Fiction by Samantha Atkins
It’s been a week since they placed your new son in your arms, though you were so doped up at the time you only see it now in shaky memory. They streamed whatever it was they were streaming into your spine by a cable—not a clear tube like you expected, but an actual cable. As though someone had hooked you up to an outlet, knowing your body would never be capable of expelling the baby without it. Your anesthesiologist’s name was Tom. You remember telling him he was handsome at around hour thirty of your labor. “That’s the Pitocin talking,” he told you—a fake hormone that mimics the stuff of orgasm. It must’ve been the same thing that made you lick the nurse’s arm as she held you still while Tom shoved that cable into your back. “I’m sorry I licked your arm,” you told her. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve seen worse.” And you didn’t doubt that.
After the cable went in you lay there barely feeling the contractions but heard a woman in the next room who could feel every goddamn thing. Every twinge and stretch of her ligaments—every tear of every piece of her. She screamed “HELP ME” for an hour—a panicked mantra. And you know now that if you tell someone this, someone who hasn’t been through it, the listener might find it funny. Might see it like a comic strip where a frazzle-haired woman with a beach ball for a middle screams, her husband wringing his hands against the back wall. But it wasn’t funny. She was begging them, in real life, real time. And despite the cable running into your back you could feel that no one was listening. No one was helping. But what you didn’t know then, because it wasn’t yet your time, was that when the moment comes there is no help. That when you’re on that operating table after thirty-six hours of labor and a stalled cervix, there’s nothing they can do except split you open and try to ignore the mantra you’ve chosen: I’m so scared. So scared. So scared.
And now a week after—the baby asleep in his bassinet for once, though of course he won’t sleep in it at night—you’re sitting on the toilet still wiping blood from between your legs. A week out and your cervix is still, you guess, closing back up. Little good its opening did in the first place.
And your mother in the living room is watching some true crime drama about a serial rapist—that’s the kind of shit she likes to watch. You keep applying fresh toilet paper, and it keeps coming back to you bloody. Then you remember the blood on the surgeon’s gown as she stood over you, her dark brown skin against that harsh light behind her, her lovely face covered by a mask. You remember thinking—Should I be wearing a mask? You thought that if anyone was going to make your baby sick it was going to be you. After all, it was your body that couldn’t push him out. It was your body that was going to get him locked up in the neonatal intensive care unit, where they would stick IV needles in his tiny hands. Your fault you ended up on a table, shoulders held down by anesthesiologist Tom, someone behind the sheet telling you over and over to Calm down. You’re shaking. Calm down.
Birth is like death, you realized on that table. Inevitable. There was no stopping it once it started, and it wasn’t going to be painless—of course it wasn’t. How could it be? Then the surgeon with her long, thin fingers put a scalpel you couldn’t see to your belly and caught the first glimpse of your son. Was he sleeping? Or were his eyes open? Did those bright lights blind him? Was it her dark face he saw first, that blue mask over her mouth? Yours was supposed to be the first face he saw—that was the way you’d written it in the birth plan. It was your hands that were supposed to pull him from inside you like the goddess mommas on the YouTube videos. You prepared just the way you were supposed to. Listened to the podcasts. Hired the doula. Saw the midwife. Swallowed vitamin after vitamin. You stretched your hips in prenatal yoga and tightened your groin in Kegel upon Kegel while driving, standing in line, talking to people who weren’t particularly interesting to listen to. And all for your baby to first see eyes that weren’t yours.
Still in the bathroom, you cram your bloody maxi pad into the trashcan. The can is almost overflowing with pads and wet tissues from you crying and then telling everyone you’re okay and then crying again. The mantra still comes around—So scared—but that’s the kind of thing you’re not allowed to say now. You were allowed to say it then, as they cut into you. You were allowed to say it to Tom as he told you your fever was 105. In fact, you said it so much then that he told you he could give you something to calm you down but that if he did you would forget everything, but of course you said, No—don’t let me forget.
Now you can see your inner thighs for the first time in months. Your baby weighed almost ten pounds, and before he was born he had stretched the skin on your arms, your legs, your stomach, so tight that you popped like a water balloon, amniotic fluid gushing onto the bedroom rug. Looking at your thighs now you see the grey gum of leftover adhesive in giant rectangles. Both sides. They must’ve strapped you down. Some kind of paddles? You couldn’t see anything but that blue sheet between the top half and the bottom half of a body you could no longer control or touch. You scratch at the adhesive rectangles, but it’s going to take stronger stuff to get them off of you completely.
The baby cries, and you wash your hands. If you don’t hurry to his side your mother will beat you to it. She’s trying to help, but her ability to soothe him instantly while he flails in your arms bruises you. You are purple with bruises. In his bassinet, the baby’s face is turning red as a tomato. You picture steam coming out of his ears. You unhook the cup of your breastfeeding bra from the strap and massage your breast before picking him up. He is trying to fit his entire fist in his mouth, and the hospital’s breastfeeding class taught you what that means. You squeeze your nipple to make sure there’s something there for him, because you’ve learned that when he has to work for it he grows even angrier, forgetting how to latch and bobbing his head around wildly on your chest. The videos you watched in that class did not prepare you properly for this because the babies in those videos came from calm, focused, granola moms and your baby is of impatient, furious stock.
As you take him to the living room, his mouth wide and gulping air with his screams—which you know will give him gas but which you can’t seem to stop—you wish your husband were sitting beside you, patting your head, offering to fetch you a glass of water. Your husband—the tall, handsome man who proposed to you after four years and then shortly after the wedding stole your emergency fund and had a secret girlfriend and lied through his teeth for months about it up until the very moment you confronted him. The baby finds your nipple, thank God, as you relive the day you asked your husband to leave and he cried and you yelled and then you cried and drove to a local park while he packed his things, clutching your pregnant belly behind the steering wheel, staring at the squirrels. The baby’s latch is too shallow, and it shoots an electric streak of pain through your breast and down your back. You insert your pinky between his lips to break the suction, tilt his head back before he can start screaming again, and push as much of your breast as you can into his mouth in the exact, overly forceful way they taught you not to. The baby takes it anyway.
You’ve been legally separated for three months now, and your husband has been living in an apartment across town. He complied with your separation papers, with your request to live separately, with your suggestion that the two of you spend Christmas apart. But in between all these compliances he sent you late-night texts warning that he might never come back if you kept it up.
Accused you of shutting him out from his son, even though the baby had yet to be born. He hired a lawyer to fight the provisional agreement you’d been working on and, most importantly, he stopped telling you he loved you. He stopped sitting next to you on the couch when he visited. He stopped wanting to touch your growing belly, to feel the baby kicking. He told you he thought maybe the two of you could work it out, but that there’d be a part of him that would never come back.
Your mother told you to leave him for good. Your therapist told you to leave him for good. Your lawyer told you to leave him for good. But how could you? You’d only just married him two years before, and you’d used half of the inheritance your grandmother had left you on the wedding.
You’d taken the vow—for better or worse—and you’d meant it. So you texted him back for months. Called him back. Emailed him back. You even went on a date or two and talked. You went to support groups filled with unhappy women, and you fit right in and drank their coffee and left feeling better for a time.
You told yourself: This is still the person I fell in love with—he had a temporary lapse. Or—he’s not on the right medications. Or—he’s drinking again. But then when he visited and when you asked how he was feeling and he shrugged and wouldn’t talk to you, it burned you up. “Could you please just talk to me?” you asked him. “Can we just behave like human beings?” He said it wasn’t his job to make you feel better. And then he left and you were still there, arms wrapped around your belly, no fucking clue what to do with the rest of your night.
The baby is finally full, and you know you should burp him, but if you let him rest on your breast with his eyes closed in inebriation you will have fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, to sit quietly. The baby’s cheeks are full like his dad’s. His lips are thin like yours, and they hang open against your bare breast, allowing a line of milk to drip onto you. You thought you would enjoy breastfeeding more than you do. You thought you would enjoy being pregnant more than you did. You’re too tired to know how being a mother is or isn’t meeting your expectations. Your own mother asks from the kitchen if you’ve called the midwife. She wants you to ask about anti-depressants. You close your eyes and pretend you’ve nodded off so you won’t have to answer.
Later, when the baby is napping, your husband shows up to do his fatherly duties. He’s been coming every night since the birth, though he’s never sure what he’s supposed to do. Sometimes he sits in the living room and doesn’t talk and watches TV and then responds to your requests with grunts. Other times he sees you’re upset—that having this baby with no guarantee of him being around is not what you had in mind—and he offers you, literally, a shoulder to cry on. But feeling the warmth of that shoulder pressed against your cheek, the shoulder you traveled Spain with, the shoulder you rested your hands on in your first dance as a married couple, the shoulder you pressed against night after night for years, it makes you feel like they’re cutting you open again. Like the stitches they used to reassemble you patchwork aren’t going to hold. Like the entirety of you could spill out any moment on the living room carpet. You stare at that carpet as he holds you. It’s filthy with cat hair because, though everyone visits, no one thinks to vacuum a new mom’s house.
At night your husband leans in to kiss the baby goodnight before he leaves. He does not kiss you. You tear up and ask your mother to hold the baby so you can put on a fresh maxi pad and maybe brush your teeth. Every part of your body leaks now. At least that is as the books said it would be. When you come back your mother can tell you’ve been crying. She reiterates that you should think about an anti-depressant. You tell her thanks for dinner and then take the baby from her arms. You need to try to sleep while he’s asleep so you have energy when he later wakes, wailing inconsolably.
In the bedroom you lay him on his side in the bed next to you. He’s not supposed to be on his side and he’s not supposed to be in the bed with you, according to the hospital staff, but he won’t sleep any other way, and all the women in your family tell you they slept with their babies, that women have been sleeping with their babies for thousands of years. You don’t know what’s best, but you can’t imagine not being able to see him when you open your eyes at night. Every sigh or grunt calls you awake, and you stare at his face all night, wondering who this little person is and why he came to you and how you managed to create him.
You whisper to him that you’re sorry—sorry he might not have a whole family after all—that you might not be able to forgive his daddy and that, even if you can, he might never love you quite the same way again. The baby opens his eyes and stares. His eyes are giant and slate blue, and you can see their color even in the faint light of the night lamp your mother plugged in to try to make you feel better. The baby’s eyes are round like your husband’s, but they aren’t dark yet. You tear up again looking at them, and you’re glad he can’t see clearly enough to make out your expression. You think maybe that’s nature’s way—that God is giving you time to relearn how to smile before your baby will know the difference.
It’s then, not the moment they handed him to you, but the night you lie on your side staring at your week-old baby staring at you, that you become a mother. It’s then you know you’ll keep breastfeeding no matter what. You’ll call the midwife and ask for those antidepressants. You’ll strap your baby to your chest in a fancy harness wrap and vacuum the floor yourself. You’ll forgive your husband and ask him to move home. And you’ll forget the birth entirely, every moment of it, because it happened to someone else anyway and she’s not coming back.