Sometimes my daughter tells me about the mother she wishes she had.
This mother has lots and lots of money, and always buys her toys.
This mother lets her stay up late and eat candy for dinner.
This mother is never grouchy. She’s always happy, always smiling.
This mother never gets sick. She has lots of energy to run and play and do fun things.
This mother can bend down and kneel and get back up again.
Sometimes this mother even has a loving partner.
It’s an extraordinary experience.
Listening to your child paint a picture of a world she’s never known.
Seeing the beauty in it. Feeling the regret.
“I wish we could have that, too, honey,” I tell her. “That would be nice.”
But instead she’s stuck with me.
Her life wasn’t always like this.
Six years ago, she was a newborn cuddled in happiness. She had a family. A daddy, a mommy, a half-sister, and a cat.
She doesn’t remember, but I do.
I remember worrying about whether I could even be a mother. What if I passed down my autoimmune condition to my child? It was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy: the constant pain, brain fog and exhaustion.
But my partner urged me to think positive. “After all,” he said, “I’ve heard cases where women made miraculous recoveries after getting pregnant!”
“Did they have what I have?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably.”
So we went to the specialist and learned what I’d have to do if I wanted to conceive. I’d have to stop the medication that was my lifeline. I’d need to switch to something else, but the baby would still have to be monitored for addiction once she was born.
I looked at my partner. He nodded. We were going to do this thing.
The new medication wasn’t great, but at least I could take something. I knew some women who had to go off their meds entirely. Those unmedicated 9 months just about destroyed them.
Browsing the forums, I read about mothers who struggled to care for their babies. Fragile health coupled with a lack of sleep and the unrelenting demands of a newborn sent them spiraling into a major flare-up.
I talked to my partner. I was scared. I couldn’t do this alone. What if my already-poor health got worse when our child was born? “What if it gets better?” he kept reminding me.
And then I didn’t have to wonder anymore, because here she was.
My dark-haired blue-eyed elf.
She wasn’t born addicted. She was born robust, healthy and demanding. As if she’d popped out of the healthiest mother on the planet.
The help I was expecting didn’t materialize. My partner did what he could when he got home, but it mainly was just me and her. It was okay-ish. Her naps were the best. But nighttime was hard.
I get sick if I don’t sleep. And no one sleeps with a newborn. If she so much as coughed in her Moses basket by my bed, I snapped awake. I developed a raging case of insomnia to go along with sleep deprivation.
What I feared began to happen. I got worse. Every time I stood up from bathing her or playing on the floor, I’d be overcome with dizziness. I was terrified I’d black out and drop her.
Doctors suggested it might be low blood pressure. They suggested drinking more water. I did. Nothing helped.
Then it all collapsed.
Two months after my daughter’s third birthday, I was on a plane back home to my parents. My ex-partner had sent me an email explaining in cold, precise detail how to apply for welfare once I arrived.
It was just me and my daughter.
Alone against the world.
Maybe you’ve watched Peppa Pig. If so, you know that Mommy Pig and Daddy Pig are perfect parents. They’re jolly and happy. They like jumping in muddy puddles as much as their kids.
Watching Peppa alongside my daughter in that first lonely year, I felt ashamed. This is what I was supposed to be giving my daughter. This is what children needed to thrive.
A happy mommy. A jolly daddy. A house and siblings and vacations in a camper van.
What kind of mother was I? The kind who had no idea how to parent alone. All my life, I’d vowed I’d never do that to a child. Better to not have children than deny a child the right to be part of a nuclear family.
Ha, ha. Look at how well that worked out for me.
Now I was a sick, stressed-out single mom struggling to survive.
I tried to hide my stress from my daughter, but I wasn’t a happy mommy. I was a mommy who smiled and laughed and tickled and played games, but once my daughter was asleep I dropped the act.
What if I couldn’t cope? What if I couldn’t make enough to support her? What if my health broke down entirely and I lost what little work I had?
As my daughter has grown older, she’s noticed.
She notices that sometimes I can’t stand up after I’ve been sitting. Sometimes I need her to be extra-gentle when we’re playing. Sometimes I have to rest when we’re tickling.
It frustrates her. At times it makes her mad.
But other times she comes to me in the evening after brushing her teeth. She kneels down and takes my foot. “Just rest your foot here, Mummy,” she says.
And she gives me a foot massage.
Her touch is gentle. “I don’t want to hurt you, Mummy.”
“You won’t hurt me,” I tell her.
Maybe my daughter will grow up to find the cure for autoimmune disease. Maybe she’ll become an activist fighting for support for single mothers or expanded health coverage. Surely there’s a big picture that will make sense of it all.
In the meantime, I’m not the mother she wants. I’m the mother she has. And that’s all I can be.