I’m sitting a biochemistry exam. My pork-sausage fingers press the wrong buttons on my calculator. Crows fly down and peck a squealing monkey sitting on my shoulder. I’m dragged through water, then fog and into consciousness. The high-pitched squealing travels with me.
My first thought is Dexter then my guts fly into the air and drop as though I’m riding a rollercoaster, my mind catches up and tells me: you have cancer and are currently undergoing chemotherapy. I look at the clock, it's 6.35am. The mynas nesting in our roof squawk and tweet. Next to me Brad’s chest rises and falls steadily. His ears aren’t tuned to the frequency of our child. I shake his shoulder.
“Okay.” Brad rolls over and opens his eyes. He kisses my forehead, flings the quilt back and drags himself out of bed. He puts on some clothes and pulls the bedroom door shut behind him.
I close my eyes and listen to Brad’s jolly, talking-to-Dexter voice through the wall. Dexter gurgles and laughs. Brad has been on morning shift with Dexter, so I can get some healing rest.
For the next hour-and-a-half I skim the surface of sleep like a pebble across a pond. At about 8.00am I hear Mum’s key in the front door. She has taken carer’s leave from work and comes over most weekdays. Toward the end of the fortnight, when I’m almost due for another chemo and I’m feeling better, I have Dexter to myself for a couple of days and we play Mum and Baby. Then on chemo day he sleeps at Mum’s house while I curl around my nausea and excrete toxins that need to be double-flushed down the toilet.
The clicking of Brad’s bicycle wheels fade and blend into the traffic. I get out of bed and stand in the doorway of the lounge room. Dexter holds onto the coffee table and sways on bowed legs. He looks up and laughs. He doesn’t crawl toward me or cry and yell until I pick him up. He doesn’t crave his mother’s touch above all others, like a baby should.
I want him love me the best. I want to be the ‘primary caregiver’ that all the baby books refer to; the one he reaches for when tears stream down his cheeks or laughter bubbles up from his belly, the one who can decipher his cries and anticipate his needs, the one he clings to when strangers try to pinch his cheeks.
But, I don’t think I can cope without all the help.
Once this is over, and I’m well again, routines will have been established. Mum will be accustomed to Dexter sleeping over one or two nights a week. Then I’ll seem cruel and ungrateful if I claim Dexter back. If the doctors are right this could be my one chance at motherhood and I’ve stuffed it up already.
“How are you, love?” Mum asks.
“Better today. They’ve got me on a steroid now to help with the nausea. I’m gonna have a shower.”
After my shower we drive to Williamstown for a picnic. Mum lays a blanket down on the deserted back beach. Seagulls circle us and Dexter coos at them. He crawls onto the sand. With his lips parted, Dexter picks up fistfuls of sand and watches the grains slip through his fingers, then shoves some into his mouth.
“Yuck. Not for eating,” I say.
He frowns and wet sand oozes out of his mouth like mortar between bricks. I laugh.
Mum smiles. “Do you think the reason you were having all that trouble before … you know with Dexter … is because you were getting sick?”
“No.” The chilly breeze off the water makes me shiver. I place my hands between my thighs and look out at a container ship on the ocean. “I think maybe it’s the other way around.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately and it’s led me to the idea that maybe Dexter’s presence—or more accurately the adrenaline and cortisol that pulsed through my body every time he awoke screaming day and night, every time I realised that this was my life now, and every other moment of the day that held the potential for chaos—allowed cancer cells to slip through the metal detectors and x-rays of my immune system.
Maybe it was an omen that he was born at the end of June, when the Sun is in Cancer. If given the choice between Dexter and my health what would I do? Maybe a few months ago when he was ricocheting off my life like a bullet against metal, I may have chosen my health.
Now I’ve softened and he’s worn a smooth groove into me. The prospect of our three bedroom home without scuff marks on the walls and toys strewn all over the floor seems barren and sad.
I feel a weight on my knee and look away from the horizon to see that Dexter has crawled over and is pulling himself up to stand. He slaps my thigh and says, “Mumumum.”
His first proper words. I grab his hand and pretend to bite it. He squeals and collapses onto his bottom.
“Then again,” I say to Mum, “it probably had nothing to do with him at all.”
“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