The first time someone asks when your baby is due, during the middle of your second trimester, is the first time you truly feel motherhood begin. Not when your gums become so tender that a piece of floss can draw a river of blood. Not when your back burns from the burden of your newfound weight. Not even when you wake one night and catch your husband tracing your nascent network of varicose veins with his finger.
It isn’t until you’re waiting for your ultrasound in the Radiology department, distracting yourself with the Home and Garden network, and the pregnant woman next to you asks, “How far along are you?” that you finally feel a part of something bigger than yourself, a member of an elite section of society: a mother.
And later, when you and your husband stare at the sonogram screen—the black-and-white contour of your child, the grainy background like television static—and the technician congratulates you both on your baby girl, you feel this is only a formality, a confirmation of what the woman asked you, something you already knew. You are changing. You only hope it’s for the better.
She arrives exactly on her due date. When the doctor finishes the C-Section and hands her to you, umbilical cord and all, the first thing you think of is the scene in Alien when the monster bursts through the man’s chest. You can’t help but laugh and suspect it’s because of the anesthesia, though they only numbed you from the waist down for the procedure. Still, it makes you giggle, the fact that this little creature—this person—came from your belly and is alive in your arms, that you’re responsible for protecting her in an entirely new way now.
The laughter stops when the doctor finally brings the clamps down and severs the umbilical cord, because then you know, with more clarity than you’ve ever known anything, that this next part is going to last a lot longer than a simple nine months.
This is when she needs you most. You take pride in breastfeeding her, in being the one to check on her at night, in giving her life and sustaining it.
She rewards you with a quiet, reverent love: no crying at night, relatively simple diaper changes, gummy smiles. You wonder if those watery blue eyes see you, understand you, know who you are instinctively. You hope so.
Though she won’t remember it, you decide to throw her a birthday party anyway. You spend the morning impersonating a whirlwind: opening the oven door and hanging the streamers and tying together balloon garlands and filling bowls with edible glitter. No one can accuse you of being a bad mother and using non-edible glitter in your daughter’s presence.
You treat yourself to a glass of white wine, your first since the baby was born, and savor the fruity aftertaste. Then you treat yourself to another.
At the party your friends point to the highchair in the middle of the room where your daughter quietly sits and watches, regal and solemn as a queen. “What’s your secret?” your best friend Kelley asks, her voice somewhere between awed and desperate. Her son is almost five months old. “Matthew cries nonstop. Check my eyes if you don’t believe me. I’ve probably got enough bags to start my own line of Louis Vuitton knockoffs.”
The other mothers nod empathetically.
You wish you could commiserate, wish you could recount a story about your daughter biting too hard while nursing or crying so loud during the night that you pitched the baby monitor across the room, but the truth is this: there is no secret, no way of knowing what you did right or wrong to produce such a silent, independent child. A part of you wonders if you’re missing out on something.
Toward the end of the afternoon, after you’ve all sung Happy Birthday and your husband is coaxing your daughter into blowing out the candle and making a wish, she leans forward in her seat, reaches for a handful of chocolate cake, and says her first word: “Dada."
Her voice soars through the room, flutters around your ribcage like a lark. Your husband—your dear husband, who didn’t help bake or set the living room up or mail the RSVP letters— has already stolen her heart. He grins and helps her blow out the candle, then lifts her up and holds her close.
Later, when you’re collecting the discarded wrapping paper and vacuuming the stray flecks of glitter, you’ll wish that your daughter had never spoken at all, and you’ll hate yourself for that.
One day Kelley calls your name in the supermarket, and you don’t realize until the third shout that she’s speaking to you. It’s been so long since you’ve been called Tabitha, or Mrs. Wolff, or anything other than “Mom.” It’s a multipurpose word: a role, an occupation, a name. It’s even wormed its way into your husband’s vernacular, supplanting “sweetheart” and “dear” and “Tabby.”
“My, you’re getting big,” Kelley tells your daughter, who is sitting awkwardly in the grocery cart.
Your daughter, who has transformed into quite the chatterbox since your father won her love, shouts, “I’m three!”
Kelley smiles. “I see that, young lady. Soon you’re going to be just like your mom.”
You feel your heartbeat falter, feel yourself drop the loaf of bread in your hand. A chill creeps through the store. Someone tells Kelley that you two have to go now, though you don’t recognize the voice. Only when you return home do you realize you have no way of making sandwiches.
In the mornings now she pours her own Frosted Flakes, drenches the dining table with wayward low-fat milk, chews with her mouth open. You clean up after her, blotting soggy placemats and coasters with paper towels, dumping half-eaten cereal down the garbage disposal. You resolve never to teach her the word “maid.”
While she’s away at school, you try to regain who you were long ago, before you became a mother.
You try to bake chocolate chip cookies but the silence of the house, rare as gold, hypnotizes you like a siren song, and when you open your eyes again, the heat ripples and the smoke detector blares.
You peruse your shelf until Jane Austen’s name appears but find your attention span for reading doesn’t last longer than a picture book anymore.
One day you find your harp collecting dust in the garage. You tell yourself that you’re going to stick with this hobby. You wipe it off and try plucking a few notes, but the sound isn’t what it used to be, and your calluses have atrophied. Though it’s painful, you bumble your way through a few songs, just in time to pick up your daughter. In the car listening to your daughter screech about her day, you tell yourself that you’ll work your way back to where you were, that you’ll even teach her how to play the harp.
The next day, you decide to revisit gardening instead.
During a camping trip in California, she almost drowns when she swims out too far in the river and the current comes looking for her.
You see things unfold in slow-motion: the shine of her hair against the rolling water, the echo of her voice against the redwoods, her hand sinking below the water like quicksand, and then she’s gone for too long. You scream for your husband, shout over and over until your voice becomes scratchy and raw. You curse yourself for not learning how to swim, not being able to protect her.
Your husband dashes from the tent, sees you pointing frantically to the water, and dives in. You hold your breath, waiting for something, anything, a miracle.
Twenty seconds later, your husband resurfaces, gasping and gulping. In his fist is your daughter’s hand, and with a quick yank, she resurfaces too. And you don’t see them return to the shore. You don’t see anything that comes next through the wall of tears. But you hear.
“Daddy,” she croaks. Then a sound like she's vomiting water. “Daddy.”
“It’s okay now,” your husband says, and it sounds like he’s crying too. “Don’t worry, pumpkin. It’s okay now.”
“Daddy,” she says again. Like it’s the only name she knows.
Middle school is the Red Sea you just can’t part.
Something changes overnight.
Your stories and recollections of her, once shared between the two of you with the intimacy of inside jokes, turn vicious and sharp as barbed wire. The word “embarrassing” worms its way into her vernacular, becomes as commonplace as yes and no. Getting picked up from school is “embarrassing” because her other friends take the bus. Going trick-or-treating is “embarrassing” because it’s asking other people for handouts.
You have yet to find something that isn’t “embarrassing.”
Naively, you assume you can win back her love, so you decide to take a week-long vacation to Hawaii. On the plane ride over, you point at the window whenever you pass an ocean or a dune or a meadow, each one the size of a snow globe town. You beckon for her to lean over and see what you’re seeing, despite the turbulence rocking the plane and the sign urging passengers to keep their seatbelts fastened. You want nothing more than to share a moment with her, the way you used to.
But she’s got her earbuds in, and she shakes her head and pretends not to hear you, though you know her cellphone died an hour ago and her in-flight monitor is black.
On the second day in Maui, the day you spend all morning and afternoon whale-watching on a boat, she refuses to listen to your advice about wearing sunscreen. Later that night she returns to the hotel rosy and blistered. She cries when she sits on the bed, then spends the rest of the week sulking in the hotel room, feasting on room service and MTV reruns.
Her door stays locked, her heart stays broken, and the phone bill stays high.
See: Age Fifteen.
She’s in college in California, out of state. You still don’t understand why she chose California last year when plenty of schools in-state accepted her, especially considering her near-death experience there as a child, but you know better than to ask something “embarrassing” like that.
At any rate, she’s away from home now, and for the first time in almost two decades, ever since that day in the Radiology department, you truly feel the burden of motherhood ease its weight off your taut shoulders. It’s just you and your husband again, the way it used to be.
But you pass by her room sometimes and look inside, half-expecting to find her as she was: ten-years-old with pigtails and buck teeth and her teddy bear collection; thirteen with her braces and black nail polish and spiked jewelry; sixteen with the hooker heels and low-cut skirts you threatened to donate to the Goodwill down the street.
You and your husband occupy your nights playing Scrabble by the fireplace. He always wins. You can’t seem to come up with anything other than four-letter words: “Hurt” and “Duty” and "Maid" and “Love.”
You know something is wrong when she calls you one gloomy Sunday in March. You’ve fallen into the habit of seeing one another on special holidays only—Christmas, birthdays ending in fives or zeros—and speaking once a month over the phone, banal conversations with questions that are answered in as few words as possible.
She asks if you want the good news or the bad news first. It shocks you that at her age there is still a distinction between them, that one doesn’t eventually lead to the other. You look out the window at the snow suffocating the trees, thick as blankets, and tell her you want the bad news.
The bad news, she says, is that she’s decided to quit college.
The good news is that you’re going to be a grandmother.
The baby’s name is Natasha. This you learn from a five-minute phone conversation, a day after she’s given birth. You don’t deign to ask for a FaceTime chat to see the baby live, and she doesn’t offer, though you do ask to hold the phone up to the baby so you can speak to her.
“I can’t, Mom,” she says. “I’m nursing right now, and I’d rather you not hear that.”
You want to yell, want to tell her that you put her on the phone when she was just a baby, but of course, your own mother had passed by the time you had your daughter. She didn't get to experience any of it, and now it seems you won't either.
“Where is the father?” you ask instead.
There’s a quick, ugly sucking sound on the other end of the line, and you can’t tell if it’s her or if she actually put the baby on the phone. You know better than to ask this question.
“I’m gonna go now,” she mutters, but she doesn’t hang up, and you listen to the drone of the hospital room in the background, the muted sounds of a television host, her shallow breathing.
“You know,” she says, quietly, slowly, “sometimes I hope I don’t end up like you,” and hangs up before you can respond.
Once, a long time ago, you watched a doctor hand you your child as though he were transferring a plate of bone china, something precious and fragile. You watched as he took his clamps and cut the child loose, let it into the world. You were numb then, just as you are now, but for different reasons.
That night you and your husband play Scrabble by the firelight. Snow buffets the windows, piles against the sill. You twirl your glass of white wine, staring carefully at your shadowed letter tiles. Your head has never been so clear. Your first five-letter word comes to you: “Child.”
Then a sixer: “Freely.”
And the thing is, that night, you win that game of Scrabble. For the first time, you finally beat your husband at something, and it feels like the greatest gift in the world.
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The scope of your sensitivity never ceases to amaze me.
Hello! I love this. Such a heart wrenching but perfectly accurate description of motherhood. (36 hours of labor and the kid goes and says DADA first? Not to mention she looks exactly like him. 😩😂) Just as you’ve written, think it takes a lot more work to stay close to them after they get older, for sure. “but the truth is this: there is no secret, no way of knowing what you did right or wrong”—best line ever! Absolutely true about parenting. Most of us are just winging it. And the whole point, I guess, is to raise them to be responsible, in...
Hi Zack! I devoured this piece! Partially because your writing has always been brilliant and partially because this piece made my heart ache for my own mothers. I was considering how it took me a bit of time to come back into their orbit and I love how you captured this natural progression. My hope for your MC is that her own daughter decides to come closer to the nest. Although, I admit I cringed when she asked about the father. Nice job with this piece!
Thanks again, Amanda, for such a lovely comment. That's my hope for the MC too, but it's anyone's guess what happens next. That's the wonder of motherhood, I suppose - anything can happen.
Hey there pen pal~ Slowly working some of the TBR stories back into the queue. First, kudos to all the parents out there. It's a tough gig and I admire you all for it! This was an interesting story about family dynamics. Though not a parent myself, I can see how a mother/father combo can be competitive with one another, either in a productive or destructive way. Seems like, in Tabitha's case, it is the latter, even though she tried. But we will never truly know if she hurt Kelley somehow, will we? Parents sometimes have the best intenti...
You've done it again Zack! You always write such beautiful stories and this one, I would think, is well out of your comfort zone - am I right? Keep up the great work!
I really like that you start by taking an everyday event - woman gives birth and becomes a mother - and then zero in on it to show how the experience is unique to these people, until it takes a turn at the end you don't really see coming from the sweet and hopeful beginning. I enjoyed the method of showing snippets through out the years to give an idea of the characters and the relationship, though it did also put me in mind of that saying which goes something like - everyone is the hero of their own story. Its hard to say where/how the di...
Doh- this hit too close to home fav lines: You can’t seem to come up with anything other than four-letter words: “Hurt” and “Duty” and "Maid" and “Love.” oh this is so true 'She asks if you want the good news or the bad news first. It shocks you that at her age there is still a distinction between them, that one doesn’t eventually lead to the other.'
Sad, but I like it. :)
I loved the second person perspective of this story, and how it fitted in with the prompt. A simple storyline created effectively, which got me hooked. The final sentence - "For the first time, you finally beat your husband at something, and it feels like the greatest gift in the world" - really highlights how broken the narrator is after what their daughter had said by taking away the focus and having a tiny achievement seem amazing. I also like how you linked back to the "Birth" section when you wrote about the feeling ("You were numb th...
"'Soon you’re going to be just like your mom.' You feel your heartbeat falter, feel yourself drop the loaf of bread in your hand. A chill creeps through the store." .... “sometimes I hope I don’t end up like you," Seems like there might something unsavory about the mom lurking beneath the surface of the story...but it remains enough of a mystery that the reader is still able to connect with her and experience all the highs and devastating lows of motherhood, and the subtle jealousy of her husband, alongside her. So well written!
Fantastic. There's at least two stories here, in the complex relationship between mother and daughter. We see the mother's story, and the daughter's is given to us mostly indirectly, though it's clear she's not super thrilled about her upbringing so far. The most powerful line (I think) has to be "sometimes I hope I don’t end up like you,". We can read an incredible amount into that. Maybe she's dissatisfied with her mother, and vows to be a better one. Maybe she resents that her mother was "merely" a stay-at-home mom, with no dreams or amb...
Hey Zaddy! ❤️ Sad to not see that western (wanna co-write one? 👀), but this story is great. It gave me "Friendly Advice" vibes from the beginning, probably (partially?) because of the second person POV, but the voice felt really similar too - to me at least, but it was a while ago I read that other one! It was interesting to see what bits of motherhood and the child's growing you picked in each part of the story and how your character experienced those moments. I also felt like because - regardless of second person - it's the mother's POV,...
Ugh, I wanted sooo badly for the Western story to be a thing (it was tagged Western/Speculative/Funny for the anachronism prompt, about a group of cowboys in the 1800s who find a fully functional smartphone), but I couldn't get the jokes to land. Totally open to the idea of a co-write for one! I already KNOW I'd bungle the horse details. 😂 That's awesome that you got "Friendly Advice" vibes. While writing this, I didn't even consider it, but there are some overlaps between this one and that one, aren't there? Maybe this could be the "what i...
OMG I love your idea for that western. Cowboys' accidental selfie. Yes, please! I was actually thinking whether it was the same couple as in Friendly Advice! I definitely thought it could have been (I don't remember names well so I wasn't sure if names were mentioned in Friendly Advice that would've debunked the theory) Not sure if I will tackle the topic of pregnancy and giving birth or motherhood in my stories (I don't want to accidentally give my parents some false hope lol) but I have actually already done tons of research on it out o...
I accidentally hit send. Continue: I'm only going to post fortnightly so every other week I can focus on working on my novel - I simply wasn't able to make any progress whilst writing short stories every week... And as much as I adore the community here, I got to prioritize the bigger work. I'll still be around to read your stories every Saturday though - so best of luck with those prompts!! ❤️ And I'm gonna go ahead and email you when a prompt has some western potential! You can do the same - and we might actually create something good! T...
You've done it again! This was such a nice read, even if it wad a bit depressing. I really liked this part, "Age Sixteen See: Age Fifteen." I found the bit about the Louis Vuitton knockoff bags really funny too. Reading this was a nice way to start my day, thank you for sharing.
Thank you for such a lovely comment, Naomi! Definitely out of my comfort zone with this story, so I'm glad you got something out of this. The Age Sixteen entry was my favorite, so it's nice to see you highlight it. Thanks again!
Zack, this is your second story about pregnancy and motherhood if my memory serves me right. And I'm beyond impressed by how believable you make the MC's voice- almost as if you have lived it. Though the story takes a turn toward the sad ending for the mother, I'm sure it is only the case of the wheel turning. The daughter who feels her mother didn't measure up to her needs may realize one day how impossible it is to be a perfect mother. And grow to empathize with her. A few lines I really liked were "Her voice soars through the room, flutt...
Oh my goodness. I'm not sure what to say except that this story broke my heart. Your ability to empathize with a character whose story you haven't personally experienced is amazing. I can't forgive the daughter for saying "I hope I don't end up like you" right now, but I think she will anyway, and maybe she'll develop some more of that empathy. Thank you for sharing.
Love this one