Carli watches him from above his crib as he screams inconsolably. She studies how he screws his face up like a little prune, his eyes squinched tight, his face so red she thinks it might explode. She tries to feel something, but no feeling comes. How can she watch her own baby cry like this without experiencing even the slightest tug of compassion? That’s how she knows. He isn’t really hers.
She had fallen in love with her own baby immediately. From the moment she awakened from her post-delivery stupor, groggy, her vision slightly out-of-focus, a dull pain emanating from her groin, and turned her head to see the tiny incubator-encased being sleeping beside her, she knew her life was changed irrevocably. He wasn’t the girl of her pre-partum fantasies, but he was real—tiny, vulnerable, hers. She held him on her chest, skin against skin, warm, new; marveled as his little-bird mouth gaped, groped, for her engorged nipple. Did that foreign looking thing—brown, swollen, big—actually belong to her breast?
She picks up the baby, slipping her hands behind its back, under its armpits. She half-heartedly holds it against her chest, pats its back. He cries.
“Shhhh,” she whispers. He cries.
She lays him on the changing table, rips open the snaps at his crotch, pulls open the tape holding his tiny diaper together, whips it out from under him while holding his wriggly legs up by the feet with one hand, and reaches onto a shelf above the baby with the other for a new diaper. She slips it under his behind, releases his bowed legs, and quickly pulls the front of the diaper, which has dinosaurs dancing across it, through his legs, over his penis and up above the hideous black stub that she is told will become his belly button, taping it into place.
“There,” she says. “You’re dry.” He cries.
She lifts the baby, leans him over her shoulder, and trudges down the narrow hallway of their pre-war two-bedroom apartment to the tiny galley kitchen. She grabs a pre-filled bottle of formula from the refrigerator and stuffs it into the microwave. She bounces the baby impatiently, gazing out the kitchen window at the brick wall of the brownstone apartment that backs up to her own. She imagines how, if that brownstone weren’t there, she’d be able to see straight across the street to the Museum of Natural History.
“It will be such a great destination for you and the baby,” her mother had said when they found the Upper West Side apartment. But Carli can hardly imagine getting it together enough to venture out on an excursion with the baby, much less keeping him quiet for long enough to enter a public space. She removes the bottle from the microwave, drips a couple of drops of milk onto her wrist, then transfers the baby into the crook of her arm and sticks the bottle’s nipple into the baby’s mouth. He cries. Carli sighs.
She knows she should be breastfeeding him—that it’s a way to pass on her immunities. And she had breastfed him, at least for the first few days. But it didn’t feel right. She couldn’t feed someone else’s baby that way. Matt looked disappointed when she told him she couldn’t breastfeed anymore. She didn’t tell him why.
Carli had spent most of Tyler’s first week home from the hospital in bed, sleeping. Matt, who had taken off from work, would bring her the crying infant every couple of hours, urging her to “Put him on the breast,” would hover over her while the baby struggled to feed, fretting about whether the baby was getting enough food, and then would whisk Tyler off to his crib when he finally nodded off in drunken slumber. Sometimes Carli would overhear him and her mother, who had driven up from Philadelphia to help out, discussing her nursing technique. She’d hear them reading the What to Expect When You’re Nursing book aloud to each other and theorizing over what Carli might do differently to get Tyler to eat more, to cry less.
Carli also wondered why the baby’s feedings never went as smoothly as they had in the hospital, why he had such a hard time latching on to her breasts, why he could never just settle in and suckle peacefully like nursing babies were supposed to. But when she’d hear Matt and her mother discussing the problem, she felt such a disturbing mix of anger and inadequacy that she would pull the covers up over her head and will herself back to sleep.
Carli’s days with the baby are amorphous, an endless cacophony of screaming, punctuated by the baby’s feedings, changings, naps. He is always hungry, tired or wet, it seems, always crying. She doesn’t blame the baby, really. She figures he is crying because he knows she’s not his mother, because he wants his real mother. She wonders if her own baby is crying for her, for the scent of her—or if he is being duped into forgetting her. She feels a moment of tenderness toward the stranger in her arms, and holds him a little closer. “Poor thing,” she thinks. But then he reaches for her breast, and she pulls him away.
She loved to feel the baby move around inside her when she was pregnant. She would see the protrusion of an elbow or knee, would watch it as it moved preternaturally across her swollen belly, was startled at times by a flutter inside her abdomen that felt like the lightest tapping against the inside of her abdominal wall. At times she felt powerful, capable—more capable than she had ever felt in her life. Look what she had done! At other times she could barely suppress the panicky feeling that started to rise up from within her. Look what she had done.
“Matt,” she had said on the phone, without preamble. “I’m pregnant.” She listened to the silence on the other end of the line, twirling the phone cord around her (swollen) finger, her pulse pounding against her eardrums. The silence lasted but a split second.
“Then let’s get married,” he had declared, and she wasn’t surprised. Matt loved her, had always acted as if she was a prize he had won. She hadn’t even planned on marrying Matt, but, swept up in the moment, she had answered, “Yes.”
The baby is asleep, and Matt lies down next to her, a couple of inches away, face to face, and runs his finger through her hair, as he used to. She is overcome by profound sadness.
“Matt, I don’t think Tyler is our baby,” she tells him suddenly, becoming teary. “I think our baby was switched at the hospital. I think we have someone else’s and someone else has ours.” Saying it out loud frightens her, makes her pulse quicken, triggers a feeling of rising panic.
But he looks at her as a parent looks at a silly child. “Carli, do you know how crazy that is? Of course he’s our baby.”
“He doesn’t look the same,” she rushes in, “he doesn’t act—”
“Carli, that’s what those bracelets are for at the hospital. Those things don’t happen in real life, only in TV movies.”
“But Matt—” He puts his fingers gently over her lips.
“Shhh. You’re just tired. Don’t say things like that. You sleep, I’ll get the baby tonight.” But the truth is Carli never gets the baby at night. She is convinced that his real mother would hear him, would sense his distress. Aren’t most mothers awakened by the slightest utterance from their baby’s lips? But this baby’s cries do not reach her while she sleeps. She thinks that maybe she and this baby are on different wavelengths.
Her mother calls from Philadelphia the next day; Carli knows Matt has said something. Her mom cuts right to the chase, as usual.
“Carli, what’s this nonsense about your baby being switched at birth?”
“Mom, I just know it,” she says urgently, suddenly desperate to have her mother believe her. “He’s not the same as he was in the hospital.”
“Carli, you were high on pain medication when you were in the hospital. This baby looks just like your sister Lucy did when she was little. You need to get out of the house, do something fun with the baby, something that will help you bond. How about one of those baby classes?”
The doctor calls too. “Carli, I can assure you that Tyler is your baby,” he tells her. “Sometimes new mothers have difficulty attaching to their newborns. It’s perfectly normal to feel a little blue during the postpartum period, to feel like you’re not totally bonded yet.” He speaks slowly, patiently, as if he is talking to a fragile patient of questionable sanity.
She decides to keep her doubts to herself.
She had had doubts during the pregnancy too, doubts about what she and Matt were doing. She had continued to attend her college classes—she had only one semester to go before graduation—hiding her distended abdomen under Matt’s oversized sweatshirts. But though her friends had no way of knowing what was going on beneath her garments, she thought of little else. It was as if the baby sucked all other thoughts out of her head. “Think of me,” it whispered to her subconscious, “only me.”
When sitting at her desk, her homework spread before her, she would find herself trying to pull long-forgotten nursery rhymes from the recesses of her memory.
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.
Or was it London Bridges? When she couldn’t remember the words, she’d make up her own:
All the cars come crashing down, crashing down, crashing down.
All the cars come crashing down, my fair lady.
She sang to the baby, imagining that the melodies would somehow make their way from her mouth to her womb. She had read somewhere once that if you sing to your baby while it’s in the womb, the baby will recognize your voice when it’s born, and your singing will soothe the infant. But more and more often, she found that she, herself, was soothed by the singing.
Tyler is not soothed by her singing. Tyler is not soothed by anything. But after three months, at least his crying has taken on a kind of pattern, as have her days. She wakes when Matt brings the baby to her bed (crying). Matt looks at her apologetically and then leaves for work. Tyler looks at her despairingly, while emitting a seemingly continuous wail, but somehow, she manages to peel herself from her bed, screaming baby in her arms, and head toward the kitchen. She is propelled, in part, by the promise that the first morning bottle will buy her a brief period of respite. She can’t say that the two of them are completely at peace during this feeding, for it is as if each is perpetually waiting for the other to disappoint—but while he sucks down the milk, eyeing her warily, he is, at least, quiet.
She wonders, sometimes, while she is feeding Tyler, if her own baby is being fed at the same moment; she pictures him, eyes closed, Matt’s long lashes brushing the soft skin of his cheeks, his tiny lips sucking vigorously at a bottle, secretly longing for Carli’s breast. She studies Tyler’s face, still considering that maybe she is crazy, that perhaps she is making a mistake. But the face is so foreign to her that she begins to panic. She quickly moves on to the next task.
After he’s done with his bottle, Carli changes Tyler’s diaper and dresses him in one of the many doll-like outfits that fill his dresser. Taking advantage of the fact that he is still digesting his breakfast, and therefore not crying, she takes some time to make a selection from his ever-expanding (thanks to her mother) layette, including Tyler in the process by holding up each piece of clothing for his inspection with one hand, while holding him in place with the other.
But as soon as she places him into the bouncy seat in front of the shower door, the crying resumes. It begins as a quiet whimper as she straps him in place, and slowly builds in volume until it reaches a full-scale crescendo by the time she sheds her clothes and steps into the shower. Even the sound of running water does not drown out the baby’s high-pitched howls. More times than not, Carli forgoes the shampoo, sometimes even the soap. She quickly throws on her clothes, scoops up the baby, sticks him in a baby carrier, straps him onto her back, grabs her walkman, puts on her headphones, turns the volume all the way up, and heads out the door.
She walks around the block several times until Tyler falls asleep. She walks past a string of brownstone buildings that look like carbon copies of her own, except for slight variations in the color of their stone facades; past the corner Starbucks where child-free women sit chatting over double lattes and Frappuccinos; past expensive boutique storefronts that alternate with trendy restaurant-cafes, the kinds of places she might have frequented in her previous life; and then past the thick black wrought iron gates that enclose much of the block containing the sprawling Museum of Natural History and the park-like grounds that surround it. She watches mothers holding the hands of children that belong to them as they walk up the stone steps to the museum’s entrance. And on her back, in the baby carrier, somebody else’s child falls asleep.
When Tyler awakens from his morning nap, the cycle begins again: feeding, changing, crying, walking. This isn’t the life she imagined.
She decides to take her mother’s advice, and signs up for a baby gym class. The morning of the first class, it takes her two hours to get herself dressed, get the baby dressed, pack up the necessary baby accoutrements, and get Tyler set up in his car seat. By the time she gets to the church where the gym class is held, the class has already started. She self-consciously takes her place in the circle of mothers and infants. The teacher is singing a silly song about a duke; some of the mothers are singing along:
The Noble Duke of York, he had 10,000 men, he marched them up
to the top of the hill, and marched them down again.
She wonders how the other mothers know the song. She mimics them, marching Tyler up her legs until he reaches the tips of her knees—the crest of the hill—and down again, always careful to support the back of his head with her fingertips.
When the song is over, Carli watches as the mother to her right hugs her baby close, as the baby rests his head on her shoulder. Carli is mesmerized by the way the baby’s head molds so perfectly into the crook of the mother’s neck, like they are puzzle pieces that fit together. The mother’s face seems to reflect the baby’s contentment. Carli feels the stirrings of an emotion she does not immediately recognize as envy.
For the remainder of the class, Carli goes through the motions, singing when she can pick up the words, moving Tyler this way and that. She finds herself scanning the faces of the other babies in the room, recognizes that she is looking for some mark of familiarity. Why, her real baby could be anywhere, she realizes, even in this very room. To think that she has been shut up inside her apartment for the past three months, when she could have been out here, looking! Three wasted months, she thinks, as she studies the hair, the eyes, the skin color of each baby in the circle. She is so focused on the other children in the room that she fails to notice that Tyler is no longer crying.
It has been four months since Carli gave birth. She now spends as little time at home as possible. She knows this makes Matt and her mother happy—they see it as a sign that her “postpartum blues” are dissipating, that she is starting to have fun with the baby. But, really, she is on a mission. Tyler is just along for the ride.
The two of them cover three different playgrounds a day. She scours the parks for her baby, studies the other children who could be Tyler’s age as they are strolled by in baby carriages, as they are snuggled by other mothers on park benches. She fastens Tyler’s baby seat into the shopping cart at the supermarket and whizzes through the aisles, slowing down only when she spots another baby seat.
Sometimes, when Carli sees another mother cooing at her child, she feels badly for Tyler. While she is resigned to mothering him—at least on the surface—until she can get him back to his own mother, she certainly never coos at him. And when he gazes at her, she often looks away. After all, she can’t have him getting too attached to her. When he is returned to his real mother, she tries to reassure herself, he will get what he is not getting from Carli. And she will get her baby back, the baby that will fit just so into the crook of her neck.
Carli is sitting on a park bench one day, absentmindedly pushing Tyler’s stroller back and forth while watching a group of mothers place their babies on a large blanket spread out on the grass. She watches the mothers place baby toys around the babies. And then she watches them place themselves around the babies and toys. Even as she silently mocks the mothers for thinking that their infants, who can’t yet sit or change positions, can participate in this kind of “group play date,” part of her envies the mothers the companionship of other women.
Before her pregnancy, if she wasn’t with Matt, she was constantly surrounded by her friends. When she was pregnant, she had already started to shut her friends out of her life, yet she imagined that her baby would provide her with a constant companion. Instead, strangely, she has never been so lonely. She pines for her real baby— yet she can’t share these longings with anyone.
One night, Carli dreams that she wakes up early and decides to get Tyler so that Matt can sleep. She throws on the robe that is crumpled up on the floor beside her bed, and walks down the hall to the baby’s room, but Tyler is still sleeping. She nudges him gently, then more aggressively, but he doesn’t move. She slowly realizes that he is not breathing. She waits for a feeling of panic to overtake her, but, instead, she feels an overwhelming sense of relief, like an immense burden has been lifted. She decides to wait to tell Matt. But before she can tell him, she is awakened by the unmistakable sound of Tyler, crying.
When Matt asks her about her days, Carli is vague—she tells him bits and pieces of her life with Tyler, that they went to this park, or that class, that they had fun. He wants to believe her, so he does. He acts like their conversation about the mix-up at the hospital never happened. And since that’s all she thinks about, she has little else to say. She tries to remember what they used to talk about, but can’t. She wonders what the other mothers in the park talk about with their husbands. Did they and their husbands have to move apart a bit, to make room for their babies? Were they able to fill the space that was left there?
“Look, he’s smiling,” says a woman who has sat down at the other end of the bench.
“Excuse me?” Carli answers reluctantly, tearing her attention away from the group on the blanket.
“Your baby—he’s smiling.” Carli follows the woman’s gaze to the baby sitting in the stroller in front of her—to Tyler. She has almost forgotten that he is there. He, however, is looking directly at Carli, and yes, his mouth is stretched into a wide, toothless smile. She continues to roll the stroller, back and forth, back and forth, unable to take her eyes off his smile.
“He’s never done that before,” she hears herself saying. She leans closer and puts her hands near the baby’s, letting him wrap his little fingers around her thumbs. She lets herself imagine, just for a moment, that the two of them actually belong together.
It is a Sunday morning, and the three of them are lazing around in Carli and Matt’s bed. Tyler lies between them and is playing with Matt’s finger as if it is one of his toys—touching it, examining it, mouthing it. Matt watches the baby almost reverently, letting him. Sunlight slips through the cracks in their blinds, painting stripes of light across Matt’s hand, the baby’s face. It’s almost as if Matt and the baby are studying each other, she thinks, taking one another in. Tyler is not crying.
She hasn’t really had much of a chance to observe the two of them together. Most of Matt’s interactions with Tyler occur at night, when Carli is sleeping, or on weekends, when she takes advantage of Matt’s presence by napping, taking long showers, and getting out of the apartment to run errands or just run around the park, unencumbered. She hadn’t considered that the two of them would develop a relationship that existed separate from her. She wondered if Matt would be heartbroken if he came home and found another baby in Tyler’s place.
“I guess I should be getting showered and dressed,” she says. “Lucy and my parents are going to be here in like a half hour.”
She had been surprised earlier in the week to receive a phone call from her father. He rarely picked up the phone—her mother was the one who made the phone calls, who carried messages between father and daughter. “Dad says hi,” or “Dad wants to know how you liked that restaurant last night,” she would say.
“Is everything okay?” Carli had asked.
“Fine, fine,” her dad had answered. “Just calling to see how you and Tyler are.” Carli smiled. She wasn’t sure if her mother had encouraged him to call, but she didn’t care. She just liked that he had.
“Good—I took him to one of those baby classes . . . “
“Yup—Tyler caught on pretty quickly, actually—he’s a bright little guy.” Was she actually bragging?
“Must have my genes,” her father quipped. He told her that her sister Lucy was coming to New York for the weekend. “How about we all come in with some bagels and lox?” She was looking forward to it.
She is still in the shower when her family arrives. She emerges from her room, still toweling dry her hair, to find Lucy on the floor with Tyler. She is on her back with her feet in the air, holding Tyler’s hands and balancing him on the soles of her feet.
“Tyler’s flying on the trapeze,” she squeals as she moves him gently, back and forth. The baby is laughing—the unfamiliar sound seems to come from down deep in his belly.
“Hi, honey,” says her mom.
“Hey,” says her dad. Neither one moves toward Carli, they are mesmerized by their grandson. At first, Carli has to suppress a tinge of jealousy—her sister seems to have an innate maternal flair that eludes Carli. But then Tyler laughs again, and the sound is so magical that she can’t help laughing herself.
She is bathing Tyler, but is daydreaming about other babies. She indulges this particular fantasy often. Tyler has been invited to another child’s birthday party, perhaps a child from his gym class. She pictures what she imagines to be a typical one-year-old birthday party—balloons, a table full of brightly wrapped gifts, lots of children Tyler’s age sitting around a long, low table, noisily eating cake. She is surveying the guests, in a way that has become second nature to her, when her eyes stop on a little boy who is idly playing with his cake. A little boy who looks just like her, who is so obviously her child, that there could be no question that a mistake had been made. He looks up at her, and their eyes meet. And she can tell that he knows too. She can never quite figure out how to fit Tyler into this fantasy—his presence, his very existence, only complicates things.
Suddenly, her musings are interrupted by a strange, choking sound. It takes a minute for her to realize that she is back in the bathroom, and that Tyler has slid under the bath water. She stops breathing. Time stops. She pulls him out of the water, but it feels like she is moving in slow motion, through a viscous substance that blocks out all sound. She starts to panic.
“Cry!” she orders, crying herself, shaking the baby, who is too quiet, too still.
“Oh my God, oh my God.” She tries to remember baby CPR from her Lamaze class. Press the chest, mouth over mouth, press the chest, mouth over nose and mouth, oh wait, turn the baby over so the water can come out, pat it on the back, or was that choking . . .
She clutches the motionless baby to her chest, patting his back and rocking back and forth, and it occurs to her that it’s all over—that she no longer has to go through the charade of being mother to this child, the wrong child. What’s strange is that she feels not an iota of relief. Only regret.
And then the baby starts coughing. Crying and coughing. And then just crying. Loud, ear-splitting, thunderous cries. It is the most beautiful sound she has ever heard.