By Melissa Scholes Young
I once stood on my neighbor’s doorstep in the pouring rain asking to borrow a rectal thermometer. We shared a graveled alley between our bricked bungalows in the historic district of Ohio University’s backyard. Most mornings I sat on our cement back stoop sipping hot coffee and reading our college newspaper. My neighbor stood in her kitchen window washing dishes, packing school lunches, kissing kids good-bye. I wanted her life, but I wanted it before I was ready. Her mundane seemed so manageable from my safe distance.
“I don’t know,” I said through the screened door. I’d interrupted their Saturday evening dinner. My shirt was soaked from rain and spotted with breast milk. “I’m afraid the baby has a fever. She seems so hot to me.” My baby was two weeks old. I drank coffee cold now and hadn’t read the paper since her birth. I couldn’t sleep, even when the baby did. I made my husband set alarms and we rested in shifts so one of us was always awake vigilantly monitoring breathing patterns. I didn’t know then that a rectal thermometer, like a picture perfect life, isn’t something you borrow. It’s really yours or it’s mine; it’s never ours. You don’t give it back.
My neighbor called later to ask about the baby. She was ten years older with three kids of her own. She made it look so easy. “Something’s just not right,” I told her. “I’m just scared something’s wrong.” She went down a list of symptoms. My answers were vague. I didn’t actually know how to use the rectal thermometer. I suspected but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t know the difference between Olympic sleep deprivation and mothering instincts. I didn’t know that becoming a parent was something you had to grow into. Everything merited a panic attack. The baby coughed in the middle of the night, I Googled croup. She fell asleep nursing, I read up on failure to thrive. I kept minute-by-minute logs of her feedings and charts of bowel movements. I thought that’s what a mother did; I thought my overreaction was vigilant love. I was a mess. “I’ll send Michael over after dinner,” my neighbor said. Oh, to be married to a pediatrician, I thought, then I could sleep at night. I’d have all the answers.
Michael crossed the back alley and arrived at our door with his doctor’s bag, as if Saturday evening house calls were just neighborly courtesy. We walked to the couch together, me holding my sleeping newborn. “May I?” he asked, indicating the baby. I cradled her head carefully as Michael lifted the baby from my arms. He put his knees together as a makeshift examining table and began unraveling her layers. “In April they don’t quite need this many blankets,” he said in a whisper. “That may be why she felt so hot to you.” He leaned over and pressed his lips to her forehead. “She doesn’t feel feverish. Your lips will know. Also, you can always feel the back of the neck and the thigh. If she has a fever, you’ll know without a thermometer.” Michael undressed my baby, examining her every inch, re-swaddling inspected parts along the way so that her whole body was never exposed. He massaged her with his hands, rubbing his thumbs on her smooth skin, applying pressure to her belly, turning her neck back and forth. Blood rushed to the baby parts he touched; white dotted skin became pink. My baby slept through it all. Michael asked questions about her feedings, her diapers, and my own lack of sleep. He palmed her fontanel, looked in her ears and up her nose. He moved in slow motion, as if the exam were one well-practiced routine with order and efficiency. Finally, he put on a fresh diaper, swaddled her masterfully in a light summer blanket with sharp creases and tucked corners, and handed her back to me. “She’s perfect,” he said. He packed up his doctor bag, put back on his ball cap, and walked to the door. “The next time she cries, nurse her and than take her for a drive. You could both use the air.” My eyes welled up. I had actually believed I was keeping it all together. “Parenting is hard,” Michael added. “You’ll get on the other side of this. You’ll know.” He touched my shoulder briefly, turned his back, and walked out the door. I watched him from the back stoop and waved a thank you to his wife who was waiting in her kitchen window. She couldn’t see my cheeks burning with embarrassment or hear the sobs I smothered in the baby’s blanket, but she probably already knew that you’re never really ready to become a mother. One day you just say ‘yes’ and the rest is on the job training. Yes, the baby was perfect but I didn’t have to be.
And so we followed the doctor’s orders. The next time our baby fussed, we drove her to the Zaleski State Forest, 25 miles west of Athens. I sat in the passenger seat weeping at what I felt was my incompetence as a mother, my worries, my worrying about worrying, my impossible standards, my raging hormones, all that I didn’t know. When we pulled up to the iron gates of the state park, my husband asked, “It’s closed. What now?” We both turned to look at our sleeping baby in the back seat. Her hands were clenched in balled fists by her ears. Spider veins throbbed through the translucent skin of her sealed eyelids. He turned the car around on Highway 50 and started back home. I rested my head on the passenger seat window, exhausted and spent, and closed my eyes for the ride.
About the Author: Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved hometown, and she teaches writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a recovering high school English teacher and spent a few years teaching in Brazil. She holds an MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University, and her work has been published in Tampa Review, Word Riot, New Madrid, Yalobusha Review, and other literary journals. Melissa is currently at work on her first novel. Read more of Melissa’s work at melissasyoung.com or laugh at the antics of her children at piperism.com..