Every night before I go to bed, I take a piece of paper I have divided into eighths and write down these headings: medication, pumping, feeds. In the course of the next twenty-four hours, I will write down the times of day when I administer or perform or offer each of these three things, because if I don’t, I will from one thing to the next forget what’s come before, and when. Life moves quickly, and I find it difficult to distinguish the tasks of one day from the tasks of the next. This makes things sound worse than they are. The baby is four months old. Things have levelled off. I could probably stop soon, but I’m not quite ready yet.
This time around, life is what I expected it to be, but also not. This is different from motherhood 1.0, where nothing was what I expected, and version 2.0, which exceeded my expectations pleasantly. Now, when the baby demands to eat hourly or condescends to nap exclusively on a person? Yep, seems about right, and I oblige mostly without weariness or resentment, knowing that this too shall pass, glad to have problems I understand.
Baby L. arrived seventeen days early in the middle of a warm July night, opting not to be a Leo after all. It was the first of my births where I can remember the midwife’s arrival. “Thanks for calling me early,” she said cheerfully, hanging her equipment on a clothes rack in the basement bedroom. Her backup nearly woke the older kids upon entering, and I wanted to hit her when she chirped, “You’re going to meet your baby so soon!” “I know,” I howled, enraged, between pushes. Then: there she was, the baby I’d had such trouble imagining, substantial on my chest, looking so like my others that I thought, Ah, it was you all along. We named her for a Mavis Gallant protagonist and our favourite of Canada’s Nobelists. In the morning her brother burst in to meet her, then her sister. We took a photo. In it, I am dishevelled but happy, bordering on smug.
We had a good first week. In the second week an innocent-looking birthmark, a narrow pink stripe running from her nostrils down into the skin of her upper lip, darkened alarmingly to claret, and a small black speck appeared on it. “What is this spot,” muttered the midwife, puzzled by the baby’s gain of only one ounce in a week. “You’re asking us?” we said, equally unsure. The spot grew bigger, bled, scabbed over, bled again. The baby stopped nursing, began to scream in pain when offered a bottle. We went to Emergency.
It is difficult not to take it personally when your two-week-old is afflicted with a tumour on her face. A benign tumour of infancy, thank goodness, etc. But still, there were moments during our brief hospital stay when, having had perhaps three hours of sleep in thirty, I thought of every terrible thing I’d ever done and felt very low. I am living in a future memory, I repeated to myself to keep afloat. It was not my fault – there is no discernible reason for hemangiomas to occur – but I looked down the dark hall inhabited by parents of sick children and thought, Please, what did I do, let it be me instead.
L. was put on medication normally reserved for infant cardiac patients, a drug which was serendipitously discovered to erase this sort of birthmark only eight years ago. I don’t like to think how she would have fared ten years ago, or fifty, or five hundred. But the wound, once open, kept growing. Whenever she brushed her face with her hands in the way newborns can’t help, it would bleed everywhere and she would cry miserably. We grimly adjusted to a new normal: medication, Tylenol for pain, antibiotic ointment, Vaseline, plus dealing with pumping and bottles, because she was in too much pain to breastfeed. A. would take her for a few hours in the evening so that I could sleep. I began to feel that we would survive the summer.
And then, a week later, A. came down with acute appendicitis and was abruptly hospitalized himself. He went straight from an exploratory doctor’s appointment to Emergency (where he ran into the paediatrician who’d admitted L., who exclaimed, “What are you doing back here?”). I found myself jiggling an irate baby in one arm, trying to place an online grocery order with the other, all while supervising the two older children, who ran endless circles of the downstairs shouting, “We’re in the Olympics!” Mercifully, this occurred while my sister was back in town on a break from her PhD fieldwork, and with her help I limped through those first days of A’s recovery, during which he could not lift the baby. Then she was off again, and we survived through the kindness of our friends and neighbours, who took the big kids and made us wonderful meals. I felt supported by community in a way that I haven’t before, and I was so grateful.
We were referred to a thoughtful specialist one hundred kilometres away who will oversee L.’s care until she is at least a year old. After seven long weeks on the medication, the wound closed; the stubborn mark remains, growing as she grows, but if all works as promised it will soon fade. There will be a scar. No longer in pain, L. has grown rapidly into a cheerful chubby baby, possibly my easiest, definitely the easiest child of the three as they are now with her simple, answerable demands.
I still feel the occasional pang that nursing has not worked out, as though I’ve lost a language, and the bottles leave me feeling as though I’m performing a kind of beneficent gavage. We tried, after the wound closed, to return to nursing, but L. had already forgotten how, and the effort made us both miserable. I wrote myself a note on my phone to refer to when attached to the pump at four in the morning. It says, You are doing your best. I have never had much self-compassion, but it occurs to me that I did not understood the necessity of it until now. It’s less a weapon than it is armour, and thus fortified, I go forward.