It’s June. The baby is here. She seems impossibly small (though she’s not, of course, she’s actually very big for a baby) and infinitely unknowable. She doesn’t feel familiar yet, though she fits neatly into the curve of my arm, and I recognise the sharp, ozoney scent of her. She is annoyed at being outside – she shouts, and she fixes me with her crossed eyes, and she burrows into my flesh as if to anchor herself. I am glad to have a spirited baby. I feel lucky.
The second night of her life, she stays awake all night – feeding, feeding. The pads of her hands press and paddle at me as I stare dry-eyed and despairing into the darkness. As the nights and days roll on, I take her into the bed with me. I never did this before – I like having my own space. But I’m working on figuring this little one out, and she needs to feel the rise of my breath and the thud of my heart to sleep. My body curls like a question mark around this tiny invader who has colonised my bed.
October. It’s the middle of the night, during that suspended time of densest, velvety blackness when the world seems to hold its breath.
I’m lying awake, pinned under the weight of the darkness. I don’t know how long I’ve been awake, or how long more I’ll be awake for. Time has become slippery, trickling past almost imperceptibly. The baby is lying beside me. She’s ill. I’m listening to the fizz and crackle of her struggle to breathe. She’s waterlogged, clogged with fluid. Her breathing is syrupy. She stirs. I slide my finger into the fold of her palm. There’s a certain peace to it – marooned as we are, together, in this time when we’re not supposed to be awake.
These days, I don’t drift off into sleep. I’m so tired that when I lie down, I plummet into oblivion. And when I’m woken, (and I’m always woken, every hour, every two hours) the rise to the surface is so shocking that my body shakes. I spend every night with her body packed solid against mine. She’s so small, so warm, so present. My body becomes pliant, bends to her needs. I wake to her feeding. She can’t actually crawl yet, but she’s unerring in her aim and it’s like she’s tethered to me, like she can reel herself in across the space of mattress.
I feel wrung out, depleted. When I look in the mirror, I wonder why I look so solid, when I feel so faded around the edges. Yet there I am – plump and doughy, with the slightly glossy sheen of a nursing mother. I have pads of fat on my hips that I can’t lose, where my baby sits. My hair is falling out in clumps. I chop a thick fringe in, slap on some blusher, try to sleep when the baby sleeps. At 4.30 in the afternoon I find myself standing at the fridge shoving Aldi own-brand Fruit and Nut chocolate into my mouth, and I realise that I haven’t eaten any fruit or vegetables that day, and possibly the day before that. I fall asleep sitting upright on the couch with my cup in my hand. I become greedy for rest, snatching every chance to sit instead of stand, drive instead of walk.
December. The baby is asleep beside me. She’s been asleep for hours, and though I don’t know it yet, she’s going to sleep for hours more. I’m awake – summoned by a mewling cry from one of the other children – but I’ve slept for 4.5 hours straight and my body is humming with adrenaline at the unaccustomed stretch of sleep.
I slide back into sleep, and when I finally feel the hitch and roll of her waking, there’s the faintest fuzz of grey to the edge of the dark. Good morning, little girl, I think. My hand finds the curve of her skull. Without any thought to it, I begin the slow drag with my thumb over the slackness of her fat cheek – muscle memory guides me, the profound knowledge borne of having done something hundreds of times before. I can feel her smiling at me. I smile back. She knows, like I know. I shift to accommodate the heels of her hands against my flesh.
She kneads me.