Published on March 9th, 2020 | by Zhenya Bourova0
In so many blinks of an eye
It is 8.46am when I see you for the first time, impossibly small and slick with blood as they hand you to me in the operating theatre.
Somewhere beyond this windowless room full of strangers, a Melbourne winter morning is in motion. The sky is heavy with rain. Out on Royal Parade, peak hour trams spill forth crowds of passengers on their way to work, and are refilled in turn by others waiting on the roadside. Students and corporate types in Lycra jostle for space in the bike lane heading into the city.
In here, though, your father and I are completely still as we wait, holding our breath, for some sound from you. Who knew that a few seconds could feel longer than the longest night of our lives?
And then there it is, an angry wail that cracks the silence, letting me burst into tears at last. You thrash in my outstretched hands, your skin sticky and hot, as your cries fill the room.
Numbed from the waist down, I can forget my body altogether for the first time in nearly 24 hours. I was adamant that your birth wouldn’t be an emergency, I didn’t want any doctors, but now I let them do everything. They make the placenta come out and I hemorrhage without even knowing it. They stitch me up while I lie there trying furiously to remember everything, especially the look in your father’s eyes.
I am already writing the beginning of your story in my mind. I feel relief and awe in equal measure. It is over, and it has begun. You are here. I am a mother.
You are asleep beside me in your plastic hospital bassinet. Behind you, the curtains are open. Through the window I can see all the way to the Westgate Bridge, the city awash in the apricot hues of your first sunrise.
Beneath the sweat-drenched sheets, my body is an unknown that I’m not yet ready to confront except through an Endone haze. The bedside table to my right is cluttered with biscuit crumbs and paper cups. There are plastic syringes part-filled with yellow colostrum, a bouquet of flowers that are already dying.
A polyester curtain separates us from another woman and her newborn. They too are awake. I hear a thin mewling cry and a rustling of sheets. The buzz of a phone call, a brief conversation in Arabic, soft laughter. And then, just seconds after the call is over, a stifled sob.
It’s been two days since my water broke, waking me up in the darkness of our bedroom a day before I was due to be induced. In all that time, I’ve slept a total of about two hours. Since you were born, the hours have cycled on around us, indistinguishable. For most of the past day and night you’ve been in my arms, trying to feed, latching onto my breasts for short bursts, each time dissolving into short, frustrated screams like little barks.
Just after 4am, a midwife interrupted us mid-feed.
A pediatrician wanted to talk to me about your blood tests.
There were some signs of an infection, she told me as you screamed. You would be given antibiotics through a cannula. They didn’t know when we would be going home.
This was the first time I wondered if I might be a bad mother. When they told me they didn’t know if you were in any danger—meaning that it was possible—and I felt nothing, only an exhausted dread.
The second time was when they offered to take you away to insert the cannula, and I said yes.
It could be very distressing to watch, they told me, because of your tiny newborn veins. You would be given sucrose, for pain relief.
But now the cannula is in and you are asleep after your ordeal, which you faced alone while I sat up in bed, waiting and waiting and waiting. Sleep when the baby sleeps, they told me, but already that advice has been exposed as impossible. Looking at you can do nothing to keep you safe, and yet I can’t stop looking. Beside me, your chest rises and falls beneath your white flannel swaddle, still stained with dark spots of my blood.
It is our first night home from the hospital. I watch your father pace back and forth across the living room with you in his arms. Your head is thrown back, your face red, your hair plastered to your neck with sweat as you scream and scream.
From my vantage point on the couch, I can barely recognise us. My dressing gown is sticky with milk from another feed that ended badly. Your father, my love, in the same t-shirt that he’s worn every day since the morning my water broke, grips a plastic syringe in desperate hands. He empties it into the corner of your mouth, waiting to see if this will be the mouthful that sates your hunger at last.
Behind him, the lights of newly-built apartment complexes on Sydney Road flicker on through the open window until the view is dappled with orange and white.
I think of the birth class we took at the hospital, a million years ago. It was a class that we knew would be crappy but took anyway because we couldn’t afford the $500 courses that involved massage techniques and self-hypnosis. A quarter of the teaching time was devoted to the importance of breastfeeding.
Tonight, remembering the DVD that they showed us fills me with fury. It was all babies latching on to classical music as their mothers smiled blissfully, reclining on pillows in houses as big as our whole block of flats. None of those mothers had purple bruises on their breasts from trying to express a few drops of colostrum at a time with exhausted fingers. None of the babies had to be fed by syringes filled with the sticky yellow stuff, stuck into the corners of their mouths mid-scream.
Milk dribbles down your chin as you try to swallow. You give out a tiny grunt, and then another. Somehow, your father and I are still ourselves enough to look at each other and laugh.
You turn to nestle deeper into his arms, which close around you as if they’d done this always. And then, all at once, there is silence.
It is the middle of another night.
It isn’t yet time for the next alarm but I am already awake and drenched in sweat, milk leaking down the front of my t-shirt, my arm muscles rigid with the effort of holding you in the cradle hold. One of my hands grips the back of your head; the other grapples with my breast to help you latch on, pressing impatiently on bruised flesh.
Why is it taking so long?
And then I realise: my arms are empty.
My mind goes right to the darkest edge of possibility.
You’re not here, but you must have been. I have gone and done the worst thing, fallen asleep while you fed at my breast. Your little body is lost beneath the bedcovers.
I struggle out of the damp mess of bedsheets, seconds from screaming for your father.
Then slowly, very slowly, the shadowy outlines of the bedroom come into focus. Our bed beside the window, the blinds drawn down against the world of street lights and passing cars. The outlines of postcards on the opposite wall, remnants of backpacking trips to Bolivia, Italy, Romania, Vietnam. From the bassinet beneath comes a soft squeaking sound. A high-pitched intake of breath. And then the night is still again.
You’d sleep for hours at a time if we let you. Concerned about your falling weight, the midwives that visit daily from the hospital have ordered us to keep to a ‘feeding plan.’ Day or night, we set the alarm to wake you every three hours, for hour-long feeds that cut our own sleep down to nothing.
Waking you up feels like pulling you back into being. Like pulling ourselves back into being parents, whatever that means. The fact that we have to do it so forcefully—spending five or more minutes stripping you of your swaddle, putting on some music, turning up the lights—gives me a chill every time. What if we slept through our alarm? Would you re-emerge into the world regardless? Would we?
When the next alarm comes, I am still lying awake, listening for proof that you are really there.
The three of us are outside at last. The weak winter sunlight on my face makes my head swim. My eyes feel gritty, full of sand. We reach the park around the corner from our flat, and I sink down gratefully on a bench.
What was once the most ordinary thing of all now has to be relearned. The streets seem alien and precarious. We haven’t worked out how to use the pram yet, and it seems too soon to entrust you to anything but our arms.
You are oblivious to it all, deeply asleep against my shoulder. On your right hand, the bluish bruising from the cannula is finally beginning to fade.
All of a sudden, you purse your bow-shaped lips in your sleep and throw your head sideways like a little meerkat. I tell myself to file the moment away, but my mind is too tired for complete sentences, so all I have are pieces of the whole. The warm milky smell of your breath. The new sore heavy untrustworthiness of my body, altered for who knows how long, perhaps forever.
Another night draws to a close. We wake to the sound of a cry and lie in the dark for a moment, puzzled, before we realise that it’s you.
You have woken up on your own for the very first time.
And then, just like that, another ‘first’ is behind us. Your father turns to face the wall, pulling the blanket over his head. I pull on my dressing gown, switch on the reading light in the living room, already an old hand at this. Another feed begins.
You are lying on towels in front of the living room heater. Our friends sprawl on the floor beside you. My brother shakes a rattle towards you and pulls it away. Nobody knows how to talk to a baby, myself included, so we all experiment with raspberry noises and snatches of song.
In the kitchen, I put the kettle on for tea. I bend down to get a mug from the cupboard, when my hand closes around a bag full of plastic syringes and feeding cups from the hospital. For a moment, I look at them. Then I throw the entire bag into the bin.
A part of me wants to take it back out, just in case. Instead, I watch you following the rattle with your eyes, your arms and legs pivoting up and down. Your thin, fragile newborn legs are already giving way to chubby baby thighs, bulging with your first folds of fat.
Looking on, I feel a love for you that’s sharp and bright enough to burn me with physical pain if I imagine something bad happening to you. The time when you didn’t and I didn’t has been cut cleanly away from the present, as if with a knife.
You are two months old. I am walking down Sydney Road after spending the afternoon at a friend’s house, trying to get home before the dark grey clouds overhead spill into rain. You are in your carrier, nestled tightly against me, both of us keeping each other warm against the wind.
Together, we pass the Lebanese pastry shop, the laundromat, the dark arcade that serves as the local fruit market. Usually, the motion of walking is enough to lull you into sleep. But then we round a corner, and I realise that you are awake, your face straining upwards as if in search of something.
I stop in the middle of the footpath and look down into your bright blue eyes. And as I look on, the slight upward movement at the corners of your mouth becomes, unmistakably, a smile.