Charlotte: a short story

It comes in waves. I vaguely remember them saying once that it would, although I couldn’t imagine it then, so I chose not to remember. I don’t know why our brains do that; choose like that. I hope I can choose to forget this whole night.

The dark surrounds me. I’ve left the lights off on purpose, because too much of anything is a distraction right now. I don’t want to see the dishes in the sink, or the boxes, or the piles of baby clothes to be sorted and folded. God I’ll be needing those by the morning. Oh God.

We moved here three months ago, me and my mum, after Shane walked out. Well, after Shane found out about the baby. Mum was lost in that big empty house and big empty bank account, and I was lost behind this big belly, so we cut our losses and said what the hell about the past let’s set up home together. It’s a good idea, right, me and my mum. She did this for me, once, carried me inside her and rubbed her full belly and dreamed, just like I’m doing now.

I bet she never dreamed things would work out like they did.

It comes now. Starts in my deepest gut and rolls forward over me, over into my back. I have to remind myself to breathe. Big breaths. Keep going. It’ll pass. Roll with it girl, roll with it.

And it’s gone.

Breathe out.

The wooden kitchen chair creaks as I stand up. I’ve got this heat pack thing that a lady at our old church gave me, she said it’s good for pain, and it is, but only when it’s really hot. Bernard. Sally Bernard is her name. I waddle over to the microwave and put it in again, pushing the buttons without thinking about it, praying it’ll be hot enough for when…oh God.

The kitchen light goes on with a click and a wash of colour bright, and Mum shuffles in, tying up her dressing gown as she goes. She’s got a cigarette between her fingers already and she’s fumbling in her dressing gown pocket for a lighter, no matter how many times I’ve asked her not to smoke near me.

“Yer right Kel?” It’s the middle of the night and her voice is raspy as a toad. She sits down in the place I’ve just got up from.

The microwave pings to announce it’s finish, and I take out the heat pack and shove it into the band of my track pants again to hold it into place. Just in time. The pain rolls in and breaks over me all over again. I put my head down on the bench and try not to make a noise while I wait for it to finish.

At the table Mum puffs and taps and puffs again. I’m leaning over the bench looking at Mum in the wooden chair, both of us in the same positions we’ve been so many times together. The words slip out of my mouth without thinking. I say them by default, because it’s what I say when I’m standing here, not because I’m thinking about it but because I’m not. She doesn’t seem to notice the difference, or any peculiarity. “Want a coffee, Mum?”

“Oh yes thanks Kel. Only two pills today though thanks love. I’m trying to cut down. You know the doctor says that even artificial sugar isn’t good for you?”

“Yeah.” I get the mugs and put the kettle on to boil while I hunt around in the cupboard for the jar of instant coffee. I’m just spooning it in when another wave comes. This one is powerful, intense, maybe more so because I can’t take refuge in the shadows of the dark.

“…yes, they’re saying now that diabetics should be careful with artificial sweeteners, and that too much of it can lead to Multiple Sclerosis of all things. Shirl Baker’s been having this one for years though, she’s the one who got me onto it in the first place, and she says…”

I slide down behind the bench into a crouch, as if I’m going to start running. If only I could. The pain holds it’s own now and keeps up, longer than before, until I can hear it as if it’s singing in my ears, making me want to moan with it. I don’t. Not with Mum here, not with the cold stark light of the kitchen glaring at me.

“…but Shirl’s got a new man now, and she swears it’s got everything to do with how much weight she’s lost. She goes out with the walking club three times a week, and on Fridays they have…”

I realise I’ve been holding my breath. When I breathe out the pain goes, and I straighten up again. I pour in the milk, stir two artificial sweeteners into Mum’s coffee, and two spoons of sugar into mine, then take them over to the table.

“Sorry it took a while Mum.”

“Oh that’s okay. Did I tell you about Merle? She bought a new washing machine the other day, and oh the trouble she’s had with it already. She did say that you could bring your baby clothes down and use it any time you want though, but the first day she had it, well…”

The chair I’m sitting in is uncomfortable, and my coffee tastes like dirt. We sit here like this for half an hour, an hour maybe; her smoking and blathering and me nursing my coffee and my pain. The clock on the oven says it’s 1:13am, which means I’ve been awake for almost twenty hours now. I can’t do this. I can’t do this any more.

She’s talking now about the debate that’s been raging over whether they should install an elevator in our apartment block and I nod and pretend to listen, but when the pain pushes into me again and I stand up and go to the bathroom, slide down with my back to the door, curl my knees up to my face and sob.

I should be timing these things. I should know how long they are going for, and how far apart they are. And isn’t there something about towels, and hot water? They always ask for those things in movies. I want to call the hospital again and ask them what I should do, whether it’s okay to come in now, but I don’t know if that’s okay. They sounded busy when I called earlier, when the pain first started. They said to stay at home for as long as I could. God I don’t even know what that means!

I’m going to call them again. I can’t stay here any more, not with her. Not with her like this. I’d rather have nobody here at all than a mother who doesn’t notice me.

She held me once. She carried me in her womb for nine months, and maybe she rocked and cradled her stomach the way I’m doing to mine. She hurt, or maybe I made her hurt. Is that what this is about Mum? Did I make you like this? When the pain is dulled for a minute I wipe my eyes and stand up. I know what I have to do.

Mum is flicking her cigarette into the ashtray when I come back through the kitchen, and reading a magazine. I grab the phone from where I left it on the table, and punch in the number for the taxi company. I know it by heart already.  It doesn’t take long for them to answer, and the lady on the exchange says there’ll be one there in about five minutes. I take my heat pack out from the waistband of my trousers and put it in the microwave again. Her name is on the label, just in case I forgot who it belonged to: Sally Bernard, 56 Acorn Road. I can’t believe she’s so organised as to write on that stuff, like she’s some kind of TV mother. I bet her kids have perfect bedrooms and only ever eat organic lunches.

Mum folds the magazine over and holds it up. “Oh look here Kel. There’s an article in here about a lady who…”

I don’t stop to listen. I put my coat on and grab the heat pack out of the microwave before it even beeps. My hospital bag is waiting for me at the front door, with clean clothes for me, clean clothes for the baby, blankets and nappies and the tiniest little singlets I ever saw to start this new life off in. The taxi is early, pulls up just as I pull the door shut behind me. I’m sobbing so hard that the best I can do is hand the driver the address and curl up in the back seat in the dark and wait for this night to end.

*

I’m on the train to Sydney when I first find out we made the news. The man next to me is reading the paper, and there it is, on page three. I guess baby-left-on-a-doorstep stories are kind of big, kind of noteworthy. They said she’s okay though, that she’s healthy and well, and that the family whose door she was left on are wanting to keep her, to foster her if they can’t locate the mother. I’m glad. I rang that doorbell like crazy before I ran, just so she wouldn’t be alone for too long. I snuggled her up as tight as I could so she’d be warm in those blankets. She wasn’t even crying when I left her. I hope they do keep her. I hope they call her Charlotte, too. Charlotte Bernard has a nice ring to it. I’ll bet she’s a pretty thing, too.

I’ll send her a present from Sydney, I think. I’ve still got the address tucked in my bag, beneath my spare clothes and my wallet and the things I’ve got to start my new life. 56 Acorn Road.

I hope they call her Charlotte.

All you need is love

Well, Monday’s post on guilt and parenting certainly struck a chord with people. We are not alone. Thank you to all who took the time to leave a comment or talk to me on Facebook or in person about it. It’s been a valuable discussion. Actually, it’s been a very profound discussion in some ways.

Last night I read a comment from Pat Bailey, and I hope she doesn’t mind but I’m going to quote it here: “What is funny is that all the guilt I carried around for YEARS about things done or not done – things that I knew scared my children for life and I would burn in hell for. Those were the things that my children didn’t remember, just gave me the “you got to be s##### me” look. Then they told me the things that I did that really hurt them, wounded them and I thought “you got to be s#### me.” So I guess I carried the wrong guilt around all those years which means I should have just given it up and let them lay the guilt on when they were ready. That guilt didn’t seem like a burden because I said I was really sorry, they said no big deal, and life goes on…”

I found that so profound that I copied it onto Facebook, and Debbie left me this response: “Megan, my mother shared with us at my dad’s funeral that he always regretted the time he overreacted to a ‘potty’ word from one of us when we were little. My sisters and I looked at each other and said, “It wasn’t me, it must have been you.” None of us remembered it. I think guilt gets worse when you age, unless of course, you can let it go.”

AND THEN…(it just gets better, folks), my friend Lisa left this comment on the blog too: “…Interestingly one of my colleagues, who is a child psychologist of many years experience,  told me recently that she read that children need a good parent for around 30% of the time and as long as the other 70% or so is not abusive or destructive they will be fine…”

For me this is hugely profound, and incredibly freeing.

Just yesterday I realised something about myself and the way I thought. I’ve been battling through a mindset shift for the better part of two years, some real foundational thinking that I got wrong many years ago. It was, of all things, a novel that showed me that I’d been wrong for all these years (and locking myself away and suffering in silence because of it), and the journey of accepting the truth has been as difficult and painful as it has been freeing and beautiful. Paradigm shifts are like that. But just yesterday I saw in my mind for the first time exactly when that thought had come in, the words that were used, the conversation, the chairs, the room, the clothes my friend was wearing. Sometimes memories are weird like that. He was wrong. I know that now. But he was also seventeen, and seventeen-year-olds are kind of known for not being altogether accurate on big theological or philosophical matters. It’s not his fault that my thinking about myself and the way I did life with people was skewed. I was in a vulnerable place at the time, and I’d pressured him for answers bigger than he could give. Then hot on the heels of that thought was another one, also from when I was seventeen, and this time it was ME handing out judgemental idealism with a good dose of heavy-handedness (ouch. Oh I’m glad to be not seventeen any more). There were probably more incidences as well…but that’s the one I remember. Ouch. Remembering that so close to the revelation of how big an impact my friend’s words had had on me was…confronting.

I wanted immediately to go write to her and apologise, hoping that her life and understanding of self hadn’t been limited by my rash words all those years ago. I didn’t. Maybe she’s forgotten. Maybe she hasn’t. Maybe I need to. In the end I prayed for forgiveness for myself, and asked God to release her from any baggage my stupid words had left her with.

And then this morning I read the comments I posted above. It’s the full circle. We all stuff up, pretty much all the time, somewhere. And, of all the responses, guilt is the least productive. There’s a bit in the bible that says “love covers over a multitude of sins”, which is kind of what Lisa’s child psychologist friend is saying too – so long as those sins aren’t abusive or destructive – we are doing okay.

So. Go love somebody today. Go shout your friend their coffee. Hug your kids. Say yes. Forgive yourself. Forgive someone else. Love yourself.

Go on, you deserve it.

Results May Vary

When you become a parent, those precious seconds after they thrust that mewling wet creature with tight-shut eyes and flailing hands against your chest, they don’t tell you that you’re probably going to feel guilty at least once a day from here on in. They don’t tell you that as a health-warning on pregnancy test kits either – and maybe they should. Like cigarette packets that carry those enormous pictures of cancerous lungs, I can just imagine pregnancy test-kits coming with a picture of some perfect child from some perfect TV commercial and big letters saying DISCLAIMER: RESULTS MAY VARY.

I had coffee with a friend last Tuesday, and we talked about our kids – as mothers do – and she told me she was feeling guilty. Actually it was worse than that, much worse: she’d been MADE to feel guilty. Now come on people, mothers don’t need any help along at all in that area, and it was another woman to boot that had done it, which just smacks of Treason, and nothing less. I felt angry for her, and sad, because she’s a great Mum, and doing a fantastic job, and all that great-and-fantastic-ness inside her had been overshadowed by the guilt that somebody else had cloaked her with. And then on Wednesday I had lunch with another friend, another Mum who is doing far and above more than many of us have to, thrown into these things by life and circumstance and doing an amazing job to boot, and SHE feels guilty too. I won’t tell you about my Friday friend, because by now you might be sensing a pattern, and I shouldn’t mention my Saturday friend really, because…well, you get the point.

Most of the time we don’t talk about it. Most of the time we are proud of our kids, and we’re proud of ourselves for doing an okay-enough job, because really only we know what baggage we’re carrying, and under what circumstances we labour. And most of the time we share our positive stories: my three-year-old can write her name. My six-year-old can tie his shoes. My eleven-year-old is some kind of mathematical genius and can speak seventeen languages including Klingon*. Sometimes we leave out the bits we’re not proud of – my eight-year-old chews his toenails every night while watching TV, my ten-year-old wets the bed. **

I’d love to know whether this guilt is a 21st Century phenomenon. Did our parents or our grandparents struggle with how well their children did at school/learned to read/cleaned their teeth/toilet trained? Is guilt perhaps an airborne emotion released by small children? Perhaps if they didn’t breathe over us or wipe their snotty faces over us so much we’d find ourselves with stronger immune responses to such strange and feelings. Guilt, apparently, is some kind of by-product of love. This is not right, but it appears to be true. We can fight against it, but I think the best thing we can do is love one another through it.

If you are a parent reading this, here’s a bit of truth: whether I know you or not I’m SURE you are doing an awesome job. Give yourself a pat on the back today. I’m equally sure you deserve it.

And here’s one thing for sure: I’m not going to make the mistakes my parents made in parenting me. Nosiree. No way. The mistakes I make with my own children I’m going to invent all by myself!

And that, my friends, is parenting.

 

*These are not my children. I’m not sure whose they are, but they turned up in my imagination. If anyone would like to claim them please go to the Lost Property department. Turn left at the shoe cupboard and then take your first right.

**Also not my children. I am not claiming any toenail-chewers thank you very much. I will remain in denial.