Mommy-daddy on Steroids

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. 

The unan­swer­able 

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. 

Chron­ic ill­ness 

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.