The nurse’s voice is surprisingly chipper for two o’clock in the morning. “Don’t worry,” she reassures me, “babies are tough as old boots.”
I thank her through my tears, my body still shaking with sobs, and hang up the phone. David stands a couple of feet away with Lincoln in his arms, gently rocking him to sleep.
“She said it’s fine, it won’t hurt him if he’s swallowed it. And I can keep feeding, apparently.” I look down at my breast and the mess of my nipple. It looks like it’s missing. “I don’t know how though.” This thought is too much and I break down again. I actually wail. I thought the labour and birth were hard, but this is something else.
At least the baby will be okay, even though he’s swallowed blood and probably bits of skin too. But what about me? Far from resembling tough old boots, my state is more akin to the tenderness of my nipples; worked, pressured and gnawed on in a way that threatens to split me in two.
The day has never felt so short; eight feeds merging into one another. Yet every individual moment feels endless. Every scream lasts an aeon, every suckle at my breast an age. Lincoln feeds while I cry; my face pinched in pain, fingernails digging into my thigh in a feeble attempt at distraction. I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. None of the other mums I know had this much trouble.
David has put Lincoln back in his bassinet, asleep. He looks peaceful, none the wiser to the damage he’s done to his mum. I love him so much, yet I dread the moment he wakes. The cries that cut into me and signal another feed, more pain. It wasn’t supposed to be so hard.
I hate this.
I love him, but I hate this. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Fatigue weighs down on me, too heavy to ignore. I collapse onto the bed, wincing as my clothing shifts over my damaged nipples. Lincoln’s breathing is soft and steady from his bassinet by the bed. I let his peaceful sounds lull me to sleep.
Through the fog of exhaustion, I hear Lincoln cry. He wants more milk. I start to weep at the thought of it. The sheets are damp with my sweat and I struggle to untangle myself from their folds. As I stand by the bassinet fatigue knocks at the back of my knees and presses down on the crown of my head. I’m dizzy and nauseated. I wish I could escape back to the cover of the bed, close my ears to the calls of my child; sleep the day and my fears away.
The screams are getting louder, more demanding. I’m a mother; I have no choice. Reaching down for the kicking and screaming baby, the light of day forces its way through the gaps in the curtains. It’s a welcome relief from the heavy burden of the night and the grip of exhaustion loosens a fraction. This tiny person needs me.
I take Lincoln into the lounge room and get as comfortable as I can on the couch. Almost robotically, I reveal my breasts and take a moment to inspect them. The rawness of my nipples turns my stomach and I wince as I guide Lincoln’s gaping mouth into place. Every muscle in my body tenses as pain shoots through me. I can feel the wounds opening again. My nipples, my spirit, being ripped to shreds.
I close my eyes for the duration of the feed. I don’t want to look at Lincoln, don’t want to be confronted by his innocence when all I feel like doing is walking away.
Finally, he’s finished, his tiny features softened into a milk-induced mask of bliss. I hold him out to David, who has sleepily come in to check on us. He takes Lincoln in his arms, his face full of the love he has for his son. Lincoln melts into his dad’s arms on contact. Seeing this simultaneously warms my heart and painfully highlights my own inadequacy. I collapse back onto the couch as David and Lincoln disappear down the hallway for a nappy change.
The phone is ringing. I contemplate for a moment whether I should answer it or let it go. Part of me welcomes a distraction from the outside world, but mostly I feel like running away from it all. I answer anyway.
“How are you?” My mum’s voice is gentle and cautious on the line.
The answer to this question sits like a traitor in my throat. The only response I’m capable of is another flood of tears.
“I’m coming over,” my mum says, matter of factly; then she’s gone. Minutes later she walks through the door and finds me crumpled in the corner of the couch, the phone still heavy in my hand.
Mum comes to sit beside me and wraps me in a hug. I need my mum now more than ever; a chance to be mothered instead of being the mother. The tears start again and once I’ve started I don’t know how to stop. Breastfeeding is swallowing me whole, yet to turn away from it now feels like a bigger loss. My mum sits with me, holds my hand, and cries too.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)