Shaking up the dream

by Joo-Inn Chew


In the beginning there was me, and you were my ego-bump. You were a blank slate of dreams, my fantasy baby. You led me on a curvaceous journey rich with contented hormones and belly-gazing. I loved that I had everything you needed. We were a self-contained unit, two-in-one, an intimate communion. We shared an amnionic dreaming. Part of me wanted to be pregnant forever.

You had other ideas. Was it you that broke the peace, unleashing my waters on the day you were due? Down my thighs they gushed, hot briny and smelling of sex. And you fell quiet, shocked at the loss of your private sea. Muscular walls closed in on you, pressing you down. And then came our hard days and nights of struggle, contractions that came with the moon and vanished with the sun. You sunk lower and lower, your head grinding on my bones. We lost our easy watery union, the contentment of knowing each other on the inside. Now we were sick of each other, wrestling and pushing in the dark, two prisoners trying to kick start the brutal dance that would set them free.

You would not submit to the squeeze of my uterus, to the urgency of time. Other babies bowed their heads, tucked themselves in and down, swaddled their limbs into neat packages, waiting to be delivered. Not you. You were restless and hungry. You could hear the sounds of the world outside, taste them in my blood. You would not turn away from the watermelon light of my belly to face the dark curve of my spine. You kept your scrabbling hand up by your head, reading the Braille of my tissues, scratching on my cervix, searching for the portal to a larger life. It was as though you wanted to climb out yourself, bust into the daylight.
There was a thunderstorm the night you were born. Maybe you heard the rain on the way to hospital. Soon we were in a storm of our own. I forgot you then. I forgot me. There was only the giant clenching in my belly, wave after wave of a dark red ocean, tossing aside place and time. Selfhood, memory, thought, speech – all flotsam lost in the ferment. I had to be unmade for you to be born.

I was so tired. I felt the pulpy swell of your head between my legs, but I hardly cared.
There were shadows all around, but you slipped past them, towards daylight. I pushed, small weak pushes; finally you slithered out, your questing hand up by your head tearing a path through my flesh.

At last you landed on my belly, warm-wet and squirming. You birthed something in me then; that first armful of you, the blessing of your skin. Delight flowed down my arms as I held you. I remember you made a single watery sound, like the cough of a seal. And then nothing. Hands massaged you but you only grew heavier, duskier, still. Silent and purple, you were snatched away. There was a cold emptiness on my skin where you had lain.

Out in the corridor they were blowing life into you, and back in the birth room they were trying to stop life bleeding out of me. The shadows drew around again, and we were parted.

When they brought you back I was so exhausted that your first feed was like a dream. I did not recognise you. I barely recognised myself, a body so weary and bloodless, a newborn parent so naked and helpless. Everything felt so fragile when we brought you home. You seemed a stranger in those first hours, and days, and weeks. A scrap of life, so fierce and strange, so ravenous and distraught. Your crying flayed my heart. Where was my dream baby, my calm marine companion, my newborn imprint of love? Who was this screaming boy who fed so fiercely, whose need for food, sleep, toileting and bathing had to come before my own?

And who was I, fragments of a self scrambled around fatigue, hormones, battered body, dirty dishes, loss of control?  Forgive me if I didn’t love you right away. I was so broken open, so raw and new myself. I needed time to knit together, to heal and to become. I had to find my way in a foreign continent, where the stars were both familiar and strange.

But then you started smiling, and wriggling with joy when we sung to you. You shuddered with a fart and looked so surprised. You held earnest bubble conversations.
You turned your head when you heard our voices and beamed. You began to know us and we began to know you. And one day you laughed.

I remember the morning your cord stump dropped off; I found it, a wizened dark lump on the floor. I held it in my palm, that last remnant of our union. I thought back to the long days when you kicked inside me and I cradled us both with the span of my hands. Then I heard you stir in the next room. You were trying your new sounds, throaty vowels and theatrical sighs. I touched that last piece of you-me, then I let it fall into the bin.

I came to you and you wrapped your fingers around mine and cooed like a crazy dove.


© Joo-Inn Chew

“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.

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* Gloria Steinem