Nonfiction / Jenny Hedley
:: Mommy-daddy on Steroids ::
So many diagnoses, so lit—
Tongue swollen in my mouth, lips up to my nose like I have money to blow on injectables, like my child support payment isn’t a dollar a day, like I don’t comparison shop the weekly grocery store catalogs (because I don’t want to do the things I’ve had to do for money).
Angioedema is a symptom of anaphylaxis.
I scratch my legs until they bleed. I look like an anti-vaxxer. People ask me if I have measles. My hives are idiopathic, isographic. I write my name on spicy hot thighs with a fingernail. I am barbecue flavoured.
Chronic urticaria raises more questions than answers. Some classify it as an autoimmune disorder, which is to say they haven’t figured it out. My mast cells are under attack. Am I my own worst en—?
I try an eliminate-everything diet, a kind of orthorexia. Disordered eating mirrors my 16-year-old self who was hospitalized for bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression. My body is at war, so I eat the whole cruciferous family: no veg left behind. I picture the brassica family holding hands and wonder if my gut really has buddies. My son thinks shredded cabbage is not a vegetable. He will eat it when I make homemade miso dressing:
- 1 part miso paste
- 1 part ACV
- 2 parts EVOO
- a pour of honey.
I feel I take up too much space when I eat a carb-heavy breakfast. (My son likes buckwheat pancakes with real maple syrup and blueberries.) I feel worthless when I don’t sell anything on eBay—when junk from my past overtakes my son’s closet—because I can’t afford Mini Maestros.
When there are no bras in the laundry basket after a week, I know I haven’t been anywhere. All functional medicine aside, I am not functioning. I put on my OCD wings and fly.
An interlude of fear
You run out of Ready Steady Go when I turn around to grab your nappy bag. That moment of paralysis: why aren’t you glued to my leg? A split-second all-encompassing gaze canvasing the gymnasium, picturing what you’re wearing (red superhero hoodie, black trackies, white runners), sprinting past the neon-lit EXIT sign.
In seconds I capture you, bend down on one knee, scold you, hug you, kiss you, punish you. NO PLAYING IN THE PARK TODAY! I will shove you down my throat and keep you cocooned in my belly. I miss the days when I wore you strapped to my chest—how we were all that we had. We are still all that we have.
We’re in the canned food aisle at Woolworths when you ask me if you have a [unknown]. I hesitate. The lady with a green shopping basket looks over with pity. I navigate to the mayonnaise shelves to buy time and pick out Best Foods, the American brand—even though it’s high in histamines—because it reminds me of home.
I wrap my arms around you, but the embrace is also for me. (I haven’t had sex in over three years, but my celibacy is voluntary: I want another baby, but I don’t want a man-baby. Who would look after you if I went to the hospital?)
I pretend I’m not sad for you; I pretend I’m not sad for me. I choke on purple prose.
You say, I want a mommy and a [unknown]. You ball your hands into fists, kick your toddler size fives against metal trolley bars.
I say, Not everyone has a [unknown]. Remember the penguin on the poster at Baby Club? That penguin only has a mom. (I don’t tell you how your [unknown] failed his drug tests.)
You say, I. Want. A. [Unknown].
Hysterics in aisle three. I bend over to grab the store-brand tuna for dinner. I’m too tired to cook; you ate my free time. I buy decaf so my hands won’t shake, rainbow slaw, tax-free tampons.
When you scream for ice cream, I hand you apples and plums because I’m the mommy. And it’s not a special occasion. And I don’t want to eat my feelings. (Ice cream tastes almost as good coming up as it does going down.) And I’m allergic to dairy.
I make the ten-cent choking hazard your friend Hunter gave you disappear into the coin slot at the self-checkout. You want to know where your money went? Down the pipe like your [unknown].
At home I deteriorate while Netflix entertains. (My self-imposed 40-day ban doesn’t apply to you, whom I need babysat.) If I pour the sugar syrup out of the fruit cup, does that make me a better mom?
—Mommy, you’ll always be my best friend.
My heart is sticky, melted like goo on the kitchen floor.
—Mommy, sing the silly song.
—VitrA is a toilet, it likes to spin around. VitrA is a toilet, it makes a flushing sound. It goes flush, flush, flush, the pee-pee and the poo. It goes flush, flush, flush, the pee-pee and the poo.
—No, the other silly song.
—He’s a stretchy hippopotamus. He’s a flat-footed platypus. He’s a funny, funny bunny rabbit. He’s a funny rabbit. He’s a stretch-a-lo-potamasauras. He’s a gumpy, gumpy gumbo …
—Now sing the baby song.
—I love you, Piglet, I love you. I love you, Piglet. I really, really, really do.
Baby Maestro echoes Mommy’s senseless songs in lieu of $25 lessons that I can’t afford. Everything I do is for you, Little Red.
My hives flutter. If I scratch, they’ll itch worse. I scratch. The rough side of the file serrates my nails. It feels delicious, these tiny paper cuts on mottled flesh. Like a diseased apple, am I rotten at th—?
Benadryl crosses the blood-brain barrier to sedate me. Head buried into pillow, knees jammed into raw breasts. Elbows dance at my side in an itchy-scratchy trance. It’s a mast cell party; who could ask for more?
Pop another pill at 1am, or two or three at 1 and 2 and 3. Cactus-dry tongue, labored breath, can I swallow enough air? Angioedema tastes like Novocain. I’m lost in pharmacopeia.
At Medical One I teach my son (who hasn’t breached the fortress-like proportions of his St Kilda Mums cot) to dial emergency from the lock screen. But I show him 999 not 000—brain fogged, lips ballooned—not even 911. Am I asking too much?
Self-pity drips beneath sunnies on the [#] tram to RMIT.
Tissue blots saline frustration. Salt is low-histamine: at least there’s that.
My creative writing tutor starts each class with a meditation. She asks us to feel what it’s like to be in our bodies. I can’t stop squirming, tugging at my clothes. I have to take my shoes off.
The air-con in building 51 is shot. The sun magnified through the window feels like menopause. I ask if I can write instead of meditating to keep from screaming.
Tuesday therapy clashes with classes. I visit my dermatologist, who offers an SSRI. (Side effects include suicidal ideation.) I show up for the wrong appointment on the right day. Stay cold, my GP says. Throw off the covers (cotton not poly), take cool showers, keep calm, don’t stress.
I joke, What, me, stress? I’m cool as a c—
Not for long-term use
Corticosteroids rock my adrenals: it feels like I’m on speed except that I’m hungry like a boxer. My hard-won body fat percentage goes down the d—. I experience body dysmorphia, growing dysphoria, sweaty everything, and I’m constipated like I’ve swallowed an anteater.
This is my brain on Prednisolone, convincing my body not to fight-or-flight. Our intervention order expires next December.
Mommy-daddy [is/has had] enough
You throw your cheese bread at me and demand another Yakult. Those stupid miniature bottles. I snap, tell you to wait. (Normally I think you’re cute AF.)
I scale the dining room table so you can’t reach me, but you shunt the bench over with the force of your 30 pounds. You conquer the summit and put your hand on my shoulder.
Everything you say sounds like a whine; everything I say sounds like a bark. I’ve become a despot, a tyrant, an emotional invalid, a petulant child. Impatient, claustrophobic, I rip my bra off, put on oversized pyjamas. You offer me a pair of socks to keep my feet warm. I’m glad your [unknown] can’t see me unravel.
You say, I want Mommy to be happy—do you want to be happy?
We tidy and clean until the house is in order. I can’t control anything so I feed you what I wish I could eat. I make you a cheese toastie and it looks fucking delicious and I get impatient because you eat it so slowly and it just stays there in my peripheral vision: fresh sourdough ciabatta, cheese molten then cooled like magma, the plastic sheen of real butter.
Now your tummy hurts, so I pull your knees close to your chest to help you fart. I blow raspberries to make you laugh. You’re all better. We eat blueberries for dessert and pray to keep the bad men and the monsters away.
You call me mommy-daddy sometimes. At first it makes me angry—reminds me of the void—but now it makes me smile. I am your parent plural; I am Mommy on Steroids.
From the writer
:: Account ::
The week before my creative writing program begins I break out in hives for the first time. I share images from my phone’s “hives” folder with specialists who take my money, who can’t tell me the source of my illness, who don’t promise a cure. Red wheals overtake my dermis, pruritus subtracts hours from my sleep. School begins and classes start with guided meditations designed to inspire stream-of-consciousness writing. I shift uncomfortably in my seat and begin drafting an experimental nonfiction piece during these initial meditative rebellions.
We study Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s essay “Bad Writer” in class. Ahmad warns against Poor White Girl syndrome, which lacks humour and irony. This is what I don’t want my writing to be. We discuss writing as a negotiation of a social contract, which reminds me of Frank Moorhouse’s description of literary authorship “as an internal exile.” Writing is a way of subjugating my struggle: single parenthood, sexual trauma, domestic violence, a marriage in which I was a belonging that did not belong—of bundling it into a form of expression that gives voice to my powerlessness.
One itchy day, I compile and assemble journal entries, scribbles, and (un)meditative writing into “Mommy-daddy.” I wish to capture: my son demanding a daddy as we navigate the tinned goods aisle, waking up at 2am with thighs burning, journeying through pharmacopoeia. These scenes illustrate the muck of where single parenthood intersects with chronic illness and mental health; they are “the tar, the sticky parts” of entrenched disadvantage described by Maria Tumarkin in her genre-busting work, Axiomatic. I imitate the way Tumarkin truncates common tropes by using linked em dashes, for example, in her chapter titled “those who forget the past are condemned to re—.” I expose my own flabby writing using this authorial device.
I reread Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries: A Memoir, studying the way she moves gracefully between first and second person. In “Mommy-daddy,” I switch from the first person pronoun to the second person “you,” to address my three-year-old son. My voice is confessional: speaking to the child who cannot yet grasp the complexities of life, speaking to myself. My inward authorial gaze reflects my neurotic mental state, the way I study the ground when I inhabit the outside world. I relate to her description of memoir as “something vulnerable in a sea of posturing.”
I read The Lifted Brow’s experimental pieces and borrow from multiple essayists. Eloise Grill’s prize-winning “Big Beautiful Female Theory” (2018) encourages me to play with form. Cassandra Rockwood-Rice’s “Root Bed” (2019) blends poetry, prose, and dialogue. I steal her method of using joined em dashes to open a quote, something she probably lifted from James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I intend to read). She uses hard brackets to replace proper nouns with general descriptors; I use this method to eliminate the word “daddy.”
I modify my lifestyle with meds, supplements, and dietary changes, and the dermatology clinic advises me that I qualify for a monthly injection that may or may not control my symptoms. (Side effects include hair loss.) I decide to save my experimental approaches for writing. Words are healing; they are so much easier to regrow.
Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in SCUM, Travel Play Live, Gone Lawn, Montana Mouthful, and Vanishing Act and is forthcoming in Folio and The Manhattanville Review. She recorded her poem “I Can See Through Your Lululemons” for an upcoming edition of Memoria Podcast. She studies creative writing at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, where she lives with her son.