from the collection Vertigo
out now from Dorothy, a publishing project
It’s not so much that we were young, because some of us were already old, old enough for gray hairs. It’s more that our children had made us young. Already in the youth of our young motherhood our children had given birth to our function. We hardly knew we were born of them, before we were named: Connor’s mum or Casey’s mum but never Juliet, or Nell, or Amanda, not for years anyhow, by which time we had skipped the remains of adulthood and were only old.
But for a while we were young. You could tell because we acquired new things made from young materials. Our things were smooth, plastic, round-cornered, safe: clearly designed to be used by the very young. It was necessary that we did not hurt ourselves, we young mothers, though the temptation was so very great. We were needed, and the plastic things were needed so we mothers, who had become our own children, did not hurt ourselves. See how patiently we taught ourselves to use the new things. You could call it nurturing.
It had not started there, at our birth: our youth went further back. Pregnant, we already wore dresses for massive two year olds: flopping collars balancing our joke-shop bellies, stretchmarked with polka dots. After we were born into our new young motherhood our trousers sprouted many pockets for practicality. Khaki was good (grass-stains, tea-stains). You could put them through the rinser. Fleece was warm and stretchy for growing bodies. Shoes were flat for running, playing. Colors were bright, so our children did not lose us, so we could not lose each other, or ourselves, no matter how hard we tried.
See how we looked after our young selves, awarding ourselves little treats—cakes, glasses of juice, or wine—never too much. If we noticed ourselves crying in a corner, we went to comfort ourselves. Sometimes we left ourselves alone to toughen up a little, but always with a watchful eye. Truly we were well cared for. Look how carefully we introduced ourselves to new environments: on our first day at playgroup we may have been reluctant, tearful even, to be herded together by virtue of situation and approximate age, but we remembered the manners we had taught ourselves: a good grounding. Seeing ourselves shyly approach each other we looked on with approval, breathed a sigh of relief.
Then we had to remember how to play.
We young mothers sang nursery rhymes. We had not sung in years. It came hard to us, sitting on the floor cross-legged in colored tops and practical trousers, singing about crocodiles all together, toddlers flopped in our laps. We had nothing else to sing. You would have thought we could have invented, for this fresh generation, the newness it deserved. But we were tired.
You might have thought we could have done it, but we were so poor.
At the end of each day when our men came home we young mothers were already tired. We were younger than our children: the children that had birthed us. Our men wondered how they could be married to such children. Bedtime approached, and the men settle down to something adult on the television. We mothers were terrified, did not want to go once more into the interrupted dark. Distracted by noises, bewitched by things that sparkled, we lulled ourselves to sleep, overtired, tearful, telling ourselves tomorrow it would be okay.
In the playground the next day, we watched older mothers bring lunch boxes and spare sweaters to children who might not have wanted this kind of mothering. They made sure the kids were still kids. And the children, ignoring them politely, went on letting the mothers be mothers, for who knows what ends.
JOANNA WALSH is a British writer and illustrator. She is the author of a collection of linked stories, Vertigo, just out from Dorothy, a publishing project. An earlier collection, Fractals, was published in the UK in 2013, and her nonfiction book Hotel was published internationally in 2015. Walsh writes literary and cultural criticism for The Guardian, the New Statesman, and The National, is the fiction editor at 3:am Magazine, and created and runs the Twitter hashtag #readwomen, heralded by the New York Times as “a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers.”