The labor of my love for you resides in weary bones, in the dark circles beneath my eyes, and in the ways my body aches. Motherhood is a life of conflict, not between love and hatred, but rather adoration and aggravation. So strange to oscillate from a desire to run away and the overwhelming need to hold you, to gaze into your eyes, to press my lips against every inch of your face. You are my everything, which is both my gift and bane.
I am often torn between what is right and what is easy. There are mornings when you and I lie together on the sofa, sunrise pressing in through the shades and illuminating the dust in the air. You watch television as I spoon you, closing my eyes to get just a little more rest. Then an hour passes, and another, and sometimes another. The refrain in my head when I finally rise is, “I’m a bad mother,” as if just one more episode would cause permanent brain damage or increase the risk of an attention deficit.
You relieve me just a little when you repeat something you’ve learned from public programming.
The grocery store is another battlefield of my morals and mind. There was a time when organic was necessary, and natural was the only exception. Lured by bright red strawberries and banana bunches, you would point and demand with delight, “Nana! Srawberry!” And I felt proud, comparing myself to other moms and assuming other shoppers gave a shit. “Oh, her daughter is so healthy!” But sometimes cost and need are not friendly, so conventional produce made its way into our cart. I watched you place nectarine slices in your mouth, and I imagined the chemical residue basting your insides with cancer. The chorus played again.
I’m a bad mother.
Our weekly schedule often crumbles beneath the weight of my introversion. Mothers have an arsenal of excuses: vomiting, diarrhea, night wakings, and doctor’s appointments. Any can be sent with the touch of a screen, and never questioned when a rain check is offered. But the guilt settles like sediment, stirring up whenever you ask to go outside or see a playmate.
You’re so selfish.
She’s not socializing enough.
She needs more stimulation.
You’ll make her depressed.
Sometimes I give in, and sometimes I don’t as I suffer the brunt of my shame.
You flirt with other mothers at times, wooing them with your black hair and blue eyes. They pick you up, marveling at your lightness, wanting to hold you and kiss your cheeks. I don’t know if jealousy is the word I would use to describe the burn in my chest and the purse of my lips. When you giggle in the arms of another mother, I question my methods. I wonder why I’m not as playful, not as silly, not as energetic as other mothers. I wonder why I don’t plan sprinkler runs, craft activities, and tea parties for you and your friends. I wonder if I do more than meet your basic needs. Do I make you happy?
Why am I not as good as other mothers?
The heat is oppressive this summer, and the plastic blue swimming pool in the yard has a puddle of murky water, surrounded by overgrown grass. We spend so much time indoors, which seems to result in too much screen time and cabin fever. These humid days are perfect for considering my shortcomings. The refrigerator is full of poisonous produce, I’ve resorted to cookies and fruit gummies as suitable snacks, and I’m just not motivated to load us up in a car that feels like a solar flare. Your voice, like a song heard from another room, tries to summon me out of my contrition.
Then there are moments when I am free, when I abandon my worries and false expectations. There will be a morning that crawls by like a sloth, and I have the energy to get us in our swimsuits and into the car. I drive us to the spot that I found with your father, a secluded beach with a view of the city beyond the bay and the bridge that brought us. All we have is a bucket, a shovel, and a bottle of water as we run across the sand and careen against the waves.
I forget how awful I think I am, and instead am consumed by the light in your eyes and the joy in your laughter. I forget about nutrition labels and meal plans. I root down in the shallows, hands on my hips with the sun spreading itself over my skin. I forget about snack times and nap times and fill in the blank times that rob me of the love I have for you. I meditate on the images of you digging holes, studying crabs, and running from the tide. You are so happy, and I don’t have to do much at all.
Nature saves me. She knows the pain of bringing life into the world and sustaining it. Like a grandmother, she spoils you with blue skies and pelicans, seashells and horseshoe crabs. She lets me rest as I lean back on my hands in the shallows and remember that I am also a child. I also require love and care. And as she loves on you, she loves on me. She massages the labor of love out of my aching body with an ocean breeze. Nature sings gently over me with a song of her own.
“You are a good mother.”
“You are so selfless.”
“You give your daughter so much.”
“You make her so happy.”
You fall asleep in your car seat as we drive back home, and you wrap your arms around me as I carry you into the house. Like a rag doll, your body hangs as I lower you down into your crib. The house is dark and quiet as the chorus plays in my head.
I’m a good mother.
Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll