You slid into this world in the early hours of the morning, your skin like curdled milk. raw milkThey placed you on my chest and you burrowed, sure of your place. A part of me leaked out, and they mopped it up with strips of cloth soaking with my blood. You were so floppy, a baby made of dough, your dark eyes peering into me, into the fear and darkness gathering inside.

You knew me.
I didn’t know you.

You searched, found my breast, sucked. You were clumsy and desperate. I was desperate for you to stop. Every time you sucked, my stomach contracted, as if being cleaved by knives. It’s normal, they said, your womb is inching back to place. I squeezed my eyes shut until you stopped and became a lump on my chest again. We lay there, long after the room cooled down and the obstetrician left with his shiny tools that stitched me back together, but not whole.

We got you home, twenty-five grams heavier, with their warnings ringing like sirens. We were to raise you in three-hour blocks, to fatten your lanky body with formula and colostrum that we scraped off my nipple with spoons. Feed. Pump my breasts. Put you to sleep. Feed. Pump my breasts. Put you to sleep. You wouldn’t latch on the right way when my milk came in, and my nipples cracked, my ducts got blocked. Cabbage leaves cupped my inflamed breasts. My body was raw tissue renewing itself without me.

Your daddy held you with a certainty that I should have had. You and I had fed off each other for nine months, after all, the two of us connected. We were skin and bones and awkward angles. Yet when I held you, my hands shook, as if you were going to slip through my fingers. The fear of losing you was a tangible thing. It stalked my days along with the loss of your sibling who flowed out of me at ten weeks gestation.

They will take you away from me.

The thought squeezed my throat one morning when your daddy was downstairs washing dishes, the chink of cutlery rising with the shadows in the room. You were sleeping in the bassinet beside my bed, safe. But what if you weren’t safe with me? I gasped for breath, reached for my notepad, spewed out my thoughts. What if my milk wasn’t enough for you to grow? What if they thought I was crazy? Why would they trust me with a baby when I couldn’t trust my own thoughts? I plunged rebuttals onto the page, pierced the fear with truths.They’re just thoughts. They’re not real. They’re just thoughts. I had overthrown them before, I would again. My fears would not destroy the miracle of you.

But the thoughts were still there at night when I called my psychologist. You are at your most vulnerable, she said. I cradled the phone in one hand, and you in the other. You were sucking again, my nipple up in flames. We knew this might happen, she continued. This is uncharted territory, but you are prepared for it. You are equipped to handle it.

I can handle it.

I held onto that thought, held onto you in the shifting fog. I breathed in your foreign smell. Instead of lullabies, I sang you questions and affirmations. “Zara, are you my baby? I love you, you are my baby,” familiarising my mouth with your name. I breathed you in until your musky scented hair filled my lungs. In two three. Out two three. I inhaled you until my heart rate decreased and your smell seeped into my skin.

When your daddy went back to work,we clung to each other on the couch, our days moving to a familiar rhythm. My fatigued eyes searched yours for an anchor but it was the crease on your forehead, the same frown that punctuated my brow since the day I was born that loosened the fear in my gut. You were a piece of me, foreign yet familiar, the same curiosity and bewilderment etched onto your skin. My singing became assured, my words firm, unyielding. “Zara you are my baby, I love you, you are my baby.” I sang until the fog scattered and I came up for air. I gathered you in my arms, held you to the new part of me, the one that slid into the world beside you the day you were born.

 

First published in The Big Issue’s 586 edition.

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