The Cure For Sleep (W&N: Feb 2022) is a memoir about effort. How we choose to change in response to unsought gifts, sudden emergencies and strangely-timed encounters.
The May extract concerns how I attempted to bond with my small son after a sudden near-death experience which left with me none of the tender feelings of new motherhood as described in books, baby manuals and forums.
After reading, do share a short true tale of your own - no more than 250 words – on the theme of bonding through effort rather than instinct - with a person, family, community, place or creature – in the comments section.
Image from author’s collection: Book of Life - The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of the Human Mind and Body
Our survival kit would be composed of no received ideas, only food, shelter, cleanliness, and warmth (of skin, voice, gaze). I would learn him, and he me.
I was still terrified of being left all alone with a baby, but now I felt determined, and yes, a little excited too. Because hadn’t I done this before, as a child? Sent half of me ahead up the lane, while my other part trekked slow to safety? And mad as it would sound to anyone if they knew, how did it matter what moved me so long as it was felt by my child as love?
I emptied the little nursery of childcare manuals and baby magazines, and restocked it with true stories of endurance, endeavour: books I’d bought compulsively over the years, but never bothered to read, as if just having them to hand would make me braver, by contagious magic. Scott’s diaries. Thoreau’s. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: that epic celebration of the body, free love and free-thinking – a set text from long ago that I’d only skim read then, finding it too alarmingly-far from my own cramped sense of self.
Made then a base camp out of blankets and pillows at floor level where I could manage best with my bad back. Carried up a flask, our camping radio, candles, cartons of formula, nappies, changes of clothes, and food rations for me.
Went back down, panting with effort and adrenaline, and asked Nye for the baby. I need to be alone with him now until I go through my fear and out the other side…
Then, over my shoulder as I went up, a grim little joke to show I was not mad or manic. Only attempting heroic stoicism, in the style of Titus Oates. I’m just going upstairs, I may be some time.
Most new parents prefer their child asleep. In repose, eyes closed and quiet, a baby is a sweet good thing, easy to love.
But now, I needed my son awake. On the floor in the far corner of his nursery, with a draught from the window coming in, I stripped him, then me. Nappy, maternity pants, nursing bra; each tiny movement of his limbs and mine making pain flare where I’d been sliced and stitched twice-over. Next, using nail scissors I couldn’t imagine taking ever to his unpredictable fingers, I cut us free of the plastic name shackles put on at the hospital (left on so long through my fear of rupturing again).
And there we were at last: two naked animals, wide-eyed and facing one another.
I put my lips to the soft place on top of his head where smell pulsed strongest. Nosed at him, but still nothing moved in me. Birth cries, hot skin; the metallic tang which triggers recognition: all this was missing between us, even before the still more violent separation that came later with the haemorrhage. Delivered by emergency Caesarian after a two-day labour, he’d arrived still and silent, and was taken away from me out of view. When placed in my arms long minutes later, he was already blanket-wrapped and wiped clean of his messy, necessary scent.
He struggled now against my chest that was not his father’s, and began to fuss.
Panic, self-disgust. I was not what he wanted.
I laid him away against my bent knees still better to see each other and began to sing. It was only, at first, for myself; a whistling in the dark, for courage; a way to ease my unease. But his body began to respond, tensing and turning about in search of the sound, so that I tuned myself to him in turn, making with my face each shape that passed across his, my song modulating as I did. If his hands spasmed closer to mine, I brought them to my lips and kissed them, still singing so he’d feel the hum of me against his skin. When he made a noise, I echoed it. In this way, through a sort of whale music, we floated free from clock-time, our culture. Began, unobserved, on the depth work of becoming mother and son.