Snatches from the Trenches of Motherhood
Saturday, December 14, 2002
I hear a small sound and instantly I am awake. I lie in bed with my eyes closed and my ears become satellite dishes craning to hear the tiny movements of my daughter two rooms away. She is rustling and the sound of her head rolling from right to left is distinctive to my heightened mother senses. I am up and out of bed in an automaton daze, only able to put on my slippers if they are left in the same spot each night. I lift her out of her bassinette before she has even opened her eyes, her brow furrowed, her arms and legs struggling in hunger.
I touch her lips and she opens her mouth in a large o shape like a baby bird, shaking her head from side to side seeking my nipple. The vinyl chair is cold on my back as I plop down and unfasten my nursing bra. My breast is huge and hard, the flattened nipple rapidly plumping up as it senses release. She latches on eagerly using her whole jaw to compress the areola and pump the milk down her throat. I feel the ache of the milk letting down and have to clamp down on the other breast with my wrist to keep the milk from leaking out. If she lets go now, five or six jets can be seen spraying in multiple directions as the milk squirts her cheeks, eyes, hair, ears. She slows her sucking speed to accommodate the flow and her temples bulge and fall in a steady rhythm. She still hasn’t opened her eyes.
We both relax back into the chair and each other, my shoulders easing down from around my ears as the urgency of her need ebbs away. Her flailing arms droop and she rests her hand on the top of my breast slowly curling her fingers. One small leg stretches slowly out, pushing on the arm of the chair. Her breathing coincides with the swallowing sounds as she gulps. Milk pools at the corners of her mouth.
I stroke her head which rests in the crook of my arm. Her fine baby hair has started to fall out and the short new hairs have started to come in. We joke that she looks like Hitler with her long dark comb-over and receding hairline. She also has a horseshoe shaped bald patch around the back of her head from rubbing it back and forth on her bedding and the resulting monk-like fringe of thick untouched hair runs from ear to ear at the base of her skull.
Her tiny nostrils flare as she pulls air in and out with her nose nearly buried in the breast. Her fingers find the edge of my bra and she clutches on tightly. My little monkey baby. The rise and fall of her chin intermittently reveals her tiny neck which is normally hidden under the pudge of her face. It seems impossibly slender with its velvet creases exposed.
Loud smacking suction sounds warn me that air is being sucked down with the milk and that I may have to pull her away to burp her before too much milk seals the bubble down in her gut. I roll her gently closer to me so we are tummy to tummy and thump gently on her back to try to gather the air bubbles close to the top of her stomach. If I remove her now, she will let out a cry of pure heartbreak that I can’t bear the thought of, but if she swallows too much air, she may vomit violently later on. I picture this happening after I have put her back to bed and I imagine her choking to death alone while I sleep. She may also keep the milk and air down and get gas pains until she is able to fart the air out. I have just read that her explosive “poo-plosions” are the result of swallowed air and I can’t help but feel that this is somehow my fault due to my forceful milk let down.
I decide to let her finish her meal uninterrupted. This is a decision I fret over with each feeding.
The force of her sucking slowly subsides and her little pauses in feeding get longer as she slips deeper into sleep. Finally she falls away from the breast in utter satisfaction. Her body is floppy, her mouth hangs open. I hesitate to sit her up and burp her, not wanting to disturb her peacefulness. I can see her tongue still undulating as she dreams about continuing to nurse. Her face is lit half in the blue dawn from the window behind us and half in the gold of the kitchen stove light. Her eyelashes arch so gracefully up from her eyelids and her eyebrows have the most intricate swirl of tiny hairs. Her cheeks glow like polished stone, covered in milk which has run down her chin into the folds of her neck. Her open mouth widens as she smiles in total contentment and pleasure.
My husband told me that a mother had said that she loved getting up in the night with her children. I remember laughing and saying, “yeah right”. How strange it is to lay my baby down and climb back into bed and moan the next day about having my sleep disturbed. The precious moments with her lost in a long to-do list of laundry and diapers.
My entire life is not only disrupted, but hog tied, strung upside down and beaten like a piñata. The caretaking of a new life has been way more work than I anticipated. I seem to have trouble finding time for a minimal wash in the sink each morning and eating enough is almost impossible. The change in daily duties is nothing however in the light of the emotional shifts. They say that becoming a parent changes you but I didn’t expect to care and worry so much about every detail. I didn’t expect to love her so much that it makes me cry. I didn’t expect her pain to physically hurt me, to be consumed like an obsessed lover.
The funny thing is that I don’t seem to need her to love me back. In all the other relationships I have had, I have needed to be loved in return, needed to be paid attention to. This is a whole new kind of love. I am happy just to be able to ease her crying, just to be able to make her happy for a moment. Sometimes she gets so upset that she can’t see or move and she chokes on her cries. We call this “Code Red” and it makes my heart race and my breath laboured as I fight the physical panic it causes.
One night when I couldn’t get her to sleep and I could no longer keep my eyes open, I lay down on the couch with her in my arms and closed my eyes. I rested my lips against her face and let go of my own body. I let my senses fill with her, the softness of her skin, the beating of her heart, the smell of her sweet milk breath on my face, the warmth of her little body. What a relief it was to be so close to her.
I think about my own mother and realise how she must have suffered. I want to call her and apologise, to tell her that I know now.
People ask me how I like being a mother. If they have children, they ask this with a twinkle in their eye, knowing the sacrifice of sleep and self and the pain of intense love. If they don’t have children, they expect to hear that I am “tired but happy.” They would be baffled to hear that I feel lonely and isolated from the world. They would be shocked to hear that we have been pushed to the limits of our stamina and then beyond. I don’t tell them that I now understand why infants are shaken to death, why families fall apart and husbands drink and run away. I now know why parents hover and dote and spoil their children and why mothers would rather stick their own heads in the oven than leave their babies to cry themselves to sleep. I can’t help but feel that there is some kind of secret parent club that can only be fully understood by those who have undergone this trial by fire.
No one told me it would be like this, but then maybe they knew that I wouldn’t be able to fathom the intensity. And it has only just begun. What other secrets could the world have in store for us parents? What other things remain twinkles in the eyes of those who have experienced them? The more I experience, the more I realise that all the things I thought I knew are mere intellectual theories based on innocence and ignorance. What will her first tooth be like or her first bicycle or her first day at school? So when asked how I am enjoying motherhood, I think about the one thing I do know for certain. This is the hardest thing I have ever done, but it’s worth it.