Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Safety Net


The baby falls asleep against her weeping, swollen breast, the rejected nipple in the corner of his mouth. Jenny is reminded of her grandfather, a cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth as he rested on the sofa.

She tightens her arms, nuzzling her face against the infant’s downy hair, inhaling the soft sensuous smell of young skin. He smells just baked, like new bread or a blueberry muffin, a smell that is absolutely and uniquely his own. He is less than two days old and already rules her world. Already, she cannot imagine life without his insistent bellowing rage, his smirky damp smile, his clear-eyed gaze. His hands are so soft they feel like velvet pads against her own.

She has bathed him just once and was unnerved by the stump of penis so fat and red and the bandaged raw umbilical cord the nurse insists she must not get wet. The pulse that beats under his scalp scares her.

“The fontanel,” the nurse said, during his bath. “Go very gently just there when you bathe him. Don’t press at all.”

Jenny, soaping his fuzz of hair, had snatched her hand away, as if burned.

He could die from a pressing hand on his head. He could stifle in the light blanket, inhale a piece of sheet, swallow a button from her nightgown. He could choke on his own vomit, or smother in a pillow. He could cease to breathe. Cease to be. How can she keep him safe in a world pulsating with danger?

The thought comes from nowhere with absolute clarity: she is scared of him, scared for him. She is simply and completely terrified.

It’s noisy in the hospital as visitors begin to stride through the corridors. Jenny looks up as her mother appears in the doorway, arms full of fruit, flowers, and magazines. Jenny stares, astonished. Her mother had stayed throughout the night during Jenny’s labor, had been around all day yesterday. When she left the hospital she looked like a tired, middle-aged woman: her skin pale and lined, her hair gray and tousled. She’d been wearing her old raincoat. Today, she is transformed. She stands now with hair that has been washed, styled to a smooth, elegant helmet. She wears a cream silk shirt, tailored pants, and a dark green velvet jacket. Her makeup is carefully applied, her mouth a rich, gleaming plum.

“I called your father,” she says, kissing her daughter and then her grandson. “He’s coming by today.”

Jenny nods, understanding. This explains the war-paint and the high fashion clothes. Her mother is still trying to impress a man who left her five years ago, who now has a new blonde wife and three stepchildren. Jenny wonders why they could not visit separately, behave normally, like other divorced parents.  Her mother, as if reading her mind, says.

“Don’t worry. I’ll leave you two alone for a while. Get him a sandwich from the canteen. I’m sure he won’t have eaten.”

“You don’t have to feed him, mom. He’s got another wife to do that now.”

She means the words to sound teasing but they sound harsh. Her mother glances at her, her eyes gray, unreadable.

“He’s busy. It’s his lunch hour. It’s only polite.”

“Polite? Jesus,” Jenny murmurs.

Her mother is still fussing over fruit in the bowl, flowers in the vase, when Jenny’s father appears in the doorway.

“Hi, pumpkin,” he says, and moves to hug his daughter.

He seems large and clumsy in the hospital room. It seems busy suddenly, and crowded. He brings the city with him. He studies the sleeping baby, his face softening.

“Oh, look at him,” he says. “Handsome devil.”

“Like his grandfather,” Jenny says.

In other families, Jenny thinks, in families that are not borderline dysfunctional, there would be some mention of the baby’s father at this point. But her parents say nothing. They’ve never met the father, don’t even know his name. Jenny had refused to discuss him at all. They hadn’t pressed. That’s not their style.

They would not be happy that their grandchild’s father was a visiting professor from Maryland; Jenny had been his student for just one semester for a Comparative Literature class. One night, after a student theatre production and too many glasses of wine, he took her back to his tiny borrowed room and into his unmade bed. It was a rich sexual experience for Jenny. Before this night, she had known only two boys and both had been young, fast and urgent. This lovemaking was slow and different. All through the following day she felt damp, trembling. Aware of a heaviness, as if he were still inside her, her breasts bruised, like fingered fruit. A trickle of semen felt damp on her thigh hours later.

She’d never told him of the pregnancy. He was gone before it was certain and then it was too late. They’d smiled at each other in the halls. ”We must meet up,” he murmured, not meaning it. They never had. She knew he had a wife somewhere back there, children probably. They hadn’t talked about it. There had been no time to talk when his mouth was on her, full of her.

“I’m going to run to the canteen,” her mother says now. “Tom, how about a sandwich? I bet you haven’t had lunch.”

“Oh, just coffee, Liz, really. You sure? I can go.”

“No, you talk to your daughter and your new grandson.”

She’s gone, leaving a trace of Estee Lauder in her wake. Jenny thinks her father looks worried. He sighs, then studies her face.

“You’re still intent on staying in your digs?” he asks.

She has the basement room in a house full of students. It is self contained, a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom, but it is small.

Jenny nods.

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

“You’d be better off at your mother’s,” he insists. “There’s plenty of room.”

“It’s my last semester, Dad. I’ve got finals coming up. I’ve got to stay in the city. I can’t be buried out in the sticks.”

“How can you go to class? With a baby?”

“The others will baby-sit. They’ve promised. And my tutors are giving me assignments over the net. I’ve got my computer. It’s only for one semester.”

He shakes his head.

“I wish we had more room,” he says. “But with the twins and Marcie’s...”

“Don’t worry about it, Dad. Really,” Jenny interrupts, but still he looks unconvinced.

“Let’s have a look at this lad,” he says, finally.

When Jenny’s mother returns she is carrying a sandwich in a small plastic container and two paper cups of coffee. She hands the sandwich to her ex-husband.


“Look what they had in the canteen,” she says. “Your favorite. Chicken salad.”

It’s a large sandwich on malted brown bread, stuffed with chicken and tomatoes, lettuce and bean sprouts. The edges of the bread are curled and dry, the lettuce looks limp. A small packet of mustard has been placed on the side.

“I know what you like,” her mother says.

Jenny feels her cheeks burn and looks away embarrassed. But her father opens the mustard quickly, spreads it over the sandwich and begins to eat. Jenny stares down at the baby, avoids looking at her parents. She wants them to leave, make their polite farewells and go. The room is too small for them.

When her father leaves, with hugs and promises, Jenny places the baby back into the bassinet at the bedside, settles back on the pillows, closes her eyes for a moment. She is so tired, her body feels weighted. Her mother slumps, the rigid, slim-line posture gone, picks up a magazine, turns the pages, then surprisingly, kicks off her shoes and places her feet on the radiator. She looks entirely comfortable, relaxed, she does not seem to want to chat. Jenny is grateful for that. Jenny closes her eyes again and in moments she is asleep.

When she wakes, her mother is standing at the window, holding the baby, murmuring to him. Jenny has no idea what she’s saying but the sound is soothing and familiar.

“Hi there,” Jenny says.

Her mother turns.

“Hey, your mamma’s awake,” she says. “Lucky for you, hungry little fella.”

She smiles as she brings him to Jenny.

“He’s been nuzzling at these empty boobs, poor darling,” she says.

Jenny unties her nightgown so that one breast is exposed and to her surprise her mother takes a firm hold of it, places her grandson close beside it and, without hesitation, clamps the two together.

“Good boy,” she says.

Jenny feels a tugging sensation. His mouth moves, his eyes open and look directly at her. There is no expectation in them, just a calm acceptance.

“I think he’s finally getting it,” Jenny says.

Her mother smiles. “Of course he is. It took you a day or two, then, once you’d got the hang of it, you wouldn’t stop. Day and night.  Hungry little beast.”

Jenny grins, looks down at the peachy face against her white, blue-veined breast.  He sucks greedily now.

“Piglet,” she whispers, kissing the top of his head.

Her mother has returned to the window. It is getting dark. Jenny realizes that her mother has stayed long after visiting time, though no one seems worried about turning her out.

When she speaks her voice is so soft, it takes Jenny a moment to make sense of the words.

“I’m glad you had him,” her mother says. “Somehow, I never imagined you would. I thought you might have–done something else.”

It is clear that her mother cannot say the word abortion. They have never discussed such things. Jenny wants her to turn, wants to see her face.

“I nearly had an abortion, “Jenny says. “I made the appointment. At the clinic.”


Her mother turns now from the window. Her face is in shadow and her eyes are dark in the dim room, but her cheeks look dark, flushed. “ What happened?”

“I sat in the waiting room, and then when they called my name I said–Wait. I have to think about this some more. So they fussed, and made another appointment. And I didn’t go. I couldn’t, well, I just couldn’t decide. Couldn’t make up my mind. And then it was too late.”

Her mother smiles.

“Well, you never could make up your mind about anything. Which dress to wear, which socks to wear with it. Lord. Sometimes no decision, is actually a decision,” she adds.

“Yes,” says Jenny.

“I’m glad. I believe one often regrets...well...”

Her voice trails off. She is looking at her grandson.

“One does?” Jenny asks.

Her mother’s eyes meet hers. It is unspoken between them, but what her mother is confiding is clear to Jenny, as clear as icy spring water. Jenny takes a breath. She wants to give something back, a thanks for this confidence that her mother has not been able to speak, but has shared nonetheless.

“He was a professor. His father,” she says.

Her mother blinks, puts her head on one side.

“He was teaching you?”

“Yes, visiting for one semester.”

“You were in love with him?”

“No. No. It was just a one night thing. He doesn’t know about this. About anything.”

Her mother comes to the bed, touches her daughter’s hair, smooths it back from her forehead, then she places the back of her hand against her grandson’s cheek.

“Well, he’ll be a smart little guy, then. That’s good.”

Jenny laughs, and her mother laughs, too. It is a clear, warm laugh that Jenny remembers from her childhood.


Her mother picks up her bag, the velvet jacket, looks down at the feeding baby.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she says. “Your dad will too, I think.”

“You miss dad, still?” Jenny asks.

Her mother looks at her, thinks for a moment.

“Miss him? No. I don’t.” There’s a moment’s pause. “ What I want is rather hard to explain,” she says, and there is girlish mischief in her voice. “I want him to miss me.”

She kisses her daughter and is at the door when Jenny calls.

“Mom? Listen.”

Her mother waits in the open doorway.

“If it gets difficult, or lonely, or... frightening,” Jenny says. “Then I will come home for a bit. Okay? You’ll be my safety net. There if needed.”



“Safety net,” her mother repeats. “Good.”

She blows a kiss, and then she is gone. The baby whimpers and then begins a steady, hungry wail. He is rooting blindly against her shoulder. Jenny fixes him to her breast as her mother had done, firmly latching him onto it. His eyes move to her face as he begins to suck.  He looks calm, unafraid. She smiles and, very gently, kisses the top of his head.


Mary McCluskey’s short stories have appeared in literary journals in the US and UK – including The Atlantic, The London Magazine, StoryQuarterly, – and have been read on BBC Radio 4.  She married and raised her two sons in sunny California but presently spends part of the year in the UK,where she was born. She likes contrasts.

More from

An incredibly beautiful story, Mary. So much said and told about this family in one hospital visit. Brava!
Very beatiful indeed, that´s what I want to be for my kids, the ever present safety net.
Gorgeous. Thank you.
Comments are now closed for this piece.