A child of mine
Would eat fire, sing death
Still my hands forever
With her uncompromised mortality
— Marilyn Hacker, The Song of Liadan
I have one regret from the birth of my daughter.
I wish I could remember the anesthesiologist’s last name.
His first name was Luke, and he had the unfortunate job of holding my head while the doctors stitched me back together.
When they took Kick from me — it felt like that, like they’d stolen something that was mine, ripped it away — in the operating room, Mr. A got to hold her first. I kept asking, “Is she okay? Is she okay? Is she okay?”
“Is she okay?” my OB asked, incredulously. “Listen to her.”
She was howling, red-faced, flailing her tiny arms and legs. The doctor held her up over the curtain, then put her face next to mine for a second, just a second, so soft. Then she and Mr. A were taken to recovery and I was left alone with Luke. I was shaking, the adrenaline rush completely unexpected, shaking so hard I rattled the table.
You’ve got to understand, I said to Luke the anesthesiologist. She was our last chance. She was our very last chance.
We’d been trying for ten years to have a baby, most of those years in fertility treatment of one kind or another. After this last embryo transfer, we’d have been done. Out of options, at least for a child of our own. I’d given up on the idea, got drunk at a wine festival the week before the pregnancy test that confirmed she existed, accused the nurse who called with the news of screwing with me. Our very last chance, and it worked.
My teeth were chattering. I couldn’t breathe.
I’d had a thousand tests during this pregnancy. Not one of them had put my mind completely at ease. An ultrasound could tell you if your baby had two hands, two feet, but it couldn’t tell you if her brain was working typically, if she could see, if she could hear or make sounds or breathe outside the womb. So this moment was the first time I felt the answer was certain: She was fine, and she was here.
The shaking stopped, slowly, as the pain meds seeped into my blood. I was wheeled into the recovery room, and became dimly aware that I was starving. I could have murdered a cheeseburger and fries.
She was curled in a tiny blanket, snuggled up against Mr. A’s shoulder, and they were both wrapped in another blanket. I saw the top of her tiny head first, downy and pink.
They’d taken my heart out of my body, and there it was open to the world. Anything could happen to it.
I’ve never been so frightened.
Oh God, I thought. What did I do?
Things got worse after that.
I couldn’t breast-feed, an extremely common complication, turns out, of the dozens of fertility drugs I’d been on, and the C-section, and my age. I had no appetite at all, lost nearly every pound I’d gained during pregnancy in the first two weeks, and almost fainted at her first pediatrician’s appointment. Kick was tiny when we brought her home, and it was cold. It was five degrees below zero, and she weighed barely six pounds. She’d lost a lot of weight in the hospital, before we figured out she wasn’t getting enough to eat.
Kick refused to sleep in the cradle we had beside the bed. It rocked, and she grabbed one of the bars and pulled herself to the side of it, so it stayed tilted, and she shrieked. She went right to sleep in her crib and slept there every night. I couldn’t bear being that far away from her, and did several nights’ stints sleeping on the floor in the nursery.
I missed being pregnant, fiercely and viscerally, in a way I never expected. I never romanticized the experience, believed it made me more of a woman, any of that, but when it was over I felt its lack profoundly. I missed rocking her to sleep that way, safe and warm, where nothing could touch her. I had spent so much of the pregnancy afraid, denying its inevitability, that it had been a scant few weeks of joy before her birth.
I wrapped her in newborn-size pajamas that hung loose on her tiny body, wrapped her up in two swaddle blankets, let her doze in my arms under a quilt, near the fire. It snowed, and snowed, and snowed, and I started to wonder if it would ever stop. My mother-in-law arrived from Florida, and we spent a week staring out the window in despair. I made bottles, feeling inadequate. Mr. A went back to work and spent the whole day missing her.
I became profoundly isolated; it was mostly the weather. Too cold to go outside, too snowy to drive anywhere warmer. Cabin fever started setting in. I got sick of TV, very quickly. I read a book about cancer and another one about World War II.
I stared at her as she slept. Slowly, slowly, she gained weight. She learned how to eat. This alien creature, about whom I’d dreamed for so long, perplexed me utterly.
She rested her warm head against my neck and I wondered when this would start to feel normal.
Three stories from the hospital:
1. I had a very easy pregnancy, but during the last week, I was in a lot of pain. Kick was kicking away, I thought, kicking hard. I’d heard babies slow down as their due dates approach but mine seemed to be cranking the hamster wheel up to 11. We arrived at the hospital in the wee hours of the morning on Jan. 25 for our planned C-section, and when the nurses hooked me up to the monitors, they pointed at spikes.
“You’re in labor.” I stared, and they laughed. “She’s going to be born today even if we don’t go in and get her.”
People had been telling me first babies were often early. They were aghast at my decision to work up until the day before she was born. She will surprise you, they all said. No, I replied. This is my German child.
She will arrive precisely on schedule.
2. My doctor was delayed arriving at the hospital due to another delivery — the nerve — so we waited an extra hour in a small hospital room. To pass the time, I asked Laura, our nurse, if she’d seen some crazy stuff in her years in this department. She told the following tale:
Interracial couple. Mom’s family so white as to be transparent. Dad’s family had flown in from Kenya for the delivery. Everybody in the room for the birth, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody. Clueless white granddad gets to hold the new baby first, and turns to the assembled crowd, intending to hold the baby up Lion King-style and say “Hakuna Matata.”
Which would have been bad enough.
Instead, he held the baby up and yelled, joyously, “KUNTA KINTE.”
3. I was having trouble nursing, but still trying to, and the elderly Polish nurse assigned to me that day said, “Your milk isn’t in yet.”
She pointed at Mr. A, passed out on the bed beside mine.
“You should have had him suck on your nipples last week, to bring your milk in.”
I was too stunned to even respond. Mr. A’s bed shook with silent laughter; he was just pretending to be asleep.
“You’re defending yourself,” said the world’s best therapist, when I talked about how I felt like this was all a fever dream. “You pushed away the idea of motherhood for so long.”
It’s not that, I protested.
(It was so very, very much that.)
But also: I had no idea of motherhood. No standards. No preconceived notions and now, no notions at all. Just this tiny person in my house, who needed things, and I was providing them day to day.
Should I take her outside each day? Find other babies for her to meet? Feed her more? Feed her less? Read to her, sing to her? How many times, and what? She starts fussing halfway through a book, likes Nicki Minaj and traditional Irish dance tunes and the Civil Wars, but honestly, seems just as happy to stare at the ceiling fan while Law and Order plays in the background. Is that going to make her a serial killer? What should I do to prevent that from happening?
What are the rules? I asked her. I begged her to give me some homework, a project to work on. Test me next week, on Mothering. Give me a grade. What should I do?
She looked at me with exasperation. “Here’s your homework: Stop thinking about ‘should’ so much.”
The first semi-warm day we had in April, I took Kick out for a walk in her stroller. Two blankets, a hat, a fleece wrap and tiny booties; she was probably far too warm, but there was a cold breeze as we went over the Eisenhower bridge and around the park. It felt so good to be out I took the long way home, past the art galleries near our old apartment.
I caught our reflections in one of the gallery windows. I looked tired, sure, but I was pushing a stroller, with a baby inside. I looked like one of a hundred other people out that day, giddy with the warmth and sunshine. I looked like a mother, like any one of a hundred mothers.
She recognizes me now, I think, almost four months in. She holds onto my shoulder with her fat little hand. She cuddles and smiles, and I sing to her after her bath. You aren’t supposed to put babies down when they’re sound asleep; you’re supposed to let them fall asleep in bed, to teach them how to do so.
I’ve learned my lesson, though. I kept myself away from her for so long. Kept myself a stranger, held her at a distance out of fear from the day I saw her picture, no more than a smudge on a black field. So now I hold her close, a little longer than I should.
You’re my heart, I whisper to her as she sleeps on my shoulder. My heart.
I wish I could remember the anesthesiologist’s last name so I could send him a thank-you note. Or an apology. He probably wanted to leave that day, go home to his own family, his own children. Or just go home and sleep.
Instead he laid one hand on each side of my head, his fingers in my hair.
“She’s great,” he said. “She’s great.”