Six weeks slip by when you’re swinging in a hammock on a tropical island. But for a sleep-deprived, new mother who counts down every minute of every day, it is a lifetime. The champagne stops flowing and your hammock sags as the picture-perfect tropical island falls victim to a tsunami of nappies, colic and soggy breast pads.
Steadily inhaling and exhaling the day-to-day obscurities and unchartered landscape of life with a newborn can be like fronting up for an audition to perform a dance you’ve never seen before, haven’t had the opportunity to rehearse and haven’t the slightest chance of perfecting, because you move across the floor like a pygmy hippopotamus.
My six week milestone was celebrated by a trip back to the emergency room of the hospital at which I’d given birth, with roommates consisting of three over-excited soccer hooligans, one very apprehensive husband and one very distraught baby. Whilst these young Brazilian supporters had been out celebrating a World Cup match just hours before (until one fell down some stairs and broke his leg), I had been on the other side of town, breastfeeding my baby with my ever reliable friend, the TV infomercial. Perhaps it was divine intervention (as I was seriously contemplating purchasing a set of steak knives and a whiz-bang food processor) or just sheer bad luck, when I noticed a wet sensation spread across my stomach.
At first I assumed my son’s nappy had leaked. Fear coursed through my entire being as I noticed the dampness was, in fact, from me. My caesarean scar appeared to have ruptured. The week before I discovered a swelling on one side of my scar and was on antibiotics for a suspected infection but I had since developed an abscess (although I had not realised it). Tired? Check. Tender scar? Check. Feeling nauseous and light headed? Check. What new mother doesn’t tick each of these boxes? I just assumed I needed to toughen up and manage the symptoms described in the many baby books I had religiously studied every night before bed.
So there I was. One hooligan passed out at the foot of my bed, the after effects of way too much tequila. One hooligan screaming psychotically for the nurses not to call his mother about his broken leg because he wasn’t supposed to be out that night. One hooligan slurring animatedly to an imaginary friend on the floor next to him. A flustered new mother balancing her baby in one arm (with the aid of her wonderful husband) trying to breastfeed in absolute agony because she had left her trusty nipple shield in the bathroom as she dashed madly to the hospital. Her other hand awkwardly holding a cloth nappy over her scar to stop the fluid from getting on the baby.
Not the six week milestone I had anticipated, nor relied so heavily on as a reward for the lack of sleep and the inadequacy I had felt looking after our son as my husband went off to work each morning. Instead, I felt like I was an amateur actor in an absurdist play, set in a hospital emergency department, where wacky plots, peculiar characters and chaos reign supreme.
After a week in hospital, endless drips and managing a baby quite distressed from the antibiotics in his system, I was discharged, even more uneasy than the first trip home from the maternity ward. I sat on the front fence of the hospital waiting for my husband to locate our car. The breeze was warm and the street front alive with pedestrians fixed on their own agendas. I suddenly experienced deep pangs of jealousy for women in high heels click-clacking the pavement, even the taxi drivers meandering through the heavy Sydney traffic. Echoes sounded of a Gwen Harwood poem I studied once at school about a mother, sitting in the park with her daggy clothes and her three children, when she has a chance meeting with a past lover. Her past and present worlds collide. Identities lost. Opportunities missed. Things left unsaid. When he leaves, she is nursing her child and To the wind she says, ‘They have eaten me alive.’1
An emergency caesarean, two cases of mastitis and an angry scar. Like the mother in the park, my body and my spirit felt as though it had been consumed by motherhood, feasting on the person I once was. Like the world was revolving around me, but I was left an observer, in a foreign, parallel universe. To the wind I whispered my failures, my fears, my innermost hopes. On that busy street, on that ordinary day, my whispers uncoiled and played on the breeze. Liberated, spreading back to my street, into my garden, to lie dormant at the backdoor for other challenging days that would undoubtedly come. I tentatively rose from the fence, my scar a dull ache, to walk over to the car and join my family. To strive to be the best mother I could be.
I caught a glimpse of my precious boy in the back seat with his smiling eyes. I contemplated, with a wry grin, whether the mother of a soccer hooligan with a broken leg, on the other side of town, was whispering the same worries to the wind, albeit using far more colourful expletives.
“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