It was my turn next. My heart gave a little lurch, but I calmed myself enough to turn and give you, my nine-month-old baby, a kiss and a hug, to tell you I was having a big sleep and I’d see you when I woke up.
I squeezed you tight and walked away, following the orderly, leaving you with arms outstretched. I was stubbornly blinking my tears away, as you cried yours with desperate abandon.
I was away from you for one night.
“Only one night,” your auntie said, “she can’t have just you, forever”. But I knew how important those nights were to you, still. How you loved to fall asleep, holding a breast, nipple falling delicately out of relaxed mouth. How you adored caressing my breast in your sleep, drinking in my smells, mouth working as if you dreamt of me, even while your lips did not touch me. How you woke, every so often, pulling my breast (and me, secondary) towards you, and ‘suck, suck, suck’, until you drifted quickly into blissful, secure sleep again. How you loved to wake me with a kiss on the lips and a smile, when finally you were ready to greet the day. I knew what I was doing, but I had no choice.
Everyone said it was a chance for me to sleep, without you waking me all the time. I’d get a good rest after my operation. You would start to learn to sleep by yourself, which you ‘should have’ all along.
By nine o’clock that night I missed you like hell. My breasts were becoming rock hard and wanted to cry along with me, I think. I had to express my milk and dump it down the sink, along with medicine that could make you sick. I slept, fitfully through the night, waking to watch the clock, was it 4.00am yet (when it would be safe to feed you), did you need me, were you having milk at home? Did Daddy hold you and keep you safe and warm?
As we reunited, you suckling and sighing in contentment amidst the tubes and needles, I was sad to hear you’d had a hard night- you’d wanted none of the milk I’d lovingly pumped for you. Daddy, though idolised during the day, was not who you wanted in the darkest hours of night. You couldn’t understand why I didn’t come when you cried and cried for me.
Back home, you began a slow process of connecting to me again. You showed me your desperation, your love, your obsession. Your desire for me, my milk, my body and warmth. Your hate for me, the mummy who could go away, when you needed me.
You discovered that when you kicked my tummy, I reacted in pain. You did more of it. You needed to punish me too, to make me feel a little of what you were feeling. To say, “You left me, all alone, when I was so little and I needed you. It hurt me so much, and now I don’t want to need you so much.”
You felt safe enough to show me your anger and feeling of betrayal. As I held you.
It was heartrending watching how distressing this forced separation was on you, but I had to show you I understood, that I only went because I had to, and I was back now, as long as you needed me. I needed to let you grieve my loss and learn that if I left, I would come back.
It got me thinking, watching you, about what our society expects. The push towards babies being ‘good’ and sleeping all night through, as early as possible, in their own nice bassinette in their own beautifully decorated nursery. The hardening of our hearts against the baby’s absolute heartbreak at being forced to be alone. And then, the baby learning not to cry. That it doesn’t get you what you want anyway. Growing up having to pretend to be all strong and big. And ‘independent’.
How many times I was criticised, for having you in bed with me, for responding to you so quickly, for picking you up and holding you when you cried. “You’ll spoil her”, “You’ll never get a moment’s peace”, “She’ll never learn to be on her own”.
And then after the surgery, “She’s OK, put her in her cot, you should rest”.
But we’re building a road, brick by brick, placing each carefully, unhurried, so the mortar can dry, strong and secure. The hospital separation caused a little crack in an otherwise solid road, and we had to slow down, repave, and give the mortar time to dry, stronger than ever.
Now, a few short months down the track, I watch you on your path to independence. Real, robust, independence, now you’re ready for it. The road, though part-built, is strong. Now, you ask to be in your own bed, to put yourself to sleep. You know I’ll be there for a cuddle and sleepy feed in the wee hours of the morning. When you need me. Just as you dance, and run, and jump, away from me, becoming who you are. Knowing I’m there, watching, waiting, in case, until you need me again, for a little recharge until you feel safe to go on your way once more.
“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