the “you know, it’s okay to not be ready yet.” I pray for more. Instructions, advice, general commendation. My phone stays dark.
She’s grown so much since I last saw her. Must be close to nine years old. Skinny. Short. Pointy chin. Scraggly hair that needs washing. Ashy brown legs dotted with mosquito bites. Angry eyes. I try to calculate how expensive she will be to feed.
Over the next days I try to summon the good mother I know is inside. I research “how to have fun” and free drawing lessons on YouTube. I call therapist after therapist and explain the situation. I ask my sister for advice. I ask my friends who have children of their own for advice. I ask my childless friends for advice, reasoning that if they have avoided children in the first place, perhaps they know best how to solve this problem. I quit my job. I cook dinner most nights. I clean my cat’s litter box every morning.
She doesn’t talk. She’s so self-contained that I’d think she doesn’t need much, if I didn’t know better. She wakes up with nightmares and stomach pain every night. She sobs if I stray too far, then refuses any comfort. She kicks me in the shins to get my attention. She needs so much. Needs someone to draw the outlines of her skin in bold over and over again, to take her fingers and help her trace her own boundaries, teach her to recognize the feeling of reality, of skin and air and warmth and sensation. Without that she sinks, into a darkness so pure that it feels like she and it are indistinguishable. I guess that is why she’s here. Even being with me is better than being alone in that darkness.
But being with her is not better than being alone. Her body, its presence, pulls me further towards darkness than I think I can go. A darkness so primal and deep it feels like I can’t tell the difference between her and me.
On the seventh day, I can barely get out of bed. And yet, she is there, sitting up in the bed next to me, willing me to be defeated. I will not be defeated. I sit up. I ask her, “What more can I give?”
From the way her face crumples and then closes, I know I have hurt her. She turns and folds, her back, her angry silence, a slim protest of the indignity of having needs, of needing more than I can give her. I remember this well. Remember the frail vulnerability of my small chest filling with shame, and then, the decisive twist, like shutting off a faucet. I lay my hand on her back. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean it.” I know she will not answer, will not turn to face me, will not burrow her hard face into my arms. I make us eggs, as a peace offering.
It is exhausting, this work of mothering.
“I don’t know what to do,” I tell a friend over almond milk lattes in North Oakland.
“You’re in a tough situation,” she says. “But you’re doing the work. I mean, what more can you do?”
“Yeah.” I glance over at my child, who is slumped in a chair, wearing the same shorts and sweatshirt she had on when I found her, staring at the sky as though there is something in it. “I just want her to be happy, you know?”
“Yeah . . . But I mean, what is happiness?” she says. She has a child of her own. I can’t see her, but from the way her eyes keep shifting, and she keeps sighing, I assume her child is crouched beneath the table we are seated at.
To try to bring light to the underworld my life has become, I ask her once every half hour what she needs, how she feels. I look up words for feelings in case she doesn’t speak because she doesn’t know how. I bring her to therapy appointments. I bring her to the gym. I barely ever leave her side. Still, some mornings, she sits on the kitchen floor and cries. There is nothing I can do for her but sit down next to her, hold up apples, or my phone, or potato chips, or a pen and paper. When she stops crying, we both try to drink water.
One morning, I walk into the bedroom, catching her as she guiltily slams shut my laptop.
“No, no,” I try to explain. I grab the computer and open it. Sure enough, she has found the emails I have been writing to my friend, in which I propound on how to be a single, functioning, childless adult once more. I have been researching long-term climbing trips. Writers residencies where no children are allowed. Backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail. Daydreaming about the partners I could meet on these adventures, how I could start over, raise a child the right way, from infancy, with help. A child who is not silent and judging and angry and endlessly, silently, needy.
I look over at her. She is still, her little shoulders hunched, eyes down as she tries to pretend not to be hyper aware of me, my moods, my attention, my love. She is not the kind of child to jump up and climb on me to get me to notice her. Not the kind to know what it is that is making her angry or sad. Not the kind to protest fading into the background, where she believes she belongs. That is, I suppose, why it has taken her so long to really be here. I admit that I don’t know how to make her feel welcome because she is not welcome.
I wish I could say things got better. Instead, I start running out of money.
Around this time, I notice that she is growing. And changing. Most days she still looks like me. Brown and small and endlessly grimey. Some days she looks like my mom at her age. Straight black hair cut in a circle around her face, solemn mouth, downcast eyes, hands twisted behind her back. Some days she looks like no one I know, her face shifting and amorphous, sometimes brown, sometimes pale peach, sometimes short, sometimes a gray mound hulking over me, wrapped in winding sheets.
“I don’t know how to live with all this emptiness,” she says, when she comes to me as death. They are the first words she has spoken.
“No one does,” I assure her. I can feel her start to suck me in, such vast darkness in such a small body. I want to tell her, no, no, I take it back. I will give you a different answer. But there is no different answer. And a good mother does not lie, a good mother is not afraid of dying with her child. “Come,” I tell her, offer her the warmth and sensation and boundary of my body. I am not sure if we will make it through the night. When we wake, she is just little again, tired and lonely, but her skin is warm and dry, and she is held. I can do that much for her.
Over the next weeks, she comes to me as my mother, more and more often. Perhaps she can tell that I hate this more than anything else. “Come,” I beckon her. “Sit.” I do not know this one’s mannerisms as well, so when she comes, climbs up in my lap and puts her arms around my neck, I am somewhat surprised. I manage not to tense up, though I am not comfortable. So that I have something to do, I wrap us both in a blanket and reach up to turn on a warm yellow lamp. My mother likes coziness more than anyone I have ever met.
“Shall I tell you about my mother?” I ask her, doing my best to keep my body soft.
She shakes her head. Her thick black bangs swing over her eyes. She burrows her face into my neck. Such a sweet gesture. I start talking, because it seems like the right thing to do.
“My mother,” I say to her, just as if reading from a book, snuggling her in closer to my lap, “was loving, volatile, absent, ashamed, grieving, unremorseful, and relentless in her pursuit of justice, whomever the perceived villain. She could spend whole mornings coming in one door and out another, just to tell my sister and me about our tragic and unworthy selves from every angle possible. Leave, come through one door, leave, repeat. Just when we thought she was done, when there had been maybe four or five minutes of silence, she would come back in through the first door, unique combinations of curse words and adjectives, like gems and stones tumbling out of her mouth. Always with her one crooked finger, from an accident in a science class, cocked at us like a mock gun.”
I pause to see how she is taking it. I give her a little squeeze.
“But before she and my father separated, got back together, and then divorced, she also devoted herself to raising us. Math workbooks, art projects, organizing book fairs at our school. My love for storytelling was imprinted by her reading to us before we went to sleep, almost every night.”
I wonder whether she would have loved storytelling, had things been different between us. I think about the book fairs I will never organize, the potato stamp Valentine’s Day cards I will not print, stacked and ready and placed by her bookbag for school. In my lap, she is a blur of blacks and tans and grays, one cocked finger jabbing at my eye. I knock her hand away.
“And then she was working multiple jobs,” I continue. “Whatever jobs she could: waitress, secretary, administrator. At Christmas time she would work two jobs to make sure our Christmas tree would levitate above the piles of presents. Dolls. Legos. Cars. Art kits. Science kits. Wagons. Stuffed animals. Stuffed dog. Stuffed polar bear. Stuffed rabbit. I still feel an urgent need to be overly generous for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, returns from long or short trips, visits from one place to another. Stacking presents and spending money, and giving, giving, giving, even if you can’t afford it, especially if you can’t afford it. This the purest sign of love one can show.”
She is a solid rock in my arms, I know that I am hurting her. Speaking too directly. I hold her tighter, so that she cannot escape.
“And then there were the times that she wasn’t working, and she was lying on the couch watching PBS, or watching sad movies with melancholy endings like Steel Magnolias and The Crying Game, or doing workout videos on the floor. Every time I search out a clip of The Body Electric I feel faintly energized, faintly depressed. There were the years when we ate ramen with frozen corn, Chef Boyardee with frozen corn, Spaghettios with frozen corn, white beans and ketchup with frozen corn. The first time she called me a bitch. The first time she stopped the car in the middle of traffic. The second time she stopped the car in the middle of traffic. The time she hit my sister with a hanger. The time she hit my sister with a metal spatula. The time she hit my sister with a broom. The time I hid from her in the bushes and heard her calling for me and I laughed and laughed. The time I noticed that I couldn’t hear the words she was saying anymore, but I could notice in very fine detail the gathering of spittle at the corner of her mouth. The first time a therapist asked me to tell her about my mother. The second time a therapist asked me to tell her about my mother. The first time I felt mothered by a therapist. The fourth time she stopped the car in the middle of traffic. The first time I got out of the car. That was the first time I tried to be a good mother. This is the second time.”
By this time, I am whispering these words directly into her ear, though she tries to move my face away, tries to cover her ears, bites me when I hold her hands down so that she will hear me.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she says.
“I know, I know,” I say. Shh. Shh. I try to comfort her. I might die if I have to listen to the anguish in her voice for much longer. “But I have given more than I can afford,” I tell her. I carry her outside, and she is so strangely limp and hollow, so nearly weightless, like a bird, that it hardly feels fair. I pick her up, I tell her how sorry I am. I drop her small weight up and over the railing. I can hear her whooshing, like feathers, all the way down, until I don’t. It does not feel good to overpower a child. I did not know this until now. But it is what a good mother does.
E.I. Richardson is a queer Black and Malay cis-woman. E.I. studied creative writing at Harvard, and law at Stanford Law School. She has worked for the past nine years to end the prison industrial complex, the ultimate fantastical horror of our time.