I thought 2017 would be a year without summer. To a great extent it was. And yet in September we managed to get to Bulgaria. This way my twenty-seven years near the sea in the summer became twenty-eight.
It is not the trip to my homeland however that will remain in my memories of summer 2017. In that summer I became a mother.
The hardest and most important thing I have ever had to do. And I will keep doing till the rest of my life (hopefully!).
I have so much and so little to write regarding last summer. It was so hard, significant, sad, full of love, full of doubt, anxious, dynamic, static and countless more adjectives with positive or negative meanings.
I had no time to write about it in my diary. In fact, I suspect that this post will also take me a few weeks to write. But it’s important (to me) that I write about it. I know there’s no way I’ll forget it – the songs from London Grammar’s album Truth Is a Beautiful Thing will inevitably take me back to it (the soundtrack of my birth and the weeks after it) but as time goes by the individual moments – the fragments of the memory – will merge into one another and all that is left will be a chaotic high-contrast monochrome abstract work. But I hold these fragments dear. These little things that contain the Big. Neither completely good, nor completely bad. Neither totally light, nor totally dark.
A summer made of white cubes which, devoid of their black shadows, wouldn’t have given it two dimensions.
Without the darkness my memory could not be real.
It’s the third night in the hospital and Julián is crying inconsolably. I don’t know why. I don’t know what to do. I think he’s hungry. However, the children’s nurse tells me not to breastfeed him for more than twenty minutes so that his tummy doesn’t start hurting. It’s late. And in the darkness of the night and my own hormone-shattered mind the feelings of guilt and helplessness come to be haunting me over the next six weeks.
I don’t know how to make him stop crying. The nurse suggests she could take him and bring him back to me for the next feed so that I could get some sleep. “Your milk won’t come if you don’t sleep enough,” she says.
(“My milk won’t come if I don’t allow my son to eat as much as he wants,” my present me says but on 16 July it still doesn’t exist.)
My heart breaks when she takes him from me and leaves the room.
Needless to say, I can’t sleep at all or take my eyes off the clock, waiting for the next breastfeeding session.
The nurse comes back. Julián sleeps peacefully in the plastic box on wheels (whatever it’s called).
“How did you manage to calm him down?” I ask.
“I swaddled him and took him in my arms.”
She leaves and I, feeling like the lousiest mother in the world, wake my son up.
I find almost everything difficult. I am afraid of holding him. I find the slippery green hospital nursing pillow uncomfortable. I never manage to place it the way I should so that I can make my job easier. In the end I just put it away and take my baby in my arms. (I breastfeed without a pillow to this day.) What always felt scary to me – changing the clothes and the diaper of a baby – turns out to be the easiest thing. I’m afraid I can’t make him burp. They show me how to bath a baby – I’m afraid I won’t manage it alone at home. I am afraid that the twenty minutes of breastfeeding will end because after that I have to place him in the plastic box on wheels and if he wakes up I have to make him fall asleep. And I don’t know how.
Lukáš comes to visit. I push the plastic box on wheels down the corridor, past the rooms of all these other mothers that seem to manage better than me, and when I reach him and hug him I break down and start crying. He’s sligtly disappointed.
He doesn’t even know what else is coming.
While making the bed of my roommate, who’s already been discharged, the cleaning ladies talk about the expected hot days.
I look through the window. Do they mean there’s actually a world outside the hospital? My eyes pause at the distant hills. I have the feeling they’re not real.
Or that I‘m not real.
Later, at home, I will be holding Julián and, walking around the bedroom in my attempts to make him fall asleep, I will be also looking through the window. A well dressed woman will be walking by. Or a mother of grown up kids. And I will be wondering if I will ever be a part of this world again. The world outside the window.
We come home. Julián is sleeping in the car seat in the middle of the living room. It seems weird to me there’s a baby at home. I’m nervous so I immediately begin to clean up the place. I water the dry herbs on the window sill (it is hot outside in the unreal world), I make coffee for Lukáš’s parents, I put things in their places. I hope that by putting in order the space without, I will also put in order the space within.
What a mistake.
Over the next weeks I will keep on believing, stubbornly, that I can do what I used to do before while Julián is sleeping. This way I drive myself to complete exhaustion and madness and forever lose the chance to bond with my child from the very beginning, in order to understand him.
The first forty days are lost days to me.
After Julián’s first feeding at home I put him down in the middle of our bed where he’ll be sleeping. At the same time Lukáš and his father are installing the changing table. We never found time to do this before the birth. The baby is lying and crying, the chipboards placed on the bed beside him. (The sound of the drill aparently doesn’t count as white noise.) I don’t know what to do to comfort him. I place a music toy beside him – a moon with a teddy bear sitting on it. He starts crying even louder.
I cast a hopeful look at Lukáš’s mother, who’s raised four children. She can’t help me.
“Every baby is different.”
Each time I’ll ask anyone for help I’ll be hearing these words until eventually I’ll begin to hate them.
“You need to work out what’s best for him on your own.”
The other such words.
In one and the same unbearably hot afternoon we go for Julián’s birth certificate, to the health insurance company and to the police so that we can order his identity card. The people at the Ústí police office don’t remember they have ever photographed such a little child – just four days old. They put him down on the table and surprisingly he opens his eyes for the photograph. I breastfeed him and change his diaper in the lobby of the insurance company. People pass me by but no one stares criticizingly. It’s the Czech Republic after all.
In Litomyšl Lukáš goes to some shop and leaves me in the car with him. Julián only sleeps. He’s dressed in a short-sleeve onesie and socks, nothing else. Back then I don’t find it strange that there’s a four-day-old baby in the car, dressed in just a onesie. His head has dropped down on his chest and he’s all hot from the heat. I’m dying from fear that something might happen to him. I constantly check if he’s breathing.
To this day, during the night, I stop breathing for a while so that I can hear if he’s breathing too. In these moments the acronym SIDS flashes in my mind, followed by the Czech name of this terrifying syndrome. Only the Bulgarian name doesn’t come up. I always recall what they told me in the hospital – “the highest risk is between the second and eigth month.” While not breathing and waiting, all the articles I’ve read on this issue are rolling frantically in my head.
Then I hear his soft breathing and I fall asleep again. For a few hours. Or minutes.
I lose any notion of time. The day and the night blend into one. A single thing. Sometimes I glance at the clock but only automatically. My brain works at just a few percents. Exactly as many as I need to secure my survival and the survival of my baby. I have no idea how often he wakes up at night. I think it’s all the time. Lukáš thinks otherwise. The only moments when I am able to figure out which part of the day it is are the sunsets since the bedroom windows face west. The sunsets are bright orange or pink. So beautiful. I imagine being outside, somewhere in nature, watching a sunset like this. It seems impossible. Then I look back at the small creature in my lap and begin to get anxious again.
I dream. This is how I know I’ve slept. I dream a lot. Or always have done but now I remember my dreams. I sit on a swing above the sea and see the black shadow of a horse instead of a whale passing under me. The sea appears again in another dream – this time it dries out so that I can go to the other side.
I often see Dad in my dreams too.
Julián becomes even more nervous and sleeps even worse. He cries harder. “Colic,” everyone I tell is unanimous. “Do you have colic?” others ask and I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what colic is. I only know my baby cries which means he’s hungry which means I must feed him. I begin to feverishly read everything I can find on the internet on my phone. I get even more confused. Every single piece of information can be disproved with just as good arguments. “Trust your motherly intuition”, everyone writes.
The next sequence of words I start hating.
I’m afraid when Julián isn’t sleeping. I’m afraid he’s going to start crying again and being nervous and acting weirdly during nursing. I am most afraid when Lukáš is gone which is almost all the time. One night he’s at his second job and I, anxious and sobbing, beg him to come back home because I don’t know what to do. He does. He helps me with nothing – there’s no way he can – but I feel calmer. I begin to become dependent on his being at home. As soon as he goes out the Fear overtakes me. It loosens its grip a bit everytime I hear steps on the stairs but grabs me even harder when it turns out it’s a neighbour. It disappears (only temporarily) when I finally hear his key turning over in the lock.
My fear in exchange of his disappointment.
Yet another day when I have failed to manage it.
He’s just six days old when I first put him into the sling. I quickly go to the drugstore and the shop next to it. Really quickly. I’m petrified by the fear I am alone with him outside. I’m afraid his little body will break in two despite the firm support of the soft fabric.
Soon my fears disappear under the pressure of the need. I realise the only place where Julián can sleep is either on top of one of us or in the sling. Suddenly the five-metre piece of fabric turns out to be my most reasonable purchase ever. I eat standing, swaying all the time, anxious not to spill the hot soup over his head. I edit the book which, as totally stupid as it was, I agreed to translate a month before my due date while bouncing on a gym ball with Julián sleeping in the sling. Later this stops working too so I edit standing, swaying from left to right again, so that he won’t wake up.
Everyone around me begins to hint or openly blame me that I spoilt him, quick to forget how he showed he wasn’t going to sleep without us in the first place and only after that did I use the sling in order to be able to function despite his needs.
Too much criticism for someone as sensitive as I. And as insecure about herself. In the end not a single person remains to support me in what I do. Not even I.
The book I translated is about depression. Interestingly, the woman from the publishing house, who offered it to me, suggested I might find it useful since I was going to be a mama. The line between exhaustion and postpartum depression is thin and I know I’ve crossed it. I realise that in the day when I scream at Julián that I’m going to throw him out the window if he doesn’t stop crying (and then I hug him and say I am sorry) and then in the day when I enter the living room and ask Lukáš to help me find a psychotherapist.
He isn’t willing to help me. He’s already lost his whole trust in me as a mother. I guess I have shattered his ideas about the woman he wants to be with. But I would also want somebody who’d just hug me in a difficult moment like this instead of sending me away. I realise bitterly my hope that our child will finally fill the gap in our communication won’t become reality. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a period by now when we’ve been so apart from each other. Not only is the gap unfilled – it gapes bigger than ever.
Eventually I discourage myself. I imagine what the psychotherapist would tell me: “Just calm down and get some sleep.” This is something I can also tell myself, and for free too.
I say it to myself.
And interestingly enough, after a few attempts it seems to be starting to work.
I read everywhere that breastfeeding is the most relaxing activity that most successfully gets the mother to bond with her child. This also doesn’t work with me. Or at least not in my head. Every time Julián’s doctor congratulates him and me on the kilograms he’s been gaining, assuring me things are all right. Only today do I realise what the reason was behind all this – a combination of lack of information and making the wrong decisions because of which I couldn’t bond with my son in the first forty days – but back then I feverishly look for a problem outside of myself that someone might help me solve.
That’s why I make breastfeeding my target, deciding I have a problem with it. I spend hours on the internet, read forum threads, post in Facebook groups (usually while swaying back in forth with Julian in the sling) and I even hire a lactation consultant who, despite having similar ideas about parenthood, failes to “diagnose” me correctly.
I keep delving and digging, this time looking for a problem in Julián. I insist that his doctor send us for some checks because I can’t believe it’s possible that he sleeps so little. I even manage to infect Lukáš. “I hope he’s got something,” he says in the hospital where we’re admitted for two days, “so that we know what to do.” Although I’ve got my way, I start doubting it all on our drive there. I feel even more stupid and unable to deal with my own child. Even before we’ve set foot in the children’s department I know he hasn’t got anything. But Lukas convinces me to stay.
He really hasn’t got anything. Something more, in the hospital Julián starts nursing approximately every three hours on his own and falls asleep after each feed. “He’s nowhere like that at home!” I tell the nurses apologetically. Despite the obvious fact I’m using the hospital resources for no reason, they are being nice to me. They don’t even scold me for taking Julián to sleep in my bed and not leaving him in the breath monitor equipped crib for even a single minute.
My roommate’s baby has lost his amniotic fluid a great deal before his due date. She’s discharged after ten days in the hospital with medicine her little baby has to be taking for a year. If it helps – good; if not – “he won’t be able to fall down or get sick.” I imagine a childhood with no opportunities for falling and getting sick and my heart cringes. I sincerely wish her that the medicine helps him. And I feel even more absurd – what am I doing here at all? Why do I occupy this hospital bed for no reason when there are children out there who really need help?
I ask the doctor to discharge us faster, although I realise that once we go back home the things will get messed up again. No one brings me food at home and I have other things to do apart from taking care of my baby. But it shouldn’t have been so.
Somewhere towards the end of these first forty days Julye starts smiling. For the first time his eyes have been resting on me. From this moment on I stop feeling like the most horrible mother ever. If I were, he wouldn’t have been smiling at me, would he?
I stop being afraid. By him. By him being awake. By his crying. By being alone with him. I gradually begin to sleep more and eat more often. We manage to keep him safe on the long way to Bulgaria, there and back again. I feel much calmer among my friends. I can’t stop talking after all that time when there was no one to talk to. If only they could have been with me from the very beginning I guess everything would’ve been easier.
Julián is two months old when we go back to the Czech Republic. It’s safe to say we already have something like a routine. True, I still can’t find twenty minutes of free time each day so that I could start using cloth diapers. But at least I discover how can I take a daily shower even when Lukáš isn’t at home. He still sleeps only on top of me but at least I spend this time having some rest or reading. We talk, me imitating his baby language which is constantly getting enriched by new sounds. We take walks, we travel by train. He visits his first Czech chateau.
It’s still hard, but less harder than before.
While I’m typing this, Julián is sleeping on the bed beside me. I press the keyboard buttons as quietly as I can. From time to time it seems like he stops breathing. I stop typing and wait in the silence until I hear his breath again. I hope he’s having sweet dreams.
And that he’ll be sleeping for at least two hours…
He’s almost four months now. He’s got a whole repertoire of sounds; he grabs toys with both his hands and investigates them with his mouth. He’s been rolling over on his tummy for a few weeks now.
Oh, and yes. He wears cloth diapers too. I found those twenty minutes I needed.
It still hard for me to believe I’m a mother although the days when I felt either I or the outside world didn’t exist are long gone.
I made a lot of mistakes and there’s no turning back.
But I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll hear Julián say the word “mama” for the first time.
So that I can recognise myself in it.
Photograph by Lukáš