Nine years ago I gave birth to my eldest child in the local hospital. Twelve beds lined the walls of a rectangular room, our babies in plastic boxes at the bed side. There were curtains that could be pulled between each bed, for a sort of sham of privacy, but midwives, in their black shoes, clicked past the beds snapping back the curtains, insisting that the personal be public. Twelve women, twelve babies, one large room.
It was hot. Why does it need to be so hot, I asked, sweating into my jammies and dressing gown? We keep it warm for the babies, they said. The babies, oh yes, the babies needed warmth in their plastic boxes. Meanwhile I sat and sweated, staring at my own little black-haired mystery lying in her box.
I needed a drink. I had just given birth a few hours before. The ward was full and I was hot and sweating. I felt like I hadn’t had a drink in weeks. My mouth was a desert and there was no relief. I saw a button next to my bed, “Assistance,” it said. Surely someone would help me find a drink? I pressed it, it turned orange and soon a nursing assistant came to my bedside, tight-lipped. Yes? she barked. I just need a drink, I’m so, so thirsty. Please. Her lips became thinner and she folded her arms. That button is only for urgent things. Please don’t press it again.
Is thirst not urgent? I have just run the marathon to end all marathons. I have just fought the hardest fight. I have given birth to a beautiful, slippery, enigmatic creature and now I need something small and insignificant but essential—a drop of water and a friendly voice. I get neither.
The mothers in the beds nearby keep to themselves. The one across from me has just had her fourth child. It sleeps in the plastic box while she sits in her chair staring at me, watching my incompetence unfold before her like a poorly knitted blanket, all dropped stitches and holes. I need the toilet, but don’t know what to do. Do I take the baby with me, wheeling her along like a dessert trolley? Somehow it seems profane to take her into a bathroom. I ask the mother in the bed beside me to watch her and I pad my way heavily to the toilet down the corridor. I sit on the toilet, sweating and corpulent. I pass a clot—is this what the midwives want to know about? As I am thinking about it I remember what I had momentarily forgotten—my baby. Oh my baby, where is she? Who is the stranger I left her with? What if she has awaken and needs me? I feel the worry, like bile, in my throat. I walk quickly back towards the ward and I can see in the distance, the furthest plastic box, there she is. My baby. She hasn’t moved.
I get closer to check that she is still breathing. Her tiny chest rises and falls. She presses her lips together and turns her perfect head to the side, rumpling her mat of black hair. She is pink and beautiful. I am filled with an unfamiliar, strange sensation, as yet unrecognisable to me in my new motherhood. It is that proprietary feeling of connection and the need to protect at all costs, the first swelling of a never-before-experienced love. What was once a part of me is now separate, but still somehow connected.
Looking back on that mental photograph of myself sitting on the side of the bed I see a tired young woman, messy hair, frumpy old pajamas and crooked glasses. She looks as though she has just lived through a hurricane. The baby is still in the plastic box, and the woman looks on, sitting on the side of the bed, leaning forward to observe the baby, not sure what to do. Nine years later I want to steal to my bedroom and quietly retrieve my scissors from the sewing kit. I want to go to that mental picture and gently, ever so gently snip around the baby lying in the cot. I want to pick her up gently and glue her into the arms of the bewildered woman sitting at the bedside. I want to look myself in the eye, take myself by the shoulders and say, “She is yours. Hold her, because this moment will soon be gone.”