The fuck is your life

12Jul15

(All unreferenced quotes from Penelope Leach’s 1977 “Baby and Child”)

Birth feels like the climax to long months of waiting but it is not really a climax at all. You were not waiting to give birth, you were waiting to have a baby. Your labour has produced her and there is no rest-pause between the amazing business of becoming parents and the job of being them.

It’s a summer’s day, the back doors are open, a bee buzzes outside. I am lying on the bed while my mum and dad potter around the flat clearing up and Adam looks after our brand new baby, that is, holds her while she sleeps and makes sure she continues to be alive. A plane flies by in the distance; people are on it, going somewhere. The fact that the outside world continues to exist is infinitely shocking and comforting.

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There are things I haven’t noticed yet, that I will come to notice in the next few days, like: my daughter Rosa has a round wide face with the hint of being heart-shaped one day, and the best mouth I have ever seen, with a tiny cupid’s bow and the propensity to shape it into the sweetest o, all the time. Her limbs thrash around like she is conducting an orchestra, and she sometimes holds her fists in a comical squirrel-eating-nuts pose. She hiccups a lot.

The night after she was born I had a dream that she was lying looking at me and singing like a little bird in a high sweet voice with her little o mouth. I will need to hold onto this dream in the coming weeks, the idea that she will be a person, and not just this thing which, although strange and sweet and miraculous, could not be loved yet, because what the absolute fuck has happened to us and our lives?

During this settling period don’t torment yourselves by expecting love. Love will come but it will take time … You cannot turn on your love for your baby at the flick of a switch or the cutting of the umbilical cord. The mixed feelings you have for her now are neither a guide nor a warning for the future.

At first during the night feeds I have some kind of post-birth adrenalin spike and I relish these late night challenges: I feed her, write down the time and length of the feed, settle her, have a drink and something to eat. I CAN DO THIS! I think. She will either come for a feed crying and jerking or happy and alert and jerking, eyes like a little blackbird in the dark, and I will have to kiss her and kiss her. Come on ol’ blue eyes, I say, tell her about how she has ruined us, our carefree lives, now that this terrible weight of care is in it. I now know how much I didn’t know before she was here. I didn’t know anything, anything at all.

Several times in the next few weeks, exhausted by giving birth and shaken by awful hormones and the overwhelming relentlessness and responsibility of the task at hand, I will look at Adam and say what have we done? I will realise that there is a worldwide fucking conspiracy about how awful all this business of the first weeks is, and no one is allowed to tell you but they all know that this time will hold the entirely most difficult moments and days of your life.

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It is the heartbreak that hits me so violently, the true realisation about my old life, now dead; and the partnership of two being over and my partner’s tired face and his tireless endless encouragement. Then the anxiety, convinced that something is terribly wrong with the baby, being too anxious to sleep or that she will start crying again and need you to feed her however tired you are, and how you think you hear her crying even when she is not (until she does). My google searches for this time reveal, depending how generous you are, the worried rantings of a new mother or an absolute madwoman. “Newborn how many times feed” “newborn won’t stop feeding” “newborn red birthmark on eye” “10 days old how many dirty nappies” “sore nipples” “mastitis” “baby fast breathing” “newborn spits up milk” “baby will only sleep on our chests” “how to stop baby crying” but all of them are actually saying the same desperate thing which is SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME.

Your newborn baby’s behaviour is a series of reactions to what she perceives as random stimuli …  While she remains a newborn her behaviour will be random and unpredictable. She may cry for food every half hour then sleep without any for another six hours. This morning’s “hunger” does not predict this afternoon’s because her hunger has no pattern or shape yet … Her sleep is similarly formless; ten minute snatches through the night and a five hour stretch in the day till you nothing about how she will sleep tomorrow.

When I nap I open my mouth in my sleep just like she does and for a minute my confused brain thinks I am the baby. I think of how my own mother held me and I am desperately sad that now I have the real responsibility of someone else’s life, that I cannot just fuck it all off and get on a train and go to Oxford and lie my head on my mother’s lap. I cannot ever do this again. During one of the many hours when she sleeps on me, I see a coach going past the window to London Victoria, and an urgent part of me longs to get on it, alone, and from there somewhere far, far away. Perhaps to wander some backstreet of Venice or take a yoga class and go for coffee with my phone turned off, not answerable to anyone, but I guess I can never really be alone again. How thrilling and how terrible. To long to be away and to know how unbearable it would be too – what an awful, tender corner we have backed ourselves into.

Then one day we get her in the sling and she sleeps peacefully and we go to the PUB. One morning I sit with her while she is in her bouncy chair, looking happily at me with her bright eyes. One evening I rock her and sing to her in the garden and she actually stops crying.

If you can let it, your body will start loving the baby for you even before she is properly a person. Whatever your mind and the deeply entrenched habits of your previous life may be telling you, your body is ready and waiting for her. Your skin thrills to hers. Her small frame fits perfectly against your belly, breast and shoulder.

She has fat little arms and fat little legs. She sleeps like a frog on our chests, clambering upwards if she slips too far down, and we kiss her soft head. When she is two weeks old I have a massage in the same room where she was born and I realise that I have walked into this room every day since her birth and have not once reflected on that fact. Nor I have I remembered how much we wanted her, how much we dreamed of her for 9 months. Or thought how lucky we are that she is safely here and so beautiful to us.

As I come to try and write the “truth” down, I realise that this truth changes every day, minute to minute, and that perhaps this is why people don’t tell you it – because it constantly slips out of grasp.

In these days I will keep thinking of a letter written in to Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar agony aunt column where the writer asks “WTF?” about their life. I will try to make myself remember her response:

The fuck is yours … That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward. Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

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