My mother-in-law bought me a sturdy, wooden stool right after I gave birth to Chi. When we came home from the hospital, I found the stool waiting in my room. The seat was small and square, as though it built was to fit a child’s buttocks. To achieve a proper sitting position on it, I was required to press my legs together and tighten my butt to fit into this small space. And Mama, as we fondly call her, was always hovering by, always begging me to sit properly, so I wouldn’t end up like those women with “noisy vaginas.”
There was an old tale about such women: they were lazy mothers who did not sit on sturdy stools and tighten their butts, who let their bodies spoil and droop, which was why they involuntarily passed gas, and why their husbands chased after small girls with firm bodies. So Mama threw a fit whenever I sat on soft things like my bed or the sofa, because she believed that these would ruin my healing process and make my vagina flatulent.
I loved that I had women who hovered around me, who worked to make my body heal. I loved the way they cared for my baby, the way my mother bathed me and massaged my body with hot water and prepared my meals, how she brought me the stool each time I needed to sit, each time I woke from sleep. But I always sat on it with just one buttock, because, you see, sitting had become the most difficult thing to do in the world.
After Chi was born, a nurse took her aside to check her for respiratory distress, and the senior nurse, who we called Matron, scooted my butt close and began to clean me up. She said I had a tear and that she would have to stitch me up. It would hurt, she assured, but she would administer some drugs that would help me through the procedure. I bobbed my head, half-listening to her, because I was watching as the other nurse worked on my baby. Labor had been long and winding. After Chi was pulled out, the only things I wanted to do were to hold her and to sleep.
Matron stabbed a syringe into my thigh and I barely twitched. When she got a thread and needle and began to sew my episiotomy, the thread which she said would melt away in a few days, I felt a new rush of pain—it was so numbing, so sharp. But I clamped my lips shut; I would not cry again, I promised myself, because my throat was already hoarse after three days of crying, and my body was tired and sore. “We are going to tidy up this place and repair it for your husband,” Matron said as she stitched me up, often looking up to give me a reassuring smile. I bobbed head and twitched and shifted, and all the while she offered comforting words and said she would soon be done. She was done in minutes.
Matron had said that I would heal in a few days. Sit on salted, warm water every morning and evening, she said. Drink these drugs and you will be fine, she said. She packed my drugs and stuffed them into a polythene bag. My first act at home was to prepare the warm, salty bath and sit in it until the water cooled. My husband G had telephoned my parents, and my mother had already boarded a bus from Kano. So, Mama was around first to take care of me. She set the stool in the middle of my room and carried Chi, who had woken with her usual cry. Getting off the now-cold basin of salty water splotched with blood was tough, and walking back to my room terrified me. I had a nagging fear that I would slip and fall and my stitches would unravel and I would have to return to the hospital and undergo another excruciating sewing. So, I placed one foot after the other until I got to the room, where Mama’s stool waited. My sister-in-law Uzo arrived shortly with a flask full of nsala soup filled with an assortment of meat and okporoko and azu mangala.
Uzo is tall and slim, full of life and chatty. She was the one who brought the light into the room and turned heads at ceremonies, and I was the shy, laid-back one who watched the world from the periphery. She had given birth to her son the year before but had a body that belied her experience; her stomach was so flat, her chest full and perky. She sensed my wariness, saw how I perched on one buttock, and said that the pain would soon go away. I wanted to tell her to shut up. What did she know about having episiotomy? Her son had weighed nearly five kilograms and Uzo emerged from the operating room, after a ridiculously short labor, without any tear.
When my mother arrived the next day, she gathered me in her hands and allowed me to sit on the bed, but not for too long—just long enough to ease the pain licking at the seams of my mind. She let me stretch out on the bed for long hours. All she had to say was, “You will be fine, ada m, I am here,” and I’d break into a snotty cry. I was still aching but her words temporarily suspended this pain that had denied me a chance to enjoy all the good food I was given. The mangala and okporoko, cooked so tender that they broke easily in my mouth. The not-too-hot soups, spiced with uziza and utazi and uda, which I drank perfunctorily to help with my postnatal shedding. The freshly tapped palm wine, bought from tappers at Osisioma, which filled my breasts quickly with milk and caused Chi to choke when she lapped greedily at my nipples, which gushed like burst pipes. The bottles of Guinness Stout diluted with Maltina, which my mother believed would help with digestion. The endless supply of sweet oranges, pressed and served in tall glasses, which eased my horrifying constipation.
I sat with one buttock and ate these meals and drank these drinks, and they traveled down my throat, tasting like old paper. My stitch soon healed, the thread breaking away, and I no longer needed to sit awkwardly.
But I suppose there is something about old pain that forces you to distance yourself from what you love, from those you love. Two months after Chi was born, I still did not want anything to do with sex; I did not even want to hear the word. And all this was because a few days after Chi was born, I had taken a small mirror and placed it between my legs, and peeped at my stitching. Big mistake. The jagged, bloody swollenness that stared back at me haunted my memory for months.
G had been lurking round, providing for our family and wearing a polite, nervous smile, but he soon began to grow restless. In the evenings, after I showered and while my mother tended to my daughter, he would appear at my door and ask to speak with me privately in his room, and I would press my knees shut, pace my breathing, and tell him to say whatever he wanted to say right there, in my mother’s presence. I avoided his room like it was plagued. Two months had passed since I gave birth to my daughter, but my stitches still twitched when I walked past his room, whenever I saw the longing pooling in his eyes.
One evening he did not bother coming into my room; he just stood in the hallway and called my name and I drew my ears shut and concentrated on breastfeeding my daughter. The evening before, he had brought home gifts of clothes and shoes and asked me to come see them but I stayed with my mother, who was amused by the drama playing out before her. She nudged me and said I could go to him, and I that didn’t need to do anything I didn’t want to do. “You have to get an IUD inserted before anything,” she warned, and I threw my hands around her shoulders and buried my head against her neck, glad that she understood my wariness. When I broke the hug, I called out G’s name and said I couldn’t come to him, and could he please come to my room because I was breastfeeding our daughter. He grudgingly walked in with the gifts.
Finally, I went to him. Picture me there in his room, so wide and bright, with a tall wardrobe that still held all my pre-maternity clothes. On the wall was our wedding photograph and the customized wall clock which was emblazoned with our pre-wedding photo, given to us by his cousin Chukwudi on our wedding day. By the side of his bed were the stacks of novels that I had carefully arranged beside his Bible and magazines. We had shared this bed every day and night until I went into labor. My room had merely been a storeroom for my belongings that I couldn’t fit into his wardrobe.
Now, I stood before him, clasping and unclasping my hands, and he sat at the edge of the bed, looking up at me with the miserable look of one abandoned by the love of his life. I could feel the sweat starting to drip under my arms as he reached out to touch my arm, muttering sweet nonsense about how he had missed me, how he barely slept each night, that he always gazed at the ceiling until his eyes grew tired, and the room was often cold even though he slept in his pajamas and pulled the duvet over his body. He was saying these things that burrowed through my carefully built wall, and soon was I sitting beside him, and then I was touching his face.
My mother was still awake that night at ten or so when I returned and slipped into bed beside her. She did not ask why I had taken hours, and she did not ask if I had heard when Chi woke with a cry. She only turned to look at my face, which was beaded with sweat, and asked if I was well. There was a pulsing ache where my stitches had healed, which seemed now like it was about to split open. I told her about the pain, and worry creased her brow. She got up and went to prepare me a warm, salty bath, then guided me to the bathroom and stood by the door as I sat in the comforting warmth. She was worried that I was in pain again, and suggested that I visit the hospital the next day to have the doctor check me out. I shook my head and said no. I said the pain was perhaps because it had been a long time since I had sex. That, perhaps, my body was relearning what it meant to endure vigorous friction.
The ache did not go away for a long time, and I did not tell anyone for fear that I would be taken into that operating room, made to lie down and spread my legs open again, and made to undergo yet another agonizing stitching. Sex became a tedious activity, and I was always counting time, always waiting for G to be done with his business so I could would be free to sit in a warm bath (if the ache pulsed), or free to leave and return to my daughter’s side.
When a relative gave birth to a son a year later, I visited her with a flask of nsala soup. She was going through the same pain I had experienced, and when she could not endure it any further, she returned to the hospital for a check. “The doctor said the nurse stitched me too tight,” she told me afterward. She said they loosened the extra stitch, and soon she began to heal properly. It was then that I began to wonder about the discomfort I felt, wondering if it was caused by an extra stitch. But I did not worry too long; I was heavy with child again, counting down the days to due date.
On the morning I gave birth to my second daughter, Som, a nurse told me that I had a small tear. I told her not to stitch me too tight, that I suspected that the previous matron had given me an extra stitch the first time. The nurse called this a terrible and crude practice. She drew her needle and thread and began to stitch. I trained my eyes on Som, whose lusty cries carried back to me from outside of the operating room, and wondered about the horror waiting for me when I went home to Mama’s sturdy stool.
Many new mothers have re-envisioned the purpose of the stool to be about a more positive ritual. To some, it is the equivalent of Kegel exercises. To others, it is just something they do to humor their aged mothers who had done the same, as a sort of rite of passage. Still another set of women worry that their husbands will never find them sexy again if they don’t go through with using the stool.
For all those weeks during my first pregnancy I didn’t want to become one of those women whose husbands philandered unapologetically because they no longer found their wives appealing. These women were the lazy mothers, waddling up and down the street with bloated uteruses and deformed pelvis muscles, passing gas involuntarily when they walked or sat. They cowered from the judgmental eye of society, were spat on for not doing what they were supposed to do, were called bad role models for their unfortunate daughters. I could never be one of them, I thought. I had embraced a myth that made excuses for terrible men and blamed women for various postpartum complications.
But then I had given birth to Chi and gone through a long period of personal crisis. I had been torn and then cinched so tight that it hurt to walk. My pain was so bad that the very thought of defecating brought hot tears to my eyes, because pregnancy changes the lower intestine and ruins the usual flow of feces.
So when Som came, I was—for the very first time—not worried about the tightness or slipperiness of my vagina wall, not worried if I could still clench it around G’s penis. I worried, instead, about my body melting away. I was afraid of a new, strange body growing in its place. I was worried about my stitches, jagged like the thorns on Jesus’s head, exploding into a thousand needles of pain when I squatted to pee or defecate. I worried about sitting in a bowl of salty, warm bath until the water turned to wine. I worried about the constipation that came post-childbirth, how I sat on the toilet bowl for hours, heaving and crying and willing my fat dry shit into something watery, afraid that the mere act of defecating would result in an outright uterine prolapse and the absolute destruction of my vagina, perineum, and anus. I worried about the cups of freshly pressed oranges I drank to sooth my beleaguered bowel. I worried about Som’s frequently soiled diapers, that my breast milk had turned her stomach and made her sick.
Sex had become an unpleasant thing, and G struggled to understand this change, his body rippling with frustration. I crawled away from his touch, the very idea of sharing a bed causing spittle to fill my mouth, as if my body was forever repulsed by the idea of physical intimacy. I worried that I no longer knew myself. I worried that no one cared about this change I was undergoing because everyone was so focused on preparing my body for G’s enjoyment.
When Som turned a month old, I took a cutlass to Mama’s sturdy stool and hacked it into pieces. This tool of torture, this reminder that I would always be expected to fold myself into shapes and make myself small. I smashed it, gathered the sticks under a tripod, doused them with kerosene, and lit a match. I cooked a pot of jollof rice on that fire. When the food was done, I quenched the embers and set the charcoal in the sun to dry. The following day, I gathered the residue on a gauzy tripod and lit a fire, atop which I prepared a pot of nsala soup, letting the spicy deliciousness cook until the embers dissolved to ashes. I later sprinkled the ashes on the earth around our guava trees to keep ants and weevils at bay.
Once the stool turned to ash, these myths no longer loomed over me. It was arduous learning to work with my new body, to accept it. It would take many years, but I’ve now come to think of my scars as a precious reminder of the power I am capable of, a shift from dispossession to strength.
One morning I placed a mirror between my legs and gazed at my souvenir, and I began to cherish the jagged scar running from my perineum into my anus, this reminder that I had squeezed three human beings out without shattering, and that these human beings have become beautiful and smart sixteen-, fifteen-, and twelve-year-olds, my children whom I love with a tenacity that borders on obsession.
I like gazing at the bold marks below my abdomen, the droops of my breasts, the folds of my waist. I have learned to cherish every change each childbirth wreaked on my body—my retroverted uterus, the repositioning of my cervix, these rearrangements and their subsequent complications, every mutilation. The reason I felt so dispossessed all those years was because I had internalized the myth that segregates women who suffer postpartum complications and dismisses them as weak. The myth of the “lazy mothers.” But my body was never weak. She was never lazy, and now I am discovering her new beauty.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.