I want you to hear the voice of an angry stepmother as you read this, so go ahead and settle into it. You know the voice I mean: that extra-tall mocha raspberry voice, with the hint of an edge, the little bit of burn from sitting too long in the pot, from forgetting to remove the dripping dregs.
You remember your stepmother. The woman who first met you when you were thirteen, already mostly formed. The woman, twelve years younger than your mother, who you thought was so cool, who highlighted your hair, talked to you about boys and choices and gave you the book Our Bodies Ourselves even as you marched in anti-abortion parades sponsored by your mother’s nameless church, the church you swore was a cult. The woman who saw what no one else in your life would see: that the cuts on your arm were too symmetrical, too measured, too clean to be the cat scratches you claimed they were. The woman who urged your father to get you into therapy, who spent long nights worrying, struggling to understand, trying to interpret to your father just exactly what you meant when you said what you did.
And I am still that woman who cares what becomes of you. But I am angry now. Angry at the hours pulled from my own life spent trying to help you in yours. Angry when I finally understand that you have been wedded to your suffering for years, so enamored of the attention, that you have chosen to make your whole life a buffet of pain. Longsuffering as your mother’s no-name church might say. As if it were a virtue.
That very same church where you have found such welcoming arms now that you are pregnant. The church where so many other young women are having babies, while still babies, and everyone is sympathetic, encouraging, reassuring them that they are doing the right thing. Your mother’s very words to us: “She’s doing the right thing.”
To which I want to ask, “For whom?”
Yes I am angry. Teeth-on-fire angry. Angry for the years of emotional blackmail, angry at your mother for calling this baby God’s will, at the baby’s father for being stupid, at the no-name church that preached abstinence then held up other young mothers as heroines, as martyrs. But especially angry at your mother—that warden mother you swore you hated, who, when you tried to speak openly with her about sex, threw her palms heavenward and implored, “Jesus, cut these lies in two!” The mother you now visit often and talk to about the beautiful perfect little baby girl in your belly, the baby that will transform all of your lives into goodness and light the moment she is born. The little princess who will love only you and worship you forever. The tiny doll you can dress up and carry around, that will never cry or make a mess or break your heart.
And I am angry at my shallow, shallow self. I hate that I am embarrassed to tell people the path you have chosen, that I feel the need to explain, as if there were an explanation. That to others, I say your mother is to blame. If I were a good person, I would not be jealous that you love your mother again.
Perhaps it is God’s will that you are pregnant, and I should pray for serenity. But not today. Today this anger is a shield that keeps me from seeing how I have failed you. How I never managed to help you through the thickness of your own private despair. I never managed to convince you that you were worthwhile and worthy. I never managed to make you want more from life. I never managed to protect you from yourself.
I am left with only this pathetic, fragile hope that maybe this, this, will finally make you happy.
I keep trying to believe it.
But I circle back to helpless rage: you are eighteen and I have to let you go, let you be who you will be, even if that means an unwed mother, college-dropout, working at McDonalds in a dead-end town.
I have to decide if I will love that person as much as I loved the suffering girl. Except, there is no choosing, love being what it is.
I have not saved you from yourself, but at least I have loved you. Know that I have loved you.
Mary Akers’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Xavier Review, Primavera, Literary Mama, Ink Pot, Pindeldyboz, Wisconsin Review and other journals. She is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Waitership and a graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program in Creative Writing.
photo by Dinty W. Moore