“In the Spirit of Motherhood” by Sara Karim

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood… To be fair, writing well about children is tough. You know why? They’re not that interesting. What is interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 96 percent of child rearing, we continue to have them.

NYT, as quoted in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts

Alima slowly submerged into the eucalyptus-scented water. She sighed into the warmth, air bubbles vibrating on her lips. It must have been two or three in the morning, and she still wasn’t relaxed enough to fall asleep. After stretching, meditating, watching a mindless reality show about tiny house living, she decided to draw herself a bath, using the last of the bath salts that Aray Chong Appa[1] mailed her as a housewarming present. The candles she lit infused the bathroom with ambiance; that had to do the trick. Alima came up for a breath and opened her eyes into pitch blackness.

She never enjoyed darkness, even in college she left her fairy lights on when she slept, an arrangement she negotiated over closet space and clean up duty in her roommate contract her Freshman year. When she had Miriam, though, the baby fussed even at single ray of light; as a parent, she had to sacrifice light. Since they moved and Miri got her own bedroom, Alima reverted to her old candle and light habits. It must have been the control over light—something she felt like she lacked in her everyday life.

The bath worked its relaxing magic, because Alima woke up in her bed unsure of how she got there. She felt a pang of anxiety; darkness held the unknown. By the pulsating bruise on her upper thigh, she remembered that she tumbled out of the bathtub to get in bed after the candle lights went out. She heard Miriam humming an old folk song her grandfather taught her in her room. Alima got into her sleek new scrubs and went to the kitchen to serve Miri her breakfast.

“Are you excited for your first day of classes, baby?” Alima slipped the bowl of oatmeal across the counter, which Miriam caught before the bowl could fall over.

“I guess.” She waited for Alima to zip up her new dress uniform. “This is itchy.”

“Oh, Miri, please don’t start.” Alima set her own oatmeal, zipped up the plaid dress, and tucked strands of Miriam’s lustrous curls behind her ears. She moved to sit beside her daughter. “Did you sleep well?”

“No, Mommy, you woke me up.” Miriam shuffled her hair back to her face and scratched at her upper arms.

“I’m sorry, honey. My lights went out and I fell in the bathroom.” Alima furrowed her brows and smoothed the baby hairs off Miriam’s forehead. Keep your daughter’s frizz under control, she’s a direct reflection of your efforts, her mother’s words echoed.

“No, Mommy, you woke me up when you came to my room. Why were you so sad?”

Alima exhaled and looked down at the floor creases that collected dust since she scrubbed the whole house last Thursday. She remembered back in college, her psychology professor told her children that made things up when they were feeling unsettled. Miriam, it seemed like, was always unsettled. Large crows, new people, loud noises: she withdrew into her thoughts and her eyes glazed over. Miri lied about losing a book, losing a shoe; Alima was losing her patience. Miri hated public parks and recess, mainly because of the flocks of screaming children: Miri’s peers, but she didn’t feel that way. She lied that it was too cold to go outside, or too windy, as if Alima had not been outside herself. Miriam was probably making this up too, this day being her first official day of 1st grade, which meant having to introduce herself to a loud group of new kids. Alima should let this one go, or at least try.

“Why were you crying?” Miriam looked at her mother’s blank face with a mouthful of porridge. “Why were you sad?” She swallowed, and took a bite of an apple.

Whether it was her daughter’s brazen nonchalance about this lie, or the burnt taste of the packaged oatmeal Alima thought she had finally mastered, she eroded: “Miriam, what did we say about lying?”

“Mommy, I’m not lying! You cried for so long and I couldn’t sleep and—” Miriam gesticulated with her hands, a trait she probably inherited from her father’s side of the family. It’s a shame, they might have enjoyed her defensiveness in the face of authority, a youthful shriek in her voice when she wants to prove a point. Alima might have enjoyed it too, had she not been the parent in that moment. Sometimes, she earned for a switch to turn off this role she had to play.

“Miri, I know you’re anxious about your first day, but it’s going to be fine. It is never fine to lie. Remember? We talked about this. No lying, and especially not to Mommy.” Alima glanced at her watch. “Bring you apple with you, we have to leave soon.”

Miriam pouted, “It’s not my fault you’re old and you don’t remember.”

Alima closed her eyes. Zen, deep breaths, like her meditation practice and parenting classes were supposed to teach her, sometimes that all went out the window. “Alright, young lady, no more TV. All those new shows you’re watching are clearly messing with your sleep. Let’s go.”

Miriam sniffled. The words tasted sour in Alima’s mouth. She never wanted to be the didactic parent. She wanted to be older, and wiser when she had a baby, so she would know how to deal with “normal” things like lying children with a life-lesson rather than scarring aggression. Alima remembered precisely how she felt when her own mother scolded her, the spreading prickle on her skin, the uncontrollable trembling of her lip she wanted to suppress, but never could. Why did I have you? So you could ruin my day like this? Her mother’s furrowed brow was enough to make Alima burst into tears, but she always waited until she was alone, not to ruin her mother’s day further. All her faults and mistakes blurred into one in her memory. Was it when she broke her grandmother’s vase? Or when she told her mother about her father’s late-night phone calls, fueling the unspeakable theory of adultery that has been spreading through the family grapevine?

Today was a first day for Alima, too: she was already running late to the Pediatric Nursing Practice that so graciously accepted her application from Kazakhstan, accommodated her interview over Skype, let go of the fact that she got her nursing license five years ago, and never worked in the US. Alima shut her eyes walking to the station and felt the fatigue hit her head, her eyes stinging. The soft sway on the bus brought her back to her first flight to Phoenix, her first time ever on an airplane, out of the country, on her way to college. Aray Chong Appa wanted her to go to school in Phoenix, to experience an American education, and perhaps have a chance of avoiding the inevitable consequence of being a young woman in Kazakhstan: marriage, children, a nice, respectable family that has silenced so many. The school really took a chance on Alima; she wasn’t a bad student, but she wasn’t the best, but she was excited to leave to home, especially as her parents had begun to pressure her to consider family instead of going away for school.

“What’s the point?” her mother cried at the airport, her tears staining her headscarf. “Why are you leaving us, what’s the point? You might as well stay, you’ll want a family anyway. Just stay home.” But Alima got on the plane nonetheless, holding back her own deep fear of ending up alone, or worse proving her parents right. That fear materialized nonetheless: Alima came back home four years later, her round, tough belly adjusting her center of gravity.

She was five months pregnant. A diploma in hand, she moved back into her childhood bedroom. Her father didn’t talk to her for the first two months, her mother ran around frantically, blaming herself for letting Alima go live with her liberal sister in America. Naturally it was her fault her daughter came back pregnant. When Alima had Miriam, her parents melted into pools of love. They didn’t care what the neighbors whispered as the four came home with a newborn. Her dad ran home every night to hold the baby before she went to bed, her mother took care of little Miriam when Alima got a job as an elementary school nurse. They took care of her daughter for five years; the mother was but a food provider, then a passing presence. She had to move away, it was her daughter after all. She alone made the decision to keep her. She should reap the benefits; she should suffer through the struggle of single-parenthood for the sweet relief.

What it was exactly, she couldn’t describe, but why else had things worked out this way?

 

*

 

When Alima went to pick Miri up from school at the end of the day, a young blonde in a navy blazer and khakis asked her to come into her office.

“I’m Ms. Halliday, Miriam’s English teacher,” she chirped and tapped her manicured finger on her desk, “I wanted to introduce myself to you, we’re so excited to have Miriam here.” Alima nodded and smiled swiftly. At twenty-seven, she couldn’t shake the intimidation of a classroom. She was a grown woman, but didn’t feel older than seven years old, forever anxious of speaking up in class, her lost participation points dragging her grades down. There were large, friendly cardboard cutouts of various fruits and vegetables on the walls, but she still felt her heart race. The atmosphere, Ms. Halliday’s tight, bright smile burning through Alima’s flesh, brought back to her schoolgirl mischief; the coping mechanism she could now identify, how she strayed from classwork, and how much she feared, to this day, that her daughter would end up just like her: caught up in her fear, every day’s mistakes and missed opportunities carried on her back.

“Great, then we’ll be on our way.” Alima started to get up from her cushioned seat,

Ms. Halliday interrupted. “I— I’m sorry, I should have been clear that’s not the only reason.” They settled back into their respective seats. “Miriam fell asleep in class today, and slept through most of it. When I asked her why she slept she said her mommy woke her up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t let her get back to sleep. We know it must be an isolated incident, but we just wanted to make sure…” her tone was more than condescending.

Alima shuffled in her seat, her legs aching and the bruise on her thigh starting to throb, “I’m so—” she coughed, “I’m so sorry, Miriam makes things up when she’s nervous and she was really nervous today, it’s the first day, and she doesn’t really like doing new things anyway.”

“That’s alright, we all get nervous. We just wanted to check in with you. Our school mission statement focuses on education as a collaborative effort between the teachers and the parents.” Ms. Halliday flashed another sterile smile, which Alima mirrored despite herself. “Miriam, why did you fall asleep in class? Your teacher had me in on the first day.” She tugged at her daughter’s arm as they walked back to their apartment complex.

The little one looked down at her feet, which she dragged along the pavement. Alima sighed and looked up to the silver clouds, the silent treatment weighed on her shoulders, “Miri, you’re not watching your meerkat show tonight whether you talk to me or not. You can’t be sleeping in class, you’ve barely started school.”

The apartment was silent except for the whistle of the tea kettle that dissipated into the air. Miriam whispered before shutting her bedroom door: “Don’t come into my room when I’m sleeping.” Alima didn’t realize she was holding her breath, calming herself in advance of a potential scoff. A heartbreaking sound when coming from a petite child, her child.

Alima struggled her shins into a lotus pose on her emerald green yoga mat. The cracked open window released some of the tension in the apartment outside. Breathe dammit. She’s got to stop lying. The heat rose again to Alima’s cheeks. I have that baby monitor. She brought it for the memories, for all those nights she spent crying on the bathroom floor as her baby slept in the bedroom. She burst through Miriam’s door, finding her daughter propped up on a pillow staring at a blank spot on the wall. Alima started to set up the spherical camera on a cabinet shelf, smack dab in front of her parent’s watchful smiles on a bedazzled photograph.

“What are you doing?” Miri squealed, but stayed in her bed.

“Oh, Mommy’s getting to the bottom of this nightly apparition—” Alima was frantic, trying to point the lens precisely at her daughter’s horrified face.

“I don’t want to be watched more, Mommy.” Miri struck her fist down on her pink sheets.

“Well, Mommy can’t have her baby not sleeping, and Mommy doesn’t want to be called into her baby’s teacher’s office again.” Miri tried to get under her covers. Alima finally settled on a set-up. “Alright, Miri, I’ll see you in the morning, baby,” Alima slammed the bedroom door shut without looking back, already full of regret. Unsatisfyingly resolute and recovering from her role-reversal tantrum, Alima fell into the embrace of her bed.

 

*

 

Years earlier, Alima told her aunt that she went for a run. Not having a license, she showed up to her Planned Parenthood appointment flush in the face, wiping the sweat from her burgundy eye bags. It was early March, she was getting into the swing of last college course load. When the second strip appeared on the test the morning before, Alima was sure she wasn’t going to keep it. It, it was a bundle of cells from a one-night stand at an anti-Valentine’s Day party. She was taking her nursing test in a couple of months; she wasn’t going walk across the auditorium floor like a shotgun bride. She’d worked so hard; this wasn’t even up for deliberation. But filling out the paperwork, Alima started to cry. The tears just rolled. She wasn’t sure how it started. Her heart raced from embarrassment. People were looking. Staring, really. She wanted to scream I’m getting rid of it, okay? but instead she sat down on the curb outside and called her aunt to pick her up. Aray Chong Appa didn’t ask questions; when they arrived home they both hid their tears behind chopping onions.

“I’ll pay for your ticket back home,” Aray swept the set off her forehead and pulled back her headscarf. They were silenced for a moment, the onions sizzling in a pan of hot oil. “What, to get rid of me?” Alima almost whispered, but needed to scream, and she was ashamed, as the words fell from her lips. Aray said the right thing; it was the only logical step, but still she was Alima’s only lasting role-model, and the reality of this disappointment drilled to the bone.

 

*

 

Alima lit a candle by her bedside and laid her head down. She tossed, her left foot fell asleep. She shook it to get rid of the pins and needles. She shut her eyes to force her body to sense her fatigue. Alima could not settle into her sleep; she would wake into consciousness from loud noises and crashing, and never found respite. Alima was sure it was a nightmare, one of those lucid dreaming situations. Maybe it was her fear of the dark acting up again; she made a mental note to find a sleep specialist.

Miriam was asleep when Alima slipped into the room right after she woke up. Miri might have cried and that could have spurred her dream. Alima fried eggs and slid them on both of their plates. They had to make up today, or Miri might act up in class and cause a whole mess again. Momaka and Bovaka[2] weren’t there to make peace between them anymore. They weren’t there to help Alima be a good mom, the kind of figure that was just visible enough to be dangled in front of her face, yet completely unattainable. Her parents never let her forget what she should strive to be.

Your daughter calls for us at night, not you, don’t you think that’s a problem? A child should not grow up without a father, you should be thankful for all our help. Was it worth moving to America to come back a single mother? Why not just spread your legs here? Didn’t you learn parenting skills in your fancy American nursing school? And her, standing in front of her parents, her eyes locked with the carpet, taking their advice, their help, because she couldn’t do better, didn’t know better. What? Leaving again? Where are you running from? You know Miri-jan will miss us, why would you put your child through that? If you leave now, don’t come back pregnant and asking for help again. Your father and I want peace. She didn’t want to be, but she was punishing her parents. Perhaps it was for the best. She recalled feeling sadistic when she reveled in her parents’ sadness at the airport. Finally, finally, a sigh of relief. The guilt of dealing with a silently weeping child washed over her, as the plane took off.

 

*

 

Rolling her eyes, she called out:

“Miri, are you up yet? You have to get going to school soon, we don’t want to be late.” She waited until she heard rustling coming from her bedroom. Alima felt a slight vibration in her back pocket, her iPhone displayed the message in bright pink letters: Baby Miriam’s video footage has been successfully downloaded. She scrolled through her camera roll to find a seven-minute-long video at the very bottom of the screen. Alima pressed hard and quick on the icon fluorescent icon.

The clip begins in apparent darkness, Alima should have thought about lighting when she put the monitor in Miri’s room last night, but after a couple seconds something crawls into the room and settles by the foot of the child’s bed. Miriam wakes up and forces a pillow over her head. Alima turned up the volume: there was a female voice weeping in the background. Miri interrupts, “Stop it, just let me sleep!” The female voice’s small frame becomes more defined, as Alima squints in horror. Her own weeping. Her own voice.

She doesn’t stop sobbing. She gets louder; just as Miriam throws a pillow at her, Alima falls to her knees. Miriam shouts, “Shut up and leave!” She rises from the floor. Alima’s disheveled frame kicks the foot of the bed. Miriam picks up and hugs her knees, ducking her head. “Alright, alright, stop it.” Now Alima rushes around the room. She knocks over Miriam’s prized possessions, her books, the framed photographs of her grandparents. She looks enraged but is wailing still. Miriam jumps off the bed and slides under it, but Alima stops with a fist and throws the child’s frail body onto the bed. Alima, this woman, is shouting in Miri’s scrunched face. Her hand slides on her throat and she presses; Alima’s face looks up to the ceiling. The child lays still on the bed.

The phone dropped from Alima’s hand and onto the marbled counter. The video rolled, showing Alima knocking the cabinet over; the camera shattering on the hardwood, then the video cuts. Alima rushed upstairs to Miriam’s room, whose eyes were shut. She put her palm on the child’s forehead. She felt the cold of her daughter’s skin. She couldn’t feel her breath. Alima turned Miriam over and started to shake her softly at first, then quickly and forcefully. Her daughter’s flaccid body dropped back onto the pink sheets. Alima wanted to run back to the kitchen to dial 911, but when she turned her head, she could no longer find the door.

 

[1] Chong Appa means elder female relative in Uighur and is used in reference after their first name.

[2] Grandmother and Grandfather in Uighur.

 

Sara Karim is originally from Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and is currently a psychology student at Southern New Hampshire University.

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