Friday, September 13, 2019

Fiji by Ateret Haselkorn

A new mother visits a friend for lunch and recalls her struggle to get out of the house with baby Henry; by Ateret Haselkorn.

Theodora needed an emergency Cesarean section, Belen followed her birth plan but tore, and Justine did it all at home in front of her entire family.

These are the things I've learned about the women in my new mothers' group, before I know where they're from or how long they've lived in the neighborhood. Our standards, the metrics against which we peg ourselves and our babies, are presented within moments of meeting. I know that some moms slept for two hours at a time for four months but a few got five within two. I know "Jackson was born at seven fourteen" doesn't represent a time but a weight in pounds and ounces, and that "did you save it" intrinsically suggests the placenta. What else could it be?

These women understand when I say that I have a running mental account of people whom I'd never want to touch my baby, or that I have task lists that include every minute step - making sure the stove is off, the oven door closed, the front door locked - needed before leaving the house. Of course it's best to do it that way, we leave little to chance when all of our instincts are wrapped up in recognizing hunger signals, acid reflux, and gassiness.

Theodora was once so tired that she forgot to attach bottles, and pumped breast milk directly onto her lap. One time I realized that my nipples were exposed in the background of a baby photo a second after texting it to my family. That got a good laugh from the mothers' group, which was nice because it had made me want to cry at the time. Well, that and how I'd just sneezed and was going to have to change both Henry's diaper and my own.

You see, in the group, we don't judge, we wrap failures around ourselves like swaddles.

Yet, as much as I grow connected to these women, I often fear I'm losing my link to my old friends, those who haven't crossed the threshold into parenting. I was trying to explain to one

that, after managing to shower, the greatest satisfaction I derived in the first two months of Henry's life was from eating an entire slice of toast in one sitting. She didn't get it.

Mothers' groups understand that nature has hijacked our bodies in ways we at once thrive upon and are exhausted by. They know that crossing the threshold into motherhood can be like the tides, the way they slowly pool around your ankles until at some point you realize that you are in all the way with no turning back. Maybe even drowning a bit.

Still, I'm determined to at least maintain the close friendships I had before I had Henry. I actually made it out to lunch with an old friend from college, Kim, last week, which meant sitting at a table watching her eat a burger and fries while I tried to breastfeed under one of those stupid nursing curtains while at the same time focusing on the conversation.

Kim had just returned from a trip to Fiji and, after the obligatory cooing over my son, was telling me about it.

"It was a last minute getaway - this deal popped up online and we grabbed it! I just threw a few swimsuits and sundresses into a bag and we headed to the airport a few hours after we bought the tickets." Kim was beaming. Her skin glowed like the skin of a tanned woman who has just slept for ten hours. Ten uninterrupted hours. The idea was more foreign than Fiji itself.

I thought back to the last trip that I'd taken, which was the walk through our San Francisco neighborhood to reach the restaurant forty-five minutes earlier. I'd started planning the day before - packing the diaper bag, preparing my water bottle, even pinning the straps of the stroller seat back so I could just put Henry straight in as soon as he'd fallen asleep.

Kim pulled out her phone and leaned forward. "Look! Here's a photo of the island where we stayed. It was amazing."

Before leaving the house, Henry had fallen asleep after I'd nursed him, so I'd put him right into the stroller without burping him. The fact that we were leaving five minutes ahead of my hopeful schedule was amazing.

"You can walk around the entire island in about ten minutes, so the only trade-off is that it makes it hard to jog for exercise, you have to turn a bit the whole time."

As soon as Henry and I were on our way, he woke up and started crying. I did all the things moms are supposed to do - shushing, the pacifier, massaging his belly, all of it. When his cries escalated to the sound of a monkey screaming, I pulled him out of the stroller and parked it next to a stop sign. I braced him against my shoulder and rubbed his back as people in the surrounding apartments opened their windows and looked out, and tattooed former hippies walked by and gave me looks of pity through their foggy eyes. Henry's burp was loud and with it came a stream of spit-up that landed on my shoulder and ran down the inside of my shirt. But that's ok, being filthy was a small trade-off to make in the name of lunch with an adult.

"Oh!" Kim continued. "Here's one of me playing volleyball. There was an afternoon game every day! Oh, Laura, it was so funny, my boob actually fell out of my bikini when I spiked the ball."

I smiled. After Henry had burped I put him back in the stroller and made it for two more blocks before he started hollering again. At this point, his spit up was mixing with my frantic sweat and pooling beneath my bra. I spotted a parking lot across the street with a wooden bench beneath some signs that said things like, "You are enough" and "Love the world" and I plopped down to nurse him again there, trying to hide my boob behind a blanket with baby ducks on it as it was the closest thing I could grab. A car pulled into the lot and this mother with bright red Doc Martins got out with her teenage son, looked at me, and said, "We are so happy you are using the bench! He (pointing at son) made the bench!" I mumbled thanks and tried to hide my breasts from the teenager, who was looking at me with happy guilt.

Kim took a bite of her burger and chewed it in a way I couldn't recognize for a moment because it was so alien. Thoughtfully, I told myself. She is eating thoughtfully. "The only thing," she continued, "was that it got kind of crowded towards the end of the week, but you get beach chairs under trees that are assigned to your cabin, so it wasn't so bad."

In the parking lot, nursing complete, I patted Henry's back a bit and off we went. One block later, he started to cry again and I tried to ignore it in the name of making it to lunch on time. As I maneuvered the stroller between cracks on the street and parked electric vehicles, he started to sound like a hyena massacring a young elephant, so I pulled us over again by an office building I thought would be closed on a Sunday. I braked, lifted Henry out, and got two burps out of him before the office doors opened and a swarm of engineers in plaid shirts and khaki pants exited the building, squeezing themselves by the parked stroller that I didn't have the hands to move and giving me awkward glances. I forgot that Silicon Valley engineers don't have weekends. I was like a maternal minority in a land of AI.

Kim began to eat her French fries and I tried to look at her vacation photos and not stare at her food. Nursing makes me voraciously hungry and my plate lay before me untouched because my hands were full of baby. "We ate tons of fresh fish in Fiji. I stained my favorite white shirt with curry sauce but I think it will wash out."

For the next phase of our journey, I didn't risk putting Henry back in the stroller but held him against my shoulder and pushed the stroller with my free hand. He was calm, and I wasn't about to mess with calm. Then I heard him grunt twice, the first short and the second a familiar, long-lasting emission, as a huge, noisy poop emanated from his lower half. "Henry!" I said, as if it would matter. Before I could speak again, he repeated the act and I felt my chest grow warm. No. But it was too late, I lifted him up and took in two things. One, his large, goofy smile and, two, a mess of baby shit dripping down the front of my shirt. Some of it entered my ballet flats and pooled between my toes.

I had to turn us around. My rules of personal hygiene have shifted, but not to the point where I'd eat lunch covered in shit. Since Henry had waited until I'd reached the bottom of the hill near our home to relieve himself, I had to push him and the stroller uphill and I was panting so hard I couldn't speak, not that I'd have anything to say to anyone who asked. I saw six people up ahead and prayed that they wouldn't see me, that they'd be absorbed in their phones, that they'd not notice that my front half was covered in shit and my back in spit up. By some miracle, they were all wearing blindfolds and carrying guide sticks. Design students usually wear horn-rimmed glasses and carry iPads, but these must have been trying to experience blindness for some related product construction. I was safe! Yet, as all six of their heads turned one after the other to follow our spectacle, I remembered that losing one sense makes the others stronger and our scent must have revealed our presence.

Unaware of my ongoing reflection, Kim continued telling me about her story. "Customs was such a pain on the way back, and the security line on the way there was so long I thought we'd miss our flight. Do you think they can see us all naked on those scanners?"

When Henry and I finally got home, I threw the door open and heard the electronic, female voice of our Nest security system tell me to punch in the code to disarm the alarm, which I did. I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut my shirt off to avoid pulling the mixture of bodily fluids over my face and head, letting the pieces drop directly into the garbage can. Finally, half naked and partially stained in brown and white, I had a minute of peace and quiet before the entire house started to wail, "Burglar! The police have been called! Wee-ooo-wee-ooo." Crap, I'd entered the wrong alarm code. This wasn't a surprise as there is a large hole in the center of my mind where thoughts fall in. First there was pregnancy brain, then baby brain, then a line up of issues ready to take over, like an alien invasion or that scene in The Matrix where you realize people are really hooked up to a machine that is sucking the life out of them.

The alarm made Henry scream again and sent my cell phone rapid-fire text message alerts about this supposed burglary, because everyone knows that texting will stop crime in its place. All of this made it very hard to remember the correct code. Birthdays and anniversaries ran through my mind, forwards and backwards, as I fumbled and entered something or other until the noise stopped.

"Is something wrong?" a male voice asked. "I got a text alert about a burgla - oh, my." I turned around to see my neighbor, the head of the neighborhood watch, standing behind me (I forgot to close the door - remember, I need checklists for everything nowadays). I realized he was seeing my half-naked, shit-covered body, and then realized I didn't care. Or, give a shit, if you will.

"Anyway," Kim continued. "Laura, I brought you something, for you and your little angel."

"Angel?"

"Yes, look at him, nursing peacefully. And he let you get out! When you said you were running late, I assumed you'd have to cancel altogether."

Henry started making large slurping noises just then, so loud that people at another table turned to look at us. Kim giggled and handed me an envelope. Inside was a gift card for a spa day.

"I'm sure you could use some time for you," she said. "And, before you say no, I Googled it, and they have special refrigerators for women who need to pump and store their milk. I will watch Henry while you go."

"Really? They have that?"

"Yes." And then, Kim did the nicest, most Nobel-prize worthy thing anyone could do. She leaned forward, picked up one of my french fries, and put it into my mouth.

"Kim, until now my most relaxing moments have been the ones when the sunlight comes through our bathroom skylight and touches my shoulders as I take my Sitz bath."

"A what?"

"Never mind. Thank you for this." I have to look down because I don't want her to see that I'm crying a little. I don't know if I'll make it to a spa before Henry turns eighteen, but babysitting... that just blows me over.

"Is he ok?" Kim asked, probably thinking I'm looking down at him.

"Well, he's fine but I'm a little fussy."

"You'll get through this, you know. I know you, Laura. You'll just Wonder-Woman it." She then picked up three fries and put them all into my mouth. "Why don't you hand him to me so you can eat?"

I couldn't risk the stroller again, he'd just wake up and start crying. I quickly scanned Kim's eyes, nose, and mouth for signs of contagion, mentally added her to the list of people who are allowed to touch Henry, and then unlatched him and handed him over across the table. My burger tasted like filet mignon. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Silence can be delicious too.

Kim started giggling. "This reminds me of when we were in college and you couldn't talk for three days after we went to see Pearl Jam."

I snort. I forgot about that, how I used to go to concerts. I would get tickets right when they went on sale and arrive at the venue early to try to get close to the stage. The memory triggers this odd feeling, not exactly of nostalgia, but of wholeness, as if I woke up from a coma with amnesia and just recalled who I was. I look at Kim, through my tears.

"Kim, thank you for reminding -"

"Laura, you have something on your neck, it looks like mud."

I grab a napkin, knowing what it is without having to look, and quickly wipe myself. Then I stare at it, white cloth smeared with remnants of Henry's poop, some of which has ended up under my fingernails. Should I tell her? Nah.

"Must be mud from the playground," I say, rolling it up and putting it off to the side. The mothers' group would understand.

7 comments:

  1. I laughed until I cried when reading this wonderful story depicting reality. The author is clearly talented, sober yet humorous.
    I can't wait to read more pieces by her.

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  2. A story to which mothers could relate.

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  3. What a well-crafted story this is! It's easy to be distracted by the content, but this isn't a story just for moms. It's really great writing anyone can enjoy.

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  4. Great humor and a happy turn at the end. Everyone needs a friend who "gets it".

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  5. As a mom, I loved this story...

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  6. Depicts the life-changing reality of becoming a mother in a humorous, honest and painfully touching way.

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