One night, lying in bed, saying goodnight to Rosie. Ben is there, too. We’re all squashed in, listening to a recording of Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh, when Rosie says: “What happens if you get married again, Daddy?”
He pauses, caught off guard. “Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Not for a long time, I don’t think,” he says.
“But I don’t want another mummy!” she cries. “If you do that, I won’t ever go with you, Daddy. Never ever.”
“You only have one mummy,” he says. “That will never change.”
“I’ll always be your mummy,” I say.
“I love my mummy,” says Rosie and hugs me. “I don’t want another mummy.”
I hug her back, thinking, that’s my girl. I’ve never spoken to her about the possibility of her dad having another relationship – or me, for that matter. But five-year-olds today, right? A few months earlier, when she’d asked me why her dad doesn’t live with us and I explained we were separated she’d replied: “Oh! Now I have to tell my friends that my parents are split up.”
Anyway, that hug from my little girl. And that spontaneous expression of total loyalty – well, it caught me by surprise, too. Because even though Rosie is only five, she and I have had a fraught relationship. It’s my fault. I’m strict. I shout. I am wholly unpleasant sometimes. There is no excuse. I am this person: the impatient, shouty mother. I hate myself often, because each day I fail in so many ways. Sometimes, within hours of waking up.
I will not shout today, I vow as I greet another morning. I hum to myself as I cut mango and strawberries for Rosie’s breakfast. But as the minutes tick away from us in that last dash to get out the door in time – as Rosie faffs yet again when I’ve asked her to get dressed for the eighth time that morning – my volume increases dramatically. Inevitably, as the door is locked behind us, Rosie runs ahead of me in exasperation and hurt – runs away from me as we tread the mile to school.
I see her little legs pumping up the road and I can see her in the future – out of reach, surly and probably always feeling like she isn’t good enough because her mum shouted at her nearly every day. I can see it even as I’m doing it. And yet it happens each time. And then I hate myself. I hate myself because I know that this is the type of thing that leads people into alcohol and drugs, right? What if all of this makes her find self-worth in dangerous behaviours? What if she ends up ruined – all because of me?
Every week, I find myself apologising to her, telling her how much I love and care about her. Explaining to her that even if I’m shouting, it’s because I’m impatient, not because I don’t love her. Telling her that she really is a wonderful, clever, beautiful child and that much of my strictness and pushiness is down to how much I care for her.
I tell her, I don’t give her treats every day, because I care about her. Because it’s not good for her health. If I didn’t care, she’d be eating sweets and cakes for every meal, because that’s the easy path to take. She sort of understands. But that doesn’t make it right for me to shout. And she knows that. She has said, on more than one occasion, that she is going to write to Santa to ask him to help me not shout any more. I tell her this is a good idea. And then I hate myself some more.
And so, this memory – this memory of my little girl turning to me and hugging me and telling me she doesn’t want anyone but me for her mummy, despite everything. I cling to it. And I hope she never changes her mind.