I remember my childhood baths, laying back until the bare minimum of my face was above water: eyes, nose, mouth. I loved how it felt, how the water made the world sound so different, so muted. My children have not shown a similar interest. In fact, it’s a battle to get them to lay back at all.
Therefore, I have always felt a surge of love when one lets me lay their head back to wash off the shampoo, so accustomed I am to stiff elbows firmly planted. Every time, I gently assure them, “I’ve got you. It’s ok. Just lay your head back. Feel my hand behind your head? I’m not going to let go. You won’t get water in your eyes. I promise.” When they do lay back, they look up at me with eyes full of trust. I smile back and enjoy the peaceful moment.
Our first child was barely eight months old when the horrible news came of a Houston mother, suffering from postpartum psychosis, who drowned her 5 children in the bathtub. That story haunted me for years. For awhile, anytime I would coax my children to lay back and trust me, I would think, “Is this what she did? Did she tell them to trust her? Were they looking back up at her with these same eyes?” And my smile would falter, just for a second, before I could shake it off and remind myself that I am not her.
Our youngest, being the third child, got weaned from baths to showers early. We rarely had time for bath playtime. But since bubble baths were so important to me as a child, I recently began to make time. Besides, once he splashes around a bit, all the dirt has been soaked off by the bubbles. All I really need to do is rinse.
And so it was that I found myself on my knees next to the bathtub, coaxing little Hal to trust me and lay his head back. The water wasn’t deep enough to come up over his head, but I cradled it anyway. “See, it’s ok. No water on your face.” He emitted a nervous giggle, then beamed up at me. And then she returned. “Is this how her kids were looking at her? Did their expressions turn to horror?”
I hadn’t thought about her in over five years, but here she was tainting my maternal moments again. Will it always be this way? When I bathe my grandchildren, will I think of Andrea Yates? Will I have to shake the memory aside to enjoy my little bright spot? I honestly don’t know.
The day after that recent bath, the radio brought news of a Dallas mother who drowned her child. Since then, I haven’t been able to keep this comparison out of my mind: a healthy mother enjoying the sacred trust of her children during bath time versus a mentally ill mother who violates that trust. I thank God that I have never had to deal with the warped mind that these women struggle with, that I will not have to live with such horrid consequences. And I say a little prayer for them and their children. Maybe that’s why her echo still rings in my ears.
I apologize to those of you who have enjoyed coming here to read my lighthearted accounts of the children. Every time I have thought about writing, this story bullies its way to the front and demands to be told. So here it is. I promise to return to the lighter fare next time. I promise!