This Diary of Motherhood is a series of weekly letters to my first baby, my little son who I call Baby Bird. I know not everyone wants to read about the highs and lows of motherhood so you can read non-baby related posts about travel, writing, freelancing or Amsterdam instead. Alternatively read one of my short stories or check out some book reviews and recommendations.
Dear Baby Bird,
This week I experienced what it really feels like to be a bad mother. I mean, really feel it. Not a wishy-washy sensation of mum-guilt because I'm giving you the same dinner for the third day in a row (because I know you'll definitely eat it rather than throw it on the floor) or that sinking feeling of fed-up-ness at the sight of you pulling out the contents of my kitchen cupboards after I dared to go to the toilet leaving you unsupervised for a minute or two. No, this was serious, and it landed in the pit of my stomach like a heavy anchor, producing nausea and panic and a powerful feeling of failing you.
Because this week, dear boy of mine, I lost your cuddly toy. Let me tell you how it happened.
It was an otherwise ordinary Tuesday afternoon. The sun was shining as we walked home from daycare. Facing me in your stroller, you were chatting away in this secret language of yours, and I like to think you were telling me all about your day. I smiled at you constantly and began to rock the stroller from side to side, trying to get a few giggles where I could. You're still surprisingly economical with your laughter. You rarely cackle away for no reason, and even if we do find something you find funny, its potential to make you laugh definitely has a shelf life of about three minutes. I sort of like this about you. It keeps us creative. So after a few rocks and rolls, and maybe only one giggle that I suspect was laced in pity, I stopped moving the stroller around and just walked home normally, letting the bikes, trams and cars soak up your attention.
The evening followed our usual rhythm of you having playtime with your dad while I made dinner. Then we fed you together before he whisked you off for a bath. Normally, this is the time I tidy up the house and get your room ready for bedtime, but as I just often do, that evening I opted to be a spectator at your bath, easily your favourite time of the day. I sat on the closed toilet lid and watched as you splashed around in the bath like a true amphibian. Your dad used a rubber duck to make fart noises on your bottom which you giggled at... for about three minutes, of course. I washed your hair trying to keep as much of the soapy water out of your eyes as I could, even though it's not supposed to sting. How different your childhood is from mine in these little, brilliant ways.
Wrapped in a towel, I cleaned your teeth before your dad said goodnight, rubbing his beard up against your cheek, something you've started to grin wildly at. After drying you off, moisturising your chubby limbs and putting your nappy and pyjamas on, I nursed you, read to you and then sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star as I placed you in your cot. Just like I do every night. Then, just as you do every night, you twisted in your sleepsack and reached up a hand for your cuddly toy. A present from some dear family friends, it's nothing more than a thin piece of striped fabric with a head, feet and hands attached and it took us a while to realise that it was a zebra so when we do give it a name it is "Mr Zebra" but most of the time, it's just "your cuddly", because that's what you do with it. It's one of the few things that I have been able to introduce to you without any issue. I just kept placing this limp piece of material next to your head whenever you went to bed or had a nap, and at around six or seven months, you started to actively reach for it and hold it tight in your hands. Now Mr Zebra and you go on long laps around your cot every night. I love how it brings you comfort at a time that has always been hard for you - sleeping.
But this Tuesday, as you reached for Mr Zebra, he wasn't there.
I called out to your dad that your cuddly was in the bottom of the stroller.
"It's not there," he shouted back.
"It has to be!"
You started to cry.
"It's not! Did you leave it at daycare?"
"No!" I said closing the door on you as your cries got louder. "I never leave it there. I know how important it is."
I rushed to the stroller but your dad was right. It wasn't there. Your clothes and shoes from daycare were there, but no Mr Zebra.
I swore loudly.
"Did you leave it there?"
"Maybe," I said but then shook my head. "No, I remember getting it. I have everything else."
Your cries seemed to be getting louder.
"Well, he'll settle in a minute," your father said.
"No," I shook my head. "No, he won't. He hasn't got his cuddly. This is horrible for him. I must have lost it."
"He'll be fine." Your dad said. "He'll calm down in a few minutes. Dinner's ready now anyway. We'll buy him a new one tomorrow."
"No, I had a favourite cuddly and it really upset me when I forgot it or lost it." I sat down and put my shoes on. "I'm going to go and find it."
Honestly, I didn't think I was actually going to find it. I just knew I had to do something to combat the sick feeling in my stomach. How could I have lost his favourite toy? I had known that the bottom of the buggy was quite full. Why didn't I just put the toy in my bag, or in my pocket, or even in your hands? Why didn't I just take more care? I couldn't sit down and eat dinner. I had to at least try.
I jumped on my bike and retraced my steps. Just as I was about to give up hope, at the corner before your daycare, I saw something lying on a brick windowsill of a house. Mr Zebra. He was in exactly the spot i'd been tipping your buggy from side to side, back and forth. Some kind soul had seen your abandoned, beloved toy and raised him up a little higher away from the dirt on the floor and closer to being found.
Picking up your cuddly toy and tucking him inside my shirt - because that felt the safest place - gave me almost the same sense of comfort that I imagine Mr Zebra gives you. I felt warm and whole and at ease again. But I didn't stop feeling sick until long after I'd got home and sat down to eat dinner.
Of course, you were already fast asleep when I got home, which is just as well as your dad insisted on running Mr Zebra through the wash, something that we probably should have done a long time ago.
You're going to lose Mr Zebra again one day, I know this, and maybe there will come a time when I can't just hop on my bike and retrace my steps to find him. And that feeling in my stomach, that hot-cold panic of not doing right by you... that was a sensation I will have to deal with again and again and again because I'm not perfect. I'm going to make mistakes and I'm going to let you down. For now, this is something I have to deal with in order to tame the discomfort and see the bigger picture - because yes, we could have bought another similar toy and yes, in time you would have become attached to that one too, and of course, my post-natal state of heightened anxiety played up to the drama perfectly - but please know that all week, Tuesday evening has haunted me but in a good way. It proved to me that even despite my greatest efforts, accidents are going to happen, and it made me realise the difference between real mum-guilt and the silly, pernickity, purposeless pangs of guilt I too often let preoccupy my mind when I should be congratulating myself on getting food in front of you or moving all the plastic tupperware to that cupboard you love to open most so when you do get to open it up the contents aren't dangerous or breakable.
It also taught me that if I ever see a cuddly toy on the floor, I should pick it up. And so should you and everyone else. We should take great care to put that toy somewhere a panicked mum or dad can find it and return it to their child so that calm can return... until the next time.
Your calm-once-more, almost-missing-the-feeling-of-carrying-Mr-Zebra-in-my-bra, crazy-in-love, mother x
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.