I glance in the rear-view mirror and see your face. “Why are you crying, Mama?” You look to me for an answer to what you perceive is a perfectly sensible question; one that requires an answer straight away. An answer that fits with your world-view. I sigh and choke back a sob, trying not to look at you while you peer at me, searchingly.
I’m crying because I’m so mind-achingly exhausted. You haven’t slept before nine or ten o’clock at night for such a long time that I feel like I’ve never been without you. I do all the right things: take you up early, do an established routine, do everything I’m supposed to. Nothing. I can’t put you to sleep. That’s why I’m crying. I’m crying because I hear about friends and their children, the same age as you, sleeping through the night, from seven until seven the next morning, in their own rooms, while their mothers enjoy child-free time in the living room, their bedroom, everywhere. I’m not crying because I’m jealous; I’m crying because, when I hear about them, I feel lacking and inadequate, like I’ve done something wrong to make you this way. You came to me as a tabula rasa, someone to teach and I can’t teach you how to sleep; how to stay in your own bed; how to stay asleep all night. I can’t.
I’m crying because I’m wracked with guilt all the time. I feel guilty for wanting time apart from you; for not wanting to play with you; for wondering why you can’t sometimes just leave me alone. There are women, aching for children, and here I am complaining that you want me to read to you, again and again. It’s selfish and ungrateful. I’ve been given a gift that, if I’m honest, I sometimes want to return. Just writing this, just thinking this sends waves of guilt washing over me and I double over. But it’s true. I’m just not fit enough to be your mother. Emotionally or physically.
I’m crying because I’m in pain all the time. My legs, my back, my hip all ache. No matter what I do. No matter who I talk to or turn to for help. No one can help me. It feels like it’ll always be like this. Throwing painkillers at it barely masks the problem, it doesn’t treat the root cause. But no one wants to treat the root cause. There isn’t the time or the money or the resources. I shouldn’t be complaining. People are waiting patiently for cancer treatment, and I’m complaining about a bit of pain. Perspective. But I can’t sit on the floor and play with you. Or run after you in the park. Or do other active things with you. You sense this. You know this. And that’s why you want books all the time. Relentlessly want books.
Why am I crying? I’m crying because the house is always a mess. I am never on top of anything. Endless piles of bags, boxes and stuff just accumulate everywhere. I never put things away, never have enough space to put it in, no matter how much I get rid of. There is always something somewhere. I know it makes sense to sell larger items, I just don’t have the patience to do it and want to throw everything away. Even then I know the house will never look like other houses, and I just don’t know why. I visit other mothers with immaculate rooms and wonder how they do it. Three, four, five children and their living rooms are spotless. I’m not crying because I’m jealous, but because I will never be as good as them. I will never measure up. I don’t work, so why is our house always such a dirty, cluttered mess? We went on holiday in December and a number of months later, my hand luggage is still not unpacked. If I’m honest, I still haven’t unpacked fully from our trip to Pakistan in November. A bag still sits there; accusing and awkward, reminding me of my inadequacies.
I’m crying because I should be using the time you nap to work on my Masters dissertation, but I don’t. I can’t concentrate and, using lack of sleep as my excuse, a blanket with which to shroud the body of my sins, I look at websites. I’ll never finish this Masters I started in 2011 and the feeling of failure sends fresh tears to stain my already tear-stained face. I swipe up and down on the screen, barely acknowledging what I’m looking at until everything becomes a blur. Maybe you need some new clothes? Perhaps I should buy you some?
I’m crying because I’m so bad with money. I have no idea where it goes. I try to save, but I always fail. So I’m forever transferring money from my savings to cover the wretchedness of my over-spending. Sometimes it’s nice to buy something. But that’s just shallow and materialistic and then I feel guilty. For not teaching you responsibility, for extravagance, for self-indulgence. There are people scraping together every penny they have and I’m contemplating which organic, handmade vest to buy you next. I’m crying because I should just donate that money to a more worthy cause. I did that last week; this week I want to buy something. But that’s selfish isn’t it?
I’m crying because there will never be enough of me. I’ll never be able to do enough for you because you always want more. Today you wanted to walk to the car in your socks, though it had rained. I didn’t have the energy to argue so I let you. Your socks got wet and I didn’t have anymore. I hadn’t planned ahead and brought you some when we left the house. I see people with two, three, four, five children, holding it together, houses immaculate, routines in place, able to love their children and then I see me: falling apart at every hurdle and wondering if there was another one of you would I be able to divide myself emotionally and physically to care for both of you?
I’m crying because I have nothing else to give. I am spent up and used up. I’m crying because I can’t wait for your Dad to come home and take over so I don’t have to hold it together anymore. I’m crying because we went out today, and the sheer effort of holding myself together and pretending in front of others has exploded inside me and spilled out over the top of me. I’m crying because I should have held it together until you napped, but I didn’t. Instead I cried in front of you and your tiny face saw my tears; reflected back in your eyes, I saw myself: pathetic, broken, whimpering – an example of everything I don’t want you to be.
I don’t want you to be anything like me; the thought of it wracks my body with waves of emotion. I want you to be strong and resilient and calm. I want you to be able to face the world without hesitation, not stumbling through life and always thinking: I’ll be better later. Not like me. I’m crying because I ache for you to be different. To be everything I’m not. But I don’t know how to teach you something I can’t live myself.
As I write this, I’m crying because I know you’ve had an hour’s nap and I should wake you up, but I don’t, because I’m selfish and I haven’t drunk my tea yet. I’m crying because I realise, I didn’t have the foresight to use the comforting blanket of anonymity: everyone knows this is me, your mother. Putting this out there means I’m vulnerable, exposed and open. I’m torn: I want to be honest, yet I don’t want to give people ammunition to use. And believe me, darling, they will use it – you’ll see soon enough. I’m crying because I’m not strong, not strong enough to defend myself against people who would use my vulnerabilities to hurt me, not strong enough to ever be enough for you and your Dad. I’m crying because there is always something to do and I can’t face doing it. I’m crying because I want to be so much more. But I’m not.
But it isn’t fair to tell you all this. You wouldn’t understand. Why should you have to deal with it? You’re only two-years-old, nearly three. You’ve had to be so emotionally mature and wise beyond your years because you’ve ended up being born to me. But you shouldn’t have to deal with this; it is not your fault you ended up with this mother: damaged, emotionally unstable, ungrateful.
So instead, when you ask me, “Why are you crying, Mama?” I say, “Because I don’t feel well, darling. I just don’t feel…well.”