Claudia Amadori-Segree was born in Italy. She lived in London for eleven years and moved to South Florida in 1997. She will graduate from Florida Atlantic University with an MFA in Fiction in August 2008 and will begin a PhD program in English at the University of Miami in the fall. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry and much of her writing explores issues of identity, cultural hybridity, loss and family dynamics. Claudia's stories have a strong sense of place and are set in the many countries she traveled to. Claudia's nonfiction explores questions of displacement and family bonds.
My friend Raquel gave birth to a baby boy yesterday. I'm visiting her at Holy Cross Hospital. The baby reminds me of my son when he was born; he kind of looks like Nicky-tiny, perky nose, eyes mostly shut, smiling lips exposing toothless gums. Nicky smiled too, right from the start. I wonder: does a two-day old infant smile because it is content with its new situation, or is it just a twitch, an involuntary reflex that makes it curl its lips like Garfield?
I don't touch the baby. I'm not keen on touching other people's babies and I generally don't—unless they shove their infant onto me—in the same way that I don't like to pet dogs. Does the fact that I don't melt into idiocy when I see a baby or a puppy make me a bad person? Dogs stink of stale water even when they are clean; and they make you smell the same way if you indulge in rubbing them and let them jump all over you. I don't do that.
Babies: a baby could defecate while you hold it and then you wouldn't know what to do and you'd feel embarrassed—as if it were due to a fault in the way you cradled it—so you'd guiltily give it back to its mother, feeling incompetent and relieved at the same time. Or it could spit up. Or puke on you. Or while you hold it you sense the mother's gaze burning a hole in your skin and you know that she wants you to return her baby but she doesn't dare say so, as if she were terrified an arm or a leg could break off, or its head snap and roll to the ground while in your “un-motherly” arms. That's why I never try to hold other people's babies. Most people, I'm convinced, hold infants not because they really want to, but because they feel they have to, or because they want to show off their nurturing instinct. Before I hold Raquel's baby, I have to figure out what kind of mother she will be.
Being at Holy Cross Hospital makes me reminisce about the fact that, seven years and ten days prior to this child's birth day, I was in the same predicament as his mother-a new baby in my arms, a tiny wonderful stranger I wasn't quite sure how to hold, handle, care for. The hospital was the Coral Springs Medical Center. I still remember the delivery room with its sparkling, spotless pine furniture and its color TV that made it look as remote as possible from a hospital room. At least that's what I thought then. It was my first time as a patient in an American hospital. My experience of the Italian counterpart-I had visited my mother in hospital when I was ten after she had a hysterectomy and, ten years later, my father, while he was being treated for cancer-was of a less cheerful, less colorful place. All for the mother's comfort. American comfort for those who have insurance. I recall being relieved that my C-section had forced me to stay in the hospital an extra couple of days. I was in no hurry to go home. It was nice being pampered by the nurses; feeling that nothing bad could happen to you or your baby because the touch of a button would remove all responsibility from your hands. A 'Please take the baby back to the nursery' was all it took. But, at the same time, you don't want him to go back there. Two days and you're already hooked: what if? Too many brand new 'what ifs' you weren't prepared for. What if, just because he's not under your doting-but incompetent-gaze, something terrible and unforeseen were to happen to him? Baby snatching...sudden infant syndrome...choking in his vomit...hospital staff malpractice? So you ask that the infant sleep in the room with you, but then you can't sleep because you're constantly waking up to see if he's still breathing. Mother's paranoia, you tell yourself, but you can't put your mind at ease.
When I had my baby I was alone. My girlfriend's husband, Alberto, reaches out for her hand several times and squeezes it, I notice, while I'm standing at the foot of the bed. He has taken time off from work to be with his wife. He doesn't say much, he's always quieter than Raquel but his eyes are telling. Alberto; forty-seven years old and never married before. Now husband to a twenty-four year old and a first-time father.
He jokes: “Tomorrow I'll wake up and I'll still be chatting online with Raquel,” referring to when they met through the internet, four years earlier. They are a family now. He pretends to still be “in shock” because of all the changes in his life, but his eyes shine with joy, pride, incredulity and emotion. True love. When I had my baby I was alone. The man with whom I conceived my child, with whom I was foolishly in love, was not there because-he said-he couldn't stand the sight of blood and if he watched me give birth he would no longer find me appealing. What attracted me to him? Hard to remember now. Nightclub fun, Chardonnay, sexy outfits I would sport for him, burning excitement, Saturday nights, infatuation, physical attraction, obsession, sex, cocky demeanor, dinners, lies. Was this all there was to our relationship? Then a pregnancy at the age of thirty-four. He came to the hospital afterwards...long afterwards...after I endured twenty-five hours of labor and a C-section. I should have known then. I should have known he wasn't going to be the family man I wanted him to become. That moment represented all that was to come in the years to follow. But I didn't want to see. There was too much to process, and I needed the opium of false hopes. True love.
Instead, my mother had been there to support me, encourage me, hold my hand, clean my sweat and feed me ice cubes as the interminable hours of my labor ticked away like the heartbeat of my unborn child on the monitor next to my bed. I felt comforted by the blue jagged line that looked like an earthquake needle and the thud, thud, thud, thud, thud that made it all real-but nothing happened, except the pain increased progressively in spite of the numerous pain killers that would have knocked out the proverbial horse. My mother was present through the two epidurals that didn't work but let the pain trickle in at first, and then gust abruptly like the air out of a punctured balloon. My mother was next to me as I pushed and pushed, screamed and shook, in a bath of bodily fluids, forgetful of everything but the pain that didn't go away-out of my head, incoherent. But nothing happened. She was squeezing my hand when my doctor announced I must have a C-section as the baby was too big and was in distress. I screamed and begged her to keep trying because I didn't want a hideous scar on my belly, plus I had no insurance. I'm going to have a scar and he'll no longer find me attractive. How much more will a C-section cost? I'll have a scar. Scar...Scar...Scar...C-section cost...Cost...Cost...I thought. I rambled. Mother was already past the $5,000 benchmark I had estimated when I decided to keep the baby, in spite of the fact that I had discovered, after the fact, that my employer's group policy—surprise, surprise, nobody told me when I was hired—opted for a “no maternity” clause. Ironically, most of my female co-workers were under the age of thirty-five.
Suddenly the pain didn't seem so terrible compared to the alternative of having a C-section. I've often asked myself which of the two reasons for not wanting surgery was most distressing to me at that moment—I remember thinking that I wouldn't be able to wear a bikini if I had a scar, trivial as this sounds. Then the “thud” from the heart monitor caught my attention and brought the issue into perspective. What if that thud was to suddenly stop?
I could not let that happen. My mother's muffled words, “Don't worry about money,” the nurse's voice, “You have to think about the baby,” started to resonate. I stopped resisting and accepted that things had gone wrong.
“Please, just let my baby be OK,” I shouted to the nurse or maybe prayed, but to no God in particular. My mother was still there when they took me to the operating table and I threw up from the pain and the convulsions. The anesthetist boosted the epidural but I felt the cold blade of the knife as Dr Green proceeded to cut. Or was I just imagining it? I screamed. They had to put me to sleep. It was over.
Raquel tells me she had an epidural only when she was seven centimeters. She had wanted to have a natural delivery but the pain became unbearable towards the end.
“How do you feel now? Are you still in pain?” I ask.
“No, I feel great,” she smiles.
My mom's was the first face I saw when I woke up.
“He's beautiful!” she beamed, before I could remember that I had just given birth. Twenty-seven hours after my admission into the hospital and she hadn't yet left my side. She was there, through the immediate aftermath of childbirth, the blood, the painful trips to the bathroom, and my clumsy attempts at breastfeeding. She assisted me without burdening me about the baby's father who should have been there, in her place, to hold my hand, but only came by once-smug, arrogant, useless-to see his son. Foolishly blind, I refused to acknowledge how it must have hurt her to see her only daughter being treated so appallingly. She never made a remark, never pointed out to me what must have been apparent to her, in the wisdom of her age and without the blinkers of infatuation. She hid her pain from me, and went on caring for me without complain. She only went home to sleep and was back early the next morning. On the day of my release, we had to wait for my child's father to come and sign the birth certificate. All the other new moms who were being released had left by lunchtime, carrying their balloons and flowers with them. I was still there, waiting. When I called him at work to find out why he hadn't left yet, he became annoyed.
“I'm busy. I'll be there as soon as I can.”
We left the hospital at close to ten at night. It was I who was being selfish and unreasonable for expecting him to drop everything to come and pick me and his son up-he was busy at work, he held, as if that would be sufficient to erase the disappointment I felt. With me still in a wheelchair, as I could not walk, we made our way to the parking garage through the deserted hospital corridors. I cradled my baby, wrapped in a receiving blanket, in my lap. My mother walked silently next to the wheelchair. I could see she was upset from the way she sucked her lips in, but she didn't say anything. He conversed all the way with the nurse that escorted us through the hospital maze, and ignored me and the baby as if we weren't even there. I thought about the other moms. There had been no balloons, no flowers. No balloons, no flowers for me. I felt humiliated in front of the nurse who escorted us and all the other nurses and doctors who had witnessed my shame. 'Poor fool,' I could almost hear them say, 'not even a flower…or a balloon.' I couldn't wait to leave the hospital and never set foot in it again. Would it have been better if I'd been a single mother and my child fatherless? I should have cried instead I lied to myself: “He'll be ok, once he gets used to the baby.” That night, I approached the rest of my life with tremendous insecurity and fear. My body felt flawed, disfigured, fat, and ugly. The attention I so needed never came. That night, my love began to die.
“Have you picked a name for the baby?” I ask Raquel. They hadn't wanted to know the sex beforehand.
“No, but we have to decide by tomorrow. We have to sign the birth certificate before we go home,” she replies while she adjusts her baby's head on her chest.
“You're being released tomorrow? What time?”
“Early. Alberto is taking tomorrow off too, so we can spend the first day at home with the baby, together.”
Raquel is going to be a stay-at-home mom, although her parents have moved near them and can help take care of the baby if she ever wants a job, a night out, or anything else. Alberto's parents have flown in from the South of France, where they live, and are spending three months with the couple and their new grandson.
My mother was there when, the night we got home from the hospital, I couldn't climb onto my bed because of the stitches. I remember being upset because I wanted to sleep next to my boyfriend. I had missed him terribly, in a physical as well as psychological way. I needed his comforting presence next to me. Instead, I slept in the living room on the couch, which was lower and easier to climb in and out of. He didn't seem too bothered that I couldn't lie next to him. I no longer was the sexy thing he couldn't do without, compassion, affection, tenderness never materialized. I couldn't turn to change positions, or get up by myself. I needed somebody to pull me up and hold me. My mother was there. She slept on the floor next to me on a folded blanket, as he and I lived in a one bedroom apartment, at the time, and he never offered to give up the king-size bed for my mom and lie on the floor next to me.
My mother was also there the following days, when I was doubled over from the pain and needed someone to support me as I tried to walk, the stitches pulling my skin like traction cables. I am not sure what I would have done if my mother hadn't put her own life on hold to help me through the physical pain from my C-section and the emotional yearning a woman experiences after childbirth. Many years later, I asked him why he hadn't supported me when I needed him most. His reply was: “You didn't need me, you had your mother. If she hadn't been there I would have helped you,” his idea of help, obviously, being of purely physical help. I knew this not to be true. If I hadn't had my mother, I would have been alone. I didn't say anything. I had hoped for an apology but it never came because he never grasped-and still doesn't-the long-lasting effects of the psychological damage that was done to me during and after my pregnancy. I knew he could never understand what putting others before himself meant. If you love someone and they are in pain, you would want to be there for them, at whatever cost, whatever you have to give up. This is something that should come naturally, unconditionally, like it did for my mother who didn't eat or sleep to be by my side while I was in labor. I often reflected on the “whys” and “hows” of his behavior and, many years later, I concluded that it wasn't because he didn't want the baby or me, he was-and still is-just because he is incapable of loving unselfishly. Although my mother had been there to give me strength and support, I always felt robbed of an experience I deserved to have in my life-that of sharing the joy childbirth with my son's father. When my mother finally left-a month later-and I was due back at my full-time job in a few days, I felt lost as never before in my entire life.
They say: A child will change your life. A child will change you. We all metaphysically and intuitively know this to be true, as we know that planets revolve around the sun by gravitational force. But what is this gravitational force made of? How does it feel in real terms? What does it mean, pragmatically, to have a child and to be changed by it? Does it happen in one day, like divine lightning, or is it a progressive, ongoing process? How does the sun feel with all those planets clinging to it forever? Does it feel the load and burden of having to keep revolving at the same speed, day-in day-out, without faltering, dragging their dead weight behind? Does the sun ever dream of changing course with a quick unexpected flip and going off to some different galaxy, just for fun? Does it struggle to keep up? Does it wish it could rotate faster and faster and make its own head spin, just for kicks? And does it ever fret over those younger planets in the back, does it regularly check on them, to see that none is left behind?
I remember, as if it were yesterday, the day I had to take my mother to Miami airport. Her time was up—or, should I say, my time was up?—she was going back to Italy. From this point on, I would be on my own. I had already figured out I couldn't count on my son's father. His presence was more of a hindrance than a help. His advice sounded like criticism. His ideas on child rearing differed from mine completely and we never saw eye to eye on anything. I quickly learned it was better not to ask, not to talk. Just do what I had to do.
“Let the baby cry,” he coached me. I should take care of him, instead of 'spoiling' the two week old infant rotten. Of course, I didn't listen.
“My mom has raised seven kids and she never behaved like you do,” he'd point out reproachfully. If I asked him to do anything he'd reply I was just fretting and the baby was fine.
“Just leave him alone, stop fussing over him. He doesn't need his diaper changed right now. You just changed him!” It wasn't just laziness that made him say what he said, but also the reassurance that there was someone else—the mother—doing all the work; so why should he bother? I still had no idea how bad it would get when my mother was no longer there to smooth over the edges.
“Don't worry. I'll change him,” Mom would intervene in her heavily accented English, “I'll take care of the baby. You go and relax.”
The day my mother left, I sat in my car outside the terminal and watched her disappear into the airport building, small, blond and frail-but, at the same time, immensely strong, much stronger than I was-dragging her Samsonite behind her. I realized she was taking the little strength I had away with her and tears choked me. I wanted to shout her name at the top of my lungs and beg her to stay, just a little longer, not so much for the physical help she could give me, but rather for the emotional support that I so needed. I quickly calculated whether I would reach her before she disappeared into the building, if I ran to her for a last hug, as I could not leave the car unattended—I would get a ticket if I wandered inside the terminal. But it wasn't just the car I couldn't leave.
“I shouldn't have listened to her. I should have parked the car and gone in with her,” I cursed myself for my shortsightedness. I wanted to bury my head on her chest and stay there forever, like when I was the child.
I turned to look at the little stranger-I had named him Nicholas—peacefully sleeping in the car seat behind me, safe in his new life and without a clue about the psychological cataclysm his mother was going through as he heaved in and out of sleep. I realized I could not leave him and go to my mom, nor could I move fast enough with him. Getting him out of the car seat of a two-door jeep was an operation that took its time, especially with my recent stitches still fresh. I could no longer go where I pleased without him. Not any more. Not for a very long time. I sat in that car and wept. I was terrified. The future was a big back hole in which I was about to precipitate. During the past month, my mother had gone to Nicky at night when he cried, so I could recoup my strength. She had fed him and bathed his tiny shriveled body more often than I had, while I lay on the couch still sore and confused. Only in the last week I had been able to move about without too much pain.
It felt as if I had been sitting in that car forever, tears streaming down my cheeks, praying the infant would not wake up any time soon and cry, as I could not handle him just then. I don't remember ever missing my mother as much as I did, sitting in my white Amigo and watching the airport traffic through the fog in my eyes. After the longest time, I slowly turned the key in the ignition and drove back to Coral Springs. I parked outside my apartment and carefully picked up the bundle of which I was, incredibly, in charge. I staggered into the apartment, my scar still pulling at every step I took. I lay the sleeping infant in the middle of the king-size bed and placed pillows all around him. Then I lay next to him and watched his tiny chest heave as he breathed, his minute nostrils sucking in air with the same voracity of a kitten sucking from his mother's nipples. I watched his eyelashes imperceptibly tremble as he slept and wondered if he was dreaming. I stuck one of my fingers into his clenched fist and wiggled it. The baby unconsciously tightened the grip and I had to forcibly free myself, after a while, as my hand was getting numb. I left the baby unattended, wondering if he would be safe for a few seconds while I got myself some food. I went to the fridge and spooned some of mom's cold lasagna right out of the Tupperware container and into my mouth. Then I noticed that the trash can was full and it smelled sour. I wanted to take it out to the dumpster but I realized I couldn't do it without leaving the sleeping baby alone in the apartment to walk the few steps across the hall. I could not take the trash out. The thought shocked me.
From that day on, I learned how to negotiate my life all over again, like someone who becomes suddenly visually impaired has to learn how to move around the home he once knew, without bashing against the furniture. I learned to live my life around my child, in function of my child, forgetful of myself and of my own needs. I learned to live knowing I had no one to assist me, that I had to do it all by myself. I stopped looking for-hoping for-help, understanding, and emotional support. This made me stronger, I think, although I don't always want to be strong. It also made me love my child more than if I had someone to share this love with. I became very defensive of my baby, very possessive; investing all my emotions in him, fulfilling through him, the part of me that remained unfulfilled for many years. I learned a different kind of fear-a fear that will never go away-the fear that something may happen to Nicholas.
When he was just a few months old, I would wake up in the middle of the night to make sure he was breathing properly. I would check him in his sleep to see if he were still alive. Since then, I realized that the worst thing in life is neither pain nor death, but the thought that something might happen to my child, or that, if something should happen to me, he would be alone, with no one to protect him and guide him through life. These thoughts, if indulged in, terrify me but they are also an incentive to live a health-conscious life. I've been mother and father for seven years, probably not the best but the best I can be, but I never once wished I could change my course, rotate a little faster, or swing by another galaxy. I no longer get up to watch Nicky sleep or check his breathing, but the fear of losing him is still there and I have to use my willpower and reason to keep it in check and let my boy grow and become independent.
Raquel sits on the bed cross-legged, wearing gray leggings and a gray tank-top. I notice she still has a little bulge. It will take some time before her stomach is re-absorbed back to almost pre-pregnancy size. In spite of that, she looks beautiful. Her hair is in a ponytail. She wears no makeup but her confidence transpires from her voice and her countenance. A sense of confidence that comes from knowing you are loved. The baby has been sleeping on her chest for a while, but now she asks Alberto to hold him. She talks to a nurse who has arrived to check her blood pressure
“Should I wake him up to feed him? He hasn't eaten in a while and last night they tried to wake him but he wouldn't wake up.”
“Yes. You can if you want to,” the nurse answers noncommittally.
Raquel frets over the nutritionist not having stopped by to see her. She worries that the baby doesn't eat enough, sleeps too much, that she might not be breastfeeding him properly, not positioning him correctly, taking him off too soon, not holding him properly... I know that the list of worries will never end. I can see a replay of myself all over again. I'm glad Raquel is acting like she does. She'll be a good mom. And if she never calls me for months after today I'll understand; she's about to enter one of the most important stages of her life.
“Relax. You're worrying unnecessarily. He'll wake up when he's ready,” I try to advise her. I know from experience she should follow her baby's rhythm, not try to impose her own rhythm on the baby, at least not so soon. One thing I learned pretty fast as a new mother was: Never, ever wake a sleeping baby. You'll regret it soon enough.
“She's overwhelmed,” Alberto interjects, in a tone that betrays the kind of empathy and understanding I tried to elicit from Nicky's father for years, before realizing it wasn't my fault I didn't get it, it was the man who was incapable of showing compassion.
A flash of foresight tells me that my friend will never have to go through what I had to go through, no matter what the future has in store for Alberto and her. Even when the romance fades-because it always does-and real life kicks in, she will always be able to count on Alberto's sympathy and support; on his fundamental goodness. This epiphany brings melancholy and joy at the same time, as if I were split into two, reliving my experience through my friend's and, at the same time, trying to imagine how my life would have been different-and as a consequence how I would have turned out to be a different person-had I had what she has.
Am I projecting her life onto mine? Maybe I am but I don't envy her, I'm genuinely happy for her. Sometimes I just wish I had another ten years ahead of me, to start all over, to have a second chance to experience motherhood under different circumstances. Raquel decides she will wake the baby, after all, and try to breastfeed him. I take advantage of the situation to quietly take my leave. She doesn't complain, even though I've only been there for a little over a half hour. I know they need their privacy now.
“I'm sorry...” she apologizes, but I know she's happy I'm leaving. She wants to be with her baby now. Nothing else, nobody else counts but her newborn child who depends completely from her for his survival. And that is the way it should be.
“Don't worry; I don't want to get stuck in traffic anyhow,” I reassure her. “If I don't leave now it'll take me forever to get back.” I lean over the bad to kiss her and add: “When you get settled, call me. I'll come visit you and the baby.”
She smiles and kisses me on the cheek, my visit already fading in the background of her more pressing thoughts. I know that, from this moment onward, my friendship with Raquel will never again be as it has been. She will never prioritize our time together over her baby, her attention will always be focused on the crib, she will always be listening for the sounds only a mother can hear; her concentration during our conversations will always be a notch off. I'm glad about that.