Published on May 28th, 2019 | by Frances Badalamenti0
I Don’t Blame You: An Excerpt from the Novel by Frances Badalmenti
I Don’t Blame You, Frances Badalmenti’s debut novel, is a young woman’s journey of losing her mother two months before becoming a mother herself—and all the complicated family dynamics that came before that. “The thing about my mother,” Badalmenti writes, “is that she was a strange sick bird not only during the last bits of her life but also throughout the first thirty-four years of mine.”
Read the excerpt below, and check out MUTHA’s Q&A with Badalmenti here.
In the first two years after my son was born, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I was the kind of tired when all you want is to be left alone to sleep in a big soft bed with crisp white sheets and a stark white duvet, and you want to bathe in a white porcelain tub, and you want to wash your body with creamy white French-milled soap, and you want to dry off on thick white cotton towels. I would dream of sleeping in this fictional bed, ensconced in bright warm sunlight coming through big, open floor-to-ceiling windows. I was never able to sleep restfully, my nights and naps consistently disturbed by the baby’s needs, so my inner and outer worlds became these short spans of meaningless time.
I spent most of my days walking loops around my inner Northeast Portland neighborhood with the baby tucked into a sling, later, when he got a little bigger, with the child nestled into a stroller. Even if it was pissing rain, I found solace in the trees, most especially the huge firs that stand like sentinels in the park near our home. As strange as it may sound, I looked to them for answers; they were how I communicated to my mother, as if she had somehow taken up residence in their bark. My neck and shoulders ached with leftover body pain from childbirth and then from awkward nursing positions, sharp spasms sometimes radiating into my head and down my spine. I got postnatal bodywork. I saw an acupuncturist regularly. I went for chiropractic adjustments.
A woman with long gray hair tucked into a bun and clad in a long skirt came to give my child craniosacral therapy. He had become quite colicky and would cry like a mad baby for many hours throughout the evening. They called it the witching hours. She gently massaged the bones in his skull, so they would go back into place. My mother had always told me that I was a colicky baby, and I had never known what she meant, had always thought it had to do with stomach pains, which I had suffered from throughout my life.
I was so utterly sleep deprived, my nerves so rattled and hot, that I felt as if I was hovering just above the ground, never fully connected to the earth. Long walks to the grocery store and stops at the café for too-strong coffee. There were so many sweet smiling faces who would admire my beautiful child. But I avoided intimate contact, my eyes so heavy with darkness and despair. And I had fallen so desperately in love with my child, but I had also become riddled with a deep well of fear that something would happen to him. He was so fragile, and I was scared that he would break.
One night when he was still so teeny tiny, so newly born, I was about to get in the tub. I placed him on the bath mat and thought that I might accidentally step on him and crush his skull like an egg.
Drew went about his life like nothing had changed much, getting a good night’s sleep, waking late, and then sipping coffee in the mornings while checking his emails. He would pack a lunch and cycle into his design studio five miles away and would return home around dinnertime, a hot dinner on the stove waiting for him.
“We fell into a dated 1950s marriage trap,” I told a friend.
And a lot of the anger that had been born out of the grief of losing my mother and had mixed with the baby-induced insomnia was propelled back at my husband, who became a somewhat innocent yet checked-the-fuck-out target.
For the first time in our relationship, I truly needed him. But I also hated him for having a living mother who got to hold our son. I hated him for being able to look the other way, and more than anything, I hated him because he got to sleep.
I couldn’t resist thinking about what it would have been like had my mother lived to meet my son. What types of witchy Sicilian wisdom I could have gleaned from the woman who I had sometimes hated more than anyone I could ever hate. There had been so many times I had wished my mother away. She was a force that could wreak tremendous emotional havoc on me in ways nobody else ever could. There were times it caused me to punch walls, to punch myself, to punch her in the fat part of her arm that I had used as a pillow when I was a little girl needing to be consoled, comforted.
I thought back to when she was dying.
When she had said to me, “You got so mad that you bit me once.”
I thought back to when she was so sick with the cancer, half-awake in that hospital bed.
“You used to brush my hair,” she had told me.
After my son was born, and after the bad sleep took hold and didn’t relent for a long time, I grew angry.
“Just so you know—anger is a secondary emotion,” a therapist would tell me years later. “Something else is buried underneath, and to heal properly, you need to uncover what is really there.”
My child did not cause my anger. He was just a fat little baby who drank sweet, warm milk from my body. I couldn’t get enough of his dark eyes, his perfect tiny feet, the smell of his hair. I could have kissed his sweet face for days and I did. And it wasn’t my husband who caused me to be angry—even though there were times I hated him.
As I fell deeper into darkness and despair, Drew began to retreat farther and farther away from what was in from of him. He turned away from me. He adored and loved the shit out of his son, but he was not the child’s caregiver. He did not respond to the baby as I did. He wasn’t tuned into our son’s needs—as if a certain biological switch never got flipped on inside of him. He would ignore the baby’s cries, most especially during the night when it was dark and cold. I hated nothing more than to see Drew sleeping soundly, so I hated him. But I also knew that it was not about him, that it was about me, and that it also wasn’t about me. I knew that the anger came from my mother. And it wasn’t because she had never had enough money for bills, and it wasn’t because she hadn’t taken care of herself, and it wasn’t because she had smoked too many cigarettes and gotten the cancer.
During an especially rainy autumn afternoon not long after my mother was gone and before my son came into the world, I was wandering around in my backyard. The ground was wet, and there were piles of freshly fallen leaves scattered about. We have a stone Buddha statue that sits peacefully in the middle of some native shrubs in our yard.
I had been turning back to Buddhist thought and meditation, something that had first piqued my interest when I was in high school. Even though I was raised Catholic, I had never related to church or the Bible and had taken more to Eastern philosophies. So when I tried to parse out, to make sense of where the essence of my mother had gone after she passed on, I read about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of assisting your loved ones during the crucial transitional period after their passing. It is kind of like midwifing their souls to a better place, like holding a flashlight behind them in a dark room, showing them where to go.
So I sat in the wet grass near the statue, which had become a shrine to my mother, and I guided her. I placed flower and herb cuttings from my garden in the Buddha’s lap and also lit a candle. I heard a message: It’s her anger. It’s not yours; it’s hers. And then I felt a physical shift inside of me. My understanding of who I was became clear.
At the time, I didn’t really know what the message truly meant, but I knew that it held deep meaning. It resonated. So by the time the initial sadness and the constant tears after my mother’s death began to cool and once anger came, you could have called it a stage of grief, but I never ascribed to any of those ideas—I knew that it wasn’t because my mother was gone, because she had abandoned me before I became a mother. It was because I was grieving the loss of what I had never gotten to have. It was because my mother had been so unwell all of her life, with the traumas, the neglect, the unmet needs, and so all of her grief had gotten passed on to me. I could feel it deep in my tissues. And so I had taken on all the anger that she had died with.
The thing about my mother is that she was a strange sick bird not only during the last bits of her life but also throughout the first thirty-four years of mine. She was so full of love for her children that she couldn’t breathe sometimes because the love would almost choke her to death. She was sick to death with cancer and love. She smoked so much and she stared at the walls because all she had was love, nothing else.
You could tell that it was too painful to bear: the mountains and rolls and dips and valleys of flesh and bone and cells that went who the fuck knows where when she was near the end of her life, after the sick took hold for good. All the parts of my mother that I knew so well and hated so much got flushed down the toilet and into the sewer with all the other garbage.
My mother was scared of the affection she had for her children. I didn’t really understand this until I had a child of my own, how hard it is to love your child, how heart wrenching and heartbreaking and painful it is to fully love. How scared you are to lose them. My mother lost that first Ana—a stillborn. And it seems to me, she never recovered, never truly healed. She always knew that a child could be taken from her.
When I was getting to know my child, during those first few days, months, years, I became very anxious. I loved him so much that if I thought about something horrible happening to him, I would be overcome with a tremendous blanket of fear. He was so vulnerable, innocent, his skin so raw and fresh. And he needed my body for nourishment, my affection to thrive.
My child needed me so he wouldn’t die, and so there was this level of responsibility that I had never known before. It scared the shit out of me.
“I feel like I am not old enough to have a baby,” I told a friend.
“I know what you mean,” she said.
I wasn’t sure if I was capable of mothering, because I was still so buried in my own childhood pain. But I did. I loved the shit out of my child. And of course my mother had had to die right before I became a mother, because in all of the grief and the pain and the loss and the eventual joy, I finally started to become an actual person for the first time in my life.