The first step

by Kirsten Johnston

Shortlisted for the 2010 My Child/Parenting Express Short Story Competition for Parents


The Grove Clinic. A pretty name, leafy, greeny, pretty name for what everyone knows is a hospital. A mental hospital. A place for loony mothers and the children they can’t love.

I can hear the words of the passing motorists. “Can’t cope, can you? Should have thought of that before you went and got yourself pregnant.” I sneer. My husband takes my hand. Anxiety now. What if they send me away? How can I hate this place and yet be so desperate that they let me stay?

I jiggle the plastic bag in my fingers. I look over to the child in my husband’s arms, jealous. Do gestating and birthing count for nothing? The child is oblivious to me, far more interested in the gentle bustle of people.

Some people sitting on the lounges look nervous. Jittery. I hope I don’t look like they do. Head up, take the hunch out of my shoulders. Find that leg-swinging gait that is the domain of the confident. I put my hand to my face to scratch the rash – itchy, blotchy rash that arrived without warning. Same day as the blackness became too dark to see through.

I stare at my husband’s face. Shake my head. It is too hard to do this. My body fights to be released but his concern defeats me. I acquiesce.

Admissions. Name? Date of birth? Questions about whether I know why I am here, who sent me. He is a man with gentle words and kid gloves. “God, man!” I want to say. “I endure a rampaging child every day. You can keep your kid gloves.” He speaks gently and respectfully. I have no reason to deserve this.

I am frightened as we follow another man in grey trousers and white shirt, his tie screaming, colours clawing at each other. Towards the lift. He shuts us all in there. Presses the button marked three.

The room is a decent size with a cot to one side. This cot is a monstrous piece of furniture, heavy dark timber and tightly dressed with white sheets and bright blankets. My bed cowers in the corner. A hospital bed, despite their attempts to hide the fact – all the handles sticking out from beneath the pallid covers. The child will play with them. Will raise and lower the bed, use it as a toy, climb on it, rumple its sheets and fling its pillows to the far reaches of the room.

I can see the river out of the window, muddy brown, sucking its grassy banks into itself. I can’t open the window. It is a single pane of thick glass. They are shutting me in.

I reach to unpack my things. Clothes, a couple of books, innumerable items for the child and two enormous bags of disposable nappies – petrochemical parcels to be discovered by archaeologists years in the future. I am wasting the world’s resources. I am a consumer and a polluter.

I put my meager clothes in the small wardrobe – hanging space is available but stupidly I have brought no hangers. Clumsy, so clumsy. Anyone would have thought to bring hangers.

And then the jobs are done and there is nothing to do but wait. I sit on a chair. Stare at the floor. I am resentful now. I will be left here with the child and told to sort myself out. Pull myself together. Just like everybody says.

Surely there will be nurses, people who like children, to take it away and leave me in peace. I can rest then. I can feel the stiffness and coolness of the bed sheets on my legs already, can feel the crunchy plastic pillow deflating under my head. I close my eyes. Imagine that long sleep when they let you alone, let you lie for an eternity and not have to speak or think or even hear any sort of noise.

My husband lays a hand on my shoulder. It is large and firm and draws the rigidity from the muscles in my back. In the distance I can hear a child laughing. I can hear my husband’s voice. Where have they gone to be so far away?

A woman enters the room – tall, very tall.

“Good morning, Mrs Johnston. I’m Barb Hamilton.”

A warm smile. Softening me up. Trying to lull me into some sense of security. The woman reaches out and takes my hand. She doesn’t say anything for a moment. I wait. Fearful. I feel my eyes stinging for the need of blinking. I watch the woman’s red lips moving, see the sounds thickening the air between us.

“Tell me about it, Mrs Johnston. Tell me about how you’re feeling.”

A flood of silence in my mind, a moment of utter stillness, some sliver of understanding and then a thousand words that tumble and trip me. I plead, beg and let free a panic that this moment when someone wants to know might disappear forever, unused and untaken. Tears erupt from the bottom of my stomach, from my legs, tears buried so deep that they had forgotten how to flow. They cascade over the chair, over the woman’s hands, over the floor and wet the child’s head. My husband’s arms are around me. Warming me. I hear the woman’s voice.

“Let yourself cry now. It’s OK. You’ve taken the first step.”


© Kirsten Johnston

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

Share your thoughts

* Gloria Steinem