I was partially ejected from a M939 five-ton truck during a routine convoy. There was no forewarning. The truck turned left, displacing its weight to the right side. I leaned into the panel and, as it detached from the truck, I started to as well. My eyes tracked left, expecting to meet a fellow airman’s questioning glance. Instead, I saw the M939’s rear dual tires lurching toward me, the tread only inches from my face. The weight of my gear shoved me further out, bending my back the wrong way. My thighs squeezed tightly around the bench, the only thing keeping my legs from exiting the cargo bed like the rest of me. My experience of childbirth bears an alarming resemblance to my injury.
The trauma of childbirth comes with pain management options; however, I felt that if I chose anything other than ‘natural,’ I would be judged. I should be strong enough to endure this, too. Had I not experienced enough pain in war?
Pregnancy is the preamble to childbirth, and ultimately to motherhood. Whether you enter motherhood a willing participant or unexpectedly, you imagine what life will be like once the baby is earth-side. Some, I’m told, imagine beautiful scenes. My pregnancy reminded me of the time between the moment I learned I was going to war and the morning I deployed. In both contexts, I envisioned apocalyptic scenarios in which the world I knew had vanished. The vanished world is the veteran’s and the mother’s own.
The point of the military is to safeguard our freedom. Yet, enlistment is the relinquishing of freedom. You are owned. You are ordered. You have no free will. Everything you do, everywhere you go must be authorized. After four years, when my enlistment ended, I knew freedom again. I didn’t anticipate its untimely murder by motherhood.
Before I met them, I knew the lives of my comrades who I would deploy with depended on my actions. I didn’t know them, I didn’t love them, but I felt the need to care for them. It is the same with my tiny son. I feel the need to care for him, but I’m afraid I don’t yet love him. I think, I hope, love comes later.
A friend I served with posted a picture online of the two of us graduating basic training. My hair was tight and hard, the tail of it rolled up in a doughnut-shaped sock and secured with bobby pins. I smile like a Child of Llullaillaco, drugged with maize beer and coca leaves, unaware I’ve been chosen for sacrifice, allowed to freeze on top of the mountain, beneath the ground. The picture resembles one of the well-preserved Inca mummies. The death of my pre-war self is frozen in time. I’m exposed, open to the elements and the scrutiny of others. If I were lucky, I’d mourn myself only this once, but motherhood sacrifices me again.
When I enlisted in the military, I had to wait six months before leaving for basic training. Every morning I expected to run away somewhere the Air Force couldn’t find me. I imagined refusing to ship out to the military entrance processing station. I fanaticized about failing my run time on purpose, or smoking pot before a mandated urine test. When I learned I was pregnant, I waited to feel that same urge to plot my escape—an escape from myself, from motherhood. I waited to feel surrounded, like I’d gone AWOL, like a fugitive.
In basic training, Reveille flooded the speakers in my barracks at 0400. I still recoil at the sound of it in movies or on a civilian’s cell phone. Now, brightly colored toys that make animal noises and play chirpy music litter my living room. My mother visits and sings nursery rhymes. My husband comes home from work and plays “Elmo’s Song” through the surround sound. This is the new soundtrack of Hell.
An actress was quoted saying, “Before you were conceived, I wanted you. Before you were born, I loved you. Before you were an hour, I would die for you.” When I found out I was pregnant, I called you a parasite.
When I came home from war, I felt relief. Now that I’m home after childbirth, I’m still waiting for relief. War ends. Motherhood does not.
Am I happy? I don’t know. I thought motherhood would make me unhappy, so I’m satisfied with my ambivalence. I just don’t know if everyone else is.
I’ve never witnessed a mother in the early weeks of motherhood. I don’t know what it looks like to be successful in those weeks, or to fail. I take comfort that the only measurement for success is whether the child has survived.
Each night I wish my noisy sleeper to slumber soundly and for longer, because his squeaks wake me. When he’s quiet and still, I panic that he’s dead. It seems I’ll never sleep.
In my twenties, I tempted danger. I thought that was the point of the decade. This meant exploring dangerous cities, men, drugs—the typical things that caused loved ones to intervene and keep me from coming undone. Yet what has undone me the most is motherhood. I wait for the intervention.
The positive pregnancy test instantly accepted me into an exclusive club. But no one told me where its members meet.
Without medical photography, my herniated disks go visually unnoticed. The civilian neurosurgeon I was ordered to visit following my five-ton accident compares my spinal disks to a jelly donut. He shows me an MRI of my lumbar and points out where the soft center was pushed out through a tear in the exterior. It vexes nearby nerves. The trauma impacted my vertebrae, causing fractures and dislocations. Because it wasn’t tended to promptly, my spine, once perfect and straight, will forever boast an abnormal inward curve.
Once I was blank, smooth as marble. Now my veins show more prominently through my translucent skin—a big blue highway crisscrossing my body. My arms, more muscled from holding the child, picking him up, rocking him. My breasts, thighs and hips are etched with striae, a souvenir of the last trimester, declarative of the transformation.
I volunteered for Iraq, but that didn’t make the day I left any less terrifying. I feared it and sensed it drawing closer, closing in. Unlike war, I didn’t volunteer for motherhood. It came hurtling, like a bomb—a damning impending reality.
The morning I left for Iraq, I was surprised at my calmness, the world’s stillness. I floated within it, in an airy limbo. The realization that I could die didn’t escape my notice. I planned for that reality, I made peace with it. The morning I lost my mucus plug, I panicked as if at the end of my life. Birth had me within its sights.
Each stateside airport I stopped at on route to Iraq, dragging bursting duffle bags, civilians would smile and thank me. They offered to help me, to buy me drinks. Packing for an outing with the baby is not unlike packing for war. In the grocery store people fuss and sigh and roll their eyes at the double bulk.
I was stationed outside of Balad. The land, save the Joint Base and a small patch of dryland crops, was empty. I wasn’t permitted to leave. The desert was an un-traversable plain. The baby, the very thing the What to Expect books puffed about filling my life, makes the day devoid of landmarks, of mile markers that tell what distance and in which direction I’m going.
Before I exited the C-130 cargo plane, the air was hot. I had arrived in Iraq. I thought little about the country we brought war to. I contemplated the offering I made with my body, the ultimate sacrifice it could pay. My thoughts were only of myself. On the perimeter of base, I witnessed a farmer and his wife and their small boy. They appeared non-threatening but their mere presence was. With weapons pointed at them, the farmer heedlessly ploughed his thirsty crops, while the woman crouched and held her child to her heart. She rested her cheek upon his head, enfolding him, protecting him with her whole body.
The military dismissed me when I was deemed medically unfit for service. Once out, I was forgotten. Why then did it come as such a surprise that the world would forget me once his body left mine? The transfer of significance was complete.
My back injury disabled me. I could barely walk when I returned stateside. I endured months of physical therapy and years of learning how to walk and sit so that I wouldn’t aggravate the damaged discs and flawed curvature of my spine. I finally learned to manage, to tolerate. It had been years since I was so incapacitated. After fifteen minutes, eight pushes, voided and sutured, I was once again disabled.
The fact is that I know neither what it is to be a veteran nor to be a mother. I do both clumsily and unconfidently. Both are deep and dark and without limit. I’m split in two.
Linea nigra, a dark vertical line, appeared on my abdomen during pregnancy. It has paled over these postpartum months, but a faint line remains. My doctor explained that the brownish streak came from increased hormones made by the placenta, which she said is normal. Still, she is surprised that the line hasn’t disappeared by now. It looks like the place where I was split and my two halves glued together.
The baby stakes his claim on me the same as the military. I am their object, one they enslave at their will.
Every few months stateside my squadron would test our preparedness by initiating an accountability check at 0400. In theatre, I was required to attend our daily Intel brief at 0600. I regarded each time ‘too fucking early.’ Upon my separation from the military, I was grateful I would never again be forcibly awakened so early.
The baby’s roar reminds me of midnight mortars. It is the sort of sound that springs you from deep sleep to full activity. Both cause me to leap from my bed. The difference is I can no longer hide under my bottom bunk for cover.
If nothing else, I thought the fact of my deployment, the fact of war, made me courageous. My courage shrivels when left alone with my newborn son. I feel frightened for him, for me.
In planning for my deployment, I prepared my will. In the 1500s, most women wrote their wills once they learned they were pregnant. War and pregnancy/childbirth are, it turns out, similarly dangerous, though the organizations who measure these experiences statistically point to childbirth as the far more fatal of the two.
When I returned from Iraq, I was confined to my bed. I would rise long enough to relieve myself. I’d stand in front of the mirror attempting to recognize the body reflected. My pre-war self sulked behind me—an unhappy shadow. I was undone by war, transformed. Society accepted and celebrated my undoing. Parturition undoes me again. This time I’m told I can begin to exercise six weeks postpartum. My body, which has been through two kinds of violence, feels a new shame, a pressure to transform once again into my pre-maternal self.
Post-war bedrest threatened to madden me. It was a quiet imprisonment. I listened hard to hear footsteps from the outside world. With nowhere else to go, I would dive deep into the depths of myself. I ached for a different view, a new place. The baby confines me again. But instead of exploring myself, I imagine him grown up, breaking beyond the borders of my body, experiencing his own life and loves. He contains the world. Confinement becomes freedom.
At six weeks, I’ve barely dipped a toe into the waters of motherhood and yet I’m expected to be firmly rooted in it. I’m told, at this time, I can resume sex. My vagina is still healing from pushing a human out of it, and I’m not in the right mental state to be naked in a sexual way. My breasts do not exist for the stimulation of my partner. They are the conduits for milk; they support life. My vagina is no longer a sexual organ, but the pathway earth-side. Intimacy is not scheduled for the enjoyment of the mother, but for the father.
In Iraq, I worked as a surveillance and radar technician, keeping a watchful eye on the sky. I was required to be on the flight line from 0600 to 1800 hours—a twelve-hour work day—but I was only permitted to sit on scope for three hours at a time. Though highly trained, any more time and my vigilance was considered compromised. I enter motherhood completely unqualified and sleep-deprived, fulfilling the crucial role of keeping the child alive. My new position is more distressing than safeguarding a nation.
In the military, my station was low. Officers and non-commissioned officers were appointed over me; their commands were non-negotiable. I yielded to them. Rank was simple. As the most senior between us two—myself and the baby—I think I must have command. I have been here longer, I am larger, I have power over his diminutive body. Still I yield to another’s requirements. He tests the limit of my patience. I don’t know what will happen.
When I enlisted, I made the conscious decision to relinquish my needs and wants. For four years, I resigned myself to the needs of the military. The advantage of my enlistment was that, if I survived it, a release awaited me. I left a crippled version of myself, but I was comforted and thanked and looked after to recuperate, if only temporarily. After pushing a body out of my own, my son was handed to me. The release my body knew was his—from the confines of my uterus. My body was instantly and once again put to work, this time to breastfeed. His needs and wants rival my own and as he draws from my breast, I’m confronted with the damning realization that I’ll never be released from motherhood, that’ll I’ll have no reprieve, no recuperation.
Once home from war and separated from the military, I would meet with friends, distracted, constantly surveilling the perimeter for quick exits and potential bunkers. We convened at an impassable border between the civilian and the veteran worlds. The closed regime of motherhood creates a new partition.
I anticipate and fear his appetite. It renders me static, pinioned to my couch, my bed, his rocking chair, nursing him, or trying to nurse him as his soft form stiffens and yowls escape the red cave that is his mouth. Rejected and demanded, by duty and by body, I am bound here. I search for the familiar concern revealed to me in my post-war bed. For this new confinement, there is none.
Both the military and the baby are irritants. Complaining about either is taboo. Natural pearls form from irritants. He is a parasite that has worked its way into my hull. Nacre releases and coats the irritant, layer upon layer, until it lusters, a pearl of pleasure.
The baby’s father feeds him my pumped milk. With these few minutes, I decide to take a shower. I plan not to think of the baby, or anything. As soon as I am aware of my solitude, the water hits me squarely on my cracked nipples. It bites at me like a bloodworm extending its edged proboscis; four hollow jaws chaw at my wounds. I retreat to the back of the shower. Shielding my breasts behind crossed arms, I cry. Even during a brief reprieve from the baby’s mouth, something is always feeding on me.
A mother’s sleep, in these early months, is not meant for her. Sleep is only allowed for the continued care of the baby.
The pediatrician’s office feels like a military entrance processing station, the doctor looking for conditions that disqualify an applicant for service. She tells me the baby has laryngomalacia. The soft, undeveloped cartilage of his upper larynx collapses inward during inhalation, causing a creaking, grating noise. This is the reason he is so noisy when he sleeps. She says it is common and will go away in time, with no medical interference necessary. She assures me there’s nothing I could have done differently to prevent it, and there’s nothing I should do besides continuing to monitor him.
At the same checkup, the pediatrician says the baby is under the weight and height targets for his age group. She tells me to make sure he’s getting at least twenty-four ounces per day. During our first appointment, when I asked her how I can be sure that he’s getting enough, she said, “Your body will make exactly what he needs.” Again, I ask, “How can I tell if he’s getting enough?” She suggests supplementing with formula.
It doesn’t escape my attention that my son’s doctor ignored my question. I have the urge to point this out to her, but I don’t. Breastfeeding and pumping have been even more arduous and unfulfilling than my deployment to Iraq. They’ve taken more from my body, and left me with less to measure the success of my effort. I anticipated this new grim and forbidding expedition the moment the delivery nurse placed the baby on my chest. In those early days of motherhood, I touted reasons for nursing. I would say, “Breast milk is more digestible than formula, it contains immunities to diseases, breastfeeding promotes bonding…” I still believe in breastfeeding, but the truth is I hate it. That is why I didn’t challenge the pediatrician’s recommendation to supplement with formula.
Driving to the store for formula feels like driving into the Philadelphia Badlands for drugs. I’m unwilling to pick up the paraphernalia in person. Instead, I order tins of powdered formula online. When they arrive, I’m surprised to find I’m more anxious to mix and feed my child formula in public than I was to breastfeed him. I am, in fact, so embarrassed of formula feeding that I threaten my husband not to tell anyone. I demand we make bottles ahead of time, hoping those around us will assume the milk is from my pumped supply. We are only supplementing, after all.
Due to formula feeding, I should have pumped more. I knew this, yet I pumped less. The unfed milk spoiled in my breasts. I performed self-care and unplugged my ducts, only to developed a cold. I took the pharmacist-recommended cold medicine. My milk supply dried up entirely. I attempted to re-lactate. It was worse than breastfeeding. I decided to stop pumping and nursing all together. I decided to forgo breastfeeding for a different reason than I admitted for supplementing. Supplementing would help the baby to thrive. Stopping entirely (although I will continue to blame the ill advice of the pharmacist and the result of cold medicine for the halt in production) would return me to myself. The return was familiar, like my homecoming from war. I was back, but only as a vague version of myself.
While celebrating my arrival back, a new shame intercepts me. Although the baby’s father fed him my pumped milk via bottle before, the fact that he can feed him without any involvement from me feels like an infidelity. Before, when he bottle-fed the baby, he did so with my say-so. He was my foot soldier, carrying out important work, but the milk served arrived through me. I was the authority. My rank has fallen.
I used to flinch when the baby tucked his head toward me, rooting for my nipple. It was not unlike the often times my damaged discs flare up, and send a sharp, shooting pain down the long sciatic nerve. I wince with each step. But if I’m careful, if I’m intentional with every movement and position, if I allow myself few moments of rest, I’m virtually whole again.
Rumpus original art by Adreinne Travis.