Blast | December 02, 2022

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. The extreme stresses of young motherhood are illuminated with sharp insight in Abby Seiff’s story of a mother and daughter (herself also a mother) struggling to reach a point of mutual understanding. 

Under Watchful Eyes

Abby Seiff

 

So this is Nico, Jane thinks, staring at his ink-black eyes. At two weeks old he has Steffie’s sharp chin, jutting forward, ready to make a point. Otherwise, who does he look like? There’s a bit of Michael in there at the brow line, and his hands remind her of Nan’s—those soft, round fists, though she supposes all infants have those. At the mention of Nan, Steffie’s own brow creases.

“Does he take after the father, do you think?” Jane quickly asks.

“Donor, Mom. They’re not called fathers,” Stephanie replies.

Jane nods and then apologizes, which annoys her daughter too. Then, as if feeling bad for getting annoyed barely an hour into the visit, she tells Jane that yes, Nico does resemble the donor, and even pulls out her cell phone to show a baby photo of Mr. 12867, or whatever Jane’s meant to refer to him as instead of “father.” The resemblance is uncanny.

“Well, he’s absolutely got your chin,” Jane says. “And don’t you think those look a bit like Dad’s eyebrows?” Michael won’t arrive until Saturday. In an accountant’s life, February is always when work starts getting busy, busy, busy. Jane, semi-retired from her job in development has all the time in the world, but still Steffie didn’t want her to come straightaway, let alone for the delivery. “I just want to get to know him a little on my own,” she told Jane well before the due date. Jane responded with something like “Of course, honey,” though, actually, she thought that was the silliest thing she’d ever heard. “She’ll have her whole life to get to know him,” she told Michael, making air quotes at know. “She’s completely on her own out there and doesn’t want an extra set of hands?”

***

Of course, when she finally kissed Michael goodbye at the departure gate of Logan, boarded the red-eye, popped her Xanax, and awoke, or so it seemed, when the black taxi left her at the stoop of Steffie’s Hackney apartment, Jane learned that wasn’t entirely true. The on-her-own thing.

“This is Carli,” Steffie said, after the flurry of hugs and handwashing and depositing of bags. “She’s a postpartum doula.” Jane said she didn’t realize doulas stayed on the job, as it were, after the baby was born—a statement she regretted when Steffie launched into a speech about the superiority of the NHS over America’s broken healthcare system. Still, Jane listened and nodded politely, saying how wonderful that must be and where, exactly, was this gorgeous new grandson of hers? When Carli told her they’d just put Nico down for a rest, Jane decided she doesn’t much care for this situation. She wondered if that was a British thing too, leaving a tiny newborn all alone in a room by himself. On both counts, Jane bit her tongue—Michael can’t say she’s not trying.

Jane’s there on a mission, secondary to meeting Nico and seeing Steffie, which is to convince her daughter to move home. “Just for her maternity leave,” she told Michael, who raised those eyebrows of his when she first proposed the plan. To Jane, Steffie’s life in London has always worn an air of impermanence, and no matter how many times Michael has pointed out that their daughter has lived there more or less since her junior year abroad, Jane can’t be budged from this thought. A few years back, they downsized to an apartment. Still, it would be big enough for Steffie and the baby. There’s a garden—maybe Nico could take his first steps there. They’ve been traveling more lately, as both have pulled slightly back from work. Last year they went to Shanghai, where every park was full of grandparents taking care of grandchildren. The year before it was a road trip around Spain—the same thing. Medieval square after medieval square filled with silver-haired adults chasing toddlers. Both times, Jane started tearing up, just a bit, and Michael squeezed her hand. And now, here’s Steffie, unexpectedly giving them a grandchild of their own, only to insist on keeping him an ocean away? “She’s not insisting on anything, honey. She’s just living her life,” Michael hassaid more than once. Maddeningly calm and rational as ever. No wonder he was the favorite parent of both girls. At the thought of Nan, Jane tears up, just a bit.

Nico is still sleeping after Jane’s washed her face, unpacked her bag, and emerged from her room to find Carli and Steffie sitting in the living room, sipping tea. The doula gets up to make Jane a cuppa, slipping unobtrusively from the room as mother regards daughter. Truthfully, Steffie looks fantastic for someone who gave birth just two weeks earlier. Stephanie gives Jane a weak smile in response.

“But how are you doing?” her mother asks. “How are you feeling. Really?”

In the nights, after Carli leaves, Stephanie sometimes bounces Nico to sleep in front of the window. She thinks he likes that slight bit of cold at his back, his face and chest and arms and legs pressed tight against her warm body. London in late February isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but sometimes the way the headlights cut against the wet asphalt gets her. She imagines Nico old enough for her to point that out to him and, older, still, old enough to be totally disengaged. What if he hates everything? she says. In the nights, after Carli leaves—but also in the daytime, when the doula is still there—she wonders if she’s made a terrible mistake.

Jane says that’s normal; everyone thinks it at some point or another.

“I suppose so. I just hope I like him. It will be terribly tedious if I end up not liking him at all,” Steffie says, in that mildly affected voice of hers.

Carli, who’s come back with the tea and perched herself on an armchair across from the pair, tells Stephanie she doesn’t need to worry about that because “even if you don’t always like them, you always love them. Isn’t that right, Mum?” she says, smiling at Jane.

“So many of my friends, actually, don’t really like their children. They’re quite open about it,” Stephanie continues.

It’s taking it a bit to far, Jane thinks. “Really, what good is thinking this way, Steffie?”

“Stephanie.”

Jane almost rolls her eyes but holds back. She’s on her best behavior.

“Sorry, honey. Stephanie.” Her daughter gives a curt nod. “It’s just— What’s the use of worrying about something that hasn’t happened? It seems like a terrible waste of mental energy.” She doesn’t say what they must both be thinking: how lucky Steffie will be if that’s the case, if the worst that happens with her kid is that sometimes she doesn’t like him.

Stephanie presses on: “People do regret it, you know, having children?” And at that moment, as if on cue, Nico’s thin bleat of a cry starts up from across the apartment. A millisecond later, it’s sounding through the baby monitor on the coffee table. All three of them laugh, and Jane claps her hands as she stands to follow Stephanie to the nursery.

“At last! I get to meet my grandbaby.”

***

Jane tells Stephanie, “You know his crying really isn’t that bad,” and Stephanie tells Jane that’s a meaningless statement.

“It’s bad for me,” she says, emphasizing the me. Her mother shrugs and picks at an invisible piece of lint on her sweater. It’s a sweater she got when the girls were little, and it’s in terrible shape now, the neck hole so stretched it could fit an alien head. Or whatever one commonly thinks of as alien heads. Nico, when he was born, looked a little alien-like in the photos Steffie sent, but Jane didn’t say a word. And still, here she is causing tension inadvertently, weakening any chance she has of succeeding in her foolhardy mission.

“You’re right,” Jane offers. “Of course you’re right. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.” Be-hearer?

Carli nods. “That’s true, luv. Some babies are howlers, but their mums have ears of steel. Other mums crumple at a few bad whimpers. No right or wrong to it.”

Jane says she could have used those ears of steel.

“What’s that, dear?”

“Oh, nothing. This all just reminded me of something I’d completely forgotten. You know, when Steffie was little—”

“Stephanie,” she corrects, shifting Nico from right arm to left.

“When you were little. Newborn, actually. You were absolutely fine for the first couple weeks and then one day you began screaming. Really screaming in this ungodly way.” Michael was long back at the office by then. Would have had any time off? A few days, perhaps. And there was Jane, with this howling baby who couldn’t be quieted for hell or high water.

Stephanie demands to know why she wouldn’t have been taken to the doctor. “How did you know,” she says, “that something wasn’t wrong? Like, seriously wrong.”

Carli gives Jane the slightest smile, which Stephanie decides to ignore.

“Well, you were still eating, still napping. And then, worst of all, the minute your dad walked into the apartment you’d just fall silent.”

“Oh, you must have been going mad,” offers Carli.

“I was!” Jane says, excitedly. For a moment, the feeling floods back, as fresh as if it were yesterday. Michael at the door of their little studio in his crumpled suit, dropping his briefcase and reaching for Steffie and offering Jane a look of profound pity. He was more like the dads of this era than theirs: he changed diapers and gave baths and did feedings without being asked. If it had been a thing at the time—paternity leave—Jane’s certain he would have taken it. His friends used to joke about him wanting to be a stay-at-home dad, back when that was a joke. It was Michael who pushed for a second child. After Stephanie, Jane was very much ready to have her tubes tied. Well, he was right about that. Not a single regret on that front despite everything. Family is always worth the blood and sweat and tears; if only she could make Steffie understand.

“I did. I really began to think I was losing my mind,” Jane says. “As soon as your dad walked in the apartment, you’d stop and at eight in the morning, when the door closed behind him, you’d start up again.”  Day after day after day. Could anyone really say how long it lasted?

“What is time?” asks Carli. Jane laughs and says, “Exactly.”

“It’s strange, but I didn’t even think about the neighbors. And then one day there was a knock at the door and a policeman was standing there. Young guy, clean shaven.”

What would Jane have looked like when she opened the door? She was only thirty-two, but that would have been old, to him. Who knew when she had last bathed or brushed her hair?

“Oh, my,” says Carli. Stephanie’s eyes narrow slightly, but she says nothing.

“So there he was, Officer Mc-something-something.” Another man at the door wearing a look of pity. “He said something like, ‘Ma’am, your neighbors called about the noise, so we’re obliged to check it out, but I’m sorry to bother you.’” Did they think she was neglecting Steffie? Or, worse, hurting her? Jane knew she should be angry then or, at least, embarrassed, but she was too tired to have feelings like that.

“Poor lamb,” Carli clucks.

“The officer came into the apartment and it was like this Mary-Poppins moment.” As Jane tells the long-forgotten story, she wonders if, in fact, she was so delirious at the time that she made the whole thing up. And this, at least, gets a smile from Steffie.

“He was all of, what, twenty-two? But he went into the kitchen and washeds his hands—that detail, I think it means it must have been real—and came out and then he was holding Steffie. Stephanie. Oh, he was from one of those Irish Catholic families that don’t exist anymore. The oldest of seven or eight kids.”

In the telling, Jane’s unmade herself, and now it’s 1981, February slate outside their dirty windows, and Officer McSomething has got Steffie stretched belly-down along the length of his forearm, face resting on his hand. She’s still howling and begins squirming in an ominous manner, tears and sob-drool dripping through the policeman’s fingers.

“Let’s see if this works,” he says, thrusting his arm sharply skyward. Jane wonders if she should consider this unsettling but finds that her thread, worn to the finest line, has snapped. No anger, no embarrassment, not even any mortal fear on behalf of Steffie. “Half my siblings had colic. This always worked like a charm,” he says over Steffie’s screams which have, somehow, pitched even higher.

“If the neighbors thought you were being abused before, god knows what they were thinking at that point,” Jane says.

“Mom! This is awful. You just handed me over to a complete stranger to throw in the air?” Stephanie looks down at Nico, who has fallen asleep, head lolling toward her clavicle. It’s strange to imagine this tiny thing, soft whorls and milkscent, one day becoming an oily teen who will tower above her and possess not a single dream that overlaps with hers.

“Oh dear,” says Carli. “He wasn’t just anyone, was he? He was an officer of the law.”

“Honestly,” says Jane. “I would have given you to a bum at that point—if he showed up at my door.”

Carli laughs. Stephanie does not.

Jane presses on. “So you were screaming and the cop was practically throwing you in the air—he must have been so strong. And then, suddenly, there was this loud burp and you went silent. We both looked at you, and he said, ‘I thought that would do the trick.’”

“Very pleased with himself, was he?” Carli wants to know. Jane thinks he should have been.

“And then he said, and I kid you not, ‘I’ll watch her for a bit if you’d like to shower or anything.’ I must have given him a look because he added, very quickly, ‘It’s just I know moms with newborns never get a second to themselves.’”

Again, in the retelling, Jane finds she can’t quite believe the actions of her younger self. Did she really leave Steffie with this strange man and take a shower with him sitting just beyond the door? In the cramped stall, water scalding her sore body, Jane debated just how long she could allow this shower to last without pushing her luck. She stayed until the hot water ran out. Reluctantly, she dried and dressed—stepping back into the same milk-and-spitup-crusted clothes because of course she hadn’t thought to grab a clean set. She wondered if she’d have to wait for Michael to get home before she could change.

“Feel a bit better?” the cop wanted to know. Jane found him on the couch, working through the laundry piled on the rug, a neat stack of Steffie’s folded onesies rising from the coffee table.

“The shower must have restored me a bit because now I was mortified.”

Stephanie tells her this whole story is bonkers. “And where was I, at this point?’

Jane remembers casting around the room, a mild panic growing in her before she spotted Steffie asleep in the bouncer. What then? It gets fuzzy from here. Jane supposes she thanked the cop profusely and embarrassedly. Would she have at least offered him a coffee or something? She likes to think so but also recognizes that she probably had forgotten basic manners.

“And then what?” Stephanie demands.

Jane gives a little shake of her head. “And then. Nothing. You had colic a while longer until finally you didn’t. I tried out the cop’s technique, but I really wasn’t strong enough. He never came back, so I guess the neighbors gave up—or maybe the precinct just marked it as ‘crying baby, otherwise fine.’ Who knows?”

Again, Jane shakes her head in wonder. If he hadn’t come, just then. She wants to tell Stephanie more, thinks maybe she should be a bit more explicit about the fraying thread. About what it is to be all alone with that new baby. Maybe it’s not worth it, though. Would it be scaring her needlessly? She wants her to come home out of desire, not fear.

“Sounds like copaganda, really,” Stephanie says into the quieted room. “You think Officer McSomething would have been so nice and kind if you were a Black mom, there alone with a dangerously loud baby?”

It’s a pin, of sorts, and Jane realizes she can’t begin to articulate the rest of her point. She tells Stephanie she supposes she’s right.

“But, still, that’s what happened,” she says, looking over at her daughter. Nico’s face is smushed up against Steffie’s sternum, and Jane reaches out to stroke an impossibly soft curl. “It did happen like that, you know.”

***

It’s the third or fourth time that Jane remarks on how good Nico is that Stephanie snaps at her, just a little.

“I hate that,” she mutters. “What does it mean for a baby to be good? All babies are good. Or aren’t, really, they’re nothing yet—that’s the whole point.” Jane has Nico on her lap, sitting him up against her belly like a little man, his head blubbing into his shoulders. Next to her, Carli helps Stephanie attach the pump to her breast.

“Well, it just makes it a bit easier on Mum, doesn’t it, that’s all?” Carli offers. The motor makes little fftt as the suction starts. “Feel okay, luv?”

Jane agrees. “It’s not literal, honey. You know that.” Carli stands and plucks Nico from Jane’s lap, leaving behind a cold, small impression.

Nan—now she was a good baby. Nico reminds Jane a bit of his namesake. She hopes he will stay as easy as Nicola was. Michael was triumphant on that front. “See, I promised the second would be easier,” he said. Nan slept through the night from three months on, never any hint of colic or whatever it was that had upset Steffie so badly. Jane wonders if she would have recognized how lucky she got with Nan if she hadn’t had Steffie first. Unlikely. Still, maybe when they’re out in the world a bit more, if Steffie joins a moms’ group or brings him to one of those baby classes—yoga for tots, music for bubs, whatever—she’ll see. She imagines those other mothers telling Steffie, enviously, how easy Nico is and smiles.

“What?”

Jane starts—jumps, practically—and gives Stephanie a confused look.

“You were just smiling,” she says, as lightly as she can muster. “Let us in on the joke.”

It’s an awful habit. Michael always teases her about it: “We’ve lost you again, dear,” he’ll say, pulling Jane out of the void. Sometimes, when she’s been having a particularly pleasant meander—like this, a rare trip with Nan as an infant—Jane gets annoyed about his reaction. What a gift our minds are, taking us this way and that, over centuries and continents. Not always, but usually, whatever is happening in Jane’s head is much more interesting than what’s happening right before her.

Steffie’s looking at her expectantly.

“Oh, I was just remembering when you were little,” Jane says vaguely. She certainly has no intention of getting into the good-baby thing, much less of bringing up Nan. On the couch, Steffie winces slightly and adjusts the pump.

“Gosh, those are so much more high-tech these days,” Jane says.

Carli says, “Unfortunately, they’re hardly any less of a pain.” She’s on the rug now, perching in a birdlike squat as she oversees tummy time. To Nico, who’s beginning to wail in frustration, Carli coos, “That’s it, darling. Work those neck muscles.” The baby’s head wobbles like a boxer’s, rising precariously from his thin neck.

“You pumped, Mom?”

She didn’t, not for Steffie. When she went back to work, everyone was still using formula, or so it seemed. But by the time Nan came around, the rules had seemingly changed. She remembers dropping her off at the daycare center and the woman wrinkling her nose at the Nestlé cannister. “You really should be pumping,” she said, taking a sleeping Nan from her arms. “Breast is best.”

“Oh, god, Mom, did she really say that? What a bitch.”

Carli tuts, slightly—she’s a great believer in infants picking up bad energy. Jane smiles.

“It’s appalling,” Stephanie says, “how entitled everyone feels. Like they should all get a say in how you raise your kid.” As if more voices can offer anything of value, can protect against anything bad. This last, though, she only thinks: no use in upsetting her mother with references to Nicola.

Jane is delighted that for once she and her daughter appear to be on the same page. She glances over at Carli, who is giving Nico a reprieve, flipping the angry infant onto his back.

“So what did you do when she said that?” Stephanie wants to know.

What did she do? Well, she went to work, where her sore breasts leaked through her pads and then her bra and finally her dress. A colleague lent her a cardigan, and on the way home, she picked up a breast pump. She doesn’t really want to admit this part, but the woman at the day care center had been correct.

Carli, rubbing Nico’s belly, makes a private, little smile.

“The fashion hadn’t changed, actually,” Jane says. “When I got to the office, I remembered the only reason I hadn’t pumped with you was I wasn’t producing enough milk. We’d already started you on formula long before day care.”

Stephanie is surprised she’s forgotten something like that. Carli and Jane grin at one another. Neither can begin to tell Stephanie all that she will forget in the months and years to come.

“So she was right? The bitch?” The pumping finished, Stephanie detaches the flange from her nipple, trying—and failing—to catch the last drops of milk. Carli passes Nico back to her while Jane stands to deposit the little bottle in the fridge. Behind her, she can hear Stephanie kissing the baby’s head over and over and over. In between each kiss she commends his “hard work.” Another thing to remember, Jane thinks, you’re not meant to say good job anymore or so beautiful or how smart. It’s the effort that’s to be praised, not the gifts. Maybe that’s wise. Would her children have been happier had they felt less pressure? Perhaps Steffie would have stayed near home. And Nan, well. Michael would say, No good starting down this road again.

“Unfortunately,” Jane says.

As annoying as it is, Jane is afraid we need these outside voices. Her daughter, though, is vehement. She’s shaking her head; they’re still not getting it. It’s about outsiders dictating the relationship, projecting on it. The pumping? Her mother would have gotten there; her body would have told her what to do, after all.

Jane wonders if this is why Steffie had Nico on her own: easier to do things the way you want. There’s the peanut gallery, sure, but no partner with a legitimate claim to an opinion. But Carli is here. And Jane is here. Steffie (Jane wants to shake her, thinking about this) cannot begin to fathom what it is to be in that bubble, truly alone with your child. Her daughter has a family that adores her, and all she does is push, push, push away. Jane will never understand it—no matter how often Michael promises that’s not what’s happening.

“Those poor parents in Wuhan must just be thrilled then to be stuck with their kids and no outside commentators, Steffie?” Jane says, rather more venomously than she intends.

Stephanie rolls her eyes. “Not Steffie. Stephanie,” she says. And then: “It’s time for his nap.”

As her daughter pads down the hall, Jane, at the sink now, turns the water to scalding and begins working her way through the sink full of dishes. A lifetime, she thinks, would not be enough to teach your children what they need to know.

***

“You know, one day I’d nearly had enough?”

They’re both slumped on the couch, Stephanie and Jane, the baby sleeping in his bassinet by their feet. It’s almost nine p.m. and Carli is long gone, though Jane thinks she can still catch the faintest scent of her Lady Genevieve. Jane’s made them pizzas, the frozen kind, and cut them up and brought a roll of paper towel and two cans of club soda to the couch. When Stephanie bites into a slice, it’s so hot it burns her fingers, but it’s lukewarm in the center, and one bite is nearly cold. For a moment, she thinks about asking her mother to heat it some more but opts against it. “What does that mean?” she asks. “Nearly had enough?”

“Oh.” Jane is so tired she’s nearly lost the thread. Stephanie offers a half-hearted smile. This is a new tactic she’s going for tonight—trying to be somewhat supportive whenever she feels like rolling her eyes. You’re tired? the Jane of twenty-four hours ago might say.

Stephanie was maybe two, tops, and Nan was just a couple months old, and it seemed like no one in the house had slept in days, but Jane least of all. That afternoon, somehow, both babies had gone down for a nap at roughly the same time.

“You have to understand, I don’t think this had ever happened before.” Jane takes another bite of her hot-cold pizza and stares down at Nico. She wonders if she should buy Stephanie a new microwave or if she’d be offended by the gift.

“So finally, you had some time to yourself,” Stephanie prompts her mother, who has gotten the type of glazed look she gets in an over-large supermarket. Lost, before she’s even fully in the aisles.

Jane shakes herself loose and gives her daughter an abashed smile. “Yes, exactly, for the first time in months I was totally alone. It was a Saturday. Your father was out running errands, and I had a good hour before he’d be back. I started picking up crap off the floor before I realized what a disgusting waste of time that was.” She grins at her daughter, and Stephanie’s smile back is, for once, genuine.

That seems like an encouragement, however faint, that Stephanie is listening for a change and not just judging. So Jane presses ahead. It’s 1983, now, or maybe late 1982, at the house in Crawford which Stephanie has no real memory of, only memories of photos. Jane has just stepped into her bedroom, where the nested blankets—still holding the faintest impression of Michael—beckon.

“God, what bollocks,” Stephanie says after Jane mimics the Nap when baby naps advice. For once, her daughter’s word choice strikes her as just right, not an affectation.

But then once Jane was in the bedroom, the full force of that time alone hit her.

“It was strange, but it came so clearly what I wanted to do with that time. It felt, in fact, like there was only one thing to do.” She looks over at Stephanie who is still paying attention, though Jane can see her eyes starting to droop. Jane knows she ought to save the story for another time. Or trash it altogether. Why isn’t she telling Stephanie to go lie down? She thinks, obliquely, that her daughter must hear this story and must hear it now. But why? Surely she doesn’t need this story more than sleep.

“And what was that?” Stephanie murmurs. There’s something dreamlike about this conversation. So dreamlike, in fact, that for much of her life Stephanie will wonder if it really took place, accepting that state of unknowing only until Nico has a child of his own and Stephanie—at last—will regret not asking Jane more when she was still alive.

“Oh, I wanted to down a whole bottle of sleeping pills and end it all.” She says this so matter-of-factly that it stuns both of them. Stephanie starts saying, Oh, Mom, just as Jane is waving her off and pushing on. Now that she’s started, she must get to the end, must give Stephanie the gift, which is the point of the story.

Jane’s in the bathroom, on her knees in front of the below-sink-cupboard, searching through the crap for that old bottle of sleeping pills that she knows is there. That she can picture so clearly, with the name of Michael’s GP printed on the label.

“And that’s how you found me. I hadn’t gotten very far at all; the cabinet was a mess. You came in, and you were so grumpy because Nan had started crying. You told me, “You need to make her stop, I’m very tired.”

“What did you do?”

“What could I do? I picked you up and took you back to your room. It was only when I was putting you down that I stopped to wonder how you got out of your crib. It was the first time you’d ever done that.”

“Wow.”

Jane shrugs. “Then I picked up Nan, who was well and truly awake, and brought her to my bed and let her whimper a bit more while I threw everything back in the cabinet.”

Stephanie wants to know: What if she hadn’t learned to climb out of the crib just then? What if she hadn’t come into the room? She wants Jane to acknowledge what a miraculous turn of events this all was. Her mother just keeps shrugging in a noncommittal manner and staring at Nico. It’s testing Stephanie’s newfound patience.

“Did you want to try again?”

This annoys Jane; it feels like Stephanie hasn’t understood at all. “That’s the whole point, Stephanie. I couldn’t after that.”

“You felt guilty? You loved us too much?”

“It’s just.” Jane thinks: How to explain this to her daughter? When she looks at Stephanie, she is layered upon herself. Steffie at Nico’s age, at two, at five, at thirteen. Steffie with bangs and acne and a cast and braces and acid-washed overalls and breasts that she crossed her arms in front of and a scraped knee where she fell from her bike and hair manic-panicked blue.

“I was too big,” Stephanie offers, and now Jane smiles. So, she did understand, after all.

“It’s why we do anything. Or don’t. Everyone else keeping an eye on us. We’re not living in a vacuum.”

Right before Nico was born, Stephanie read a book about childrearing around the world, which she immediately regretted. Only in the West is the family unit so utterly alone; that was more or less the takeaway. She found herself growing enraged as she read, angry all out of proportion. If only the family unit were alone, she’d thought; if only there wasn’t a village all around us commenting on everything, offering up its unsolicited advice.

At their feet, Nico starts to fuss and both women reach for him.

“Go ahead, Mom,” Stephanie offers. The story has awoken something in her, Jane can see. You can’t do it alone. You need others around you. Since arriving, this is what she’s been trying to impress on her oldest, only child. She’s standing now, rocking Nico and bouncing him on her knees: the tactic that calmed Nan, never Steffie.

Steffie, come home come home come home. Steffie, come home come home come home. Jane mouths these words, moving Nico on the downbeat, while Stephanie watches, pretending she can’t read her mother’s lips.

***

Abby Seiff is a fiction writer and journalist whose writing has appeared in the Mekong Review, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere. She is the author of Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in CambodiaHer reporting has garnered several awards as well as fellowships from Yaddo and the Logan Nonfiction Program. She is currently studying for an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College, where she was a recipient of the Himan Brown Award. “Under Watchful Eyes” is her first published fiction. Find her on Twitter @instupor

 

 

 

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