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Martyrs, Motherhood, and All the Monsters In Between
She considered herself to be a good mother. She wasn’t absolutely terrible on the outside-- lunchboxes were filled, sandwiches were cut, soccer games were attended, contributions made to the school bake sale. She followed the rules and she kept her mouth shut, kept her cardigan buttoned all the way up, skirt hems hitting an inch above the knees and absolutely no runs streaked in the pale nude of her tights. She did a lot of things for a lot of years and she just felt average.
The worst was when she met with other mothers who wore their dark roots and the glint of hidden silver hairs like trophies, always prowling to outdo another. A simple complaint about an unruly child, the back-breaking stress of scheduling doctor appointments between making it on time to kindergarten dismissal was a coaxing finger to set them loose upon her, as they had been lurking to upstage.
“You think that’s bad?” They would laugh; their life revolved around building up their maternal resume, tacking on years of motherhood, and they licked their lips in anticipation of snapping it out whenever possible, lipstick feathering at the wrinkles of their mouth. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen/twenty/thirty years for three/four/five kids. If you think you’ve got it tough, just imagine my headache!”
They would laugh again, a hand patting on the sharp bones of her shoulders -- they jutted out, not quite filling the stiff stitching of her blazer -- nails crawling along her skin. It was times like these that she had reassure herself that she wasn’t a very violent person, that it wasn’t very motherly to just grab them by the veined curves of their neck, fingers wrapped around the disgusting sinews pushing against the skin, and just tighten. So, instead, she just flattened her lips further and tilted her head fondly with a smile of how silly of me to think that I had it bad, thank goodness you were here to correct me.
Life went on in short bursts of gluing together school projects and penciling in PTA coffee dates. They all revolved around one thing, she realized, and although she had to be mentally deficient if she hadn’t truly noticed yet, it was the kids. The damn kids. She couldn’t even recall their names without thinking hard, trying to match features to letters and lace together their identities. Because, truthfully, it was her moral obligation to love them, even if she didn’t like them that much. The only tragic part was seemingly that they did really love her, over thought the soft touch of her fingers that pushed their hair back and nude lips that brushed their foreheads. They believed there was heavy, maternal endearing behind them but in fact, she worked systematically, clockwork with whatever kind little gestures she could fake next.
All in all, she enjoyed creating the shell of a good mother but she was blackened inside, an ugly little hollow woman. And she wasn’t alone; she could tell and it was a wicked, lovely secret she kept harbored inside of herself. She knew the rest of them had been overwhelmed with the rush of I hate my kids, I hate my husband, I hate my life, what did I do wrong? They were just as hateful and disgusted with their lives as she was and even if she was the worse at it, it didn’t matter as long as there was competition. She caught the corners of the other’s eyes, the little corners that flashed with pale emptiness, the way their joints stiffened and creaked, squeaking without oil. It made her satisfied – a terrible kind of satisfaction, of course – but that she was still alive, that soft flesh still surrounded her and incased her human warmth like the peeling skin of fruit. But it was all bitter because she knew she would succumb to the automaton heart of a woman beaten down by motherhood. It was only a matter of time until she would be weathered away and then what would be left? Nothing.
So she continually pretended that it was okay, week after week in passing. Today was one of those days, it seemed, where she pushed the thoughts back into the confines of her human mind and let them lock themselves away, tangle themselves up with mental grocery lists and reminders of remember, so-and-so has that piano/flute/who-even-cares? recital tomorrow. It was time to go shopping, hinted by the bare bones of the pantry shelves and the fact that one of the kids was screaming their damn head off with a panicked shriek of, “Macaroni! We’re out of macaroni! M-om-my, we have to have macaroni!”
She tightened her lips, slipped her little pocketbook into her purse, forced a kiss onto the rough stubble of her husband’s cheek and the kids waddled behind her, bundled up with high collars of winter coats and scarves. She liked the way they piled into the back seat of the van, sniffling and the clear shine from their running noses dribbling down the cleft of their lip, mouths shut tightly because she felt in control for once. It was hard to feel like that because once she seemed to reign control over just one of them, the others had decided that they weren’t going to conform to her usual discipline of sit down and keep your mouth shut! But now they sat, the tops of their heads feathering with wet hair and un-melted snow, sniffing and fiddling with the fat, cold pudgy digits of their fingers which had emerged ivory white from the soft yarn confines of their mittens.
It was going to be okay. Today was going to be okay. She told herself this everyday even though they managed, with their little hands and little mouths, to mess it up somehow.
“M-om-my!” One of them had their face pressed against the window, a cloud of pale fog surrounding the halo of their head as their fingers smeared against the glass. “Can we get ice cream after this? Please?”
Which absolutely begged the question as to why they would switch their demands of turn the heater up, it’s so-o-o-o cold! to please, please, please buy us ice cream but she tightened her hands on the wheel, smiled at the road ahead even if nobody could see the whitening press of her flat mouth. “We’ll see. Probably not, because Mommy has to make dinner when she gets home and you can’t have dessert first.”
Another side effect of motherhood was talking in third person; it was like an out of body experience, as if they were discussing Mommy and she was just observing with mild sympathy for the woman in question. Poor girl, she would think, She makes dinner for these kids and all they do is ask for more, more, more. She enjoyed martyring herself, crowning herself as a saintly jewel and painting her own portrait in clean, linen white. A poor girl she was and she ignored the fact that there were thousands of other nameless woman, lips pinched just as she always pinched her own, kids stuffed in the backseat, assuring them that there would be dinner when they got home. She only mattered to herself and it was a selfishness she kept coddled carefully inside – truthfully, she cared for herself and nobody else. It wasn’t even a sad truth because, she thought, wouldn’t you have to feel guilty for it to be so sad?
They parked, one van in a row of others, and tumbled out from the seats one by one like soldiers, her leading the front with her head tipped away from the wind. One child wielded a cart, the wheels wildly skating along a patch of stiff ice while the rest chased afterwards with a whine of no fair, you always get the cart, it’s my turn! Then the chorus of M-om-my! all broken apart, as if it was toiling their vocal chords and they needed breathers in between. She gripped the shopping cart handle, ripped it from their mittened hands and dumped her purse into the child seat while they quieted, one letting out another miserable sniff.
The inside was warm, lit with orange lighting, the waxy skins of fruit gleaming underneath artificial bulbs. They immediately scattered, one towards the frozen foods and the other tugging the rest of them towards the clear domed sample trays. She could have yelled, she supposed, but she no longer bothered; she pushed on her cart, remembered she needed eggs, and headed out on her own. They would all collect again, as if by magic, and she would turn around to find them all holding some bright packing with the candy-colored box reflecting off their face.
She was right, of course. By the time she’d sifted through crackling Styrofoam boxes of eggs, plucked out two despite their expiration date, they were gathered around the cart like a mob, trying to subtly push in a cereal with a mascot on the front whose grin out scaled the rest of its features. Her fingernails dug into the thin cardboard, thrusting it back out with a low mutter of put – that – back – now. A collective moan rose out and she almost expected mutiny, for one of them to drop down in the middle of the aisle and refuse to stand until the cereal was fully purchased and in their hands. They were sneaky, stubborn creatures that pick and chose when to protest – they could almost smell the haggard exhaustion that trailed her on days after she worked late, knew at what level of care at which she’d be too tired to fight back. But instead, the youngest let out a pilfering little whine between its lips and tramped back to the dry foods aisle, the rest in tow.
When she finally decided she was done in the refrigeration aisle, goose bumps peppering her skin despite the soft fleece layers she stacked on her skin, the cart made a ticking noise as she followed their wet, brown foot puddles like methodical detective work. Pulling up to the aisle was like walking through a looking glass – she felt like another mother, watching her children gather around another box, brighter then the last, fat fingers reaching outwards like a last minute grasp towards a holy grail. She saw them tramping around in their dirty boots, knocking a few grocery-brand value packs to the ground, each one screeching ohhhh, you’re in trouble, pick it up before mom catches you! They looked like little monsters, frightening beasts that trampled and destroyed at will because they had no understanding that there existed no others more important in the world then themselves. It made her sick and the fact that they continued on, fighting and scratching at each other like untamed imps, almost made her freeze in place.
She didn’t want to claim them, either. The intercom buzzed, announced that there was a child missing its mother, which was never paid attention to as there seemed to lack a deficiency in caring of the child wasn’t yours, and she thought about it. She could leave them there. She could just leave them and they would continue until they wore themselves down, allowed themselves to erode throughout child-like romping, haunting between the shelves with no mother to reign them in. It was a crazy, one-second thought but it spread itself out across her head, grasping onto other thoughts that floated and burning them to ashes. Leave them, it said with a sharp toothed smile, let them be monsters.
She shook her head but her mind wouldn’t listen. I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, these are children. Children whose names and faces were blurs of soft lines when she tried to recall them to memory and she began the feeble convincing of You should be disgusted, you can’t leave them.
But, instead, she found herself clutching her purse to her chest and out the door, the wind pricking heavily at her cheeks and she crawled into the driver’s seat, keys already in the ignition before she recognized it. She was driving. She was driving, not watching the road, but watching the scene unfold of her cart abandoned, children bouncing around the aisle, almost seeming rowdier now that they were unclaimed and free. The sky was darkening a bit, her headlights went on, but she was still driving. The road splayed out in front of her, open and welcoming, swallowing her up further away from brightly colored cereal boxes and little monsters and wire carts with two cartons of eggs tucked away.
She had never wanted to be married. It wasn’t that she didn’t have a personal preference of matrimony or not, it was just in her blood. It dug deep underneath her veins, rooting up everything that huddled away in the cold confines of her heart, made her emotional about everything. She had just had a boyfriend, a nice one who did nice things in college and had a nice job, and how stupid would it seem to turn down the proposal? There was no other step in her life – it was get married or do nothing at all. She liked him and that was the next obvious step, obvious to everybody but her, so she swallowed whatever stubborn little past self that was still stuck in her throat and made plans. Bought the first wedding dress she tried on, slivered the garter off her leg, threw the bouquet. She didn’t recall the pregnancy, the baby showers in between; she could only recall her far past and she could see her far future mapped out, slow and dull and fading out to gray. She began to feel afterwards, feel deeply and feel painfully. She agitated at the smallest sounds and the tiniest annoyances. The water for dinner didn’t boil fast enough – she found herself rocking against her knees, trying to keep from crying too loudly because God forbid they hear and God forbid they come in. The babysitter canceled a few days before – she threw her water glass against that goddamn floral wallpaper, her knuckles white and her breath loud in her ears and she could hear herself yelling out no, I’m okay, I just dropped a plate. She deserved these little wonders of pain; she had enough regret for a whole family of sinners and it hurt deeply.
She was still driving, she realized, and that’s when it hit her, so she said it out loud for good measure. “I’ve left my kids at a grocery store and I’m driving towards the state line. I can keep going or I can turn around.”
The choices were cracked down the middle, between what was right and what would bring her to where life would continue on in its stark white simplicity. She would have much liked to continue on until the car ran out of gas and sit there until life untangled itself for her. She would have liked even more to have to no longer see the children and to let her husband find a woman who enjoyed skirting around hosting coffee meetings and creating a balancing act out of her appointment book. She had chained herself down and she was willing to pay the consequences -- the chances she lost so young and that now she was merely counting off years, one at a time. So she flicked the turn signal, headed towards where she started, and turned the radio to one of those in between stations where it just crackled with the haunting of the occasional song/radio show/political debate.
The grocery store parking lot looked especially darker, although it couldn’t be pushing six, but it was just the heavy cover of winter and she flicked up her coat’s hood. It was almost as if she waited for the police, for child service to call her a monster and ask her what kind of woman leaves her children at the grocery store. Would she just nod her head and smile, accept responsibility, snap up their grimy little hands and push them back into the car?
Instead, she tip-toed on glass to the cereal aisle and held her breathe to the point where she was sure her face was a pleasant oxygen-deprived shade of lavender. There they were, those little monsters, with cereal boxes scattered across the ground and their still-wet boots squeaking over the linoleum floors and their faces scrunched up into displeased creases. She took a deep breath, grabbed the cart that still sat there like an empty husk -- the only remnant of a personal apocalypse -- and started towards them.
“M-om-my, I thought you were going to get milk.” The oldest whined and she looked at them and smiled a cracked grin because they didn’t even know she was gone. She wanted to tear apart the cart, piece by piece, wanted to throw a fit like they could -- empty cereal boxes lying around like hollowed corpses -- but instead her hands tightened on the handle, feeling her palms sweat against it and the metallic scent rubbing against her skin.
“How about ice cream?” She faked a smile, tried not to flinch when they crowded around her in excitement, and pushed the cart towards the check-out. It was hard work to pretend to be a mother but she was, of course, a martyr above all.