The hubcaps of our sedan lightly graze the concrete as we pull up to the curb. Evan, my husband, doesn't seem to notice. He puts the car into park and turns to look at me in the passenger seat. He blinks tiredly, awaiting further instructions. After only an hour of sleep since yesterday, I don't care about the scraped tire, either—but why isn't he pulling out the stroller already? My eyebrows drift upwards. He waits. "Well, get the stroller!" I snap finally. I've been a parent for as long as he has—four days—and yet he looks to me for all things "baby."
His face goes predictably blank. "Where…is it?" he asks hesitantly.
I roll my eyes. "Where do you think it is?" As if there's more than one place in our compact car for a stroller to hide.
The bundle in the backseat stirs, and my stomach does a backflip. My arms prickle with longing to scoop him up, but a wave of overwhelm and exhaustion takes over. Please, don't wake up yet, I pray to the baby gods, hoping the wailing won't start until we've returned home from the ice cream shop. We had geared up to leave the house a few hours ago, before the sun set, but then there were two bouts of hysteria—one mine, one the baby's—and after that, more attempts at breastfeeding and at least two shirt changes. I was leaking milk but couldn't seem to get enough of it into my son's mouth. If only he'd stop biting me. Like the protagonist of a twisted romance, I had splayed my bare chest in a multitude of positions, each a failure. I was starting to worry that I might have to give up on breastfeeding. What I needed more than anything before the next attempt, more than nipple cream, even, was lots and lots of rocky road ice cream. And to get out of the milk-stained baby emporium that used to be our home.
"Is the stroller…in the trunk?" Evan glances in the rearview mirror, as if our newborn can confirm this.
I press my forehead against the car window. The glass, cool from the night air, helps quell the headache I've had all day, and I shut my eyes, listening as Evan gets out of the driver's seat and spends a thumping and thudding minute in the trunk. Then, silence. I look out the window to find him standing over the stroller frame, which is still folded. He shrugs at me. I thrust open the car door, forgetting the pain that awaits; as I straighten up, a sharp pang stabs my nether region and inner thighs. "What are you doing?" I seethe.
"I, um, can't figure it out." Evan runs his hand through his uncharacteristically disheveled hair, which is sticking out and going flat in all the wrong places.
"I showed you how last week!" My shoulders hunch with the effort of holding myself up.
"I don't remember, okay? There's this thing here," he points to the cupholder, "and this part…" He gestures to the brake. "It doesn't make sense!"
I narrow my eyes. "You know what doesn't make sense? How I pushed a human out of my body four days ago and still haven't slept for more than an hour." Evan tries to approach me, but I take a half step back. "And you want me to assemble the stroller, now, too? Am I supposed to do everything?" He opens his mouth, but I cut him off. "Just unfold the freaking thing before he wakes up. Slide those things towards you and unlatch that." I point to the relevant parts.
When the frame is upright, Evan eyes the storage basket uncertainly. "So…where does he go?" I squeeze my eyes shut. Evan sighs briefly. "Babe, I don't appreciate your attitude. You know I'm not good at these things."
"But we've been over this twice already! The car seat goes on top—it's not rocket science!"
He slumps. "I don't understand why this has to be a big deal. Just show me again!"
Eight years ago, this man recreated my favorite scene from Love Actually in order to propose. He hired a local choir, commissioned and rehearsed an arrangement of the Beatles' "All You Need is Love," and planted the singers in our favorite restaurant to surprise serenade me during dinner, in a recreation of the movie's wedding scene. He'd even arranged for a brass trio to hide in the kitchen and pop out for the duh-duh-duh-duh-duh that comes after "All you need is love!" And he couldn't have practiced unfolding the stroller when I showed him? Can't figure out how to unfold a stroller?
I inhale slowly, louder than necessary. At the top of my breath, my nipples tingle and a few excited drips of milk blot through my last clean T-shirt. I need that ice cream. I could have sent Evan to get it, but I'm tired of limping around the house like a caged animal. In birth class I had learned that most women labor for many hours. My own mother endured thirty-six to give birth to me. Anticipating a similarly long process, I had curated playlists and my Netflix queue to help me through the early phases of labor, and I planned to stay home until it was time for the hospital. But there was no slow lead-up for me, no time for music or TV shows or an epidural; my water broke, and too soon after, my son was born. Neither birth class nor my mom had warned me that it would take four days to shower or go outside again. Or that the bite of a toothless newborn would hurt so much. I need to see the ice cream shop for myself, to take in its shock-free simplicity, and know that a remnant of my old life is still intact.
Hobbling to the backseat, I unlatch the infant car seat and click it into its accompanying stroller frame, ignoring Evan's attempts to help and the fresh waves of pain shooting through my lower back and pelvis. We pause for a beat, staring down at the tiny person who crash-landed into our life a week before his due date. The way he frowns in his sleep and closes his fists around the nearest cloth is heartbreakingly cute, but all I care about right now is getting a double scoop of rocky road.
"I wish you had showed me, instead of doing it yourself," Evan whispers. "When you're passive aggressive like that, you hurt both of us—or, all three of us."
I know he's right, but mentally I flog the therapist—maybe his, or our couples therapist, I can't remember at this point—who fed him that line. Mine can be flogged, too, for having the audacity to be on vacation this month. If she were here, she'd ask, "What's happening inside you right now?" and I'd shout, "Giving birth should be illegal! How is this allowed to happen to women?" After months of being stretched beyond comprehension, I had broken open—literally torn—and now I feel shattered to pieces. In my mind, I keep circling the place where I last felt myself to be rooted, my sense of self a tree I always knew the shape of, but in its stead is a forest, a dense, bewildering landscape where I am everywhere—at my son's beck and call every hour—and nowhere. My insides hurt badly. I consider telling Evan this, but instead I grit my teeth. "You don't need to whisper," I hiss. "I told you, he'll sleep through anything at this age." But I also know that he could wake up any moment, with very loud needs.
Evan looks down at the sidewalk. "Let's just get there before it closes."
"Wait, what time is it?"
"Holy crap!" The shop closes at 10:00, and even on weeknights there's usually a line down the block. I grasp the stroller and start shuffling down the sidewalk, groaning with each step.
My eyes drop to our new son. Each step I take is a sharp reminder that just days ago, this delicate being was tucked safely inside me, and now he's not. In the glow of the streetlamps, I can see how he purses his lips periodically in his sleep. His breathing comes in short intervals, like a wheezy kitten purring. As the stroller bumps lightly over cracks in the sidewalk, his beanie-capped head jiggles, and tears well up in the corners of my eyes. How could I have left the house? Protective, primal anger rises inside me, and I have the urge to claw the cracks in the pavement away, to extinguish them before they swallow up the stroller. When we reach the crosswalk, the cars seem to move lightning fast, like flashes of danger. I don't remember how to cross the street anymore—do I look left first, and then right?
"Hon, are you okay?" Evan asks.
"Fine," I say.
The restaurants have closed, but there must be bars nearby because packs of college students stride purposefully down the block. A pair of particularly tall young men jostle past and an elbow nudges the stroller. "You motherfu—" I open my mouth to yell, but all that comes out is a soggy, tearful gasp. My head reels, and everything inside me seems to be swimming, as if the breastmilk is drowning my vital organs. I feel woozy and short of breath. A car zips by too quickly and I choke back a startled sob.
Evan puts a tentative hand on my shoulder. "Sweetie, what's up?"
"I feel like the world's ending!" I whisper fiercely.
"Is it…your hormones, you think?"
"Of course it's my hormones!" I burst out. A group of passing college girls eye me with alarm. We're steps from the shop, but it feels like a mile. This journey would have taken two minutes, pre-baby; but now there are cracks and ruptures and pain in places I didn't know existed. I had been warned about this day. "When your milk comes in, be prepared to cry. Like, a lot," a mother advised me when I was six months pregnant. "Be careful who you invite over, because you'll probably be topless and hyper-sensitive all day long." I didn't believe her.
I sniff. "My bones hurt. I think I'm losing calcium."
Evan tries to put his arm around me, but I shrug it off. He looks stung. "Thankfully, ice cream is imminent!" he says with forced cheer. "We're that much closer to calcium." The line outside the shop is eight college students deep. As we pull up with our stroller, they're talking about brunch and summer travel plans, blithely unaware that the whole world has changed. I try to breathe evenly, welcoming the scent of baking waffle cones. The rocky road is so close.
A mewling emanates from the stroller. Our son stretches. No. Please, not yet. His eyes flutter open, and my heart stops. I give him a meek smile, and he gazes back sternly. I have the bizarre urge to pull the canopy down, so he can't see the ice cream shop in the background. He lets out a tentative whine, and I know that the fuse is lit. Holding him won't be enough now. If my breasts aren't exposed in the next few minutes, the wailing will start. I turn to Evan, leaning into blame like a life raft. "If you had just undone the stroller faster, we could have gotten here in time."
He frowns. "There's still time—"
"No, there's not. It's over! He's awake." I put a hand on our son's chest and hope that this is enough to stall him. We can barely manage breastfeeding at home; I'm not ready to make the circus act public.
"Hon, I'm trying, here," Evan says, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. The anger inside me rears up again, ready to do battle, but behind him I can see the sign announcing the day's ice cream flavors. That's when I see it: rocky road is crossed out. Evan carries on. "I know it doesn't feel like it, but everything's okay. What you're going through is totally normal, I read that—"
"Nothing is okay!" I bark, collapsing onto the stroller handle. The college kids glance over and try to gain more distance from us. After ice cream, they might meet more friends for drinks, or meander home to uninterrupted Netflix and beds they don't have to share with fragile tyrants. "Everything keeps getting taken from me," I whimper. "I feel so lost and un-held."
"Aw, sweetie." Evan wraps his arms around me, and this time, I let him. "You may feel lost, but you don't have to be un-held." I give in, leaning against his chest. "I'll feed you ice cream while you breastfeed, if I have to."
"What's the point? There's no rocky road," I sob. Evan hugs me tighter and the baby starts to whimper too. In a few moments, he'll be howling. "I don't even want ice cream anymore," I tell him. Peeling away from Evan and the shop, I shuffle resignedly back to the car.
Abandoning the stroller on the sidewalk, I wedge myself into the backseat and use the car door arm rest to prop my elbow and stabilize my son's head. The angle is surprisingly helpful, better than any chair or pillow at home. My son opens his mouth and I cringe, expecting a bite. But this time, it's a latch—a loose one, but good enough to get some milk down his throat. Tears of relief and exhaustion flood my cheeks, and I wipe them with my shoulders before they can spill onto his head.
When Evan joins me a few minutes later, he's holding a cup of chocolate ice cream—a decent substitute, I suppose. Looking closer, though, I spot rounded almond tips and fluffy white marshmallow bits poking out of the scoop.
"I made them check in back," he grins.
For the first time since my water broke, I feel like melting into my husband's hazel-green eyes, but then I notice the abnormally deep creases beneath them. At the hospital, he never left my side, a truth I barely registered until he tried to go to the bathroom after our son was born; I remember gasping, "Don't leave!" when he turned for the bathroom door, a mere five feet away. He stayed by my side for an extra ten minutes, despite not having peed in over six hours. Now, he feeds me a bite of ice cream and I remember how, at our proposal, after the final refrain of "Love is all you need," he dipped onto his knee and began, "Our love is a rare love..."
Anyone can learn to unfold a stroller. It takes a rare love to locate the backup rocky road.