Throughout my childhood, I got firsthand experience at how not to raise a kid. My dad and Jinx wouldn't even be in the running for parenting awards. Which left me as the mom and dad, all rolled into one incompetent and unprepared kid, to my baby sister and myself.
I got married for all of two seconds at seventeen and as people will tell you, I don't deal well with change. Brandi hooked up with loser after loser and got into trouble more times than I can count.
Which leaves me with one inescapable fact: I did a bad job. On both of us.
The minute I found out I was pregnant there were only two options. Neither of which involved me being a mom.
Mary was realising that there was no such thing as comfortable any more. Even sitting on her couch, her feet up to ease her ankles, it was impossible to get comfortable. Particularly when the baby decided it didn't want her to be.
"Oh my God. Seriously." Mary grimaced, hand reflexively coming to rest on her stomach.
Brandi looked up from the magazine she was reading, concern on her face. "Mary?"
What felt like an elbow pressed against her hand, scraping along her insides, pulling the skin taut. "God, what are you doing in there? I think it's trying to reenact a scene from Alien. Jesus."
"The baby's kicking?" There was excitement in Brandi's voice, the magazine completely forgotten.
"Weren't you listening to me?" Mary said tetchily as the elbow jabbed her again. "It's not kicking, it's plotting how to burst out of my stomach."
"Can I feel?"
At the hopeful look on Brandi's face, Mary gave in. But she wasn't going to do it gracefully. She'd been fighting off people's seemingly irresistible need to touch her stomach for the last month. "Fine, go ahead, touch the pregnant woman's stomach. What is it about having a parasitic life form inside of you that makes people think that it's okay to touch you, without even asking permission?"
"I asked permission," Brandi said as she stood up.
"Yes, you, Brandi, asked permission. Millions of other people have not."
"Millions?" Brandi couldn't repress her laughter as she walked over and settled beside Mary on the couch. "Mary, don't you think you're exaggerating a bit?"
"I'm pregnant, I'm allowed to exaggerate." The wryness Mary had initially been going for somehow ended up as grumpiness.
Brandi placed her hand on Mary's stomach, leaving it there for a few seconds. Of course the baby chose that time to suddenly decide to pause in its prison break. "It's not moving now."
"Sorry, Squish, it doesn't like you," Mary stated, her lips then twitching slightly in a smile. Annoying her sister? Too easy.
"Mary!" Jinx scolded from the kitchen.
"What?" Mary said, acting innocent.
Brandi was looking at her, half-smiling but eyes narrowed. "It's okay, Mom, Mary's just being Mary. So how's the adoption stuff coming? You haven't mentioned it in a while. Because—"
Knowing what was coming next, Mary bristled. "So help me, if you were about to say that the offer of you and Peter still stands—"
The smile disappeared. "I wasn't, okay. I was going to say that if you want to talk about it, you can. Mom and I said that we'd support you in whatever you chose, and this is part of it. I know you don't like to talk much about these things, but I thought you might with this. It's a big decision, and if you need help with it, I want to help. Jeez, Mary, why do you always assume the worst?"
"Because usually it is the worst," Mary muttered. At a normal volume she said, "Fine. You want to know? It's going well. I've decided on the Templetons. She's a teacher and he's an attorney. They even lived in Switzerland for a while. If you want to read their file, it's over there." Mary nodded in the general direction of the table that had the file sitting on top of it, unsurprised when Brandi got up to get it.
"They look nice," Brandi said on opening the file and seeing the smiling Brady Bunch visages of the couple. She settled back beside Mary and started reading.
Mary had to agree with her, although part of her still couldn't help thinking that they were too nice. There had to be a skeleton in their closet, somewhere. As Brandi read further, a furrow developed in her brow. She turned the page, reading through the rest of the BS that the Templetons had written to try to secure a baby. It was the kind of talking up that you had to do on a job application, only worse, because this time the stakes were much higher.
Brandi let the top page fall back down on the file. "They're too nice."
"That's exactly what I said! Hah! Suck it, Marshall." The sweet smell of vindication. Or possibly the package of Chips Ahoy! cookies that Jinx had opened in the kitchen. Mary could swear that her sense of smell had improved during her pregnancy. She could sniff out anything that could be classified as food at forty paces.
"Were they all like this?" Brandi tapped the file with her index finger, clearly curious.
"Yep, every last one of them. All rainbows and puppies and canoes." Mary couldn't help the derision.
"Oh, my girls, in some things you really are alike," Jinx said, putting down the plate of cookies on the coffee table. "They can't be that bad."
"Have a look then," Mary said, gesturing for Brandi to hand the file over and leveraging herself forward to reach the cookies. Chocolate chip, yum. One or two... okay, maybe five or six... or ten would tide her over till dinner. Maybe.
"Well," Jinx said after skimming it, "they are perfect."
"Too perfect," Brandi got in before Mary had a chance to say anything.
"What she said." Mary gestured at Brandi.
"There are happy families out there, who go bowling together, who stay together," Jinx said. "I know that wasn't what either of you had, but it... hurts that you can't even believe that it's possible. I'm not saying that these people have never had a fight in their lives, but the good outweighs the bad for a lot of families."
"Just not for ours," Mary said quietly. Now that her mom was sober, the pain of what their family life had been like hurt them all, not just her and Brandi. Jinx had never been quite aware of how bad things had been and how a lot of it was her fault.
"I wish I could have given that to you," Jinx said at a whisper, distressed.
Uncomfortable, in more ways than one, Mary said, "And on that note, I've got to pee."
Getting up was an effort worthy of theme music. Although whether that should be the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Cantina song from Star Wars, Mary wasn't sure. And damn Marshall's influence that that was where her brain had gone. Finally she was standing up, and walking away from the conversation.
"Nice dress." Surprisingly, there wasn't even a hint of mockery in Marshall's voice as he settled down beside her on the couch.
Feeling a bit tired, she'd come back inside, making sure to bring some of the little sandwiches with her. Too many happy people outside. Add in the fact that Mark was being super-attentive to his unexpectedly pregnant ex and people were getting on her nerves even more than usual. She didn't like people at the best of times; she liked them even less in her backyard.
"So... Mark," Marshall said, his voice neutral.
"Yeah." She tried to match his lack of expression but didn't think she managed it.
"He knows about this." His hand gestured to her stomach, amazingly not including her rack for once.
"No. He thinks I had a boob job and swallowed a balloon," she said scathingly. "Of course he knows about this. He's not blind."
"He didn't run." His eyebrows rose slightly, but his voice remained neutral. He was doing his best not to push or make a judgement.
"No," Mary said. "Instead, he told me I'm beautiful. And glowing. What is it with that being a descriptor of pregnant women—we're not girly vampires."
"Well, technically," Marshall angled his head, "they sparkle rather than glow."
Mary raised her eyebrows, not believing it. "Are you kidding me? I saw it because of a witness; what's your excuse? Dear God, I want those two hours of my life back." A 14-year-old witness had been responsible for Mary seeing that drivel. She really didn't get what anybody would see in it. A sudden thought hit. "Please tell me that your midlife crisis didn't make you watch it."
"No, Abigail didn't make me watch it," Marshall replied, a hint of long suffering in his voice. He tried to get their conversation back on course. "And Mark?"
"What, has Mark seen that movie? I don't know, you'd have to ask him, our relationship doesn't extend to discussion of who's better, the sparkling vampire or the were-whatever." She added in a silly hand movement, to better convey her contempt for sparkling vampires.
Marshall just stared at her, ignoring her attempt at avoiding the subject. When it mattered, he'd out-wait her.
"I don't know," she said with a shrug. "I mean, he's here, still, but he's...Mark." His name had a number of meanings to her, most of them featuring the words irresponsible or ass in some form.
"You could give him a chance. Not necessarily as a boyfriend, per se, but as an interested party in your impending birth."
"If you mean the father of my child, just say it, Marshall. Always got to go the long way around." Despite her reply, she knew that he was probably right.
Marshall glanced out to where the rehearsal dinner was still going, Brandi's laughter obvious. "Brandi seems happy. And terrified. It's an interesting combination."
"That's Brandi for you." Mary wasn't sure whether Brandi was going to make it through to actually having an extra ring on her finger, particularly considering the history. She hoped, but she wasn't counting on it. She took a deep breath, well, as deep as she could with the baby in the way, and took the plunge. "I, uh, cancelled my appointment with the Templetons. And before you gloat, it wasn't because of Grace or Leonard."
"It's a hard decision to make and understandable that you're not sure," Marshall said seriously. "I'll support you whatever you decide to do."
"That extend to changing diapers? Dealing with other people's crap..." Mary gave a mock shudder. Gross.
"Isn't that what we do each day at work?"
She had to smile at that. He was right.
"They say that it's different when it's your own child," he continued. "Somehow less gross."
Mary shook her head. "Not buying it."
"Me neither." He turned serious, and this time brought his hands into it, gesturing at her. "Look, you've still got time to make your decision."
She sighed. Yeah, that was true. But... "How am I going to know that it's the right one?"
"Whatever choice you make, it will be the right one. The Templetons will make good parents...and so will you."
It was a nice thought, but she didn't have anywhere near that much faith in herself.
She may have told Marshall that seeing Grace give birth and then cradling the baby changed nothing, but that wasn't true.
Lying on her bed in the dark, trying to find a spot where her bladder didn't want to explode, she rested her hand on her stomach, fingers rubbing gently without her even realising it. The baby was asleep, just like she should be, but sleep wouldn't come.
Talking to people about her feelings came hard to Mary, particularly when they were pushing her to open up and presuming that they knew what her feelings were, as Marshall had been doing previously. She seemed to have the automatic reaction to deny something that was true if she was being pushed, which was why she'd been able to tell Brandi that she'd cancelled the appointment with the Templetons but couldn't initially tell Marshall that she had doubts.
The doubts had been there before Grace had hit the scene. They'd just been amplified by the reality of birth: that there was really a baby, a new little life in there. Holding Leonard—and she still thought it was the most ridiculous kick-me name she'd ever heard for a baby—Mary couldn't help but think about what it would feel like if it was her own child.
Yes, the birth had been messy, and the idea that something so large could come out of your hoo-ha was disturbing, but it had also been mind blowing and emotional. It wasn't even her baby, but Mary had felt a powerful need to protect him. Suddenly the baby was no longer an it: it was a human being. Admittedly, an itty bitty one, but so very very real.
It just made it that much harder to figure out what the right decision for her own baby was. She knew that she'd make a better mother than Grace would—even a species that ate its own young would—and there were Jinx and Brandi to help. One a recovering alcoholic who'd screwed up Mary's own childhood and the other somebody who'd only just managed to find her place in life and settle down. And then there was Mark. She'd expected him to run out the door screaming, but he hadn't. As much as Mary didn't want to believe it, it almost seemed like he had changed, that he had grown up a little. Not much, just a little. So her baby maybe would have a dad. Maybe.
But could she give a child everything it needed? The Templetons certainly seemed like they could. What would she do about work? Sorry, kid, but there's more important people in the world than you and I can't explain anything about it to you? Could she give it all the love it needed, be there for it? Or was it going to feel like it had an absentee mom?
Oh, great. She needed to pee again, thank you so much, baby. Having a normal bladder again was one of the things that she was looking forward to.
Nothing resolved, she started the great trek to the toilet.
There's no crystal ball able to predict whether you will be a good parent, particularly when you've had such a bad role model in your own childhood. I wasn't a good parent to my sister, or to myself, but really, how can a kid be?
I've spent my entire life pushing people away, not letting anybody close... or if I do, keeping them at arm's length with sarcasm and snark. So the idea of letting a child see the real me, loving and protecting them, being loved in return, giving them everything they need? It terrifies me. Plus, there's the very real possibility that I will screw it up. It's what the Shannons do, after all.
But as Marshall said, I don't have to decide right this second. I've still got time. After all, this baby isn't going to make a jail break tomorrow.
At least, I hope not.
Damn, I just jinxed myself, didn't I?