Boy

You are seven weeks old, my son. Forty-nine days. Such a short time can feel like forever. Could it be possible I’ve known you all my life? Before you were born, I couldn’t imagine you were even real – even as you grew inside, even while I felt your movements, your growing weight, saw you taking shape on a screen. But as soon as you were real, you were instantly familiar. Like we’d met before.

I was relieved to fall in love with you, to find it so easy to do so. You were and are perfect, intoxicating and fascinating. Just recently you’ve learnt to smile, and I have to stop myself from crying when you do. You are so beautiful and I love you.

Becoming mother

I am now on maternity leave. Packed away my stethoscope. Finished off some clinic letters this morning. Submitted the last of my re-call forms. This is the beginning.

This morning I bought ‘comfy’ pants.

And obsessed over the news.

When will the war begin? And what is this world that I will bring a child into?

I also hung up on my mother.

_____

My husband asks me to consider the type of relationship I’d like to foster with her. ‘No relationship’ seems just fine. He warns me burning bridges, isolating myself at this time is not healthy or wise. So I try to imagine we have an adult, functional relationship.

_____

She visited last weekend, and we spent most of that time talking about nothing in particular. All was calm on the surface. On the last day, I broached the subject of what would happen when the baby arrived, the healthy boundaries I wanted to establish.

She was upset and angry. On the phone today, she told me I had blind-sided her. She never suspected there was any problem or tension between us. There’s only been a problem since I became a doctor, she speculated. I have changed. My work was too much for me; I was taking it out on family.

I’ve lived away from my family for 17 years, with a safe distance of at least 1,000km between us. This was no accident.

I suggested to her this wasn’t a new problem. At best she trivialised the examples I offered her. Worse: she denied they happened, accused me of bearing unreasonable grudges.

I forgot what this felt like.

So I hung up.

She left a message to say she was sorry she yelled at me. That if I called back, she would listen.

I wrote back to say I think we both need some time before re-visiting this conversation. I said this confrontation confirmed my anxieties.

She replied to say that I’m probably stressed from work, and once I’ve had a chance to unwind, she’d be happy to speak to me.

_____

I feel afraid and inadequate. What a loser, how petty and stupid. Everyone agrees: my mother is a lovely and kind person. I am the difficult one. I will police access to her grandchild, and I will be the cruel one.

_____

I hope my baby grows up to be a kind and resilient person. I hope this new human will grow to be confident, empathetic and strong. I hope that they will know that while their opinions and knowledge are things they have to earn and prove, their emotions and experience is always true and real, that no one can deny them their content of their heart.

Not waving.

Not Waving, but drowning

Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

 

So what can  I tell you about now, or how I got here? That I fucked up? Or I am a fuck-up? Or… what?

A few weeks ago, I went to bed cradling cramping abdominal pain, coming in waves. For a moment, I thought to myself: “well, that’s it then”. There will be sadness and grief for a baby that couldn’t survive, but then… Life would go on. I would be free.

Of course, that’s not what happened. I woke my husband and we went to the hospital. Feotal heart rate 140-150; baby active. Contractions now settled. Blood pressure normal. Urinalysis clear. Go home. Sleep.

But for a moment there, my thoughts betrayed me. The possibility of something else other than this. The temptation of life as I’ve known it. I didn’t go to work the next day. I was and am exhausted, my mind was racing. I was a failure. I’d come to the end of a run of on-calls, where sleep was insufficient and always interrupted. I want to be better than good enough, but always feel inadequate.

This is the field of medicine I love the most, and I feel like my body is letting me down. My belly continues to grow, I feel heavy and slow.My clothes are uncomfortable. I can’t walk so fast. I am breathless and tired. I’m always going to the toilet. My muscles ache. My back hurts.

This is not how I want to be. I want to make a career in this field, but right now I’m just managing to do my job.

My husband tells me I can’t go on like this. When ED calls me at midnight to ask me to admit a patient, he gets angry. He promises he’s not angry at me, but doesn’t see why I should go. Can’t someone else admit the patient? Why can’t I just turn off my phone? What would happen if I did?

We argue, and then I head back into the hospital – because that’s my job.

The middle aged patient I’ve been asked to see was called by the pathology lab in the mid-afternoon to direct him to the ED. But he had a friend’s barbecue to attend with his wife, and he knew we’re “always open” anyway. His wife chastises me for being at work so late (it’s now after 1am) in my condition. I smile politely.

After all’s done, I get home after 3am. When I see the patient and his wife on the round that morning, they give me a sterner talking to. How could I be at work after seeing them last night? I want to say “well, we are always open”, but I don’t. I thank them for their well-meaning advice and give vague answers to their intrusive, personal questions.

People tell me how excited I must be. They tell me how this is such a special time.

I feel like I am disappearing. Strangers  and family and colleagues tell me how I should feel, what I should be eating, what I should do with myself. My husband feels helpless and worried. He urges me to look after myself, if not for my sake – but our baby. I feel guilty, isolated.

A woman stopped me in the street and placed her hands on my belly, and told me how fortunate I am. I want to run away from her. I feel panic and anger. I want to hide. I want to disappear.

I feel shame when others tell me I should feel excitement. Instead, everything I feel isn’t anything I want to admit to. This is terrifying and absolute. I have no control and little influence over anything that is to come. And how I feel or what I think or who I am is mostly irrelevant. What’s next is motherhood.

I stayed at home after the night I went to hospital. Things weren’t quite right and I went back to hospital again. And in the end I was away from work for three days. The AT who writes the registrar roster was unsympathetic  when I told him I wasn’t coping with my hours*, but I think at some point while I was away the bosses inspected the roster closer, and my on-calls were improved.

I’m now on a week’s holiday (applied for/booked in November 2015 – and my god, the timing couldn’t be better). The panic of my thoughts has calmed with better, uninterrupted  sleep (except for feotal kicks, small bladder and difficulty turning). And the chance to relax in in my husband’s company has put some of the anguish to rest. I feel safe with him. And in our private world between the two us, we talk and wonder about the future. I don’t have to feel guilt or shame.

I’m going to finish work soon. Because I am tired. Because I am not doing the good job I want to do. Because I am conspicuously pregnant. I am overshadowed by this growing, firm round belly protruding away from me. And it attracts attention like I never want.

And because I just need time to make sense of it all.

 

*Side note: He’s the father of five, and his wife has always worked till 38/40 and gone back to work within 3 months of delivery. Toughen up – he says. I’m not asking for special treatment, but his response just helped me feel worse about myself.

 

 

Re-discovering Jessica

I am approaching the end of a sixth month venture into the topsy turvy world of shift work. I’m not sad to bid farewell to the diurnal upheaval and social isolation – though I am sure I will miss the ability to do administrative errands with ease, and also indulge in my daily catch up with Murder She Wrote (ABC1, 16.15 weekdays – in case you’re interested).

What a woman is our JR. Not only is she a fabulous amateur sleuth, a wonderful author (by the accounts of others), she is observant, assertive and I guess what we’d call “sassy”? Someone pushes her buttons or crosses her personal boundaries, and she has no problem standing her ground; delivering a swift and direct one-liner at her opponent – and no one even threatens to call her a bitch. Some might say “THAT Jessica Fletcher!” but she is always respected.

I like that I can’t decide if she’s beautiful or good looking, and I can’t even work out what age she’s meant to be. She has wrinkles, a tummy, and a terrible eighties haircut. She is always well dressed in something elegantly tailored, but she doesn’t seem to fit any type we’re now familiar with. She doesn’t drive, doesn’t use a computer – but she at least knows what a floppy disk is. Everyone wants to hang with Jessica, regardless of age, sex, race or background. She can be a bit mumsy, but isn’t a mother; she’s quite professional, perceptive and astute, but isn’t cold; she subtly flirts with the handsome middle aged man of the episode – but is ALWAYS dignified. Who would’ve imagine a childless widow and retired English teacher would ever be presented as such a strong and charismatic character in mainstream TV?

And then there’s the hilarious portrait of gender relations of that time. Jessica explains the murderous intent of an estranged father to the man’s daughter (after he was arrested for killing the woman’s fiancé – and later proved by Jessica to be innocent): “You must understand, he is a MAN (ie. Has no emotional intelligence) and he is your FATHER (ie. He is unable to behave rationally because he is both the former and the latter)” she says, as if that explains everything.

In another episode, tension was rising between a young loved-up couple because the male of the partnership felt his girlfriend was too much of a “career woman” to ever want to consider living happily ever after with him (ie. Being his wife, mother of his children and housekeeper) Meanwhile the female felt pressure to be a “career woman”, when all she wanted to be was wife, mother and live in servant. Hilarious, right? At once a Shakespearean comedy of errors, but also WHAT THE FUCK?! And then my girl JR entertains these two misguided fools, and actually helps them realise they both want the same thing: woman be dutiful servant to your man (forgetting that she was actually university educated, professionally employed – and her boyfriend almost lost his low-skilled job during the same episode).

These shows were aired during my childhood when I was at least old enough to follow narrative. Living in the country, we only had ABC to watch at the time JR was working her magic on commercial TV. It would only be on holiday sojourns at my grandma’s in the big city when we’d watch Murder She Wrote, and never did I imagine there was more going on than the lovely lady from Bed Knobs and Broom Sticks solving crimes and saving the wrongly accused (there’s ALWAYS a wrongly accused).

It’s been kinda nice to lie on the couch in the late afternoon on night shifts or mid-week days off and discover something new in re-visiting the nostalgic. There’s the jovial sexism that jars with you, but also the portrait of a strong, mature woman that is presented without mockery or caveats. And in some way, the sexism that appears in a show like MSR is so much more interesting because it is overt and unashamed. There’s nothing subtle or pernicious about these characters and their relationships. And we’ve not dressed this up as ‘girl power’ or slotted Jessica’s adventures into a story of female emancipation; she just is what she is. And I’m going to miss her.

New pants

A colleague at work asked me up front if I were pregnant. My cheeks flushed and I stammered, and in doing so confirmed his suspicions. Since then he’s been buying me chocolate and junk food and crap that I don’t want, telling me I need to feed the baby. He comments on my small belly stretching at my clothes. I feel so embarrassed. And I don’t know why I haven’t said anything. I rush away from him as soon as possible, and hope he’ll get the hint. But by now, with all his comments – all the doctors know.

My father in law does something similar. Today at lunch he exclaimed how he can see how big my belly is getting, I’ll need to buy new clothes – just in case I didn’t feel any more self-conscious about my rapidly changing physique.

In fact the day before, I had spent a few hours in almost tears trying to find something that would fit me. At work, I’ve been wearing my scrubs when I can get a way with it, but even now the elastic waist uncomfortably pushes on my belly; and when I do wear normal clothes, I need to wear my pants with the button and zip undone. There’s only so much elasticated stuff you can find in ‘normal’ shops, and I’ve felt this physical reality catching up on me. I’ve been in search of something that fits me.

There’s not much in my inner city neighborhood. I found a small maternity wear store that stocked women’s clothes next to children’s wear and toys. Not keen on hunting around what seems more like a childrenswear store, I headed to a department store where I was told they have a range of maternity wear. On the top floor, again adjacent to the childrenswear and toys, I find a few racks of bold prints on jersey material – like my gym clothes cut in the style of ugly work-wear.

I went to leave, but was accosted by a too helpful shop assistant (never when you want one…). “Oh love, I see girls like you all the time. Near tears, frustrated. But you’ve got to realise honey, your body is changing fast. And it’s never going to be the same”.

She asked me what I was looking for. I picked up the lycra-ed leg of a pair of trousers she’d thrust in my direction. I grimaced. “I just want – um – something more… structured?” She tsk-ed. “You know, girls who are lawyers wear these pants. I think you’ve got to realise where you’re at. And these clothes are great… I wear maternity clothes even still and my kids are at uni – they’re just so comfy.”

Somehow I ended up buying a pair of pants that were a sort of yoga pant/trouser hybrid. And left feeling maybe a little worse than when I arrived. I don’t know. I guess this is just the beginning. What do I matter in all this? The lady was right: I do need to come to terms with this new reality. Things are changing. Though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold back the tears if anyone tries to touch my stomach.

The beautiful reflection

Not too long ago, I read an Abbreviated Life (by an author I’ll let you google) and the experience of the author felt strangely familiar to me. Not that I was an only-child, or I grew up in a New York penthouse, or was the god-daughter of a mid-century artistic luminary. None of those things. Rather it’s the author’s account of her relationship with her narcissistic parent that resonated with me.

I know to be weary of labelling people. We’re all capable of displaying less than admirable behaviours in response to stress, threat and pressure. But there was a pattern in this book that I recognised, and maybe offered some explanation for how I feel and where I sit now.

We’d just moved to a new country town and my parents had invited some of my dad’s new colleagues around for a barbecue. I was in early primary school and quite a precocious “chatterbox”, by others’ accounts. At some point I said something at the barbecue that must have been embarrassing. I remember my dad turning on me and being sent to my room. I was confused and upset to be separated from everybody. After the barbecue was over, my dad yelled at me saying what an embarrassment I was, how could I do this to him, and “children should be seen and not heard”.

I wish I knew what I said. It was probably funny (out of the mouths of babe, and all that). But I’ll never know. He doesn’t remember these things.

I know on its own that anecdote sounds pretty innocuous. It probably is. But as a little girl, these incidents were confusing and stressful. It wasn’t difficult to upset my dad, but it was difficult to anticipate what might upset him. Interacting with him kept you in uncomfortable suspense.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear growing up that you’d RUINED EVERYTHING or this was the WORST FATHERS’ DAY EVER. We were a constant cause of catastrophe and disaster. Until we weren’t. Sometimes we’d be showered with unexpected (and unwanted) acts of generosity. But these gifts and displays of affection could only be accepted with trepidation. There were always strings attached.

Dad would take you to buy something that you didn’t want. Ugly boat shoes. A garish watch. A drizabone. If you resisted his generosity, he’d get angry. You were ungrateful and selfish. If later he observed you didn’t wear the item he’d chosen for you, he’d also accuse you of being ungrateful and selfish. Or if by some fluke, he actually gave you something you valued, he would regularly remind you that you were somehow indebted to him. Either way, it was best to avoid my father in a magnanimous mood.

In my late teens, my dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis didn’t mean much more to me than another degree of difficulty. For a while he used the diagnosis as a get out of jail free card. I’m like this because of my bipolar. George (he would throw in his psychiatrist’s first name into every conversation) says you need to tell me you love me.  I need to know you love me. George says you need to support me more. George says that you need to be more understanding.

I felt resentful. We were three teenagers struggling with anger and loneliness. We were all drinking too much. Taking risks. Doing drugs. Putting ourselves in harms way.

We had a home and parents and security and safety. And I know the value of those things. But we were each alone, isolated and suffering. And I don’t think our parents noticed.

A strange corollary of managing my dad’s volatility, was a strange compulsion to comply, to please – to fly under the radar. On the inside, I felt an overwhelming anger and pain – but it was a feeling I couldn’t express (without alcohol). Instead I could please people. I could ‘be good’. Comply.

This is not a good thing.

Picture a teenage girl, unseen by her parents. Dropping out of the world. Drinking too much. Being ‘good’ for people who don’t care for her. Complying with things she doesn’t want.

You can guess what was happening.

I remember wagging school and graffiting a toilet door somewhere in the city. I drew a picture of myself as a doll, with “the right holes“. I was 15. And I never resisted.

My parents didn’t notice that I was always “staying at a friends”, that I lost 15kg, that I was disappearing before them. I would cry secretly in my bedroom and the pain was intensely visceral. My belly would ache. My heart was being crushed. I was dying, or wishing I would.

But you know, I missed out on being dux at my school by .05 – and that’s what mattered. My dad was the school principal and he knew my results before I did. In fact, he’d told all his friends and organised a barbecue to celebrate – long before I even knew.

I was so upset. I felt robbed by my dad. This wasn’t my achievement. He’d made it his. But I was accused of petulance when I got upset. Don’t ruin a good day, I was told.

But if you ask, I had a happy childhood. I was privileged, middle-class. And all the stuff that happened, particularly in adolescence is too difficult to explain. How do I account for the darkness and trauma, when I’m promised I had a happy childhood? I was loved. I am loved. People care for me.

And they do care for me, but in a way that encroaches upon my agency, that I feel treats me like a possession or property, rather than an independent woman. When my ex-husband left me, my parents were perhaps more devastated than I was. Divorce was incompatible with their religion. My mum asked “what will I tell people?” I was upset, but also felt a sense of freedom. A burden lifting; hope. My dad took it upon himself to write a letter to my ex-husband urging him to return to me. His letter said that I was suicidal, that I needed him. I wouldn’t cope without him. At the time the letter was sent, I was backpacking somewhere in Cambodia and hadn’t spoken to my parents for weeks.

Upon my return, my ex-husband urgently contacted me thinking I was about to end my life. I was actually in a good place – until he told me what was contained in the letter from my dad. I felt a horrible violation. And anger.

Who and what am I to them?

I am upset that news of my pregnancy is everyone else’s business. It’s not my story to tell. I feel like I’m 15 again, and my feelings and needs are being stifled. I complain to my brother by text that people who don’t care for me a now privy to my private news. I say that my boundaries are being broached. That I’m not being shown respect. He replied that of course, EVERYONE cares about me. EVERYONE is proud of me. This is exciting news for our family. I should respect others’ need to know. I should be nicer to our parents.

I don’t know if I can do this.

What right do I have to complain if everything is done out of love and care and pride?

What do my wishes or needs matter?

It’s difficult to find space for my feelings and my experience in this relationship. I feel like I am transported back in time, and it’s easier to go unnoticed, slip under the radar, comply, ‘be good’ than resist people who seem oblivious to you as a competent individual.

When I think about my dad, I don’t know if I am describing narcissism – but re-thinking through the past with that framework has at least helped me see something about myself. I never understood my tendency to conform and surrender, even while I hated myself as I did so. I see it now as a strategy to avoid or at least minimise conflict, to ‘get it over and done with’ as quickly as possible.

I’ve got to stop thinking of having a baby as a source of conflict. I feel a sense of dread. I brace myself in anticipation that I will be trampled over, bullied into something and situations I don’t want by people who promise they love me, care for me.

But it doesn’t need to be that way, does it? Is being accused of being selfish the worst thing to happen? Is hurting or offending my parents lethal? It’s time I grew up.

This be the verse

Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

 

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

 

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

I don’t know if this makes any sense at all. In the last 24 hours pregnancy news has been spread far and wide amongst extended family, and not by my husband or I. I just feel a horrible feeling of my privacy invaded and boundaries crossed. These are people who have nothing to do with me, haven’t met my husband, and don’t share news of their major life events with me. Why am I everyone’s business and gossip? I can’t live any closer to these people than I already do. The idea of moving interstate is filling me with increasing dread.

Sobering

Actually, I like not drinking. I don’t miss alcohol at all. I can’t gloat that I feel brilliant because I’m NOT drinking; that wouldn’t be true – but I’ve got other reasons to feel poorly (though the worst is resolving – for now?). It’s just that I don’t miss it, and I really thought I would. I thought not drinking would be difficult.

So much of my family life and social world has been mediated by alcohol. There are frequent and regular periods when I’ve not been drinking: exam times, work schedules, illness, dieting. But such times also involve a degree of social withdrawal. It’s something like an epiphany to discover that I can function socially as an adult– and even enjoy myself – without also drinking too much wine.

I wonder what this will mean in the long run. I worry that the next drink and the one after that is forever inevitable.

I recently saw my family. We were running 15 minutes late to the restaurant, and found both my parents at the bar. Their teeth were stained purple and each was holding a full over-sized wine glass in their hands. They were talking to someone on the stool beside them and I had the feeling they’d settled in some time ago.

We moved into the restaurant, and as they gulped down more wine my husband and I tried to work out whom amongst the pair was driving. They live outside the city now and it would be a long drive home. My dad ordered a bottle of wine and started pouring himself generous glasses. Mum must be the driver, surely. Within the hour dad had finished the bottle on his own.

His drinking kept a frenzied, hungry pace that didn’t fit the occasion or the company. My husband drank a gin and tonic, then a beer. My mum had more wine. I drank sparkling water. My dad rambled and the conversation petered into nonsense, and I felt a mix of distaste and pity.

The following night we went out with my brother, and I shared my observations. He told me to stop worrying, to stop caring. They’re adults, afterall. I guess he’s right. But I still wrestle with the conflicting feelings my parents evoke in me.

What do I feel? Something like fear. Is this me? Is it my destiny that I see in them?

I desperately want to be proud of them. I want them to be people I admire, that I aspire to. I wish them wisdom, and want their wise counsel. But the fog of booze clouds everything in our relationship. Intoxication gives way to mediocrity. And there’s no insight to allow for honesty.

It’s a revelation to know I don’t have to drink. It’s not an imperative. Which might seem obvious to everyone else, but it’s not something I have any experience of. Still, I don’t trust that this freedom is something I can take for granted, because the truth is: I am a loser. And I live in fear of my weakness.  At the moment, I have a good excuse. I have a reason to not fulfil my inheritance. I can not drink, without being an outsider, without raising suspicion. But  if it weren’t for being pregnant, do I have a choice?

We’re now at the cross-roads of staying put or moving interstate. I turned down my job offer following my change in circumstances, but my husband’s job is still under negotiation. This reminder of the nature of my relationship with family gives me pause. I don’t know if I’m ready to bridge the thousands of kilometres that stand between us. I don’t know if I’m ready to face the truth of myself. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.