Here is the editor's intro when posting it as the winner:
[I admire the way Kate threads her essay with the words of the “mother’s curse,” using them four times (at the beginning, a couple of times in the middle and then again at the end of the essay). The words are the apparatus the essay hangs on, and at the end, they bring the past and the present together, helping to evoke the author’s feelings of joy at turning from a hard time to a time of full pride. I also admire the tone that evokes strong feelings of despair and anger and then of deep concern and admiration. And finally, I admire the use of the second person “you” mixed in with the use of the first person “I”. As reader, I am drawn into the essay, knowing that the old adage “there by the grace of God go I” applies here. The essay is filled with love and truth and courage. The personal situation becomes a universal one, a story about a prodigal child. –Ed.]
* * *
Who knew that daughters would be such a heartbreak? When you are pregnant no one tells you that fourteen years later, (in the middle of a discussion about the appropriate amount of gratitude in the mother/daughter relationship) you will suddenly be called a psychotic bitch and that it will be a fairly accurate description of the moment. When you are choosing a bassinet, the sales woman does not point out that when the subject of dating comes up you will become a red-faced dictator whom you neither like nor recognize. No one tells you that you will brandish the sharp edge of the mother’s curse just to survive.
Not that I would have believed it anyway. Sitting in the overstuffed rocker, reading Goodnight Moon or the Narnia tales, you think this warm bond will sustain you. You look at a mom in Target, following her teenager through the junior’s department. You hear the daughter’s tone and think, “Boy, whatever that woman did wrong I am not going to be guilty of.” What you don’t know is that the woman is guilty of exactly the sort of mothering that you are: The kind that gives a damn.
If you don’t give a damn, it will not bother you when they roll eyes and glance meaningfully at friends as you pick them up from school. Not giving a damn eases the pain of saying no and other land mines of interpersonal discourse that turn your civil daughter into an excoriating banshee.
Not giving a damn might have saved me from hurling the mother’s curse. I delivered the curse several times over the years, and it was met full on with a steely stare and utter disdain. The first time was immediately following the psychotic bitch comment. I shouted, “I hope you have a daughter just like you!”
She shot back, “I do, too, because I will know how to treat her!”
I glared at the closed door, “If God is good, may it be so!”
There was really no way to talk about the grief of losing the daughter I thought I would raise. I thought I would have someone bright and funny and empathetic. The teenager who lived in my house came in late with friends I hated and used a tone with me that you might reserve for war criminals or rodentia. Who this girl might be and how she had somehow taken over my daughter’s life was a mystery of tragic proportion. I cried about it, alone, at two a.m. – waiting for the latest tattooed lowlife to drive up and deliver my daughter home. I cried about it when she moved out at seventeen, living in a van in someone’s muddy driveway. There was a lot of crying, and a lot of worrying, and every now and then there was the mother’s curse hurled into the dark. “I hope you have one just like you!”
Translation: Someday you will understand…
Not that you – sitting there in the dark – would have been convincible, that, should you let her live, your daughter might turn that curse on its little sow’s ear.
Sometime between “Get out of my head!” and “Mom, I’m pregnant!” Lynne had decided to come back. I don’t know if it was all the Raman noodles or getting a taste of life on minimum wage, but somewhere in there she decided I was not such a shabby mom after all – worth a second go. Gone was the wall between us. Gone the critical tone, the sneering commentary, the silent surliness.
In its place was a young woman I admired. An independent, happy, industrious, funny, bright, beauty. Who this woman might be and how she had somehow taken over my daughter’s life was a mystery of glorious relief. We loved each other, could say so, and-- best of all -- liked each other! As she finally left her adolescence behind, she found and married Paul -- a man with only modest tattoos and an utter adoration for my daughter. He is smart, he is kind, and he is as stubborn as she. I rested easy in her choice.
Two weeks ago, I watched my daughter labor to deliver her first child. She had a dream about that birth. The dream was that she would deliver with a midwife and have a doula – a sort of lady in waiting for the laboring woman. Paul, an EMT, would “catch” the baby boy and clamp the cord. She spent a year planning this birth. Eating well, conceiving at just the right time to offer the child a good and welcoming home. She was the poster child for the pregnancy glow -- happy, eager, and healthy. I envied her that pregnancy experience.
When she and Paul finalized the birth plan, she gingerly explained that they wanted the labor and birth to be “just the two of them.” She was visibly relieved when I was not offended. I knew that Paul was determined that the birth be as close to “natural” (read: drop it in the bushes or, lacking bushes, a midwife’s portable birthing pond) as Lynne could abide. I suspected he worried that I would advise medical intervention or some unnamed intrusive approach. If they were studying their choices and making them together, I was fine with waiting. This was the beginning of their family story. It was theirs to write.
The day before her due date, Lynne called to say that she was headed for the birth center. Paul texted me about the progress.
“3 mnts apart. Taking shower.”
A couple of hours later, “Water broke. Soon.”
I worked on a sweater for the baby. Worried. Thinking of my own labor with Lynne. Twenty-four nightmarish hours and an emergency C-section. I sewed the sleeves to the body of the sweater. It would be so cute. He would wear this around nine months.
“Please, God, soon.” I kept glancing at my phone on the stand, listening for the “teek” that announced a message.
Two hours after the “water broke” text, I sent Paul one: “Anything?”
The response came quickly, “Pushing. Progress slow.”
“Baby?” I sent back.
Two more hours passed. I texted two question marks.
The response was immediate: “Going to hospital.”
Oh. In that split second I felt my heart tear.
I knew how fiercely they were guarding their privacy in this. My daughter. My grandson. The hospital. Already twenty-five hours of labor. This was bad. Really bad.
I tapped on my phone keyboard, “Can we come?”
It was six-thirty in the morning. My daughter had been laboring all night. “Anne, wake up!” I shook my partner in her bed and headed down the hall, yelling back over my shoulder, “Get dressed. Lynne is going to the hospital.”
Sleepily she threw the covers off and started pulling clothes on. “What happened?”
I was crying hard. “I don’t know. But Paul said we can come.”
It almost never snows on our island. The moderate climate is what brought us here. But the night before we had had four inches of snow, which had become a thick, treacherous swamp of slush and ice. The hospital was thirty miles away. I eyed abandoned cars at odd angles in the ditch and drove slowly, carefully. Anne sat beside me. She knew better than to say anything. It was all I could do to stay on the road. It was all I could do to breathe. My daughter was in trouble.
Despite the snow, we arrived at the hospital ahead of Lynne. The ambulance had struggled in the snow and needed chains on the tires to make it up the hill to the hospital’s birth center. Paul was in the waiting room with the midwife and doula. They all looked tired and disheveled. I knew I looked worse.
“What can you tell me?” I hugged Paul.
“It just wasn’t progressing. She’s been pushing for hours. Then there was meconium on the bed…”
“Oh. Okay.” Meconium. Yes, the baby was in trouble. “Did they listen to heart tones?”
“Yeah. So far, so good.”
The doors of the labor unit whooshed open, interrupting his report. Three EMTs pushed the gurney down the hall. Lynne looked over at us, nasal canula delivering oxygen. Her complexion was gray. I waved, tried not to cry. She waved, crying. They pushed into a room where the doctor followed them.
After an assessment, the nursing supervisor told us we could join Lynne. I barged through the door and saw her sitting up on the bed. I crossed the room quickly and hugged her.
They were still hoping to deliver there in the bed. She was opting to give it a little more time, since the baby’s heart rate was good. This was a replay of her own delivery.
There it was. The mother’s curse revealed. She was having a child just like herself.
I watched her squat on that bed for another four hours – pushing, laboring, trying. Until they were sure that the baby couldn’t be delivered, she was going to try. With every contraction the midwife, doula and labor nurses cheered her on. I couldn’t imagine watching anything more valiant. When I got up to leave the room for a moment, I whispered to her, “You are my hero.”
“Thanks, Mom.” She had her seven-year-old face – earnest, determined.
At one point, after a particularly hard contraction, she looked around the room at all the people sitting vigil – nurses, midwife, doula, Anne, Paul, me – quietly attentive.
“I guess I really am glad you are all here,” she said, “I thought I wanted to do this alone, but this is so much better.”
At eleven-thirty the doctor checked her again. He shook his head. No progress. It was time for decisions. Add pitocin to make the contractions work harder and keep pushing. Or go for a C-section.
My worried, exhausted daughter looked at the doctors and the nurses and said, “Could you give us a minute to talk, please?” dismissing them, like a queen dispatching servants. We all started to leave, giving her and Paul their privacy.
“Mom, you can stay.”
She wanted input. Paul said he would go with whatever she wanted. I said that trying pitocin might be just the trick, or using it on a tired uterus might mean a section anyway. She was the one who had been in labor almost thirty hours. Her call.
She looked at Paul, then at me, then, “Let’s have this baby. Tell the doctor I want a section.”
My grandson was born by cesarean section twelve minutes later. He was eight pounds, eleven ounces. And perfect. My daughter was radiant. Relieved. Exhausted. She held her son against her chest and told him how happy she was to see him.
No one tells you when you deliver that you may be surprised to find one day that you do not have the child you thought you had. That you will feel, in the course of her life, happy, horrified, frightened, homicidal, jubilant and relieved, by turns. That, in the end, if you are really lucky, you will be able to deliver the mother’s blessing that I silently wished on my daughter that day:
I hope you have a child just like yourself.
If God is good, may it be so.
* This essay was written in January, at a writing workshop offered by Andrea Hurst.