I looked up through the night that was closing in around our apartment building. The slender crack of light glowing where the curtains wouldn’t touch, in our second story bedroom window, revealed that life was hidden within. That was where my newborn baby was. Moments ago, I’d pulled my aching nipple from her locked lips and then held my breath in anticipation of her cry, as she searched for me, suckling the air between us. This time, peace came to her, and she fell back to sleep. Relieved, I rolled onto my back and freed the sigh held captive in my chest.
“Sleep when she sleeps”
My midwife’s words came to me; tired mothers are weepy, I must maintain a diligence against postpartum. If I am not well rested the wear and tear of becoming a mother might make me sad; the deep red stretch marks etched over my abdomen, the repeatedly fresh, pink wounds resistant to heal on my nipples, the warm tangy smell of spit-up breast-milk clinging to the sheets on my bed, these things could quickly add up to an “unreliably” negative outlook.
I mouthed her name silently, still trying it on, as mother speaking to daughter. I had done this countless times while pregnant with her, rubbing circles on the growing fundus of my baby, and saying aloud the name she would fulfill;
I turned my head to receive the dose of oxytocin that accompanied her very existence, the folds of brand new skin squished together under her protruding lips. My eyes followed the sweet round curve of her cheek that led to a tiny glimpse of her elusive neck. I was well aware that my hormones were adjusting, picturing the trail of neurotransmitters in my body failing to light, lacking the glow that fueled all that bygone pregnant-contentment: estrogen, progesterone, endorphins, all of them once wrapped together in my grasp. Now I felt them dropping like a delicate glass ball that I scrambled to get a hold of before it left my fingers and shattered.
She wouldn’t slumber for long. I had only just stopped sleeping with her in the living room, a nest of pillows shoved around me in the papasan chair so that she could rest with her belly to mine, her cheek pressed into my chest, upright and closer than close. This yielded sleep. This was a solution to the night walks, fruitless burping, and instant spit-ups that splashed us awake when she was vertical. I had an army of supplies encircling our nest, everything was set to be a fingers-stretch away: diapers, wipes, burping cloths, giant glass of water.
“You must stay hydrated.”
Marilyn’s voice again. She told us both, repeatedly, as we sat side by side at our monthly appointments, John’s warm protective fingers laced in mine, that it was up to us to to do all these things (so many things). I didn’t understand at the time that my future baby would hold me personally accountable for all of her needs, whereas John would need me to explicitly ask for backup; assistance in successfully fulfilling all those needs. I had no idea how incapable I would feel asking for the amount of help that I actually needed. So, as I grabbed the empty water cup in my hand and reset it beside me, stuffing my thirst away, I thought of him; his body in our bed, sleeping as he always had, committing crimes with his well rested-ness, smuggling away all the availability to move freely through this world, his potential to pop up and get a drink of water without considering the impact it would make on the universe.
I rolled silently from the bed and stood admiring the tiny lump she made. Maybe we were progressing, this sleeping girl in the middle of our bed, perhaps she would allow our invisible tether to stretch and I could reconnect with solitary me. I retreated to the bathroom, lowering the seat over what was beginning to look like a frat house toilet bowl. I sat there and cried while listening to the soft chuckles from the living-room where John and our roommate, Matt played Zelda. I needed a place that I could wail. I needed a comfort that I wasn’t sure existed anymore. If I took two steps to the right, my reflection would be waiting for me and the ugliness there was too much. I had showered a total of two times, once immediately after birth and once while John paced in the bathroom, fearfully cradling our baby as her cries echoed off the walls. In that moment, I was terrified that she would cry too hard. I quickly rinsed the soap from my head and watched as startling amounts of my hair washed down the drain. Like the freak show I was evolving into, I pulled back the curtains to reveal my naked form, framed by the vapor just beginning to cling to the mirror. Nothing can prepare you for that; the empty womb pouch, extra weight, swollen breasts and stretched skin, nipples elongated and transformed by their productivity, tired, tired eyes and skin and ...ugh.
Those same bathroom walls were now closing in on me. I pulled my bathrobe around myself and walked through the living room unnoticed. I didn’t want to be seen. I left our apartment and carefully descended the cement steps outside and was met with a rush of cold air on my face as I left the alcove. I gasped and choked on my own breath and crumpled. The pitty I harbored for myself at that moment was heavy enough to pull me down. And I cried my fucking face off. I repeatedly mouthed “I can’t do it”, glancing into that sliver of light above me where she was, ashamed of the remorse and angst and confusion that I felt for motherhood.
I couldn’t raise a hand to count my blessings. I was failing at this thing. I had to get it together before anyone knew. I had to breathe. I needed to get up. Just then a shrill whine called from behind that upstairs windowpane. Haven. My body was moving up the stairs before I had time to make a conscious choice. I floated through the living-room in my long white robe like the ghost of woman’s past and disappeared down the hallway. She needed me, no matter how disassembled I felt at that moment, my parts would provide her comfort and nourishment. And, if I couldn’t get those things for myself, I could find solace in being the one who could give them to her.
I revisit this moment in my history, time and time again. There was a very metaphorical ‘window of opportunity’ showing itself to me that night, that view from below, that last bit of light shining through. Hours passed that night and I couldn’t console Haven’s cries; when she wouldn’t latch, wouldn’t stay swaddled, or be rocked, I kneeled over the bed and abruptly released her body from my arms. Then I said out loud “I don’t want you.” Instantly I clapped a hand over my mouth. I backed away from her horrified. I rushed down the hallway and jerked John awake from the couch, confessing the thing I’d done.
“I told her I didn’t want her! I told her I didn’t want her… John!”
He jumped up, putting his hands on my shoulders, looking a little terrified. Realizing that something bad may have happened, he let go of me and ran for Haven. I buried my face in my hands. He returned with an instantly consoled baby in one arm. With the other, he embraced me.
“Emily, shhh... she’s okay. She’s okay. You’re okay.”
He guided me to bed.
He tucked me in and kissed my wet cheek. With Haven in his arms, he switched off the light and closed the bedroom door. Sometime in the night he inserted her warm body back against mine, exposing my breast for her. He held me, us, a family. I would learn to depend on him. He would learn to make himself available. Our children would grow from this direct exchange between us. I would continue, from this moment on, to look for those slivers of light and connect them, knowing there would be hardship in between. But, also knowing we would make it.“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”