I thought I’d love being a mother.
I was wrong.
I don’t enjoy it at all; not even for one moment. I know I’m bad at it. My life as I know it ended the day I gave birth. Being a mother is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
All of this has been a big mistake.
I don’t want to do this anymore.
I can’t do this anymore.
I will fix what I have done. I will make everything okay again – for you and for me.
And, please, I beg you: forgive me for what I’m about to do.
DAY 1, SATURDAY DAYBREAK
A thin band of light falls in a strip of yellow on the floor beside the bed. My brain is full of static, my tongue a pad of steel wool in my mouth. Beneath the tucked sheet my legs are a tangle of pins and needles. I press my feet against the cotton and try to tug them free.
It’s difficult to inhale the thick, hot air. The window on my right is out of reach. The curtains are striped and drawn together, with only a pale line of sky littered with treetops visible between their folds. A beeping monitor stands beside the bed, flashing red. Silver rails are locked in place on either side of the mattress, running from my feet to my torso. A white hospital gown cloaks my chest.
Surely Mark should be here, by my side? I haul myself onto one elbow and scour the room. Empty. There’s no chair. No cot, either.
Cot. The realisation hits me. The baby.
I pull the sheet back and hoist the gown to my neck. A thick pad is taped above my pubic bone. My belly is smaller than before, and wobbly. I’m empty.
I ease myself back down against the mattress, sucking in air. There’s a flash of memory from the moments before I was put to sleep: a mask held over my face, the pressure of it against my cheeks, the smell of musty plastic. The anaesthetist’s pinpoint eyes. Mark, staring down at me, blinking in slow motion. Then coldness in the back of my hand, stinging like a nettle.
I lift my fingers to my eyes. My vision pulls into focus. Clear liquid dribbles through tubing into a vein. I yank at the plastic taped fast against my skin.
There’s a call bell on the bedside table. I thrust my arm over the rail, knocking a cup of water to the floor in my haste. The liquid pools on the matted carpet, then begins to soak in, forming a jagged mark. I catch the cord of the buzzer and manoeuvre it onto my lap. I dig both my thumbs into it and listen as a loud ring resonates in the corridor outside my room. There’s the squeak of a meal trolley. A baby whimpering from a nearby room.
But no one comes.
I press the buzzer again and again, hearing the echoing chime outside my door. Still no one answers.
A red light flickers on the buzzer, the colour all at once too familiar. Blood. Was I bleeding last night? Why can’t I remember?
There’s something far more wrong now. Where is my baby?
‘Excuse me,’ I shout in the direction of the corridor. ‘Is anyone there?’
I try to steady my breathing and take in my surroundings. Everything about this place feels unsettling. There’s a thread of cobweb stretching high against the ceiling, a sliver of a crack in the plaster above the skirting board by the door, a dull brown stain on the bed sheet. I shouldn’t be here. This isn’t the Royal, with its homely birthing suites and clean, airy rooms. There the midwives are attentive and caring. Soothing music is piped along every corridor. The Royal was where I was supposed to have our baby girl.
This – this is the hospital down the road, the one with the reputation. The one I’d insisted on avoiding in this town big enough to have a choice, small enough for me to know individual obstetricians. As the local pathologist, I’m the one who writes up the autopsies of babies that don’t make it. I’ve seen the work of each specialist. I know more than anyone how much can go wrong.
A wave of nausea sweeps over me. That hasn’t happened to my baby. Not after everything. It’s not possible. It can’t be.
The door pushes inwards, the silhouette of a broad-shouldered woman backlit by the lights from the corridor.
‘Help. Please,’ I say.
‘Oh, but that’s my job.’
The figure steps under the downlights: a midwife in a navy pinafore. Ursula, the badge at her waist reads.
‘I do apologise. We’ve been so busy,’ she says. She dumps a cluster of folders on the end of my bed, picks up the closest one and peers at it through spectacles hung on a thin chain around her neck. ‘Saskia Martin.’
‘That’s not me.’ My heart quivers inside me. ‘Where’s my baby?’
Ursula inspects me over the rim of her glasses, then thrusts the folder back onto my bed and picks up the next one in line.
‘Oh. You’re Sasha Moloney?’
I nod, relieved.
‘So you’re the abruption.’
Maroon clumps on asphalt rise, steaming, before my vision. The stench of metallic clots, bled out from behind the placenta, peeling my baby away from the inside of my womb before it was time for her to emerge. So, the bleeding was real, not solely from my imagination.
‘My oh my. You lost of lot of blood.’
I don’t ask the volume. ‘My baby. Please tell me?’
She skims the file.
‘You’re thirty-seven years old.’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘And this is your first baby.’
From the corridor now comes the sound of babies wailing in unison. Finally, Ursula lifts her head from the file.
‘You had an emergency caesarean at thirty-five weeks. Your baby boy was sent to the nursery. Congratulations.’
Boy? I draw a sharp breath. ‘I thought I was having a girl.’
Ursula flips through the file, sticks her finger on the page.
‘Definitely a boy,’ she says.
It takes me a moment to understand her. Not a daughter, but a son. This is most unexpected. But there’s a small chance the ultrasound – and my maternal intuition – could have been wrong.
‘Quite sure. It says boy right here.’ Her jaw tightens. ‘Oh,’ she mumbles. ‘Hmmm . . .’
Oh, no. Any baby, any gender is fine, as long as they’re okay. Please, please, let them be okay . . .
Ursula scrambles through the notes, then inspects me again through the lower half of her bifocals.
‘It looks like he’s alright. The files are so difficult to read these days. So many babies. And so many mothers to care for. We’ll get you to him as soon as we can.’
Relief floods my body. My baby is alive. I am a mother. And somewhere in this hospital is my newborn son. My heart is still a drum beating behind my ribs.
‘Can I see him now, please?’
‘Hopefully soon. We’re extremely busy.’ She gives a theatrical sigh. ‘I’m sure you understand.’ She checks the file again. ‘You’re a doctor, am I right?’
I’m not sure if she’s playing some sort of perverse game. Perhaps she’s merely run off her feet. I’ve heard the stories about this place: a constant victim of budget cuts, perpetually short-staffed, doctors and nurses overworked.
I nod. ‘Well, I’m a pathologist . . . But can you at least tell me how he is?’
Again Ursula drags a finger down the page. ‘It’s not immediately clear from these notes.’ She eases the folder shut.
I scrunch the bed sheet into a ball beneath my palms.
‘I need to see him. I need to see him now.’
‘I understand,’ Ursula says, placing the folder on my bedside table. ‘Of course you do. I’ll be back with a wheelchair as soon as I can.’
‘Mark will take me. My husband. Where is he?’
‘He must be with your baby. I’m sure you can see him when we get you upstairs.’ She removes my mobile from the top drawer of the bedside table and hands it to me. ‘You can call him. Tell him to come to the desk for a wheelchair.’
A buzzer screeches from a room nearby. Ursula frowns as she steps into the corridor.
I find Mark’s number and press the phone hard against my ear. It rings out. I call again. This time I leave a message in a voice I barely recognise, begging him to come and get me straight away, to take me upstairs. I tell him I need him. That I need to check on the baby.
I’ve worked in hospitals for years. I know the systems, the faults and flaws. On the face of it, I should be more comfortable here. But being a patient is different to being a doctor. Now I’m the observed rather than the observer; I’m the one being dissected, examined, judged. I can spot incompetence like a watermark. And, worst of all, I know how easy it is to make mistakes.
Nurses titter in the corridor outside my room. Muffled wails of newborn babies filter through the air. My uterus seems to tighten inside me. I’m starting to get some feeling back in my legs as the tingling fades away. My muscles soften with the last of the opioids and I gasp at the sticky, hot air, willing myself to stay here, stay conscious, there’s no time for sleep, but the room tilts beneath me, and I swirl into a vortex as the walls collapse in on themselves and the room disintegrates to black.
DAY 1, SATURDAY BREAKFAST
The clatter of a tray wakes me. There’s a stale sulphur smell about the room, a hint of bleach beneath. I peel open my eyes. Pale yellow scrambled eggs on a slice of soggy white bread. Acrid bacon alongside, flecked with charcoal. A woman stands over me. Her name flickers into my mind: Ursula.
Then: the baby. The baby boy.
My limbs stiffen as I remember that I’m a mother now; that I’m alone. So is my son. And where is Mark?
‘Please . . . Is my baby okay?’
I should never have fallen asleep. It’s my first failing as a mother. Correction: my second. My first failing was my inability to keep him inside until forty weeks.
‘I checked with the nursery while you were asleep. He’s stable. But he’s little. I’m sure you guessed that.’ She indicates my chest; my milk hasn’t yet come in. ‘What he needs right now is some colostrum from you.’
Colostrum. The first milk. It’s full of antibodies, fats, all the vital nutrients. I want him to have it, right away.
‘After we get that, can I see him?’ When I see him, I’ll know how he is. How I am, too.
‘Things have settled down on the ward. I’m sure a visit can be arranged. You’ll be able to see your husband in the nursery.’
Mark. He should be able to calm me, help me forget the images of deceased premature babies flickering through my mind, the ones I’ve dissected at post-mortems over the years.
‘My baby will be alright, won’t he?’ I remember his gestational age. ‘I mean, thirty-five weeks is okay, isn’t it?’
Ursula lifts my gown. ‘He should be fine.’ She places her thumb and index finger either side of my nipple, first squashing it against my chest wall, then squeezing it like she’s juicing a lemon. I wince, but say nothing.
‘You understand we need to stimulate your breasts, to get your milk flowing? You know breast pumps won’t work yet?’
‘Good, then.’ Ursula squeezes harder. ‘You’ve picked a name for him?’
The child on the ultrasounds had an upturned nose, pouting lips and a sloping chin. I’d been delighted to discover we were having a girl. After all, I’d saved my childhood dolls, my Anne of Green Gables and Malory Towers book collections in a box under our bed, for our future daughter. Mark had been happy enough, too, even though I knew that, deep down, he’d wanted a son. He’ll be ecstatic now we’ve had a boy.
‘We had decided on Gabrielle for a girl,’ I say. ‘So, I suppose
Ursula raises her eyebrows. ‘Your turn to try.’ She untangles my arm from the IV line that trails to a hanging bag of saline. Then I pump my breast, fingers thrusting back towards my ribs, clenching together like she has demonstrated, crushing the nipple as hard as I can until it’s the colour of a bruised strawberry. Nothing comes, not even as my hand stiffens into a cramp.
‘Let me,’ Ursula says.
I’ve always admired breast tissue under the microscope; something about its branching channels, like a tree growing within. In lactating women, the ducts are filled with smooth pools of milk, stained a salmon pink by the dye. I’d assumed my lactiferous ducts would fill of their own accord. I had never anticipated the need to express the milk into being with brute force.
Ursula twists and squishes my breasts, trying to extract even a single drop. I focus on the babies’ cries through the walls, through the open door, through every inch of this room until, finally, there’s a pearly bead of yellow on the tip of my nipple, shining like a jewel.
‘He’ll need this,’ Ursula says, sucking it up into a syringe.
I’m not sure if she’s talking to me, or to herself. My breast throbs. I wiggle my toes against the cool sheet, then with tingling fingertips trace the edges of my thighs up to my sagging abdomen. There’s a new lightness in my limbs, an ease of movement that I’ve missed these past months. My belly, though, feels hollow after all the constant kicks.
‘Can I go to the nursery now?’
‘One thing at a time. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve delivered this to the baby.’
‘You don’t know where Mark is?’
Still pumping at my breast, Ursula uses her chin to point out a vase on the shelf opposite the bed. ‘He sent those down. He said not to wake you. He’s upstairs with your baby.’
Twelve blood-red roses. The florist must have mixed the colours up. Mark knows white roses are my favourite. The cotton pillowslip chills the back of my neck as I press my head into it.
Ursula holds the syringe up to the peeling cream ceiling, examining the straw-yellow contents. ‘That should be enough for now. Their stomachs are only the size of marbles, you know.
And we’ll need more in another two or three hours.’ She snaps the bedside rail back into place and walks out of the room.
Oh God, no. This isn’t what breastfeeding is supposed to be like. I stare up at the paint flecks on the ceiling. None of this was on my birth plan. I was supposed to have a peaceful vaginal birth, Mark beside me massaging my shoulders, whispering encouraging words in my ear. Pain relief if I needed. A healthy baby girl. It was supposed to all go right for me, after everything that had gone wrong before. I’d written my birth plan in minute detail during the hormone-induced bliss of pregnancy. Maybe that was the problem: I never should have written one at all.
The bedside rails are jail bars, pinning me to the narrow mattress. I must wait for Ursula to come and fetch me, and take me to my son.