Here I lie in an unfamiliar bed, between sheets that announce my every move with a starchy crackle in the pre-dawn quiet. Bits of me are sore and sorry, but hey I’m content...no, euphoric!...for somewhere close by in this place of corridors and carers, my newborn firstborn child lies wrapped in a soft pink blanket.
Light spills through a doorway but I turn to embrace the warm dark and a fresh-coined, utterly unforgettable memory: my first time, face-to-face, skin-to-skin meeting with the tiny person who is of my own body, at once a stranger and someone who knows me intimately.
Sleep? Hah, who needs it! I am high on adrenalin and an emotion that is like nothing I have ever known. Yesterday I was ‘heavy with child’, but still essentially just me. Today I am Kerrin’s mother.
I stretch gingerly and wince but oh I am lucky, I know. A straightforward pregnancy, with a good man beside me. Labour neither so long nor so unbearably difficult as to quash the wonder of birth or the joy of bearing a strong, healthy child—my chance (at last) to make the desert of my childhood bloom in hers. Lucky too that I can see the luck and the glint of fairy dust. I’m not a rose-coloured-glasses kind of person, so it’s intoxicating to find myself in this magic circle where nothing is other than I could reasonably wish it to be.
Even the matter of Kerrin’s rhesus-positive blood versus my rhesus-negative has me awash with gratitude for a potentially serious problem forestalled, so I conjure white-coated scientists, with their microscopes and tired eyes and eureka moments, and offer up my thanks. This night has a definite glow that has me joining all the dots.
Now my room fills with Kerrin’s sharp cries, and the nurse who has brought her to me is as brisk and competent as I am suddenly awkward and uncertain. I’ve had little to do with babies and the language of the newborn is strange to my ear. I have prepared for motherhood as though for a school examination, but still it's hard to imagine I will ever know how to interpret Kerrin's needs until she can tell me them in words.
True, I have read that mothers can often distinguish shades of meaning in their babies’ cries and, yes, perhaps some women have an innate understanding of such things. Me, I come to my new role with the sure knowledge that I am not one of them.
So my induction into mothering begins and at the end of lesson one I reluctantly give myself a ‘C’. Clearly the matter of putting a baby to the breast is an art that both ‘attacher’ and ‘attachee’ must learn, so I can see Kerrin and I will be muddling through on this until we do.
Alone with her now for a time, I watch her and marvel and stroke her scrawny legs as she slips into sleep and all the while the camera of memory clicks and clicks again in my head. I wriggle my thumb into Kerrin's fist and marvel at the tiny fingers. So strong! I touch mine to the softness of her cheeks and when her eyes flicker open, I see in their newborn blue a knowingness that has me telling her the kind of technicolour future I wish for her. I am a lover of words and I use them now, sotto voce, to paint for Kerrin bright, broad-brush images of birthdays and holidays and graduations and the like, and a sibling or two, and even children of her own.
I see nothing of the day, just months away, when Kerrin will cry so long and so hard that at last I will simply close the door on her distress. Impossible yet to imagine a mother’s rage when her child rejects her consolation. Harder still to think that mother can be me. Nor can I skip ahead to five-year-old Kerrin at the school gate: my ‘have a good day’ and perfunctory kiss; her sunshiny ‘every day's a good day for me!’ Nor to Kerrin at eight, high in a tree while I stand below, trying not to communicate my fear. Trying to be where I can catch her should she fall.
And nothing (nothing! nothing!) presages the moment when a young doctor must steel himself not to let pity seep into his eyes as he tells 17-year-old Kerrin she has leukaemia.
Impossible it is for me, holding newborn Kerrin, not to see motherhood as a kind of seamless quilt with which I will keep her warm. I have yet to learn it is more a cobbling together of moments: the uplifting, the mundane, the split-your-sides funny…the instructive, the terrifying, the unexpected. A patchwork of hopes and intentions with so much more besides that is beyond a mother's shaping. I do, on this first day of Kerrin's life, hold her close to my heart and vow: Kerrin, for as long as I live, I will be the very best mother I can. I have to trust it will be enough.
“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