I stirred from my sleep, bleary-eyed and confused, to the tunneled sound of not-so-distant cries that felt like I was still in a dream. I sat up and rubbed my eyes as I tried to orient myself. Having him home with us still felt incredibly surreal. I moved slowly, cautious not to tug too much at the still-numb scar at the bottom of my softened belly.
His cries continue, making my breasts ache and tingle – a carnal response to my son’s distress and something I only recently learned about motherhood and breast feeding. My body is, quite literally, attuned to his every need and responds accordingly. Both my body and my world revolve around him right now. Feeling as though I no longer belong to myself has been an adjustment, to say the least.
I lift my bundled baby boy out of the bassinet; this boy who is just barely under the ten-pound limit indicated in the post-operation instruction packet that the hospital sent home with me at discharge. Nearly nine pounds of flesh and blood which I nurtured and carried in my womb for 40 weeks. My own flesh and blood.
Limb by heavy limb, I stumble sleepily to his nursery where I change his diaper in the dim light that doubles as a sound machine. I set it to the soothing sound of a rainstorm, thinking of my own inner storm. The irony.
He’s still fussing, and I know he’s ready for another feeding. I remember reading, once, something about the benefits of skin-to-skin contact between an infant and their parents. So, I don’t put him back in his tiny footie pajamas deciding, instead, to share some skin-to-skin time. Then, I unfasten the clip at the front of my unsexy maternity bra as we sway in the glider, his wriggling body close to mine. I gently shush his cries as I help him latch onto his food source, trying to remember all of the tips the hospital lactation consultant shared with me. I’m overwhelmed. Then and now.
Tears silently stream down my cheeks. He isn’t latching and he won’t stop crying.
“What am I doing wrong?” I internally ask myself, as my eyes skim the room that I lovingly and painstakingly prepared for his arrival. Folding blankets and organizing small clothes on miniature hangers in the closet. Setting up gadgets like the sound machine and wipe warmer and baby monitor; things I didn’t even know existed before his conception. Down to the very last detail: mounting spinning biplanes above his crib to match his flight-themed nursery décor.
Back then, my sentiment was that he would dream of flying because I would build him the wings with my own two hands to make it possible for him to soar; anything for him. Back then, I thought pregnancy and delivery would be the hard part. Back then, I thought everything could be planned. Back then, I thought I was prepared; I prided myself on being prepared. Though my sentiment still stands true, spoiler alert: I was not prepared.
I was not prepared for the emergency cesarean. I was not prepared for my post-pregnancy body. I was not prepared for post-partum recovery. I was not prepared for the emotions. I was not prepared for the constant demand. And I certainly was not prepared for the all-consuming exhaustion: physical, mental, and emotional.
Desperately, I try to blink away the blur in my eyes but, unwelcome and uncontrollable, the tears keep pooling. “If eyes are the window to the soul, what would someone see in my eyes right now?” I wonder to myself.
Even as my husband sleeps peacefully just down the hall, I feel so isolated. From the world. From everyone. From myself – distant from who I used to be. She is only a memory now, and I struggle with my new identity.
Loneliness licks at my consciousness, whispering little lies like, “No one would understand if you shared how you’re feeling” or “Everyone will judge you for how you feel.” Hell, I’m judging myself.
Fear feasts on me, rumbling that I am and will be a bad mother. Fear that I am already failing him, have already failed him. Afterall, I couldn’t even bring him into this world on my own.
Worst of all, I am a glutton for guilt. Guilt that I should feel more grateful. Guilt that I don’t deserve this little life entrusted to me. Guilt that I survived our traumatic labor and delivery; I feel as though I was meant to have died. In fact, I would have died if not for modern medicine. Guilt that my body failed us: him and me.
The darkness of the night feels like a mirror image of the intrusive thoughts dancing around and around in my mind. A desolate symmetry that I don’t want to acknowledge for fear of making it truer. I keep wondering if this is normal. I keep wondering if I should seek medical help. At what point does dark become too dark? Where is that line drawn? This all feels so new and foreign to me, and I feel so afraid of voicing any of this to anyone. As if giving voice to the darkness only solidifies it, gives it form and more power over me and validates it’s point of view.
Just then, my contented baby wiggles, pulling me back from the brink of a black hole of despair of my own making. So lost in myself was I, that I didn’t even notice he was drowsily dozing as he took his fill of the liquid gold that my body was capable of providing.
I watch him unlatch from my raw, cracked nipples. I’m hoping they’ll heal soon because feedings are unimaginably painful at the moment. He looks up at me.
He inherited his daddy’s dark brown eye color, but my eye shape and size. It’s bizarre seeing my eyes looking at me in someone else’s face. Unwavering, he gazes into my watery eyes, his own cries long ago quieted.
His eyes seem so full of wisdom. Too wise for a newborn. They seem to say, “I see you” and “I know you” and “I trust you.” Most importantly of all, his eyes seem to be saying to me, “I love you.”
A fresh wave of tears overtakes me as my body shakes with cries that I try to muffle so that I don’t disturb my sleeping spouse and my newly calmed baby boy. I rock his perfect little form in my arms, close to my heart, feeling his baby-soft skin pressed against mine, no barriers between us.
I exhale between silent sobs of emotional relief. I nuzzle his neck and inhale the smell of new life that clings to him. I wish I could bottle his baby scent, so I try my hardest to commit it to memory.
When shared language does not exist between two beings, when words fail or simply won’t suffice, only actions can communicate. His infant mind can’t yet comprehend the words “I love you,” and so I try, with every fiber of my being, to communicate the best I know how.
I take his hand and kiss his palm, and I marvel at how small it looks in my own hand. I count and kiss each of his 10 perfect fingers and toes. I kiss the bridge of his nose right between his soulful eyes, in the place some religions believe lies the “third eye,” the eye that sees the unseen.
Tenderly, I stroke his cherub cheek and, through sheer force of motherly will, I urge my eyes to say back to him, “I would choose you again and again. In every lifetime.” and “I’ve got you.” and “I will always be for you, never against you.” Most importantly of all, I will my eyes to say, “I love you most.”
I want the knowledge of my love to permeate every fiber of his being, until it’s seeping from every corner, nook, and cranny of his soul, a ingrained to his innermost knowledge.
Even steeped in parental fear and guilt and insecurity, my love for him is the light that brings me back from the dark and intrusive thoughts that try to take hold. His love for me is a guide leading me back, repeatedly, to the fulfillment and purpose I find in being his mother. The word “love” is not enough. This feeling is unspoken and uncommunicable; a language between two souls that exist beyond natural existence.
I hum for him now, as he sleeps safely in the warm glow of my love. Or maybe it’s the nursery night light. Either way, I breathe peacefully as I bask in the feel of my child in my arms, hoping to keep the storms at bay.
***Note from the author***
I was inspired to make this a story about the unspoken conversations we have with ourselves. We can speak unkindly to ourselves; unforgiving internal monologues that we would never say about someone else, yet we say about ourselves. A conversation to myself. I also wanted this to be about the unspoken, nonverbal communication that occurs between a mother and her child. A conversation to a part of myself: my son. In those early days, language does not exist yet poses no barrier between the two – somehow a child still knows that they are loved. Words are not needed. That’s the power of unspoken communication.