Sometime during the night before Alice’s twentieth birthday, I dreamt I had given birth to a son. I’d named him Oliver because that was the name I’d always planned to give my son. In my dream, I was standing in a church hall balancing him on my hip and the minister’s wife was congratulating me on the latest addition to my family which had happened in the period between leaving that church and returning to it. When I woke up, I remembered that this baby was awfully heavy to carry and I wondered did the dream mean something like I needed to lay down a heavy burden, or that maybe I needed to accept that some things were never going to happen. I have not produced any male heirs. I will only ever be the mother of daughters.
It was not a good night’s sleep because sometime during the evening before Alice’s twentieth birthday, when we were out celebrating the twentieth anniversary of her birth, I was verbally attacked by an eighteen-year-old, not a stranger, but one I’d carried in my womb for nine months and on my hip for a lot longer. Later, she would blame me for her words because I had forced her to wait in the cold for a bus while I’d jumped into a heated taxi with another mother who had just returned from visiting her son at university. She’d taken a flight to take him for lunch and her dedication didn’t deserve to stand and freeze and wait for public transport and I thought that somebody needed to look after that other mother. Anyway, that future had not yet happened when the attack happened.
On the way to the tapas restaurant where we would pay for daughters to eat large numbers of small plates, I had been full of good intentions to visit a photographic exhibition of sport in prisons, except I was sidetracked by a cocktail bar I’d seen photos of on Instagram. There was a man inside who told us how proud he was of the concept of twelve new cocktails every twelve weeks. There was a menu with symbols for floral and herbal and bitter and effervescent. A ‘flavour key’ it was called. “If I said 13 March 2020 to you,” he said, “what would you think?” as if it was a quiz because that was when the bar had first opened, and it had closed again four days later. But now it was open again and it was his baby, and he was allowed to be proud of it. I was enraptured by the velvet curtains and the red lamps and the mood lighting and a few days later, I would google why we call projects ‘babies’ and it would say because they are ‘easy to conceive and hard to deliver’.
When we left, I was feeling like my flavour was effervescent because even though I was the mother of a twenty-year-old, elements of my outfit matched, and I was wearing my blue eyeshadow with a layer of navy mascara, and I’d enjoyed an exceptionally well-executed martini. I was still basking in my effervescence when we arrived at the restaurant and I was momentarily overwhelmed by the sight of my babies, the output of my two decades of mothering waiting for me, gathered in one place in the half-light, and I stood enraptured in the middle of the floor, capturing their matching faces, allowing myself to be proud of them. “Smile,” I said as I leaned back, and a waitress stepped around me with a small plate.
The exact sequence of events which followed is somewhat blurred because whilst I know it couldn’t have happened immediately, I don’t understand when it did happen, what I said or did because when it happened, there was food already on the table. But I hadn’t eaten yet, so the attack occurred sometime between ordering and eating and perhaps the child was particularly hungry, or I’d acted like an over-proud mother, or said “smile” once too often. I was embarrassing and attention-seeking, she said. She did an impression of me, and it was this whingy, whiney voice and it was me talking about being invisible and “dad always getting all the credit la la la”. When I told someone the next day, I said it was as if her words had pierced me and I’d deflated like a balloon, and although I’d tried to stem it with a napkin, a tear rolled slowly down my nose and plopped on the table and my eyeshadow and mascara ended up mingled together on a piece of recycled paper. “I am so deeply wounded,” I texted my husband who was not miles away, but just across the booth from me. “Try some of the pork,” said the child to my left as she pushed a small plate a little closer to me.
And I wondered what I expect from my children - gratitude? I barely mention the sacrifices I’ve made nor the stitches. And when I told Alice the story of her birth at 4.44pm in a theatre watched by a large crowd, I left the bit out about being massacred. “It’s a big decade, your twenties,” she announced, “getting a job, getting married, having children”. I said it sounded great, but I wasn’t ready to be a granny. All that stuff had happened to me too in my twenties and it wasn’t that long ago. Then life became a blur to the soundtrack of a washing machine and here I was emerging two decades later and expecting something like gratitude in a restaurant.
On the afternoon of Alice’s twentieth birthday, I sat cross-legged on the floor because I still could, and lifted albums out of boxes and after the formals and the travel and the fun and the engagement and the wedding and the honeymoon and the house, I found the photographs I hadn’t looked at for two decades. I was wearing a dressing gown that couldn’t possibly have been mine. I looked like I had been captured and then tortured and I wasn’t smiling in any of them. On the morning of Alice’s twentieth birthday, I chatted to the minister’s wife in a church hall. It wasn’t a dream. There was no son on my hip. She was a granny. Her daughter had endured a difficult birth. And I thought about how it was Alice’s twentieth birthday but also the twentieth anniversary of the day I was paralysed and how my husband would regularly joke about the anaesthetist being called away from his dinner to reassure me that my legs would return and that I’ve never found it funny because it happened to me, and no one has ever acknowledged that it was difficult. And then I thought of how my mother often tells me about being off her head on pethidine and seeing herself on the ceiling on the day of my birth and I’ve never shown her any gratitude for that.
And finally, I remembered this piece I’d written about how you can’t get motherhood right and even though the writing seems amateurish now, there is an important line in it about not seeing the fruits of your maternal labours until your children break the surface of adulthood, only now I’m not quite so sure about that and maybe that is the heavy burden I need to lay down.
On the day after Alice’s twentieth birthday, when I was still deeply wounded, the eighteen-year-old asked me to help her with a speech. It was important. She would be visible. She wanted to get credit. She needed acknowledgment. She would be attention-seeking. And I gave her my best advice. “Be careful with your words,” I said, and “smile”.