It’s been two weeks since you gave birth, and you’re still waiting for the baby’s real mother to show up. You’re sure she’ll be here soon, and she’ll have bouncy hair and bright eyes and a big, ready-for-anything purse. She’ll scoop the baby into her arms expertly, gracefully, like she’s slipping on her favorite sweater. She’ll know what to do.
You watch the door. She must be on her way.
The baby is awake. He’s hungry. You pick him up, feed him, wincing when the sting hits, subsides. Is he getting enough to eat? Too much? You change his diaper, slathering ointment wherever you see red. Then you position the diaper and stick it shut with the Elmo wings. Too tight? Not tight enough?
You wait. You count the minutes. The baby ate for 15 minutes. He will need to burp for another two minutes. He will need to sleep in approximately 40 minutes. You don’t know how many minutes it will take for you to stop counting.
Your own mother is here to help. You count the number of times she asks if you are okay. You don’t always answer.
She says the baby is beautiful and perfect. You agree, but he is a beautiful and perfect stranger. Or maybe you are the stranger. You are far away, somewhere outside, watching a woman who resembles you taking care of this 8-pound, 7-ounce bundle. Your husband is also far away, even when he is next to you, telling you he loves you and you’re amazing and how did we create something so beautiful?
Your mother is worried, which must mean there is a reason to worry. It’s unclear if her worry stems from your tears, which other people seem to notice before you do, or something greater. Something lacking in you that you didn’t even know you needed to worry about.
“Doing okay?” your mother asks again. Your answer, always monosyllabic, sounds like it’s spoken through a tunnel. She brings you a snack—those little triangle cheese slices with crackers. You eat quickly, because the baby will be up soon. You appreciate that your mother is here and that she is caring for you. She is loving and kind and patient and perfect. A wonderful mother. You can’t seem to look her in the eye.
You thought you were ready. You read the books, you talked to other moms, you asked the right questions, and the you that was pregnant—the one that took pictures of every stage, hands on belly, smile wide, a list of names in her back pocket—that woman was ready. She was full of excitement and light, but you’ve lost her. You need her to come back. You look at the door.
The baby is awake again. He’s hungry. You feed him, only wincing a little this time. You remind yourself that this is beautiful. Countless women before you have done this very thing, and they made it look easy. You tell yourself that wanting to be alone doesn’t mean you are a bad mother. You need to repeat this last one again, and again.
You wonder if this is why your own mother is worried. Does she see that you are failing? Does she see that you don’t know what to do when the baby is crying, when he needs to burp, when his stomach hurts, when his eye looks infected, when his skin is an angry red rash, when he spits up or vomits (you can’t tell the difference), when he breaks out of the swaddle and scratches his cheek with the tiny nails you’re too terrified to trim?
You’re looking at the door again, waiting for the real mother to show up. She is late. You wonder if she even exists.
Your husband tells you that you’re incredible. “It’s all a miracle,” he says. He couldn’t be happier. He brings you flowers and rubs your back and reads the cards that have piled up on the kitchen counter. He takes a casserole out of the freezer.
The baby wakes, again, and you cry into your pillow. You would give anything to be alone. You feel desperation, fingers pulling at you from a million directions. But even your tears and your panic feel hollow.
You look at the door. If she ever gets here, you’ll be too embarrassed to tell her about crying into the pillow. But maybe she would understand? You decide she might, and that helps you to breathe again.
Another week passes. And another. The baby wakes.
You know that if you take the peg out of the side of the cradle, it will rock back and forth. The baby likes this, so you’ve gotten good at removing the peg while you’re half asleep, leaning your arm over the cradle to make it sway—left, right, left, right. The baby stops crying for a moment and considers. You wonder if he remembers swaying back and forth in your belly when you took long walks in the park before he was born. He has always wanted to move. You know this about him.
You pick him up and walk through the house. He doesn’t want to be in the hallway or the living room, so you open the door and walk out. He likes to be outside. You know this about him, too. You breathe in the night. You ask the baby if he remembers walking together in the park. He isn’t crying now. He is looking at you, searching. You look back and realize that the two of you have the same eyes. His are blue and yours are green, but even so, the same. Another thing you know.
“You and me,” you say, and you notice with surprise that this calming voice is your own. It echoes around the two of you, bouncing from the trees and flowers and the front gate back to you. It’s a little hoarse, but it’s clear, and it reminds you of the woman you used to be, or maybe the woman you always wanted to be. It’s so comforting and familiar that you try it again.
“You and me,” you say into the baby’s hair. You adjust him so that he’s resting against your chest, his head wedged into the space between your neck and your shoulder. He fits there. He sighs into your skin, his breath warm and more alive than anything you have ever felt before.
You hold him tighter and tell him about the night.
“The air is a little damp, and there’s a cricket off to the left somewhere, and the dog next door is barking, again, and the moon is a white wafer above us, and there is a moth by the porch light, tapping, tapping.”
You hear your husband calling your name. He is wondering where you are. You pause for one more minute, breathing in the crisp night air and the smell of the baby. You don’t need to wait or count anymore. She has finally arrived, or returned. Both.
“I’m here,” you say. And you are. You step through the door and walk inside.