At four months pregnant, I found myself at an old New England artists’ colony, having chats over dinner with other fellows in residence. Maybe because I was expecting or maybe because familial lineage is a common “getting to know you” conversation point, the mother question seemed to surface one way or another. Is your mom excited to be a grandma? Where does your mom live? Will she help with the baby? I explained that I was raised by my grandparents and that, no, my mother isn’t dead; she’s just in Albuquerque after running off with a man she met over the phone when I was 9.
It sounds as wild as the fiction I spend my time writing, and I often fear I am burdening others with the story. But it’s a story I know well. It’s mine. Through years of counseling and therapy groups, I feel situated in a healthy place with it all. “I’ve accepted her path in life,” is what I say now. “We have the best relationship possible, considering.” It sounds packaged and sorted, just the way I wish it were.
But is it really true? As my pregnancy marched on, I became caught in the familiar despair of simply wanting my mommy. At the colony, with endless hours to dream and write and brood, I considered my own baby growing inside me, and thoughts of my mother came swimming up to me, tapping and nudging, reminding that this was yet another life occasion she would have nothing to do with. I felt it confirmed with force that becoming a mother and the connection with one’s own mother were intrinsically tied together, for better or worse—a fact of biology, of spirituality, of everything.
Although I spend my life summoning characters from my mind to the page, the picture of my own mother, the dark reality of who she has become, eludes me. I can only write around it, not wanting to reduce her but not wanting to give dramatic credit to a life of choices that I can’t, in most ways, accept. With my own daughter on the way, memories of her actions strike me in new and horrific ways, and it’s hard to reconcile. Childhood for me was a nightmare from which I could never wake. Where each day held a ticking time bomb of situation, the ever-present question of, “Will we survive?”
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Today my mother is concerned over the infestation of cockroaches in her Section 8 apartment. She tells me they come up through the cracks in the floor, from under the sink. She puts tape around her dog’s food bowl to catch them, and there are usually something like 18 trapped and waiting each morning.
She is concerned for her next drink and how she will get it. Her cigarettes and who will supply them. Her boyfriend and if he will leave her for another woman he meets on the internet, which has happened before. She is not interested in my book-themed baby shower. And she is not concerned for me although I wish she were. She is 61 years old, and I know some day I will get a call that she is dead. I will feel a pull of responsibility. Was there something I didn’t see? Was there something else I should have done? A riddle I was unable to solve. And in my weakest moments I blame myself. That somehow in all of it, I just wasn’t enough.
I can’t help but imagine my own mother carrying me in her womb as I observe my growing body. I have spoken to her on the phone about it, and she said she never felt better than when she was pregnant. That it was truly the best time of her life. I was born three weeks early, and she said it was due to paint fumes. “Your father wouldn’t open the window.” She said it was from getting her nails done. “The smells all trapped in that tiny room.”
She met my husband for the first time last fall. My grandmother and I had organized a trip for her to see my grandfather, who is 98, perhaps for the last time. “It’s important that she sees him,” my grandma said. And I agreed. It had been years and years. She came and could barely leave her room. When she did, it was mostly bad. My husband got to pick her stiff alcoholic body up from the gutter where she fell outside the Vietnamese restaurant.
She yelled at him, and we drove home while she cursed at us for not buying her more liquor. It was the same as I’d always known her, but my husband was dumbfounded.
I believe her pregnancy was the best time in her life. It may have been one of the only stretches she went mostly without alcohol. And I’ve seen pictures of us that spell love, her gaze falling over my chubby baby body with a look I can only begin to understand now. It’s the way I feel for the life inside me. When my daughter moves, I am fascinated by each arc and dip of my belly. I could watch her for hours, this life and love so new and so complete.
I feel grateful that my mother gave me life. I can forgive her because she is human and flawed. But the more pregnant I become, the harder it is to call her. At eight months, the more her voice on the phone smelled of dysfunction, disorder, depression. Things I don’t want to transmit to my child.
But I will tell you when I saw the positive pregnancy test, she was the only person in the world I wanted to tell. It’s funny how this works, this mother-child bond. I have tried to slip past it my whole life, to stifle the pain of what feels like the ultimate rejection. I’ve tried to make it meaningless. But I can’t. I can’t deny that each cell in my body is tied to her—each secret wish to know her. To see her walking toward me renewed, somehow delivered and present: my mother.
My daughter squirms inside. I am days from my due date now, and the air is rife with possibility. She dances against my ribs, testing the limits, stretching fledgling feet. I feel her all day, and when I don’t feel her, I miss her. I push lightly against a heel, and things are right again. I wear a tiny gold necklace with her first initial embossed on it, and I think of her all day long. So what is a mother’s love? How could she have left me?
On the phone I gather strength, and I call my mother. Each call seems like a voyage to answer these questions for myself. She says, when I have this baby I will hate her. I ask her why. “Because it’s a love like you’ve never known, and when you feel it, you will wonder how I left you.” It’s the most frank she’s been about it, and I look at the ceiling to hold back my tears. For I know she is void of an answer, just like me.
“What do you want from me?” I ask her.
“I just want to be loved,” she says.
“I love you, Mom,” I tell her. Because it’s true. I do, I do, I do. In the dark days of pregnancy, when I am so tired it hurts or my hormones have rendered me useless or I am overcome with anxiety, I have heard the tiny voice in my mind ask: “How will you be a mother when you never had one?”
I can admit it’s my greatest fear that I might not be enough for this little girl, that I could break her heart, that I could cause this particular kind of pain. Of course, in my life I’ve been mothered. I’ve been cared for by my grandmother, my mother-in-law, my aunts, my older sister, my friends’ moms. I have had women soothe me, sit with me, pull me into the light. And I love these women. I don’t know who I would be without them. And although I buy them Mother’s Day cards specifying that genes mean nothing—you’re just like a real mom! (or some similar sentiment), I can admit that it’s not true.
The woman who grew me inside her, who I look like when I laugh—she’s my mother. And we will always be tied together, a fact I accept now. I feel my daughter growing strong with herself, and I know my mother is right. It’s a love I’ve never known. But I don’t hate her. In fact, the opposite: I love her so much it hurts. My mother, the woman who, despite the facts of our lives, gave me life—brought me into the world screaming.
Chelsea Bieker is a writer and a new mother living in Portland with her husband and baby girl. She holds an MFA in creating writing from Portland State University, where she teaches composition and fiction. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow and is at work on her first novel. She enjoys sushi, gourmet ice cream, and walking around the city with her budding family.