Sugar in warm milk

by Karen Atkinson


The moment your eyes meet mine I know nothing will ever be the same. Falling is so terrifying. To love you so completely. The terror of seeing how it must feel if that is lost.

The midwife pulls you from my vision and I am immediately in its grip. Panic, that I cannot see you. Panic, that I will never be enough. I hear them speaking in whispers, see the knowing looks. I wonder if already you sense it too.

“She will be back with you soon,” says the obstetrician stationed between my gaping wound at the bottom of the bed. Your father says nothing. He avoids my eyes, mutters that he needs air. I turn my head to follow him out. All the way, as he is backing away through the heavy swinging door. He doesn’t do blood well, your father. And he doesn’t do pain. There are lots of things he doesn’t do.

“Here is Baby.”

You nestle in the crook of my arm. My soul melts like sugar in warm milk. I can see your face, return your searching gaze. The journey has taken it out of both of us but I think you’ve had the worst of it. Your forehead red and battered and pushed into a point towards the tip of your head, the back of your skull flattened like a pancake, your face round like a full moon, your teeny nose a dot. Only your eyes stand out unwrinkled, unbruised and full of life.

I wonder what I am going to do with you. The fact is that you have come too soon. All those months of waiting seemed such a long time but now you are here it appears there has been no opportunity to prepare. Of course they informed, discussed, offered the usual alternatives. I resisted the initial testing. What did it matter? My eggs were in limited supply, you my last chance. The joy I felt knowing that your life was forming deep in my womb. Eventually though, we had the stats and there was nowhere to hide.

I thought I might call you Jack. Right from the very beginning you knew the odds. So much chance; that sperm, that egg. But when they told me you were a girl I changed my mind. Of course you could have been a Jacqueline, a Jackie, but I have always said if I have a daughter she will be named Ruby. So here you are.

The obstetrician completes his stitching with a flourish. He pats me on the thigh in a clumsy but kindly meant gesture to let me know that his part in all this is done. It is out of his hands now. I’ve made my own bed, and you and I must lie in it.

“Around 1 in 500 conceptions result in chromosomal irregularities,” he told me during those early consultations. “So you see,” he had attempted to reassure me, “it is not uncommon. That’s why we suggest the test, especially for elderly prima gravida like yourself. Information is power. Armed with the information you can make the best decision. For you. For the father. For the benefit of everybody concerned.”

It surprised me that he continued to see me, after my mind was made up. It occurs to me that he is never going to know you. After these months of intimacy and care we will never see him again.

“I think you know that your baby has some special needs. We would like to take baby for a while now, a few tests, a few little things to be done. Is that okay?’” The paediatrician looks younger than me. I wonder if she has children of her own, whether having them or not influences how she deals with things.

The midwife has three she has told me. I get the feeling she could have a few more and not even really notice. Anxiety wells in me like a blocked sewer, shoves, swirls, drains in vast waves wherever it can find release. Me, a mother? Me, who has barely spoken to a child, or even held a baby.

I cling to you as they try to pull you from my grasp. The midwife, talking all the while, strokes my wet cheek, the clammy flesh of my upper arm, pulls insistently at my fingers, untangling them from your wrap. Me, a mother?

I let you go, sobbing. You howl when they lift you up and away. My womb, the sacred cradle where I have held you these many months screams for your dear life.

Your father is still nowhere to be seen.


© Karen Atkinson

“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