We brought our son home from the hospital on the evening of August 11, 2016. It had been just over 24 hours since his birth. I was exhausted, shattered both emotionally and physically. My insides were still rearranging themselves after the sudden exit of my short-term tenant, and this sensation of being permanently winded coupled with the hoarseness that had come from grunting and howling this child into the world had left me feeling like I’d been run over by a proverbial truck.
It’s safe to say I was completely unprepared for the reality of a newborn. We had spent a difficult first night together in the hospital. I knew that babies were accompanied by a lack of sleep and a crushing sense of fear, but I naively thought this would somehow start after I had recovered from the birth. Say, in a few days. Maybe even weeks, once I’d “adjusted”.
Of course, both kicked in the moment I felt myself drifting off to sleep. A watery, choking sound cutting through the quiet room from the bassinet next to me. I bolted upright and clutched the bassinet. The tiny, precious, breakable infant inside was in the process of vomiting up a glob of clear mucous. I panicked and began furiously pressing the buzzer for the on-call midwife. He swooped in a moment or two later and, while I garbled something about choking and suffocating at him, gently picked up the baby I was supposed to know how to care for and began rubbing his back in a circular motion.
The mucous, he told me, was perfectly normal. He was just clearing his lungs out, and there was nothing for me to worry about. Still, I drifted in and out of sleep all night, terrified by the enormous responsibility that had landed on my doorstep. When they refused my request to stay another night and sent me home the next day, I was astonished. But there’s a baby, I wanted to say. I need a grown-up to come home with me to help look after it.
When we got home on that wintry August evening, I sat with him on our bed and gazed down at his shrivelled, pink body swathed in the too-large clothes he had yet to grow into.
I’ve made a terrible mistake, I thought.
The writer Elizabeth Stone once wrote that “making the decision to have a baby is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. My friend Heidi had her own, simpler version of this realisation when she brought her daughter home eight weeks earlier: “It felt reckless to let myself love her,” she told me.
I’ve mixed Valium with vodka before, boarded a Vietnamese train helmed by gun-toting transit officers stoned out of my mind, accepted lifts from strange men and played a sport that basically involves crash tackling other players while all wearing roller skates – but loving my child is far and away the most reckless thing I’ve ever done.
This reckless, dangerous love increases every day and I am powerless to stop it – and the higher this love takes me, the greater the fall will be if the fullness of its wingspan is broken or ripped away.
What will I do if something happens to him? And what will I do if it’s my fault?
Because all it takes is a thoughtless decision, a momentary lapse in attention, a misjudged curve or corner – a harmless mistake – for the beating of this heart that I have placed outside of my body and entrusted to fate to look after to shudder and shake and fade to the screech of silence.
All of us, whether we’re parents or not, have experienced the nausea that comes from being brushed by the cold robes of Death on the street. We might gasp for breath, laugh hysterically at our escape or recount the play-by-play of our almost-demise to an enthralled audience; but with the exception of hypochondriacs or people with a panic disorder, we probably don’t spend our waking hours worrying about all the different ways we could die.
This reckless, dangerous love increases every day and I am powerless to stop it.
But my outside heart is vulnerable, and I am the keeper of his flame. What if my head is turned for one second too long and he rolls down the stairs, out the door and back into the world from which all babies are wrenched but all mothers can only take them once?
What if his busy hands put something I’ve left lying on the ground – a cashew nut, a button, one of the endless bloody bobby pins that spread out across the living room floor – what if these tiny things stick in his throat and crack a hole in the earth just big enough for him to tumble into, and into which my clumsy, giant hands can’t reach?
What if I speed up instead of slow down for an amber light only to catch an enthusiastic driver at the crossway, the crunching metal pinning my outside heart onto a wall of statistics while I remain behind, just another donkey with a tale to tell?
What if what has seemed like the most harmless of all my mistakes has turned out to be the most dangerous mistake of all? To let myself feel a love so profound and transformative for a person I don’t even really know that well yet, but who has the potential to destroy my life by leaving me?
Dear harmless mistake: I meet you every day on the stairs as I walk my child down to the front door. We sit together in the living room, and watch as he learns to crawl. You stare at me as I breastfeed him, drinking from a cup of hot tea that passes over his head. We bathe him together, where sometimes I have to run out for a second to grab the towel I’ve forgotten to place on the rack. You wake up with me in the morning and lie next to me when I go to sleep at night.
By now you are so familiar to me that sometimes you seem like a friend – but you are always, always watching and waiting for your chance to strike.
This piece was originally written and performed for Women of Letters in Sydney.