I don’t feel love for my daughter Zoë right away. I feel a tightness in my stomach. She thrashes in the car seat, shrieks in the stroller, screams in the swing, and generally hates to sleep. I bounce her and pace for hours in a dark room. I leave her alone howling in her crib; in my own bedroom, I scream into a pillow so loudly that the back of my throat burns, and I pound on the wall so hard the paint cracks. Then I rush back and scoop her up, shattered with guilt at her terrified wails. I’m sure I am the worst mother, especially when it takes all of my remaining emotional strength to fight the urge to pin her against the mattress.
As she gets older, there are still days when parenting Zoë leaves me feeling beaten into a pulpy mess. She whines and rolls on the ground because she wants her hair clip which is already in her hair. She calls for “Mommy!! Moooooomy! MOOOOOOMMMYYYY!!!” from the other room, because she wants me to pick something up for her that is lying at her feet. My words are short, my voice thins and my patience disappears.
Other days, she’s happy and singing and making me laugh. The daycare staff is impressed because she knows all her body parts, including chin and eyebrows, and I’m unsure if it’s actually because of anything I’ve done.
Mom once told me that she and Dad waited eight years before having kids. “I was scared I wouldn’t be a good mother.”
I get this now, too late to sit and pull our fears and inadequacies apart with her. I hold onto it, something to anchor me to my mother during the challenging moments of early motherhood when I question myself.
I can’t remember when Mom stopped remembering. Since before Zoë was born, before my wedding, around the time of a family trip to Greece the summer of 2013. Since then, we’ve brought my mother to see as many doctors as we can think of: geriatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist, internal medicine specialist, osteopath. Everyone says the term Alzheimer’s but no one officially diagnoses it. True to the disease, mom forgets what she did during the day, and can’t remember past events like the blazing lights of a trip to Las Vegas, her wedding, or the birth of her daughters. She can’t follow conversations or sitcoms like Two and a Half Men. But right now Mom isn’t following the typical Alzheimer’s path; she is still fairly independent with daily tasks, which seems important given how often the doctors ask this question. Mom can still do the laundry, when reminded. She cooks simple dishes she’s made for 40 years, as long as she consults the recipe. She doesn’t leave the stove on. She can bathe herself and she hasn’t gotten lost yet.
But she also rarely leaves Dad’s side. I make sure to tell this to the doctors. They ask Mom how she’s feeling or if there have been any changes since they saw her last. Her jaw drops and her shoulders shrug and she looks to Dad, just as he starts to answer for her. He pulls out copies of blood lab results or MRI results to share with each doctor. I take notes. Mom looks around the room, or has her eyes half closed, or sometimes when we glance at each other, she pushes her lips into an exaggerated frown and raises her eyebrows, indicating she is lost in the conversation.
Instead of Alzheimer’s, they call it ‘mild cognitive impairment,’ ‘type 3 diabetes,’ and ‘frontal lobal degeneration,’ terms that carry much loss. They stick sharply in my brain, and twist.
I used to think Mom was magic. She knew everything, and made everything better. When I was six, I jumped off a swing barefoot and landed on a twig, piercing my sole. Mom soaked my foot in a bowl of warm water in the light blue Pyrex bowl with a folksy pattern of a farmer and his wife and sheaves of corn. The one that she made salads in. The homemade grape juice popsicle she gave me to slurp on took the pain away perfectly. This was the 80s, before the internet and Pinterest, and yet she still created the most marvelous birthday parties in our basement: Pin the Tail On the Donkey, balloons stuck to the wall from the static of rubbing them in our hair, a bed sheet thrown on the carpet and a KFC picnic, everyone sitting cross-legged with French fries and ketchup and fried chicken on paper plates. Mom could remove any stain. She could find any lost thing. I wanted to be a mom like her when I grew up.
Now, how would I learn the magic?
I watched Mom peel a pomegranate for the first time when I was 10. I had never seen anything so blood red before. She painstakingly tore back the rind, chunk by chunk, revealing the plump ruby gems inside. With stained fingers, she one-by-one extracted the seeds from the pith and collected them in a bowl. She pushed the bowl towards me with a spoon and a smile.
“Why are you giving me the pits?” I asked.
When I was older and on my own I realized how time-consuming and messy pomegranates were to peel. The crimson juice stuck on my hands, sprayed the counter tops, and splattered my shirt with stains. Seeds escaped to the floor, left to be stepped on and crushed. Even though I loved the crunchy sweetness, I stopped eating the fruit. I only enjoyed it when I visited my parents and Mom had a bowl waiting for me. She refused when I offered her some. I always wondered how she could spend all that time and energy with no reward.
“Don’t you like it?” I would ask her.
“Yes,” she’d smile widely.
When Zoë is two-months old, my husband is away for a few weeks for work. I lug all of the baby gear to stay with my parents. At night Zoë cries for hours as I pace with her, bounce her, and sway in front of the stove fan because a friend told me that’s what worked with his crying daughter. I cry myself. Mom plods downstairs rubbing sleep from her eyes and sits with me. During the day, she soaks steel cut oats in a litre of water every morning for me to drink, something my midwife says will help with lactation. She hand-washes stains when Zoë’s poop seeps onto her clothes, holds out the towel when I give Zoë a bath and brings me diaper cream. She never actually gives the bath, or changes the diapers. She never offers, and I never ask. There is no guidance, no passing down of any knowledge.
Mom helps the most by holding Zoë. I use the time to eat, shower, or sit in a warm bath and soak my hemorrhoids. I nap, tired from the wakeful nights with a newborn. When Zoë cries, Mom calls for me, saying, She needs her mommy! It’s easiest for Mom to hold a sleeping Zoë. She likes to sit in the red velour armchair in the living room, looking out the window. She denies my attempts to keep her entertained with the radio, or the iPad. She’s happy to stare outside, she says. When I ask her what she is thinking about, she kisses the top of Zoë’s head.
“Nothing” she says. “My mind is blank.”
As Zoë gets older, we see my parents often. Dad asks me to bring the baby for visits so that I can stay with Mom while he runs errands. He worries about leaving her alone. I play music for Mom, or sit with her in the family room doing puzzles. I’m constantly buying her puzzles, colourful ones of fish or balls of yarn so that she can group the pieces easily. She only ever sits down if I ask her to.
One afternoon in their dining room, as Zoë practices crawling under the table, I watch Mom turn a corner piece around and around in the middle of the puzzle. She sighs and tosses it into a pile. She stares down at the pieces and I stare at the top of her head. We used to have the same dark, almost-black hair, where hers is now grey and thinning. Dad needs to remind her to wash it, and helps her comb it to cover a growing bald spot.
Mom takes a deep breath and looks around the room. “You know, we used to have a rocking chair….” Her voice trails off and it’s unclear if she’s finished her sentence.
“I know. You used to. You guys gave it to me for Zoë’s room.”
“We did?” Mom’s eyes widened and her face looks more alive than I have seen in a long time. “I hated that chair,” she whispers. She leans closer. “It wasn’t right. You girls never fit.”
When Zoë’s a bit bigger, I realize Mom is right. The arms of the chair are at an awkward height, and I can’t comfortably rest my elbows while nursing Zoë. She pushes her feet against one armrest and re-orients herself and the chair.
The random things that Mom does remember seem so fragmented and out of place.
By 18 months, Zoë still wakes in the middle of the night. I lie on the floor beside her crib and stare at the shadows on the ceiling and listen to her flip flop like a fish, trying to get comfortable. When she peers through the slats at me and whispers “Mommy,” I say “Shhhhh, it’s time to sleep.” Sometimes she’ll say “song,” and I hum quietly tapping my toes against the crib. Sometimes she starts to fuss and cry and I say, “Hold mommy’s hand.” She scoots closer, her face beside mine and she sticks her little hand out and grabs my finger. I stop humming when her breaths even out and lengthen.
Did Mom ever lie on my floor, or help me fall asleep? I want to reach out to her and ask. Instead, I read books and websites and blogs and hire sleep consultants. I try to figure out on my own how to be a mother. I want to know if I was similar to Zoë as a baby. If she is similar to me. But Mom remembers nothing.
As Zoë learns to talk, our conversations become repetitive.
“Daddy go to work?”
“Yes, Zoë, Daddy has gone to work.”
“Daddy no home?”
“No, Zoë. Daddy isn’t home. He’ll be home later.”
Zoë sits on the kitchen floor flipping through a board book about zoo animals. “Zebra!” she points and yells out. “Next page!” She sticks her feet in the book and tries to close it and looks up at me and laughs. “Daddy go to work?”
She asks this six more times. It’s like she’s trying to fit the pieces together of how her world works. As though asking the same questions and getting the same answers gives her confidence in things around her.
Mom often does the same thing. “Where’s little sweetie pie?” she asks, looking around quickly, almost panicked.
“Mom, she’s at daycare.”
“Daycare?” Her face falls. “What day is it today? Sunday—no, Monday?”
“Yes, mom. It’s Monday. I took her to daycare this morning.”
Mom lowers her voice and wrings her fingers. “I thought I would see her… it’s Monday? She’s at daycare?”
I try not to get frustrated with her forgetfulness or consumed with anger that she’s just not trying hard enough to remember. I remind myself to tell her she is a good mom.
At Christmas time, just after Zoë turns two, Mom and I sit on the leather sofa in my parents’ living room looking through old albums. In the photos, my sister and I are kids; I’m almost one and my sister has just turned three. Mom can’t tell the difference. She asks me who is who, every time we turn the page. I remind her every time, trying to calmly come up with different ways of saying the same thing.
“There’s something wrong with me.” Mom looks down and picks a piece of lint off her red t-shirt. I notice that her shirts droop where they used to hug her round tummy.
“Wrong with you? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” she says quickly. “My head just feels…cloudy.”
She can never articulate it more than this, these rare times of quiet confession. Dad tells me that the odd time she admits this to him, she cries. With me, she says, “I don’t know, I don’t know” and waves her hand in the air and turns the page. She hunches over the album, peering through her glasses at the end of her nose, fiddling with the eyeglass chain around her neck.
I want to put my arm around her. It’s easier comforting Zoë, who I can scoop up and put in my lap and wrap my arms around, offering full protection. I wonder if Mom is scared, or sad, or lonely. In the silence, I just place my hand on hers. I don’t know what to say.
Zoë calls mom Yiayia, Greek for grandmother. Zoë is Yiayia’s joy. Mom reminds me of this every phone conversation; she’ll ask “How’s little sweetie pie?” and then before I can answer, she says “I don’t care about you, you know! Just little sweetie pie! She’s so cute!!!!” Her voice squeals.
I know Mom doesn’t realize that after hearing this so many times, all of the time, it’s hurtful, and so I try not to make a big deal.
I hope Zoë will carry memories of her grandmother when she’s older. I always intend on taking more pictures of their smiling interactions, capturing the joy on Yiayia’s face. Zoë will eventually grow out of their games. But right now, Mom plays well with her granddaughter; she makes faces with her or tickles her with a feather duster or plays peekaboo. Zoë screeches and laughs. I love watching them. But if Zoë fusses or cries, Mom’s at a loss. She looks over at me with an open mouth and her hands in the air. And if Zoë wanders too close to the stairs, or too close to the stove, Mom doesn’t think about safety. I ignore Mom’s obliviousness and jump up and rush to my daughter. Mom just calls her name, waving frantically, saying “Hi little sweetie pie!! Hi! Hi!,” demanding her attention. That’s the best either of us can do.
I used to play in Mom’s closet, dressing up and parading around in her clothes. My favourite was a satiny nightgown she sewed herself, with purple grapes and green leaves. I caressed the material against my cheek. I don’t sleep in a nightgown. I sleep in a t-shirt and pair of blue and pink plaid cotton shorts that I wore in grade seven. My own jewelry box is stuffed with silver skull pendants on black leather necklaces from high school and cheap silver jewelry collected over the years, but rarely worn. None of my things are satiny or shiny and special, and I wonder how anything I own could ever become treasures to Zoë. Until I see her parading around in my blue wool scarf, refusing to take it off and insisting her bib fit over it during dinner. I watch her building her own memories of me and my things, special because they are mine.
Zoë can eat an entire pomegranate in one sitting. She first tries one with Yiayia, at my parents’ house. Zoë stands on a stool beside her at the kitchen counter. Mom prepares it for her the same way she always has for me: slow, methodically, messy. Zoë grabs chunks and shoves her face into them, not caring about the sticky juice running down her chin.
“Pomaganit!” she squeals.
I’ve since discovered easier ways to peel them, faster and cleaner. Videos online show me how to do it in ten seconds, cutting the fruit in half and smacking each part with a wooden spoon.
But my hands automatically, habitually, turn to the same way I’ve observed Mom do it my whole life: slicing the skin, prying apart the sections with my fingers, and collecting the seeds one at a time. I cling to what Mom taught me. I peel it for Zoë, and she watches.
Afterword on empathy from the author:
My three-year-old daughter lies splayed on the couch, belting out “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen. My thirteen-month-old daughter pushes a green block and one purple Velcro running shoe in a doll stroller, doing laps through the kitchen, front hall, living room, dining room, and back to the kitchen. She grins at me, lopsided and toothy, then disappears around the corner. I hear screeches. A thud. Crying. My three-year-old emerges from the living room pushing a stuffed lion in the stroller, and the baby shuffles into view, face shiny with tears and snot.
“Why did you take that from your sister? Do you not hear her crying?” I ask, exasperated. As with every aspect of parenting, I have no idea how to best handle this.
In writing this essay, I became curious about what gets passed down to us from our mothers. Not just in the process of becoming a mother, but in general. What do we learn? How do we learn to be kind, thoughtful, compassionate? Who teaches us understanding beyond our own thoughts and feelings, being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and take on their perspective? Empathy fosters connection. It allows us knowledge and understanding of another person. It helps us feel understood, heard. Validated. I want to teach my daughters to respond to others with love and kindness. Relationships with each other make us human.
So I talk about feelings often with my eldest. I talk about how I’m feeling, I label emotions, ask her what makes her happy, sad or angry. I point out when her sister is feeling those things. I try to model acknowledgement and reflection without judgment—“Oh honey, you really want that stroller. I know it’s hard to wait for your turn until your sister is done using it.” In the end, I hope to raise my kids to be attentive in their interactions with others, to celebrate with friends in times of excitement, to reach out when someone is in need. Even just to sit with them, or hold their hand. Being empathetic and understanding is the best any of us can do with one another to stay connected.