“The world ends…at your children’s skin.” Helen Garner – Joe Cinque’s Consolation
Five days after the birth I took my baby home. I had mixed feelings about this. I was looking forward to leaving the hospital, but home was full of reminders of the homebirth that didn’t happen. I inched my way slowly into my pink winged armchair, gritting my teeth against the pain from my caesarian scar, and held the ragged little bundle to my chest and wept. I’d pictured us here together so many times, and finally here we were. But nothing was quite as I’d always imagined it. For starters I was still waiting on that wave of elation that you supposedly get after birthing your child. It was like I’d been rehearsing a play for the last nine months and then slept through opening night. There was a massive sense of anti-climax. Maybe it was the stress of the last, overdue, 2.5 weeks of the pregnancy. Maybe it was the caesarian, or the fact that I didn’t get immediate skin-to-skin bonding time after they wrenched my child out of me. Or maybe I was just like the many other new parents who don’t immediately fall madly in love with their babies. I mean, I liked the kid, don’t get me wrong. I liked it about as much as I’d like a new hat.
Everyone had told me the first six weeks were the hardest, but secretly I’d always thought I’d be fine. I had been a nanny on and off for the last fifteen years. I knew my way around babies. But no one had prepared me for not feeling anything. And then five hours after getting home all hell broke loose. My baby had shrunk beneath my eyes, and was now all knobbly knees and loose skin. It happened so fucking fast. The baby was dehydrated because my milk was slow to come in. Possibly due to the caesarian. Mum called my homebirth midwife in a panic. She suggested giving the bub a tiny bit of formula to get us through the night, and to start pumping like crazy. The baby was too weak to suck properly, so even though it broke my heart I sent mum out to buy a bottle.
Once again I felt my body was failing me. I couldn’t conceive without medical intervention. I couldn’t go into labour without medical intervention. I couldn’t birth without medical intervention. And now I couldn’t even feed my starving child. I felt like a total failure and I hated my body with all the strength I had left. But I also realised that if I made the wrong decision tonight, I would be responsible for killing my baby. The enormity hit me like a fist in my heart. I might not love it, but I cared more about this little floppy thing than anything else in the world. Way more than I’d care about a hat. I’m not even a hat person, for christsake. This floppy little person was completely dependent on me. And I realised that if something happened to my little bub I would never be okay, ever again. Life would lose all meaning. And then I realised that even if the baby didn’t die today, even if I managed to keep it safe and get it all the way to adulthood, at some point in the next hundred years or so it would still get old and die. I burst into tears. I couldn’t bear the thought. “Oh fuck. What have I done”, I thought miserably. “I’ve totally ruined my life.” I don’t remember doing this, but a friend came to visit several days later who is currently in the midst of the tender agony of trying to conceive. I looked at her wildly as she walked in the door, and with absolute sincerity hissed, “whatever you do, don’t do it”.
For the next few days I frantically pumped for six hours a day, and for the other ten hours I fed. My homebirth midwife devised an ingenious contraption where I stuck a tiny tube into the corner of my baby’s mouth while we were breastfeeding, and then fed them the pumped milk through the tube. It helped me no end to feel that in some roundabout way I was still managing to nourish my child with my body. During all of this I made the mistake of logging on to facebook, where I was met with a barrage of well-meaning messages congratulating me on the baby. “You must be so happy,” everyone said. The word MUST leapt out at me accusingly. Because I wasn’t.
What was wrong with me? I’d wanted this baby so so badly, but now I had it I was ambivalent. It’s well understood that maternal instinct is a patriarchal construct designed to perpetuate the gender divide in parenting. Being maternal is not attached to your sex or gender. It’s not inate; it’s taught. And maternal love? Well you can’t exactly learn that one, but it can still take time. Even after my milk came in and everything started to calm down, I still didn’t feel as I should. I cared about my baby loads, but I still didn’t love it. I was still waiting for that wave. Life took on a pale, lacklustre monotony. I didn’t look forward to anything. I didn’t want anyone to come and meet the baby, and the few that did asked to hold the baby and then followed me round the house with a running commentary of all the cute things the baby was doing. Couldn’t they tell I was trying to get away from it for a few precious minutes?? I was sleeping great and I didn’t qualify for postnatal depression; it was “just” the baby blues. But it’s hard to look after a helpless little creature 24-7 that you don’t have any strong feelings about, either way. And who can blame me, really. We barely knew each other. Apparently I knew this baby better than anyone else in the world, but I still really had no clue. I felt sorry for the little mite. How lonely it must be to not know yourself, and for no one else to know you either.
Through all of this my homebirth midwife was visiting every second day, closely monitoring the baby’s health, my mental health, and coaching us through the breastfeeding. I felt so shit that I found myself following my mum to the supermarket just so that I wouldn’t be home on my own. I dragged myself to the local park and sat in the sun like some convalescing old woman. I ate chocolate by the fistful, and watched endless episodes of highly addictive tv series’. “You MUST be so happy,” they said. And dutifully I tried my best.
And then one day my baby smiled at me. A proper, eyes focused on mine, lopsided little grin. Later that day mum took me yet again to the supermarket, and while we were looking at the pasta I realised that not only did I care which brand we bought, but I was also looking forward to eating it when we got home that night. I did a little skip as we walked past the tinned tomatoes. I was looking forward.
[pic is of a last-minute breastfeed on the way to Pride Fair Day]