On Being a Bad Mother

True confessions

I moved myself and my own two girls, then 2 and 1, up north to my brother’s house (my husband was on the road) and ensconced myself as the den mother of five children. As horrified as you may feel at hearing of this cataclysm, know that those of us at ground zero felt much worse. I could not stop crying (like Judy, I was still nursing). What haunted me was the idea that one moment you’re gazing at your 2-year-old in her playroom and the next, you, the mother, have been whisked off into the ether forever. You will never again sit on the bed holding the snuggly weight of that 2-year-old; you will never see her turn 3, 4, 5; you will never see her blossom into a teen; you will never have the traditional stilted late-night bicoastal phone conversation with her about her challenging new job when she is 26, living alone for the first time and feeling lonely in a strange L-shaped apartment in Boston that smells of curry from the downstairs family. No, that narrative of possibility has been abruptly cut short. Worse than death, though, is living on, which, due to legal complications, Judy would do for many years. The last convalescent hospital she was housed in—kicking, in adult diapers—was 10 minutes away from my brother’s house. If one waited until one felt the urge to go, one never would—so my brother and I essentially decided to go every day and make it part of our routines. Since I had the care of the kids, I brought them along—but to stack the deck, I filled Judy’s nightstand there with an astonishing array of kiddie treats. There were new surprises every visit—fresh 48-packs of colored markers, $2 games from Costco (including a pen containing a tiny version of the entire game of Operation—think a very little man, with very little organsin a pen), and snacks. Not just snacks: here, Illegal Sugary Snack Christmas came every single day. There were juice boxes in fabulously artificial flavors (with names like OrangeSplosion and FutureBerry), Kellogg’s chocolate-chip cereal snack bars, elaborate Fruit Roll-Ups (the type with tie-dye tattoos that come off on the tongue). It got so the children would actually jump out of the minivan and sprint to their mother’s hospital room.

Now, the interesting thing is that, as you know by now, I loathe crafting, which we’d do for hours and hours in Judy’s room while playing our Nutcracker CD. I also hate convalescent homes, and I am not a particularly nurturing person. All that drove me was the idea that 20 years into the future, the saddest story my brother’s kids could possibly hear would be that their mother had been housed 10 minutes away and no one visited her. What impelled me, a particularly self-involved Creative type, to care for these children the way I did was less maternal instinct (at least as conventionally understood) and more the power of narrative.

And I find as I age that my narrative-making muscle works so much overtime that I am beginning to remember things that never happened. How crystal-clearly I can recall that stilted late-night bicoastal phone conversation with my mom about my challenging new job, when I was 26, living alone for the first time and feeling lonely in a strange L-shaped apartment in Boston that smells of curry from the downstairs family. But no, by the time I was 26, my mother had years before disappeared into early-onset Alzheimer’s: we were destined to have no adult conversations. Taking the place of my mother was my older sister, a fearsomely strong figure, who, if I were left for dead in a pile of leaves at the bottom of a 15-foot hole, would be the first to run to the edge and fashion a rope of her own hair to haul me out. (As a philosophical midlife exercise, you should make your own list of rescuers—that list may surprise or depress you. During my marriage I had come to feel, rightly or wrongly, that if I were left for dead in that 15-foot pit, my husband, being out of town, would not be able to come himself but, very responsibly, would hire someone to rush over.)

To illustrate my sister’s style of mothering, I employ my life’s most recent example, my collapse over my affair. Like Ayelet Waldman, I too experienced the dizzying uplift of feeling: I loved a man more than I loved my certainly well-loved children. How could I not, if I were willing to jeopardize so much? Unfortunately, my Michael Chabon wasn’t my kids’ father; my Chabon and I separated, and I became incapacitated. I fell into such a deep depression that I took the wrong sleeping medication and my right side actually went dead. I couldn’t move my right arm! (Oh, the metaphorical richness of not being able to sign one’s own checks!) At the nadir of my incapacitation, I decided that for 72 hours I was going to turn off my cell phone (the one He would call and text to!) and wrap it with its charger in plastic and bury it at the bottom of the trunk of my Volvo. I feel compelled to mention that I had my children with me at the time, so I wouldn’t need to answer phone calls were they to be in some emergency (here in SoCal, anytime you’re not with your kids you fear the Big One will strike). In fact, my children were very sweet. I didn’t relay any messy Anna Karenina details; I just said, after turning off my phone: “Your mother has kind of a headache this morning, so she is going to lie down for a bit. You are welcome to lie down with me if you want, but quietly.” And my girls dutifully did this for a while, then got bored and went off to snuggle with something more amusing, like the cats. I feel this is an improvement over 1960s depressed mothers like my mom, who, when experiencing fits of gloom, would lock themselves into their bedrooms, curtains drawn, for hours (even days!). By contrast, look at what we have today: Depressed Mother Lite! (I drive a Volvo—safety first!)

Before I turned off my cell phone, though, I left this message on my sister’s machine: “You keep asking me if I’m okay. Well, instead of saying ‘Fine’ as I always do, I’m going to have to be honest and say I am totally not fine. But rest assured I am not putting my head in the oven. I simply acknowledge I’m a wreck and, for various reasons of emotional copage, will be turning my phone off for 72 hours.”

When I resurfaced within the stated window, my sister was the first phone call in, of course, charging me with: “You leave a message saying you’re putting your head in the ovenand then you turn off your cell phone! What am I supposed to do with that?”

And I said, “No—I said that while I’m ‘not fine,’ I am not going to put my head in the oven—”

And she retorted, “No, you specifically said you were going to put your head in the oven—”

And then, with my right side still dead, and the phone cradled under my chin, I said, “I am sorry. Perhaps I am wrong. I don’t recall saying I was going to put my head in the oven. I meant to say the opposite. If for some Verizon Wireless–connection reason it sounded like I said I was going to put my head in the oven, or even if for some reason I actually misspoke, please forgive me!!!

Wailed my sister, almost vengefully: “You said you were going to put your head in the oven, you hung up, turned off your cell phone (Beat.) “I’m getting in my car right now and driving to L.A.!”

Fuck, no!, I thought.

My sister is not my mother, but more than anyone else, she fills that role for me now—like it or not. And indeed all women I know play that role for somebody—like it or not. They herd and feed and remind and buck up and do their best to stuff the nightstand with treats against life’s inevitable horrors and generally expend a great deal of time and energy tending to many different people in many different contexts. The idea of Mother is like an epic, flaming Venus of Willendorf figure, an image of nurturing made up of many parts. Many women accept this role unconsciously or even unwillingly, but it seems someone’s got to do it. To be a mother—even simply to be a woman—in today’s world is to be made exhausted and resentful by a role or set of roles that we don’t recall deliberately choosing.

Even being a temporary mother to a couple of cats (thanks to one of my many recent house-sitting arrangements) is complicated! Where is the line between allowing them a little freedom and offering them up as coyote fast food? How careful must I be with the litter box, given that I’m working for free? How irritated should I be with the hair balls, given that I’m homeless? And then there is that other mother I have, my therapist, who hectors me for not coming in, because of her deep concern and worry for me, but who will still never give me a price break. And yet I feel guilty about not calling her back—guilty!

I find that, for now, my relationship with my own girls is wonderfully simple. Recently they said: “We want you to act more like a real mom. We want you to get a real mom’s job.” “What’s that?,” I asked. “A job like working at Target, or Subway, where they have that great bakery—then you can earn enough money to buy a clean car,” was their answer. In the end, we compromised by having a fab lunch at Sizzler and then afterward, with milk shakes, we read—in the car—as usual. Yes, their mother’s world is mobile, but for now, anyway, my girls are content. If in the 21st century, “a good mother is she who does not put her head in the oven,” then for today, this family is doing okay.

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.
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