Every week you and your husband attend a birth class that’s a 25-minute drive away, in a clearing in the middle of an enormous, creepy cornfield, hosted on the brown shag carpet of a double-wide trailer by a fanatical no-drugs birther who spells her name Debborah (pronounced Deh-BOR-rah). Driving home, you giggle uncomfortably in the car. You find it all a little surreal. But that’s pregnancy for you.
You adopt the Debborah-approved pregnancy diet, which includes at least two eggs a day, weekly liver, and enough spinach to choke Popeye. (You supplement this diet with breakfast dessert and nightly Ben & Jerry’s because you feel entitled. Early in month nine when the first number on the scale rolls over, you stop getting on the scale.)
You take long, slow walks in the mornings, even though you have never in your adult life exercised on purpose, and even though walking causes your left hip to pop out of joint with an almost-comical internal sound effect (“boy-yoy-yoing!”). Apparently exercise is good for you and fetuses like it. So walks it is, even walks so slow they’re more like standing still.
You do not set up a nursery. You can’t bear to. You put baby presents away in the closet of the other bedroom without even taking them out of their shrinkwrap. You’re intensely superstitious, and hold firmly to the truism that new babies don’t need anything but diapers, a few onesies, and you. After all, one of your brothers-in-law slept in a cardboard box for a while, and he’s doing great. In the end, your husband races from the hospital to buy a crib, and feverishly installs it in the house the day before you and your daughter come home.
A few nights before she is born, you dream of a small, tender girl baby with a shock of soft, black hair. In the dream, you leave her alone on the changing table while you go to another room, and come back to find her sitting up, talking to you, telling you she could have fallen and you should be more careful. In the dream you name her Annie Beach.
And when your daughter finally arrives, 10 days past her due date, after 36 agonizing hours of labor and an emergency C-section, the nurse cries, “It’s a boy!” but you know she’s mistaken, and she is. Your daughter is red and wriggly and mad as hell, all the blood vessels in her eyes broken from being trapped in the birth canal, her head squeezed into a cone and her face purpled with bruises. She does have the gorgeous head of silky black hair, but you opt to name her for your husband’s grandmother. Iris, an old-fashioned flower name for your brand new feisty, hungry, strong, and vocal baby girl. Somehow it suits her perfectly.
Nursing is hard, your daughter insatiable. You’re exhausted and scared, and every part of your body hurts, down to your eyelashes. When the baby is sleeping, you lie in bed staring at her, your heart pounding. You can’t sleep yourself; the amount of adrenaline surging through you day and night could power a major metropolis. Deborrah has described a post-birth sensation of peace and a warm glow of achievement, but as you hobble to the bathroom, day three in your hospital gown and dressings, you wonder if those feelings are ever coming. When the nurses tell you you’re “allowed” to go home, you feel like arguing with them. “You’re going to make me take this infant home with me? I haven’t slept for a week, and I can’t even keep houseplants alive!”
Your baby doesn’t sleep. Well, she does, but she seems to be awake so much more of the time. Her eyes are bright little chips of starlight peering up into the midnight gloom. How can she be so awake when you’re so tired you’re nauseous and stupid? You cry all the time; she cries and you cry with her, or you cry quietly by yourself, dripping tears on her as she nurses and dozes on you instead of sleeping properly in her crib like the books say she should. Probably if you weren’t so tired and stupid you could figure out how to be a good mother and get her to sleep in the crib, oh boo hoo hoo.
Your sister comes to visit. She tells you you look “gray.” Your husband’s best friend visits. Your husband misses most of dinner because he’s sitting in the nursery holding the baby while she wails. You’re trying not to feed her more often than every two hours. You’re trying to get her on a schedule, see? She needs to sleep now rather than eat, see? The friend nods uncertainly, grabs another beer.
When you finally get the baby sleeping in the crib at night, you force all other activity in the household to cease. You make your husband watch TV sitting 2′ from it, the volume set at three notches, both of you whispering and creeping around in your stocking feet. You would sacrifice any comfort, perform any ridiculous contortion, just to get some sleep. This goes on for almost a year.
At around 14 months, you snuggle her in the glider during one of her last middle-of-the-night feeds. You breathe in her sleepy warmth, cup her foot in your palm. You look out the window at the quiet night, you and your daughter surely the only two people awake in the whole, wide world. She is everything and nothing like you dreamed. And you feel it all over, revel in it: the warmth, the peace, the glow of love.—Miller Murray Susen
Miller is a hyphenate whose enthusiasms include acting, directing, teaching, writing, and child wrangling.