Free fall

by Kate Rotherham

Shortlisted for the 2008 My Child/Parenting Express Short Story Competition for Parents


Under a watchful summer moon of heavy silver, I birthed her. I stood at the lip of the plane, loosened my grip on everything that was familiar, and fell fast. Love, fear and a million unknowns hurtled towards me, pummelling my body and mind. 

Then I saw her and my heart cracked open like a burst pipe. 

Tracing my finger lightly across her tiny nose bridge, eyebrows and lips, my senses are overwhelmed by her perfection. Our very own heavenly creature! When my mind registers that she is not heavenly at all but limited by an earthly lifespan I am filled with the nameless, unbearable grief of imaginings. Please, please may she grow and bloom into her own magnificent adult self. 

The news on the hospital TV is full of unfathomable evil. Will that be us one day on the court steps, clutching her photograph and each other, our faces haunted, our voices faltering as we thank the jury and the detectives and talk of honouring her memory?  I look at her now asleep on my chest, her dappled pink cheek rising and falling in the softest of rhythms, and feel sure I would perish from grief. 

On discharge, order and chaos battle for daily supremacy in our little home, now ruled by somebody not yet 50 cm long.  My much chucked-up upon jarmies become standard day wear and American chat show hosts with impossibly white teeth are my new wise friends.  

Slapping three-day-old bread and plastic cheese into the sandwich maker for dinner, (Bon Appétit my beloved says cheerfully), I see chaos smirking victoriously, chalking up another win on the increasingly one-sided scoreboard.

Long held environmental convictions dissolve in a blink as I ignore the overflowing nappy bucket and tear open the disposables while choosing the ‘extra hot’ option on the dryer. The mailbox is jammed with 000 suits in every possible variation of insipid pink, and half written thank you cards are strewn across every horizontal surface. 

My euphoria melts ever so slowly in to flu-like exhaustion. Vast, lonely oceans of feeding, vomiting, crying, washing, screaming and settling surround me and the distant horizon is peppered with tiny tantalising islands of sleep. Some days I can’t think above her relentless seagull squawking and my own fat salty tears. I am drifting, bobbing and drowning in the endlessness of her dependence. Even my teeth feel tired. 

We file in to the rundown council building and make small talk and tea, weaving between the menagerie of prams. A six-week-old called Tyson sports denim jeans and jacket with lace up gym boots and a baseball cap on backwards. Tyson’s mum is back at the gym three mornings a week and loving the local musical discovery class for newborns. 

Peeking in my pram I am suddenly as blank as the sleeping white jumpsuit – a suspended moment follows, a flutter of nausea, then the surreal realisation that I don’t know my baby’s name. I rummage frantically through the nappy bag in a blind panic, baby paraphernalia spilling everywhere. An awkward pause and the mum next to me prompts, your turn! The immunisation book falls out and I grab it with both hands, my oxygen mask in a plane disaster.  Yes, hi, I’m Alexandra and this is Jessica Rose, she’s five weeks old today. It’s nice to meet you all. 

Nappies, wipes, blanket, spare singlet, spare jumpsuit, large posset-catcher, no-rinse soap in a tube, keys, wallet, phone.  I run back inside and scribble JR on the inside of my palm like a back alley tattoo.  This week the topic is our birth experience, well, it was amazing, beautiful and completely horrific, I volunteer while the others look at their toes and Annabelle’s mum picks a tuft of invisible lint from the mission brown carpet.

Afterwards I venture to the health food shop with Jessica in her pouch, she sleeps soundly with her ear next to my heart which is beating with the faintest pulse of newfound confidence. I am reaching for muesli when an older woman swoops on me, without a word she is suddenly much too close and then she touches me, fumbling at the clips – your poor baby can’t possibly breathe in there! 

A primal snarl hurtles out of my mouth – DON’T TOUCH MY BABY!  We both take a step back, equally frightened of me.    

Bleary eyed, I watch a nature documentary on Borneo during her midnight feed. An orang-utan wraps her long orange arms tenderly around her baby and gazes back at me with kind eyes. I am drawn to this hairy version of myself. It looks a tender yet fierce love and I smile imagining her giant leather hands flattening inappropriately curious strangers.  She looks proud and exhausted. We stare at each other, two mammal mothers, learning the dance of survival with our young.

The next morning, new sunlight streams in across her bassinette and her little eyes flicker with recognition when I enter. A moment, then her mouth opens downwards and outwards, the most perfect strawberry-pink crescent moon.

A bolt of white electricity zigzags through my spine and into my heart where it stays, pulsing. I can almost hear the whoooosh of my parachute opening.  I’m no longer falling, but floating, silently and gently. 

I’m in love, my baby girl smiled at me. 


© Kate Rotherham

“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.

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* Gloria Steinem