The sun isn’t even awake yet, but she’s already a failure.
It’s the formula this time. She mixes the powder and water and realizes too late that she has grabbed a bottle from the dirty side of the sink. She has to start again. As she dumps it, she does the quick math in her head; 29.5 ounces in the can. The can was $34.99. 2 ounces in the bottle. How much money per ounce? It doesn’t matter. It’s liquid money oozing down the drain. Money that they hadn’t planned for and definitely didn’t have to spare.
It is, after all, completely her fault. She was supposed to breastfeed. She had prepared to breastfeed. She’d taken the classes and read the articles. Breast milk is best; that’s what all the websites say. Breast fed babies become early readers who become successful members of society. Formula is the absolute worst thing for brain growth and newborn immune systems. Formula fed babies are sickly and fat; they are more likely to have developmental delays and problems with addiction later in life. Formula is nothing but chemicals and poison.
But she couldn’t produce enough breast milk. She tried, but The Baby wasn’t gaining enough weight. The doctor and nurses said that she needed to try harder. They gave her tubes and pumps and stood by and observed and offered suggestions, but she was just so very tired that her head swam and her eyes watered. The slim, black-haired nurse laughed and told her that she was going to be tired for the next 18 years, so she might as well get used to it now. They warned her that an underfed baby could develop health problems. When the tears came, the young, pretty nurse told her that she needed to stop crying because The Baby deserved a mother who didn’t break down all the time.
She should have been stronger. She should have tried harder. But when Jimmy suggested they at least try formula, she knew that she had let them both down. What was worse; she was relieved. She was terribly, selfishly relieved that she didn’t have to try anymore. She chose her own stupid convenience over the health of her child. The reality of it made her insides feel like ice, but the damage had been done. And now Jimmy has to worry about money even more than he already does. Jimmy has to reconfigure their already threadbare budget because of her laziness. Jimmy has to bear even more, and the stress of it will make him sick. He says that it’s not her fault. He pats her back and makes her tea and assures her that it’s okay, but she knows better. She knows that he resents her. She knows that he thinks she’s not fit to be a mother. She knows that every eye roll, every sigh, every scoff he makes that he is taking mental inventory of all the ways she has failed them. The guilt she feels every time Jimmy steps in to help is suffocating, and it crushes her over and over again. She shouldn’t need help. A good mother doesn’t need help.
Two nights ago, she awoke from a disorienting dream and didn’t remember that she was a mother until she realized that the strange, sharply foreign sound in the room was coming from The Baby, not her alarm clock. The Baby had been crying for quite some time; she could tell by the damp brow and angry red face. All of the Dark Things swam to the front of her brain at once. What if The Baby had been choking? What if The Baby was hurt? What if The Baby had fallen out of the crib and couldn’t breathe? The Baby could have died, and she wouldn’t have known until the morning. Jimmy would leave her, the authorities would come, and she would spend the rest of her life behind bars. She might have killed The Baby because of her stupidity.
She first experienced the Dark Things on the night they came home from the hospital, when The Baby started crying and just wouldn’t stop. Jimmy was gone; he had overnight shifts that week, so they were all alone together. She held The Baby in her arms and paced the entire house, swaying and rocking, singing and pleading, but still The Baby wailed. Her whole body ached, and every step felt like fire in her gut. Blood seeped through her pajama pants. She was so frustrated, so furious. All she wanted was sleep; she physically longed for it. Didn’t she deserve it? There was no reason for this little person to be upset. She was doing everything in her power to make things safe and happy. She had sacrificed everything. Everything. Why wasn’t it appreciated? Why wasn’t it enough? Anger bubbled in her chest until it burst out all at once. She looked down at the stranger in her arms and yelled “Stupid baby!” with all her might. And then she held The Baby close to her chest and sobbed, confused and so deeply ashamed that for a moment she considered calling the police and begging them to take The Baby away. She has never told Jimmy and she never will, because she can’t bear the thought of Jimmy knowing how terrible she truly is; how weak and silly she must be to allow the Dark Things into her brain so easily.
She sometimes thinks about telling Louanne, though. Louanne is a great mother. Louanne wears her baby in a sling across her chest wherever she goes. Louanne breastfeeds without inhibition, and she buys organic blankets and cloth diapers. Louanne’s baby is plump and happy. When she comes to visit, she brings Blessed Thistle leaves for lactation and articles on the benefits of breast milk that she prints from the Internet.
“Lou, do you ever get sad?” she asked during last week’s visit.
Louanne furrowed her brow. “Sad? What do you mean?”
“Do you ever get sad about being a mother? Or like, just start to cry when you think about it?”
Louanne gasped. She was horrified. “God, no. Being a mother is my life’s calling.”
“But do you ever worry that you’re not learning how to do it fast enough?”
Louanne leaned in. “What do you mean, learning? There’s nothing to learn. I never had any trouble. I just knew how to do it.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Even the crying? Don’t you ever get frustrated trying to figure out what they want?”
“No. Not really. A mother knows her child’s cries.”
“Do you ever get worried that bad things are going to happen? Falls or accidents or things?”
“Uh. Not really. It’s my job to not let bad things happen.”
And now Louanne is suspicious. Now Louanne watches carefully when she visits, and she knows that Louanne is checking off boxes in her mental notebook and making judgments.
The Baby is fussy, and the sun is coming up. She sits on the couch and carefully, gingerly, and watches as her daughter suckles the bottle. Together they’ll face another day as strangers. Perhaps the Dark Things will come back today. Perhaps she won’t let them in. Maybe she is definitely going to ask for help. Maybe she is worthy of motherhood. At this moment, she is enough. The Baby is enough. Love is enough.