By Elizabeth Roca
Last night I did what I ordinarily do around eleven o’clock. I shut down my laptop computer and put it away, then closed the book I was reading and set it on the lamp stand next to the sofa. I brought my water glass and my wine glass into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. While my husband went outside to smoke his last cigarette for the evening, I climbed the stairs and readied myself for bed.
I donned my pajamas and crawled in next to my nineteen-month-old daughter, Camille. She was sleeping beautifully, pajamaed bottom in the air and bobbed sand-colored hair spilling over the sheet. Normally when I get into bed she just rolls against me and sighs, but tonight my movements disturbed her. She stirred, thrashed, then moaned and held up both hands, her eyes shut. “Up high! Up high!” she cried. It is the phrase she uses when she can’t reach an object or when she wants to place something beyond her older siblings’ grasp. She is growing so quickly. I used to think she was dreaming when, in infancy, she stayed latched onto my breast throughout the evening, eyes closed, throat pulsing in rhythm with her fluttering tongue. But this was the first time I had heard the proof: her own words, outlining an image in her brain I could not see.
She’s easy, this little girl, my third and last baby: a tiny, verbally precocious, sharp-witted mama’s girl. She has been a joy to me every day of her life. I am a joy to her, too; I know this as I have known few things. She tromps along behind me all day long, hollering, “Mam-my! Mam-my!” in her surprisingly deep voice. “Lap,” she says, reaching up, and when ensconced on my thighs, yanks my shirt and demands, “This!” I bare my breast and she laughs and latches on, falling back into the crook of my elbow. After a short time she grows sleepy and meditative, playing with a lock of my hair. While she nurses I read or play with my older children or talk on the phone. I kiss the silky, smelly sole of her bare foot and she grins around my nipple and raises the other foot to be kissed, too. Holding her in my arms, making her happy, is often the happiest part of my day.
Her brother and sister, twins, are thick in the drama of being three years old. They compete for my attention much of the time, hanging onto me and demanding treats, shoving each other, snatching toys, pulling hair, whining until I want to scream—and sometimes do. Often Camille moves beyond it all, serenely bedding down a doll in a wooden cradle or swiping ineffectively at a miniature football with a plastic golf club. For minutes at a time, in the throes of grappling with her siblings, I nearly forget Camille. I glance up and feel surprised to see her there, small and solemn under her straight bangs. She sees me looking and gives a goofy grin, all half-grown baby teeth and adult-looking undereye bags. Adoration coupled with sadness flares in me, and I think, It is the strangest thing: she was not meant to exist.
I’m not ignorant, at least not in matters of conception. I know how babies are made. But this one caught me by surprise. I went to my ob/gyn’s office for my yearly checkup and told her something strange was going on with my period. I’d gotten it as usual on my twins’ first birthday. The next month had brought cramps and a single morning of spotting. I might have wondered about that longer if it hadn’t occurred on Christmas Eve, while my attention was caught up in our family celebration. The following month had come and gone without any blood at all. I’d been wondering, I told my doctor, if my body were undergoing some kind of post-breastfeeding hormone fluctuations.
The doctor snickered. A few minutes later, with one hand inside me and the other pressed flat against my stomach, she said, “I think you’re pregnant, and I think you’re twelve weeks pregnant.”
A few minutes after that she performed an impromptu sonogram and confirmed her diagnosis: sometime in early September, probably, I would give birth to my third baby and thereby become the mother of three children under the age of two.
I liked this doctor. When I laughed, she laughed with me.
* * *
My husband and I had been told that we were unlikely to have babies on our own, and after eighteen months of the agony that is de rigueur for infertile couples, we had conceived our twins through in vitro fertilization. When you are used to injections, artificial hormones, and egg retrievals, unassisted conception seems nothing short of miraculous. This pregnancy, therefore, was a gift and a blessing. It was also a surprise, and this was the aspect of it that was hard to reconcile. When a gift and blessing arrives unexpectedly, unasked for, in the midst of your busy life, you must decide what your reaction will be: acceptance or rejection.
My husband had also laughed in disbelief and pleasure when I returned home from the doctor’s office and shoved the sonogram photos into his hand, unable to think of words to accompany their blurry but irrefutable images. I was thrilled, grateful, fierce in the expectation that someone might try to tell me that this pregnancy was not a good idea. By any practical measurement it was not. My husband and I had too little money, too small a house, even too small a car to keep three children. Worse, my first pregnancy had been disastrous, a mess of preterm labor that kept me on bedrest for four months, the majority of that time in the hospital. Soon after my second pregnancy was diagnosed I returned to the hospital’s antenatal unit to show off my twins and announced to the nurses that I was expecting another baby. The nurses, who had struggled with me to keep the number of my preterm contractions down to six an hour, looked at me with naked horror.
I was afraid, too. As the second pregnancy went predictably downhill, as I went into preterm labor and was put on bedrest again, as my husband and I struggled to keep our household together and I cried daily because I was no longer able to care for my darling twins, I clung to that initial happiness. By day I lay and catalogued my burden of worries. I was afraid of how adding another baby to the family would affect my older children, who still needed me so much. I was afraid of how it would affect my relationship with my husband, with whom I already spent little time alone. I was afraid of being dragged down, again and so soon, into the walking coma that is the first year after an infant’s birth, when you are so tired you cannot remember the newspaper’s headlines five minutes after reading them.
Most of all I was afraid of losing the pregnancy. This baby, whom I had not expected to have, had become vital to me. Where once I had thought I would be lucky to have one baby, I had come to feel I needed a third. As I lay in bed I felt the fetus’s hiccups, ran my hands over my smooth, stretched abdomen, and dreamed greedily of this new child’s unknown face.
In my ninth month I was allowed off bedrest and my husband went back to work. My energy, unleashed, was considerable. I bought newborn-sized diapers and washcloths and bibs. I dug out infant clothes in blue, pink, and yellow and prevailed upon my mother to bleach a bagful of tiny, stained undershirts. My mother babysat Lily and Jonah so that my husband and I could go out to dinner, and we sat in an Indonesian restaurant and ate soup so spicy it made our eyes water. While we ate we talked, for the first time, about names for this baby.
I went into labor one night while sitting on the living room couch playing solitaire on my laptop. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant, all danger of prematurity past. The occasion was undramatic: my usual contractions intensified, then intensified some more, and then it was time to go to the hospital. Camille was born an hour and a half later, soon after my obstetrician arrived in the delivery room. I pushed half a dozen times and she was out. Boom, a thunderclap. A snap of the fingers. A magician’s veil waved and she appeared, our little daughter.
* * *
From the night of her birth she surprised me. Once settled in the postpartum recovery room I tried to place her in her plastic bassinette so I could lie down in my own bed. She fussed. At first I thought she might need feeding or changing, but after some experimentation I found that she cried if I put her down, ceased if I held her close. Her preference matched mine, and I slept with her at my side, my arm looped around her to prevent her from falling off the bed.
Camille’s demand that I hold her was a new experience for me. My twins had been preemies who needed breathing assistance; the neonatologists had shown them briefly to me and my husband, then whisked them off to the neonatal intensive care unit. I had not been able to hold Lily until she was twenty-four-hours old, and Jonah until he was two days old. Even then I had been allowed half an hour to cuddle my blanket-wrapped infants, then made to put them back into their isolettes; they were too weak to complain. The weeks they spent in the NICU were a constant struggle between my instinct, which wanted to scoop up the babies and run, and my intellect, which knew I could not. Lame after my long bedrest, I limped back and forth between the two isolettes, my hands clenched behind my back, my heart pierced by my powerlessness.
Even as Camille slipped out of me my obstetrician was chanting, “Give her to Mom, give her to Mom; she didn’t get to do this with her last babies.” Camille was laid naked on my chest. The nurse leaned over her and rubbed her with a clean towel, and my husband bent over us on the other side, staring into her small, swollen face. Besides the obstetrician we were the only people in the room. A second nurse who had assisted at the birth had vanished immediately after its finish. The stillness was different from the roil of the two neonatology teams, armed with shiny, life-saving equipment, that had filled the operating theatre where I’d given birth the first time. It felt plain, and unglamorous, and ordinary. A gift and a blessing.
When Camille was one day old we brought her home; it was the first time in their twenty-one months I had been apart from them overnight. They cried at the giant frog balloons their father had bought for them, which they kept trying to pull down to the ground, not understanding what made them leap into the air again. Camille cried once, a thin, scratchy newborn’s wail, and Lily burst into tears yet again.
My emotions surfaced as easily. My husband returned to work when Camille was five days old, and I cried when he left the house, cried at the Barney theme song when it came on television, and cried when Jonah smacked Camille in the forehead with his plastic sippy cup, impatient at my slowness to pour him more milk as I fumbled to help her latch on to my breast. I was suffused by a panic I had not felt since Lily and Jonah’s infancy. It was the certainty that the children would come to harm while under my care, through my lack of attention or competence. I had visions of them being hit by a car, slipping through my fingers on the jungle gym, drowning in the bathtub. Having another baby suddenly felt like an act of arrogance. Surely someone should have tested me beforehand for my suitability; surely I would have been found wanting.
Later that morning I managed to put Lily and Jonah down for a nap while Camille slept. I ate lunch and showered, finishing in time to lift Camille from the bassinette as she woke. It was late August and the bedroom was so hot I could feel sweat droplets forming on my freshly washed skin. Camille wore nothing but a diaper, and I didn’t bother to put on my shirt before feeding her. She nursed briefly and fell asleep again. I held her to my shoulder and stroked her red, wrinkled, velvety back. Her small body made a point of heat against my bare skin. Once more I cried and cried, my sobs the only noise in the calm house. These were tears of joy and gratitude. For a few moments life was quiet enough that I could feel the absolute privilege of holding a human being whose body had so recently arrived from my body. I knew this was the last time this particular miracle would happen for me.
* * *
As weeks passed Camille became a cheerful, easygoing baby. All she asked was that I never put her down. I rose in the mornings and strapped the front carrier over my pajamas, holding her as I buttered Lily and Jonah’s toast, changed their diapers, and chased them down to put on their shoes. On errands she rode in the carrier while I used my hands to rein in the twins and gather groceries. She hung off me, a living, breathing accessory, and underneath my more immediate concerns (snacks, parking lot safety, the location of my wallet), I hoped she was amused by her siblings, soothed by my body’s warmth, and not destined for a life of emotional penury because my mind was so often everywhere but on her. But distracted as I was as I grabbed at boxes of tissues or crackers, I bowed my head often to brush my lips against her soft, prickly hair.
Camille gave my mind a rest. She was jolly and adaptable, asking for nothing more than what I knew how to give: my arms, my breasts, my steady though abstracted attention. “Mommy’s baby monkey,” I called her as I carried her everywhere. She clung to me, gazing around with an expression of amused concentration. Even after she learned to walk she stayed near me, clutching a bit of my jeans leg. If she cried, I only had to pick her up to quiet her. At her most tired, sick, or desperate, she wanted no more than my breast in her mouth. Her siblings were in a stage of toddlerhood that rendered them simultaneously active and stubborn, and often I felt I was barely treading water in keeping them safe. With Camille I was tracing familiar territory. I could look at her and think, I’m a good mother. I pretended that she was never going to not be a baby, and that I was never going to find myself bewildered by her toddler moods and ambitions. I was deceiving myself, and the deception was comforting.
* * *
My illusions lasted until last month. We—my husband, the children, and I—were outside doing yard work. After a while my husband went into the house. At the same time the children asked to play in his SUV, which was parked at the curb behind my minivan. This was a popular entertainment: pretending to drive Daddy’s car.
I opened the two doors next to the curb. Jonah climbed in behind the wheel and Lily clambered into the back seat. Camille leaned in behind Lily, and I assumed she would climb up also. I bent to gather the various toys and sippy cups that had been scattered over the lawn.
Suddenly my husband called, “Camille is going into the street!” He had come onto the front stoop and was looking beyond me to the narrow gap between our cars.
I turned. Camille had slipped behind me and headed into that gap, running toward the open street. I heard a car approaching from behind my husband’s SUV. I could tell without looking that the car was driven by someone who did not live on our street. Our neighbors drive slowly, on the lookout for the many small children who live in the vicinity. People who use the street as a cut-through drive much faster. This car’s motor was roaring.
I leaped forward, uselessly. Then I screamed, “No! No!” The scream rose from my chest and exited my body in a howl.
Camille turned and ran back to the curb. I will never be sure if she was responding to my scream or if she had heard and understood the roar of the approaching vehicle. At the same moment the car—it was a red minivan, similar to mine—hurtled by. Its window was open and I saw the driver, a middle-aged man, glance over. He was wearing sunglasses that made him look expressionless. He seemed not to have heard my scream, and he had not seen Camille. If she had taken another running step forward, his van would have hit her.
All evening I felt near tears. My husband was upset with me; he felt I hadn’t been watching Camille closely enough, and he was right. But I was unnerved not just by Camille’s near miss, but by the realization that I had thought I was watching her. I was so complacent about her attachment to me that I had assumed she would stay by my side even if I turned away.
I understood, finally, that Camille had run into the street for a reason. The week before, the children had played in my husband’s car, and I had carried her into the street, opened the passenger door, and placed her next to Jonah in the driver’s seat. So Camille had been trying to reach what she must have believed was her assigned spot. Her actions made sense, but I hadn’t foreseen them, and because of that she could have been killed. My delight in her calm nature, and the ease of caring for one baby after having cared for two, had caused me to relax dangerously. My arrogance, I finally saw, had not been in giving birth to her. It had been in assuming that I would always know her mind and heart.
* * *
The next break was more subtle. It happened one morning after breakfast, not long after Camille had run into the road. I headed upstairs to shower, leaving the children watching Dragon Tales on television. As I applied shampoo to my wet hair I heard Camille crying and Lily’s raised voice. But Lily was not yelling, and Camille’s crying was mild, so I kept scrubbing my head and hoping she would stop. She did stop; apparently the dispute had been settled. I moved briskly, but I made sure I was dry and dressed before I walked downstairs, because I knew that I would not be allowed back upstairs again. Requests from all three children would begin: Mommy read this book, Mommy get me juice, Mommy I need the potty, Mommy Mommy Mommy.
Camille nursed for a long time and I cuddled her, feeling myself relax as our physical bond worked its magic. But I was struck by the realization that for once I had not stopped what I was doing to run to her aid. As much as I needed to claim more time for myself, doing so felt strange. I had known that Camille would someday relinquish me; I had not expected to relinquish her.
* * *
This is the truth: during those months after Lily and Jonah turned one, when my period became so erratic, I suspected I might be pregnant. I didn’t breathe a word, not even to my husband—especially not to my husband, because we had never had luck when it came to reproduction, and I couldn’t believe we might have it now. But I hoped. And when my hope came true and through our hard work she arrived, I was as happy as I have ever been. I was so happy that for months I forgot that nothing lasts. Circumstances change.
For now I still have a bit of her baby self. Her mouth on my breast. Her need to press shyly against me when strangers address her. Her grave little voice saying, “Mommy do it me” when she wants me to tie her shoelaces or retrieve her doll from the floor. Although in years to come she will still need me for many things—laundry and lunches and car rides and games of crazy eights, homework advice and support against disappointment and betrayal—never again will our relationship seem so simple. Never again will it be so physical. I will celebrate her achievements, as I have celebrated the gains she already has made. I will also mourn the passing of her babyhood, which is the passing of a specific, precious time in my life: a time when the touch of my flesh cured all ills.
Author’s Note: Most of my essays are attempts to capture periods in my children’s lives before they fade in my memory. Sometimes I feel so mired in daily life it’s hard to record what’s going on, much less shape it into an essay. My thanks to Kate Haas, whose interest in this subject kept me returning to this piece until I had whittled it down to size.
Elizabeth Roca’s work has appeared frequently in Brain, Child. She lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Brain, Child (Fall 2006)