Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Wry Neck


Strap the baby on and start the day, playing the four-year-old's Brazilian music from the Rio soundtrack and dancing plastic Rio birds around the room, both of us translating the Portuguese into nonsense we can sing along to, a kind of baby talk neither of us quite gets. I ordered the birds online, and the first batch went to the wrong address, the old address, which is also the real address, but we weren't living there at the time, so crap, I said, the birds went to Washington, and I didn't think there was anything I could do, so even though we didn't have money I ordered another set. It was that important to me to get them. Because he, the four-year-old, had gone to this movie with my dad after the baby was born, the baby girl I tie onto my body every morning because she can't be put down, won't be put down, refuses non-contact, she is hell-bent on surviving, this girl, and she doesn't trust that I'm up for the job -- he went to the movie with my dad, who'd come to help me for a month before the baby was born, and he lived in the third bedroom on a foam mattress on the floor, the retired bachelor supposed to be living it up in Florida but who instead was here with me in Ohio, in the frozen month of March-then-April. One of the last things he'd done before leaving was to take my son to the movie. They'd bonded over it, had all these inside jokes, until he split, my dad, not long after the baby was born, and then all my son had was me, so when I saw the plastic birds online I almost couldn't stand to wait for them. Then they went to Washington, where most of my stuff still was, since we were moving back. We hadn't moved away, not really, just left temporarily for work, for the money we couldn't make back home. In Ohio, we rented a half-double in a cheap part of town, and our neighbors were undergrads who hated us for our noise, our early-riser child and loud dogs. It was an old house with caked-on grime. No way to get it clean. Big rooms with no closets, no furniture, everything piled on the floor, accumulating dust because in Ohio, in winter, dust is what the dry air becomes. Dust and dog hair collecting into bunnies that don't bounce but blow, more like sagebrush, more like old west, and instead I am the one bouncing, bouncing, bouncing the baby while my son scowls into his yogurt. There are the windows with ill-fitting screens. Mosquitoes that swarm us when we step outside. Back then, when we moved in, we were waiting for spring, for warmth, for the baby to be born and then she was, and now the mosquitoes have shown up. I'm missing my dad. I'm worrying over my son, his skin eaten up, bites that harden, lumps the size of quarters, and there's the way he's started barking at me, I don't like you anymore, and the way I bark back, Fine by me. A transition, everyone says, a hard transition. He's used to having all the attention. And fine, whatever, but I'm used to him being nice to me, and really, who is the baby here? Who is the baby? It's the 34 year old woman taking fish oil and encapsulated placenta to ward off post-partum depression, it's the old mom fretting over the four-year-old and the new mom strapping on her baby because the baby won't be put down, you can't put her down, she insists on being held all the time, he wasn't like this, she's exactly opposite of him, him you could swaddle or nurse to sleep, nursing wakes her up!, she screams in the car!, she hates swaddling with a vengeance!, she will accept no substitute for human touch, not a lovey not a blankie not a pacifier not a co-sleeper, she has to be held all the time, it's like it's like it's like she doesn't trust us to keep her alive.

So I strap her on, I am wearing her, I am a baby-wearer, and I get compliments wherever I go, what is that carrier? And, Is it hard to put on? There's a learning curve, I say, which means that I never know when I will get it on correctly, which means that some days I never want to take her out because I've got it on just right, this is my life now, caring about how to tie the wrap because otherwise I have to hold her all day and I can't do anything, which the midwife says I shouldn't be doing anyway, but I can't stop. So I tie her on, her golden little head just below my chin, which means that other days she is sunk too low or squeezed too tight, her head, her hair that the nurses compliment for its color, real Rapunzel this girl, that is, if Rapunzel had a buzz cut, her head up in my business, in the way of my face, so I can't see to make lunch for my son, his head dark like mine, his eyes light, and I think he seems so sad when he's eating his carrots, his umpteenth grilled cheese, he seems like his life has just changed irrevocably, transition just-a-transition a-hard-transition, like he's wondering if things will ever go back to normal and they won't, I know they won't, but I see him wondering if she will ever be put down, if I ever will have my body back. You got a baby in that sack? an old man asks me, and I smile, and the old woman with him says, He's worried the baby can't breathe, and I smile and look down, move the fabric a little further out of her face, and the woman smiles reassuringly at the man, and the man looks sheepish, and I want to say I'm not going to kill this baby can everyone please just back off but I know that saying the words out loud will probably make me cry, and she is nestled in there so snug, she barely ever moves, and this is the problem, the doctor will later tell me, she doesn't move. She only looks one way. Does she ever look the other way?

What? I say.

See? The doctor will turn the baby's fat-getting-fatter body around. See how she won't look to the right?

I'm sure she looks to the right, I say.

Maybe she's having an off day. Let's keep an eye on it. There's physical therapy for this, if she does have it. It usually doesn't require surgery.

I'm sure she looks the other way, I say.

She screams all the way home because she hates her car seat, hates the car, hates anything but warm bodies to curl up against and not move. Not move. She doesn't move. She always faces one direction, now I see it, now I can't stop seeing it, how did I not see it before, do you see how she doesn't turn the other way? She cocks right, looks left. Always. Help me get your sister to look the other way, I tell him, and he says, Look, she's stretching her neck! And we are happy but then she is back, cocking right and looking left. Clinging to my body, not moving. Like she doesn't expect that I will remember to take care of her. Like she knows the body is where it's at, the mind of a new mother not a thing to be trusted. I hold her golden head in my palm and push left. She fights me. She knows this is a trick, that her survival is a rigid thing, a determined thing, the opposite of flexibility. My boy hovers over us, fluttering from one side to the other, covered in dust and dog hair. Watching. She's stretching her neck, he says. He is quiet. He doesn't know what this means, why it matters. He watches my face for signs. The plastic birds are on the table. I cup my daughter's head again and push harder. Come on, I say, here we go, over the other way, stretch over, go on, go on.

Kelly Magee’s story collection, Body Language (University of North Texas Press) won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared online in Kenyon Review, Tampa Review, Swink, Nashville Review, and Diagram, as well as in Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, The Journal, and others. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University. Visit her website at

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Absolutely love the writing style. Really conveys the fierceness of motherhood, the rattling on that happens to all of us. Beautiful. I want to read the rest of the story.
The author does a great job conveying her frustration. At the same time, there is enough tension here to have me curious about her baby; about the question of whether this is just a difficult infant or whether there is something more going on. I would certainly read more of the story if continued it. Nice style.
Beautiful description of the certainty/ uncertainty that defines early motherhood. The inate ability of a mother to soothe, to fix, to not see the negative but nourish the child.
This piece is written with the rushed intensity surrounding a newborn. I'm right there with you, my own three month old tucked into her sling every waking hour (Which is about 20 of the 24 of the day). She cries, she sleeps in Moby. Repeat). I'm interested in the rest of the story- you got me.
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