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Photo: Getty

Allie has two sons, 4 and six months.  She grew tired of little Rowan at 4, telling me, in his presence, "I only really like them when they're babies.  He's too much work".  Still, she wanted another child, one she could nurse and cuddle.  "I'll try again, but it'll probably just be another boy," she tells me.  Rowan seems to ignore this.  Maybe he doesn't understand.  I bounce him on my knee and tell him what a clever, sweet, handsome boy he is.  He giggles and asks me to read his penguin book again.

I never know what to do or say when Allie says things like this.  I have no children, and have never said anything mean about only liking kittens in front of my full-grown cats.  I never really empathize with the parents in these situations, either – my own childhood included yelling and name-calling from my dad, so I identify with children right down to the part where I feel powerless to act.

Another case in point involves my friend Sara's 2-year-old daughter.  Sara sleeps til noon most days, while Cait wakes at 8 am and spends four hours alone in her cot.  Cait never cries.  She plays quietly with her toys and waits for Sara to change and feed her. 

I met Sara through a common friend years ago.  We went to clubs and exchanged advice about makeup and men.  She has a lovely speaking voice and people want to listen to her.  I noticed her inattention to Cait, and wondered what I should do.  I thought about talking to Sara's husband once.  I came over to their flat because we'd planned a hens' night.  Sara sent an SMS telling me the door was open; she was showering.  "Is Cait napping?" I asked.  "Yes," she replied.  When I entered, I found Cait wide-awake, all the while hearing the sounds of the shower from the closed bath. 

I've had other friends with children -- other friends I thought might be the worst thing a woman can be called: a bad mother.  My friend Angie had four kids and worked tirelessly at many terrible jobs to support them when her abusive ex-husband finally left.  She put in 60 hours a week as a nursing aide.  She loved her children deeply, but still failed them in ways that broke my heart.

I remember the time I'd come to visit, making the three-hour drive to their house.  After dinner, the children wanted cuddles and stories from me.  Children generally feel drawn to me.  I think this may be one upside of fatness -- children want to sit in a cushy lap. After a few minutes, Angie started screaming obscenities from the bath. 

"Lara!  What have you done, Dummy?  Don't look so innocent.  I know it was you!"   She made fun of her intelligence, especially cruel, given that Lara, a smart little girl, had a mild learning disability. 

All I could do was sit in silence and hope it would end quickly.  I felt deeply ashamed of this later and even talked about it in therapy.  I agonised over Angie's situation.  Later, as we watched the children play in the pool at the hotel I'd booked, I gently asked her about that night.

"I know how much you love all of them," I told her.  "And I know you don't think Lara is stupid.  You were frustrated.  But kids believe what you tell them.  It stays with them forever."  Angie reacted calmly.  Her temper only seemed to strike briefly, and she became the loving mother I knew very soon after each of the tirades I witnessed.  She agreed that she should work on this, and wasn't annoyed that I brought it up.  Still, she continued to scream and swear at the children and we drifted apart.

Though I avoid Sara more and more, and find Allie hard to take, I still make a point of seeing Gwen a few times a year.  Unlike Allie and Sara, Gwen pays lots of attention to her kids.  Leah, a beautiful girl of 9, gets high marks in class and has a sweetness and innocence uncommon in children her age.  Mark is 11 and has special needs.  Despite his disability, he gets top marks and behaves well most of the time.  Gwen has said any number of unkind things to me.  She doesn’t really know how to say “thank you” for gifts, instead making fun of them, saying that if she eats your home-made cake she’ll gain weight, or that the children will just break a new platter (though they are so well-behaved this seems unlikely).

Despite her tartness, I love Gwen.  She’s a great mother and has raised great children I love.  She makes no pretense of being her children’s friend.  She believes in homework and early bedtimes.  Her kids have always had rules and structure, though is a single working mother. Are being a good mother and a good friend mutually exclusive? Maybe good mothers have no time for single, childless friends and their petty problems.

When I see Cait and Rowan, I think of my own childhood.  I know I'm not stupid or destructive or a "parasite", as Dad called me shortly after my 12th birthday.  Still, I feel unworthy of positive attention and have never really learned to accept compliments.  I want Sara and Allie to stop being bad mothers.  I stay friends with them, because I love their children. Given that our town has a high rate physical abuse and limited resources for neglect that doesn't rise to the level of danger, I wonder if all I can do is feel guilty and hope that the children become survivors and better parents than their own.

 

If you have have serious concerns about a child's welfare, call Child Protection Helpline on 132 111 (TTY 1800 212 936) for the cost of a local call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.