She hated the child, unfortunately, the moment she saw it. It was small and red and mewling, but that wasn’t it; there wasn’t any specific detail about the child that bothered her. She could not say there was anything wrong with it. She had never been squeamish; it wasn’t the blood or viscera that covered the child, that the nurses wiped down with a towel before handing the child to her. They counted the child’s toes in front of her, then the fingers. “She’s exhausted,” said one of the nurses. They took the child away, wrapped in a cloth.
Had she believed that once it was born, she would feel differently about it than she had during the months prior?
No, that’s not right: there were moments, weren’t there, when it was still inside her (she tries, and rejects, the phrase “a part of her”) when she felt a kind of affection towards it, this other being, this passenger, this alien. For example: one evening, sitting in the swing that hung from the roof of their back deck, three stories above the ground, her shoes off, brushing the floor of the deck with the toe of one foot, coming off, touching again, a light repeated momentum; and she looked at the lights of other houses, the train passing by on the elevated tracks in the distance, the whole sense of the city around her, and she rested a hand on her stomach and felt as though she were contributing to the continuance of the world. In that moment it seemed to be enough.
There had been complications with the pregnancy. It was a breach birth. They had performed a C-section. The child was lifted out of her body by a doctor’s gloved hands, behind a screen that separated her face and chest from her too-open body below. The screen was paper, the same hospital-green as her gown. Now, in their apartment, she could feel the stitches pulling at her each time she breathed.
She had been told to press a pillow against the incision when she coughed or took a deep breath, to support the stomach. She found herself coughing more than she had expected.
It was the existence of the child that repulsed her. She waited to feel some kind of maternal affection. She had studied beforehand to prepare herself. She knew that the brains of new mothers often flooded with certain chemicals (Oxytocin, Phenylethylamine), the purpose of which was to cause them to forget the pain of childbirth and bond with their children. She imagined this as a sort of redemption, almost religious in nature, taking herself out of herself, displacing her ambition and selfishness, self-centeredness, with love.
She could not tell her partner that she did not love the child. Perhaps he felt it anyhow. Several times each day she placed the child on her chest for skin-to-skin contact. She held it there. Perhaps something would change.
She didn’t want anything to change. She understood it would be easier if she loved the child. But she did not want to love it.
She held the child to her chest, sitting on the living room couch, and thought about her intentions, about what she wanted: a sort of nautilus shell, each part replicating the whole, but itself infinitely divisible, ungraspable. She wanted to want to love the child, and she saw that want disappearing, slowly, along a long spiral, as she tested each “want” and found it give way to another: she wanted to want to want, etc.
Each detail of the child surprised her with its ugliness, even as she examined each and understood that each was perfectly normal. Other children were not more or less beautiful, uglier or less ugly than hers. But they were not hers. The force of the child’s existence in each of its parts, its fingernails, for example, or its squashed nose, the fold of fat at its knee, the violet-brown stump that hung from its belly waiting to fall off. The way its eyes, after several days, began to track wherever she moved. It seemed at times like a dead thing returned to place its claim on her.
At home she worked at her desk while the child slept, when it slept, in an adjoining room. She could glance up at it, from time to time, as she worked. She had agreed to work from home for the first several weeks after the birth, ostensibly to give herself time to rest. During those times when she left the house, her partner home watching the child, she felt first a sense of unbelievable freedom and then, almost as sudden, a growing dread that she would have to go back. The most mundane activities, going to the supermarket or the pharmacy, standing in line at the bank, picking up laundry, were colored by this sudden polarity. Occasionally at first she would make up errands so that she could experience that initial rush of leaving the house. After a time, however, because she knew how quickly the rush would turn to dread, she began to avoid leaving: the loss of freedom she experienced—or more precisely, the foreknowledge of that loss—seemed worse than not to experience the freedom in the first place. But then at times she couldn’t help it; she felt that she needed to leave the house immediately, the way a body feels after a certain period underwater that it must rise, no matter the consequences, and so she felt again the rush, and the immediate turning to dread.
Perhaps it would be easiest to call it postpartum depression, make an appointment with someone who could give it that name, render it abstract and known. She imagined this: for a time, perhaps weeks or even months, she could give over responsibility for the child entirely to her partner, to her parents, while she worked through (she thinks of the phrase in quotation marks, “worked through”) how she felt with a professional, someone with long fingers and eyelashes (where did this specific image originate?). She imagined a couch in an office building, a window too high to see out of, a box of tissues, a tiny bowl of plastic-wrapped mints. The feel of the mint in her mouth, the flat mint taste of it, as she rode the elevator back down to street level following her appointment. When she thought of this, she experienced the same promise of freedom that occurred in the first moments before she left the apartment; which meant, she understood, that the same dread would follow, as soon as she made the choice. And how much worse to have that dread of return last for months rather than, as now, a few hours?
She had been the one who insisted on keeping it when she got pregnant. She and her partner had talked about the possibility before; they had been together, dating, then married, long enough that it was impossible not to. These conversations never came to any firm conclusion. Her partner wanted a child. Or at any rate he was not opposed to it. He was good with children, the way that someone who always has the option of leaving them can be good with children. When she learned that she was pregnant, he told her he would support her if she wanted to get an abortion. That’s not right: he told her he would support her whatever she chose to do. They argued about this. I don’t want you to keep the child for me, for my sake. But what arrogance to think that she would. Why did she keep it then, and carry the child to term? Was she bitter that it was her decision and not his, that it would always be her decision? Was it spite? She doubted it, but it seemed interesting to think it might be. He had cheated on her once, years ago, and in revenge she had slept with someone else as well. From this she had learned the impossibility of balancing one’s own pain with another’s. Of canceling pain out like that. No amount of pain that one gave could ever equal the fact of being hurt. One observed the pain one gave in return as a reptile might, with a sort of animal coldness, while the initial pain remained as engulfing as ever.
She was old for a new mother, she knew, in historical terms. For her part, she had never been categorically opposed to the idea of having a child. It was in fact something she had supposed would happen at some unspecified further point, the way other transformative things might happen to her: old age, sickness, death. In this way she had assumed she would live out all parts of human life, without desiring in any exact moment to commit to them.
Sometimes, out on errands, she would begin walking in a direction marked in her mind as “away,” and for a time regain the feeling of freedom that she experienced and lost in the same moment she left the apartment. This could only be maintained so long as she did not allow herself to question what she was actually doing. As soon as the thought occurred to her that she was walking away from her life, all sense of freedom dissipated. She had no desire to leave her life. She loved her life: she loved her apartment, she was satisfied with her marriage and the neighborhood where she lived, she loved and was proud of her work (she was an editor at a well-regarded university press). She did not want to leave any of it.
She did not even, when it came down to it, want to leave her child. What did she want, concerning it? She wanted it not to exist. Not to stop existing. Nor for it not to have been born. To have been born and simultaneously not to exist, without entailing an end.
Or to exist in some way that its existence did not press itself so forcefully on her own whenever she looked at it, or heard some indication of its existence, or heard no indication of its existence for long enough that she could not prevent herself from going to check on it. There was something horrifying about its body, the fleshiness of it, the too-apparent creaturely desire. She thought of a diagram she had seen once of the embryological development of a series of animals—a fish, a salamander, a turtle, a piglet, a rabbit, a human being—each repeating the forms of the earlier animals in its development. Ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. She had asked her doctor about this early in the pregnancy, when the child was still, aside from the occasional nausea, an abstraction, and was told that it was rubbish. Still she had the sense of it growing from something unbearably ancient, one long prehistoric monster stretching back through herself and through her own parents (part of what horrified her was how she, too, was implicated in this sequence). She imagined she could see in its face traces of the forms it had passed through and shed.
At times while it slept she forgot what she was working on, and could only listen to it breathe. Other times she would go to look at it and feel herself becoming fascinated, as if standing at the edge of a building with the knowledge that she might at any moment throw herself down. Not that she wanted to, but fixed, swaying on her heels, with the knowledge that she might. She kept trying out the thought, as she looked in on the room: I am a mother. This didn’t seem to make any more sense than if she had insisted on thinking I am a hydrangea or I am a continental shelf. She didn’t take any pleasure in hating the child. If she had seen it in the arms of someone else, standing in line at the supermarket for example, she might have smiled at it, or at the very least felt indifference. It was the fact that it was hers that made her hate it, this claim that it had over her and her body. Perhaps part of it was the reminder that she had a body. She was happiest when she forgot this. The authors she worked with wrote about words like embodiment and thingliness, and in a theoretical sense, she understood them. She was raised Catholic, though she was no longer a believer. She had the sense, from her father, that Catholicism had less to do with what you believed than what you did: if you attended mass, made confession, did your penance, and so on. Faith, contra Protestantism, was too much to ask of human beings; acts were enough. This seemed like a kind of mercy.
Her partner kept a chair beside the child’s crib and would sit there at night, looking on as the child slept. He brought a book in with him, as though he had intended to read, but the book would remain on his lap, unopened. He showed affection to the child in a way that seemed, to her, more natural than her own mothering. He spoke, sometimes, in a low voice, the child in his arms. Things about the world the child was coming into: what an apartment was, how long they’d lived in it, how much city there was beyond its walls and how many people. She could not ask him whether he loved the child. To do so would be to open a breech, a chasm between them—or perhaps between herself and the realm of the human. It would be to imply the possibility that she might not.
And what if he said no? What if they stood there, the child asleep not ten feet away from them, admitting to each other that they did not love it, that they felt at best cold, at worst a creeping horror each time they thought about it, theirs? And what would change with this knowledge? Would they decide, each knowing now how the other felt, to get rid of it, to put it up for adoption? Of course not. They would raise it, each fulfilling their duty as best they could, perhaps at some point in the future beginning to take pride in the child, perhaps feeling affection for the person the child becomes, perhaps having learned who the child becomes feeling love for that person, though it couldn’t be called a parental love. But always with the memory of their conversation, a poison working its way through everything they felt for the child and each other.
Even if she grew to love the child, this knowledge of herself would lay beneath that love. And would this disgust remain, would she see how the stratum of the younger child remained beneath the face of the older, no matter how it changed? A reminder, visible only to her, of the monstrousness of its brute, dumb being and desire?
Yet she wanted to know whether her partner loved the child. Perhaps she wanted to feel herself accused by his love of what she was incapable of or incapable of wanting.
While she was pregnant they had lost the habit of having sex. They had tried, carefully, once or twice, since she had given birth. There was an awkwardness to it that caused her to wonder whether they could still be lovers. Being someone’s lover required an agency, a sense of one’s own individuality that could be eroticized in some way, objectifying and being objectified in its turn. To feel oneself a separate being from all the world, if only for a moment, and selecting, from all the world, one other separate being.
Their intimacy now consisted of a mute warmth, bodies next to each other. In the first several weeks after delivery, when the child had cried with colic, a terror of the world and an all-consuming need, she had been so tired that at times she wondered whether she was hallucinating, whether she had given birth at all. At times, as she lay in bed, it seemed that the child had been born dead, or, when the doctor had lifted it out of her, it had turned out to be something other than a child: she thought again of the developmental chart which the doctor had told her was rubbish, and this merged with a story she had heard once, on the radio or elsewhere, about the woman who had given birth to rabbits. Rabbits? her partner had murmured, likewise in a state ambiguously between sleep and wakefulness. It had seemed necessary to tell him then: I do not love rabbits. That’s fine, he had said, his mouth in the crook of his armpit, arm tucked under his head. And suddenly she was awake with the feeling that something had been destroyed, and could not remember whether she had said rabbits or our child, which in the half-dream were the same.
When did she first know the child was sick? It seemed she imagined the sickness before it began. A cough, among the other animal noises. A tablespoon, maybe more, of vomited milk. Then, early one evening, fever, difficulty breathing.
Her partner repeated, each time they took the child’s temperature, that low fevers are common in newborns, that it wasn’t necessarily anything to worry about. Still, they should take the child in to see the pediatrician in the morning.
That night, the child began to howl in a way it hadn’t before. She rose from bed and took the child from its crib, raised it to her breast, hoping it was hungry. She felt immediately the heat of the child with an intensity that repulsed her. It ignored her breast. Her partner had come with her, out of worry, and now stood at her side, asking questions she did not pay attention to. They dressed and drove with the child to the emergency room. It had stopped crying, and was now making small rattling sounds, seemed to be having difficulty taking in breath.
The doctors gave the child steroids and antiviral medication, and told her it would be best if they stayed at the hospital overnight.
A nurse-practitioner sat with her and her partner in another room, asked them questions (how old, when did you first notice), tried to reassure them both, but focusing always in particular on her, as the mother. The nurse-practitioner, a woman perhaps a decade older than her, had washed-out blond hair, and something about her face gave the impression that once upon a time she was very tan and had lost it, years ago, under the hospital’s florescent lights. She suspected, for inexact reasons, that the nurse-practitioner was a mother.
She toyed with the idea, as the nurse-practitioner spoke, that she herself was causing this sickness in her child. She thought of stories of mothers making their children sick, out of a pathological need for attention. She pictured herself dipping her finger in some toxic substance—house cleaner, perhaps—and touching it to the lips of the child, feeling the child’s mouth reflexively suckle. She imagined admitting to the nurse-practitioner, in front of her partner, that she had said spells over the child, that she had burned small fetishes in the child’s shape and buried the ashes.
Should she should be shocked at this, she wondered? Instead she felt anew how incredible it was that this world could exist inside her: the nurse-practitioner’s mouth opening in horror, her partner’s excuse—“You don’t mean that, of course she doesn’t mean that, she’s been under a great deal of stress”—even her own feeling of guilt in the situation imagined; and all of this while life continued as usual around her, the nurse-practitioner speaking, her partner speaking, her own face looking tired and concerned and making the appropriate noises in response to what the two other people in the room with her were saying.
During the next week, as the child recovered, friends came to visit them, couples who had children of their own, bringing food, saying, “We know how difficult it is at the beginning. And with a sick child!” She was polite. When appropriate—when it had happened previously as a greeting—she kissed the women twice, once on either cheek, and hustled them in to the living room. “He’s sleeping right now,” she told them, in a hushed voice, and they smiled and nodded, knowingly.
Once, years before she had met her current partner, she had driven by herself from the college she had attended in the Midwest to Nevada, out to the desert, because she could and because she had never seen it before. She found herself on a road where she was the only car for as far as she could see in either direction and she pulled over to the side of the road and left her car and, after a moment’s hesitation, began walking, out across the desert. She didn’t know what she was doing. She wanted to walk far enough that the sky and the desert were the only things she could see. She wanted to feel, for a moment, the danger that she might lose herself in it.
There was a wind; she could see her footprints being eroded even as she stood there. She hunched down, taking a kind of pleasure in them as they disappeared. It was not a desire for death, though she had never tried to explain this moment to anyone, afraid they would misinterpret it. When she tried to put it into words, she was invariably disappointed. Something like: the sense of being an individual in the midst of something so much larger. The desire to continue with that relationship, deepening it, step by step. What had pulled her back, finally, to her car? What had prevented her from continuing on, deeper into the desert? What had counteracted that longing?
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.