The mothers roam through the corridors of my mind. They are my past selves, and I am them.
They lean against doorjambs, offering advice. They frown, wondering why I let my daughter play alone in the backyard; or why I haven’t yet signed her up for the pancake breakfast. “I’m busy!” I cry. “Things are different now that she’s older.”
Some of the mothers are curious. Others are so overwhelmed that their eyes look past me, wild as wolves. Once in a while, one of the mothers — the kindest, most forgiving one — settles down next to me. She takes my hand. We sit in an empty room of my imagination and remember.
The Longing-to-Be Mother
She’s hunched in a bathroom stall at a design job she hates, where she pushes pixels around a screen and everyone mostly ignores her. But life is not terrible. Just that morning at a grocery store, she picked up a greeting card. “Congratulations!” it read in bubble letters, above an illustration of a stork. She hopes to present the card to her husband to announce the baby they want so badly. She’s convinced that this month things will change.
But minutes pass, and a single line appears, a tick of disappointment. She puts the greeting card back in a drawer in her office. She thinks, One day. She continues celebrating friends’ pregnancy announcements. She’s conscious of every baby around her, even as she throws back a jalapeño margarita, even as she dances on a rooftop deck overlooking the city. I couldn’t do this if I were pregnant.
After a year of negative tests, she and her husband consult a doctor. “Oh, I think we can help,” she says, with a smile. It’s the most beautiful thing the mother has ever seen.
The Expectant Mother
She’s making a mobile. Her husband has just painted the nursery in their rental home in the lightest shade of lavender. Together, she and her husband fold tiny newborn clothes that the baby will never wear, because she’ll be a whopping eleven pounds at birth.
The mother hums to her stomach at night, substituting the words to “You Are My Sunshine” with “Hip Hop,” the baby’s nickname. They have no clue what they want to name the baby, though they like to speculate: Cinnamon? Shenanigans?
“Don’t forget a single thing,” everyone tells her at baby showers. “The days are long, but the years are short.”
She laughs, full of hubris. Of course she won’t forget anything. This is the thing she’s wanted most in her life. Who could ever forget a second of motherhood?
The Tear-Soaked Mother
She’s in a bathroom again, this time at 2 a.m., gripping her cell phone as she waits to connect to the after-hours nurse. He has a deep voice and confident air that dissipates at her first sob.
“We can’t get her to stop crying,” the mother chokes. “We changed her diaper. She’s been fed and burped. It’s been hours of this.”
“Ma’am,” he says. “It sounds like she’s fine. Sometimes babies cry.”
“She’s not fine,” the mother hisses. Through the closed door, she can hear her husband pacing with the newborn in his arms, the baby’s cries so desperate that the mother wants to tear her own heart out of her chest. Motherhood, she thinks, is a giant sham.
“Have you heard of colic?” the nurse asks, gently.
After they hang up, she brings the baby into the bathroom, where the fan creates white noise. She reads too many articles online. Rocking and reading, reading and rocking. Once, she escapes outside to scream at the sky.
Soon, the baby gets a prescription for Prilosec. The mother gets a prescription for Celexa.
In a few months, they both stop crying so much, though the mother remains haunted by the sound of the baby’s phantom wails. The baby seems to study her mother with trepidation, as if remembering the flood of tears between them. How they almost drowned.
The Adoring Mother
Over and over, she counts her six-month-old’s fingers and toes. They remind her of flower buds, round and full of promise. She kisses them until the baby laughs. The sound opens a window in her mind, through which she can see a panorama of years. Laughter, instead of chirping birds.
She tells the baby that they are soulmates. They are so connected that her mother-in-law marvels: “That baby just transforms when you are in the room.”
As the baby begins to crawl, then walk, the two of them are inseparable. The mother works from home and sometimes sneaks away to put the baby down for naps. To feed her a bottle while rocking in the glider by the window. She is mired in Kairos, a season of spiritual pause.
The Roaring Mother
The mother watches her toddler stomp wide-legged through the playground in sandals that sink through the mulch.
“Be careful,” the mother calls. More often than not, the child is sprawled on the ground. The mother thinks about the dangers of uneven sidewalks, rabbit holes in the grass. She embodies the term “helicopter parent,” though secretly, she thinks they should be called “lifeboat parents.”
Soon, the toddler discovers slides. Her eyes widen. “‘Gain! ‘Gain!” she demands.
At the top of one slide, the child hesitates. Impatient, a bigger kid behind her pushes with a violence that makes the mother spring to her feet.
“You do not shove my kid!” the mother shouts. She gathers her toddler, who seems more stunned than upset, and leaves the playground in a huff, to the bemusement of other parents. It takes much too long for the mother’s anger to transform into shame.
The Permissive Mother
“This is what happens when I leave you two alone,” her husband says with a grin, fresh out of the shower.
The mother is sprawled on the bed with her daughter on top of her, both of them still in pajamas. The daughter is pretending to be a cowgirl, using the mother’s long hair as reins. They laugh so hard that they hiccup.
These days, the mother and daughter make mischief. They play pranks. When left to their own devices, they stay up late, strewing popcorn kernels all over the bed. Sometimes, when a storm hits, they race outdoors to dance in the rain.
Someone observes, “You let her get away with everything. I thought you would be the disciplinarian.”
It was a reasonable assumption. In most facets of her life, the mother enjoys order and checklists. But with her daughter, the mother forgets efficiency. She relives her own childhood.
Over these seven years, I have been all those mothers, and they have been me.
When I think about my own mother in my youth, I remember her raging temper, her protectiveness that cloistered me, long afternoons where she slept while I tiptoed around the house, making myself invisible. Her love was a fist, then. But I also remember ham-and-egg sandwiches left on the kitchen counter each morning, before she left at dawn for work. Twirly dresses in my closet. Books and books and books.
Now, she is a tender grandmother, a mother who listens to my every word. She defers to me; she lets me get away with things. I think maybe she has her own set of mothers to grapple with.
And I wonder: how many more mothers will move inside of me, over the years? Which mothers will my daughter remember? Which ones will I miss?
Motherhood is a palimpsest. In the right light, our former selves will peek through. Their imprints remind us how far we’ve traveled. And through them, we understand how much is left to be written.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, is forthcoming in 2023 from HarperCollins. She has also written for Cup of Jo about books.