A mother struggles with her newborn and postpartum in the early days of the pandemic
The throbbing pain in her crotch, together with the bulk and weight of the pad she was wearing, made it difficult for Emma to catch up with Jim, who was already in the middle of the crossroad. She warily exited the Uber and waddled across the crosswalk behind him. Jim had his left hand up like a dutiful crossing guard and stopped a gray Lexus while balancing the little basket on his right; Emma felt grown-up for the both of them. Still, this unmerited accomplishment of becoming parents did not alleviate the fact that her perineum was on fire as if a thousand razors were being pulled out of her with each step; she desperately wanted to get upstairs to place some ice on it.
"Crown rank of the womanhood!" she snickered to herself, one hand leaned on the wall for support as she waited for the elevator. Jim had already started climbing up to their 6th-floor apartment with Bella; it was better for the baby to take the stairs these days, in case there were people on the elevator. Two-day-old Bella was escorted home, albeit without the fanfare that would have typically followed in ordinary life. No in-laws or friends preparing the house, washing the crib sheets once more, filling the fridge with fancy provisions and libations, lining up the sides of the sofa with balloons, cakes; no carrying little frilly packages, no teddy bears, no candy, no cards, not even a cup of coffee in their hands for her. Not today. There was no one in sight around the building or in the lobby, which provided a slight relief, and no one would be coming for the foreseeable future due to shelter-in-place requirements brought on by the Coronavirus.
She clutched the clear plastic bag she received from the hospital that carried formula samples, pampers for the baby, the adult diapers, and the wild mesh underwear for her. Calling this atrocity "underwear" was a big stretch. Pun intended. The wobbly walk of shame from the car to the apartment topped the human explosion her body performed a mere 47 hours ago, propelling a baby the size of a respectable watermelon and ending with her insides on the outside. The embarrassment of carrying diapers not solely for the baby outweighed having shitted in front of easily a half dozen people chanting for her to do so. "I want to see poop on this table," she remembered her doctor shouting, "Let's go, one, two, three, push!”
Another lovely detail no one had revealed, nowhere to be found in what to expect books. Apparently, one leaves their dignity and brain, together with the placenta, on the birthing table. She struggled to see the glory of motherhood at this particular moment, but she was hopeful that she would come back to her senses. After all, everyone did. Well, almost everyone.
As they entered their small apartment, Jim hit the play button on his iPhone, and the speakers started playing Ciao Bella, the Casa de Papel version she loved. They had agreed on this as a couple, so she was surprised that she found this upbeat song very improper at the moment. Partisan lyrics and dance rhythms did not fit the current lackluster parade she and Jim were partaking in. Still, she didn't say anything, decided to wait for the song to be over as Jim seemed to be enjoying it, singing it to baby Bella buckled in her car seat throne, lifted above her dad's broad shoulders, Mufasa style. Soon, Bella decided to join in with a huge wail. Jim ran over to the speaker to turn down the music, picked her up from the car seat, and rocked her in his arms. Emma, struggling to steady herself as she took her sneakers off by the door, glanced at Jim and Bella bouncing around, and found comfort knowing that Jim was going to be a great father. Bella was lucky; she was going to have at least one good parent, unlike her.
She walked through the narrow hallway of their apartment, placing her purse on the console table, next to the lamp, its circular shade was still lying somewhat crooked. Only a very observant eye could detect it. Not even Jim. She always smiled knowingly as she passed by it, remembering their steamy encounter in the narrow hallway after a movie date. As they entered, Jim grabbed her by the waist and shoved her against the nook between the console table and the closet, hiking her skirt up and pulling her panties down with the other. They had not been together in a long time, she went with it, even though memories of David, her ex, kept creeping in their union. She was annoyed at David’s unwelcome appearance in her mind again, at this wholesome moment of bringing her baby home. Yet, she could not help wondering whether he had heard the news and secretly hoping he was jealous, at least a bit.
"You must be hungry," she heard Jim speak from the living room. "I will put her down and bring you something to eat, go lay down, honey." Bella had been silent since Jim started rocking her. Emma prayed she would stay that way a while.
"I am going to try to take a shower," she mumbled as she slowly made her way to the bathroom.
"Okay, let me know if you need anything.”
“Can you bring me an icepack?” Emma said, her voice disappearing towards the end of the hallway to their bedroom.
“Sure, honey. Coming right up!”
The dingy gray sweatpants she had borrowed from Jim last minute as they rushed to the hospital, and his blue plaid shirt she buttoned up over her maternity bra hit the floor of the bathroom; a far cry away from the rose embroidered kaftan she had imagined wearing home from the hospital. It was purchased on a trip to Morocco with David some years back. She had considered the moral implications of wearing an exquisite handmade silk gown gifted by a man other than her husband as the outfit of choice for ushering a new baby home and decided it was fine, as the color enlivened her pale skin and made her blue eyes pop. The rose kaftan would have fallen the way of the entry song, inappropriate and extravagant for the dull occasion. The current turn of events in the past few months had made any vanity related effort feel superfluous, even for the nonpregnant.
She slowly peeled off the breast pads that smelt like sour milk, stuck to her skin. An image of her trying to twirl the red tassels her best friend Gemma gifted her on her bachelorette party flashed in the mirror as she looked at her puffy, misshapen self. Emma sneered, knowing those would never see the light of the day again unless maybe swung across the room by a future nosy toddler Bella. “What are these, Mommy?”
She could have never imagined this lonely, humiliating, and painful reality that was sprung on her. Bent over with cramps, she sat on the toilet, pulled out the bloody pad and tossed it in the garbage, removed the stained net sling she was wearing, and wondered how much more blood she could lose between the birth and this, without passing out. She used the squeeze bottle she had just filled with lukewarm water after she went to the bathroom, another adorable accessory that no one had disclosed, but then it occurred to her that maybe it was better that way. These abhorrent details would cause the end of the human population on earth if any woman were informed of their existence prematurely, meaning before they got knocked up. As she sat there, figuring out what oozing body part to tend to, she reached for the plastic bag Jim had thoughtfully brought in the bathroom, together with the ice pack and pulled out the hemorrhoid cream. The care package was indeed delightful.
Stepping into her hot shower comforted her, covering her with a temporary calmness. The hot pink water trickled between her legs getting paler and paler; she used an extra dollop of her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and body wash as if the extra servings would dress some of the pain she was feeling all over. She slowly crouched down in the tub and placed the icepack between her legs, which seemed to ease the pain. As she placed the icepack on herself gently, she had a vision of David's curly hair going down on her. "What the hell!" She thought to herself. Why was her mind doing this? Why did she keep getting hit with these images? It was too early for her to know that nothing was wrong with her, and life as a mother was designed to be lived with conflicts and guilt over what you think you should be doing and what you actually do.
She got out of the shower and started putting on an armor of paddings and creams she had been dealt. She pulled her wet hair up with a clip as she heard the baby cry and went into the bedroom to pick her up. Bella did not look like her, which slightly pissed her off. Then again, she did not look like much of anything. Plus, those weird bumps on her head and the red patch that developed on her cheek towards her ear shaped like a skinny elephant did not help the situation. Emma’s current diagnosis was that Bella, despite her name, would not make for a pretty girl, and she was immediately disgusted with herself. “What the fuck, Emma! What is so wrong with you? You wanted this baby; you love this baby, she is beautiful, tell her! Tell her you love her!" Emma repeated the words to the weeping baby, but knew deep down she did not believe what she said. Somehow it seemed fitting to blame her troubled mother for this as well.
Before she realized the baby was still crying and she still had not picked her up, Jim ran into the room and lifted Bella of her crib, hushing her gently. "Try to get some sleep, hun," James whispered to Emma under his breath, "You are exhausted. I will wake you up when the dinner is ready. There is still time to feed her, get some rest."
"Thanks," Emma muttered as she lowered herself on the bed, taking inventory of all the tender parts hitting the mattress. “Do all mothers feel this way?” she wondered and decided against it as if that were the case there would have been no siblings ever. "I am fortunate" she tried to coerce herself into gratitude; she did not want bad karma. At least, Jim was an able shape that listened to her, attended to her needs. Still, he simply could not perceive the increasing agony that tormented her, making her situation more hopeless and permanent.
Since that first moment the baby arrived in the apartment, every day was like the other. Hours, days, and weeks were all a blur with no distinct beginning or an end. It went like this. Hear the cry, wake up, feed the baby, burp the baby, clean the baby, shove some food in the mouth, fall asleep on the couch; wake up, feed the baby, bathe the baby, dress the baby, feed the baby, clean the baby, feed the baby, feed the baby, feed the baby…. Day in, day out, Emma hung out with the little bundle of "joy" cocooned snugly in her lap for most of their waking hours, supported by the boppy pillow. The only noteworthy event that she looked forward to in her current abysmal existence was the daily live Coronavirus conference on CNN around 5 pm. That was code for some relief as Jim wrapped up most of his work in the office and could help with Bella.
Her breasts were huge and constantly pulsing with pain, her nipples cracked and burning. Every feeding was as if a tiger cub was gnawing on a bone with clamped jaws. Tears slid down Emma’s cheeks, her teeth clenched in pain, trying to get the baby to finish her 10 minutes on each side. "It should not hurt this much," she thought to herself every time, "This can't be normal." There was a nursing consultant that could visit, but she did want to bring in anyone from the hospital because of the virus. She obediently continued the feedings as the baby sucked the life out of her, realizing she would not be able to tolerate this much longer.
Her phone didn't ring as much, texts received far and few in between with everyone just asking about the baby. She didn't remember the last time someone asked her how "she" was, looking into her eyes. In her suffocating isolation, she found herself frequently pondering whether she actually wanted this baby. She avoided answering it. At every step from the changing table to the crib, she grew more despondent, knowing Bella would likely always be a burden, a roadblock for her. Life as she had known it was over, and motherhood allowed her to barely exist, mainly as a cantankerous cow with opposing thumbs. She longed to thrive, not just survive, but that did not seem plausible in this role she had cast herself.
Emma felt more and more like the little engine that barely could. She got the job done at her own expense, dragging her exhausted ass to corners of the house at all hours of the day to attend to the baby, but that sacred bond, that deep adoration, and unconditional love seemed to be absent. It was as if her heart was frozen in an ice bubble. Bella did not feel like a part of her. There was a haze that hung in the air between them.
In the middle of another agonizing feeding frenzy, her mind wandered to her mother, Karyn, and Emma wondered how she, of all people, survived the pain of childbirth and all that came with it. The lineup of vodka and wine bottles on the perimeter of the kitchen in their one-bedroom apartment on the Southside crept into her mind; ashtrays flowing, tabletop littered with crumbled burger wrappers, empty chips bags; the acrid smell of vomit, her mom doubled over with her head on her crossed arms on the table throwing up on to the floor, the whole room under a fog of smoke. Emma would bet her mother bribed some nurse in the hospital to add vodka to her IV, with Emma on her lap.
Karyn probably did not even know her daughter had a child now. Her uncle Steve might have mentioned it to her; he was the only member of her family that still spoke to Karyn; either way, her mother had not reached out. Emma automatically opted to crush the feeble expectation that was rearing its head inside her. It was better this way. She wondered if it was possible for some women never to have learned how to love like a mother if their mother was absent for most of their life. It made sense. At the same time, it was somewhat assuring that Karyn was no mother of the year, and she turned out pretty okay. Even with all the drama, her selfish mother unfurled on her over the years; constant drinking, drugs, running away from home, disappearing for months at a time with her druggie friends; Emma managed. Never having met or known her father, she shuffled between the homes of her aunts’ and grandma’s; graduated high school, made it through college, held a job in marketing in a publishing firm, and even managed to marry Jim. All hope wasn’t lost for Bella.
The gloomy clouds hanging over her grew darker in the following weeks of isolation. The effort to pretend everything was alright consumed most of what little energy she had. It was an award-worthy performance she put on with Jim’s parents and their friends on zoom calls. When the camera stopped and Jim closed the door of his study, she curled on the bed, fell asleep fantasizing about waking up in different places on earth, from deserted islands to remote, snow-covered mountain tops, frolicking with David and leave this all behind.
One unremarkable afternoon like many others before it, Emma realized she had not taken a shower in probably a week, and poor Jim had not even said anything. She must have reeked. The baby needed a bath as well so she decided to get Bella in the bathtub with her. Jim took a break, undressed, and handed Bella over to Emma, who was already soaking.
"Do you need help? I have a zoom call, but I can push it back if you need me?”
"No, said Emma. "Go ahead; I have been doing this for weeks now. I am a pro. I will call you when I am done with her.”
He gave her a quick peck on the lips and went into his office.
With Bella resting on her chest, sucking her thumb, Emma drizzled the warm water on the baby’s back with her cupped hand. Bella seemed to unwind, wiggled less, cooing, and enjoying the warmth of the bubbly liquid and Emma’s skin. At least one of them found this skin to skin contact pleasant. It was curious how the gentle pressure of the smallest body resting on her made her feel anchored and plummeting down like a sinking boulder in the ocean. The sweet smell of the baby seemed to go through Emma like water through a sieve. Yet, she stayed put because she did not want Bella to cry. Whatever it took the keep her quiet and relish a few more minutes of peace. Bella cooperated as if she could sense how exhausted her mother was feeling, and soon she started napping as Emma gently soaped and massaged her. Breathing in the silence, nothing but the rush of the water from the faucet, Emma’s body gave in, and she closed her eyes. Eventually, giving in to the warmth of the water, her arms relaxed, and the baby slid down her breasts, through her legs, underwater.
Within what should have been a few seconds, Emma woke up to a feeling of a slimy form sliding, bouncing and squirming around her legs. It took her a bit to realize that she was not holding the baby anymore. Bella was submerged, wiggling in the water, eyes, and fists shut tight, legs flailing, opening and closing her tiny mouth like a fish. She looked at the baby underwater for a second with a callous numbness. In that millisecond, she thought, "What if I leave her there, pretend I did not wake up in time? No one would know, and everyone would understand. New mother, exhausted, tired…" She could go back to her life as she knew it.
At that instant, Bella opened her eyes and locked her gaze into hers as if to say, "Get it together, woman!" Emma felt something was deeply wrong inside of her, and it needed urgent care. She yanked the baby out of the water and jumped over to the bathroom floor. The baby coughed and sputtered; luckily, she was still breathing. Emma's heart was racing, as they both shivered. She could not believe that she had paused before saving her own child from drowning. The horror of realizing she was, in essence, a bad person, came over her in waves. “You are a selfish, cruel, worthless asshole! You don’t deserve this baby, none of this!” Years of therapy had not been enough; it seemed she hated herself with a new vengeance.
Water dripping from both of them, she wondered if she could ever make this up to her baby. It wasn’t Bella’s fault. It wasn’t her mother’s, or Jim’s or David’s. She was the one to blame. She knew having this baby was not going to be easy, yet she did it anyway, it was her and her responsibility only to make sure Bella was okay. She promised herself that she would make an appointment with her doctor, asap. Bella deserved a mother who at least attempted to take care of herself.
As both their heartbeats returned to normal, she pondered whether she should tell Jim what just happened. She could not right now. She could not risk having him think she was an unfit mother. Not until she spoke to her doctor, at least. Maybe this was better kept to herself. All that mattered now was that Bella was fine, and at the moment, she seemed to be.
Standing naked in front of that mirror, Emma realized that loving this baby would not come instantly or naturally, she was going to have to learn it, earn it, and practice it until it was perfect. For the first time in her life, she considered the possibility that her mother also tried, but she did not succeed. Maybe Karyn wasn't just the coldhearted monster that hated Emma as she had always believed her to be. Perhaps, she simply failed.
She grabbed the hanging towels from the rack, covered Bella, and herself, walked into the bedroom and yelled for Jim.
“Jim, the baby is ready for you!”