My son was born on Memorial Day, a day of muted celebrations, reserved to honor loss. It was a fitting end to a difficult pregnancy. I spent most of it wrapped in a cocoon with my four year old, binding myself to her with fine threads of guilt. Where would love for this new baby come from, if not cut from Abbey’s share? How hard would she fall, when the center of her world shifted? Would my daughter’s first broken heart be ascribed to her own mother?
I had no recourse for my fears, no one to share them with. Sensing the roots of irrationality, I pruned my thoughts close to my heart, where they grew thicker and more tangled. Abbey was not my husband’s daughter; this baby would be his first child. None of my friends had similar situations. None of them had broken one family apart and jammed pieces of a new one around her child, hoping the edges didn’t cut. How to confide in them? How to confide in my husband, when I suddenly resented him and felt a cool detachment for his baby? I viewed them both as a threat to my firstborn. My feelings made little sense; after all, I had wanted to get pregnant. I had no right not to be happy. I told myself to give Abbey some space, so her adjustment would be easier in the months ahead.
But at the end of each day, I would curl around her, read her bedtime stories, sing her to sleep. I watched her breathe, smelled her hair and kissed her softly in the velvet space between her brows. Sometimes, I’d fall asleep with her, waking in the early hours of morning and slipping reluctantly into bed beside my husband. If he woke, and the baby was moving, I didn’t mention it.
“What’s the baby doing?” he’d ask.
“Sleeping,” I’d say.
My husband knew. He watched in silence, and waited in trepidation. He spoke of it only once, without blame. “I know Abbey is your pride and joy,” he said gently. “But do you think you can make room in your heart for me and this baby?”
I turned away in silence, hiding the tears that traced shame down my cheeks. I didn’t know the answer. Maybe it was just the hormones. Or maybe my husband was a better person than I was. After all, he had never treated Abbey as anything but his own daughter.
My water broke at four a.m. on the holiday Monday. Of course, I thought bitterly: a day Abbey can’t be with us. I had planned for her to be there when her brother was born, choosing a birthing center that welcomed families, desperately wanting her to feel included. My husband, who supported my unpopular choices, even the one that would give his son a hyphenated surname (because Abbey is stuck with one), agreed to the “family birthing experience.” He purchased and wrapped the gift that Abbey would present to the baby, tucking it away in the orange little Nemo suitcase she planned to bring to the birth center.
But custody schedules trumped our decision. After spending years in court and tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers, I knew better than to ask Abbey’s father for an exception, even for this. She would spend the day with him; she would not be present at her brother’s birth.
I woke my husband and told him it was time. He carried our bags to the car, quietly, but with a palpable energy that sealed him into a world of his own. I reminded him to throw a blanket over the evidence: the infant car seat, the diaper bag. When Abbey woke, we pretended it was just another day, and her orange suitcase remained behind as we drove her to her father’s house and waved goodbye.
On the way to the birthing center, my husband spoke without breathing; he made jokes. I focused on the rise and fall of contractions, trying to navigate around the hole in my chest. When we arrived, I chose a room with a white wicker chair and sat alone with my eyes closed. I imagined Abbey’s face later that day, her confusion when we told her the baby had been born, then her understanding that it had happened without her. That would be the start of her seeing me, my husband, and our son as a family. One she was not a part of. I couldn’t help it; I started to cry. I knew my husband was watching. He probably thought it was the labor pain. I felt violated; I hated to cry. I asked him to go out and get me some food.
Soon, labor took over, wiping out any possibility of thought. Driven by instinct, I lay in the hot tub, drifting in the warm, pulsing water. The faces around me became a blur, and then they disappeared. Pulled deep within myself, the world narrowed into a private battle, this child and I, pushing against each other, then with each other, through blackness and a dense, throbbing pain. I heard a piercing scream from somewhere distant. The world rushed back, and I saw the face of my midwife floating above me. She smiled. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. Push, Elizabeth. Your son is here.”
I bore down and felt the fire rip through me; I screamed again. “Abbey,” I thought, “I’m glad you’re not here to see this.” I saw my husband, his face bright with anticipation. “I can see him! He has black hair!”
Suddenly, I could see him, too. I gave one last push, then held his slippery, purple body against mine and listened to the exclamations.
“He’s so big!”
I smiled for the camera.
When Abbey was born, the bond was instant, like a permanent fusion of liquid metal. I held her for hours and watched her while she slept. “You need rest,” the nurse said, her hands wrapped firmly around the bassinet. “Let us take her for a while.”
But I refused to let them take her from me.
Now, holding my new son, I prayed for the same response, hoping the emotional barrier of the last nine months would wash away as easily as the barrier of blood and tissue. But looking at his pale, foreign body, I felt only despair. Instead, I looked at my husband, his beaming face, his wet eyes. Remembering the euphoric joy a newborn baby can bring, I felt happy for him. I envied him, too, longing to feel what he did. I wondered what was wrong with me.
The next two days were lost in identical moments that replicated like cancer cells. Breast-feed, rock, sleep, breast-feed, rock, sleep. Just as I’d feared, it was impossible to carve out much time alone with my daughter. I waited for her to isolate herself, quietly hurting, or try to pull my attention away from the baby. Instead, she planted herself in the nursery, spreading her coloring books and crayons on the carpet and making picnics with jelly sandwiches and crackers. When I nursed, Abbey grabbed her new baby doll. She lifted her shirt and pressed its face to her chest, staring at me intently. I kept my expression solemn and nodded to her in approval, feeling a strange sort of flattery.
Before, when Abbey needed a snack, a glass of water, anything, she came to me. Now I directed her to my husband, and discovered that not only was he perfectly capable of caring for her, they both seemed to relish their new roles.
“He’s a little boring,” I heard her whisper in confidence to her step-dad.
“He kind of looks like an alien, too,” he whispered back, and they broke into giggles.
When the baby cried out, Abbey’s face twisted in concern. “Mommy, something’s wrong!” she said, racing over and peering into the cradle. I gathered up the flailing blue bundle and wrapped the blanket more firmly around him.
“What’s wrong with my brother?” Abbey demanded. I laughed and glanced at my husband, who slipped an arm around my waist. With his other arm, he pulled Abbey closer.
“He’s okay, honey,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
Two days after he was born, I was alone for the first time with my son. Abbey was back at her dad’s for the evening, and my husband was visiting a friend. There was something I had to do.
Checking for the third time, I dipped my wrist in the shallow, warm water. Gently, I placed my baby on his bath seat. Under the soft, white glow of the fluorescent light, I could see every color and line and plane. I placed a towel over his body to keep him warm. Then I began to bathe him.
I lightly wiped the corners of his eyes, wondering how long it would take for the slate blue to turn brown. He wrinkled his forehead and I leaned in to kiss the folds, feeling them smooth out again under my lips. I stroked his arms and tried to uncurl his little fists; I stood no chance against them. Washing his legs, I traced a finger across the curve of his foot, laughing as the toes splayed out. I spun small circles on his tummy and rinsed the bubbles away, avoiding the black stump on his belly. It was the only part of him that looked foreign to me now. Finally, I washed his hair. My hand cradled his soft skull, marveling at its fragility, memorizing its shape. I swaddled him in a warm towel, then pressed him to my chest.
“Gabriel,” I whispered, but my throat locked.
I’m sorry it took me so long.
I couldn’t say the words, too overcome with relief at the familiar guilt that bound me to motherhood once more.