Every month I’m writing a story as homework for my writing group. And then I post it here:
“You must be so happy!”, her mother exclaimed on the phone. “Must I?”, Elena wondered to herself. Since she knew better than to respond with “Why do you always tell me what to feel?”, she managed an almost convincing “Of course I am!” before she excused herself.
That part, the excuse, had become much easier these days. Interestingly you could have obligations by the dozen, or really valid reasons for something but it seemed that nothing was as valid as saying, “You know, with the baby…”
That seemed to be one of the few things that were easier now. Most things were much more difficult, of course. Before she hadn’t known that one could crave sleep so much. That being hungry could make her that aggressive, or how fiercely she’d protect her baby.
Her baby. It still seemed weird. Like a stranger yet familiar as her own limbs. Clearly a part of her and yet, totally different.
If only the baby would sleep. She looked at the pile of parenting books on her bedside table, next to a gigantic bottle of water, three cartons of nursing pads, and the book she was reading. Well, trying to read. Something not baby-related .
When, before her daughter was born, she had read that it took about eight hours a day to care for a baby, she had laughed inwardly. That couldn’t be true.
What the books didn’t say was that those fictional eight hours were spread out all through the day. Alternating twenty minutes of baby-care with ten minutes off. When she had read that babies slept about eighteen hours a day she didn’t know that she’d have a daughter who never slept more than twenty minutes at a time. At least it felt like she didn’t.
She thought of last night when Mark had carried the wailing infant through their apartment for three hours while she got to sleep with earplugs. That had been the best sleep she’d had in two weeks. Who knew how refreshing three hours of uninterrupted sleep could be? Or that one could be tired enough to doze off while holding a conversation just because the other person didn’t say anything for five seconds? And that one could be resilient enough to hold the baby, feed the baby, burp the baby, rock the baby, change the baby, carry the baby, and go without food, drink, or anything for ages?
That was something at least. Who would have thought she could do that? Despite the fact that she really considered trading the baby for a vacation. Alone. Only her, a comfortable bed, and room service.
Until she was separated from her, if only for an hour, and she missed her, and worried if Mark was treating her right, and then she knew she’d rather die than let anything happen to her.
Maybe that was what her mother meant by being happy? Though her mother didn’t seem capable of feelings that fierce or even remotely passionate. Maybe that first months really became all foggy after a few years and then you only remembered the moment when you held your newborn in your arms, marveling at it, this whole new life that was part of you and your loved one.
But then, that was another one of those lies. The “happiest day of your life”, that was wedding day, wasn’t it? Maybe all these people suffered from amnesia.
Elena remembered everything. The awkwardness of the ceremony, the fight they had the morning before, how everything went utterly chaotic, and how they were really glad when that day was over.
Maybe other people meant something different by “happy”. Maybe those people lived by making up a story in their head of how it should have been, and clung to that for the rest of their lives.
Elena stopped walking through the apartment because little Anna had finally fallen asleep in the sling. She sat down, the baby heavy on her, pulling at the fabric on her shoulders. She had her book right here, next to her favorite chair, tea at the ready, still warm in the thermos. She put up her feet that hurt after walking for almost an hour, inhaled that sweet baby smell, felt the warmth of the sun on her legs, and took a sip of tea, careful not to spill anything on her daughter.
“This is happiness”, she thought, “this moment. Soon I’ll feel uncomfortable again, something will be wrong, but now, this minute, I’m happy.”
She opened her book, looked for where she had stopped reading the night before, and dozed off.