Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Measuring Tape is a Flexible Ruler


On the first day, you learn your body in centimeters. You study the baby’s body in inches. Your partner stands several feet away, unsure in the ways you are sure.

You learn how not to sleep and how to complain about not sleeping and that the baby will not sleep and that others continue to sleep even though they also had a part in making the baby that will not sleep so that you cannot sleep. You never learn not to be bitter about this.

Photo by Heather Vrattos

Photo by Heather Vrattos

You learn your body is no longer yours. You don’t know that it won’t be again for decades and by then, you won’t recognize it.

You learn not sleeping makes you furious. It isn’t the baby’s fault. How could it be? It’s His fault, the one who is sleeping when you are walking and nursing and diapering and worrying and nursing and patting and pacing and nursing.

You learn nipples can bleed and crack and they make special ointment for this event. But you aren’t the kind of mom that accepts special ointment. Or help. You weren’t taught to tolerate weakness. Compassion makes you suspicious. The cracking and bleeding is not the baby’s fault, though she cries with colic every second she’s not nursing. Somehow it’s also His fault because he leaves you so often to all of the walking and nursing and diapering and worrying and nursing and patting and pacing and nursing.

He says he doesn’t feel well. He says the baby’s screaming is too loud. He says the not sleeping is too much.

You learn you have a family now and that family needs health insurance. The baby learns to sleep all day while you teach 16-year-olds how to punctuate sentences. He learns to sleep when the baby sleeps. You memorize the phone number of the divorce attorney who advertises on the billboard next to the school where you return to teaching.

You find new levels of bitterness. Not sleeping fuels your rage. Watching Him and the baby sleep ruins you. You’re too worried about the not sleeping to sleep.

He tells you again that he doesn’t feel well. You tell him to buck the fuck up. He tells you again that something is wrong. You tell him you already know something is wrong: Him.

You’ll spend years in therapy forgiving yourself for this anger, but not yet.

First, he has to collapse. Then you have to stand in the parking lot of the hospital deciding if you’re supposed to unstrap the baby from her car seat or try to carry your husband into the ER, but you can’t leave the baby alone and you can’t manage his weight even if you wanted to.

You learn there is a moment between recovery and reality that is bliss. You’ll never have it back again.

You learn you aren’t really married until they hand you the ring. Not the one you are given at the end of an aisle, tied tightly with ribbons to a miniature pillow, grasped by a tiny groom, nervously balancing his assignment. A nurse places the real ring that binds in your palm in the waiting room as they wheel Him in for emergency surgery. You learn it only fits on your thumb so you must clench your fist, holding on to what you can.

Sometimes you think you learn a love that no one has ever possibly felt. Euphoria through the haze. Fear laced with tenderness. Your tummy a roller coaster descent the first time the baby reaches for you. Of course it was you.

You learn the diagnosis when the baby is three months and two days old. You haven’t slept yet. All He does is sleep, recovering, mourning, depressing sleep. He’s afraid to hold the baby, afraid he’ll never walk again, afraid he won’t finish his dissertation, afraid you’ll want more babies, afraid you’ll have to help him go to the bathroom, always, like a baby.

He says he liked you better before the baby. You agree. But you don’t have access to Her anymore. You say you liked Him better before the baby, too, and you both learn to laugh, just a little, again.

You learn that your baby smells the same at birth, at four, at 13. You learn your body smells different at each turn. You learn that a grown man in bed for days smells like a musty little boy. You learn to wear lavender and bergamot oils on your wrist so you can sniff them in hospital corners. You learn to mask so much.

You both learn what to expect from your future, what is possible and what isn’t.

You learn your husband’s sick body in centimeters. The baby is growing daily by inches. You have to will yourself not to run thousands of feet away.

You learn a new way to be married. You learn to shrink the distance and stop measuring.

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her novel was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.

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Beautiful, just beautiful and so sad. Thank you so much for sharing and writing this. It really struck a chord with me. Best wishes to you and your family.
Wonderfully written. I remember those sleepless days and nights, remember the child who never ever ever napped (except when I was pushing her in a stroller). I know, too, the weight of a family member's illness (though not the same as your story). Thank you for sharing. Thank you, LM, for publishing this.
O, god, the RHYTHM! The relentless rhythm! Beautiful, layered, crushing, real.
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