I am two weeks postpartum, sitting on the couch, nursing my newborn baby. Lifting my shirt and pulling out my breast is constant. It happens every hour, sometimes a little sooner. Nursing is how I count the minutes on the clock until my partner comes home in the evening, and there is someone to talk to again or to stare at besides the top of my baby’s strawberry-blonde haired scalp.
It is the middle of winter and often too cold and icy to walk the dirt roads we live on, in the small, rundown farm house we moved to just before I gave birth. So nursing, laundry, trying to fix myself a sandwich (a feat which I find nearly impossible) and sitting on ice packs, is how I piece together the slow urgency that is each day.
I know that I’m supposed to be happy to nurse my baby. So when I start to feel my heartbeat in my throat each time she screams her angry scream, I strip off my clothing and breathe deeply before I settle in. I remind myself of antibodies, gut bacteria, that my mother nursed both her children for the recommended six months in the 1980s. But I nurse so often that my nipples are completely white and peeling. My shoulders might be hunched permanently, and muscles in my back that I didn’t know I had are on fire. I am always thirsty and forgetting to pour myself a glass of water before I sit down, when it becomes too late.
I am glad I can nurse my baby and know that she is well-fed. I’m amazed that my body makes milk to feed her. But happiness at doing it, like my glass of water, just always feels out of reach.
This baby is literally sucking the life out of me, I think. She is sucking me dry. Or bleeding me dry, perhaps, because between oozing milk and pulling fat, soggy pads from my underwear, it’s a wonder my body has any fluids left at all. No one had told me I would bleed like this — this much, nor for this long. That my belly would clench with contractions for days and weeks after delivery each time my daughter sucked.
Because I haven’t left the house since coming home from the hospital, today I make plans with myself. When I am finished nursing the baby, I tuck my breast away and then bundle her up to go for a walk. I zip up my oversized jacket, pull on gloves and boots. As I’m dressing myself, every few moments, I have to stop to calm my daughter’s persistent shrieks at being put down. I put her on my shoulder and she instantly spits-up. It runs down the back of my hair and onto the floor. I clean up the mess, then change her diaper and put her in a warm bodysuit and tiny purple hat that my friend’s mother knitted. I strap my baby into the car seat and clip the car seat into the stroller. I drape blankets around her and tuck her in.
By the time we are ready to walk out the door, it has been 45 minutes since the last time my breast was out. My daughter is kicking her legs and wailing. She is hungry again, so I strip off all my layers, unwrap her, and collapse onto the couch. The phone is ringing; it’s a friend I once talked to daily. But I am not sure what to say to her now. I have no spare hands to hold the phone. I stare at it vibrating on the edge of the couch until it falls to the floor.
When my daughter begins to nap in longer spurts, I start logging onto my old desktop computer that sits in the corner of the bedroom. It barely connects to the internet, but sometimes, I open blank documents and type meandering thoughts and half-sentences about the shape of my life. I am not ready to share my writing with the world. Instead, I post pictures with witty captions on a baby blog that only my family reads. I keep the language upbeat so they don’t think I’m ungrateful.
I scroll through Facebook and see smiling faces, hands holding drinks and cigarettes. Friends that used to belong to me, laughing and hugging one another. Sometimes, I talk to them on the internet, but I have a terrible suspicion that they feel the same way about me that I do about them. I was the first one to have a baby, and the distance between us feels like a betrayal, only neither of us is sure who did the betraying.
My friends who don’t have children are my only friends, and I am trying desperately to cling to them, only I am not who they imagine me to be. They picture a new mother swooning over her child, endlessly fulfilled and magically reborn. Sometimes I play the part, but not always.
On when days I’m feeling brave, I take my baby to a nearby park. There are always groups of parents who all seem to know one another. I hear them chatting about meet-ups and mommy exercise classes. They are five or 10 or 15 years older than I am, and when I introduce myself, someone usually asks if I am my daughter’s babysitter. Meanwhile, my friendships with my old friends exist in surface conversations and rare, brief outings. When I run home to tend to the baby, they ask why, and the mere question devastates me.
Of all the many things I didn’t anticipate about new parenthood, this loneliness that clutches me like my baby to my chest is the most jarring. I find myself staring out the window frequently. I realize I am waiting desperately for my baby’s father to come home. I hate how much I need him. I resent my baby for making me need him more than I wanted to need anyone.
Still, when I hear his old Jeep rumble into the driveway, often after dark, I can finally breathe. Until morning, it is not just me and my baby. I am not a lonely new mother, seeping sadness out through her pores. So I make dinner and feign a smile when he asks what we did today. I can never decide if it was one-thousand tiny things, or nothing at all.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.