Originally published Dec. 12, 1997, this essay was selected by third Facts & Arguments editor Katherine Ashenburg: "Linda Russell's economical use of detail paints a deft portrait of a couple. I loved this one for its mordant humour, and for managing to combine unsentimentality with affection."
I am sitting naked on the john, with a shower cap on my head. I'm not having a shower, I'm having a cigarette, I'll have the shower after the cigarette. So the baby won't smell it when I have to leave this tiny room and go back to the 18-hour nursing job that has come as a sort of gift-with-purchase.
I would like to stay in this warm, well-equipped room for a lot longer than one cigarette. A wide cross-section of the goods and products that used to make me a normal human being are in here. Makeup, curlers, manicure stuff, nail polish, hair brushes, lipstick, blush. There are towels, douches, soaps, bath additives, plus three important sources of water. I could shave my legs, not to mention my underarms, get rid of 5-o'clock shadow on my upper lip and do my bikini line. I could put a mud pack on my face, condition my hair, and rub any number of moisturizers on my prune-like torso. I could give myself a pedicure. Now there is something I haven't done in nine months.
Should someone want to come in, I have condoms. If I got a headache or cold, I could treat myself to any number of mind-numbing drugs. Hell, if I could use my cellular to order take-out, I could stay in here forever.
Nine months ago, I had considered it part of an expectant mother's prerogative to let oneself slide a bit. Everyone told me I never looked better than when I was pregnant. I didn't care if they were lying. I felt wonderful, all those peaceful hormones running around my brain while my belly grew by the day. I acted and felt like the sexiest, most beautiful mother-to-be in the world.
With time on my side, I carefully checked out all the possible sources of very great maternity clothes. There was nothing even approaching the near-great, so (and I can't believe I ever had this much free time in my former life) I actually designed and sewed all my preg stuff myself. Big on the classic dark dresses, with capes and gloves for the flowy look. Heavy on the little stocking skirt, short as the dickens, designed to show off my belly to its fullest. That kind of stuff. I gave a damn back then.
O yes, I had the luxury of time. Time to sleuth out the perfect 100-per-cent cotton fabrics for all my baby's linen. Time to recover chairs for rocking, and make duvets, sheets, bumper pads and canopies not just for his crib, but for an old bassinet I found in a secondhand store and refinished.
I didn't know when I was well off.
Now, my life runs around nursing my new son. The first time I fed him, we were in the recovery room. The lights were low, my loving and relieved husband was close by. My tiny boy lay cozily on my chest and sucked politely. And then fell into the prescribed sleep. It was just as I had expected it would be.
In the hospital stay that followed, I sought desperately to re-establish that easy bond. But instead, what mostly happened was that I sat on the edge of a chair, trying to ignore my stitches and constipation while attempting to get him to latch on long enough to avoid starvation.
In my whole life, I don't remember ever being so obsessed, or working harder at anything. My boy didn't just cry before he nursed, but during and after. First, they sent me a nutrition consultant, who was sympathetic but useless. I used the opportunity to order bigger breakfasts.
Then Claudia, a lactation consultant and a nice lady about eight months pregnant herself, arrived. She spent at least a half-hour just watching him suck. Her diagnosis was that he was not latching properly, so he was getting large doses of air along with the milk. Hence his extremely bad mood.
She suggested I use a feeding tube, which means that you express your milk and then feed it to the baby through a tube taped to your finger, or breast. Easy for her to say. On her way out, she told my husband that her own husband was still resisting the idea of her nursing when her baby arrived. "It's so intrusive and demanding," she said. The fact that she was teaching other women how to nurse but was not sure she wanted to go through it herself was not lost on my husband. It went, of course, right over my thick, postpartum head.
I began pumping furiously and spent most of the night in the nursery watching nurses shove bottles into the mouths of screaming babies unfortunate enough to have mothers who wanted a good night's sleep and who didn't care if their new arrivals sampled a bit of the best from the likes of Mead Johnston.
I sat to one side with my bit of precious milk and fed my boy from a tube on my finger. I cried ceaselessly, while watching him eat greedily. "My baby is starving," I moaned over and over. The nurses took my presence in their stride. They knew that I was a new mother and, as such, was just about as mad as a hatter.
During the rest of my stay, I got all sorts of nursing advice. My midwife told me it would be better when I got him home, my hospital roommate said I just needed to relax. My husband told me to give it up. Since the maternity ward was a sort of boot camp, with equipment and troop movements occurring at all times of the day or night, I figured some sleep would help.
One evening while my husband was visiting, I grabbed my coat and headed for the elevators with him behind me. If he could just direct me to the car, we could get home in time for me to get some sleep, and get back before the bloody baby needed to be fed again. With a few good hours of knock-out, I was sure I could cope. It is a tribute to my husband's good manners that he didn't dissuade or encourage me, he just listened, steered me away from the car, then followed me back to the ball and chain waiting for us on the seventh floor.
The day I had my requisite bowel movement, I told the intern that I wanted it announced over the public address system. In my postpartum manner I also told this poor guy, who had probably been on duty for 24 hours, that he could write on his chart that despite their best efforts, Mrs. R. and baby were preparing to leave the hospital, alive.
So now I'm home, in the bathroom. Other than sleeping for six straight hours once we got him into the house, he has had, or allowed, little rest since. I am a 5-foot-8 walking bottle of warm milk, who can be called upon at any time. I have nursed in the bath, the car, on the john and while standing up, eating and fast asleep. He never nurses calmly, or falls asleep, or wears all the lovely clothes I got him. He has hardly seen the inside of his damn designer room, referred to by my husband as the shrine. He simply drains me dry, cries, throws up or poos, and then we begin again.
My baby and I are united on only two topics. One is that we love each other. The other is that this mothering business is a fine madness, an obsession. And the only question I have is why didn't someone tell me. I mean, really tell me.
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