2:30 a.m. She calls out to me and I stagger into her room. She needs me to lie next to her, on the floor beside her bed, until she can fall back asleep. She is expert at keeping herself awake. My eyes are fuzzy and I can barely make out whether hers are still open or closing. I make a move to go, but she cries out, begs me not to leave. Resentment rushes up inside me, physical revolt. I am so tired, and so tired of her need for me. And then I think: what if there were a newborn crying also to be fed and held all night? How would I have managed?
Or, it is 9:25 a.m. She is still not dressed. She refuses to have her teeth brushed. She says, ‘I will never brush my teeth,’ and I hiss at her, ‘You will. You will do it right now, or you will not be going to your Gran’s house for a sleepover.’ ‘No.’ ‘Do it. Right. Now. Before I get really mad.’ I hate the way I sound, and I hate the flash of doubt and near-fear that wipes the defiance from her face. And I think: what if there were a newborn crying from the bassinet in the bedroom, her wail compounding my frustration and enervating her sister? How would I have managed?
I am not a perfect mother. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I say mean things. ‘Mommy, that is not a nice voice to use,’ she says, desperation tinging her own little voice, and I am reminded that she is just a small thing, a tiny girl, and I am still her whole world, or nearly so. What if I scare her? What if I scar her? I am screwing up every day, every minute. One day, when she tells her own story to herself and to others, she will say, ‘my mother was like that and so I am like this.’ I want the ‘that’ to be: generous, kind, open, supportive, and not: impatient, mean, angry, shrewish, bitter. Every day, I try to be the good mother, and every day, I fail – perhaps not completely, but still, I fail.
In the past, before Anja died, I took this failure to be inevitable. It is impossible to be good all the time, and though the myth of the good mother is powerful, it is still myth. Now, though, in the same way that mothers whose babies die wonder: was it because I didn’t completely give up caffeine? Was it because I didn’t always sleep on my left side? Was it because I had that sip of wine the Saturday before she died?, I wonder also: was it because I am not already a perfect mother? Was it because I have lost my temper, been impatient, not appreciated every second, been ungrateful? Was it because I am undeserving?
I don’t believe there is anyone who can make these judgements, or who would, but I make them myself. I am not the good mother. I am flawed. I am failing. I didn’t deserve her.