ears could not be explained.
Mother fussed and assumed but none of her guesses seemed right.
I had gone to visit, still calling where I grew up “home.”
The baby, at four months, was taken the long flight back to my parents.
Where I had maternity leave, father, who disliked staying with anyone, claimed himself unable to abandon work and my mother never wanted to fly.
Given that at our marriage Derek took a job in New Zealand, it was inconceivable she would come to me after the birth.
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, though it was not work I could do with a baby.
As I realised I could 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 sister regularly accused me of having a grasshopper mind.
There was 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 couldn’t think them though on my own.
If disquiet failed to surface from under Derek’s confidence, I leaned on him more week by week, as I swelled.
Apparently the birth was an easy one for the midwife, and her gas and air got me through. Something swept in to render me a person who dripped milk, who baked her first cake and made up silly songs.
Only a few tears appeared and all I could say was that I was “homesick.” Soon Derek found the remedy – my trip to England.
It was on arriving in my old room that the weeping began and continued, seemingly randomly triggered.
Mother hadn’t taken to Derek. Previous boyfriends, who flattered her importance, were “adored” while Derek, who kept his own mother at arm’s length, had no wish for a big embrace from mine. He was marrying me, he insisted, against mother’s view that you married the family too.
Derek approved of my “go-getting” sister, yet in no time her company grated and, though he respected my father, he was hardly at ease in his presence. Little wonder New Zealand appealed.
What had I expected of coming back? Nothing specific but there must have been some thought 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. Appropriate words came yet maternal arms did not soften about the baby.
Father liked to push the borrowed pram, as long as all was quiet inside it, and with him I walked into comfort. Perhaps my stride beside his took me into the past. We enjoyed each other as we hadn’t quite managed over the years when there was also Derek. Without that other tug of loyalty father shared ready smiles and was still 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 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.
One night her hints became explicit, that my crying was Derek’s fault.
“It’s better to admit you made a mistake. We will help where possible and increasingly 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 since the birth, not really wanting his advances. But what did that mean? Surely it was not proof the marriage was doomed?
Mother’s comment added to confusion. It wasn’t just that I dissolved tearfully – much of me had melted into milk and none of me felt shaped.
If there was no certainty in me, where did mother’s come from?
Her answer: “when love is wholehearted you know.”
Growing up mother’s love could come to our rescue, forceful and focused, but often she was irritated by both daughters and husband.
At the point Derek wanted marriage and escape to New Zealand any doubts soon vanished. Should conviction have stayed constant?
All I felt for Derek hadn’t evaporated. What did seem lost was an unmistakeable pulse, my body alert to him and excited by his touch.
If mother was categorical – “it’s better to admit, not go on pretending to feel love which isn’t there” – for me what looked obvious was that I no longer knew anything much.
Waking with Derek in a 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 into a previous place, a sense of place anywhere unravelled – the knitted garment of it reduced to a knotted pile.
I was hovering as outsider round other lives and that seemed soulless.
And where did those others find meaning?
?My parents’ exchange of little details sounded banal.
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?
Did I want return to where daily detail had a bit of substance or was I feeling the need to seek some 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 lose my baby.
Her rapid rate of change made everything look transitory. An unexpected urge to keep hold took over, taking endless photos of Jay and sorting the “childhood clutter” once easily abandoned on going off with Derek. How much could fit in the returning suitcase?
And how had there been that strength to leave everything the first time?
Mother tempting me to stay near family churned my nights.
My sister Laura’s declared intention was “to see her niece”. She arrived with what were expensive but obviously intended as boy clothes and gave the baby scant consideration.
She did not approve of women giving in easily to becoming mothers.
It took effort to organise for Laura and I to go off together with Jay asleep in the pram.
We walked to the park where we had 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 once ran home dripping and crying after Laura pushed me in. She swore I had slipped.
“You did give me a shove that time,” I said now.
“How can we be sure? To me, my version sounded convincing and that has stayed. The event long ago dropped out of sight. Does it matter?”
Probably it had little significance even back when it seemed high drama.
Growing up we had brought out the best and worst in each other. Whatever prettier pictures we preferred to make of ourselves just got sliced to shreds in our fights and furies.
Any self image of being kinder, nicer, less jealous, which other people seemed to keep intact, was torn apart between us.
Yet Laura was the one I relied on now to help make sense of bewildering tears.
She knows me in many 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 mummy (and being her “best girl” because Laura was in disfavour).
I tried telling my sister how, having come “home”, I barely recognised myself.
She saw me swamped by baby blues.
“Don’t they have abortion in New Zealand?”
Then, noting my expression, added: “It’s just your hormones.”
Even if this was true, and it could be, what was I to do?
But, my troubles accounted for, Laura changed the subject.
Tears began to surface, the waking Jay started demanding and Laura, seeing an old school friend, waved and turned towards her.
I was left with a baby whose filled nappy needed changing but in the hurry to get out of the house, 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.
I hadn’t factored in that, if this new life was not mother’s, or of her, it might be slow for Jay and grandmother to connect?
And Laura had never shown a maternal streak.
Yet there had been hopes those two would share the burden.
There was only Derek, who was on for being Jay’s parent.
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 it was possible to say “no, you can’t package it as neatly as you’ve packed your bag. In my mess 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. So I fought for words.
Suddenly things fell into place.
“Being here shows 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 which gave me sense of who I was got washed away in shapeless, dreary days around a baby.
“Fierce protective love for Jay doesn’t stop my 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, Jay 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 walled in feels as much a threat as it did to me as a child.
“If only I could see possibilities awaiting me in New Zealand but none are yet visible.
“My return is to making more breathing space, chipping gaps in an enclosure – 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 in the 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 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 letters to ring and ask if you really want me there.
“Through these six weeks here, it’s obvious how mother cuts across where I am trying to find a way through confusion. And I’ve let you do some of the same.
“I need encouragement to think, to make more sense of these barely understood tears of mine.”