I’m in bed with Charles. The air around us is close in the small bedroom, and the chilly San Francisco June wind rattles the windows against their frames. I hug Charles to me: one arm under him, the other draped over him. His head sinks into the pillow and my nose crunches into the back of his neck. Behind me, his brother Jasper snores loudly in a high pitched squeak that hasn’t quite found its rhythm. He presses his feet against my lower back, and his nose, a slight dampness, grazes my neck. I close my eyes and wait for sleep to come.
On the far side of the bed, my husband Tim’s steady breaths tell me he’s already asleep. I lie very still, listening to the breathing all around me. I wonder if anyone’s listening to mine and then I remember that this baby, my baby, listens to my breathing all the time. I reach down and place a hand against my giant, taut belly. Sometimes at night I can feel a knee jutting out or a firm kick. But tonight it is simply smooth and round.
And then something warm trickles onto my leg. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. I wait. A gush of water pours onto both legs.
“Uh, oh,” I say.
“What?” Tim shouts from the edge of sleep, startling Charles and Jasper who emerge from the under the covers.
“My water just broke.”
“Okay,” Tim says, doing his best to appear calm. He leaps out of bed and races from the bedroom. I don’t know where he’s going.
The boys sit up, their ears stiff and alert, alarmed by our peculiar behavior.
“It’s okay, boys,” I say.
I can hear Tim rummaging through the closet in the den across the hall for the hospital overnight bag.
“Get me some towels!” I shout.
In the dim light I stroke the boys, feeling the warm, familiar shapes of their Siamese heads under my hands. Charles and Jasper are always “the boys,” never “the cats.” They have slept tucked on either side of me for nine years and have left lasting impressions on almost everyone who has met them. Charles’s obsession with chewing on expensive wool, which earned him the nickname “Chewy,” has left many a hole in the sweaters of overnight guests who didn’t heed our warnings. Jasper’s favorite pastime of chasing down and devouring dollar bills must have cost us at least $500. And Charles’s hatred of shut doors, which he expresses by heaving his twenty-pound bulk against the offending door while producing ear-piercing cries of fury, was once diagnosed as “bad attitude” by a Los Angeles pet psychologist. Their distinct “attitudes” are what make Charles and Jasper so unique. Their opinionated voices have greeted me at the door every night: complaining, inspiring, frustrating, and comforting me. I couldn’t ever try to change them.
When people ask if we’re going to do the family bed with the baby, I say, “No, we already have a family bed with the boys. There’s no room for the baby.” Though this conjures strange looks I hold firm: the baby will not displace the boys in my affections.
Tim reappears, looking slightly off-kilter with his glasses crooked, his hair standing on end. He’s wearing my college sweatshirt, which only comes three-quarters of the way down his arm. He helps me tuck a towel between my legs and moves the cradle he put together a few days ago, so I can get out the bedroom door. Behind us, the boys stay in bed, still sitting up on high alert.
At the hospital I experience all back labor: exactly what the childbirth prep instructors say you should hope you never have. All the techniques I learned are useless now. The teacher who reprimanded Tim and me for laughing in class should have taught everyone in the class to swear loudly, without reserve, because that is the most effective painkiller right now.
“Call the cat-sitter,” I tell Tim as I come down off a contraction and finish a round of expletives. I’m on all fours, the only position that gives me some relief. “Make sure she’s there for the boys in the morning.”
“It’s three a.m,” he says.
“Oh,” I say, hanging my head down.
By eight I’ve had the epidural. I never would have imagined that being numb from the waist down would feel so fantastic.
“You’re going to be holding your baby in just a few hours,” the nurse says. Baby? Right. At the end of all this, I’ll have a baby.
“Call the sitter,” I tell Tim, who is prostrate on the cot next to my bed. He sits up groggily and obliges me.
“Have her call us back so we know she got the message,” I shout. But Tim’s already hung up. He looks at me. I know he thinks this is crazy. But then he must remember I’m a woman in labor because, without saying anything, he calls the poor cat-sitter back and leaves another message.
At two that afternoon, in a big whoosh, she’s born.
The nurse places her on my chest. I take in her round, intelligent little face with its puckered cherry lips and her father’s chin. The nurse puts an oxygen mask near her face and this makes her very red. Suddenly, I’m terrified. I have no idea what to do.
Do I stroke her? Snuggle her? I wonder, noticing that she’s still a little wet. She’s not a cat,an inner voice responds.
In the end, I don’t touch her. I just watch. Sparse, blondish hairs cover the top of her large head. One chubby hand clenches tightly. Her head lifts ever so slightly and she looks at me, her blue eyes wide open, her upper lip sucking steadily on her lower one. I think this should be a deep bonding moment with my spectacular daughter. But it’s nothing like that. I just feel like a spent woman with a baby on her chest.
“I don’t have that instant love, maternal thing,” I tell a friend who comes to visit the next day.
“That’s ridiculous,” she says quickly. She’s holding the baby, cooing into her face. “Look how you are with the boys.” I’m not convinced.
I’ve read at least 15 theories purporting to know the best way to introduce pets to new babies. In the end, we formulate our own plan for introducing the boys to the baby. It’s not elaborate and it doesn’t follow any of the prescribed steps in the books. The boys shout loudly, rudely, expressing their distress at being left for two days. We greet them, pat them, tell them we have a surprise for them. We set the baby on the floor in her car seat. Our plan is executed.
The boys are perplexed, but fascinated. They poke their heads into the car seat and sniff gently at the baby’s face. She’s fast asleep. They look to us for some explanation. Then she moves: a tiny arm thrown in the air, followed by a grunt. Startled, the boys jump back in unison, but move closer for further inspection once she’s still again.
As the June wind whistles down the street outside, we take a picture. The boys’ beautiful heads hold tentatively at the edge of the car seat, their ears forward and erect, their blue eyes large, glistening circles, while the baby sleeps, oblivious, her hospital-issued pink and blue hat cutting a crooked line across the top of her forehead. Later, we will send the picture to all our friends, and everyone will love it.
The baby begins to cry. She cries for 48 hours, with only a few intermissions for sleep. She will sleep only if she is in our arms. Nothing we do calms her down. This is a disaster.
Our first night home, the boys get into bed at eleven o’clock by themselves, frustrated that we’re still up, not understanding this strange routine and this bizarre screaming creature. They burrow under the covers but are disrupted, almost as soon as they’ve settled in, by howling cries from the baby. The crying upsets Charles. He puts his tail between his legs, climbs on top of Jasper, and bites his back. Jasper yowls in protest.
“Cut it out!” Tim yells.
Charles retreats downstairs, devastated. I’m holding the baby, ineffectively bouncing her up and down while she continues to shriek. I try nursing her. She latches onto to my nipple with a death grip. I stomp my foot to keep from yelling and forget about Charles.
After a few weeks, we all settle down. Several trips to the lactation consultant have made nursing bearable. The boys sit with the baby and me while I feed her, change her diaper, read her Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and they somehow manage to insert themselves into almost every picture we take. Charles continues to bite Jasper when the baby cries, but she doesn’t cry very much anymore. When she is eight weeks old, she sleeps eight hours at night and we return to our old, nightly snuggle-down routine with the boys. I love to lie in bed with the boys pressed against me, listening to the baby sleeping: her noisy, grunty breathing filling the room.
One early morning, when the baby is four months old and has moved into her own room, I am awakened by loud wheezing in the hall. Jasper has a hairball. Charles jumps down to investigate, his neglected claws clicking on the wood floor. I hear the baby stir. The wheeze turns into a hack. Jasper is vomiting. Charles pounces on Jasper. They charge down the stairs and then back up.
“Boys!” I whisper. I’m now in the hall. “Stop it!”
I grab at them as they fly past me and catch Jasper in my hands. He squawks. I feel gritty vomit under my bare foot. I pitch Jasper back onto the bed before I go wash off my foot. Back in bed, the boys immediately want to clamp onto me. But I push them away.
I go check on the baby. She’s sound asleep, both arms stretched up over her head. I spend the next hour waiting for the baby to wake up, watching her lovely round face, so relaxed, and her little shape so perfectly formed under the pink and white blanket. In the stillness of the early morning, as the moon and stars outside begin to give way to low, dense fog, I see every twitch of her mouth and hear every sound she makes. I breathe in her sweet, clean baby smell. This is my daughter. Like the morning fog slowly lifting to reveal the city’s beauty, the glory of motherhood is unveiled for me. Relief sweeps over me. I do have that maternal thing.
At the weekly playgroup my baby sits propped up in a Boppy pillow. Other babies roll around on the floor. One older baby already crawls. My baby doesn’t roll over yet. I yawn, unable to conceal my fatigue.
“My cats had me up at four-thirty,” I say.
“My kid woke me up at one-thirty, three-thirty and then for good at five,” one mom says. I feel silly for complaining about the boys when my baby sleeps for longer stretches than any of the others. Then the sleep-deprived mom says, “I want to give my cats away. I just can’t deal with them anymore.”
“I know what you mean!” says another mom. “Before the baby came, my cat was everything, but as soon as you got here. . .” The mom scoops up her baby in a big, showy I-love-you kind of scoop. “As soon as you got here, I couldn’t care less about that cat!” The women all laugh and all the babies are swept up and swung about amidst squeals and baby talk. My baby stays in the Boppy pillow. She shakes her cat-rattle at me and smiles. I’m horrified that I started a get-rid-of-the-cat discussion. These women’s cats were merely stand-ins for the babies they didn’t yet have and are expendable now that the real thing is here.
When I get home I give the boys a little more attention than usual. I rub noses with Charles and kiss the top of his head, starting his full-throttle purr. I let Jasper crawl up onto my shoulder for his favorite kind of hug. My boys were never stand-ins.
The baby finally crawls when she’s almost 11 months old. Her newfound mobility perplexes the boys, particularly when she propels herself at high speed right at them and squeals shrilly in their faces. One May afternoon, as the sun shines through the den window, Charles swats at the baby. The baby falls back and starts to cry. I slap Charles’ extended paw and tell him to move away when the baby comes near.
“He’s too lazy to move,” Tim says. “We have to watch him. He could hurt her with those claws, you know.”
But I know Charles is a gentle soul. He won’t ever hurt the baby.
I pick the baby up and tell her she has to be gentle with the boys and respect their space. After that, Charles reluctantly retreats to the higher ground of his cat tower whenever the baby approaches.
A short time after the swatting incident, as I’m preparing dinner, I hear Jasper yelling behind me. I turn to see the baby stroking him on the back, doing her best to keep her jerky movements gentle. Jasper crouches on the floor, consenting to her touch but voicing his objections: letting me know this is a compromise for him.
In June, we’re in the middle of one of San Francisco’s unusual heat waves. We set up the fan so it blows into the baby’s room because hot air blowing seems better than stagnant hot air. The baby has been asleep for an hour, and if I’m lucky she’ll stay asleep for another one.
Jasper contents himself with lying fully sprawled on the relatively cooler hardwood floor, his front paws up in the air. But Charles is fed up with the heat. He grumbles at me to do something about his discomfort, paces back and forth downstairs, demands to be let out on the deck, demands to be let back in.
Out of the corner of my eye I see him slip up the stairs. A moment later, I hear terrified wails from the baby. I know exactly what’s happened. I charge up the stairs, catching Charles coming out of the baby’s room, still roaring big loud yowls. In a rage I pick him up and toss him down the stairs. For a brief moment, as he hurtles through the air, I wonder if his heft will allow him to land on all fours and I take in a sharp breath that I hold until I see his paws touch down. Then my anger resumes. Charles withdraws downstairs. I don’t hear from him for the rest of the day.
“Charles looks bruised,” Tim says when he arrives home.
“Serves him right for waking the baby,” I say.
Two days later the heat has subsided and Tim is out of town on business. The heat wave has exhausted us all, and when the baby is asleep we turn in for an early night. Charles wraps his whole body around me, his head rubbing against my shoulder. Jasper rests his paws and head on my other shoulder and we all delight in the familiar, cool June wind blowing in the wide-open window. At two in the morning we’re awakened by the baby crying: sad, persistent cries peppered with “Mama!” We’re in the midst of dealing with sleep troubles and have resolved, at the advice of our pediatrician, to let the baby cry. Despite my urge to simply go peek in the door, I stick with the plan and let her be. When she stops crying and all is quiet again, I pull the boys even closer to me.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to Charles. “I’m sorry I threw you down the stairs.”
When we return home from a two-week vacation in August, Jasper greets the baby like she’s one of us; he kisses her on the face and rubs his body all over her, purring. She laughs and squeals and opens her mouth in a smile, revealing all her shiny white teeth. Even Charles lets her pat him. When she rubs his back, she dances up and down in excitement.
I sit on the floor, Jasper crawling all over me and Charles scrunched into my lap. The baby learned to walk on our vacation and just about all she does now is practice this new skill. She disappears around a corner into the dining room. I don’t hear her or see her for a few minutes. And that’s when I finally understand the secret to life with the boys and baby. The boys are my anchor: the constant in my life. For as long as they live, they’ll always want me and need me. But every day, the baby grows — grows away from me.
I snuggle the boys, the vibrations of their loud purrs sinking into my body; their soft fur, soothing under my hands; their voices filled with attitude, charming me.
Caroline reappears down the hall. “Hi, Ch!” she shouts to Charles, her hand raised in an exuberant, joyful wave. She giggles. Then I’m left with only the quick thump-thump of my daughter’s feet against the wood floor as she heads off on her own to find something else to explore.