At first, you think it’s a hallucination, the woodpecker: black keratin beak and sharp tongue flicking into the depths of you, drilling through bark and into thickness of trunk. Perhaps he is a dream, scarlet cap ablaze with your blood as he hammers, his cranium made of sponge, immune from the shock of his own incessant impact. Peck, peck, peck. You don’t hear the peck so much as you feel it, digging through flesh and widening your pores gradually, as he searches for nectar within.
When you sleep in increments of minutes, not hours, you start hallucinating; you lose track of time, and space, and body parts. You mistake yourself for a woodpecker, or his tree. The new mother’s breasts pulsate with colostrum, engorged and clogging up ducts and rock hard to the touch. Bloody nipples once squeezed for pleasure become open wounds ravaged by suckling dependent. The baby looks monstrous in the dark, incessantly bobbing his head at your breast, peck peck pecking away at you. They call the motion “rooting,” the baby’s primitive instinct to search for food, flinging his head erratically from side to side and forwards and backwards, an open-mouthed bobbing for apples. A baby knows nothing but hunger; to him, the mother’s body is but food.
The baby wakes not at regular intervals, but sporadically those first few days and nights. They tell you that you’ll learn to distinguish the cries of hunger, exhaustion, wet diaper, but in the beginning, every cry means hunger; each lament a moaning, desperate howl for the milk supply to grow, and he demands, demands, demands. Your husband rises to change a diaper, or hold the infant, but even though you want to insist, stay awake with me, stay in this hell with me, you know that at least one of you should get some rest, and it can’t be you. You’re the one with the milk ducts.
And he smells them, smells you, that baby. He raises that heavy head off of that wobbly neck and wails for the scent of you. Milk droplets leak from areolae, soak through your clothes, and when he’s done feeding of you, he spews curdled milky saliva back down your chest, sends mucus dripping down your arms. You shower and shower and shower, but the sourness won’t be scrubbed off your skin, saggy from birth at the belly, mummified with stretch marks and the linea nigra, still faintly inked into freshly emptied flesh. You have to stand with your back to the faucet, because the hot stream of water over raw nipples is a torturous scalding of tender laceration, the baby’s suckling having left skin open, like the ruby-headed woodpecker extracting juice from within the tree’s core. Peck peck, peck. You slough off the old pieces of yourself as you mop the skin: the blood flows with the milk, tinting the water that whorls around the drain a beautiful pink hue, stitches falling out of the vaginal tear as the body reattaches itself. The woman you were is gone, replaced with a strange, new body.
You close your eyes and focus on the steam, and the fresh lavender soap, and the steady white noise of the water cascading onto tile, but your eyelids spring upwards as you think you hear a baby crying. You peek around the shower curtain to check, but he’s asleep. Strange, how the new mother hallucinates the sounds of babies needing her in showers, in shopping malls, even in sleep. Stranger, still, how silence sounds like a baby suffocated. There is no calm within the skull of a mother, its cranium hard, not spongy like the woodpecker’s. The anxieties rattle within its frontal lobes. Peck, peck, peck.
Even outside of the shower, you are molting. The hairs crack off an inch from the ends, some fully ripped from the scalp, tearing themselves away and tumbling together into tangled balls clogging drains. They stick to patches of spilled breast milk and threaten to twist themselves around the baby’s tiny appendages. You learn there is a medical term for this, as if SIDS and RSV and tired arms dropping babies aren’t enough to worry about. Hair Tourniquet Syndrome, it’s called, when a tightly wrapped hair cuts off circulation to a baby’s finger, toe, or penis. When not caught by the distracted mother, amputation may be required. You frantically spread baby toes and fingers apart throughout the day, searching for lost hairs lassoing themselves around newborn skin.
At night, you strain to keep focus under fluttering eyelids as the baby feeds of you again. The endless three-hour cycle loops, and loops, and loops: he feeds and he poops, you change him and he sleeps, you put him down and he cries, so you hold him while you eat/pee/sleep. Peck peck peck.
Your back aches from hunching over to help him latch his hungry lips around your areola, from strapping him to your chest; you feel your spine stretching into an arc. You eat and eat; soft blueberry muffins a neighbor dropped off, hardened, cold pizza and oatmeal lactation cookies, but it’s never enough to replenish the sustenance you pass on to the baby. You feel weak. You hydrate, measure your water intake by the hour, but you dread going to the bathroom, the routine of spray bottle, witch hazel, prescription cream, maxi pads and disposable mesh underwear. You feel dizzy. Despite the showers, all you smell is blood, and coffee, and sweat on your bathrobe. And the baby just smells milk, milk, milk. You are drained. Peck, peck, peck.
You lose all sense of self, wondering, what day is it, what time did I feed him last, what have I become, fearing that the woman you knew has been replaced by just a body. Who am I? you ask. The woodpecker darts in and out. Peck, peck, peck. The baby tells you: mother.
4 replies on “The Woodpecker”
This is amazing. Kudos to the writer. Love, love, love
There were so many times when my children were small I felt I was not me. I was just this entity built for them. A mother loses a sense of self sometimes. Beautifully written, thank you.
Beautifully crafted. Brutally honest. So relatable.
Absolutely loved this- such an exquisite description of the physicality of new motherhood. Thank you!