When my daughter was born, my mom was over the moon. It was her first grandchild, so she emailed everyone in the world.
Subject: Over the MOON!!!!
Message: I’m just over the moon with the birth of my beautiful granddaughter! Her name is Ava Laurel, she has all ten fingers and toes and rosebud lips! I’m over the moon, folks! Take a look at the 275 pictures I’ve attached and don’t hesitate to ask for more!
If she was over the moon, I was decidedly underneath it. Sublunary, startled and confused by this strange creature that seemed to have emerged fully-formed and out of nowhere. I knew I’d been pregnant – I had been there for the positive tests, the ultrasounds, had stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror and with detached curiosity examined the rivulety stretch marks that wound up and down my middle, more and more of them as the weeks had rolled along. I also knew that I’d pushed something out of my crotch, because I’d been there for that too – it was just that I couldn’t recognize this baby as kin, this ferocious organism with her wolf-like eyes and clenched fists and hungry mouth… surely she hadn’t come from me?
“Oh, she’s yours alright!” said Mom, “look at her face, she looks just like you did!”
I felt like something really mysterious and original had happened, something that should have been whispered softly underground… I’m not sure if you’ll believe this, but Mia Turlough has a secret pocket inside her that grows humans.
I was so blitzed after Ava was born that Mom stayed at the hospital and took care of all the meconium. Did you know about meconium? Because that is some weird shit. I’d read about how a baby’s first poop was thicker, but this stuff, it was like my kid was a toothpaste tube full of tar. I just sat there astonished, my milkers hanging out of my hospital gown, watching Mom hold Ava’s legs in the air. She was wiping and laughing away like she thought this endless tar coil was the cutest thing in the fucking world.
“Do you know what I did for the whole first month after you were born?” she asked, still catching the poop, wiping, chuckling.
“You stared at me.”
“I just sat there in my chair, and I just took that little baby in my lap and I just stared at her beautiful face.”
“That’s really sweet, mom.”
“… that baby was you.”
Just in case I thought I might escape VGH with a modicum of dignity intact, before we left the hospital a big ol’ nurse came and told me I had to show her how I used the peri bottle. A peri bottle is something only moms know about. It’s basically a bottle full of water that you squirt on your perineum stitches to keep them clean.
I was still shaky on my feet and dripping baby curds, but this nurse wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I know how to do it, you just squirt it,” I said.
“I still need to see you do it before I can let you go.”
“But I’m not comfortable. I have a pad on and it’s full of stuff.”
“It’ll take less than a minute and then you can go.”
Mom made me go. She swaddled the baby and sang and bobbed around the room with her while I waddled into the bathroom.
“Like this, right? See? Squirty-squirt-squirt!”
On the ride home from the hospital, I realized for the first time what a dangerous world I had been living in all my life. I may not have been overwhelmed with loving bubbles of oxytocin after Ava was born, but the adrenaline was pumping good and hard, and I was on high-alert for all possible threats. Threats were everywhere. First of all: CARS! Dangerous! How many people behind the wheels of those things were serial killers and pedophiles and baby stealers? Also: TELEPHONE POLES! Unbelievably dangerous! One unhappy guy with a chainsaw and we would’ve been crushed instantly.
When we arrived home, I refused to get out of the car because the hose was snaking across the driveway and I was convinced I would trip on it and send the baby flying into the garden shed, but I also couldn’t trust my husband to carry her in case he got hit by an asteroid. I tip-toed along the rock path on the side of the house like there was hot lava on either side of me. This was the kind of insane hyper-vigilance that coloured my world after Ava was born. My mom, though, she simply radiated motherly sweetness and warmth, as if intent on demonstrating how much more perfectly she could love my child than I could. The same infant who’d been tomato-faced with rage would melt instantly into her arms and fall asleep. And she kept up the reminiscing, wearing a comfortable groove in time by telling the same anecdote over and over, and if I wasn’t in the mood, she would tell it to Ava.
“Do you know what I did when your mama was born? I just took that little baby – just like this – and I propped her up in my lap – just like this, with her little legs like this – and do you know what I did? I just took that little baby, and for a whole month I just sat in that chair and stared at her beautiful face.”
By the time she was four months old, my feelings for Ava began to eclipse the simple mammalian impulses to fight predators and stuff her with milk. I fell in love, finally. I’m not just a person who falls in love right away, like my mom was. Maybe the reason it took a little longer was because I knew before Ava was born that my mom was dying, and I couldn’t figure out how to love a mother and a daughter at the same time. There was this bittersweet feeling that if I could somehow budget my love correctly, I could hang on to both of them forever.
Mom’s chemo stopped in June, when Ava was just a few weeks old, and by the end of summer the cancer had burned through her like wildfire, flooding her abdomen with ascites so that she looked like she was due to give birth any moment. By the fall, I was changing her diapers, wetting her lips and tongue, turning her over so she didn’t get the bedsores.
There are only a few times in life that adults get a pass to act like spoiled children. One of them is right after you’ve had a baby, and your mom is there, and you get to cry to her about how tired you are and how your tits are on fire and you’re fat and you want soup. And she will mother you then, and she’ll get you your soup, and she’ll take that little baby and stare at her beautiful face and be over the moon.
words by Mia Turlough
photo by Josh Szczepanowski
originally published in analogue magazine’s Jan 2014 issue