A change of heart

‘The Baby’ is no longer an abstract concept.  Here she is: resting her weight on my hip as I carry her to the park, surveying the world with her bright eyes, thinking her own thoughts, breathing warm, milky sighs into my ear, revealing pink gums when she smiles.  

When my husband and I had intense debates about the pros and cons of ‘having a baby’, the baby was an idea, an intrusion, the end of my life as I knew it.  At the time, life involved 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, a slavish devotion to morning exercise, overseas trips, and spontaneous excursions chasing ramen, gelato, or sunshine and sea breezes.  “We’ll have to spend all our money on it,” I said (referring to the baby), “My career will suffer and I’ll be bored out of my mind.  Our world will shrink.”  

And shrink it did, especially in the first months when I staggered around the house in a stupor of fatigue.  At first, I was too exhausted to feel bored.  Then, my daughter began to assert herself as an adventurous little person, and her sense of wonder gripped me and carried me along. 

She is completely without pretence.  Emotions dance across her face so clearly, they almost come with captions: the shock of her first lick of lemon, the agony of a lentil stuck in her nose, terror tangled with delight when her father throws her in the air.  When she laughs, that cascade of pure joy feels like something sacred.     

An unwitting master of mindfulness, the baby doesn’t agonise over past events or fret about calamities that lie ahead.  To her, there is only now, and whatever is in front of her demands to be grabbed and shoved in her mouth, whether vaguely edible (a shrivelled pea that rolled under the couch) or not (Birkenstock sandals, Macbook charger, a fistful of hair).  Her world may be small but, oh! - what wonders it holds!  Ducks to chase; sand to eat; glistening spiderwebs to touch; muddy sticks to chew on; endlessly surprising games of Peek-A-Boo to play.  

Each day, I’m constantly fighting guilt that bubbles to the surface at the smallest provocation, such as when I tell her through gritted teeth to “Go the [expletive] to sleep”, as well as the thought of future traumas, like her first time at daycare.  She, however, has no inkling of the impossible standards I impose on myself.  I committed a classic parenting mistake by leaving her on the bed for a moment and she crawled off the edge like Wile E. Coyote.  Minutes later, she smiled at me, though I was weeping mawkishly with remorse.  Each time she opens her arms to me, she teaches me to be compassionate to myself.  She trusts me completely, backflipping off my lap with utmost confidence that I’ll catch her and opening her mouth for the food I offer, not caring that dinner is only a fried egg and defrosted blueberries.  She reaches across the high chair and anoints my forehead with blue mush as though absolving me from motherly self-condemnation. 

I used to think having a child was an act of vanity, a desire for a ‘mini-me’.  But I see none of myself in her.  I love her not because she mirrors me but because she is a mystery.  What is she thinking as she blows raspberries on my neck at 4am?  Why does she find it hilarious when I gasp in mock surprise?  

She continues to reveal small facets of herself and, although she’s never spoken a word, she holds my heart completely.

Fighting anxiety to find joy

Steps I took to prepare for my first baby: consulted a pelvic floor physiotherapist; lifted dumbbells; skim read ‘Birth Skills’ on my Kindle; persisted with daily jogging; watched episodes of ‘One Born Every Minute’. 

After an incredible labour, when my daughter almost arrived on a Fitball under a shower, and after another shower and a tomato and cheese sandwich at 1am, I lay alone in the maternity ward and willed sleep to come.  But it eluded me, as euphoric vignettes of the day flashed in my mind (wow! had I really given birth?) and a midwife came every few hours to take the baby’s temperature, prod my stomach, and check my blood pressure.  Then, it was morning, which brought a trickle of visitors, interspersed with meals, and more midwives who thrust thermometers in my ears and cold fingers on my belly.  Friends perched on the end of the hospital bed as I fumbled through conversations, conscious of the ice pack between my legs.  Through it all, the baby slept, whimpered, or made feeble attempts to nurse.  

By the next day, I had barely slept for 36 hours and the adrenaline was wearing off.  

Fatigue does strange things to your mind.  I began to experience the world like I was inside a glass bowl; voices were muffled, faces were slightly blurry, and I felt isolated and unable to express myself.   I cried a lot.  My exhaustion brought a sense of impending doom.  Instead of the rush of love that should have been surging through my veins, all I felt was the burden of keeping the baby alive.  How could I sleep when she might stop breathing at any second?  I pushed her bassinet close to the bathroom and peed with the door ajar so I could make sure nobody kidnapped her.  I assessed how long visitors took to rub antiseptic foam on their hands because, suddenly, the world was teeming with deadly viruses.  When a visitor coughed while she was holding the baby, a terrible rage rushed through me, so fierce and sudden that I began shaking.  

At home, it only got worse.  Every two hours, I fought to feed the baby, struggling against her thrashing arms and her lips that clamped shut.  While nursing, she fell into a sleep so deep that nothing - not even cold, wet flannels on her bare chest - could rouse her.  Defeated, I would stagger downstairs to hook myself up to the hospital grade breast pump we had hired from the pharmacy while my husband bottle fed her.  In those dark hours, alone on the couch, I was assaulted with horrifying images of harm coming to the baby.  I saw myself tripping on the stairs while holding her, or fainting as I bathed her, and trying to stop these thoughts was as useful as catching water with a sieve.  

Then, the real crying began.  Hours of wailing reverberated through the house.  Each soul shattering, shrill cry ended with a gurgling shriek, like a furious exclamation mark, and the baby squirmed and arched in my arms as I tried to comfort her.  She didn’t distinguish between 3pm and 3am; she didn’t care if I’d only had ten minutes of sleep or that my back hurt; she didn’t notice when I joined her in crying, my fat tears dripping onto her forehead and cheeks. 

“What’s wrong?” I pleaded, my voice hoarse from exhaustion.  “What do you want?”

Her only answer was to scream, crimson faced, until she ran out of breath and her arms and legs turned a mottled blue.  

I dragged myself through unrelenting, repetitive cycles of nursing, rocking, and changing nappies.  The less sleep I had, the more anxious I became.  I was convinced that a red spot was meningococcal disease, a cough signalled the beginning of whooping cough, every sneeze was the onset of influenza, and flushed cheeks indicated fever.  Sometimes, my fear that the baby would die was so powerful that I hyperventilated and doubled over, wanting to vomit.   

This was an aspect of motherhood for which I was unprepared.  I knew I would be tired but the anxiety caught me off guard, paralysed me, sapped my joy.  Fear traps you in the lonely prison of your own mind where worst case scenarios play out in vivid detail.  You tell yourself that things will be okay but you can’t trick yourself into believing it.  You feel ashamed because your trials seem trivial compared to other people’s struggles; they can cope - why can’t you?          

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Thankfully, as I teetered on the edge of not coping, things began to improve.  A doctor, who was diligent and disarmingly kind, gently suggested that I see a psychologist.  Friends brought food, told me I was doing a great job, and didn’t overstay their welcome.  I let people hold her, as long as they didn’t kiss her.  My sister vacuumed.  People listened as I wept over the phone.  I asked for prayer, binge watched The Good Wife, decided not to read more baby forums.  Blocks of sleep extended from minutes to several hours.  The baby grew fat and finally smiled; and I was ready to smile back.    

 

The Trees are Coming Into Leaf

Upon waking, I sneezed violently, my knees jackknifing towards my chest.  I sneezed again, and again, and again.  Ah!  It must be spring. 

Spring in Perth corresponds to an exponential rise in the sale of antihistamines as the cool morning breeze carries millions of minute particles of pollen.  Daylight creeps into the sky sooner every day.  Magpies congregate in packs.  As I run towards them, they barely bother to flap their wings and instead appraise me with cunning eyes, cocking their heads so the sun glints off their razor beaks.  Soon there will be nests and I’ll have to watch out for a flurry of wings above my head and a loud cry from a territorial bird.  Swarms of bees hover near lavender bushes; a few are lost to backyard swimming pools where they float amongst soggy leaves, buoyant gum nuts, and bits of bottlebrush.  Clothes that are pegged onto clotheslines in the morning will dry before noon.

It’s the season for pavlova and Kitchenaids around the city are put to work whipping egg whites into soft, glossy peaks. Restaurant staff take ‘Soup’ off menus and start serving salads and jugs of sangria with chopped strawberries and ice cubes that crackle and clink merrily.  People put away slow cookers and wipe the cobwebs off dusty Weber barbecues and wicker chairs.  Mosquito coils are lit.  Families move their dinners to back verandahs where the evening breeze carries hints of grass trimmings and the calls of hidden frogs.

As a child, I greeted spring with wariness because it foreshadowed the arrival of long months of unbearable, relentless summer heat.  I was shut inside sweltering classrooms with no air-conditioning, only a listless ceiling fan that barely circulated the body odours of thirty sweating children.  The teachers persisted with sport even in the hottest weather and I wilted under the afternoon sun, my skin prickling and burning, praying that the softball would not arc through the air towards me as I would probably faint if I had to run.  

For a few years, my family lived in a house with a kidney-shaped pool in the backyard.  When my parents bought the house, they saw the pool as an annoyance rather than an attraction but my sister and I had a taste of the quintessential Australian childhood, which revolves around water.  We had no pool toys or inflatable recliners.  We never lounged beside the pool, wearing our sunglasses and reading magazines, because my mother, ever vigilant of the risk of skin cancer, forbade us from venturing outside until the shade from surrounding trees covered three quarters of the surface area of the pool. 

This meant that we were only allowed to swim when it was close to evening, when all the other children in the neighbourhood had already left their backyard pools to shampoo chlorine out of their hair and eat sausages and mash (which is what I imagined my Caucasian classmates had for dinner).  While waiting for our nocturnal swim, my sister and I ran laps around the house to wile away the hours and to get as warm as we could before we braved the rapidly cooling water.  When we were finally released from the house, I swam lazy laps of breaststroke and practiced handstands and somersaults, imagining I was a mermaid for the thirty seconds that my small lungs allowed me to stay underwater.  I didn’t leave the pool until my fingers and toes had shrivelled to unrecognisable prunes and my teeth chattered so loudly that I was deaf to my mother calling me from the kitchen.

My parents only used the pool sporadically.  In Malaysia, swimming lessons were never part of the school curriculum, so my mother had never learned to swim.  One day, she ventured in with us and my dad held her above the water as she lay on her back like a magician’s assistant showing off a levitation trick.  My dad gently took his hands away and, with incredible grace and speed, my mother sank to the bottom of the pool.  After that, she enrolled in swimming lessons at the local recreation centre, where her instructor had a larger repertoire of techniques to teach her how to float.  I was proud of my mother for learning to swim in her thirties and for showing me that, even if your first go at something is scary and traumatising, you should try again.

When we weren’t swimming, my sister and I played near the pool.  I lay on my stomach on the warm bricks and dangled my hand in the water, feeling its soothing resistance as I pushed my hand back and forth.  We once found a dead dragonfly floating on the surface and we spent  a long time examining its shimmering, delicate wings and enormous eyes.  We constructed a coffin using a piece of cardboard and sticky tape and buried it under our favourite tree.   

Yesterday I was reminded of our insect burial when I saw another dragonfly resting on a wall near my front door.  I bent down and peered at its long, curved body and translucent wings.  That something of such beauty can exist, mostly unnoticed, fills me with gratitude for the fresh beginnings of spring; the arrival of insects and hatchlings and new buds.  Here is Philip Larkin, expressing this wonder in The Trees. 

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we die? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.