Last week we were minding a baby, and from time to time she cried a little. It didn't bother me, except on Wednesday. On Wednesday, I felt angry; and when she cried, I wanted to blame somebody. I couldn't blame her; she's too little. So I blamed other things. For a while I blamed my own kids. If only they wouldn't play with the baby and make her so tired; if only they were a little more willing to walk another block or four while we settled her in the pram; if only they would just for five little minutes shut the hell up.
Then I blamed myself. Perhaps I took her out for too long; or held her upright when she wanted to lie flat; or lay her down when she wanted to sit up; or put her in the cot when she wanted a cuddle; or put her in the sling when she wanted to kick her legs on the floor. I blamed my floppy old body that is tired from hauling babies and toddlers around and resented carrying her in the sling all day. The previous day I had hauled her and a two year old and two backpacks for a mile; and on Wednesday I felt it, and I blamed my eco-pride that meant we walked not drove.
Meanwhile it's school holidays so my older two are home; and after a week of four kids at my side and a toddler with the runs and the baby in the house and cooking with my arms outstretched as she nestles in the sling, I also blamed my streak of perfectionism that drives me to make something nice for dinner and which makes caring for four children so difficult at times.
But late in the day, after all this angry blaming, I finally recognised my sadness.
Wednesday was my mother's birthday and because she died so long ago, nobody remembered. Tired or not, I waded through the day holding onto the baby like a life preserver. She cried for only a little while, but I was in such a hole that I played the blame game for hours; and still I held her close. As I breathed in her scent, hour after hour, slowly I realised I wasn't really angry. I just felt utterly bereft.
My mother and I fought constantly. We never really got along; even as a little girl I lived in opposition. Yet other children loved her. As I grew into adolescence and adulthood, I watched kids flock to her. They would crowd around her and tell her their secrets; they would nestle in and listen to stories; they would kneel beside her wheelchair, bumping against the footplates, and play with her shoelaces.
She died years before I had children of my own. She never met her grandchildren, and she never saw me become the adult I am now. A decade later, I find myself beginning to realise we are no longer in opposition, and I am no longer defined against her. I may not be her, but somehow I too have become one of those women children tell stories to, the sort of person who spends a party showing a four year old guest how the kitchen scales work, how to use the oven timer, how to make the apple machine spin. I know when a baby needs a feed or a sleep; and choose to spend days rocking a friend's little one who needs to snooze in this draughty old house that is not her own.
When this baby cried on Wednesday, instead of finding someone to blame perhaps instead I could admit the long-reaching tentacles of loss, and name them as the source of my anger. The baby, my kids, my own self: they didn't really bother me at all.
Instead, it was grief, pure and simple: my missing my mother's floppy grey cowl-necked jumpers and her tiny spotted hands; my remembering the way she used to run her fingers through her short thick hair; my yearning for her long-gone fisherman's smock, the pockets stuffed with crumpled tissues, the stub of a pencil and the little battered notebook in which she recorded the birds she saw; my recalling so many birthdays so long ago, and wondering which of her apple cakes she would have liked me to cook; and my slow realisation that perhaps the best present I could give her is this: to hold a friend's baby, to pat the baby's bottom, to pace the hall up and down, up and down, and to sing as she settles into sleep.