‘Being a parent is harder than being a Prime Minister,’ said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His 16 year old son had just been arrested after being found lying drunk on the footpath in London’s West End.
In the second month after the baby was born Kate came out to meet her mother wiping her hands on her grey tracksuit pants. Kate’s hair was tied back off her face revealing tiny white milk spots above her cheeks. Anny told her that already she looked so slim and good. Kate ran her hand over her rounded stomach, arched her back and stuck her belly out at her mother.
They both laughed.
Anny had rushed out early that morning to get to the supermarket before going over to her daughter’s house to babysit. But she was happy to be available to help Kate. After all, her own mother had been too busy to help her when Kate was born.
Kate had rung over the weekend and asked what Anny’s plans were for Monday.
‘I can fit in with you,’ her mother had said. ‘I can come over whenever it suits you.’
‘I’ll go to aqua aerobics then. I should be back by ten thirty. So if you can get here at nine. And bring lunch.’
‘Will I stay on and make dinner?’
‘No. Don’t stay on.’
‘We’ll see then. We’ll see how we go.’
After Anny had been to the supermarket she’d discovered that she’d forgotten to bring the Marie Claire cookbook and the soy sauce, the ginger and the vegetable stock cubes that she had already in her kitchen. So she had to quickly dash back home to Bondi. And then, just before the Cahill Expressway there’d been a breakdown and the traffic was lined up and she was stuck in a bloody traffic jam before reaching the Harbour Tunnel.
‘What kept you?’ Kate asked by way of a greeting as her mother lifted the shopping bags and the laptop computer out of the boot.
Anny’s own body shape was disguised in black trousers and a black vee-necked tea shirt, although she’d contrasted and softened the black with a long amethyst necklace.
Kate inspected the necklace around her mother’s neck. She picked it up, tugged at it. Banged it playfully against her chest. Is it new? Had she bought it recently? she accused Anny. Or did Anny only imagine it was an accusation? No. It wasn’t new. She’d bought the necklace at the markets in Beijing last year when she’d done that Cycling in China trip. She’d chosen the stones and had it made up on the spot.
Kate gave her a final inspection. Flicked her eyes up and down her mother’s body before giving her the okay to proceed towards the front door.
The windows of the red brick house rattled as a news helicopter vibrated in towards landing at Gore Hill.
Kate and Anny carried the shopping bags to the kitchen. They tiptoed along the wooden corridor past the closed door of the baby’s room. ‘Don’t use the doorbell anymore because the noise wakes the baby,’ said Kate. ‘Just let yourself in with your key.’ Anny breathed in the familiar smell of baby shampoo and fresh linen in the bathroom. The morning sun shone through the blues and reds of the leadlight window highlighting the plastic baby bath that was turned upside down inside the big bath.
Just weeks before the baby was born Kate and Anny had gone to choose a baby bath. They had already begun the habit of Mondays together. It had taken ages to find the right white plastic baby bath. They must have looked at every bath in Chatswood. Kate had wanted one that had a hole down one end and a plug so she could empty the bath without tipping the whole thing up. They’d walked the length and breadth of Chatswood.
Back home they’d re-arranged things in the spare room to make space for the baby. They’d emptied drawers, taken underwear and socks out of one place and stacked them in with others, re-organised the shelves of the laundry, re-located Kate’s husband’s wine collection.
Dan didn’t complain about his wine being re-located, but he did say he didn’t want his mother-in-law handling his underwear. ‘It’s all a matter of intimacy and certain things being private,’ he’d said.
In the weeks after the baby was born Anny had come over every day to help. She’d cleaned up the kitchen, unstacked the dishwasher, made lunch, folded up the clean linen, brought the washing in.
As Anny unpacked the shopping Kate gave her mother the instructions:
‘Don’t feed him before ten. Preferably not before 10.30. The breast milk is in a bottle in the fridge.’
‘Yes. I didn’t realise that it’s better to feed him later rather than sooner so he’s more willing to take the bottle from me.’
Last time Kate had come home early and he’d refused the bottle because he could smell his mother and knew he had a better option.
‘Run the water from cold to hot,’ Kate continued. ‘Then let it sit in the hot water for five minutes. Check it on the inside of your wrist. And don’t forget to give it a good shake.’
‘Yes. Yes. I know how to do it but show me again anyway.’
In the small bright kitchen two hand-painted ceramic plates were secured on either side of the wooden window that looked out on to the backyard. Anny put the food into the fridge and then set up the computer on the dining room table.
Kate waited by the front door for her friend.
She sat down on the steps.
The wind picked up flapping the blue and white awning of the house next door. In the front garden a pile of magnolia petals lay in a heap on the grass. Kate sat there at the top of the stone steps at the front door. She leant down. Rested her head in her hands. She felt the pounding of her heart against her chest, the cold sweat on her hands. She tried to breath in. Tried to slow her breathing. She’d never had this before. Gasping for breath. It would happen even when she was lying on her bed trying to rest. Her heart would bang hard against her. Bang, bang, bang. Expecting the baby to wake at any moment. The sensation frightened her. Was she going crazy? And the recurring nightmares. The house burning down and she couldn’t get the baby out in time. And the crying, wanting to cry all the time. And at strange times. Like when she was out shopping with the baby. She couldn’t even go shopping and get a couple of things without him putting on a performance.
Anny heard her in the hallway pacing up and down.
‘Why don’t you ring and check your friend is coming for sure?’ she said to her daughter.
‘Because we spoke only yesterday and confirmed the arrangement.’
Kate couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice.
She walked down the hallway and into the bedroom to check the time on the
clock beside the bed. She sat down on the white linen bedspread. Looked across at the antique pine dressing table and her books piled high: “Settling Techniques, Newborn to 6 Months”, “The Baby 0-9 Months”, “Motherhood: making it work for you”, “Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much”, “The Baby Swings Book”, “Baby Love”. She got up and went back into the kitchen to look at the time on the microwave clock.
‘Damn it,’ said Kate. ‘Now we’ll be late for the class.’
‘Why don’t you go on your own and I’ll tell her that you’ve gone when she arrives?’
A car door slammed outside.
Kate picked up her swimming bag and hurried to the door. It was someone for next door. She came back in.
Anny suggested again that she ring her friend and say she’d meet her there.
Kate checked the time on my watch. Then picked up the cordless phone and dialled.
‘I thought I could meet you there,’ she said into the phone. ‘I thought you might be rushing and it would save you some time.’
Silence as she listened to her friend’s reply.
‘Tell her you’ll meet her there,’ Anny insisted.
‘I’ll wait then,’ Kate sighed into the phone. She hung up. With the phone still in her hand she moved towards her mother. Her eyebrows were pressed together in an angry frown.
She used the aerial of the phone to prod Anny in the arm.
‘Stop it,’ she hissed. ‘Just stop it.’
‘Stay out as long as you like,’ Anny encouraged when Kate’s friend finally pulled up in the car. “Make the most of it. If I need you I can ring on the mobile.’
Kate hoisted her swimming bag up on to her shoulder. Kissed her mother on the cheek.
‘I can handle him,’ Anny assured her. ‘I feel confident. The only thing I can’t manage is if he gets hysterical like he did last night.’
‘Take him for a walk in the pram if he cries too much. He got hysterical last night because he was overtired.’
Anny waved goodbye from the front door.
After Kate left Anny swung into action. Watered the pot plants, adjusted her rearrangements from last week – moved the wooden plant stand from the lounge room to the dining room, the blue and white porcelain plant holder to the top of the plant stand. Kate said it was okay. If Dan didn’t like the re-arranging he’d put everything back where it was.
Eleven fifteen and no sound yet from the baby’s room. Anny shut down the computer and went into his room to check he was still breathing. She opened his door moving quietly as she stepped over a teddy bear on the floor. She approached his white painted cradle and looked down at him as he lay on his back, his head slightly to the side and tipped down against his chest. His long eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks, the tip of his button nose catching the light from the window. His rosebud lips pulsed ever so slightly together.
When he woke up she warmed the milk and carried him into the lounge room. She held him close against her body for the twenty minutes it took him to drink the bottle. One of his tiny perfect hands stayed wrapped around her thumb.
The drought in NSW continued through the winter. ‘Even Sydney has experienced one of the driest stretches since European settlement,’ said Agriculture Minister, Richard Amery.
Anny had been to the gym and hoped to ease the aches in her legs by relaxing in a hot bath. The telephone rang while she was running the bath. She stopped and listened and then switched off the taps. She went to answer the telephone.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Anny here.’
‘Mum. It’s me.’
‘How are you darling? I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you were going.’
‘I so much didn’t want this to happen,’ she said. ‘I was at breaking point. Things were getting worse and worse. But they’ve looked after me here. They’ve looked after me very well.’
‘That’s good darling,’ Anny said trying to sound calm and positive.
‘I expressed for the last couple of days and they gave him the bottle at 3.30 in the morning. He slept for seven hours last night. The first time ever. And the first time I’ve slept deeply since he was born.’
Anny could hear gentle classical music playing in the background.
‘Who wouldn’t go a bit mad with the sleep deprivation alone? said Kate. ‘Let alone all the other stuff. And the hormone thing. It’s like having PMT for three months.’
So what do you think you’ve learnt from the week?’
‘I suppose for me not to feel that I have to be totally responsible and committed to him twenty-four hours a day and being with mothers in a similar situation helps too. That there are a lot of people whose support I can utilise. I was able to hand over to the midwives and have a rest. It took the whole responsibility off me. They pretty much said that he’d picked up where I was at.’
‘Did they say anything else?’
‘Take a chill pill.’
‘A chill pill? How will you do that?’
‘It’s an expression. Try and go with the flow much more. They said it’s not good for the baby for me to be like this, which makes me feel great! They offered to show me more information about the effects on the baby, but I didn’t want to see. My counsellor said that people like me are much more connected. We are sensitive and intelligent people. Qualities that she really likes in a person. I asked her couldn’t I just do Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and go to yoga twice a week. She said all those things will help, but they won’t change the brain chemistry. And she said I’ll bash myself up even more because I’m not able to change my thinking with the CBT.’
From the window, as Anny watched, a storm came in, rolling in across the dark metallic grey of the sea. She cradled the phone between her neck and her shoulder. Pressed her hands against the window. Felt the cold glass against her palms. Watched the imprint of hands recede as she held the phone to her ear.
‘So what can the people who love and care about you do for you?’ she said.
‘When someone is at my place that I can go out and have a break from him. Giving me time away from him. I was thinking of going home for a week or two and see how I feel before making a decision about going on medication.’
The first of the rain started to fall as Anny watched.
‘I always felt total love and connection to him,’ said Kate. ‘But I knew he was unhappy and there was nothing I could do. That was very painful for me. To see my baby so distressed and not being able to do anything for him.’
The wind blew the leaves on the trees in front of Anny helter skelter as the storm built up. Hail the size of small marbles landed on the railing of the balcony, bounced to the ground, hit the pot plants.
‘I may go into denial when I get home,’ said Kate. I need you and Dan to tell me if I get worse. I need Dan to say, “Honey, you’re getting worse.” You could say that to me too. So how’s the week been for you?’
‘Okay. I didn’t worry too much about you because I knew you were in good hands – that you were being looked after. I knew you were in the best possible place. I didn’t worry as much as I do sometimes. It’s hard not to because we’re so inter … inter- connected. You and me.’
‘Yes. That’s a better word. Interwoven. We’re interwoven.’
The rain eased. The pot plants all wet and shiny.
‘How did the parents’ night go at the hospital?’
‘The idea was for the fathers to talk about how they’re feeling but it didn’t turn out that way. They got on to talking about settling the baby – and the conversation stayed on settling.’
Anny walked into the bathroom and turned the taps back on. She added a scoop of Radox, picked up a washer from the end of the bath. She warmed it in the hot water, pressed it against her face. Then lay back against the porcelain. She closed her eyes. Thought about her own feeling of helplessness as she’d watched her daughter in distress.
She remembered when Kate was a baby. Her own mother’s nagging. Was the baby getting enough to eat? Did Anny have enough breast milk? The constant worrying about why the baby was crying. And her mother undermining her confidence, telling her that the baby was crying because she didn’t have enough milk to feed her baby.
‘Shut the door and walk away,’ was her mother’s advice. But the doctor had said she wasn’t to leave Kate to cry. He said Kate was a sensitive baby and would withdraw from her if she was left alone to cry.
Anny rubbed the coarse fabric up and down her arms, then up and down her legs. She lay in the bath for a time and then got out. She looked in the mirror as she dried herself. Turned her body sideways to the mirror. Pulled her stomach in, tucked her bottom under, stood up straight.
A warm day. Anny watched the sun rise in the morning. Saw the red sun hidden behind a cluster of clouds. The colours of the clouds changed each part of a second as she watched. More pink. Less mauve. The glow extended out along the horizon. The sea flat. The birds making noises like soft percussion triangles.
Kate and her mother sat on the floor of the bathroom as Kate bathed the baby in the big bath. A deep old-fashioned porcelain bath perched above black and white tiles. Kate kept splashing warm water on to his back to keep him warm as he stood up inspecting the taps, investigating the exit of the water from the faucet. His back wet and shiny. His bottom dimpled.
Kate looked across at her mother, a frown on her face and a dipped inflection in her voice. ‘I heard a terrible story this week, she said.. ‘It’s a horrible story.’
Anny could tell by Kate’s tone that perhaps it would be better if she didn’t tell her the story. But she didn’t say this. She took a deep breath instead.
‘You know Vivian who lives across the road?’ Kate said. ‘Vivian from the mothers’ group.’
‘Well it’s a friend of Vivian’s. They’ve known each other since they were children and their mothers are friends. The friend’s mother thought her daughter seemed not herself after the birth of the baby. The friend’s mother had said to her son-in-law that she wanted to discuss it with him. Before she was able to talk to him the daughter tried to kill her husband. She attacked him. Tried to strangle him. Then she jumped off the balcony with the baby in her arms.’
‘Oh no! That’s dreadful!’
‘The baby died and the woman is in hospital.’
‘That’s a dreadful, dreadful story.’
‘She’d thought that if she killed the whole family then they’d all be together in heaven.’
The baby sat down in the bath, then picked up a blue plastic scooper and used it to drink the bathwater. He smiled up at Kate and Anny as they leant over the bath. He pushed some plastic toys down from the side of the bath and watched the toys splash into the water.
‘How will it be for her when she realises she’s killed her baby?’ said Kate. And what about her relationship with her husband?’
Anny and Kate looked at each other. Kate reached down and picked the baby up out of the bath. As she wrapped a towel around him he put his arms down by his sides and leant his head against her chest. She held him tight against her.
Anny could hear Kate and her friend and the friend’s baby as they came in the front door. Kate introduced the friend to her mother. Her name was Alice. Anny offered Alice a cup of tea and the three of them sat around the dining room table. They drank tea out of pretty china cups – half open buds and violets and forget-me knots. The midday sun slanted through the window.
Alice fidgeted with the teaspoon on her saucer. She picked the spoon up, turned it over, put it down again. ‘I wish my mother was here,’ she said.
‘Where’s your mother?’ Anny asked.
‘In England. She lives in England. England is so far away. I ring her up but she’s busy doing her thing. And my father complains about the phone bills.’
‘That’s a shame,’ Anny commiserated.
Alice’s baby watched her, listened, turned his head towards her. Her voice lowered. ‘It would be so nice to sit down with my mother and to be able to talk like this. To be able to say, “The baby did this or she did that. The baby rolled over.”’
Kate and Anny looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
Anny remembered the last time she had seen her own mother. Anny had always felt that her mother wasn’t any good at the business of mothering. Motherhood hadn’t come easily to her. Perhaps she should never have been a mother; certainly she was one too soon. But hers was not an age in which women felt they had a choice.
It was five years ago now since that afternoon before she died. They were sitting in the visitors’ sunroom of the Jewish Hospital in Woollahra. Her mother’s hair an immaculate coiffure as always. A pale pink dressing gown tied around her waist. Anny had rung her children and arranged to meet them at the hospital. What she remembers most clearly about that afternoon is her mother’s anger because Anny had taken so long to wash and dry one of her nighties. Taken longer than her older sister who usually took the dirty nighties home and who had a clothes dryer. Anny had hung the nightie on a clothesline in the sun in her backyard and she’d thought it smelt particularly fresh and clean. But her mother was angry with her for not bringing the nightie back sooner. What took her so long? Wasn’t there anything she could do properly? Couldn’t she get anything right?
The scent of spring jasmine in the cooling air. A row of cherry blossom trees blossomed soft pink against dark wooden stems. Anny stood at the front door and waved goodbye to Alice as Kate helped her out to the car. She looked across at a blood-red hibiscus in the garden next door. A dog asleep on the grass.
Kate came back and stood beside her mother at the front door. Put her arm all the way around her. Patted her on the back. They leant into each other. Then went inside and closed the front door.
Copyright © Libby Sommer 2016
First published in Quadrant