So this was how it would be. Mother time. Baby time. Her own mother gone, the child off at school, eight hours stretching ahead in endless ticking. The old grandfather clock taunting her. Or, the baby’s wail. Every two hours she’d offer her breast. A feed. A diaper change. An attempt at a nap. At the hospital they said to record it all. Left breast, right breast, urine output, stool, 5 ml pumped milk offered on a silver spoon. This is what she could count now, instead of words on the page. Minutes and hours stretched ahead of her, barely eight o’clock now. She settled onto the sofa with the baby in the crook of her arm, watched the cat watch the squirrel outside gathering the last of his nuts. The baby sighed in his sleep, sucking an invisible nipple, dreaming of milk.
Once she had written essays about domesticity and time use data. Now her breasts filled with milk. Outside the picture window, the squirrel ran across the street. The cat called for a bird. The baby’s eyes fluttered open, the gaping maw of his mouth. Her breasts filled with milk; she undid the clasp of her nursing bra, pulled down the flap. Beneath the steam of her sweater, the baby sucked and swallowed, sucked and swallowed. This went on for 12 minutes. When he stopped drinking, she put him in the swing next to the sofa, turned it on—back and forth back and forth. Outside the picture window, fat flakes began to fall. In the distance, a snow plow and a salt truck. Maybe she would go into the kitchen now, make a cup of tea. Hours stretched out in front of her. This was only the first morning of the first day.
The door opened at four, when the girl came home from the bus stop. She dropped her backpack on the floor, wet coat, and mittens. “Mom,” she called up the stairs. “Mom!” Too late, the baby began to wail from the crook of her left arm, pressed against the armrest of the rocker. An hour and a half until dinner, maybe three hours until bedtime. The girl went into her bedroom and took out her math homework. Fractions. If there were a whole pie and five children, how to cut the pie so that each child could have the same amount? If they wanted to have leftovers? What kind of pie? Chocolate? Peach? Perhaps key lime? How to get both children in the car so they could go to the bakery on a hunt for lemon meringue.
There would be no lemon meringue pie. Just the beef stew in the crock pot, thick with potatoes and carrots, and a handful of frozen peas. Beef stew transformed into bluish milk the baby gulped from her breasts. The miracle of milk into pounds. Sometimes the girl put her doll next to the baby in the swing; their heads were almost exactly the same size. The girl held the baby on the big armchair while the mother spooned the stew into bowls and poured tall glasses of water. “Mom,” the girl wanted to know. “Was I ever that small? Mom, I think he wants to be milked.”
Later, her friend called. “What did you do today?” she said, as if like the pain of childbirth, amnesia set in upon a mother’s return back to work. What did I do? (Dirty diapers in the bag waiting to be washed. Dirty dishes piled in the sink.) Mostly she held the baby in the crook of her arm or wore him strapped to her chest. She spent more time it seemed trying to get him to sleep than he actually slept. Mostly she stared at his face, the wonder of how two single cells had fused and grown into this five-pound boy. How different the abstract joy of motherhood and the daily work of mothering. Mother is a verb. Mother is a verb. She chanted it like a mantra as she paced their rooms, the baby’s face pressed into her breasts. Remembering the small gift of standing in the line for coffee at work, the pause in the middle of the day. At home she did nothing, everything. “I held the baby,” she said.
The baby woke to be fed at midnight, at two, and at four he drank and wailed and drank and wailed and finally fell back to sleep. He took more milk at six. At seven the girl woke, came in. She called it, “cuggling.” Her feet cold against the mother’s bare legs. The air around them filled with morning breath and milk, baby shampoo and sweat, and the not-yet dawn. At eight, the mother tucked the baby into a pouch inside her coat. He slept warm while they walked to the bus, stirred with the squeal of the brakes, the deep yolk of the sun. His head rolled against her chest, rooting for milk. They walked home again, the day ahead like the quiet street.