Mother guilt

I can’t say how long I left her crying. It was winter and cold. The woman in the restaurant suggested if I did not want my baby to fuss in the bustle and smoke of the high-ceilinged restaurant, I could leave her a door away in the storage room, dry and quiet and she would stay warm under her baby blankets in the white bassinet we used in those days. 

A wicker basket, round edges and rectangular. You carried it on the backseat of your car and covered the baby tucked inside under a fishnet roughly fitted at each side. The idea was the baby would stay in the basket if you needed to stop abruptly or had an accident. I doubt they were safe even in those days but better than the baby seated on your lap as you drove along. 

A better form of infant care while travelling today.

There was not much open space in the storage room, but I found two flat boxes of equal height on which to rest the bassinet. I fed my baby once more in the dark and cold quiet of the room, burped her, then rested her back in her bed.

She did not fuss when I laid her down. A baby who was predictable in her patterns even at three months, or predictable in that unpredictable way of new babies, from one week to the next. Just as you thought you’d entered a new phase and could anticipate what might happen next, it shifted.

From waking once each night to waking several times; from settling for the night at seven to not letting me say a proper goodnight till nine; from waking at six to sleeping till eight. 

This time she closed her eyes and was asleep within minutes, enough to leave her there in the dark, cold, quiet and go back to the glare of the restaurant where my friends were enjoying their first glasses of wine and the chatter of hospitality infused the room.

A chatter so inviting, so enveloping I almost forgot my baby. But she was there in the back of my mind lost and safe in sleep. 

Our main meals were arriving when I went to check on her. The cry hit me as soon as I opened the door. A cry of abandonment and despair and I swept her into my arms to soothe and caress. 

The baby settled quickly but the rest of the evening in the restaurant moved in a blur of tension. I could not settle myself even as my daughter had slipped back into sleep.

This time I did not close the door on the storage room and retured to check every five minutes. An abandoned baby left to cry her way back to sleep or into the land of alone was unbearable.

Mother guilt they call it. Some inbuilt system, some bond of attachment that registers those cries and cannot walk away. A bond so great the sound of such cries even from some other mother’s baby hits something visceral inside and my own baby self is awakened with a pain so great I cannot walk away.

When I hear this cry in a supermarket or shopping centre I feel a tug of desperation, and hope there is a mother for that baby who can find it within to hold the baby close. To take away the despair of abandonment.

It was no surprise then when we took to our sleeping bags that night in the sad shack my husband called a hut. A place I had imagined would be warm and comfortable with an open fire and space to heat water for coffee and tea. A place when we arrived that shocked me for its simplicity. As if we had gone back two hundred years.

It was the old shepherd’s hut on his uncle’s property, abandoned now, and used mainly for grain storage. His uncle left it open day and night and the sheep wandered in and out. They left their droppings in every corner. Black pebbles hardened with time. And a stench to beat a neglected campsite lavatory on a summer’s day.

We swept first before we brought in our luggage and sleeping gear. My friends had agreed to stay there for the night but when they saw inside I guessed they might have wished they’d spent extra money on staying in the town’s hotel. Mansfield boasts a couple of hotels and the posh restaurant just outside the main drag. We could have been comfortable there. 

Once cleaned out and after a full dinner with plenty to drink none of us felt bothered by the hard wood floor on which to sleep. My husband built a fire and put aside a pile of thick logs which he planned to replenish throughout the night. 

The baby slept deeply by then in one corner of the shack not far from where we had rested our sleeping bags in readiness for our uncomfortable sleep.

We didn’t last long chatting over the fire, the women with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. The men on cold beers. After the kerosine lamps faded, we chose darkness, fractured by the red glow of flames from the fireplace licking at the logs. 

All was quiet, alongside the soft murmur of the sleepers, a quiet so great I suspect it reminded my baby of the aloneness of the storage room. Out of nowhere, she let out a wail and before I could get out of my sleeping bag and take her in my arms her sobs were loud and desperate. 

No one complained, but my guilt for my abandoned baby shifted onto guilt over my friends. How much their sleep would be disrupted if I could not settle her into silence.

I cradled her, rocked her, fed her again even though I knew she could not be hungry. I fumbled for a fresh nappy in the dark and worried that the pins might enter my thumbs, as I stopped their points from piercing my baby’s skin. 

She settled in my arms but any attempts to lay her down, even after she had closed her eyes and given an appearance of sleep, was useless. As soon as my arms reached out to release her she cried out. As if she knew she was about to be abandoned once more. 

I cannot say how many minutes or hours I held her that night, caught between my desperate need for sleep and her need to be held. I looked into the flames and worried they might frighten my baby every time she cracked open an eye to check I was still there. 

I had put too much upon this tiny form. This tiny person whose own predictability hinged on mine. And here we were taking her away from the comfort of her warm familiar cradle into the cold discomfort of a shack.

All of it in the name of pleasure. Our throwback to those days when we could leave the city on weekends and take off in tents or hotel rooms or even outside under stars, when we were free agents. 

We were not free anymore and this small person in my arms reminded me yet again of the pains of being tiny, the helplessness. Two arms, two legs, a body, and head in between. But still no sense of how to coordinate these, nor of how to make her brain work such she could form words to ask for the things she needed.

We had to understand her through the fog of uncertainly that is any baby’s life. and we had failed. At least this time.

All things bright and beautiful

‘All right girls,’ Miss Bright said, ‘Let’s begin with the way you sit.’ She stood above us on a dais to one side of her desk and lifted her chair without scraping the floor. Then rested it gently into its new position. Next she straightened and placed herself between the chair and desk. Lifting her feet slightly, with ballerina toes, her back ramrod straight, she lowered her behind onto the seat. She perched there on the edge as if she was ready to get up and leave at any minute. Miss Bright looked uncomfortable but the expression on her face, a faint smile of tranquillity, never left her for one moment.

‘Now I’d like you to try.’

Chairs scraped as twenty adolescent girls stood to adjust their seats beside their desks and each tried to tiptoe first then place their behinds neatly on the edge of a chair. Miss Bright walked around the classroom, her stilettos clacking on the hard wood floors. 

‘That’s right,’ she said to Bernadette Tuohy. 

‘A little more centred,’ she said to Rosanna Tochetto. And every girl was seated in minutes in the same strained awkward pose.

Miss Bright worked for the Elly Lukas School of Deportment and visited because the nuns at our schools had decided we girls needed to learn better manners – ours was a convent for ladies after all. I should not have attended but a week before Miss Bright arrived, Mother Ursula spoke to me after class one afternoon. 

‘There’s a subsidised place to this course in deportment, and I think you should have it.’

I was flattered to be given the chance to join the other lucky girls whose parents were prepared to pay extra money on top of school fees to enable us to learn how to become ladies. But I chafed at the idea that Moher Ursula might have offered me the place, not only because my family were too poor to afford it, but also because I needed this type of help more than most. My torn pinafore. Buttons missing from my blazer. My worn shoes. Deportment was all about appearances and appearances were not my forte.

Miss Bright’s classes ran for six weeks, a lesson each week for an hour during which she taught us the basic elements of sitting, walking, standing and saying ‘hello’. She taught us about personal hygiene, to use deodorants down below, preferably in spray form so that we might keep our bodies at their freshest best. She taught us that we must prepare our wardrobe each evening before a major event and preferably for any day so that we did not waste precious time in the mornings on our dress. 

Being prepared was the essence of her bible. Prepared for whatever might lie ahead. Stockings darned. Shoes polished each night. Everything designed to look our best for when we would take our place in the world as the bright and shining secretaries of tomorrow.

From six weeks of classes there is not much I remember other than Miss Bright’s insistence we always look our best, even late in bed at night. All of it designed to keep our men happy. Our men who expected us to be like Stepford Wives, perfectly coiffed at all times, while able to cook excellent meals, clear dishes with minimal fuss, keep a tidy house, keep children quiet, well behaved and good mannered. All of it with the aim of keeping the man in our lives happy and satisfied. Unharried in his important work in the outside world where he needed his wife to be an attribute. 

Is this where the idea of Trophy Wife or the wife as handbag came into being?  The wife as handbag. Husband as handbag. Partner as an extra limb on our bodies to give the impression we have it all.

I was an ungainly girl, my body misshapen on boarding school stodge and yet Miss Bright offered the possibility of a life as one of the characters from television land, an Audrey Hepburn or Ava Gardner, Julie Andrews. All of them beautiful and able to move around as though the strings that controlled their every movement were invisible. As though they were in charge of their lives. Only we know now they were no more in charge than I was as an adolescent schoolgirl coerced by a society that sheltered under the shadow of fierce patriarchal attitudes, which sought to keep women and men polarised and in their places.

In 1968, the year of revolution, when the world was shifting under the weight of rebellion, an insignificant schoolgirl at a Catholic convent in Richmond, I dreamed as much of my future, firstly in the stereotype of secretarial work in an office somewhere among the grey building blocks of the City of Melbourne, or secondly, as a lay missionary in some place like Papua New Guinea. My brother had joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to convert ‘the heathens’, though the nuns had stopped talking about indigenous people like this. 

The convent

I knew what it was like to feel lesser than, and to aspire to more than. Along several dimensions. The spiritual dimension where I wanted most of all to be like a saint and receive a visitation from Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary. This aspiration waned once my hormones kicked it. It turned into a desire to join the nuns and hide behind a full-length habit. At least this way I could shift from the protective features of my school dress and tunics into the layers of fabric that hid the nuns’ bodies from view. The convent seemed a great place to be. In contrast to the next layer of expectation. To look as good as I could for a man. To please any future husband with my svelte and lovely appearance. 

Most of my fellow students aspired to this, or so I imagined among the popular ones who were hell bent on raising their school dresses to above the knee whenever we left the convent walls. Those two layers of expectation: inner godliness and goodness, and outer beauty and cleanliness became the corner stone of my expectations even as in less than three years I decided to chuck the good inside stuff out, gave up on joining the nuns, the uniform and habit and slipped into a different type of uniform. A woman of the seventies, who might try to free herself from the shackles of gender polarities into a sense of herself as a person. But I could never get away from being a woman. And it irked me.