The baby is seven days old. A girl. Her skin is covered in a velvet scrim of pelt. The mother loves to slide her hand along the baby’s limbs and over the top of her head. She is the softest thing the mother has felt since her first baby. At four years old, her boy has begun to harden like clay.
The mother’s son, not yet used to the idea of himself as a brother, screeches and bangs, enacting a collision or explosion in the hallway outside the door. The baby has finished nursing, her diaper has been changed, her grub’s body is settling into sleep. The mother closes her eyes and wills her son to leave the hallway, to set his energies loose in the open air. She feels a spike of guilt for wishing him away, but then, blessedly, he quiets and the baby sighs.
She sits up in bed and looks out the window. The mother cannot sleep with her daughter. She is full of elbows of exhaustion that will not soften and bend and let her rest. She has to hold it all. She drags herself up a little higher, pressing against a cram of pillows at her back, to see the snag through the window.
The alder is more beautiful dead than it was alive. When its leaves fell away, they revealed slender arms, silvery wrists of bark. Woodpeckers swoop and slip inside the craggy maw that has opened at the top of the tree. The birds are deepening the alder’s transformation. In death, it has opened itself up to the sky, and the birds have moved in.
Do you become a new mother over and over again? Birthing her daughter exposed an unwanted response: each moment contains the likelihood that the mother is not up to this. These thoughts are different from her earliest days with her son. Mothering him has been relentlessly demanding, but singular. The comparisons and expectations she felt when he was a baby held a strand of hopeful potential—he was her first baby and she was learning to be a mother. His future felt somehow knowable; this eased her.
It shifted as her son grew. Sometimes, at the grocery store or the park, she would catch him watching her and could not guess what he was thinking or what he saw when he looked at her. Worse, each time she really needed him to listen or respond, he would turn his face away. Some days she had to carry him—his little body stiff-limbed as he screamed or cried silently purple-faced—and try to force him into his car seat. She felt they were floating away from each other. They were losing something before they could discover it and it was her fault.
When the mother was in her first trimester with her daughter, bloated and sick and dizzy, she had taken her son to the library for sing-along. A special outing, just the two of them. But he wouldn’t sit still, kept running to the emergency exit to place a marker-stained palm against the metal handle before looking back at her, his mouth a thin, flat line. Each time he did this, she rose slowly, anger winding in each joint. The mother sidled past everyone else who sat placidly on the floor. She sang the words under her breath, He’s got the whole world in his hands, trying to feel held. When she reached her son, she gripped his shoulders, willing her grasp to communicate the words she could not utter. She thought if she opened her mouth she might scream.
“Don’t touch me,” her son hissed up at her.
She looked down at him, and then turned and walked away. She held her breath as she left the children’s room and passed through the echoing foyer. She didn’t take a full breath until she was sitting in her car, the air closed around her. She wondered if she would go back inside.
All of this blooms around her as she watches her daughter sleep, feeling the whine of something precarious approaching. Already, her daughter needs something that the mother isn’t sure she can give: nursing is unexpectedly excruciating this time around, and she desperately wants to stop. Instead of easing, improving a little each day, as it had with her son, nursing her daughter is increasingly harder, more painful. She feels encased in her dread of it. Her daughter’s mouth is lined with sandpaper, gravel, broken glass.
Her daughter roots at her side, and the mother’s tears are immediate, slicking her cheeks and neck. She has no patience for this response, for herself. What kind of mother dissolves in the face of a duty so basic? For some, milk never arrives. What’s wrong with formula? But the mother cannot stop the thoughts: this pain can be, has to be, overcome. Enduring pain for the sake of your children is just what mothers do.
She isn’t sure she can do it. She is so tired. She feels tethered to this bed. All of these things are the first failures in a stack of failures that she will surely hand her daughter, piece by piece. What if she has made a terrible mistake? The thought gnaws and scratches: she should never have had these children. She should not be a mother at all.
The mother holds her daughter to her breast, squeezing her eyes shut, and then forcing herself to open them, to watch the birds swoop around the top of the snag. From afar, the birds are silent. The silent presence is soothing, and she watches them arc and perch so gracefully. What would it feel like to be in such a body? Wings moving through cold spring air, strong and stretching out. What would it be like to sit inside a nest surrounded by golden wood and warm rustling feathers, a perfect circle of sky above? This imagining carries her along and a measure of the pain seeps away. The snag is the still point, solid against the sky.
You know I’m here if you need anything, the mother’s mother says, keeps saying. But the mother doesn’t know how to say, I don’t want to need your help. I want to help myself.
The mother’s mother had planned to be here for two weeks after the baby was born, but the baby came late. The mother’s mother boarded a plane while the words were still on the mother’s tongue. Stay. Help. Like the baby, they were late.
“Having a second baby will be hard,” the midwife had said, “but it won’t be twice as hard.”
She was right, the mother thought. It is so much more than twice as hard.
The midwife had placed a hand on the mother’s shoulder before saying, “You can do hard things.”
The baby had twisted inside her. It felt like the coiling of a snake.
A month before her daughter was born, the mother roved from room to room, half-finishing chores. Her husband and their son had gone out to get pizza so that the mother could be alone and lie on the couch—something her husband had suggested. But when she tried, a thrumming frenzy spun and spun in her chest. So, she went to the laundry room and saw a huge gray-brown spider poised over a small white sphere in a corner of the windowsill. She peered closer. The egg sac was such a beautiful thing, with its hundreds of minuscule white eggs blanketed in a misty web. She looked down at the stick on the floor, which her son had discarded weeks ago and, groaning as she picked it up, positioned it in front of the spider and her eggs as a barricade.
The baby is now pressed up against the mother. They are just sinking below a thin layer of sleep when the slam of the front door yanks the mother awake again. The sounds of her son and husband grow louder. It’s her last chance to go to the bathroom. Rushing across the hall she is caught short by a stab of pain in her foot. Obstacles scatter across the floor: miniature plastic signs that say, Danger! surrounding an overturned Matchbox car and a dinosaur with its arm torn off. All evidence of her son’s need for drama, for a problem he can solve.
“He takes after you,” her husband had said. “Always fixating on some minor destruction.”
Did he actually say this? Her husband, the father of her children, the man she loves. He doesn’t see her, if this is what he thinks. He can’t understand. He has not listened. But maybe the words were just something she thought he might say. If said, those words might sprout into something that will grow wild between them.
Back in bed, the mother edges up to the warmth of her sleeping daughter and leans down to sniff at the tiny cave of her mouth. The smell is indescribably lovely, the best thing she has ever smelled. Already she feels the rub of grief that she won’t be able to remember it one day. Her husband comes into the room and watches but the mother does not look at him. Instead, she stares out the window into the block of blue-gray sky against which birds are smoothly darting arrows.
“Today’s the day,” he whispers, pressing a hand on the top of the baby’s head. “I’m gonna clear that area where the creek used to come through. It’s a tinderbox, waiting to catch fire. It’s been so damn dry.”
The mother looks down. Her husband’s touch has woken the baby who is now rubbing her face into the folds of the mother’s pajama top. Finally, she says in a voice that she tries to press flat into a soft, even tone: “You’re not going to cut down the alder though, right? ”
“Honey,” he says, stepping back. He pinches the bridge of his nose so hard that it flares red then goes pale. “Baby. I’m telling you, it’s a fire danger. Besides the tree is dead, and if it falls it could crush someone. One of the kids.”
His voice grows louder as he talks, and she resists the urge to shush him. She closes her eyes as she lifts the baby to her breast, then gives her husband the briefest of glances. He is looking from her to the baby and back. In his gaze, she recognizes the flapping of wings. She looks past him, out the window to the birds. They pause at the top of the tree, then decisively they wing away, somewhere she can’t see. When she lays back and remains silent, her husband sighs. Then he is through the door, pulling it closed behind him.
Her daughter has fallen asleep in her arms, and the mother watches the snag and the birds. Is her husband out there already, with the chainsaw in hand? Any moment now he will be. The birds gather around the snag. Is she imagining frenzy in their flight? They launch, rising into the sky and then drop into the hollow over and over. She sits up higher, trying to see more, but the baby starts to squirm in her arms.
She eases to the edge of the bed, feet cracking as they press the cold floor. She holds her daughter gently but firmly in her arms, trying to telegraph calm, confidence, in a stream of unspoken words: We are ok, you are safe, please, please stay asleep. But her daughter squirms more insistently, starting to whimper. The mother rocks a little, a low hum vibrating her throat. Cradling her daughter against her neck, she stands. She doesn’t look away from the snag as she moves to the window.
She takes shallow breaths in the silence and then the room fills with the roar of the chainsaw. Her heart scrambles against her ribs, and her throat tightens, wells up. She does not want to move back to the bed but she isn’t sure how much longer she can stand. She holds her daughter and watches the top of the alder drop from view. All that remains is a cluster of restless clouds.
In the coming weeks, she grows used to her daughter’s mouth, though it still feels sharp as a beak. Whenever she nurses, she whispers a prayer that her daughter’s mouth will retain some of this sharpness. That her words will always find a way out.