Sometimes it’s the things that are the most worth having that spark the deepest fears in our hearts. Sometimes we step forward into the darkness with no idea where our feet will land or what the future holds. I had always assumed that children would be part of my future. That one day I would get married and start a family, and since Paul and I were now in our third year of marriage, it had seemed like the time. He had first raised the issue and I had not objected. I had assumed that as everything had done in my life so far, so this too would just fall into place. And yet as I bobbed up and down to the rhythms of Madonna in my weekly aqua natal class, three days past my due date and ready to drop at any moment, I wasn’t so sure.
‘What if I’m not a good mother?’ I asked Lucy as we attempted to touch right elbow to left knee across our enormous bumps while jumping in the water and trying not to topple over. I had been going to the class for the last couple of months, ever since finishing work had left my weeks full of empty days where the only thing to do was wait for the inevitable. It was an attempt to get out and meet other mums-to-be and maybe work off a few of the pregnancy pounds while I was at it. Lucy and I had met the first week and she had fast become my new best friend. ‘What if I don’t know what to do?’
‘It’s a little late to be asking yourself that now don’t you think?’
‘Well aren’t you worried?’
‘About being a parent. I mean, people get really screwed up by their parents.’
‘I think that’s unavoidable, all you can do is your best.’
‘But what if my best isn’t good enough? You know I’ve never changed a nappy in my life?’ It was true, I came from a small family and I was the eldest sibling. Mine would be the first baby in the family for twenty three years and I really hadn’t spent that much time around them. Sure I had read books, done my homework, but what if that wasn’t enough?
‘It’ll all come to you,’ Lucy assured me as we switched to star jumps. I could feel the baby pressing down hard with every leap and knew I didn’t have much longer to wait before I was thrust into motherhood, ready or not. ‘That’s what my sister says anyway. It’s instinctive.’
‘I hope you’re right.’ In fact I was counting on it for it was far too late to turn back now. The dye had been cast and soon unlike the dolls I had played with as a child it would be a real little baby I would be dressing in miniature clothes, and pushing around in a not so miniature and rather expensive pushchair. Actually it was so much more than just a pushchair, it was a whole travel system; pram, buggy and car seat all in one, and a hefty job it was too. It had been a present from my parents for we never could have afforded to buy it ourselves. Not with all the other so called essentials we’d had to buy, all of them expensive. Just stepping inside a baby shop was expensive. I suspected they knew how clueless first time mothers really were, and tapped them for all they could get. Many of them even published their own lists of everything you needed just to make sure you didn’t forget just how much you should be spending. I was sure in the end we wouldn’t need half the things we’d bought, but I had gone through the lists and ticked off every item, ensuring I wouldn’t be caught out. Everything was in neutral colours for we’d chosen to be surprised about what we were having.
The pregnancy itself was full of plenty of surprises. It had seemed like every week a new infliction that no-one warned you of would raise its ugly head and all you could do was grin and bear it. It was all worth it in the end though wasn’t it? The endless exhaustion, the morning sickness that had no sense of time, the chronic back aches, the agonising cramps that gripped your legs in the night, the heartburn that stung your throat like fire burning inside you and the ever shrinking bladder that meant you spent half your days and even nights making the journey back and forth to the bathroom. It certainly wasn’t the most fun time I’d ever had.
Madonna came to an end and the sound of Robbie Williams filled the large mostly empty pool. I was always thankful that the class took place at the time of day where our awkward attempts to remain graceful and coordinated while looking like we’d each swallowed a basketball was only witnessed by the odd retired swimmer who came to float about in the peace and quite of the cool water while the kids were in school. It didn’t help, however, that the midwife who led the class always looked immaculate and in perfect shape. It made sense – you wouldn’t want to take an exercise class from someone who looked like they never did any, but I had always thought it a cruel joke that she looked so perfect and fit as she led a class of elephants through their exercises.
She worked us hard and by the time the class was over I felt as though I was already done for the day despite it only being eleven in the morning. Everyone started to make their way slowly to the shallow end of the pool where the artificial beech made for an easy exit. Every step I made towards it lifted my bump a little more out of the water, and made my legs buckle under the increasing weight as I left the best support system there was.
‘Don’t forget,’ the midwife called after us, ‘we all meet for coffee in the café after you’re changed if you want to join us.’
As we entered the changing rooms the first thing Lucy and I did was head straight for the toilets to release our bursting bladders before hobbling back to get dry and changed.
‘No Charlotte today?’ I commented as I tried to wrap the towel around my body and the basketball. It didn’t even come close to covering me. ‘I wonder if she had the baby yet.’
‘Lucky her if she has. She isn’t due until tomorrow. I’d give anything right now to deliver early.’ Poor Lucy wasn’t due for another three weeks.
I smiled, and nodded. Though the very thought terrified me there was only so much torment your body could take before you just couldn’t do it any more. The closer you got to the end the more terrifying it was – and yet the more you longed for it.
Taking a seat on the bench so as not to lose my balance I wriggled into my oversized maternity jeans which were forever losing their grip on my complete lack of waist and slipping down. Then I pulled on the top that had fitted fine when I’d first tried it on in the shop at fourteen weeks, but which now barely seemed to cover half my bump. I was forever pulling one half up and the other half down. I certainly was looking forward to getting out of the maternity clothes and back into something a little more flattering, though something told me it would be a while before I was able to fit back into my pre-pregnancy wardrobe. I’d had one too many chocolate bars over the last months to compensate for having to give up alcohol and caffeine. Two of my very favourite things.
‘You staying for a drink today?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ said Lucy. ‘Got nothing else to do. Everything’s ready. All I’m waiting for now is the baby.’
‘Yep, me too. All ready,’ I said, though as I heard myself say it, it didn’t sound true. I dropped my towel to the floor and ran my oversized hobbit feet over it. The pregnancy had caused by body to swell all out of proportion. I couldn’t fit into any of my shoes anymore and had to live in flip-flops. It was just as well really, for I had no chance of reaching down to pull on socks or fasten shoes. I’d had to teach Paul how to paint my toe nails for me. I couldn’t fault him, he’d been the model husband helping me get through it all and I knew he was going to be a wonderful father. At least there was one half of the parenting unit that seemed to be confident.
I packed everything up into my bag and Lucy and I headed out of the changing room and into the café. As soon as we stepped through the doors Lucy squealed in excitement. Sitting at one of the tables waiting for us was Charlotte and in her arms she cradled a tiny little body all dressed in blue and fast asleep. She was glowing, her long blond hair bright, and there was an undeniable sparkle in her eyes. She had a big grin on her face as she saw us coming and I could see how pleased she was with herself and her new little bundle.
‘Oh my God,’ Lucy cried as we took our seats beside her. ‘Let me see, oh he’s gorgeous.’
‘When did you have him?’ I asked.
‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re out and about already,’ said Lucy. ‘When my sister had hers she didn’t do anything for a month!’
‘Oh I couldn’t stand staying about the house for another minute,’ explained Charlotte, ‘and I had to come and show him to you.’
‘What’s his name’ asked Lucy.
‘Can I hold him?’ Lucy reached out her arms and welcomed him as Charlotte handed him over. Lucy was used to holding babies for there were several in her family, but the idea of holding little Elliot terrified me. He was so tiny and delicate, his wrinkled little features buckled in an old man’s frown and his head wobbling as though it wasn’t really part of his body at all and might fall off at any moment. I knew straight away that I didn’t want to hold him. I didn’t trust myself, and again I asked myself if I was doing the right thing. If I couldn’t even hold him, what made me think I could hold my own child, much less take care of them?
When I left the leisure centre a little over an hour later I decided to go for a walk. I wasn’t ready to go home to my empty house yet. Paul would be at work and there was nothing to do but wait for the baby. I had already cleaned the place top to bottom, and there wasn’t even a single molecule of dust left in the house to get rid off.
I pulled up beside the park and tried to wrap my coat a little tighter around my body as I stepped out. Summer was finally over and there was a distinct chill in the air. There was little life in the park as I made my way along the path between the trees. Just the odd dog walker or office worker on their lunch break. Even the trees showed little signs of life as their golden rusty leaves drifted down and covered the path way. They were crushed beneath my feet as I walked. A black Labrador rustled through the dead leaves with his nose as he shifted towards me down the path.
‘Cold today,’ said his owner as he approached me.
‘Yes it is’ I agreed and wrapped by arms a little tighter around me.
No wonder the trees were giving in for winter. I didn’t blame them. They were stripping themselves back to their bare bones, waiting to be reborn again in the spring, and I envied the way they so easily welcomed new life all over again. They led a fluid existence. Ever changing from one thing into another.
The black Labrador sauntered over and began sniffing around my feet. I reached down and smoothed him gently. He was closely followed by his owner.
‘You want to be careful, wandering around on your own. We don’t want you having that baby here in the park do we?’ He chuckled to himself.
‘No,’ I agreed and marvelled at the way when it came to babies everyone seemed to think they suddenly had the right to advise you. Even complete strangers. As though they recognised the full potential of a new life, and just wanted to make sure you didn’t mess up the next generation. They meant no harm though, and I wanted that too. I knew Paul wouldn’t be too pleased if he knew I was out walking on my own.
I let the dog push on past me down the path and take his owner with him. ‘Good luck’ he told me as he left.
‘Thank you.’ Why did I feel like I needed it?
As I continued on my walk I could feel the baby getting heavier and heavier. It wasn’t long before I had to turn back, the autumn leaves showering down on me as I went, and I realised that the next time I walked that path it would probably be with a pushchair. I couldn’t even picture it.
I made my way home to the empty house. It wouldn’t be empty for long and it almost felt as though it was waiting for the baby as well. I found myself standing alone in the nursery just trying to imagine a baby inside. It looked just like a picture from a catalogue with matching sunny yellow curtains and light shade, and fresh mint green walls. Large friendly animals grinned from cartoon pictures and sat propped up in the beautiful wooden cot just waiting to be torn apart by love. There was a state of the art changing station, loaded with nappies, cotton buds, baby wipes, creams for nappy rash, oils for the skin, a digital thermometer and fresh soft towels to wrap around baby after the nightly bath. So much equipment needed for such a little thing.
I picked up a clean cloth from the cabinet in the bathroom and once again started wiping over all the surfaces and checking that everything was in order.
Later that evening I sat on the sofa feeling like a beached whale while Paul prepared the dinner in the kitchen, the tomatoey smells of a pasta sauce which just a few short months before would have turned my stomach wafting into the living room. I stared down at my bare bump as it jumped from side to side with painful twinge after painful twinge, an elbow here, a knee there, and wondered who it was inside me.
Their very first picture was already framed on the mantel piece, a blurry skeleton, hollow black eyes staring straight at me, suspended in a dead space that told me little more about what was to come beyond that here was something very small – and a little scary – and that I still couldn’t quite grasp. I would never forget that first moment when I had seen the baby on the scan. I had barely been showing and yet there inside me was a perfectly formed little person, complete with arms and legs, and it had been quite overwhelming. Paul had squeezed my hand beside me and blinked back the tears even he had been unable to fight off and we had both been filled with a an immense sense of awe at this little thing we had created. And I was still in awe of it.
‘So how is my little star striker tonight?’ Paul asked as he placed the bowls of pasta on the table. ‘Kicking strong?’
‘You don’t know it’s a boy’ I protested. ‘It might be a girl.’
‘Well that’s no reason not to play football. There are plenty of girls’ teams out there.’
I nodded. ‘I suppose so. I guess they can be whatever they want, whichever they are.’
‘Well we won’t have much longer to wait to find out which it is. I put extra spices in the pasta sauce tonight. See if we can’t get things moving.’
‘You just don’t want to have to go to work tomorrow’ I teased as I tucked into the fiery pasta that made my mouth tingle all over.
‘Well it would be nice to have a bit of a holiday.’
I wasn’t sure how much of a holiday Paul would be getting with a newborn baby in the house, but whether it was the spices in the sauce, the bouncing about in the pool that day or the walk in the park, something did the trick and he got his wish. That night I was awoken at two in the morning by agonizing pains that seized hold of my body and threatened never to let go. When the first one had subsided I managed to dislodge myself from amongst the many pillows I slept with every night and switch on the light.
‘What’s going on?’ asked a blurry eyed Paul still half asleep peering over the pillows on the edge of the bed.
‘This is it’ I panted and began to pace back and fore at the end of the bed. I’d read somewhere that staying on your feet was the best thing to do. Keep gravity on your side.
Paul groaned. ‘Well can you turn the light off and put the lamp on instead? I’d like to get a little more sleep.’
I scooped up one of the larger pillows on the bed and hurled it in his direction. ‘Don’t you get it, THIS IS IT! We have to go to the hospital…’ I buckled over as another contraction took over and for a moment I was lost again to the pain until gradually it released its grip on me and returned me to myself, ‘…NOW.’
The remainder of that night and much of the next day seemed like a blur as I lost all sense of time. Everything became about just getting through the next contraction, and it was no easy task. Eleven hours into labour I was sat awkwardly in the birthing pool sucking hard on the mouth piece for the gas and air as one contraction ran straight into the next. The real world around me disappeared into a far away haze, and I was wondering why I had been so adamant that I would do this without the drugs. But by then it was too late. I clung to the gas and air like it was the only thing keeping me alive and as the pain tore through me I wondered if perhaps it was the end of life, rather than the beginning. I took in the relief in deep breaths and it made my head spin. I could hear everything that was going on around me, but like a drunk in an exhausted stupor at the end of the night I was completely detached from it all, unable to comment on anything that didn’t involve screaming at Paul not to touch me. And then, finally, at half past one in the afternoon, a little girl was born.
She arrived into water so peaceful and serene and I reached down to take her in my arms and bring her up into the world. She took my breath away and felt so soft in my hands. The moment our skin came into contact I knew she was mine. I could feel it in every cell of my body and felt more connected to her than I ever had to anyone before in my life. As I cradled her in my arms we gazed upon each other for the first time and I placed a gentle kiss on her soft wet forehead. All of the doubts and fears I’d had slipped away and as though a switch had been flicked inside me I knew everything was going to work out fine. I was overwhelmed with the sense of joy that filled me. She looked at me with a little wrinkle in her perfect little brow and questions filled her beautiful eyes, as though she was just as curious about who I was as I was about who she was. Nine months together and we were still strangers. But I knew exactly who I was. ‘Hi’ I whispered to her in our own private little moment when it seemed there was no one else in the whole world. ‘I’m your mummy.’ And just like the trees in the park would be in spring, I had been reborn.