“Mamas always come back,” my daughter’s new preschool teacher whispered to a sobbing little girl on their first day.
Inside the classroom, my daughter stared at her sobbing classmate and squeezed my hand tight. My daughter was anxious, too. As I’d sat with her at bedtime the night before, she’d asked dozens of questions about pre-K, teachers, and what she’d do at school.
“Who will be there? Where will my old friends be? What’s the teacher’s name? Is she a mom? What will we do? What will you pack in my lunch?…”
We’d repeated the same conversation verbatim over breakfast and on the drive to school. We hadn’t talked about kids crying.
I tugged my daughter away from the sobbing classmate, over to the cubby where she was supposed to hang her backpack. We hung up her things and then walked together around the room until we found her name printed perfectly and taped to a table, marking her seat.
“You’re going to have so much fun today,” I said. “I can’t wait to hear all about it when I pick you up.” I squeezed her hand to remind her that we’d just re-enacted the story of The Kissing Hand in the parking lot—me kissing her hand, then folding her fingers over the palm exactly as Mrs. Raccoon does to Chester—hoping that she’d remember to squeeze her hand or press it to her cheek to feel close to me again, just as Chester had. Then I gently pried my hand away from hers and exited the room without making eye contact with her.
In the hallway, I heard another mom talking to her son. “Mamas always come back,” she said. The same line I’d heard in the classroom, as if everyone else had a script I’d missed.
I bit my bottom lip and silently recited the things on my to-do list for the day. Coordination meeting, grocery store, pay mortgage. Coordination meeting, grocery store, pay mortgage. When I got to my car, I traded the noise of my to-do list for the radio, trying to relish the fact that I could turn off the Disney soundtrack and tune in to National Public Radio. Me time, at last. I lasted a quarter mile before the tears came.
Mamas do not, in fact, always come back.
Three years earlier, I got the phone call on a Sunday morning. Mom had been in the hospital for a few days with difficulty breathing. She had tested negative for pneumonia and a host of other possible explanations. But that morning, as soon as possible, they wanted to put her on a ventilator and transfer her to another facility. “We do it all the time,” the doctors said. “Her body just needs to rest while her lungs clear.” It was temporary. No big deal. But hurry up and get there so they can do it.
I was the last one to the hospital. My sister Teresa was waiting, as well as a few aunts and uncles. But even that was normal for my family. Still no big deal.
We talked to Mom before they put her to sleep. She was frightened. “Will I wake up?” she asked. She looked right at me. I didn’t think about it at the time, but, in hindsight, it now strikes me as important. She’d once considered making me her medical Power of Attorney—instead of naming my older, more responsible sister— because she thought I’d be more likely to say, “Pull the plug” if and when it was time to pull the plug. She thought I’d have an easier time with the decision than Teresa would.
“Oh yes,” I said to her. “It’s just to give your lungs and heart a rest while you get over this. It might take a few days, but we’ll be here when you wake up.” I was repeating exactly what I’d been told. I believed every word of it without question.
I had not intended to lie to my mother. Not on her deathbed.
My daughter struggles with anxiety. It never occurred to me that children could have anxiety. Or at least it never occurred to me that my child could have anxiety. That’s for kids who have reason to worry, right?
I’ve spent a lot of time reading books, talking to experts, and talking to other parents, and even though I am now cognitively aware that children with perfectly safe and predictable lives can and do suffer from anxiety, I still find myself searching for explanations. What did we do to make our daughter anxious?
There’s one plausible explanation that resurfaces every time I ponder it, a doubt that echoes in my head when everything else is quiet. Is it because my emotions and behavior were unpredictable after Mom died? Did my instability make my daughter anxious?
In that first year after Mom’s death, I struggled with everyday tasks like shopping for my daughter’s clothes, a frequent necessity with a growing toddler. More times than not, I thumbed through store racks trying to read sizes on clothing labels, but got distracted by thoughts of which outfits Mom would have chosen, how she’d have wanted to dress my daughter in the new outfit immediately upon arriving at our house on Wednesday, the day she regularly babysat.
Or I’d see a “Nana loves me” t-shirt in my daughter’s size and exhale deeply to hold back tears. I’d stare at length and consider buying it, because my daughter’s Nana did love her. She just wasn’t there to buy the t-shirt.
In these moments my daughter would ask, “Are you sad, Mommy?”
And I’d answer honestly, “Yes, Mommy’s sad. I’m thinking about my mommy. She would have liked this shirt.”
I had hoped my candor would teach her something about grief, normalize it more than it is in our society. Maybe my daughter would learn empathy if I shared my grief with her.
It worked. In short time my daughter began to voice her own variations. “You know who’d like this dress, Mom?”
Parroted back at me, the thoughts fell heavier on my heart, especially when my daughter was right. And especially when I hadn’t thought of it first.
I cried a lot during my daughter’s most formidable years, sometimes flipping the switch from joy to sadness on the instant. Surely I made her cautious. Uncertain. Anxious.
This logic—the undeniable thread of cause and consequence—appeals to me, even as the facts themselves do not. But if it’s true, what about my son?
I had only recently learned I was pregnant again when Mom was admitted to the hospital. The day prior to her being placed on the ventilator, I almost told her the news. I was six weeks pregnant. Had I suspected that I might not see her again, it would’ve been a priority. But it wasn’t that simple at the time, especially with my history of miscarriages. Telling her seemed like giving her more things to worry about. Besides, I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled in the coming week: we’d hear a heartbeat, and then I’d tell her. That’s how I’d planned it. She’d be better by then. Probably back home. I’d think of some fun and creative way to tell her.
By the time I knew I had a viable pregnancy, Mom was on a ventilator and in a different hospital. That day they also began treating her with a chemotherapy drug, not exactly its intended application but reportedly beneficial in similar cases. I listened as the second-shift nurse assigned to Mom was reassigned, because she was pregnant and couldn’t administer the drug or handle the IV. I sat with my hand on my stomach, in Mom’s room, as the staff hung precaution signs on the walls, an unspecified warning for pregnant women and immune-compromised persons. I looked at Mom and thought, Will they make me leave if they find out I’m pregnant?
My sister was still there. It was our shift change at Mom’s side. “Teresa, I’m pregnant. I don’t have to leave, do I?”
In typical Teresa fashion, she didn’t miss a beat, seemingly able to congratulate me, reassure me, and confirm with hospital staff that it was safe for me to be there. I could hold Mom’s hand and provide the nominal care family administers in such situations—applying approved lip balm or skin lotion.
From that moment a whole new string of worries sprang forth: were they sure? Even at my advanced maternal age? If my child was born with a significant abnormality, would I always question that moment in the pulmonary intensive care unit? Would science be able to pinpoint the chemo drug as a cause, if it were indeed the cause? Would my husband be resentful of me, my mom, my family, this hospital, if something went wrong? How bad would it have to be to dramatically alter our lives or our feelings for one another?
But then I’d look over at Mom and think, It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t not be here. Even if she’d been conscious and told me to go home, I wouldn’t have. Because she wouldn’t have.
It took me a few more days to work up to telling Mom that I was pregnant. Not because I wanted to wait till she came off the vent—as I was already coming to the realization that wasn’t going to happen—but because by then I’d felt bad for waiting. I’d always kept too much to myself. I did, at last, hold her hand and tell her. I watched her face, waited for the pressure of her fingers against mine, checked all the monitors for some sign of recognition, and held space for the possibility that she might miraculously recover upon hearing the news and spring back to life with the understanding that I needed her.
But she didn’t.
The vast majority of my pregnancy, then, was marked not only by the typical worries of a pregnancy like mine, but also the added stress of grief, and anxiety that my grief and anxiety would cause complications that would threaten my baby’s life. I enjoyed almost nothing of that pregnancy, barely noticing moments like the first flutters of movement, the feeling of in utero hiccups.
When I return to pick up my daughter from preschool that first day, my son is with me. I take his hand in mine, aware that he’s now nearly a year older than my daughter was when Mom died. “Let’s get sissy,” I say, giving his hand a squeeze.
If everything I believe about my daughter’s anxiety is true, if her anxiety is indeed my fault, or my grief’s fault, my son should be doomed. Imagine my surprise, then, to have found instead a calm and easy baby who has grown into a toddler with the sunniest of personalities.
Maybe that’s because grief has been consistently part of his life. He has never witnessed abrupt change in his mother’s mental state like my daughter did. I’ve always been a mess to him.
I see my daughter on the playground, alone beneath a tree, watching the mulch beneath her feet scatter when she kicks it. She looks up, towards the traffic approaching the school. She’s searching for me. The teacher calls my daughter’s name, and she turns, slowly. When she spots us, her brother and me, she comes running.
I squat to greet her at eye level. “Did you have fun today?” I ask.
“I guess,” she offers. “I missed you.”
“I know sweetheart. But mamas always come back.”
Julie Patterson is an adjunct professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and a teaching artist in grades preK-12 at schools throughout Indiana. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Lesley University. Her work has appeared in The Juggler and on the National Public Radio affiliate in Indianapolis. When not writing or teaching, Julie is typically doing laundry, reading nonfiction submissions for Mud Season Review, or helping tend to the 150,000 honeybees in her backyard. Visit her at www.juliepatterson-writer.com or on Twitter at @julie_patter.