The tiles are painfully cold under my knees. I slump against them and rest my head in my trembling hands. Another wave of nausea surges up from my feet and I heave myself forward, gripping the edge of the toilet with white knuckle strength. There’s nothing left in me, the dry crackers that I nibbled in bed are already floating in the water, and yet I keep retching.
From the corner of my eye I see my son hovering in the hallway, his flaxen hair tousled, his usually smooth brow furrowed.
“It’s alright Little Man,” I croak before I’m forced back over the porcelain bowl, gagging and spitting, while my husband whisks the confused toddler away.
Tears trace their way down my cheeks and I think, not for the first time, the unthinkable. With every bone jarring convulsion I wish that the baby inside me would be forced out, that all this misery would be washed away in a gush of blood.
Later, when my husband has reluctantly gone to work, my son and I escape into the garden. For the first time in days I have showered, hastily stripping off my clothes, loathing that I have to reveal my pale skin and spongy belly to the world. Now, sitting on the red brick steps while Tom toddles amongst the flowers, my skin is dry and red from the scalding heat of the water, but I still wrap my arms tightly around myself. Not even the late winter sunshine, with a foretelling of spring in it’s rays, can penetrate the cold around me.
Tom calls to me, eager to share some new discovery, and as I watch him I think back to when he was born. A useless gore-covered creature laying on my chest, his scrawny arms outstretched, his head resting between my breasts. My husband sat next to me. He was pale, his eyes shining as he looked down at his tiny new son with a look of awe. I looked down at him with a feeling of strange detachment and felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility settle on me.
But not the love I expected. That came later.
He has found an empty snail shell, a brittle and sun bleached treasure. He offers it to me in his cupped hand, smiling, his face lit by some inner light. In his guileless smile I find the warmth I’ve being missing all morning. I hold him against me, soaking him in through my skin. For a precious few moments he hugs me back.
In the blink of an eye I will say, “Can Mummy have a hug?” and he will reply, “Mummy, I too busy,” but for now he is safe in my arms.
Only two days on and I sit in the medical centre, my husband’s arm protectively around my shoulders. The doctor leans towards me, elbows on his knees, never looking away while my eyes dart this way and that. His consulting room is typically dull, pictures of his children hang on the beige walls and I look at them without interest while he and my husband talk over my head.
“Will increasing the medication hurt the baby?”
I don’t care either way. I feel numb, their voices are deep and thick and heavy, they choke the air with their conversation. The doctor assures my husband that increasing my medication won’t be harmful. I wonder if feelings cross the placenta, if my depression is the emotional equivalent of cigarette smoke.
“I’m eight weeks pregnant,” I say to the attractive older woman sitting across from me in her comfortable consulting room. She wears bright acrylic jewellery and I find myself focussing on how it catches the light as she scribbles notes on a yellow pad. She is empathetic. I admit that when I wake in the morning I’m disappointed not to have died in the night. She talks to me and while she talks I read the inspirational quotes hanging on the wall and try to concentrate on what she’s saying. I talk to her and while I talk she leans forward, nodding and clicking her tongue.
Somehow the months have passed too quickly. No time to compare the size of my growing foetus with various fruit, we have flown past limes and apples and with every week that has passed I have risen from my dream world, blinking and confused and above all grateful to return to reality. I lay on the thin hospital bed, the stiff sheets crackling beneath me, as the midwife fixes the elastic bands of the monitor around my middle. Drip by drip through the IV my baby’s birth is brought closer. I wonder if, when I hold him for the first time, I will feel the same rush of fear and responsibility that I felt when I held Tom, if I’ll have to wait for the love to grow.
I don’t. He is born quickly and scrawny and small. He is taken from me and weighed and measured while I grip my husband’s hand and crane my neck, trying to see over the nurses and doctors crowding around him. I’m scared that if I take my eyes off him he might disappear. They place him in my arms and I hold his blood stained body against my own while he latches on to my nipple and suckles strongly. I soak him in through my skin, feeling his warmth spread through me, feeling my love radiate out to him.
“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