Their second meeting was not as I’d imagined. The first, a hurried snuggle in the postnatal ward, the required photo and then ushered out by an exhausted midwife. I’d imagined that she might want to move in, had fantasies of the traditional ‘laying in’ period, perhaps she would settle me into bed with the baby, cook my meals, tidy up, do the endless, endless laundry. I don’t know what I was thinking, I already knew she had a flight booked “back home” two days after my due date.
When she appeared on the doorstep she was glowing from the inside out, lit up by the tropical sun and the mangoes picked straight off the tree. She glanced at the baby, tucked away in the stretchy sling it had taken me a full week to master. She left her suitcase at the foot of the stairs while she charged up, leaving me with the familiar smell of jasmine perfume and sandalwood soap.
When I caught up with her in the living room, it seemed smaller with her standing there, appraising the clutter of newborn life – the wipe-clean bouncer, piles of cotton wool, a plastic bath incongruous on the dining table. “The windows are dirty,” she announced, brushing past me again “Shall we put the kettle on?”
I thought of the mother I’d imagined, who would now have been bringing me a cup of water and taking Maya from me, rocking her, singing her some old Hindi lullaby that would soothe me back to sleep too
It wasn’t until later, after I’d heard the stories of her sisters back in the family home, the rickshaw driver who turned out to be drunk, the enormous man who’d fallen asleep on her shoulder on the plane, the new internet connection coming to the village. Only after all that did she take a proper look at the baby, now drowsily feeding on my lap.
“You called her Maya” she said, a question. “It’s a Hindi name you know”. I explained that we’d chosen a name that represented all the different cultures we both came from, a universal name. She smiled, gently this time. “She’s a mongrel too, like you”. She watched us for a while, me absentmindedly stroking Maya, starting to feel the now-familiar heaviness take hold as she drank the last of my energy from me. Silence descended as we sat together, three generations of women, occasionally broken by tiny slurps, and I allowed my eyes to close.
“You’re so in love”.
The words attacked me, and when I looked up she was glaring at us. I instinctively pulled Maya a little closer in, wordless, unable to respond. After a time, I agreed. She was right, Maya was the greatest love of my life. My heart ached to even look at her. I had hardly put her down since she arrived, stunned, yanked out of an astonishingly tiny slit in my pelvis.
Awake that night staring at the blue screen of my phone, sitting up in bed while Maya fed again, the words came back to me. What was in them that had made me feel I needed to guard my new family? Envy? As a new mother to my eldest brother, my own mother had been living with her in-laws.
She’d often talked about how she’d felt she had to hand him over to the various aunts and sisters who visited, sometimes not seeing him for hours at a time. Perhaps she envied the duality I existed in now – the lazy, hazy bubble we’d created around the two of us. Or maybe it wasn’t about me, but Maya. Coming along as the person who finally drew my attention away from my mother, with her incessant needs, and her impossible expectations, and her never ending bloody stories. I thought of the mother I’d imagined, who would now have probably been bringing me a cup of water and taking Maya from me, rocking her, singing her some old Hindi lullaby that would soothe me back to sleep too. I missed her, that Amma. Weary after weeks of mothering alone, I longed to be mothered myself.
I left them there, suddenly aware that my presence was not wanted. My own arms aching with their emptiness, I stood in the kitchen, wondering what it was that was being healed in the other room
The next day, easier together now, we walked down to the high street to buy Maya some essential item – I think it was more vests. How is it that babies go through vests so quickly? Already they had piled up, orange-stained around the crotch and spattered with whatever that magic ingredient exists in baby puke that makes it impossible to get out. My mum asked me if I was missing work, wondered how my husband was finding the juggle, thought back to her own experiences after coming to England, the surprise she felt at how easily people handed their children over to total strangers. Of course, she said, she’d done it herself later on, when she set up the business. We laughed about Beverley, who’d taught me how to knit, and how I’d asked her – loudly – in the middle of John Lewis whether she felt better “after that enormous poo”. When we got home, she put her hands out and waited for me to place Maya in them. Sitting down by the window, she held her close, murmuring something against her forehead, and kissing her closed eyelids. I left them there, suddenly aware that my presence was not wanted. My own arms aching with their emptiness, I stood in the kitchen, wondering what it was that was being healed in the other room.
It wasn’t until years later that she told me she’d never known how to be in love, or felt loved herself. “I was too embarrassed” she said, “And too worried about what could happen if I gave myself to someone so completely”. By then, I could take her hand, and hold it, and ask her hadn’t she known how much we loved her? And by then, she could allow me to mother her a little, as she let the tears fall.