“Claire’s here!” My husband is holding a plate of appetizers in one hand and accepting Claire’s bottle of wine in the other, and I admire him from the top of the stairs, where I am clutching my phone in sweaty palms.
“One minute,” I call down, marveling at the way Claire laughs a little too hard at my husband’s joke. Her separation has done her good, I think, looking at her freshly colored hair. A chirp redirects my attention to my phone, but it’s just an email from the bank. My six missed calls under my mother’s contact remain stubbornly silent. I try once more, letting it ring out, but when she doesn’t pick up, I just text her. I can’t keep the party waiting much longer.
mom, it would really mean a lot to me if you came to my baby shower. i KNOW you dont have anything going on today. just drop by.
Heading downstairs, I notice Claire reorganizing the way the dishes are arranged on the table. Even in college, she was a control freak, but you can’t have a baby shower and not invite your ex roommate. Other friends mingle in the backyard. Colorful balloons adorn the tables - pink. We know it’s going to be a girl. My mom has ensured that I think surprises are thoroughly overrated.
I put my phone down and engage in the activities. My husband gamely plays along, but I notice how uncomfortable he is, surrounded by a sea of hormonal women. Some of them have dragged along their partners - they stand, adrift, a paragon of the typical American male in their basketball shorts and awkward smiles. A few toddlers stumble around on the grass; I am not the first in the friend group to have a child. Aaliyah confidently predicts that we will all have children in the next five years. The childless women giggle nervously, uncomfortable in the sudden pressure. My cousins gather me for a selfie.
I am elbow deep in nachos and diaper boxes when the doorbell rings. Aaliyah passes me the next box and Claire goes to open the door. For a moment, I think - worst case scenario, someone ordered a stripper - but then Claire bounds back in.
“Your mom’s here!” she says, beaming. A chorus of “hey! hello!” fills the room, until my mother actually walks in. And then my heart, which had briefly risen, simply drops. My mother is taking off her jacket - and she’s pregnant.
The room falls deathly silent. For a moment, no one moves. No one is sure of how to proceed when the pregnant girl’s pregnant mother shows up to the pregnancy party. Then she breaks the silence. Offering an apologetic smile, she says, “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Somehow, the statement breaks the awkwardness, and the entire party stands up and flocks to her, voices bubbling over each other.
“Congratulations!” “Wow, it’s a miracle baby!” “Oh my god, how cute is it that Leah’s gonna have a baby and a sibling at the same time??”
I sit in the center of the backyard, forgotten and speechless. My husband is the only person who comes over to me. He rubs my shoulder, equally shell-shocked. My mother fields the questions uncomfortably, glancing over at me with a hopeful look every now and then.
“Oh Leah, the pink is so lovely. You didn’t tell me you were having a girl! Mine’s a girl too,” she says, beaming. “What are you thinking about the names? I sort of want to give your sister a name that starts with L too, you know, keep the tradition. Something along the lines of Lilith or Lillian. How cute would it be if yours had an L name too?”
My heart feels like it’s been torn from my chest and stomped on. Instinctively, I wind my arms protectively around my bump. We had been considering Lexie or some similar iteration, but now there’s no way I will give this child an L name.
“We’ve been contemplating honoring some different people who are really important to us, like Jake’s mom,” I say, pointedly, gripping my husband’s hand. Her face falls for a second and I feel a stab of triumph. “She’s due May 20th,” I add, thinking that if her due date is before mine, I might just kill her.
“Oh, May 27th! Exactly a week later,” she says, the beam reappearing on her face. “We can nurse together.” I make a face, but no one notices. The entire group coos and crowds around her. Jake desperately tries to redirect attention to me, but with the exception of one or two sympathetic friends, all the thirty something people at my party surround my mother like adoring groupies.
For half an hour, I sit in tormented silence, growing angrier by the minute as my cousin charitably split my gifts in half to give to my mother. She excitedly opens a paper bag with a parenting book in it and thanks Claire, who is practically glowing with excitement. I want to yell, she doesn’t need a parenting book. She already raised a child, not that anyone seems to remember.
At a certain point, I decide that I don’t have to sit here as a pathetic afterthought, so I stand up, brush the grass and disappointment off my clothes, and start heading into the house. I am halfway through the door when my mother shouts after me.
“Where are you going? We haven’t been able to talk at all yet.” I whirl around. Maybe it’s the raging hormones, maybe it’s the years of pressure, but I explode.
“Mom. You’ve been pregnant for MONTHS. And you didn’t think to mention it?? You thought it was just better to show up pregnant to MY baby shower with MY friends and hijack it? It’s bad enough that you pretend to be mother of the year around everyone else, but now you can’t even let me have one moment to myself without upstaging me!” Hot tears cascade down my face, and I can see the mascara dripping off my face, but I can’t find it in me to care.
My mother casts worried glances around the surrounding crowd. “I was never abusive,” she says, defensive. “I was immature, I was inexperienced, but I really did try to raise you the best I knew how. I was only sixteen when I had you, I was still a kid myself. And I didn’t tell you about the baby because I wasn’t sure I would carry her to term. I’m forty-two, the risk is really high for older moms like me. I didn’t want to get all in the drama if I ended up losing her.”
“So this is how you had to break the news?”
“Oh Leah, I didn’t want to do it like this. But you kept begging me and begging me to come, and I just thought it would be better if I came and showed everyone in person rather than texting and calling and explaining everything separately.” She looks down at the ground, suddenly embarrassed. “I don’t know, I sort of thought this could be a bonding experience. Like we could parent together. We could raise them like siblings. I know I hurt you when you were a kid, and even though it was unintentional, this is a chance to fix that. To fix all my mistakes.”
“So… so I was the mistake baby? I was the trial-and-error baby? I was the lab rat baby. You want a chance to be a good mother, you want a do over?” I can barely believe my ears. “So this kid is gonna get cooked breakfasts instead of stale cereal, and you’re going to actually buy her costumes instead of making her wear all brown clothes with a green beanie and telling her she’s a tree for Halloween? So all the fuckups with me, that’s going to be better now for this kid. You want me to stick around and watch this kid get treated better than I ever was. You want me to help you raise the kid like I wish you had raised me.”
She looks at me with pleading eyes. “I’m sorry Leah, I really am. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant-” she looks so lost and sad that my heart breaks for both of us.
“When you had me, you didn’t want to be my mother. You wanted to be my best friend, or my sister, but you didn’t think you were old enough to act like my mother. You were supposed to give me bedtimes and vegetables and you just painted my nails bright red and smoked in front of me and thought it would be fine. And now, you’re supposed to be a grandmother, but you’ve finally matured to the point where you’re acting like a mom. I wanted you to be a grandma. I wanted you to love my daughter like a grandkid. And instead, here you are, finally ready to be a mom. You will NEVER be what I need.”
She stands up, tears spilling down her cheeks. “I may not have been perfect, I may not have given you what you needed, and I truly am sorry for that. But I did love you. I always loved you, more than you will ever know.” She takes a deep breath and picks up her bag. “If you want me to disappear until you give birth, to be a grandmother, I will do that. If you want me to commiserate in motherhood, I will be there for that. From now on, I will be whatever you want from me. You deserve that.”
I want to tell her to leave. I want to make her go away and get back the feeling I had at the beginning of the party. I want to forget that this ever happened. I really want a scotch. But as she stands there, quiet sobs racking her pregnant body, waiting on my decision, I realize that she has changed. This is not the same woman who told me to call her Moira, not Mom. This is not the same woman who would go clubbing after back to school night, because she’d already hired a babysitter. For the first time, in a long time, she is asking me what I want. What I need. And once again, maybe it’s the hormones, maybe it’s the exhaustion of hating someone you love, but I sit back down on the grass.
“You can stay.”