Death’s an old story, but new for each person, Turgenev said. It’s the same with birth.
You take pills for the pain, pills for your blood, pills to help you shit without tearing a seam. You are a poor marionette, strings pulled from elsewhere, the brain commanding an unwilling body. A dull pain thrums through your cells like electricity, a foreign pulse and snap. Wake up! It says. Time to get moving!
When you’re home from the hospital, you look down at your newborn son as though you’re spying on yourself many years in the past. You watch the present like a memory, thinking to yourself how small he was then, how happy and simple you both were. You don’t care about climate change or the Supreme Court or dirty dishes in the sink. The world is made up of him alone and you are drowning in it. It is a joyful death.
On Venus a day is longer than a year. Welcome to Venus.
When you come for the baby’s two-week checkup the pediatrician makes you fill out a form. How worried are you about your baby: Sometimes, All the time, Never. How are you getting on with normal tasks: As well as before, Not as well as before.
We need to talk about this, the doctor says. You scored too high.
You don’t buy it. Who isn’t worried that their baby will suddenly stop breathing in the middle of the night? That they will slump over in their car seat and block an airway? That they will roll off the changing table or reach for a pot of boiling water? Who doesn’t imagine dropping their baby, their baby’s skull shattering, the pink smear of baby brain befouling the kitchen floor? Who doesn’t imagine stabbing their baby every time they see a knife?
You take a picture of him sleeping, wedged between two pillows, lips slightly pursed, eyelids closed with no hint of strain. He looks so peaceful, you think, which is exactly what you would think if he were dead.
Your baby invents new games for you to play, like “the bed is lava” in which he screams any time you try to put him in it, and “speed” in which he screams any time the car drives under 60mph. You would like to play a game called “monster” in which you leave the house on some errand and never come back.
The Book says to use a transitional object to help the baby comfort himself to sleep. Your baby has no interest in his transitional object, save to cover his face and pantomime asphyxia. Make sure you aren’t in the room, The Book says. That will be a barrier to sleep. Make sure there is nothing in the crib with the baby, The Other Book says. Soft objects can lead to suffocation and premature death. It’s best if you stay in the room, The Other Book adds. Just to be safe.
You have to try to get back to work, your husband tells you. You don’t have to spend all day with him. Your husband works. He works all day and into the night while you care for the baby. He hates his job and wants you to hate yours, too.
You take the baby for daily walks around the neighborhood. You would like to get lost, but you always find your way back through the rows of homes, the dips and hills, the roads that always connect back to somewhere you know. You see other moms on these walks, jogging with strollers, walking the dog, watering the lawn. They wave as you pass. How old?They ask. Or, boy or girl? You exchange vital statistics, knowing glances. With a slight furrow of the brow, their eyes hold your gaze a little longer than they should. I see you, they say. Please: see me back.
Online, the mom groups are more direct. Posts that start with, I love my kids, but. They’re the best thing to happen to me, however. Always so much balancing on that little pivot word, that careful comma. Tip toward the mother: a ravenous, animal love. Tip the other way: what now inhabits that space? The mother who asks, how can I exert my own gravity? The mother who listens for an answer and hears two beating hearts. These dual truths exist simultaneously: I love my child, but I am being obliterated. Schrodinger’s mother: both self and not self.
You scroll through social media as you hold your infant on your lap. One of your old colleagues has won a prestigious award. You did not remember him being all that good, but you are happy for him. You are also jealous. You also hate him. Then a loud rumble erupts on your leg. Poop or fart? You ask the baby. He smiles, stares deeply into your eyes with a look of complete intimacy, and grunts again. Poop it is, you decide together.
You used to have a career saving the world from climate catastrophe. In reality you helped oil companies get richer. That’s not what they said, of course, but you knew who paid your salary. But now the people you used to work with—who worked for you—are getting senior positions in in major companies. They live overseas, have expense accounts. You are sitting on the couch trying to find the ocean adventure episode of an animated children’s show. You are nowhere. What did you think was going to happen? What did you think?
But, no. There must be more. The sea is constantly remaking itself and why can’t you?
At 11pm begins the crying hour, when the child wakes up and will not stop crying until you bring him into your bed. What might have been a phase stretches into months, then years, until it too replaces what was once normal in your life with his warm presence. You used to think it a burden, until you realized what it really was: a gift. Every night, his warm breath on your face. Even when he turns away from you—forming an H between you and your husband, his little body a bridge between you—he still reaches for your hand under the pillow, and lets you cradle it gently in your palm.
Your friend is moderating a Zoom conference with prominent legislative candidates. You are fishing a Nemo LEGO out of a beer. They live in oceans, your toddler whispers in your ear.
Ocean currents are slowing. The change will be catastrophic, irreversible. We were not meant to perceive time like this, only to live in it.
Your husband gives you lists of tasks he needs to get done, like calling the insurance company and the accountant, and others that don’t, like booking a lodge for his boss’ family for the holidays. You’re just better at those sorts of things, he tells you. Which is true: you are. And plus, he adds, you don’t have a job.
You are tired of worrying about having things. Tired that everyone else expects things will simply materialize because you’ve erased yourself from the labor of procuring them. Did we order a sleeper couch for when the mother-in-law comes? Did you order you husband’s eyeglasses before the sale ended? Do you have slip-off sneakers for the toddler to take to his new daycare? Did you buy flood insurance? Did you get the rainbow sprinkles, the funfetti cake mix? Sometimes you just want to close your eyes and let it roll over you, the cool sensation of tension easing, the unclasping of muscles, the wash of numbness as it all passes by.
The best part about making the bed, you think, is laying yourself under the crisp sheets. Slip your body between the fitted and flat sheets and let the blankets bear their soft weight. Rub your feet along the cool, silken plane. But your husband doesn’t even notice the flat sheet, so perfect is its press that he simply slides into the bed on top of it. No, you chide. You’ve missed the sheet. I don’t need it, he says. The sheet is silly. And now you exist on two separate planes, you beneath the sheet, him above it, his weight pressing down and tightening the layer between you. No matter how close you get, you inhabit two different worlds: him above, you below, a thin white barrier between you, taut and impenetrable.
After two days of rain and television it’s time to get out. Playground, you decide. You take the toddler to a park tucked into the fancy neighborhood with the big trees. You play on the swings, avoid being trampled by the big kids on the play structure, dutifully accompany him down the slide, the contents of your bag scattering behind you (you’ll learn to hold it in your lap next time). He falls off the big kid swing and hits his head on the rubberized ground. It’s nothing to worry about, really, but he is upset. Let’s go for a walk you say, just in case it is something to worry about and he should remain conscious. There’s a little path through a redwood grove that the older wives use to walk their small dogs, tiny bits of fluff skittering beneath the trees. The air is clear as glass and the leaves are shining in it. This is where the dinosaurs live, the toddler says, echoing something you might have said to him on a similar walk long ago, before you knew he was paying attention. Let’s find the T. rex! You do your T. rex walk across the wet needles, the scent of dirt and woods released with each stomp. There is a bridge in the distance, which excites the child because he can point to it and name it and know that he is right.
You proceed down the path, but the child begins to climb straight up the embankment. The grade is steep and slick with mud. Let’s try a little further down here, you suggest, but he is hell-bent. So you let him go, following just a little behind, lest he do something to his head again. You’re halfway up the hill when you realize that you are stuck. You fumble for a rock or a root to hold onto, but your boots continue to slip down the mud. You try to push the child up onto something, but you can’t get a good enough grip. You begin to laugh. Two old men in tennis gear look down at you from above. Some teenage girls, lithe in expensive leisure wear, ignore you from below. Abort, abort! You laugh. It’s too slippery! The toddler attempts another step and is forced to concede. Slide to me! You command. So he does. He slides to you, then past you, back down to the path below, a smear of mud left in his wake. Slide mommy, slide! He says. And you do. And when you reach him you hold him aloft, his little body darkened against the curdling sky, before bringing him back down to earth. You are the only people in the entire world.
Sam Khaikin earned her MFA from Columbia. Her work has appeared in or won prizes from Carve Magazine, Glimmer Train, Romper, and Neon Door, and she’s been awarded fellowships from Tin House, the Vermont Studio Center, the Napa Valley Writers’ Workshop, and Columbia University. Her work was also nominated for the PEN/Robert J Dau prize. She lives in northern California and is working on a novel.