By Janelle Ward
I kiss my baby goodbye and walk out the door. Tears threaten but there’s coffee to be bought, a train to be caught, and office preparations to be made. Besides, he’s too young to realize I am gone. Right? The purpose of the commute is not to reflect on the abandonment of my child. Rather it is a vital period in which to catch up on emails. I do. Thirty minutes later, when the train arrives in the city where I work, I run for the tram. I leap through the closing doors, breathless, triumphant. As the tram pulls away, I physically feel its acceleration separating me from him. A voice inside my head remarks on the impossibility of getting back in time should there be an emergency. I sit and close my eyes to avoid watching the trees pass in a blur.
I arrive at the office. I sit down at my desk. I mime professional. Am I a professional? For months my identity was pure and unquestioned. A physical vessel to grow a fetus and then the external protector of a helpless newborn. Mother of an infant. Provider for a child. His only source of food. His preferred source of comfort. I feel lighter without him wrapped to my chest, as if someone has removed vital organs. I feel, simultaneously, empty and free.
An important email arrives, and for a moment, I am lost in my work. Finish the report. Email the colleagues. Don’t forget the attachment. It’s time to teach. I head to class and stand in front of students. They are probably all childless and unfamiliar with the tingling in my chest that signals lactation. I ignore the sensation and finish the class. I make small talk with some students on the walk back to my office. I sit at my desk, feeling smug and successful, and start working through my emails. I jump in my seat. My heart stops and starts again, beating in my ears. I’ve forgotten the baby. He’s lying somewhere, crying, alone, desperate, and I’ve forgotten him. What kind of mother am I, abandoning my child? Wait. The baby isn’t here. He’s at home with the sitter. I think about texting the sitter, to make sure something isn’t horribly wrong, that this isn’t some sort of mother intuition signaling a tragedy, but I’ve already texted her four times today and she might start to wonder about my sanity.
The panic, with the disorientation it brings, has begun a slow unwinding, a splitting of my identities. I am wobbling on the beam. I cannot be mother and professional. They cannot work in tandem. The books say they can. My boss and my colleagues think I can do this. Look at all the women who have done it before, they say. It’s just how it’s done. It’s just what we do. We fought for the privilege of having it all. Really, it’s a celebration. A celebration to abandon my child each morning and leave him with a near stranger. Progress to put a “do not disturb” sign on my office door that has no lock and to pump milk from my breasts into a plastic bottle and carry this milk to the communal fridge and hope no one will steal it because without it my baby will not get enough to eat and my breasts will stop producing milk and I’ll have to switch to formula and then I’ve really, truly failed. Failed my child. Failed myself. Failed a society that says this is doable. I sit here, typing and talking in complete sentences, but I don’t belong here. I am a sham.
By the time I head home for the day the dread is pure. I try to breathe on the tram. I run though the train station with my work bag on one shoulder and my bag full of breast pumping equipment and two bottles of breast milk on ice packs on the other. I make it to the platform with time to spare. On the opposite track, another train, heading to another city, is about to leave the platform. The train starts to move. What if, as this train is pulling out, I slip and fall onto the rails, between the train and the concrete edge of the platform? The knots in my stomach twist. I begin to feel dizzy, like I’ll be pulled under the train by a rip tide. I back away from the tracks and closer to the benches with the other commuters.
I think of my baby without a mother. I blink rapidly to stop the tears. I stand up and walk over to stare at the board with the train schedule, scrutinizing it to hide my flushed face. I bite my tongue to excise emotion-inducing thoughts from my head. The train I’ve been waiting for arrives. I climb on board and find a seat. The train begins to move and I imagine a crash. A bomb. I contemplate whether I should have waited for a later train, one that won’t implode or explode. What if it’s already too late? Heading toward me there might be a man with a gun. He’ll point the gun at me. Please don’t shoot, I’ll say, begging for my life. I have a baby at home. I need to get home to my baby.
I contemplate the terror and bliss of basing my entire existence on the survival of another person. How stifling and empowering it is to experience love as need and not desire. Love as obligation and not choice. How different the sensation is from amorousness. Romantic love may end with me sobbing into my wine, my heart broken. Even in that desperation I know I could find love again. My child is irreplaceable. I would never recover.
I know that time will pass, and later I will change. I’ve seen it from others, those with older children. What makes me think I will be any different? In a few years, at my office, I will mute my phone, deliberately, and avoid its potential messages. I will relax on my commute. No need to panic. Now I sit on the train with my phone in my hand, willing its continued silence. I feel the train race down the tracks, the bump of speed in the direction of home.
I’ve almost made it. I walk into the lobby of my apartment building. I type the security code and the door opens with a buzz and a crack. I head toward the elevator and I can already see his face, smell his hair, feel his cheeks. My desire for this child is so consuming that it enters my physical experience, and I feel a delicious dull pressure in my breasts. Almost there, I murmur quietly to myself, and punch the button for my floor. The doors shut, then open, and I’m fitting the key into my door.
Restoration. The act of restoring something to its original condition, giving back something that has been lost. The door opens, my baby sees me and brightens, and I am restored.
Janelle Ward is a born and raised Minnesotan who escaped to the Netherlands in 2001. Since then she acquired a PhD in Amsterdam, a job in Rotterdam, four bicycles, and an eight-year-old son. For a look at her other writing please see janelleward.com.
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