By L. Hadley
I have two kids. Or maybe three. Yes, I think it’s three; it just sometimes seems like two. They are very intelligent children. And young. The eldest is only eleven. They are horrible.
I feed them, clothe them, keep them clean. Help them with their ABC’s. Read to them. Normal stuff. But, it doesn’t matter what I do; everything I do is wrong. Everything I do is cause for mockery and meanness. They make me angry, and because I can never escape them, I can never escape my anger, either. I lash out at them. I yell terrible things. I’m loud and harsh. Mothers should never sound like I sound. My anger goes beyond words, and I strike them, feeling the blows thrum along my bones. I even bite one of them, savagely, leaving teeth marks. I want to hurt them like they hurt me, make them pay for their horribleness.
Oh, and then. Then the guilt descends. I am The Bad Mother. The wicked, horrible mother. The mother who doesn’t love her children properly. The mother who is to blame for anything bad these children do in their entire lives. Bad, bad, bad. Shame eats at me more violently than the anger. I should never have had these children. Never.
I have two kids. Or maybe three. Yes, I think it’s three, it just sometimes seems like two. They are very intelligent children. And young. The eldest is only eleven. They are horrible.
I do so much more than feed them, clothe them, keep them clean. I am astounded at the creativity I draw on to design adventures for them, to engage their imaginations, to nurture what might be lovely and lovable in them. Yet I feel that somehow their horribleness is my fault. I’m just not trying hard enough. So I try harder. I push with everything in me. But everything I do arouses only mockery and meanness—from my own children. The harder I try, the worse they react. I never raise my voice. I give only kindness and tenderness. Compassion, caring, sweet mother-love. But I must be doing it wrong because they never seem to feel it.
I’m no good. There is nothing left of me. I am a shell of hard-trying, trapped in motions of reaching out and out and out. But all they do is slap my hands and laugh. I should never have had these children. I am not fit, not able. With my final remnant of will, I form a breathy whisper. “I will find someone better to be your mother,” I tell them. “I cannot do it.”
The two dreams ran parallel to each other all night long. They mixed and blended, and I was alone, with those horrible, horrible children. No matter what I did, whether I was the Good Mother or the Bad Mother, the children were the same. And I was left hurting and hollow with no sense of self. My turgor pressure was gone; I was a wilted plant, almost dead, past the point when water would revive me.
The dreams abated slowly. I lay limply in the dark, assessing the revulsion in my stomach, the anguish in my bones and muscles. I rolled over to my husband. “I had a bad dream,” I mumbled. He opened his arms so I could cuddle against him.
The real world began to sink in as I inhaled my husband’s scent and felt-heard his heartbeat. I didn’t have any kids. I didn’t have any. Not one, not two, not maybe three—none. I had no children. The relief was so solid that I almost felt I could eat it, like angel food cake, half-way cotton candy. Sweet relief. Sweet enough to make me giddy.
Now, as I look back at that dual dream, two things stand out. First, the issue of control. That it didn’t matter whether I was the Bad Mother or the Good Mother, the children were who they were. I couldn’t affect them or the world around them in a way that would make a difference. The second is that in both scenarios, my inner self died. I was only a shell. Motherhood and children robbed me of my true self. No matter how I look at this double nightmare, it unnerves and smothers me.
In the year leading up to these dreams, I was caught squarely in the tension of being a married Mormon woman without children. It seemed that everyone was anticipating my pregnancy—after all, I had been married for several years. One warm February morning, my next door neighbor asked me if I was pregnant. I couldn’t help looking down at my mid-section, wondering if I had gained weight or looked bloated. What made her think I was pregnant? “No,” I said. “Do I look pregnant?”
“Well, when I was pregnant, I went for walks, you know, for the baby. And I’ve seen you go out for walks lately.”
Ah. “It’s been very nice weather for February,” I replied. “The crocuses and daffodils are coming up, so I’ve been going out to enjoy the spring weather. After all, there still might be more snow coming. You could come with me if you want.”
But no, she didn’t want. Apparently, for her, walking is only something to do when one is pregnant.
My husband and I had both received all sorts of weird pressure in this particular ward, which was filled to the brim with young families. There were six nurseries and five overflowing primaries, compared to a total of four young men and women. There were a few older couples, too. But mostly it was like a bunny hutch. Babies and small children everywhere.
Even though I taught at BYU, had a master’s degree, and worked hard to be a thoughtful person, whenever I raised my hand to comment in Relief Society, my comments and questions met with habitual dismissal. But the 19-year-old who was six months pregnant—everything she said was blessed with the aura of impending motherhood. Her words were surrounded with a golden nimbus, and the women all listened with eagerness. Apparently, I wasn’t a valid member of the ward because I had neither conceived nor given birth.
The attitudes of my fellow Latter-day Saints meant that I could never fully escape, not even for a moment, my conflict about not having children. Then, one afternoon, as I drove home from a meeting, I found myself listening to an interview with a woman who conducted research on fertility among women whose biological clocks had been ticking for a while. Included in the many difficulties faced by older women who hoped to conceive was the fact that as they aged, their eggs aged too, and might well produce infants with problems. Single and in her late thirties herself, the interviewee had recently had some of her eggs frozen, because she wanted the option of children later on.
By the time I got home, the realization was a physical presence looming over me: “You’re over thirty.” I was over thirty. Of course I knew how old I was, but I hadn’t noticed any change in how I felt or thought of myself. Somehow I still considered myself a twenty-something. The decade of my 20s had been such a long one, I figured I was still in it. But no. I hadn’t been twenty-something for several years. The biological clock that I had never paid attention to suddenly seemed to be ticking so loudly that I wanted to bury it deep in the earth to silence it.
And then the questions started to come. Why didn’t I have children? Would I ever have children? Did I want children? What was I waiting for? When I was ready to have children, would it be too late?
Ah. Ready. When I was ready . . . I knew that I wasn’t ready for children. Not yet. For the previous few years, I had been working my way through what seemed an endless trail of abuse issues. Like many women, I was sexually abused as a child. This left me feeling terrified of sex, and even more terrified of having children.
When I look at my little nieces, and see the light reflect in their clear eyes that look up at me with trust, when they put their small hands in mine or run up to me to give me a hug, sometimes I feel something huge and fierce break loose inside me. It’s this consuming desire to protect these innocent girls from the evil in the world, especially from those who are older and stronger than they are and would abuse their tiny bodies and wound their souls.
The enormity of my protective feelings leaves me feeling helpless rather than empowered, because on the flip side of this roaring fierceness, there is a cowering, vulnerable child: the little child I was all those years ago, just as small as they are, just as weak and just as easy to overpower. I flounder in these feelings, feeling as powerless to save my nieces as I had been to save myself. If I had my own children, how would I stand it? How would I not destroy my own children in my desire to keep them safe?
It has almost become cliché, the concept of the inner child, but my inner child is very real. That little girl-child whom I used to be, she still lives deep within me, with her wounds that I tend to and try to heal. Sometimes I think I’ve found all the wounds, and then I find another, festering and rank, hidden where I wouldn’t look for it. It is painful work, this healing process, but there is change and growth alongside the hurt and fear.
When this wounded inner child is healthy and confident, maybe then it would work to bring children into my world—actual living children who depend on me, because I am their mother and they are my children. But how old will I be then? Will I still have viable seeds of motherhood inside of my body? Or will it be too late?
You see, I have come to terms with the fact that the abuse had, in many ways, stolen my childhood.
I just hadn’t realized that it may also have stolen my motherhood.