The winter chill was fading, buds eager to pop colours of spring, when her olive skin turned pink and white. She was about three months old.
On the day she was born a love like no other blossomed when I took in her rosebud mouth, thick shiny black hair and glowing tan complexion. A perfect flower, a flawless gem, I’d never seen anyone more beautiful in my life.
The days in hospital passed so fast. In a blur of sleepless nights that felt like one long day I found myself waiting in the foyer, ready to take my baby girl home. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I wasn’t ready to take care of such a precious person. I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to take her back upstairs where she’s in safe and capable hands. I remember sitting with her, swaddled in a yellow muslin blanket and wondering how I’d be able to wrap her up this well without the nurse’s expert help. Such a small task, yet it seemed insurmountable at the time.
On day five, at home and feeling more confident, my milk came in – finally – and I relaxed knowing that I could feed my baby. I knew breastfeeding was best and I felt elated that she was getting the best start in life and proud that I could provide that for her.
On day six right through to six months she cried desperately after every feed, at bedtime, all through the day, all through the night. I wondered how she’d survive without any solid sleep – I wondered how I’d be physically able to keep on going. Her once glossy complexion became dry and patchy, she was scratching constantly. We were at the doctor almost every other week in those first few months, struggling to find out what was causing my daughter so much pain. I could see the pleading in her eyes and all I could do was walk the floor, pat her back, cuddle her closely, tell her everything was going to be all right, and cry hopeless tears.
On one of her worst days I bundled her into my car and took her to the emergency department. Many tests were run but still we came away with no answers. “Your baby is healthy,” they said, putting it down to an inexperienced, first-time mother. “Come back if the symptoms get worse.” As a mother I knew instinctively that everything was not right.
When her once flawless skin was covered in eczema we were finally referred to a pediatrician. He took one look at her and arranged blood tests. A week later I received a phone call telling me she was lactose intolerant, which explained the screaming, for the past six months. We learned that she was experiencing extreme stomach cramps and nausea. I felt a terrible guilt.
She also tested positive to food allergies, so we were given yet another referral, this time to the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Paediatric Immunology and Allergy Clinic. Coincidentally, just days later our daughter had her first allergic reaction, which saw her break out in hives from head to toe. It was so sudden, the time it took one angry welt to turn into a hundred felt like seconds. She screamed until she was breathless and all I could do was put her in a cool bath and hope for the best.
Luck must have been on our side because a cancellation meant we were seen just a couple of months after her referral. It can take years to secure an appointment with the only immunologist in Queensland. After a physical exam and lots of questions we were ready for her ‘prick-test’.
“This won’t be nice,” the nurse said. I held my daughter’s tiny arm out to be scratched from wrist to elbow, her terrified scream squeezing my heart, her warm, wet tears spilling down my chest.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, wishing I could make it all go away. “It’ll be all over soon.” I wondered at the confusion and betrayal she must feel at being hurt by strangers at the hands of her mother. We waited in anxious silence, watching for welts where allergens had been applied.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” the nurse looked at her chubby little arm now covered in angry red hives.
Our daughter was allergic to eggs, wheat, dairy and, worst of all, peanuts. Still trying to absorb this information we were told what it meant to have a potentially anaphylactic child. A few seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Knowing my baby girl is so vulnerable makes me think of the day I left the hospital when my fears were just the everyday fears. Now everyday things, like a biscuit with traces of peanuts, things that yesterday seemed innocuous, are frightening. I look toward the school years and feel overwhelmed by the danger it poses.
But despite the battle to find our way to this point and the fears yet to be realised, we’re stronger for the journey. It’s clear to me now that we don’t give ourselves enough credit for how strong and capable we are when it comes to loving our children.
“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