It is Christmas and the family has gathered as usual back at the farm, to share it with Mum and Dad. For David and me it is our first Christmas since we married, and we have news to tell. I am pregnant.
“Well that’s put a spanner in the works,” my sister says.
“We were always going to have children,” I explain.
She persists. “Didn’t you say you weren’t having children for ten years? What happened to joining the Peace Corp? ”
There’s a sarcastic edge to her voice.
I can’t blame her. David and I have rejected the accepted notion of settling down to a married life with house and family. This is 1968 and we will not be ordinary.
“Oh, we’re really happy about it.” I’m lying, but trying hard not to be.
Months later, when I’ve left my teaching job and I’m sitting alone at the window of our flat in Auburn Road, I look down at my swollen belly. Twenty years, I’m thinking. That’s the commitment. That’s how long it takes to raise a child. I look around the walls of the room.
I’m lying on a hard narrow bed in a hospital delivery room. Arranged around me are the sterile instruments and equipment set out ready for the coming ritual. My baby announces its intentions every five minutes with shattering waves of pain that roll out through my body. I retreat to my head, where I battle the insanity that creeps nearer and nearer with each contraction.
I thought I was prepared. I had expected to be able to breathe my way through the pain, to float above it. I had expected to be in control.
“Busy night,” the midwife says breezily as she rushes from the room.
I don’t want her to stay with me. I’m too numb with fear to be able to ask for help. Nothing exists in this room but the crashing pains and my disappearing mind. Until I look up and catch the flutter of a moth’s wings moving across the light in the ceiling. Flutter and pause, flutter and pause. Drawn to the light but repulsed by the hard plastic cover. The pain is building up again. My body is in a vice. My eyes grab hold of the moth.
As the hours wear on, voices come in and out. I’m obedient. I follow their instructions. The pain I feel now has colour; the colour is black. Anaesthesia takes over.
I’m woken by a voice: You have a baby daughter. I take her in my arms. They wheel me out of the delivery room down corridors lit for the night. I’m hungry, but breakfast is two hours away. Get some sleep, they say. I look up at the ceiling, but the moth is not there. I try to remember the warmth of my baby in my arms.
Sweet Charity is on at the drive-in, with Shirley MacLaine. David tells me I have legs like hers: long, sleek and sexy. This is our first family outing. We are determined that having a baby will not stop us from doing the things we used to do. Wrapped up warmly she sleeps in her basket on the back seat.
The movie ends and we are singing:
The minute you walked through the door
I could see you were a man of distinction
A real big spender….
David beats out the rhythm on the steering wheel. Careful. Not too loud. We keep it up in dramatic whispers, all the way home. I open the front door and David puts the basket down on the kitchen table. I look around: unwashed dishes in the sink; rolled up nappy behind the chair. I carry the basket into the bedroom, gently tuck in the blankets once more, then creep into my own bed. My eyes close around the smooth rich comfort of sleep.
A whimper. Crying now, and getting louder.
Do you wanna have fun…fun…fun
How’s about a few laughs…
I can show you a….
My ears strain to hear silence, but the crying goes on. I get out of bed and lift her, carefully, tenderly, and cradle her against my breast. This is what mothers do. Warm milk flows between us.
I touch her cheek. I am a mother. I promise her my life.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem