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Rough Lady photo

My daughters are 6 and 3 and sleep in my bed. My daughters, truth be told, are nearly 7 and 4 and still sleep in my bed. We have slept together since they were born. Newborn mice that they were, all pink and mewling, I could not bring myself to rise every time they needed to be fed. I wanted peace and found that if I heaved my breast out and popped it in their mouth, I could have it. When one breast drained, I would scoop my daughters onto my chest and roll us both onto the other side, laying them down on milk stained sheets and heaving the other breast out to comfort them. Time passed strangely during the winters of my daughters’ earliest life. In Berlin, the sun rarely made an appearance. The outside world was a spectrum of gray—pearl to charcoal—and I never knew what time it was. The room smelled like milk and sweat. I only got up for a few reasons; to crack a window, to change a diaper, to eat, and occasionally, to go for a walk.

When my younger daughter is mad at me, she says, “You are not my mom.” She negates me because that is the only way she can have the reality she wants. If I want her to brush her teeth and she doesn’t want to, she casts a spell—you are not my mom—and poof! She’s living in a world where teeth may exist unbrushed for eternity. Last night, leading up to outrageously bad sleep, I commanded the kids to “Go to sleep!” I am also a spell binder and in my world, uttering go to sleep results in instant slumber.

It’s the first night they’re back in my bed after a week with their dad. We have an alternating weekly schedule I am not entirely comfortable with. A 3-year-old needs her mother. This is what I think but I don’t know what I mean. Her father loves her. She loves him. They have their bond and their arguments and their rhythm and their language just like we have ours. Why should it count less? Because I gave birth to her? Because of the milk? Because of the primordial supremacy of the mother/ child relationship? I can’t answer this and I can't stop it from unsettling me when she’s gone but I also crave solitude. When I'm alone for a week, I am not their mom. I am more shapeless and undefined. There are moments I almost forget they exist. There are moments I imagine my alternate reality going on forever. I didn’t crack the case. It doesn’t actually work better to have them less. The pain of separation takes numbing. I have good days and bad.

It’s nearly 8:30 and neither of my kids want to sleep. It is Monday evening and I know they were late to school this morning because they overslept. Their dad is a bad sleeper and undisciplined about getting up. Once, out of exasperation and the desire to humiliate him, I took my phone into the bedroom and filmed him with National Geographic style voice over. “This is a video of an irresponsible adult. It’s Friday,10am. He won’t get out of bed. He has no excuse.” From under the covers, he rejoindered “This is embarrassing,” which only added fuel to my fire. “You’re right. It is embarrassing!” “Then why are you doing it?” he pleaded. “Because,” I snap back, “you need to learn to be a grown up and that doesn’t include sleeping till 10 for no reason. You don’t get to do that anymore.” I threatened to send the video to his mother.

I can’t remember if it actually got him out of bed. Both of us come off badly in this exchange and it’s no surprise that the relationship ended with malice and destructive intent shortly afterwards.

Now there are entire weeks where the kids are his responsibility and getting them to school on time is his responsibility as well. However that happens, it’s a different schedule than the one they keep with me. I’m an early to bed, early to rise sort of person and I set about converting them every other week, but they can only attempt to get on schedule, like savvy business travelers adjusting to Hong Kong time. They can’t control when they’re tired.

The little one kicks off the blankets and attempts to leave. In reaction, I deftly take one arm and knock her back down, rolling over her and heaving my weight onto her so there’s no escape. Her sister is on the other side and she is mad at me for causing this commotion. She hates hearing struggle. She tries to calm her sister down in soft spoken German while telling me in English that I'm doing it wrong. When her father and I separated, she was thrust into the role of translator. She and her sister became the constant in a theorem with two variables. At first, I encouraged her to inhabit this role. I thought it would help her to have a job to do, focus her energy on something productive instead of the nebulous misery of her new circumstances. But she is only a child and I soon realized I created a monster. At times, she’s chiding and cruel—not satisfied unless the apology is a grovelling one. Other times, like now, she’s just in the way. I fight her until she relents. “Enough,'' I shout. “Leave her alone. You aren’t her mom. I’m her mom. Let me do my job.”

But she may be stronger willed than I am and I get the feeling that she only believes me to occupy the role of mom, competently, some of the time.

I am very annoyed when I hear the soft whispered German and the bargaining and cajoling continue despite my warning. Now I have to put an end to all of it. Without relaxing my hold, I take one arm and lob it in the direction of the gentle voice. I reach her face with a flat hand and try to push my older daughter off her sister, face first, while angrily yelling, “Stay out of it. Go on your side and go to sleep.” I push hard enough that she loses balance on her elbow and falls over. She starts to laugh. “You’re a rough lady!” she says with bemused candor. It’s such an accurate and polite description that I’m momentarily humbled, then very humiliated.

I’m not a mom. I’m a rough lady. And to be a rough lady is to be no lady at all.

Yesterday, I was, if not a lady, then at least a successful girlfriend. I was enjoying being part of a couple and bringing enjoyment to my partner. We ate extravagant breakfasts and took long showers together where we spent time carefully scrubbing each other’s backs. When we opened a bottle of white wine for dinner, J took a sip and said, “This is good, it’s sweet.” “No it’s not.” I replied, offended that he would think I'd open something so inappropriate for our meal. “Well, it tastes sweet to me.” “Well it’s not,” I said and almost launched into a lecture on dessert wine before I reconsidered. Anything further than disputing his opinion with my own felt like a petulant argument. You want sweet? I’ll give you sweet!

Finally, slumbered breathing and heat fill the bed. I’m still keyed up so I pop in headphones and watch a stupid adult cartoon. It’s 10 when I finally put myself to sleep. I kiss both my girls and promise to be better tomorrow while being careful not to spin into self-hatred for what amounted to 10 bad minutes.

The cat jumps on the bed and wakes me up. He has an ear infection. I have to give him drops twice a day. He got it because the cone they gave him after his castration surgery a week ago created a steamy biodome around his head, where bacteria could flourish. The vet has been over the past two Mondays, once for his surgery, which she performed with an assistant on my dining room table, and earlier today for his ears. Each time, it costs at least 50 euros, but I am a responsible pet owner and always accept the charge.

Carlos the cat likes me to scratch around his face and ears, in the spots he can’t reach now. He shakes his head loudly, sticky unkempt fur whipping against plastic. In my state of guilt and repentance, I scratch Carlos to relieve him and when I'm done, he settles against my feet. As I doze off again, it’s my youngest daughter, sleeping in the middle, who wakes me. She is kicking off the blankets. She does it while sleeping, always has. She kicks until she creates a gully of blankets below her feet, which exposes me and her sister to the cold air. I’ve grown accustomed to half-waking from this ritual, pulling the blankets back up and going back to sleep. But tonight, the waking coincides with her emptied bladder and as I pull the blankets back up, I feel the wet spot and realize she has peed through her diaper and needs to be changed. As gently as possible, I pull off her pants and take off her soggy diaper. She protests but I soothe her. I take my shirt off and put it on the wet spot and lay her back down, with a clean diaper and no pants. Since I'm already up, I go to the bathroom, topless, to pee. A minute later, I'm back in bed. I roll onto my left side, away from the hot sleepy breath of my daughter, who has wedged me into a narrow sliver of the mattress. I try to find sleep at the edge of the bed but my back pain is acting up. It’s a restless feeling. I push for more room on the bed, disturbing Carlos and exposing the wet spot. I cover the wet spot again.

Tonight, the pain is mostly in my left shoulder, between my shoulder blade and spine. Earlier that evening, I used a tennis ball to loosen the biggest knot. My daughters ate chicken noodle soup and watched a show about a relentlessly helpful princess while I lay against a stiff pillow and shifted carefully to keep the tennis ball in the right spot. Sometimes I pushed against the ball until I found a groove and the pain got very bad and I saw something like stars, which I assumed to be the unblocking of my vascular system. But now I know I didn't go hard enough or long enough and the pain is still there. I realize there’s nothing to do but lie on the ground and work it again, with singular and serious focus. I leave the bedroom and move to the shag carpet in the living room. It’s 4 in the morning. I work the tennis ball into the spots that hurt. They are clustered, so there’s a lot of work to do. I roll myself back and forth, lifting my legs to apply more pressure to my back. Carlos weaves around me, nuzzling my hand into his wretched cone so that I remember to scratch his aching ears.

I drag myself to bed, bleary eyed. I have taken two ibuprofen and a hefty dose of melatonin. It’s nearly 5 am. In two hours, I have to be up to get the girls ready for school. At 7:14 the alarm goes off and the lack of sleep is like a club to the head. Somehow I make coffee, pack snacks, feed them breakfast, dress them, refill Carlos' food and water, apply his ear drops, and usher us to the cargo bike downstairs. The little one hasn’t brushed her teeth today but the big one has. I am braless, wearing pajamas with a jacket and beanie thrown over.

My younger daughter is distraught at having her pacifier taken away. I shouldn’t have let her have it, but I am weak today, so she rides to kindergarten with a dirty pacifier in her dirty mouth. Her teachers are primed to deal with her. She is a difficult child for them and we have had several meetings about her behaviour. They often bring up the separation during these meetings and I have no way to respond. If I made it harder for her to develop because I left her father, there is no reversal that will amend that. Finally, I pry her off me, crying, and her teacher replaces me as mother. She hoists all 45 pounds of her up and takes her to the front room where other children are quietly eating their selection of German breakfast foods.

Later that day, I will ride an hour by bike to meet a friend who is suffering from a recent separation. I will tell her to find a long running series and make it her wife. I will go to H&M and buy my older daughter a new fall jacket because the hoodie she has is no longer warm enough. I will text my boyfriend and tell him about my bad sleep. He will text back comfort. At 7pm, when the sky is dark, I will put all four of us to bed again, without tears. We will tell each other stories that make no sense. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a tower with her evil stepmother, as if we have the ability to truly imagine such a fate.


image: Eve Ettinger