Our big little girl made her entry into the world moments before August 25th drew to its close. For me, 44 hours of trying for natural birth proved it wasn’t meant to be. But we had a healthy baby and Michael and I were mesmerized by who we’d made. Any concerns I had about wanting to be a mother disappeared in a flash. Michael never doubted his choice. After a few hours of just holding her, staring at her, I made him go home while I practiced nursing and got some pain relief after my unexpected abdominal surgery. I remember a funny wisecrack from the night nurse who arrived with my demerol injection. She said, “I can always tell the patients who’ve had some experience with drugs. The naive ones anxiously ask what they’re being given, nervous about potential adverse effects. The ones who’ve experimented just turn on their sides, pull up their gowns and expectantly await the flood of good feelings.” Yes. I was in the latter group.
Almost forty years ago, our deeply flawed medical system was more patient-centered than business oriented. A post-surgery person like me wasn’t kicked out of the hospital in a day to free up bed space. I stayed for several days, recovering, nursing my baby to make sure she’d thrive, being visited by lactation specialists, and generally being treated like someone who’d accomplished something wonderful. Dr. Brodsky came in during the morning rounds as well as at the end of the day. We had a solid, honest relationship which was a great comfort. My parents came down from Chicago. Michael worked some hours, but came for most of the afternoon and evening to be with me and to bond with our daughter, unable to stop looking at her. One afternoon, he and our friend Brian held my arms as I hobbled down the hallway, trying to conquer my incision, and to release the air that’s pumped into you to create more room for the surgeons as they extract the baby. As I limped along, a woman passing by commented, “ don’t worry dear, you look like you’re almost ready to deliver.” Not exactly an ego boost. A woman who was pregnant and swimming alongside me, had her baby within a day of me, both of us late in delivering. One night after visiting hours ended, the nurses gave us small bottles of an awful alcoholic beverage called Champale. We stood outside the nursery toasting each other and our utterly opposite babies, mine at almost 11 pounds, nearly twice the size of hers, just about 5 and 1/2 pounds. Diversity in life.
The night before I was released, the hospital gave us a celebratory steak dinner in a small private room on the maternity floor. We sat together savoring the special moment, realizing that we were embarking on a new part of our life, a little nervous but mostly excited. Despite my fatigue, I was flooded by oxytocin, commonly referred to as the love hormone. I’d had a lot of trepidation about nursing, an act as natural as any on earth. I don’t know why. I’d read a lot and prepared my breasts but until you’re actually in that moment you don’t know how things will feel. Evidently I was born for this nurturing. My hormone release was instant and energizing. I considered wet nurse as a career option, for about a minute.
The next morning I dressed my little girl in her neutral yellow outfit, was packed, dressed and standing at the nurse’s station at 7 a.m., waiting impatiently for Dr. Brodsky to begin rounds. When he arrived he ordered me to get back to my bed. So I did, bouncing up and down until he finally came in with my chart, gave me a once-over and signed off. Michael who’d arrived at the correct time, went to get the car with its newly installed car seat, while I was plopped in my wheelchair, baby cradled in my lap, surging with happiness. Our drive home took less than 10 minutes.
I walked into our toasty house and was astonished to feel all my energy drain away within minutes. I collapsed on the couch in what we called the orange room, nursed the baby and passed out with her clutched to my body. I didn’t hear a thing. Later my mom told me that my normally verbally reticent husband burst forth with emotion, saying, “look at my two girls lying there.” Then he shared details of his less than ideal childhood, lacking in intimacy, depth, understanding and approval. He was determined to make a different family. I was amazed when she told me he’d been so open. Clearly we’d both edged into parenting mode pretty fast with a preparedness that was brewing throughout the pregnancy.
In the midst of all this newly minted parenting, both Michael and I remained our authentic selves. In my inveterate anti-authoritarian tradition, I defied doctor’s orders about not driving for a few weeks while my incision was fresh. After nursing my girl to sleep, I grabbed a pillow, pressed it against my abdomen, hopped in the car and drove to my favorite baby boutique to buy one blue and one pink frilly dress. I don’t think I ever put either one on miss precious but I was overflowing with adoration and wanting to give my little one the best of everything. In addition to the driving restriction, sexual intimacy was prohibited. Overwhelmed by powerful hormones, I threw caution aside and coaxed Michael into the vortex of my fascinating intensity, basically scaring him to death, fearing he might kill me as I sobbed joyously in that always odd juxtaposition of emotions. I’ve never again experienced a commingling of the passions of partnership and mothering as I did in that stupidly dangerous, unforgettable experience.
In addition to my drama, we had comedic moments. One night, I had a glass of wine downstairs while Michael got the baby ready for bed upstairs. The wine knocked me out immediately. A short time later, Michael was standing over me wild-eyed. The kid was hungry and wailing while he waited helplessly, finally running downstairs to ask me where my maternal instincts were as I slept through her obvious need. Life certainly wasn’t like television. Another entertaining moment was Michael’s first diaper-changing experience. We’d been through lots of pet training together so he immediately gathered the cloth diapers, the safety pins and a stack of newspapers upon which to lay our baby as he would any puppy. Those memories are indelible in my mind.
Having my parents with us at the beginning of this new life phase was helpful and relieving. From our beginning in 1972, they embraced Michael, able to perceive his warmth and decency along with feeling my obvious blissful state at being with him. They fed us, rocked the baby, let me sleep and freed Michael to work for awhile without worrying about “his girls.”
But trouble was looming. I’d gone almost ten days beyond my due date. Michael’s parents had planned a long road trip which was supposed to wind up at our place, meeting their new grandchild. They didn’t want to change their plans. The last thing I wanted was to shorten my parents’ visit, which was homey and easy, for spending time with his parents who were snobs, irritating and narcissistic. I’d never developed fondness for them. Fundamentally, we disagreed about virtually every major life issue, as had Michael and his sister for most of their lives. Even though they were highly critical of Michael, which often caused huge arguments, he continued to hold on to the concept of trying to stay connected to his family. Although I knew that criticism of him aside, they thought he’d married below his class and were privately dismissive of me. The only thing that they found commendable about me was that I was smart. Even that was problematic. My mother-in-law in one of her arrogant huffs would say, “ well, we’re certainly bright enough but we’re not intellectuals,” as if being that was a disease. Despite that reality, as Michael’s loyal partner, I put up with their nonsense and was often the mediator and fixer in their disagreements. But the baby in my lap changed the stakes for me. My mother-in-law often talked about the special relationship which was traditional in her family, that of the first-born granddaughter and her grandmother. I could manage this disagreeable crowd on my own but I already was drawing boundary lines between them and my daughter. I reluctantly asked my parents to depart as I warily awaited Michael’s family. He was used to this discomfort but I wasn’t. Before a day elapsed, I was fuming. I was a scant two weeks past abdominal surgery. Our house was hot. They sauntered in and announced that they thought nursing was disgusting. Going up and down two steep flights of steps every time my baby was hungry was not happening. I sat smothered by a blanket over my body and hers, with sweat pouring over the two of us. Michael’s mother announced that people in their family didn’t sweat. Another indicator of my lower class status, I realized. I was incensed. Here I was in my own home at this amazing time, being judged by people with whom I had nothing in common but the son they’d alienated most of his life. I made myself scarce. Eventually so did they. I was already planning a road map for the future. Thankfully, despite his own issues, Michael lined up with me. Their visit was blessedly short. I have no photos of their stay, by design.
The next big event was Michael’s departure for a business trip to the east coast, which left me on my own with my three week old baby. I wasn’t thrilled but in my typical style, I figured being alone would be good practice for any calamities that might occur. Our friend Brian was in our last apartment in the house, just through a back door, so I had backup. Our little girl was already focused and burbling with the intent to communicate. For the most part everything went smoothly. Michael called every night. One evening, I couldn’t get this kid to settle. She was fed, dry, swaddled and screaming at me with her little purple face. I just held her and stared. When Michael phoned I told him she was howling herself dizzy. And so she got her first and lasting nickname from her dad – Diz – which he called her for the rest of his life.
September was a big month for us. We’d decided to keep as many of our traditional activities as possible so one hot weekend, we took off to attend a Broom Corn Festival we’d discovered while on one of our driving rambles years ago. The event had burgeoned from a small town event into a more regional one with loads of people. I wore jeans that day, excited to be back in normal clothes so soon after delivery. I was proud and miserably sweaty. Michael suggested that I go find us some large lemon shakeups to drink. I made my way through the crowd but the lines were long. I was gone about a half hour. Wending my way back I spied Michael, not hard to do as he was 6’4,” scanning everywhere for me, looking a tad psychotic. The baby was crying and he couldn’t stop her as he had no milk to give. I quickly grabbed her and ducked into the bathroom of a disgusting bar so I could nurse while sitting on a toilet. So much for traditions. At five weeks from birth, we headed to Chicago to spend holidays with the family, introducing our girl to the rest of our crew. Somewhere I have a video, shot by my brother, which included four generations of the women in my family. Not everyone gets that experience. I’d crazily gone out and bought my daughter a quilted peach-colored cat outfit with paws on the feet for her Chicago debut. I know it cost more than mine. She was already interacting verbally, highly entertaining and always alert. I was dazzled and in love.
And then suddenly, maternity leave was over and I had to go back to work. We’d found a private babysitter who only cared for a few kids. Her name was Lillian, really nice and a little creepy. She had two young sons and talked a lot about wanting a daughter. Even though I intended to nurse my baby on my lunch hour, the first morning I dropped her off, I sobbed in my car as if I’d never see her again. I was stunned by the knowledge that in barely two months, I’d gotten so attached to this tiny little person. As opposed to my usual skeptical, sardonic self, I was now instead a sappy “Mom.” At work, whenever I thought of my baby, my milk leaked through the pads I’d bought to absorb it, an embarrassing presentation for someone who spent a good deal of time interacting with the public. I was glad that at least she’d drink from a bottle so I wouldn’t think she was starving all day. That transition was one of the hardest of my life.
In November, we hosted Thanksgiving dinner, just us and my family. We kept it simple and disposable as we were without a dishwasher back then and still somewhat overwhelmed by our new schedule which included lots of sleep deprivation. We felt so adult and purposeful, still a few years away from the ultimate passing of the family event baton, but trying a practice run. My parents, grandmother, brother and younger sister were here. Three months had passed since our little one had arrived. We got a professional photo taken to mark that birthday. Our kid had a lot of personality.
We stayed home that December and spent time with friends in quiet celebration. Overall 1981 was a remarkable year. Michael and I were adapting pretty well to our new roles and were both recognizing that sharing this extra dimension was going to stretch us both individually and together. Although we maintained our vigorous head butting like the strong people we’d always been, we were closer than ever and in love with each other and our girl. What would happen next?