by Amy Feldman
There are no fireworks when the baby is placed in my arms. I am exhausted; my damp hair is stuck to my forehead, my neck. I have been awake for almost thirty-six hours, eaten only toast in twenty-four. At home, aubergine parmigiana sits wilting by the kitchen sink.
The baby greets me by peeing on my arm, twice.
He began his journey exactly how we were told he (almost certainly) wouldn’t: two weeks early, all-of-a-sudden, dramatically, my body transformed into Niagara Falls. A day later, I have nothing left to give. I have struggled through tough roller derby matches and run for miles and hiked tough trails in forty-degree heat. Nothing tested me – physically and mentally – like labour. Over the coming days and weeks and months I will process what just happened, but for now I am just grateful that we are safe and he is here. I barely notice as our last link is cut away.
The following days feel like watching a David Attenborough documentary. Bewitched, my husband and I take in the way the baby curls, dormouse-like, as we hold him portrait along our bodies. How he is lighter than our small cat, but grunts and snuffles and snorts like a lion in his sleep (and my, how much he sleeps). One evening we dare to leave him safely dozing in the living room; I pace back and forth to the kitchen, drying saucepans as I go.
‘Are you bonding with him?’ ask midwives, between blood pressure checks and performing tests on the baby. I am overwhelmed by him, obsessed by him, protective of him. He is the most perfect baby to have ever been born. Is this bonding? Should I know? I nod, ‘I think so.’
One thing I do know: family and friends have suddenly opened up to me about their bodies, their own labours. I would not call myself prudish, have always happily engaged in discussions about periods and sex and scatology, though usually on a more general, less personal level (I am after all, rather private; I barely told anyone I was pregnant, letting the rumour mill and my gradually swelling stomach alert those who needed to know). But now we share the minutiae of our experiences, use language that was alien to me nine months ago: oxytocin, episiotomy, colostrum, cluster feeding. It is the most familiar phrase that feels the strangest, a congratulatory Facebook message reading ‘Well done, Mummy’. The new moniker makes my head spin: it doesn’t sit quite right, like one of the maternity dresses I absent-mindedly pull on the day after we return home from hospital.
“It is the most familiar phrase that feels the strangest, a congratulatory Facebook message reading ‘Well done, Mummy’. The new moniker makes my head spin.”
When it comes to adjusting to motherhood, it seems my body is ahead of my brain. Within days I somehow learn to cope with less sleep than Margaret Thatcher. At the 12am and 2am and 4am feeds I balance the baby with an e-reader, though remember nothing of the books I finish. I race through a comedy set on a maternity ward, trying to satiate my sudden infatuation with what my body has been through. I consider retraining in midwifery.
I am, however, still a long way from having recovered. My breasts are heavy and swollen, my movements sluggish. This isn’t helped by the baby arriving in the middle of a heatwave. The air is thick and close and we draw the curtains to shut it out. I watch the real world through social media. Friends sprawl in parks clutching bottles of cider, demolish charcoal-blackened sausages smothered in ketchup and bursting from fluffy, white buns. They sunbathe on concrete tiles next to bright blue lidos, Mr Whippy ice cream melting down their primary-coloured nails.
My ‘breastfeeding friendly’ top is a mess of tangled layers. One day I’ll master them, but for now it is easier to take it off. The baby is already stripped down to just a nappy. I bring him to my chest, and he burrows in. (I’m not sure this is what Cornership had in mind when they sang, ‘Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow’.) I stroke his thick, strawberry-blonde hair, trace his half-closed eyes, the wrinkles on the skin that doesn’t quite fit him yet.
When I was a child, I, somewhat morbidly, asked my mother who she would save in a fire: me and my sister, or my dad. Despite feeling smug that she chose us, I always found it strange that she could answer so quickly. Though they were not ones for PDAs or big romantic sentiments, we always knew my parents were very much in love. Yet Mum barely had to think before damning her husband to his hypothetical death.
Now I understand. What a time for a revelation: I am perched gingerly on the sofa, near-naked, with milk cascading from my nipples and drenching the baby and cushions. But I barely notice all of this as a feeling engulfs me like the first sip of tea after a cold walk, a tough day of work, giving birth. It’s like picking up a new contact lens prescription, the world suddenly brighter, in hyper focus. Every inch of my body aches and glows with love. I realise I am crying: silent tears of amazement, of joy, of relief.
My son gazes up at me briefly, before falling asleep in my arms. I hold him tight.
Amy Feldman | amyrfeldman | amy.goes.exploring | amyrfeldman.com
Amy Feldman is an Editor and the author of Cats and Dogs of the National Trust. When not typing, she’s usually playing roller derby, changing nappies or rambling through fields.