She clings to them like life rafts – a scrap of conversation in the grocery store, a snatched phone call with a friend, a suggestion from a stranger in the street bringing fresh hope that tomorrow might be different. The first six weeks are the hardest, they say. Enjoy them while you can. They grow up so fast.
On days when the baby’s shrieks threaten to engulf her and the walls of the house close in, they go to the park where she sits on a bench, pushing the pram back and forth, back and forth, watching the rest of the world continue to turn while hers has shuddered to a halt. The other mothers chat away to each other, producing sandwiches and juice from bulging nappy bags, rounding up errant children and wiping dirt off sticky faces, making it all look so easy. Occasionally one of them glances over, remembering times when they too had felt so lost.
“That’s a little one!” a woman says, peering into the pram. “Isn’t he sweet? How are you coping? Remember to look after yourself – have a lie down or a nice hot bath.”
She smiles and bites the corner of her lip, trying not to weep in front of the only person she has spoken to all day.
Why does she feel like this? She had longed for this child and from the moment she saw that magical blue line appear on the white stick she was filled with anticipation, decorating the nursery with rabbits and ducks that danced across the walls and bobbed over the cot, washing tiny clothes and poring over books that promised a predictable routine and a serene, happy baby.
But she feels like a radio that is stuck on one channel. The days are an endless cycle of feeding, changing and settling and dinner conversation with her husband is limited to a few mumbled words over left-overs. At night she lies awake, eyelids like gravel and heart pounding, jumping at every little noise the baby makes and mourning the loss of the capable, confident woman she once was.
She is grateful when her mother visits, bringing a vat of stew and a no-nonsense attitude.
“No one ever died of crying, love,” her mother says, shaking her head at her greasy hair and dwindling frame. “You can put him down while you have a sandwich!”
Yet she can’t eat. The guilt swirls in her stomach and rises in her throat like bile. Guilt that she doesn’t feel that euphoric, TV-ad kind of love that makes everything look as if it is bathed in Vaseline. Guilt for feeling happiest when the baby is asleep and she can sink, exhausted onto the sofa. Guilt that she is praying for the end of the first few weeks, mentally ticking off each day, wishing her son’s little life away.
At the clinic they weigh the baby and plot his statistics on a chart that measures mothering skills in means and averages.
“This one needs feeding up,” the nurse says, raising her eyebrows and folding her arms over her corpulent chest. “You need to break those nipples in like a pair of new shoes.”
She winces at the thought but perseveres, feeding and pumping until she feels drained of life. When she passes a mirror she scarcely recognises the wan, hollow-cheeked spectre before her. You need to get out, she thinks, so she puts on a clean top and some lipstick and goes to meet a friend in a café.
“You’ll find yourself again, I promise,” her friend says, seeing beyond the make-up to the scared and desperate woman beneath. “No one learns to be a mum overnight you know.”
But she can’t shake off a solitary thought which plays over and over in her mind. What if I’m just no good at this?
Then one morning she awakes to realise she has slept for a full six hours. When she checks on the baby he grasps her finger and she notices that he has grown pink and plump as a marshmallow. She studies his tiny features and sees her own nose and his father’s playful expression. He offers a gummy grin and she beams back. Beautiful boy, she says, scooping him up and breathing in his scent.
Later when they go for a walk the light seems different, as if she has emerged from a deep fog, the greyness evaporating to reveal a world filled with colour and hope.
On the way home she notices a young mother with a faraway expression, holding a crying newborn in her arms. She approaches and pats the woman gently on the shoulder.
“Things will get better, you’ll see,” she whispers, smiling as she walks away.
“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