“It doesn’t hurt,” the radiographer says, her voice light and cheery. Youthful. She shakes the gel, it slaps against the ends of the bottle, the vulgar noise harsh in the softness of the dim room.
"It did last time.” The words escape. Their weight settles on my chest, and each wretched syllable wraps around my throat and squeezes, forcing bitter tears from my eyes.
The transducer is cold as it skims the barren expanse above my pubic hair. She pushes hard on my bladder, and I squirm and hope it holds under the incursion.
“The first one can be a bit uncomfortable,” she says.
I stare at the light switch by the door. Three switches and a dimmer. Such an unobtrusive object. So essential. In this dim room of hope, who else lay on the bed and gave it thanks?
“You can see on this screen here.”
The third switch comes after the dimmer. Two switches, a dimmer, and then another switch. On. Off. Light. Dark. Yes. No. Life. Death.
Her arm points at the screen and eventually drifts to her side.
The silence stretches and I hear her swallow. I sense the inevitable question looming.
“Is this your first pregnancy?”
“No, it’s my sixth.” She should know better.
She seems surprised, clearly her assumptions reach wide.
“They must keep you busy.” So light. So cheerful. So youthful.
“I don’t have any children.”
Even in the dim lighting, I see the shame splash over her face. Her gaze drops to my notes. I know what she sees. G6P0. I stared at that line too, surrounded by swollen bellies in the waiting room, and contemplated my failures. I stare at the light switch now. On. Off. Light. Dark. Yes. No. Life. Death.
“There’s a heartbeat,” she says.
I stare at the tiny fingers entwined in the strands of pink merino. Clutching them, like they’re her only lifeline. Perhaps she’s right.
I rest my tea on the coffee table and try to summon the energy to lean over and free her pinky.
“You’ll hold her in your arms, and feel love in its purest form,” my mother-in-law said, before she was born.
The cuff of my dressing gown catches the handle of the bassinet and it tips. I lurch and stumble, catching it before it falls.
I hold her in my arms and…
I look at the clock hanging on the wall in the kitchen. How many minutes should I wait?
Her toothless mouth opens to a red gaping chasm, her tongue vibrating with each scream. My breasts tingle and two dark, desolation-shaped splotches form on my dressing gown.
I look at the clock. The second hand jerks from one second to the next. Jerk. Tock. Jerk. Tock. Jerk. Tock.
She sucks in a sob-soaked breath between each scream. She’s seventeen days old. Seventeen days of relentless, soul-crushing screaming.
I look at the clock. The second hand still jerks from one second to the next. Like the arm is reluctant to leave. Like it’s being dragged forward.
Her face is red and a sheen glistens on her forehead. Perhaps I should feed her. I look at the clock and subtract forty-five minutes from three hours from now. Nothing. My mind clings to the jerking hand, hitching a ride out of this reality.
Four weeks ago, I wore power suits and shuffled money around the globe with a series of precise clicks. And now, my soiled dressing gown and I are dithering in the kitchen, about a single adjustment to the feed-sleep routine.
Nose to nipple. Or chin to nipple? A milk drop hangs from the remains of my nipple, primed in anticipation. At least one part of me is working.
She’s screaming with such ferocity that she’s rigid, and I struggle to get her in a comfortable position. She stretches out her tiny fingers, pink, rigid, and I wonder, if I tried to bend them, would they just snap right off.
Four weeks ago, I was a pregnant merchant banker, eagerly anticipating a long-awaited child.
Now I’m a monster.
We finally wrestle close enough for her to latch.
“Breast feeding is a special bonding time with your baby,” the antenatal teacher had said on the first night. And on every night thereafter.
It feels like I’m nursing a piranha. I’m holding her in my arms, she’s nursing, and I’m looking into her eyes.
At her eyes. One of them is sticky.
I look at the clock. The second hand jerks forward. Jerk. Tock. Jerk. Tock. Jerk. Tock.
I lay my head on the couch and.
I wake to the front door opening. The baby stirs in my arms, and for a moment I wonder whose baby I’m holding. Then the crushing weight of realisation falls on my soul. It’s mine.
“Hey, sorry, did I wake you?” My sister puts a bag of something-helpful on the bench.
I follow her gaze as it passes over the half-drunk tea, the pile of dishes in the sink and the debris of my past life scattered over the lounge.
“Are you okay?” she asks, her eyebrows creeping together, forming three lines between them.
“I chose this,” I say, not quite succeeding at keeping the bitterness out of my voice.
She sits and puts her feet on the edge of the couch. I’m listening, she says with her whole body.
“I fought so hard, for this.” I gesture with my head, not wanting to wake the baby.
“You fought harder than most.”
“I should enjoy it. I should be grateful.” I struggle to lower my voice. It’s hard to have an adult conversation with a screaming baby.
She shrugs. “Everyone finds it tough at first.”
“It was my dream job. Being a mum.” The tears are gathering and then falling. The milk starts in sympathy. “It’s not what I expected.”
Her reply is lost, drowned out by the screaming baby.
I sit in the waiting room, my daughter jiggling on the seat beside me.
“Will it hurt Mama?” she asks, golden curls tumbling around her porcelain face. Her bottom lip quivers.
I pull her onto my lap and kiss the top of her head. “Only for a second bubba, and then I’ve got a treatie in my bag for you.”
She peers at my handbag resting at my feet.
“What is it?” she asks, her demeanour shifting from miserable to inquisitive.
I smile and kiss the top of her head again. “You’ll have to wait until after.”
She climbs down and wanders over to the fish in the corner.
A lady with a bulging belly smiles at me. “How old is she?” she asks.
“Four,” I say. “We’re here for her jabs.”
She pats her tummy. “My first.”
“Got any advice?”
I think of everything I could say. How I could tell her the sleeplessness isn’t the worst of it. The sagging tummy, leaking bladder, sore breasts don’t even feature on the list of genuine horrors. How nothing can prepare you for the baptism of fire, which strips bare the hidden parts of yourself and reveals them to all the world. Your true self. Exposed. Vulnerable. And how the worst of it is, your true self might not be someone you knew. Or like.
Your true self might be a monster.
And then I see her sitting there, full of hope, naïve enthusiasm that can last, at most, four to six weeks.
I laugh and say, “Always check the dryer for crayons.”