The tears could not be explained.
Mother fussed and assumed but none of her guesses felt right.
I had gone to visit, still calling where I grew up home.
The baby, at four months, was taken the long flight back.
At our marriage, Derek took a job in New Zealand, where he came from, and, given that my mother never wanted to fly, it was inconceivable she would come to me after the birth, while my father disliked staying with anyone.
Derek’s will being the stronger, I tended to adapt to him and he was convinced we thrived – probably New Zealand also suited me once I, too, found work.
When it registered I might be pregnant, despite a cap, Derek didn’t mind and I had little idea what to make of it. Any opinion soon slid into another one… or jumped… my older sister often accused me of having a grasshopper mind.
There was some excitement over the foetus and Derek wiped clean my shadowy fears with practical good sense. If billions had already done it, surely everything would be fine.
There seemed no space for misgivings beside Derek’s appetite to get things done… the lawn mown or a barbecue prepared. And presumably I lacked courage or the means to think through doubts on my own.
But while disquiet failed to surface from under Derek’s confidence, leaning on him increased, week by week, as I swelled.
Apparently the birth was an easy one for the midwife, and her gas and air got me through. Hormones then swept in to render me this unfamiliar person who dripped milk, who baked her first cake and made up silly songs.
Only a few tears appeared and were claimed to be for missing home. Soon Derek found the remedy – a visit for me and our new daughter.
It was on arriving in my old room that the weeping began and seemed randomly triggered.
Mother was not only sorry; she hadn’t taken to Derek. Previous boyfriends, who flattered her importance, were called adorable, while Derek, who kept his own mother at arm’s length, had no wish for a big embrace from mine. He was just marrying me, he insisted, against mother’s decided opinion that you married the family too.
What had I expected of coming back? Nothing specific but there must have been some hope of slipping again into responsibility-free childhood, handing care to my mother, because it came as a shock when she engaged so little with her first grandchild.
She was working part time but, even if around, mother rarely took over my tiny girl. Though appropriate words came, maternal arms did not soften about the baby.
Father liked to push the borrowed pram, as long as all was quiet inside it, and out with him I walked into comfort. We enjoyed each other as we hadn’t quite managed over the years when there was also Derek alongside. Without that other tug of loyalty my father shared ready smiles and was more parental, adding on pride in Baby Jay. (She was called Janine but hadn’t grown into her name, so Derek called her “Baby J”, which soon became Jay).
Mother appeared ambivalent about being seen as a grandmother. After a few drinks with her friend, she admitted it had been disconcerting to be shunted into that category and sooner than expected.
It was the same night her hints became explicit – that my crying was Derek’s fault.
“We will help where possible and women bring up children alone. It’s no longer a disgrace and can’t be worse than staying in a poisonous atmosphere.”
What was she suggesting?
How could there be poison?
Derek was missing me and sending a weekly, loving letter.
Sex was good before the baby. It unnerved to find myself no longer swept by a tide of desire, not really wanting his advances since the birth, but what did that mean? Surely it was not proof the marriage was doomed?
Mother’s comments added to confusion. It wasn’t just that I dissolved tearfully – I had already half melted into milk and none of me felt shaped as I’d been in this house before.
If there was no certainty for me over what might be happening, where did mother’s come from?
Her answer, an emphatic “when love is wholehearted you know.”
Growing up, mother’s love could come to our rescue, forceful and focused, but more often she was irritated by both daughters and husband.
At the point Derek wanted marriage and New Zealand my few doubts were soon banished. But conviction had not stayed constant…all I felt for Derek hadn’t evaporated, yet that unmistakeable pulse, my body alert to him and excited by his touch, had faded.
Mother was categorical, “It’s better to admit you made a mistake, not go on pretending to feel love which isn’t there.” But the only thing that looked obvious to me was how I no longer knew anything much.
Waking with Derek in the shared bed or standing next to him over dishes, there hadn’t been a question – we’d married and belonged together. Yet coming back to where I’d once felt at home, far from slotting back to a previous place, any sense of place unravelled – the knitted garment of it reduced to a knotted pile.
Apart from lovely moments with father, I seemed to hover as outsider round other lives, which often felt soulless.
And where did these others find meaning?
My parents’ daily exchange of details sounded banal, yet since Derek’s letters were full of small events I liked to hear, why the intolerance?
Marrying had been a grand narrative – was I, now, only to find petty ones?
If it baffled to listen to the apparently trivial conversation of my mother, should I return to where daily detail had a bit of substance? Or was I seeing the need to somehow seek a bigger story?
Another puzzle was Jay – a whole morning of her could be mind-numbing and too lonely, yet as she began pulling herself up in the basket and suddenly filled it completely, there were tears over her growing far, far too fast. Soon I would no longer have a baby.
Also her rapid rate of change made everything look transitory. An unexpected urge to keep hold took over, with endless photos of Jay and some sorting of childhood clutter, once easily abandoned on going off with Derek. How much could be taken in the returning suitcase when it had arrived crammed?
And how had there been that strength to just leave everything and go with him?
My sister Laura’s declared intention was to see her niece. She arrived with what were expensive, obviously boy clothes, and gave the baby scant attention.
She did not approve of women giving in easily to gender stereotypes or becoming mothers (she, being four years older and with a partner dubious about parenthood, says his reluctance is shared).
It took effort to organise, with Jay asleep in the pram and mother preoccupied, for Laura and I to go off together to the park where, once, we learned to ride bikes, where Laura liked to cut me off, so I fell sometimes. We went to the swings, where she’d goaded me for not flying higher, then on to the pond.
I ran home dripping and crying one day after Laura pushed me in. She swore I slipped and just blamed her.
“You did give me a shove that time.”
“How can we be sure? My story sounded convincing and that has stayed. Does it matter?”
Growing up we brought out the best and worst in each other. Whatever prettier pictures we preferred to make of ourselves got sliced to shreds in our fights and furies.
Any self-image of being kinder, nicer, less competitive and jealous, which other people seemed to keep intact, was torn apart between us.
Laura knew me in ways Derek cannot – he still imagines his wife is as he hopes. He and I do not pull each other’s hair or kick ferociously. I never plan to spit in his breakfast, but then Derek has no opportunity of ripping up the special card made for our mummy (and being her best girl because Laura was in disfavour).
I tried telling my sister how, having come home, there were too many tears. She saw me as having been foolish enough to get pregnant and now swamped by the blues.
“Don’t they have abortion in New Zealand?”
That felt like a slap and, noting my expression, she added, “It’s probably just hormones, take little notice.”
Even if this was true, and it could be, what was I to do now ?
But, as if she’d accounted for my troubles, Laura changed the subject.
The waking Jay started demanding and Laura, saw across the pond an old school friend, and waved then turned towards her.
I was left with a baby whose filled nappy needed changing but in the hurry to get out of the house for time alone with Laura, I’d forgotten to bring a spare.
Watching my sister head for her friend, the obvious fell into place – no one was going to share the mothering, there was nowhere to offload responsibility.
Why hadn’t I factored in that, if this new life was not mother’s, not of her, it might be slow for Jay and grandmother to connect?
And Laura had never shown a maternal streak.
I had given birth with little understanding of the long haul and presumably came back hoping some other adult might reduce my burden.
There was Derek, of course, who was on for being Jay’s parent. Bringing forward my flight to him suddenly felt essential.
As she departed next day, Laura breezed by with “don’t worry sis, hormones pass.”
She put her case down and as we hugged it was possible to say, “you can’t package it as neatly as you’ve packed your bag, there is more to understand.”
“Over to you then – just do it,” she said, getting into her sports car.
Up against my sister I could struggle, as I’d done often, fighting as a child for what Laura didn’t value and I did.
Now, with her too easy answer, my muddle felt dismissed and I fought for words.
Immediately Jay slept, a letter to Derek surprised as it covered the page.
“Being here shows how far I cannot fit back into who I once took myself to be. A wall cuts me off from that young woman with such hopes for what might unfold, excited by all there was to learn. That and more got washed away in shapeless, dreary days around a baby. Fierce protective love for Jay doesn’t stop the drop into feeling a milky blob that might never think clearly again. Coming back to you, to the beginnings of our life as parents, feels necessary yet hard. Despite days being lengthened by drab hours, our girl becomes a companion. She laughs more and lights up at the sight of other children. Moments are joyous if Jay captures all of me but as she explores the corners of rooms, I hang about to see fingers don’t go in sockets and monotony defeats me, those hours leave the blood of me only half oxygenated. And a recurring sense of being closed in feels a threat. If only I could see possibilities awaiting me in New Zealand but none are yet visible. My return is to chipping gaps in an enclosure and that is not what you face – you, presumably, will carry on the path out of domesticity each morning – wanting it maintained for your evening. You write how you miss us both as soon as you walk back in our door.
When you and I left here together we shared the prospect of challenges and new work in New Zealand. I still feel love, and now we have the precious fruit of it in Jay, but little else draws me back. Living day to day with a baby has obliterated my projects. It’s not that I see a future here which sours one over there. It’s that I seem to have lost any expectation and, without it, it’s more difficult to leave the familiar behind. When longing for you comes to life, flying soon is inevitable but desire gets buried under nappies and colourless, weary hours. If love for Jay and you loses strength it feels imperative you do the calling, to pull me back.
I resist the urge between your weekly letters to ring and ask if you really want me there.
Through these last six weeks, it’s obvious how easily mother cuts across where I am still trying to make sense of things. And I’ve let you do the same. It’s less with you, even so, the help you offer is rarely to encourage me to find the thought I seek. But uncovering words is what has to be done, however slowly. I have been taken in and have now to find my way out of these barely understood tears.”