The Bad Mother List

by Cheryl Murfin

“I am getting really tired of watching your sad ass moping around the house all the time,” Sarah says. 

Sophia groans and rolls over, tucks the sheets tighter around her head, unwilling, unable to look at the 13-year-old daughter she knows is standing over her head, glaring, cup of coffee in hand. Like a mother. Like she is the kid and Sarah is the mother.  

It’s pathetic, Sophia thinks to herself, as the sharp bitter smell of what is surely a French-pressed coffee syrup, sneaks under the covers. One of these days, she really needs to teach Sarah the right measurements of coffee too water.

No. What she really needs to teach Sarah is what a mother who has it fully together looks like. What she really needs it to be a model of strong womanhood. If she could just stop her whirling mind from the paralytic impact it seems to have on her body and pull her ass out of bed.

She can hear Sarah breathing two feet above her.

She can feel the warmth of her daughter's breath as she hisses: “Mommmmm, get up! It’s 11 o’clock.” 

On what, Saturday? Is it Saturday? Or has she made Sarah late for school once more?

Sophia takes a deep breath – exactly like her therapist tells her to do. In, hold, out, hold. And another. She’s counting. Three, two, one .  . like an automaton she throws off the covers and stares up at the ceiling. Her view is quickly blocked by her Sarah’s face, by her raised eyebrows and pinched lips. 

Step one. Awaken.

She slows the gerbil wheel of her mind long enough to remind her brain of its secondary function after perseverating on her ex all night long: to operate her body. She has to think to actually connect her gray mass to her legs and to urge them over the side of the bed, like a drunk. She wishes she’d had the benefit of the party. 

Sarah gingerly places the coffee in her hand. 

Step two. Caffeinate

“You look like hell, Mom.”

“Are you supposed to use the word hell?” Sophia asks? Not a reprimand. She is genuinely curious. Is a 13-year-old supposed to say hell? Ass? Should she add those words to her bad mother list?

Sarah sits on the edge of the bed and it is only then that Sophia notices the laptop open on her lap. Jesus, she thinks, my daughter is already up and working. 

“Mom,” Sarah searches. “I mean it. I think it’s time to DO something about your depression. He’s not coming back, you know? It’s time to move on.”

Sophia is caught on the word “depression.” How does her 13-year-old daughter even know this word? Does she talk in her sleep? Is Sophie's therapist filling her in on the side? Is she that bad at faking it, other than this increasingly common morning routine?

Sophia stands up, smiles wanly and wobbles to the bathroom.

Step three: Motion. Movement. Moving on.

The sound of Cat Stevens comes wailing through the other bathroom door. The one that leads to Sarah’s room. The future Islamic zealot is inviting her live:  So if you want to sing out, sing out, and if you want to be free, be free….there are a million places to be…..

Yeah, yeah, Sophia thinks. I know that there are, I know that there are.

The shower starts her slow revival; warn pellets of spit rolling down her body. She looks up, glad in the moment that she spent the extra $122 for the rainwater showerhead. The sensation is one of standing in a warm summer storm without your clothes on. She can say this, because years ago, in India, she did just that. Years ago when she was carefree and drinking too much feni on the beach in Goa with what felt like a harem of hippie women. She closes her eyes and floats back to that moment, the hot sun, the warm water pouring, literally pouring like buckets from the sky, down her body. 

Just as the Goan water starts to trickle down her belly  . . .


She is returned to the tiny shower stall in her apartment on East John St. and the year of forced solitude and heartbreak she has been sentenced to here in the good ol’ U.S of A.


“Yes, honey. I’m up, I’m good! Sorry it took me a bit there.”

“Mom, have you ever considered on-line dating? There’s this site that I heard about that is supposed to be pretty good – no freaks or perverts.”

“How would you know this?” I say this out loud I think.

“Well, a lot of the high school girls go on looking for older guys, but what I heard is this site is really careful and sniffs them out. So mostly its old guys and old women…” 

She catches herself. 

“Not that you are old. You know what I mean.”

Sophia is trying so hard, so hard to send her body back to India. Right now. 

“Oh Sarah, I know you are worried, but this is normal. It’s mourning. I’ll be my right self soon.”

“You said that six months ago.”

“Well, Joyce says it’s just a matter of time and I am really making headway.”

Sarah is matter-of-fact in her response:

“That’s bullshit mom. You still text him three times a day and check his Facebook page more than that – I can look it up.”

Who is the parent here? Sophia really doesn’t know any more. She has reached for her towel, a worn tiger print that she once found sexy and now finds nostalgic and maybe a little gaudy. It was a gift. From him.

Sarah is eyeing her as she wraps it’s generous length around her body.

“You should burn that,” she says. She’s sitting on the toilet, computer propped open, typing.

“So this site is called Plenty of Fish and I’ve been working on a profile for you.”

“What?! A What?” 

“A profile – it tells guys who you are and makes them interested in meeting you. All the divorced moms are doing this, Mom. It’s how people meet.”

“I don’t think I’m ready to meet anyone,” Sophia tells her, a sort of whine, slightly embarrassed.

“Well, I do, so I signed you up.”

She is not even mad. No, that is not the word. Humiliated is closer. That she was so mercilessly dumped. That he so quickly picked up so publicly with the lover he dumped her for. That her teenage daughter is now feeling compelled to save her from herself and hook up with a guy—most likely an axe murderer, aren’t they all ax murderers and pornography sellers? – at Plenty of Fish.

She sinks down to the edge of the club. Sarah is trying so hard. So hard to be patient. To hide her own embarrassment with friends at her mother’s rash behavior and decidedly anti-social attitude.

What can it hurt? As long as there are no addresses, phone numbers….because what if these men really are just looking for teens to steal and ship off to the sex trade? She looks at her beautiful child, worried.

“OK, let’s see it,” she finally says.


“Yeah, let’s see who you think I am.”

The site is bright and cheery – every other corner filled with some promise of the right connection. The chance to lure the perfect fish. Sarah has chosen her favorite picture of Sophie. And artfully Photoshopped it so that Shithead’s face has magically turned into her 80-year-old grandfather’s face. 

“That way they’ll think you are really caring --- which you are mother.” 

Sarah says mother with that rolling of the eye intonation that Sophia loves: “Mah-tthhhher.”

Sarah looks at what her daughter has shared with the world of online perverts about her:

Age 43.  Is she really that old? Is that a point against her she is already wondering?

Dark hair, brown eyes, drinks socially, has children and wants NO MORE. This latter Sarah had written all caps. Cats OK. Loves food. Height/weight proportional. Sophia is curious about this last item. Proportional to what? The food she loves? she wonders.

And then, her daughter has written this description:

“Let’s cut to the chase. I am two years out of a divorce and six months out of the relationship everyone tells you not to have right after you get a divorce. As I write this I am picking up and examining all the pieces of that mess, trying to turn lemons into lemonade. Even with all that I remain open to the spirit of life moving in all its directions. That is to say I’m in the boat but I don’t really know how to fish. Tug on my line if you like lemonade.”

Sarah has a feeling her jaw is hanging unattractively open. She is shocked – not at the words so much, but that her 13-year-old child wrote them. She’s shockingly insightful, Sophie thinks.

“Did you write that?” she asks, just to be sure.

“Yeah. I got a little help from the napkins you leave lying around the house.”

The napkins. Tiny pieces of paper that Sophia jots down her thoughts on when they come and leaves where they fall as an exercise in letting go. It was Joyce’s idea, and sometimes it really works. Again, the overwhelming question: should a kid know this much about her mother?

“Well, what do you DO with it?” she asks.

“I already did it. It’s up online. You have six messages.”

Messages? What’s a message? Sophia feels exposed, frantic. What is she supposed to do with a message from a fish? 

“Fuck!” she breathes. “Can anyone see this? What if my clients see it?”

“Mom, they will only see it if they are looking for a date. Open the messages. Let’s see what your matches look like!” Her excitement is palpable and Sophie feels oddly embarrassed by that.

She stares at the Messages icon, thankful that her daughter has not invaded her privacy so deeply as to have already clicked on it. Grateful, in a strange way, that she has invaded it as deeply as she has.

Sophie sighs. Without turning the computer away from her teenage daughter, she clicks on Messages.

One more item for the bad mother list.