Great Britain

The mother load: Lisa Taddeo on parenting in a pandemic

Never in my life had I been so high.

I’d just given a reading in Amsterdam after which the gracious hosts of the evening took me out for drinks. Three young women asked me questions about sex and love and desire as though I were an expert and it was nice but I was tired and unused to being considered an expert in anything but panic.

I thanked the hosts and slipped out. I’d always wanted to visit Amsterdam and I had only two nights. I wanted to walk the streets alone. I wanted to walk across the bridges and look at the waving water and look inside the windows of the closed shops. I wanted to find the loveliest cafe and mark it for the morning. I wanted to eat bitterballen and wash them down with stroopwaffel. And I wanted to get high.

The streets were dark with rain. I found a deli. It wasn’t one of the coffeeshops with the meticulously bagged furry sativa. This was just a deli, cartons of milk, packs of gum. Before leaving I bought one large plastic tub of marijuana brownies. It seemed wasteful not to, and the man assured me I absolutely could take the cookies on my flight to Romania early the next morning. OK yes why not yes yes is OK yes. He was equal parts aloof and confident and not understanding what I was saying. So it felt right.

In the hour that followed I held the joint with one hand and a broken umbrella with the other. I walked and smoked and the cherry kept going out on the joint and I didn’t have a lighter and so twice I stopped to ask strangers for a light and tried to balance the umbrella and the joint and the unwieldy weight of my embarrassment. I got so high that I didn’t feel panic about my imminent flight. I got so high that I didn’t get lost. I found my pretty hotel but had gotten so high that I forgot my four-year-old daughter was sleeping in a room upstairs.

Hang on now. Her father was in the room with her. But I almost forgot I was a mother. But that’s not it. I forgot enough about my panic that I wasn’t acting like the neurotic mother that I am. I rarely drink and when I do, I don’t drink much. So that getting high (so high) felt like a real breach. I got so high that I didn’t care that I got so high.

•••

To some (or many!) I’m sure I would be considered in that moment (or many!) a bad mother. I know it for a fact because I spoke to hundreds of women for my book – many of them mothers – and they all had at some point been called “bad”. Many of them believed it to the extent that they felt they weren’t good enough for their children.

One of the women I spoke to was a talented musician. She told me that the only one of her singles that underperformed told the story of a bad mother. It was one of her favourite songs, but she had to stop singing it at concerts because she would receive death threats on Twitter. One listener threatened to kidnap her child, because she was too bad a mother to keep her.

Asked by an avid reader to recommend a book by Elena Ferrante, I told her to check out The Lost Daughter. She called me a week later to tell me the book was despicable, how could I have suggested it? I asked her what it was about the novel that she found so odious. “What do you mean?!”, she asked. “The mother abandons her children for several years!” I said, “OK, but it’s not your mother. And also, it’s a novel.”

Last year I took my then four-year-old on my book tour, and was often asked why I didn’t leave her at home. I gave a number of valid reasons, and was perplexed by how incredulous people were at my choices, at others’ choices. I was surprised by how very many of us – both men and women – can simply not help commenting on someone else’s motherhood. Calling women bad mothers is an international pastime.

Mothers who leave their children for months at a time for a job are called bad mothers. The child will forget your face. Mothers who never leave their children are called bad mothers. How will the child be able to separate from you if you never leave her side. There must be an acceptable middle ground – a mother who leaves her child the perfect amount of times and tucks her in the perfect amount of times. It would be an intriguing experiment to explore what that number might be.

In the middle of this pandemic being a good mother has more definitions than ever. I hear from women daily about the way their partners and colleagues and friends make them feel like bad mothers if they can’t roast something the size of a football, or sous vide something the shape of a salmon, and work full time and be the primary caretaker of the child. We have regressed to a 1950s interpretation of motherhood.

Review cover illustration of a mother with her child wearing a mask by mick brownfield
Illustration: Mick Brownfield/The Guardian

One of my friends, a single mother, recently confessed that when her daughter was an infant – who cried through the night and slept only one or two hours at a time – she had recurring thoughts about abandoning her on the steps of a church. She was shocked that the thought had even come into her brain. The retro cliche of it, the snow falling over the wicker baby basket as the church door opens to the cry of a forsaken child. She would never do it, she said, but she was afraid to say it out loud, to admit that she had the thought at all. When I told her I’d heard similar things from a number of mothers, she began to cry, grateful to know she wasn’t alone.

She went on to say that she didn’t know what she would have done if her daughter had been an infant during this pandemic. How exponentially harder it would have been for her – I shudder to think if she would still be mine, or if she would be with another family, one with a good mother.

I’ve heard so many mothers say how much more they panic now. The pandemic is a good excuse to let that panic roam free, to let it ride bareback into Boots, galloping the gauntlet of the unmasked in the “Cold & flu” aisle.

But anxiety, I have been told so many times, makes for a bad mother. I’ve been told that I need to get my panic under control or my child will suffer the consequences. This started during pregnancy. My (unmeasured) cortisol levels were too high, my child would be born panicky, colicky, requiring of infant therapy. Being nervous is not good for the baby. That neonatal judgment did not, as you might imagine, alleviate my anxiety.

The mothers I know who are more anxious than ever, or those who are now experiencing anxiety for the first time, are afraid to tell their friends for fear they will be seen as lesser, weaker mothers. In addition to roasting and sous viding and baby-wearing and account-managing and storyboarding, mothers are also supposed to maintain morale. Talking to some people about freaking out is infinitely worse than freaking out.

I used to suffer daily panic attacks. I wouldn’t leave my home because I didn’t know when one might hit me. I didn’t go out with friends because I didn’t want to pass out over overpriced Negronis. I cancelled a trip to South America with my best friend because I was sure I had a brain tumour. One night I became violently sick from a bad oyster, but I was sure it was something more dire; I left the door to my apartment cracked so that my body would be found before it began to stink. I was a considerate hypochondriac. I am not entirely better. My panic is a wetsuit that fits snugly. I would be naked and cold if I took it off.

After my parents had died I sold my childhood home and moved into an apartment. I became close friends with an older woman who lived next door. She was the perfect age to be my new mother. One day I had a shark bite of a panic attack while I was sipping motherly chamomile in her motherishly decorated apartment. She didn’t know how to handle it. She’d never had a panic attack in her life. I felt alone. She asked me if she should call an ambulance. I said I had an ambulance in my apartment, by which I meant a Xanax.

I dragged myself, shaking, back to my place. Being lonely is better than being with someone who doesn’t understand your brand of pain. My own mother, who was many things both good and bad, was at the very least an expert in panic. And now the baton has been passed to me and I like to think of it as a superpower, because I am able to fathom the panic and dread of other mothers, and I am able to see how our judgment of one another makes the panic worse, and thus, the pandemic even more unlivable.


•••

One of the three women in my book, Lina, is a housewife in rural Indiana whose husband had recently told her he no longer wanted to kiss her on the mouth. She had gone numb, walking through life like a zombie. Then she reconnected with Aidan, a former high school lover. Reconnected is the wrong word. The right word could be found in the back of her Suburban, between her panties and his crushed pack of cigarettes.

Lisa Taddeo.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women followed the lives of three real American women: Maggie, Lina and Sloane. Photograph: Christopher Beauchamp/The Observer

But that relationship was fraught, too. He was married and unavailable in every other sense as well. He exclusively saw her when it was convenient for him. She would sometimes drive four hours to see him for 30 minutes. In the early stages of researching Lina’s story, I described to several people the way she moved mountains to meet Aidan and the way that, sometimes he would just not show up. While they don’t surprise me any longer, back then the reactions shocked me. People said she was an idiot. That she should have known better, and done better, because she was a mother. A bad mother. I learned which parts of a story would help people understand, and which parts would incite disgust.

There was a time when Lina hadn’t heard from Aidan for two weeks. Her older son was at the table doing homework. Her younger son was tugging at her shirt. The house was swallowing her. She was frying an egg in a pan and the butter bubbled and spat in her face. Her child continued pulling, craving the attention of his mother. She felt that her children didn’t have the mother they deserved. Specifically her younger son, who had never seen his mother happy. She considered how killing herself might be an act of mercy. Her voice grew quiet and I worried so much that she might actually do it that I drove to her house and sat with her.

I left this part out of the book because I knew it was too dark for some people. That certain people would find her story distasteful, her actions reprehensible. I knew other women would condemn Lina for not being strong for her children. For choosing her desire. But it wasn’t her desire she was choosing. She just wanted to stop suffering the kind of pain that made her breathing feel like drowning.

As the pandemic has persisted, however, many women now know someone who’s said they don’t know how to go on. The same mothers who called Lina a bad mother are now telling me that they understand why she considered killing herself. It makes it easier to survive if you know other people have hit rock bottom and have gotten better. The pandemic has been quite the equaliser.

A few months after I left that apartment building to panic elsewhere, the would-be mother of mine called to tell me she’d had her first panic attack. She was on antidepressants. She realised, now, what it had been like for me all those years ago. She felt sorry she wasn’t there for me in the way that I needed. She apologised even though she didn’t need to because, bad or good, she wasn’t, in the end, my mother.

•••

That night in Amsterdam I got so high that I came down with a violent case of the munchies. It was too late for room service. I nearly cried. But then I remembered. The deli bag! The brownies!

I fumbled with the plastic tub and it made one of those terrible, shameful eating-in-the-night noises. The two un-high individuals in the room stirred. My daughter’s stuffed narwhal glared at me soberly. Get lost, Narwhal, I may have said out loud.

Then I cracked the lid. The smell wafted – gorgeous, chocolatey and herbaceous. I didn’t consider the consequences. I ate the brownies because they were all I had. I ate them all. Then I brushed my teeth for over an hour. I remember thinking, I have finally unlocked the key to brushing my teeth. I remember also thinking how freeing it felt to be less worried than usual. To see my daughter in her bed with her little animals, and be able to think just about how much I loved her without the attendant worries of something terrible happening.

In the morning my husband had a hard time waking me. I was dismayed to find that I was still high. I was still hungry. I felt like a bad mother. But my teeth were very, very clean.

I dragged myself to the airport. I told my daughter I could not hold Narwhal, that judgmental bastard. I could not sing “Baby Shark”. I could not be fun or kind or silly or Mommy. I bought her something expensive and disposable instead. I texted a friend as we were about to board the plane. I told her all the high things I’d done and how shitty I felt, how I didn’t want to play or sing with my kid. “Am I a bad mother?” I asked?

“For getting high?” she wrote. “No, not for that. But this is why you shouldn’t take her on work trips with you. I know you’re anxious. But being nervous is not good for the baby.”

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is out in paperback (Bloomsbury).

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