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.
One thought on “Mother guilt”
No one talks about father guilt but it’s every bit as real. To this day I feel guilty about how I treated my daughter. Bad dads come in all shapes and forms. You had one, I had another and I was another. I talked to my daughter about it as an adult and she, for the life of her, couldn’t see what I was beating myself up over. Things I thought of as neglectful she remembered as adventures and as far as I can see no long-term harm’s been done. We have a good relationship these days despite the fact—and especially since COVID—we see a lot less of each other and weeks go by without contact. Which I take the blame for because that’s me. She has a busy life and a more successful one than I ever imaged for her—luck had something to do with that and I’m happy for her—but although I never ever wanted us to be like a sitcom family, wandering in and out of each other’s unlocked houses on a daily basis, I do miss the casualness of our relationship in her late teens. Now we “visit” and that’s not the same. The irrational part of my brain thinks it’s karma, payback for my neglect of her as a child, but that’s nonsense; hundreds, thousands of dads get by just fine seeing their kids every second weekend. It wasn’t part of the plan though, to be a part-time dad but you can’t plan for everything.