Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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I knew I wasn't pregnant (I'd know if I was pregnant—mothers always knew), but I took the test anyway. Gary and I used some protection. We relied on the "precautions" high school sex-ed teachers warned us against. The main thing was we weren't trying, and the movies, books, and message boards full of infertile women led us to believe that even if we were making a concerted effort to conceive, it would take a while. We planned on it taking years. Maybe we thought our intentions would serve as contraception. When my period didn't show up, I took a home test because a friend suggested I do it for peace of mind.

I'd seen pregnancy test boxes in drugstores millions of times, but I'd never imagined actually receiving the silent message: This is the beginning of something you have never done before; this is the beginning of someone you have never met before; this is the beginning of someone who wasn't anyone before. When I tried to wrap my blasted-out brain around all this, the meaning of beginning stretched. The idea of before dissolved. My body distorted beneath its own skin. My identity started growing an additional set of organs and limbs and eyelashes. I wasn't bouncing up and down and clapping as I imagined all other positive-symbol receivers were. I was toeing the edge of the cliff, still considering whether to look down. From the wind howling around below me, I sensed the valley was deep. It was not a long-awaited relief.

The doctor, the gynecologist who'd prescribed birth control pills to me as a teenager, came in and said, "This is fun!" Then she slipped a dildo-shaped device into my vagina. "So, your levels indicate that you're actually two months pregnant." My insides were instantly streaming in black and white on a screen next to the table. She pointed to a dark spot on a gray cloud the size and shape of a peanut and said, "That's an eye." She looked at me and pointed to the air and said, "That's a heartbeat." We both watched the screen while the tiny heart thumped, and my grown-up-sized heart listened, mute. The doctor probed around with the lubed wand. "You can still terminate if you want," she said without looking at me. I said, "No, no, no," in a voice not quite my own. "We want kids." We'd talked about it as something we'd do someday in the distant future: after we'd traveled together more (to the Albanian Riviera, to Istanbul, to Greece, to Nova Scotia), after we'd moved out of Brooklyn to the house of our dreams in the Hudson Valley, after I'd published at least one book. "We're getting married." It was a decision that still felt surreal to me—we'd known each other only a year before getting engaged, we hadn't even chosen a date for the wedding yet. "We want kids," I said again, and hearing it alongside the soundtrack of my future kid's heart, I was almost convinced. But this movie was moving too fast for me to follow. It occurred to me that before we had kids, we'd have a baby. The doctor smiled and said, "I hope your dress has an empire waist."


I'd heard that all a baby needs is to know that it was wanted. I was worried I wouldn't be able to fake it. I touched the ugly secret with the satisfaction of tonguing a toothache. I clung to it. I laughed about the surprising nature of the situation, self-deprecating, in a way that I hoped sounded charming. I felt like I'd failed as a mother before the baby was even born. What pressed back was the notion that I hadn't even wanted to be a mother, yet. Things were not going according to our long-term plan. This situation, though, was close enough to our general ideas about the future that it would have been silly to turn our backs on it. Still, it seemed like every other mother had made a more conscientious decision than me to conceive more or less when she did. I did see sour-faced women on the subway, dragging toddlers, and pushing strollers like a parade of regret. I stared, unable to look away from the compelling nightmare. But most pregnant women I encountered smiled at me in pleased solidarity.

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"Are you excited?" was the repeated reaction from cashiers, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and family. I usually nodded enthusiastically. This I could fake. But, in rare moments of honesty towards the end of my pregnancy, I confessed that I was feeling pretty numb. My mother assured me that I would feel completely filled with love when the baby was born.


The night after my due date, I was still pregnant, so we watched Jurassic Park. Jeff Goldblum explained chaos theory; I breathed deeply; I learned about dino DNA; I stood up; Laura Dern got elbow-deep in a heap of triceratops poop; a small animatronic raptor baby emerged from an egg; I walked around the living room; the T. rex ate the lawyer; I stopped to lean on something; everyone escaped in a helicopter; I got on all fours on the bathroom floor; I needed the yoga mat; I wanted to go to the hospital in a helicopter; Gary told me to wait just a little longer; I waited a little longer; John Williams' symphony soared; we called a car; the credits rolled; the nurses at the hospital said I wasn't ready; I stood up; warm fluid splashed on the floor between my feet; I was moved into a room with a door that closed; I writhed on the bed; I sat on the toilet; nothing came out; I panted on the bed; my lungs screamed like an angry T. rex; my body pushed like a pooping triceratops; my crotch stretched open like a spitting dilophosaurus; and a small human baby, who happened to be a boy, was lifted from between my legs.


I stared at the baby in the plastic box beside my hospital bed, my mind empty as a deflated balloon. I thought of my mom saying my heart would explode. I felt deafened by a sonic boom.


We were told we would not get any sleep. And we didn't. And then we did. And then didn't. And then I didn't. And then I didn't. And then I didn't. I kept thinking, Sleep training is like labor, only it lasts longer.


Once, during third-trimester sex, Gary said that he'd always wanted to do it with a pregnant woman.

I missed pregnant sex. It had been physically cumbersome, but new-parent sex was emotionally cumbersome—there was a bulging mess of unsexy distraction between us: Is the lotion working to help the baby's rash? Is the lotion making the baby's rash worse? Is the baby warm enough? Is the baby too warm? Are the baby's warm clothes getting pulled up over his face and suffocating him? When will my hair stop falling out? When will I stop eating at least one chocolate chip cookie every day? Why is my hair still falling out? Where will I get tomorrow's chocolate chip cookie? Are my boobs leaking? Was that sound the baby? When the FUCK will my FUCKING HAIR stop falling out?

Gary did not say he'd always wanted to have sex with a mom.

With the baby in my lap, I spoke over the baby's head to Gary, "I'm going to find some cool porn that I like." But I never got around to it.

I read about sex. I considered buying a book called Sexy Mama. I clicked to put it in my shopping cart, and the baby started crying. I remembered that I wasn't supposed to care about sex, that a mom wasn't supposed to care about anything but her baby. Frustrated, I deleted it from my shopping cart and turned to the baby to figure out what he needed and give it to him.

I read that talking about sex doesn't help make sex better. Because this sentence was so counterintuitive to me, I read it again. Then I stopped talking about it and it got better.


Breast-feeding was excruciating, so I did some research. I read on the Internet, "Don't bring your boob to the baby. Bring the baby to your boob." I thought of flight attendants saying: "Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others." Flying on a plane with my baby seemed as likely as flying on a unicorn with my baby.

Breast-feeding did not cultivate a cuddly bond. Because it hurt so much, I felt like a tortured prisoner chained to the couch. I kept things to occupy myself within arms' reach in a little life preserver of diversion resources—the TV remote, books about babies and how to take care of them that I devoured one after another, a novel that I never read more than a paragraph of, and my phone. (Even though I worried about the baby's cognitive development being infiltrated by the Wi-Fi waves, contact with the world outside my apartment was a treat I felt I deserved.) My mom sent me a hemorrhoid pillow I was too embarrassed to order for myself, which was almost more embarrassing than ordering it for myself.

At night, I fell asleep after nursing, and the baby would wake me up two hours later to hurt me again.

I wanted to want to feed him. I would put the baby down as soon as he stopped eating and look at anything but him, leave the room, pretend he didn't exist, return to my previous reality for a delicious instant before he cried out, demanding that I return to the present, where I was an illiterate, constipated couch potato. This identity diverged dramatically from the image the world had promised me: a cozy and smiling new mom. Things shift. I felt like I'd never write again, never be my parents' child again, never be sexy again, never eat hot food again, never read a novel again, never find my way back to myself. Ever.


At three months, my baby said something that I heard as, "Good." A few months later he said, "Wow." Now he says, "Dadda," patting me on the shoulder as if to comfort me. I've decided he means, "I love you."

When I fed him at 3:00 a.m. one night, his stomach creaked against mine like a haunted ship passing another in the night.

I was amazed when such a tiny butt produced its first gigantic farts.


My friend sent me a video clip from an old Oprah episode featuring a guest who interpreted babies' different cries. According to this expert, one cry meant "sleepy"; another cry meant "hungry"; and so on. It was awful to hear all the babies crying. To me, all the cries sounded the same, like the babies desperately needed help. I couldn't distinguish any of the cries from the others, except maybe the uncomfortable one, which, Oprah joked, sounded like, "ugh!" I imagined all the moms who'd brought their crying babies onto the show were excellent mothers who'd conceived exactly when they'd planned to.

The baby cried at bedtime while we sang Margaritaville to him for the millionth time and walked him around the living room for two hours at which point, I argued, it was time to feed him again. Gary handed me the baby and slammed our bedroom door so hard the dishes rattled and my bones screamed along with the baby.

Then one night the crying stopped and everyone felt better for a little while.


The baby started crying at 4:23 a.m. I lay awake, grinding my teeth to hold in my own storm of sobs, staring at the clock, feeling warm milk slide down the sides of my boobs, while Gary snored next to me. I knew I wasn't supposed to go in until six, but at 5:32 a.m., the wails were unbearable and I felt like a failure as the baby grabbed at me and sucked like he was starving. It no longer hurt to feed him, but all that felt good in that moment was the silence.


I found a support group for women with postpartum mood disorder (though, I wasn't sure I fit into that category) and felt comforted by many things there. On my way home from one meeting I felt lucky that I didn't want to kill myself or my baby, but I still felt like I was supposed to love my baby more than I did. I thought about the doctor with the dildo wand saying, "We can still terminate," and I hated myself for thinking about it. Waiting at a red light, I bounced the baby in his carrier, and I wondered if things would be easier if I'd wanted him more. There was another woman in the group who conceived for the first time more quickly than she'd anticipated and then, to her complicated relief, miscarried. A few months later, she was unexpectedly pregnant with her daughter. She was the first mom I'd met who admitted to being surprised. It made me want to ask every mother I knew exactly how planned her pregnancy had been—not so I could catch women red-handed, but so I could bring reality to the cultural surface. The light turned green, and as I crossed, I wondered if wanting could be more or less, or if it was like being pregnant—you either want or don't want. He cooed, and I wondered if things were actually easy, and I was just too tired to tell. I thought about the facilitator of the support group saying, "Your doctor said what?!"


I was afraid that my mom would fall. My maternity leave was over, and she arrived on the first morning of her first week of taking care of the baby with a magenta bruise visible on her chin through thick make-up. She'd fallen carrying laundry on the tile floor at her house. In my mind flickered the vivid nightmare choreography of her holding the baby and tripping over the rug in my living room and lurching forward and crumpling to the floor and not being able to get up and moaning there with my baby beneath her until I returned from work hours later and found their lifeless bodies. I mined my insides for enough trust to get me out the door.

I called a friend once I got to work, and she told me that humans are biologically wired to rotate when falling to pad the fall of an infant in their arms. I decided to believe her, and this small choice started to make me feel like a person who does things on purpose.


Just before his bedtime, on the first night of formal sleep training, he played on my lap. He occupied himself, but turned his face to me at regular intervals—his eyes full of astonishment and assurance when he saw me there each time. Something filled me up then until it spilled onto the perfect swirl of hair at the back of my baby's head.


Moments of independence grow. I occupy myself—I return an email, I knit a few rows of a hat, I make myself tea, I write a sentence of a new story—and turn my attention to my baby at regular intervals and feel astonishment and assurance when I see him there. He stares at the ceiling fan, he examines the wheels of a toy car, he beats a plastic container drum on the kitchen floor, he explores a cardboard box.

Things shift. He sleeps through the night. He finds jokes in the least expected things—Gary's loud sneeze, the sound of me saying gesundheit!, water dripping from the bathtub faucet, the way a plant bounces when he touches it. He looks at his books all by himself. He crawls, he stands, he walks. He only needs my help sometimes. We don't measure his age in months anymore. He lifts his hand into the beam of illuminated dust floating in our living room and discovers magic. On the morning of his first birthday, his eyelashes flutter against my skin while he nurses.

I wonder if things happen for a reason. My son wonders about everything. Or maybe not. Maybe to him everything just unquestionably is. I watch him dip his finger again up into the glittering shaft of sunlight and decide that's it. I dip my finger into the fuzzy memory of his first silent message to me, I exist. It ripples under my touch. When I pull away, it settles.

Polly Duff Kertis‘s writing has appeared in Tin House Flash FridaysThe Brooklyn Rail, The CollagistEveryday Genius, The Agriculture Reader, elimae, and other journals. She’s the author of two chapbooks of translation. She teaches writing and lives in Brooklyn.

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Shelly Wason is the proud mother of 3 young men who are busy making the world a better place. She is also a photographer/photoblogger who loves living on the west coast of Canada with her supportive husband, John. When she’s not out treasure hunting with her camera, she can be found unearthing treasures in her garden. Recently her work has appeared in Spirituality & Health.

Beautiful and potent and just what I needed to read. Thank you for this, Polly. You are a brilliant and brave writer. <3 <3 <3
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