The Best Mother: A Short Story

Marla waited until the legal limit of eight weeks to call the New Life Board. With her first pregnancy, she’d called the minute she peed on the stick, excited to speak the words “I’m expecting” – to make it official. But she’d miscarried ten days later. The investigation had been stressful. She was sure that’s why it had taken her so long to conceive a second time.

After a few cursory rings, there was a recorded message. To register a new pregnancy, press 1; to register a miscarriage, press 2; if you believe someone may be pregnant and unregistered, press 3; to report a suspected pregnancy related crime or misdemeanour, press 4.

Marla pressed 1. Her jaw tensed as she listened to cheery hold music. “Good Morning, New Life, Dan speaking, who do I have the pleasure of congratulating today?” “My name is Marla Jacobs. You should have me on file.” “Congratulations, Marla! Can I have your postcode, please?” She spelled out the series of letters and digits, nervous for Dan of the sunshine voice to find the details of eighteen months ago.

“Okay I’ve got you,” he said finally, “Second pregnancy. Miscarried December 2028. Correct?” “Correct.” “Investigation found use of a hot-tub shortly after conception, as well as higher than average caffeine consumption, correct?” “Yes.” “Well, we won’t be making those mistakes again, will we?” “No we won’t.” “Good to hear! Now, Marla, I just need to ask you a few questions.”

The interview took half an hour. Age. Weight. Race and Ethnicity. Household Income. Insurance. Marital Status. Proof of Folic Acid prescription. Alcohol. Caffeine. Nicotine. Sugar. Exercise. Did Marla know that, becoming a first-time mother over the age of 35, she could be legally liable if her infant was premature, low birth weight, or Downs Syndrome? Did Marla know that, as an African American, she was in a risk category for gestational diabetes? And what steps was she taking to counter the danger to her unborn child?

Still, when the interview was done, she felt relieved. She’d been assigned her doctor, her end of first trimester ultrasound appointment, and her law enforcement officer. Everything was progressing. Her pregnancy was progressing.

The law enforcement home visit took place the next week. She made sure Gerald took the morning off work. She still believed the miscarriage investigation would’ve been less invasive if the officer had known her partner was white.

They scrubbed the apartment spotless, the baby’s room particularly. Then Marla sat biting her nails, ostentiously drinking a decaf tea, until the doorbell rang.

The law enforcement officer was an overly made up white lady with greasy black hair. Marla took an instant dislike to her, and knew she’d have to spend the next seven months carefully hiding it. The appointment was as expected: a search of the property for potential hazards – blue cheese, liver paté, kitty litter, whiskey, bleach, weed killer, and a rickety step ladder – then a verbal explanation of her rights.

“As a pregnant woman, your legal personhood carries half its usual status. This is reduced to a third for a woman carrying twins, a quarter for a woman carrying triplets, etc.,” the officer intoned, well-rehearsed and a little bored, “The state may intervene at any time if it has reason to believe that you are endangering the persons currently residing in your body. You bear full legal responsibility for any harm that may befall the unborn. Activities falling under section 41.1 of the pregnancy act are illegal at all times and in all circumstances while you are with child. Activities falling under section 41.2 of the pregnancy act must be supervised by a non-pregnant person. Activities failing under section 41.3 of the pregnancy act are prohibited during the third trimester. It is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with articles 40 through 42 of the pregnancy act, as contained in the booklet presented to you by me, Officer Stephanie Elis, Precinct 7, Pleasant Mountain. Do you understand?”

Marla signed the documents formalizing the visit and Officer Elis went on her greasy way. “That wasn’t so bad,” said Gerald. Marla smiled agreement. After all, angry outbursts fell under 41.1. Anger raises your blood pressure, and can contribute to hypertension, creating a dangerous environment for the infant.

Marla finally started to breathe again when she passed the 12-week mark. Her ultrasound was normal, and it was declared that the pregnancy looked healthy. Her risk of spontaneous abortion had just fallen from one in five to one in fifty. The flip side was that, should she miscarry in the second or third trimester, the investigation would be elevated to a higher channel.

It was exciting to tell her colleagues, to start planning a shower with her best friend; it was fun debating names with Ger. She’d heard that it was normal for couples who are expecting a child to argue, but they only had one real fight. Ger kept buying their weekly tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Her sugar cravings were intense, but it was illegal for pregnant women in demographics at risk for gestational diabetes to eat refined sugar. The knowledge there was a tub of cookie dough in the freezer was driving her crazy, and, having twice found herself on the point of committing a felony with a hot faucet heated spoon, she asked Ger to give up ice-cream for the rest of the pregnancy, or at least not to bring it into the house. He scowled – what was next? He wasn’t allowed a beer on the balcony when he got home from work? He wasn’t allowed to drive in the third trimester either? She was the one who was pregnant, not him.

Overwhelmingly though, Ger was supportive. He didn’t like the pregnancy laws any more than she did. So he kept saying.

Her second trimester blood tests showed that she was generally healthy, but slightly anemic. Doctor Anand asked if she’d been taking her maternity vitamins. When she answered that she had, he called Ger, and asked him to corroborate. Marla could hear her partner’s muffled voice down the line. “I believe so, doctor” said Ger, “she’s always good about that kind of thing. She’s been on the pill since we started dating, and never missed one.” He was trying to be helpful, but Marla could have killed him for mentioning contraceptives. She didn’t know Dr. Anand’s stance on them.

“I’m afraid,” explained Dr. Anand, “that pregnancy causes lapses in memory, so pre-conception behaviour can’t be used as a gauge here. That’s why a pregnant woman’s testimony only counts for half a non-pregnant person’s in court, of course. Mr. O’Malley, I’m going to have to ask you to count the vitamin pills when you return home from work and to call my practice with the exact figure.”

It turned out she’d missed one. Dr. Anand delivered a stern lecture over the phone. He wouldn’t report the misdemeanour to the New Life Board this time, but he would need Gerald to sign off on a weekly nutrition report. At any rate, it was unlikely that the single missed vitamin pill had caused her anemia, so he needed her to come back in, as he was going to prescribe an additional supplement. It would cause constipation, so she’d also need a laxative. “Great,” thought Marla, “another morning I have to take off work.”

At the clinic, Marla asked, seeing as the anemia was mild, if she could try to regulate it using diet? Dr. Anand looked at her askance. “My digestion can be tricky – I’m not wild about the idea of four months of laxatives,” she explained apologetically. “The priority here,” Dr. Anand admonished, “is not your comfort in the restroom, Ms. Jacobs, but the health of your unborn child.” He scribbled the prescription furiously, tore it off, and handed it to her.

It would all be worth it in the end. Nothing could suppress her joy at feeling the baby – a girl! They were going to call her Chloe – start to kick and bounce about in there. She loved watching her bump grow and exchanging smiles with strangers who suddenly gave up seats for her, held open doors. She was happiest browsing the baby section in her favourite bookstore, finding stories that would help her little one grow up strong, independent, and brave.

The third trimester posed some logistical problems – under 41.3 she could no longer drive, so she had to rely on public transport, and Pleasant Mountain was not exactly renowned for its reliable bus services. Ger couldn’t help much, as they worked on opposite sides of town. On sweltering summer days, as her ankles puffed and the bus windows wouldn’t crank, she longed for her little air-conditioned Chevrolet.

One Friday evening she was coming home from work late, when Ger called and asked her to pick up some beer on her way from the bus stop. “No problem,” she said.

But when she entered the convenience store, she wished she’d made some kind of excuse. She felt self-conscious standing in front of the beer fridge, watched by fellow customers as she lined up to pay for the six pack of Corona. She talked herself down – don’t be ridiculous, Marla – you’re allowed to buy alcohol.

“Ma’am, can I ask you something?” came the cashier’s burly voice. Marla froze, but kept an outward appearance of calm. “Sure,” she smiled, waiting, though she already knew the question. “You intending to drink that?” “No, sir. It’s for the baby’s Daddy.” “And he sent you to get it?” “I’m on my way home from work – he asked me to pick it up.” “Isn’t it a little late to be coming home from work, Ma’am?” “I’ve got a lot to do before I go on mat leave.” The cashier eyed her, wary, but scanned the six pack all the same. “I’m going to trust you this time,” he said. The other customers watched the exchange in silence. As she left the store, her cheeks hot and tears of embarrassment building behind her eyes, she saw a man in a red hat pull out his phone to make a call.

It was probably nothing. She was probably being paranoid.

Ten minutes later, just five minutes from home, a patrol car pulled up – two white male officers. “Ma’am, we have reason to believe that you may be committing or intending to commit a 41.1 pregnancy offence.” The tears came for real now, as the officers searched her bag, found the beer, asked a litany of questions. She tried to keep cool, but her voice rose as she repeated for the third time, “It’s for the baby’s father. It’s for my partner, Gerald.” The police did not like her tone. They told her to get in the car.

Ger was standing at the door of the apartment building waiting for her, worried. When the cops let her out of the car, she ran to him as fast as her swollen legs would carry her, put her arms around his neck, and cried like a child. “Tell them,” she kept saying, “tell them.” “Calm down now, Ma’am,” the police officers admonished, “hysterics aren’t good for the innocent unborn.” “I need to pee so bad,” she sobbed into Ger’s neck. “Okay, baby, you go on inside. I’ll take care of it.”

Bladder empty, she looked out the bedroom window at the scene below – Ger and one of the officers were smoking cigarettes and chatting on the sidewalk, smiling. It had all been a misunderstanding. And that misunderstanding had been cleared up when Marla ran into a handsome white man’s arms; the officers could see that the situation was under control.

All the next day, she burned with anger. She tried to hide it from Ger as they went to the market for (wholewheat) bagels, (low fat) cream cheese, and lox; as he marked off her daily vitamin pill, iron supplement and laxative on the nutrition report form; as they ate in the sunshine of their balcony and made plans for where their mothers would stay when they visited. But Ger could tell she wasn’t herself – “You’re agitated, babe. Is it because of yesterday? Try not to give it too much energy, okay? I know it’s a pain in the ass, but we’re almost there. Soon, you’ll be sipping a Sauvignon Blanc on this balcony with me and singing our little girl to sleep.”

Yet her mind rolled it over and over. The smug face of the cashier in the convenience store, thinking he was more fit to protect her baby than she was; the shifty eyes of the man in the red hat, profiling her; the cool aggression of the police officers in response to her tears; even Ger, saying “you go on inside. I’ll take care of it.” She wasn’t a child. She wasn’t a fucking child! She couldn’t calm down. Oh she could wear the smile, but she couldn’t calm down.

On Monday morning, she walked slowly past the convenience store, looking for the man in the red hat. No luck. She did the same in the evening. He was there. She hid in the alley beside the store and waited. When he left, she followed him.

After a block or two, the man began to suspect her footsteps. He looked around. Marla was sure he recognized her – she had a significant identifying feature, after all. But she kept following until she saw him turn into a semi-detached house with a chaotic front yard and turn the key. Number 82, Pleasant Drive. Ger was calling. “Nearly home, baby, nearly home,” she told him.

She decided to write the man in the red hat a letter. She wanted him to know. To know what it felt like to be surveilled and policed. She wanted him to know what it was like to be a black woman in a pregnant body in this city. She wanted to tell him about the pre-natal yoga on Thursdays at the Y and the pre-natal Aquaform on Sundays at the pool; about the vitamins and the iron; about the folic acid she’d taken for two and a half years; about the no ice cream and the decaf coffee and about everything, everything, she was doing to keep her child healthy. She wanted him to know that he was wrong to report her; that he made sexist, racist assumptions; that she felt insulted and embarrassed and harassed; that he had no right to insult and embarrass and harass her, because she was going to be a good mother, a very good mother. Because she was going to be the best mother.

On Wednesday evening, after work, she walked to 82 Pleasant Drive and rang the bell. The man in the red hat answered without undoing the bolt chain and peered out through the crack of the door. “What do you want?” he asked. “Hi. I know you reported me to New Life for drinking alcohol, and I want to give you something,” she said. “Get off my property, lady.” “I just want…” “I said get the fuck off my property. I won’t say it again,” and he floated the barrel of a handgun through the gap. “Okay, okay, calm down,” she said, backing away. “Hands where I can see ‘em,” the man in the red hat ordered. “I want to leave a letter for you” she said, “I have it right here.” As she fished into her bag to find it, he fired five shots, right at her belly.

She clutched her bleeding, leaking middle, and stumbled out of the ramshackle yard. She got to her phone with shaking, blood slippery hands and called Ger. “I’ve been shot,” she said, robotically. The voice must have been coming from someone else’s body. The words couldn’t be hers. “Where are you? Hang on, baby, hang on.”

In minutes, Ger was beside her, panting, “oh no, oh Jesus, oh no” over and over, saying, “we’ve got to get you to a hospital.” “We can’t,” Marla said, “I’ll be arrested.” But curtains were twitching, ambulances had already been called, and sirens wailed their way to the pregnant woman now unconscious on the sidewalk.

When Marla woke up, little Chloe was gone.

In court, the man in the red hat said he’d acted in self-defence. Marla had trespassed on his property, didn’t heed his warnings to leave, and appeared to be reaching into her handbag for a weapon. The prosecution said that Marla had provoked the altercation, contrary to article 41.1 of the pregnancy act, which forbids pregnant women from instigating verbal or physical conflict. The only true victim of Marla’s shooting, they said, was her unborn baby. The judge agreed. He ruled that her child had been dependent on its mother to protect it from harm, and Marla’s choice to seek out an unnecessary altercation had resulted directly in her daughter’s death. The verdict was manslaughter.

Ger said he didn’t blame her. But she knew it wasn’t true.

He wouldn’t wait for her. He’d find someone else to have his babies, and – one day, far in the future – he’d recount the tragedy of his crazy ex who got herself shot in the stomach while pregnant with his daughter. He’d tell it to to his grown-up kids, wiping away tears, and his children would marvel at the things their father had known before they were even born.

And Marla. Marla would spend the next 8 years thinking about hot tubs and strong coffee and that missed vitamin pill and iron supplements and laxatives and her feet aching on the stuffy bus and why Ger had to ask her to pick up beer and about her letter, read out in court by the defence. It had garnered sympathy in the far away liberal press, but was widely condemned by local pastors and pundits, and certainly by her majority white jury of 8 men and 4 women.

She thought about Chloe. What her eyes would have looked like. What her laugh would have sounded like. If she could ever really have raised her up strong and independent and brave. If maybe it wasn’t better this way. If maybe she wasn’t the best mother after all.


 

Though entirely fictional, this post was inspired by the story of Marshae Jones, who is awaiting trial for manslaughter in Alabama because she allegedly provoked a fight in which she was shot in the stomach and lost her pregnancy.

If you enjoyed the story (or even if you think it was shit), perhaps you’d consider donating a few dollars, pounds or euros to the Yellow Hammer Fund, currently trying to raise the money for Jones’ $50,000 bail.

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