I was 24 when I had my first baby. I’d just started Uni and it seemed like a good use of time. I wrote assignments while he slept, substituted text books for picture books. I used to tuck him into his push chair with a hottie and a blanket, a cocoon against the bitter Wellington chill, and set off into the world like I was invincible.
We sang nursery rhymes all the way to the lecture theatre. Youngest university student ever. He’d laugh when the lecturer said something serious and important, as though cynicism was part of his DNA.
When he got a bit older he went to the daycare centre on campus. He was my mascot, my champion, a reward after a long day reading and writing. If I finished two more chapters, I’d promise myself, I could go and pick him up. Arriving at daycare mid-afternoon, I’d find him buried under blocks or knee deep in the sandpit. He’d look up, see me, leap to his feet shouting my name. Airport arrivals happen every day at daycare centres.
I remember a woman asking me once if I’d thought about weaning him. We were snuggled in one of those embraces where he felt satiated and I felt relief, breasts emptied of a day’s weight.
I looked down at my toddler’s long legs splayed out across my lap and said “no.” Because I really hadn’t. It was impossible for me to distinguish the place where his needs ended and mine began.
Which strikes me as kind of crazy, now.
Because when he was born, I didn’t feel anything. Maybe it was the drugs, or the sheer length of the labour, or just general delirium, but I remember holding him in my arms and panicking because nothing happened. There was just this baby, and so much pain. I had expected love by lightning bolt. But all I could feel was pain.
The pain eventually subsided, but the feelings still didn’t come. As I shuffled around the hospital ward at 3am, utterly exhausted but unable to sleep, I was seized by the terrible knowledge that in a ward full of snuffling and whimpering babies, I wouldn’t be able to pick out the cry of my own son. I felt like such a fraud. All mothers instinctively know the sound of their own baby, don’t they?
Not me. I would have been useless in the wild.
I asked the nurse if I could use the phone – this was back before we all had cellphones – and I rang Malcolm. He was groggy with sleep, clearly unmolested by anxiety about whether he was ready to be a father. He asked me what was wrong, as though it was possible for me to say.
“Nothing,” I lied, looking at the bright red Fire Exit sign above the door. Then, whispering, so the nurse wouldn’t hear, I said: “I want to come home. Can you come and get me?”
I was so scared. I’d made a terrible mistake. What on earth made me think I could look after another human being? I was only 24. I should be down the road chugging tequila shots instead of sipping kiwifruit pulp from a plastic cup in a hospital ward.
Malcolm yawned. “Go back to bed, babe. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
So I did. One foot in front of the other, as if pulled by some invisible hand, down the hall to the room where my baby slept.
New words in my mouth. So unfamiliar. So absolute.
I shut the door behind me, fingers lingering on the handle.
Lingering, as if deciding.
In the soft light I could just make out his shape inside the plastic basinette. He slept so soundly. Like a little log. He would sleep that way all his life, as though sleep was reckless and extravagant, a pleasure meant only for him. But I didn’t know that then. To me, he was just a stranger.
I tiptoed over and peered into the cot. He wasn’t moving. Not even a twitch. I tapped lightly on the plastic. Poked him gently with a finger.
I put my ear on his chest, forehead furrowed with concentration.
Still he made no sound.
I leaned in, pressed my nose to his nose. The ancient greeting of our ancestors.
Finally, I felt his breath against my lips. Tiny beating lungs, new to flight.
I inhaled his scent.
And with it, relief.
I didn’t know I loved him then. I just knew I wanted him to live.
This article was originally published in The Spinoff on 28 March 2017