It ends where it begins, your body splayed on the table. You keep thinking of that other room, months ago, your doctor’s hand on your leg, shaking. She hands you a photograph of your embryos bathed in blue, a prescription for valium, just enough to keep you in bed, quiet.
Hospital days. Hospital nights. They write your medications on the whiteboard. At 3:00 a.m., the nurse makes you walk down the hall. You’re on heparin. Concerns about blood clots.
There is a baby. An actual baby in a bassinette. And it seems, after all this, he is your son.
They make jokes about the disposable underwear from Victoria’s Secret.
They bring you the baby and a cup of juice. Grape. Apple. A handful of pills. A shot in the upper arm. It’s been hours since your last dose. Where is Nurse Patty when you need her?
The girl comes to visit. Holds her brother on her lap. It is the sweetest thing, the two of them.
You cry, sometimes, thinking of how much you wanted this, how long. You e-mail a picture to your doctor. You think, 35 weeks ago, he was a cluster of cells in a petri dish. And now, this boy.
Home. He sleeps all the time, probably 22 hours a day, and still you’re awake most of the night. You don’t know how this is possible, but it is.
All day you peel off his clothes, stroke his feet to waken him. Try ice cubes, a friend says. He sleeps like a dead thing, eyes rolling in his head. Sometimes you can’t tell if he’s awake or asleep. He smiles, his crescent eyes.
You pump milk. Your mother gives him tiny sips on a metal spoon. He gains weight, back up to five pounds. The pediatrician is pleased.
It is Thanksgiving. Your 39th birthday. Who could ask for anything more?
Alone. The girl goes back to school, your mother goes home. You sit long hours on the couch, holding, feeding, music playing on the computer or sometimes a DVD. Days pass. You can’t read. Can’t write. Can’t think. You cry more than you ever thought possible. At your doctor’s appointment, they ask if you have thought about harming yourself or your child. There are stories: mothers who drown their babies or put them in microwaves. You try to explain: three years, recurrent pregnancy loss, donor gametes, high-risk pregnancy, intrauterine growth restriction, and premature delivery. How to explain this can’t possibly be your life. And yet.
When you put him down he cries, so you don’t put him down. He sleeps there, on your chest, your arms propped up by pillows. You put him in the Moses basket and he rolls toward the side, he cries until you pick him up. Your whole body groans. This is what you remember from your first child, too, the way mothering takes all the muscles of the body. The back, the arms, the belly, the thighs. You ache from sleeping and not sleeping.
The baby smiles. Not just a sleepy unconscious smile, a real smile. He smiles at you, he smiles at his sister. He smiles at the ceiling fan, so you take none of it personally. But somewhere under there is a person. A person who weighs only six pounds, but a person.
You go back to the doctor for your second postpartum visit, and this time you do not cry. The baby is in the car seat in the stroller, propped by rolls of kitchen towels. The doctor doesn’t even look to see how cute he is. She is impressed with her own handiwork, says you won’t even have a scar. But you know how deep it runs, the angry purple gash; you will never forget how he was cut out of you while you lay on the table, arms pinned to your sides (like Jesus, your Jewish friend said). Or how they took him from you and you missed those first two hours of his life, with only your friend’s gloved hand to touch him through. Oh, yes, you will have a scar.
You buy cloth diapers online and are slightly afraid. The extra laundry. But there they are, with kangaroos on the behind, and you find yourself ordering more. Your daughter is willing to change the kangaroo diaper but not the fire truck diaper, and you have to say you understand completely.
From your first you remember wanting to return her at this stage. You did not ask for this: the inconsolable crying. You would keep her at your breast all day long just to hear her not cry. You take more showers than you ever thought possible, the car seat on the floor of the bathroom, water running, because it’s the only sound that seems to help. You think it might happen again, nights walking the floor with him. He sleeps only on your body.
You wrap yourself in yards of fabric. The Moby wrap. The mei tai. The K-tan carrier. His sweaty head pressed between your breasts. In the mirror, your silhouette looks pregnant still, the curve of his bottom at your navel.
You have to admit you miss it, having the baby without having to parent the baby.
Two month well-visit. You tell the pediatrician that the milk is still spewing out his nose after he feeds. She puts him on Zantac for reflux. He has his first shots, he cries, sleeps for four hours straight, cries a pathetic little cry, sleeps some more. His first fever. His first baby Tylenol.
The baby sleeps, as he is supposed to. Swaddled in his crib. He sleeps long hours, sometimes five, before waking for milk. He sleeps and you are astonished.
The baby doesn’t sleep. He smiles, he kicks his legs. He nurses. It is 8:30 p.m., and he is still smiling at you. 9:15, 10:45. Finally you do what the books say: you shush him and swaddle him, rock him on his side. And he begins to wail. The two of you sit in the rocking chair and cry. There is nothing left to do. Finally after 11:00, he suckles again, and his eyes close. Swaddled a tight swaddle, he sleeps until 2:00, the longest stretch he has gone in days.
The next day you will do anything to get him to sleep. You nurse. You wear him in the mei tai, jiggle him until his lids grow heavy. You will keep him there all day if you have to. But you know this baby needs to sleep more than an hour at a stretch. More than 45 minutes.
You wonder how long this can go on.
The baby doesn’t sleep. He smiles, kicks his legs, nurses. You are supposed to go back to work in two weeks, should, you suppose, be starting to get things done now. How can you, when you are trapped in your bed with this small boy, always threatening to wake. He sleeps now only with your body pressed against his. When he stirs, you put your hand on his chest, try to get him a few more minutes. What you need is Nurse Patty, bringing you tea. What you need is no responsibilities, other than him.
You are “on leave” from your job. You try to figure out what that means. Typing up a poem? Reading a few pages while the baby nurses? You feel guilt, pulled in all directions. You tell yourself guilt is stupid. Sometimes you believe it.
The baby smiles, kicks his legs. You jiggle a red ring in front of him and he reaches for it, his chubby hands. He sleeps and you sit in the rocking chair, reading, writing in a notebook, an invisible thread strung between you.
A year ago he didn’t exist. Not even a cluster of cells.
You wonder when the postpartum period ends, if you are now post-postpartum, or if being postpartum is a permanent state. You can fit in your old clothes. You are going back to work. There is a red stain in your underwear, which should mean you can have another baby, but you can’t. That much you know. You want to stay here, postpartum, in baby world. Trying to have the baby shouldn’t take longer than pregnancy and new motherhood. But somehow it does, more than twice as long. Somehow your body recovers from the birth faster than it does the not giving birth. And you are still back there, in that room, stirrupped, your doctor’s kind hands moving between your legs, the embryo up on the screen, the possibility that some day you could be postpartum both far off and days away. You are still back there the morning you dip the stick in a cup of pee, looking at two stripes, the morning pregnant, and you.