The Dark Mothers’ Club



No one told me that when I had a child, I would no longer be my child. I didn’t know I had been my own baby, lo, these thirty-five years, but the vision arises in the negative space, as shadow forms of a me now blacked-out. Late-morning yoga; all-night reading; wine at a bar, legs crossed on a high stool; wit; hilarity; flirtations; baths; midnight movies; weekend trips to see friends in better cities or at beaches; morning tea on the porch with the crossword puzzle; porn in the afternoon. All gone, gone, gone.

Now I’ve been replaced, and it’s fine. It’s better even. Loving myself has never been easy, but this love is like discovering I have lungs.

I should say, I once fantasized about killing the baby just to get a night’s sleep. During those very early weeks of motherhood when he never slept, when the death of my own biological importance still crashed in icy waves, as I scraped around rocking or nursing or changing him at every sunless hour. Not so much fantasy as a hailstorm of intrusive thought—throwing him down the stairs, snapping his neck, opening the second floor window and tossing him into the snow. While the thoughts landed, I’d clutch him tighter, shielding him from an evil me who stretched her limbs inside mine, fed and content on the buffet of my exhaustion.

But now the baby sleeps heavily, in incredible fourteen-hour undertows, with his cartoonishly peaceful breath whispering all night across the baby monitor. And yet: I can’t sleep.

“Sweetie,” they answer, they being the Greek chorus of chipper moms in yoga pants and puffer vests, arabesqueing with lattes. They surround the bed and taunt me in the dark, all cheer and bouncy ponytails and Target shopping bags: “You have a baby! What’d’ya expect? Jeez!” Thus, I have a new murder fantasy to help pass the nights.

I have not slept in three days. Zero hours. I’ve always been a fine sleeper, but suddenly sleep is a broken bone. Broken. I turn over the word: two soft halves severed, unflinchingly, by the hit of the k. Sifting through the tissue of my insides, I seek for the split, the break in me, as all the hours of the night unwind. The baby’s breaths shush across the monitor, and the violet dawn bleeds in.

Hours later I text Jules, after ten, when odds are better she’ll be awake. What I want is to never tell a soul what is happening to me, pretend it away like I’ve done with every other grief. But what if I say broken out loud, and the k hits just where it has always been needed, a hammer to the cleavage point that cracks the spell?

Still no sleep. I get into bed and it’s like, off I go to work, I write.

Oh, honey❤❤❤, she answers. And then a GIF with a kitty-cat flexing his paws in a swirling rainbow aura. Jules is preternaturally happy, like champagne personified. Once she told me she never took psychedelics because she was afraid she’d dissolve into sparkles. Her alien joy makes her sympathy tough to bear.

Nor does it help that, for one golden month, we were pregnant together. For one month, we laughed at the disasters we’d both made of our lives, unwed and knocked-up thirty-somethings, doing it our way—like LaVerne and Shirley, but sharing maternity clothes and heaping our plates at the Indian buffet. We joked about the funny ways our kids would love each other, tiny us-es, her baby exuberant and braiding dandelions, mine serious and negotiating over sandbox toys. And then she had an abortion. I know Jules must have imagined her own mom’s small life, of work and boxed wine and TV, alone, and then she went in for the procedure.

I think I’m one sleepless night away from the mental hospital, I write, then delete, then write: I don’t feel half as bad as I think I should.


“I think you really do feel like nothing.”

My therapist, Pam, has an actual leather chaise like in New Yorker cartoons. Usually, I lie on it as upon spikes, seeping humiliation. Sometimes she calls me her patient, and I want to flip her the double birds, walk right out the door, and never come back. And yet, on that cool leather, the jungle drums fade, and I can almost imagine how normal people drift off: Just untie the dinghy and float, dummy.

“What do you think about what I’m saying?”

“What’s that?”

“I asked whether this feeling of nothing is familiar.”

“Of course.” For years Pam has been trying to crack me open like a bird in an egg, but saying, I think you feel like nothing, is like saying, coffee is delicious, or, paper cuts hurt. This is supposed to be news?

“Could you say more?”

I sigh, knowing the right answer. “My mom.”

Nodding, she half whispers, “Could you say more?”

If only I could roll my eyes without then having to parse and explicate why I rolled my eyes. My mom is dead. On my eighteenth birthday, breast cancer killed her. Now grief is the ruined house where I live, like the Grey Gardens mansion where Big Edie and Little Edie, entangled mom and daughter, recline on twin beds, repasting on tuna and crackers from the mini-fridge. Maternity cording arms and legs, they croon and soft-shoe as the clapboards compost—bacteria digesting structure, turning hope into salt air. Is there any difference between haunting and biology?

Pam says, “Go on.” Meaning she wants me to say it, not about Big and Little Edie, but about me. That I bump around in these rotted mind-rooms where I keep my mom because I think that’s loyalty. Is that right? Is Mom forever forty-three? Am I seventeen? What would happen if I stopped being ridiculous and Mom stopped being in charge? I’d lose her, duh. I’d become someone she could not recognize. 

Yet the baby has pummeled me helplessly into adulthood anyway. I bicycle fat baby legs on the changing table. I walk with him in the carrier, his quick heart skipping against the bass drum of mine. I spend the most tedious afternoons upon afternoons buried alive in love, a long waking dream in which, yes, I am the mother. 

Night bears down like a bright train in the dark. Do you know how long a night is? A flight from L.A. to Iceland. Or a sixteen-pound turkey, slow-roasted, eaten, and followed by a second. If my hands could stop shaking, and if I’d gone to med school instead of an MFA program where I majored in watching movies alone in the dark, I’d have time to transplant two human hearts. 

Instead, I lie in bed, breathing slowly. I am an absolute blank. Has it ever been otherwise? Has The Mother ever been anything but dead?  Children’s books are littered with mothers’ corpses: Pippi’s, Cinderella’s, Snow White’s, Hansel and Gretel’s, Nancy Drew’s, James before his Giant Peach, and the Boxcar Children before the boxcar. Devastation is paragraph one, prologue kind of stuff: a brief interlude of thunder and tattered clothes, a far-away look foreshadowing the child’s precious difference. Grief is no pile of rubble beneath which they tunnel out their lives. It lands like a wink. This little wretch is special. Like all-the-bad-things-were-just-initiation-and-prove-how-luminously-fated-their-life-is special. Pain’s worth is that you may walk upon its stones through the open gates of happiness, laying waste to the bullies with their decadent two-parent comfort. Sure, a dead mother is a price, but more love and glory is the certain reward.

“Survival mechanism,” Pam says. But that isn’t what Teri Gross says when I imagine our Fresh Air interview. “It was hard, Teri,” I’d say. “But that grief gave me the rage—the depth!—to become worthwhile and do whatever beautiful thing you are talking to me about today!”

The truth about motherhood is that, sure, it is easily the deepest version of a life I’ve ever lived. It is also crushingly, biologically un-special. When I walk down the street with the stroller, I am exactly the person everyone thinks I am. I am a paper doll mommy pushing another fucking McLaren. Gone is the belief in my difference. Gone is my faith in my inevitable rise. Sure, I still have vague longings. To write. To have sex with attractive people. To see movies. Maybe someday when the kid is bigger I’ll go to law school or learn to play drums and join a really cool band. In the meantime, the orbit of my brain doesn’t move much beyond my son’s needs. An apple? A diaper? A trip down the big slide?

Yet in insomnia I am special. I am a broken spectacle, a fated failure, like my mom with her cancer.


Sun. Another pulsing white-light day. The air buzzes and feels too thin to hold me together, like my molecules dance at double the speed of other molecules and keep confusing themselves with motes of toast and dirty diaper. The walls hum. “Well,” Tim says, patting my rump before he hurries to work, “you seem good.” And then Jules sits across from me on the kitchen floor with her bright eyes and pink lipstick and the smell of incense rising off her hair as she rubs my feet. “You look great! I’d never be able to tell. Six days!”

Today I was banking on the big breakdown, a plate-smashing, wailing jubilee that could empty me. But the tears must have splintered into particles of air. The baby pounds a merry rhythm on some Tupperware. I shrug and tell her, “I think I’m actually fine.”

Night. A well-worn rut. Tim’s back is heavy with sleep. Do I hate him? Does he hate me? 


But, as I wade across the molasses minutes of late afternoon, rinsing binkies and sorting laundry, I also wait for him.

Sometimes as I wait, I also imagine what it would be like if Tim died in a fiery car crash.

The important thing is that I wanted a baby, and then the baby materialized like stardust from a fairy wish, even with Tim, who seemed bound to me by no more than string and scotch tape. I, little wretch, had a brighter fate.

Christ, he loves the baby with a focus that disappears me.

“That,” he’d say if he were awake, “is just the narrative you’ve decided to believe.”

“Okay, then give me another fucking narrative,” I’d demand. “Tell me a story.”

But he’s gone to sleep like the others.

I go down to the living room with the cat at least following loyally. I sit and catalog the things I brought into this house when I moved in: one lamp, two small paintings, a rocking chair. I eat a banana and a giant spoonful of yogurt like I did those first nights of tidal hunger, eating and staring out the window at the dark yard, suspended between the shore of my childhood and a future life I had never really believed in, waiting for the sun as I waited for the baby I knew would come but could not yet fathom.

We did not know Mom would die, or I think we didn’t. We’d had years of plucky nurses in kitty-cat scrubs with a dripline of dismissive optimism. Maybe that was why Dad felt okay about having an affair. Or at least when Mom asked if he’d kissed that woman, he was honest, and she said she didn’t want to know more. “You don’t love me,” she’d declared, teeth-clenched, gloriously fierce and bald-headed, with blue half-moons stamped beneath her eyes from chemotherapy. She was not asking. But he answered anyway: “I haven’t loved you in years.”

When a couple of hours have gone by, the cat and I climb the stairs. “Get back into bed,” I tell myself. “Try again.” But I don’t really try. Instead I beam violence at Tim’s heavy breathing sack of a body until morning brightens the blinds.

Days pass. And nights of course. I know all the hours intimately as any lover, the lucid high of four a.m. as familiar as the adrenaline drunk of noon. One night I don’t even try to sleep. Tim has given me a ritual to perform in nature, so at bedtime I set out for the wild hills that surround the neighborhood. I should say: Tim is strange. He is the weird guy dancing alone at the back of rock shows, marionetted limbs, eyes closed. He wears macrame earrings and has a chaw of tree sap in his pocket. I mostly liked all of that about him before. Tim sees me to the edge of the yard, and I hike the slope away from the streetlights, to try, like he said, to commune with my ancestors. “Mom,” I beg. “Grandma. What?” I see all the old women, thin-lipped and hard-faced, Mormon grandmothers of my grandmother. Even their long wool skirts are implacable. Four silent women tethered to the hardscrabble of the Utah frontier by motherhood and the wanting husband they shared. I have their obsidian eyes.

If only I knew the right thing to do. I write out a plea and leave it under a rock: Please, please, don’t let me die. Please let me stay with my baby. I pee in the high spring grass, though it tickles my rear and foxes shriek and bark so I have to steady my bare, shivering thighs in my hands. When I lie on the hillside my heart hammers against the sand and scrub. There is too much goddamned information zinging through the ground. Too much that happened and was never right and has never really gone. Eons of broken bodies beneath me. Each abandoned outside. Even I will haunt the dirt—me who has always loved a coffee shop better than an open field. No, I don’t sleep.



“I think you’re worried about your baby,” a massage therapist suggests. “Try this pressure point.”

“Maybe it’s a dairy allergy?” says the cute girl at the co-op.

“Insecurity?” Jules offers, “Oh, honey.”

“It’s just hormones!” says Tim’s mom on speakerphone. “Try a progesterone suppository and you’ll be fine!”

I get up, again.

“Jeez!” Tim groans, punching the pillow.

My up-and-down routine is driving him out of his mind. I trip over the laundry basket, swear, push open the bathroom door on its whiny hinge.

“For Christ’s sake,” he mutters.

But what am I supposed to do? Die quietly? Okay, I’m killing him. Is that the point? To kill the one who is stuck with me but doesn’t love me enough to keep me company through the night?

“Would you stay awake for him?” Pam asks.


“And it’s fine,” she says. “He’s not your daddy.”

Fine, so this is my black ocean to navigate. It’s my trauma to endure. I try a bed on the living room rug. I try hops and skullcap tea. I try tryptophan. I try pot. I try a book on Jungian theory.

Morning. Today I try thinking good thoughts. The baby is with a sitter while I “write,” so I head for a Ross Dress for Less where no one else ticks through the racks at 10a.m. save one woman as elderly as I feel. I collect bright spring frocks unlike anything I own. They emit an electric cheer that all but broadcasts, I AM FINE!, and I buy them all. Then I drive to a shrink’s office in one of my livid, I mean vivid, outfits, not yet grubbied with fatigue and desperation, because Pam thinks it’s time I talked to someone with the power to prescribe meds.

The shrink is my age and makes small talk like we’re a couple of gals having mimosas. “Kids! Of course you feel like shit!” I smooth the sherbet orange hem of my dress over my knees and give her a hard smile to keep my teeth from chattering. Nowhere on the mental health intake were there questions about the good things. No degrees earned, no scholarships and awards, no publications. So how can I make this woman see—not me, but that her profession does not separate us?

Does she know that over a handful of nights, her own body will break her? That today I am pitiful in a dumb dress, in a patient’s chair, but the first person narrative is as made up as the illusion of separation?

“I see your mom died when you were eighteen. I’m so sorry. That must have been really hard.”

“Yes. Super hard.”

I wonder where this shrink’s own ruined parts are. If I knew, then I might talk.  

“And now you have a baby,” she says, all lipstick and pearly teeth.

“I do. He’s the best.”

“God, aren’t babies the best? I mean, they ruin your life. But that smell! And those little feet!”

But vapid small talk will never unloose a thing in me. The shrink can bob her foot in its chic boot, and I will never tell her that motherhood has picked me up by the shoulders and shown me death from a mother’s perspective. I won’t say that I get it now, why my mom never talked about the possibility of her death. Because dying is hard enough without thinking about its concussive force: that when she died, her child would die. And I had died, had been dying with her still every day as I brushed my teeth and ordered coffee and waited in the sun at the crosswalk.

“And your partner—you’re not married? He’s supportive?”

“Basically,” I say. “I mean, yes. We’re figuring it out.”

“Great. That’s good. That’s so important. Babies are so, so hard.”

What I wanted was a serious anti-anxiety/sleep-aid wonder cocktail, but she says, “I think an antidepressant would be more appropriate.” I emerge into the droning daylight carrying a script for Zoloft, the same antidepressant I took briefly in college after Mom died. But I lasted only two weeks on it then because it gave me, ha-ha, severe insomnia.

“It won’t go on forever,” Pam assures. “Your body will shut down and sleep sometime. It has to.” Except for the half a Zoloft I try once, the pills stay in the cupboard. In the meantime, I become inured to the shriveling scope of my abilities. I don’t drive, but my sweet bug and I can walk. We walk and walk and walk. We have picnics of mashed avocado and apricots. We lie on our bellies in the warm grass and he sneaks dandelions into his mouth. A life weaves together out of my frayed threads.

By evening, I feel almost normal. In fact, I am giddy with normalcy. The baby is in his crib and Tim and I are reading on the couch—I can focus on the overblown plots of teen novels—looking just like normal should. “Yes,” I tell myself casually, “pretty soon I’ll go up. I’ll go to bed.” And who is to say that tonight it won’t be true? I’ll just tell a new story, about a woman in bright new clothes with a nice house and a man in bed beside her who did not love her exactly when she got pregnant but later on will learn to. And then, once he does, she will find the quiet in herself to realize . . . some necessary thing. The story will finally have a point.

Of course the terror of ten o’clock returns. I make a bed on the couch and try to leave Tim in peace. But is there anything lonelier than a house asleep without me?


At the end Mom slept sort of always and sort of never. For three or four days after chemo, she’d inhabit the couch under the sun-warmed afghan Grandma made (and now spread over me, trying). I’d tip-toe by in my Pizza Hut waitress uniform, palming my keys so they wouldn’t jangle, just in case she’d drifted off.  But her eyes would always lift and catch mine. “Drive carefully,” she’d say, and then make fun of herself, “I know you won’t do it if I don’t say so.”

And I’d slap my elbow ditch, mime injecting heroin, and knock back an imaginary tequila shot, as though without her I’d forget myself and drive my life right into the irrigation canal.

“Love you,” she’d say.

“Love you,” I’d say.

There are so many non-stories like this no one knows about any of us. Things Terri Gross will never interview us to discover. Here is another one of mine:

When the baby was born, on an ice-blue December night in our bedroom upstairs, the midwife put him on my belly, and I couldn’t stop saying, “Oh my god, oh my god,” as the love for him washed in. Of course it did. I smelled him and nuzzled his head, an animal mother. “Oh my god,” I whispered as he regarded me with cranky, midnight-blue eyes that were so familiar, so specific. I’d been waiting for the baby, someone vaguely me-ish, but here he was. Now that he was in my arms, I recognized I’d always known him, had just passed my life waiting for him to get here. Every mother had told me it would be just like this.

But here is something that was only for me: This love had a sound. My head filled with a bright thrum that tied me to my life and knocked me back in time. Recognition rang me like a gong. This was the same sound that had sung inside when my mom was alive to love me. When she died, people said that her love for me would go on and on. But it didn’t really. It had stilled. Grief had been a whole-body silence, until now. Now it turned out she had gone on, quietly waiting, inside me. She had died, and I had died. But I had also lived, and so had she. Here we all were.

No, I have never been the hero of a story. I have not proven to be the kind of special that justifies the story that wrecked my heart. I am only a mom, like my mom: in love with my baby, pointless mortal. I am in every way her. And this knowledge is a loop. It is a noose. It is a wedding band.

And yet it does not matter. The narrative is not personal. What is another mother, another night lost? It goes on. The house dissolves. Someone builds another.

Dark. I take a sleeping bag under a canopy of lilac bushes in the open side-yard. The cat is alarmed. He meows and bumps my elbow, saying, “Hey, psst, get out of here! You don’t belong!” And when I don’t move, he stands guard at my feet. Then again, he might have a point. The neighborhood is not secluded, and a street light illuminates most of the yard except for the mushroom of shadow where I’ve made my bed. At the anarchist-punk house across the street, kids are playing banjo and talking. How nice they are, to stay here with me on the conscious plane. From the house next door, cigarette smoke drifts through the chain-link. One of these neighbors probably works a late shift and likes to smoke on the patio awhile before bed. Stray cats saunter through the grass and my kitty yowls them away. I am so not alone. The earth under my back is still noisy. But here, on a suburban street where life goes on at 3a.m., I feel its companionability. An undeniable exchange takes place across my cells and soon, despite the streetlight and the banjo and the cigarette smoke, I sleep three uninterrupted hours.

It’s a beginning. As with every road, where I begin is not where I want to be. It’s no answer to what is killing me. Yet the ground is a balm. I’ll continue to not sleep off and on for a year, and the only deep discovery I’ll make is that no one really knows anything about what’s happening inside. Not the least of all me. And it’s fine, these mysteries of living and dying. I’ll just get up and read for a while and then try again.


Themed month logo by Honey Gilmore, essay art by Han Olliver

Val Kiesig lives in Boise, Idaho with her son, a dog, and a one-eyed cat. She works as a criminal defense attorney. More from this author →