A Good Mother

by Tacheny Perry

“Get up, sweetheart,” you call out to Sam, your kindergartener. “The bus is going to be here in thirty minutes. There’s an egg sandwich ready for you.”

You pull his lunchbox out of his backpack, setting it on the dark speckled Formica countertop. Your family moved to this house over a year ago, but the rooms still feel like someone else’s. You keep meaning to remodel or at least paint. You’ve gotten as far as trying out a few colors: a gray, a green, a yellow. But everywhere else the walls are still hospital-white. And then there’s the wallpaper border: rolling pins, spatulas, whisks, and spoons marching below the repeating phrase: Happiness is homemade. It’s awful and somehow judgy but there’s a quarter’s width worth of glue behind it and the chemicals that would dissolve it are toxic, especially for young lungs.

You put a sandwich in the lunchbox and grab a Ziplock bag and the goldfish crackers.

“Mommy, I found car!” your two-year-old, Teddy, says, dashing around the corner.

“That’s great honey, but be careful, you don’t want to slip…”

There’s a thud, then a scream. You drop the goldfish and orange crackers skitter across the tile floor.

You pick up your son, who is still face down, and tuck his head onto your shoulder.

“I’m heading out, Sally,” you husband, Tony, says. “He going to be, ok?”

“He’ll be fine,” you say.

“You going to be ok?” he asks. “Cause I can go into work a little late if you need -”

“I’m fine,” you snap. “I just need a broom and,”— you raise your voice so it will travel up the stairs— “for Sam to get his butt down here because his breakfast is getting cold!”

 “I can’t find my shoes,” Sam whines as he comes careening into the kitchen.

You close your eyes.

“I love you,” Tony says, coming over to give you a quick kiss on the forehead.

You wave absently at him, staring down at the goldfish, several of which he has just crushed into dust.

Hours later, you find yourself sitting alone on a park bench, watching Teddy climb up the steps to the kiddie slide. It’s a gray day, no rain, but no sun either. You had wanted to organize the cupboards. But Teddy kept throwing Tupperware containers, and then he spilled an entire box of rice. So, you scooped him up, trying not to yell, and deposited him in his car seat. You think about your kitchen, bits of food and boxes abandoned on your countertops and floors. A thousand times worse than when you started. The tips of your fingers began to tingle. You take a deep, shaky breath, press your palms into the rough cool wood of the bench, and try to pretend the tingling means nothing.

You had your first anxiety attack in college, during an argument with Tony. You were on an anniversary date, your first. It started out as something small and stupid. But it morphed until it was something huge and whole-relationship encompassing. You’d screamed. He’d hit the steering wheel, once, twice, three times. You’d began to cry.

Before Tony, you’d never loved someone who wasn’t permanent. Parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles- they always stayed. You didn’t have to wonder how far you could push. But college boyfriends? Why had you let yourself need someone who could just walk away?

Suddenly, you breath was coming in short gasps, working hard to push into lungs that had become flat and sticky. Your toes and fingers began to prickle. The sensation traveled up your arms and legs until your whole body was made up of tiny dots of sharp pain and cool numbness.

“I think I’m having an asthma attack,” you managed to say.

“Do you have your inhaler?”

You concentrated on getting air in and letting air out.


Tony’s voice sounded far away.

You tried to shake your head, but it was so heavy. There was something strange about this attack. The needles were unfamiliar. You closed your eyes.

“Should we go to the hospital?”

The anxiety had receded. You had felt good, stable, controlled for a long time. Long enough to trick yourself into thinking you was cured.

You slide your hands across the bench then flinch as a sliver pricks your pinkie.

“Good job, bud,” you call as Teddy jumps off the bottom of the slide.

Some days are fine.

But today is not a good day.

“I burned dinner,” you say by way of greeting, when Tony walks through the door that night.

He examines the charred pieces of meat.

“I put them in and thought I set the timer but…”

He takes a fork and starts scraping off the ash. “Totally salvageable,” he says. “See?” He holds up a piece of zebra-striped chicken. “Just need to take off the top layer.”

You stare at the wall just above your husband’s head. The gray and yellow patches of paint begin to blur together. You blink and walk over and flick all the switches up, bathing the kitchen in violent yellow light.

“Maybe you should go for a walk while the sun’s still out,” Tony says, watching you grab and then drop a kid’s plastic cup.

“We need to eat as a family.”

“One night apart won’t hurt.”

“I don’t want to take a walk right now,” you say, sitting down and pouring milk in your boys’ glasses.

Teddy gags and spits out a chewed-up chunk of chicken. Sam swallows dramatically and then moans. Tony gives him a warning look.

“But I don’t feel good,” Sam insists. “My tummy hurts.”

You look down at your own untouched plate and push away from the table. “I just need a minute,” you say, hurrying out of the room.

Upstairs, you curl up on the floor, breathing in the dusty carpet by your bedroom door. There is a pair of underwear and three socks beneath the bed. A streetlamp shines through the slats of your blinds, painting bars of shadow and light. You can hear Tony scolding the boys.

It is such a helpless feeling, having your heart tangled up inside of someone who needs you. So much worse than you needing someone who might walk away. It makes it feel like everything is always crumbling. Like those dreams where you’re standing on a cliff and then suddenly it’s gone and you’re falling and you kick out into nothing. Darkness hissing as it hurtles past your ears.

You are from a good family. You have a degree. You should be able to be a good mother.

Everything is so out of control.

“Honey?” Tony says on the other side of the door. “Sam is fine. They both finished eating and are running around downstairs. Do you want me to bring up your food?”

You clear your throat, so he won’t hear you’ve been crying. “No. I’ll be down in a bit.”

Your hip falls asleep. You can’t move.

A soft brushing sound tells you a little two-year-old fist is trying to knock. “Mommy, where you? You K?”

You close your eyes. Wrap your arms around your legs. Tuck your head into your knees. You don’t answer. A good mother would answer.

About the Author

Tacheny Perry earned a MFA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has been published by Boys Town press, Voices of the Planes, and was also a contributor and editor for the Albuquerque Mom’s Blog. She lives in Nebraska with her husband, three young boys, and her two mostly saintly dogs.

Header Photo by Teresa Berkowitz