I like it when a thing and its opposite are both true, so it is like holding your hand up to a mirror, and regarding both your palm and the back of your hand with a single glance. I like it even more since I have become a mother, because the emotional experience of mothering is always about feeling a thing at the exact moment you feel its opposite. Your joy is never separate from your sadness and your devotion is never separate from your selfishness and your complete fulfillment is the same as your lifelong longing for connection, your longing to be joined with another human being.
Your contentment becomes part of your anxiety over the fact that you have to let go what you love the most, starting at the moment of her birth, but it starts long before then: It begins early in pregnancy with wanting your baby more than anything at the same time you are so terrified about whether you will survive the birth you almost think maybe you don’t want a baby. You feel the many physical pleasures of pregnancy together with the almost constant sickness at first and aches and pains later. You feel sexier than ever, while at the same time you know you are indistinguishable from a Volkswagen bug. The incredible strength and beauty and miracle of your body and you cannot even see your own toes. You are invincible, you make and sustain life itself, yet you cannot put your own shoes on. You cannot go up the stairs without a little push. You can move all the appliances and clean every inch of everything in your house, but you cannot find the strength to get out of the bed at night to get yourself a glass of milk.
And then there is labor—the sweet and terrible pain. You are so goddamn ready to get this baby out of you but what the hell will you do with a baby—you cannot even keep a plant alive through the winter, and before the child is born, you are already too exhausted to eat. You will kill the man who did this to you just as soon as you are done feeling how desperately you need him and what is this new feeling of loving him you have? The celebration of the new soul in the room together with the physical pain; your joy and your amazement and excitement and anticipation and your paralyzing fear when you look in this stranger’s indigo eyes and Christ how do you even change a diaper and there is the certainty that you cannot be trusted to keep this tiny creature alive.
You want your own mother to be with you almost as much as you want to kill her. No, that’s not true. You want someone else’s mother to be with you though you will lose your legal sanity if your husband’s mother ever smokes again while visiting your city. You want to rest in the hospital though you will not survive another five minutes without your baby in your arms and where did that evil nurse take her—Honey please go get her; yes you can too tackle the nurse who won’t let me take a nap. I need to nurse my baby right now, I don’t know how to make it work, I need her to show me. I have to go to sleep now. Where is my baby? Oh do I sound crazy? Really? I’m not crazy. You try having a baby with your big old square head. You know you sound like you’re crazy because your body no longer belongs to you, or even to you and your baby; your body is now a wild chemical playground for instinct and hormones; instinct and a hormonal LSD and a kind of power in the instinct you never knew existed.
And when you get home it only gets worse. You know what I feel a little hormonal crazy. I have to have seven receiving blankets to put her down on the couch. No, six is not enough. Why? That is just how you do it. I don’t know how this did not occur to me but I can’t have any cats in my house with the baby they could kill her! Can they please live in the garage? I’m sorry, kitties, I can’t help it; it is just what I have to do, I have this tiny little baby and it’s not you guys you know it’s just the litter box. So out they go, though you’d never even have considered throwing them out to be garage cats before you went to the hospital. Now you have no choice. This is what you do. Honey you know what, I can smell the dust—will you please vacuum under the crib again?
And your milk comes in a few days later and if you haven’t killed your mother yet you will want her to help you learn to nurse before you drop her off at the pound, and you will love her more purely than ever for about ten minutes until the thought occurs to you that if she still had milk, she’d nurse your baby if she got the chance, and maybe now is the time to kill her? You want support and you want to do it alone and you want your husband to be a great supportive father-type husband and you want him to—oh my god you know what nursing is pleasurable! Like sex—it makes my toes curl! It feels amazing, like sex without the x. If I can’t get this milk out of my breast I will die it hurts so much but if I can’t get this baby to stop nursing for five minutes I will die they are so sensitive and still, you have not slept.
You are dangerous. Yet somehow you are able to do everything the baby needs you to do. And you sleep with her in a baby box next to you on the couch since they say sleeping with her in the bed is not safe. And you do not want anyone else to do anything for your baby; she is your responsibility, she’s why you were put on this earth and goddamn I need a break and you love to watch your husband play with the baby and make her laugh but what if she doesn’t want me anymore? And you will give her anything and everything and that feeling does not come with its opposite or maybe it does in the sense that for a while she is you and if someone gives her a gift they have also given it to you and you are giving yourself the pleasure of loving her so that one maybe goes both ways, too.
But the huge major thing of it is that after a while you know you cannot have your sweet baby anymore and that she will leave you and how do you bear the thought of that? This I think is the origin of all the feeling two things at once. You cannot love her without sadness and longing because she cannot be yours. The more strength you can bring for yourself, the more sure-footed she’ll be on her own. She has to walk out of your life and into her own and you have to send her off with joy, though this is your sorrow, and there’s no separating them.
One day she’ll be across town or across the world while talking with you on the phone about her latest story, or maybe her wife, and when she turns away for a moment to speak to her child, she will call the child Cake, your special name for your own daughter when she was a toddler. How did she remember that? She will be in her own house with her own work and her own family. Your child will no longer be yours though of course she is.
You kiss her turning head until you can’t reach it anymore.
Jennifer Woodworth studied creative writing at Old Dominion University. She is the author of the chapbook, How I Kiss Her Turning Head, published by Monkey Puzzle Press. Her stories and poems have appeared in Gone Lawn, The Citron Review, The Eastern Iowa Review, and Jokes Literary Review, among others. She was a nominee for a 2020 Best MicroFiction, and she won a first prize from AROHO for Sudden Fiction. She has work upcoming in Gone Lawn. She knows how lucky she is anytime she gets to write, especially if her daughter is writing too.
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