October 17, 2019

Inner Child, Meet New Baby, Please Don’t Smother It

Being pregnant for the first time I’m scared and I want my mommy. I just don’t want my mommy.

My mom hates babies and kids, always has. She didn’t put her cigarette out on my arm or throw me in a pit of snakes, but having kids just wasn’t her diaper bag, and it showed.

I’m not here to trash my mother, only to worry that I’ll become her.

While most people say having children gives them new compassion for their parents, I’m not having that experience so far. Instead, I’m filled with a renewed, fuming and bottomless disquietude about the mom hand I was dealt, which consisted of one truly evil, now fortunately dead stepmother, and a wildly superior though still problematic biological mom who raised me with a combination of ambivalence and benign neglect.

For her part, it was nothing personal against me, she just found all babies to be life-snatching buzz kills.

The syllogism was as impossible to ignore as a tot shrieking in a high chair, spitting noodles: Mom hates children. I am a child. Therefore, mom hates me. I must also be an irritating burden. In fact, I grew up thinking that everyone hates babies. It was all I knew.

Don’t get me wrong. My mom is a fun person, and people genuinely like her. If Auntie Mame were less chirpy, more medicated and prone to dating angry, homeless Berkeley poets or leaving her kids for a month to chop trees in Vermont, that would be my mom. Part Mame, part maimed, all out of her element when it came to lullabies and hugs.

To this day, if a baby cries in a restaurant with my mom around, we all have to bail immediately, but not before she shoots the family several piercing, withering looks. Long looks. She doesn’t look away until she has properly shamed the parents for ruining her meal and her day. Even when she hears a baby laugh she fixes her face in an expression to communicate to the world that she is being put upon, that the sounds coming from your child are no less than a knife in her brain.

I am not her, or she, or however you say it. I know it, but there are tinges of her infirmity, her intolerance, times I notice my head involuntarily snapping toward a wailing baby in a restaurant, a vestige of that sticky notion that babies are serenity-piercing killjoys.

I’m terrified that just as I have her broad shoulders and freckled skin, I may inherit her lackluster mothering skills. How can I be sure I won’t resent my baby? My therapist assures me I won’t, that true maternal detachment of my mother’s sort is very rare, that even though my baby is only half-cooked, I’m already bonded to the kid, and that seems true. Still, when I think about how much the whole experience sucked for my mom, I worry.

My mother’s exasperation with me started even before I was born.

She bought “It’s a Boy” cards when she was pregnant, just trying to sway the gender gods. Her desire for a second boy was based on this chestnut, “A boy would be your father’s problem.” This card story isn’t one she tried to hide. In fact, it was in heavy rotation on the “Mom’s Top 40 hilarious anecdotes” list, staying there for an unprecedented 20 years.

Mom’s particular bouquet of crazy sometimes has top notes of mean with a strong insensitivity finish.

“If you look at pictures, your mom holds you like a sack of potatoes, like she didn’t connect — I think she must have had that postpartum thing,” says my dad, trying to explain some of this, trying to defend her even though they have been divorced since I was 3. He argues that it wasn’t her fault; she just wasn’t cut out for motherhood. In one old snapshot taken in a park somewhere, she holds me as I hold my stuffed bunny. My older brother is down at her feet, and she is looking away, yellow headband in her black hair, squinting. If there was a caption it might read, “How can I get out of this?”

When I was a baby, she got a job as a Los Angeles County school bus driver so she could afford to pay a nanny named Inez to baby-sit me for the first couple of years of my life. Let that sink in for a sec: My mother, a college graduate with an above-genius IQ, preferred spending her days driving a diesel school bus through the smog-choked San Fernando Valley to staying home with her kids, me and my brother, who is a year-and-a-half older.

When I was 3, she decided she needed a break from the whole married-with-kids endeavor and left the family for six months to take a job in Chicago. By the time she got back, she was starting to get that “you’re not such a good mom” look from people, including the judge, who awarded custody of my brother and me to my dad.

My new stepmother suggested I would be better off with my mom and that’s how I ended up with her, most of the time anyway.

Once a month, starting at age 4, she put me on a plane alone to see my dad. That isn’t even legal anymore; kids that young can’t fly unaccompanied. Summers and holidays, she put me on a Greyhound bus to stay with my grandparents in Santa Barbara. Those were 10-hour bus rides, just one little girl reading Mad Magazine eating Twizzlers with an assortment of vagrants, fugitives and visitors to the California Men’s Colony. When I confronted my mom about it later, she asked, “What was I supposed to do? Drive you myself all those times?” Um … yes?

Still, she is not and was not a bad person. In the end, she was simply self-centered, not hateful. Here’s where I struggle to say something positive so I don’t come across like a horrible, slandering, ungrateful daughter just for telling the truth; the more self-reliant we became, the more tolerant she was, and I can say she did have some sparkling mom moments, reading us Steinbeck by flashlight when she took us to Yosemite, taking us to see great grown-up movies and revivals. I was the first in my elementary school crowd to see “Easter Parade” and, of course, “Mame.” 

She also encouraged me to write, something she probably regrets right about now.

It was really just the baby thing.

I have been told I am at “high risk” for postpartum depression. My husband will have to look for “signs” and be prepared to toss some Prozac down my gullet if I get all withdrawn and affect-less. If this happens, I’m assured that it will pass quickly. Before going ahead with the baby making, I talked about it for months with my therapist, who once offered me a million dollars if I have a baby and don’t love it. She’s positive I’m going to be fine, but she wants me to be prepared.

The plan is to get some help for the first few weeks so I don’t get too sleep-deprived. The rest is just faith. Yesterday, I was working on this column at a coffee shop when a baby started crying into his baggie of Cheerios. It’s not a beautiful sound to me, but I forced myself to question whether it’s the worst, or whether an even more festering sound is my mother’s voice in my head.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer. She is currently writing about her pregnancy at exploitingmybaby.com.