Nonfiction Feature: “The Baby in Her Arms” by Patricia Feeney

……My mother’s touch was reserved for the baby in her arms. Caring for eight children restricted her contact to the latest arrival. She carried that infant, endless loads of laundry, and the weight of childrearing with an absent father whom she loved beyond reason.

……I watched infants calm in her sweet caresses and longed to take the baby’s place. I longed for my mother to swallow me with her arms. I imagined her touching me in the way of mothers on Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and Father Knows Best: running her fingers through the bales of my knotted hair or patting down a cowlick. I wondered what it would be like to be the child of a mother with generous hands.

……I learned to feel her hands by proxy. The third child and her first daughter, I held her babies, ironed my father’s shirts, and tracked her footsteps to the basement laundry room.   


……As an infant, my son shunned my touch. He had no interest in contact except to stand on my legs and clutch my shoulders, stiff-armed, while he ran surveillance of the room. I was a look-out tower. In preschool, he resented terms of endearment and nicknames, insisting I use his given name. He never adapted to the tousle of the hair, glaring at me if I breached his boundaries. When my son was a toddler, I spent hours with him on the family room floor, moving cars, ambulances, and firetrucks along a plastic roadmap that led to homes, schools, churches, and hospitals. Together, we wove stories about the lives of the people on these roads, and I learned who he was.

……When my teenaged son devoted hours to playing Halo, I read the game’s book-form trilogy and appreciated the magnetism of this imagined world. Though he accused me of caring too much, he cared for me in a surprising way: shoulder rubs, which I took greedily, knowing he would never let me reciprocate. He kneaded my muscles, mothering me as I drifted, drunk with comfort as he eyed the stuffed backpack on the family-room floor, ready for take-off back to his college dorm.   

……My son, now grown, was surprised to hear my recollection of his early years. He remembered running to me, my “warm smile,” and sleepy mornings “curling up like a cat” on my blue bath-robed lap. When he told me this, I hid my tears at his forgiveness for my imagined failings.

……He was my first-born, the child who made me a mother, an indelible gift. He was the child who taught me to love as a mother: to offer what is needed, not what I had hoped to give. 

……My daughter craved my touch. My infant girl lolled in my lap so lazily I feared her growth was delayed; it was not. As a toddler, she rested her head on my shoulder and slid her hand inside my blouse, spreading her fingers on my beating heart and nodding into sleep. In grade school, she nestled against me as we watched SpongeBob SquarePants, Hey Arnold!, and Lizzie McGuire. We held hands as we walked malls and cuddled as we listened to Britney Spears. I braided her hair as she fantasized about her future as a pop star. 

……Once, when she was nineteen, my daughter draped her reedy body across my lap and referred to me as Marmee, the mother in Little Women. I stroked the silk of her long mane and massaged her temples. I called her Boo.

……I wondered what it was like to be the child of a mother with generous hands. But I didn’t ask. Her body, pressed against my beating heart, was enough.  


……As my children assume their adult lives, my mothering days grow distant. I think of my mother, twelve years gone, and wonder what she thought of me as she grew old. Did she think she failed me? Is that a mother’s curse? Swamped by the bodies of so many, was she unaware of a child’s need for a singular touch?

……Some nights I dream of the mother of my childhood, images that follow me in daylight. Her athletic body, the lines of her young, unflawed face, her smile lit like candles. I remember the hint of Colgate toothpaste below the scent of interminable cups of coffee. Her voice that shed compassion on even the most unforgivable characters in her life. Her arms cradling an infant.

……I can almost feel her touch.



…….Patricia Feeney lives in St. Louis, MO, and teaches in Lindenwood University’s MFA program. She is a member of AWP and a founding member of the Crooked Tree Writers. Feeney’s work has appeared in the Muse Press anthology, Shifts; The Lindenwood Review; Inscape; Windmill; Adelaide; and Bayou Magazine.