Published on August 16th, 2018 | by Marianna Marlowe1
She falls back on the bed, spreading her legs. She is still fully clothed, as is he. He fumbles at her waistband. She reaches for his zipper. When she lies back again, she is tense with concentration, and exhausted. This has to work. They have to finish. According to the signs outlined in Taking Charge of Your Fertility—consistency of mucus and number of days since her last menstruation—she is ovulating.
They have been trying for months.
Although her doctor informed her that infertility was only a serious consideration after a full year of unwanted periods, she had started to fixate on barrenness and sterility. A friend was also trying, increasingly desperate. This friend had told her, voice confiding yet defensive, “If you get pregnant and I don’t, it’ll be really hard for me. I might have to stop being friends with you.” She remembers feeling troubled at the time, almost offended. She remembers trying, her mind calculating quickly, to figure out the emotional negotiation needed to navigate that moment. She remembers teetering between hurt at the apparent facility with which her friend could dismiss their relationship, their graduate school bond, their mutual quest for motherhood, and the pressure to respect her friend’s raw confession of vulnerability. She remembers the moment of self-doubt—if her friend got pregnant first, could she maintain the relationship? Or would she, overcome with jealous inadequacy, feel compelled to drop her friend?
At her last visit to the obstetrician, she picked up a small pamphlet in the waiting area: Infertility Resources: Obtaining Support and Getting Answers. She imagined walking into a hushed room, taking a seat at the circle, joining other women as they tearfully recounted their stories of failure. She imagined joining the ranks of the driven and the obsessed. She imagined living in that room perpetually, inhabiting that space forever.
This time it had to work.
As her mind returns to the bed, to the friction of the task at hand, her husband pauses in his exertions, arms stiff on either side of her, “You know, you could at least try to help out instead of just lying there.”
She has a child, not on her own bed (the Cal King that easily accommodates her husband’s long legs), but on a hospital bed, in a private hospital, in a private room. She had been inordinately gratified to learn that she was the first to use that room, the first to lie on that bed, ever, since the recent remodel. That meant it was clean. That meant there were no leftover blood splatters anywhere, no smears of body fluids or invisible germs waiting, unnoticed, to infect her newborn when he arrived. It also meant she never had to leave that bed after the labor, for the delivery. Instead, when the time came, when the pushing had done its job and the baby’s head was almost crowning, the ceiling parted and down dropped, abruptly, an industrial-strength lamp, its beam centered on the space between her legs. Everything transformed–bright artificial light flooded the dim room, driving away the softening shadows; the faux-leather armchair where her husband had briefly slept was shoved to the side; she herself became secondary, peripheral, as everyone, suddenly all business and clinical efficiency, zoomed in on her body and the baby at its threshold.
Two days later, when the time came to leave the hospital, to return home, to reclaim the Cal King, she had grown attached to that bed, the hospital bed, and all it had seen her through. It had borne witness to the first nervous hours when the baby’s distress necessitated a fetal monitor belted around her abdomen; to her water breaking as she shifted positions slowly, heavily, with the help of a nurse; to the changing of its sheets underneath her with precise efficiency by two nurses working in tandem; to the unrelenting torment of the contractions before the sole anesthesiologist on call finished a Cesarean down the hall and rescued her with his magic; to her fantasy of escaping her body and its waves of diffused pain to run barefoot out of the hospital, up and over a nearby hill she imagined swathed in lush velvety grass; to her desperate questions directed to the moody nurse’s frowning face, “Why are the contractions coming so quickly? Why am I not having a break in between?” and the bored, obvious answer, “Because you’re having them back to back.”
That bed held her as she finally received an epidural, trembling uncontrollably, worried that her shaking would interfere with the positioning of the long needle; as she, finally relaxed in the absence of pain, became fully dilated and was instructed to push; as she looked up between exhausting bouts of bearing down to see four doctors, pediatricians of different specialties, leaning against the wall as they waited to check out the distressed newborn, chatting with each other, scratching their chins, checking the time on their pagers, and thought to herself, Pay attention! This is the most important moment of my life! How can you be yawning?
That bed held her in the first minutes and hours and days of her baby’s life when he was finally squeezed out, red and blotchy, scalp mottled, face scrunched up; when the masked nurse whisked him away from her to a waiting table where suddenly serious doctors bent over the small naked body; during the bonding of mother and son lying crowded together by its narrowness, protected from the world by its metal rails; when the nurses, with their skilled kindness, made her feel safe; and, finally, that bed let her go as she reluctantly prepared to vacate the room that had served as her baby’s first home.
Back at the house, the master bed looms. At night the baby sleeps precisely placed in the upper left-hand corner, securely swaddled in a soft blanket, head covered in a warm cap, protected from falling to the floor by the attached co-sleeper carefully selected, months beforehand, from Babies ’R Us. To sleep, she, frightened by accounts of newborn deaths by SIDs and stories of fathers unconsciously rolling and crushing their child, positions herself in the middle of the mattress, a paranoid barrier between her enormous husband and tiny infant, scooted down, so that there will be no chance of the thick feather duvet making its way up over the baby’s face during the night.
There is one day that stands out vividly in her memory eighteen years later, when her baby has grown into a man. That day she sits, centered, on the master bed, pillows supporting her back, duvet tucked up over her lap. The baby nurses off and on, supported, in his turn, by the fat padded doughnut she was given at a baby shower specifically for this purpose, although she still uses her own arms to hold him, sweet smelling, securely to her body. For four, five hours she sits thus, feeding and reading. From front to back, beginning to end, in one hungry sitting, she consumes the novel popular among women’s book clubs at the time, The Red Tent. She immerses herself in the world of women, of women’s bodies, of menstruation and lactation, of sex and birth and death. She reads about women-centered rituals and mutual support. She learns that in the world of the book, the Biblical Middle East, in the culture of Abraham and Moses, Jacob and Joseph, women were sheltered and pampered, attended to and protected, for forty days after giving birth. Women and their babies were given, and indeed it seems like a gift to her, forty days that echoed the forty years Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness before being deemed fit by their god to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, and the forty days that Jesus spent alone in the desert tested in strength against temptation and despair to prove himself ready to fulfill his destiny.
She is alone in her small wooden gray house, the house that sits among the variegated shades of green saturating the dense growth of pine and fir trees, cypress hedges and laurel shrubs overhung by the opaque steeliness of the constant cloud cover. She is isolated, in a November Seattle, no mother or sister nearby. It’s drizzling fitfully outside, as always, the afternoon gloomy and dark. Her husband is working his usual long hours between daybreak and nightfall. Her friends have jobs or school or commitments. Everyone is busy, inhabiting their own little island of responsibility.
She imagines the bed, the room, the house, form her own red tent—heavy curtains drawn against the mist and the damp, heater turned up, duvet warm, lamp on, tea on nightstand, novel in hand, baby safe and secure and feeding—a red tent that, although temporary, fleetingly so, is cozy and comforting. It holds at bay, at least for that day, the moment she knows is coming. Time will pass, change will occur, her baby will grow and she will leave that bed, its peace and protection, to re-enter the world outside.
Feature photo by Fleur Treurniet on Unsplash