Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3446 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Her Delivery

Ellen Akins

All her young life Carrie had liked nothing better than being a little bit sick. When she had the flu or a twisted ankle or one of her frequent bouts of bronchitis, no one ever said, “Why don’t you just get better?” as was the case with almost everything else she did. Instead everyone listened with patience and sympathy to whatever she wanted to say about her symptoms, her status, her progress. In fact, their interest, which never arose when she needed it most, when her malady was the boring, everyday sort that she couldn’t articulate anyway, made her feel so much better, modest and merciful, that she tended to abbreviate her condition. She was, she suspected, at her best when she was ailing. It occurred to her now and then that the interest wasn’t genuine, but that didn’t matter, because it seemed real enough—and if people didn’t have sympathy, if they said behind her back, “How could a big girl like that be so sickly?” then they were much worse than she was, and that was something. Along with any illness, there was also the satisfaction of taking her medicine, following a regimen that, unlike every other prescription or plan she’d been handed, promised improvement without additional pain and wasted effort.

Obligingly enough, nature supplied her with a series of small weaknesses and minor ailments that kept her occupied in body and spirit through many days that otherwise would’ve stretched out empty and undifferentiated before her. There were her bronchial complaints—which might be traced to her parents’ smoking when she was a child and they were still together. There were her dizzy spells and delicate skin and famously bad joints, which had served her well in volleyball, because her bad grades or lackluster performance on the court would’ve gotten her dropped from the team if a turned ankle or sprained wrist hadn’t spared her that fate two seasons in a row. Even her boyfriend, of whom nobody approved—because he drove away her friends and told her what to do and because he didn’t work or do well at school or have any plans, most of which could’ve been said about her and so probably was, if this was how her “friends” and family talked about Danny—even he, a sickness of sorts in some people’s opinion—had provided her with hours and hours of a therapist’s earnest attention and unjudging concern.

It was after a volleyball-related incident, a dizzy spell that turned out to be (they said) a simple case of hyperventilation, that a paramedic taking down her information as the ambulance sped away from the gym said upon hearing her name, “Oh isn’t your father married to so-and-so?” Her father, after ten happy years as a bachelor, had somehow managed to marry the mayor of their small city, who was also a champion breeder of guide dogs. Then the paramedic said, with a heartiness that really didn’t help her distress, “So you’re going to be a sister.” This hadn’t registered at first, and Carrie said, “I already am.” Her perfect sister was, after all, one of the overwhelming facts of her life.

Shortly after that episode, she contracted mono and was in bed for six weeks, able to get to the bathroom or the kitchen only with the gravest difficulty. And that was how it happened, since everyone wanted to know. She’d stopped taking her birth control pills while she was sick. (She’d been so good about it till then, even had a little case with twenty-eight compartments that she filled on the first of each month.) Why bother? And she had started taking them again once she was better, but evidently not soon enough. But anyway, who would’ve guessed that her illness would bring Danny around again, that her absence would remind him, as he told her, of how much she meant to him?

“Enough for him to get a job?” her mother said. “And help pay for this baby?” But by then, the truth was, they’d realized that they just weren’t right for each other; they’d decided to be friends. “We’ll see what kind of friend he is,” her mother said. She was one of the few people—almost the only one besides Carrie’s friends who’d had babies themselves—who didn’t try to talk her out of going through with it. Yes, she was upset. Yes, she was disappointed. But if Carrie had made up her mind, then she wouldn’t mention the “A” word; she knew how important—how essential to Carrie’s well-being—it was to be supportive. It was a good thing too, because, if not for her mother, Carrie didn’t know where she’d live—or how, when the baby arrived, though she was pretty sure that everything would work out, as it always did, as it had for Danny’s sister Crystal when she’d had a baby at eighteen and for her friend Tiffany when she’d had hers and for Jade, who was due in two months. Now, in fact, all she could think about—as long as somebody wasn’t lecturing or questioning or pressuring her about money, jobs and rent and diapers and doctor bills, as if that were all there was to it—was the way Crystal’s and Tiffany’s babies laughed and thrashed their fat little legs and grabbed her earrings and put their little arms around their mothers’ necks. All the time her mother was praying for a miscarriage and her father was pressing for an abortion, she was taking her vitamins and watching her diet and holding her belly (was it just a little bit rounder already?), telling herself and the baby inside that if they could just make it through the first three months, then everything would be OK.

And it was! This pregnancy was the best thing that had ever happened to her. For nine months she would have to monitor her health as never before: learning what contained calcium and iron and vitamin C, the leafy green vegetables and fresh yellow foods like carrots and squash and melons—and mangoes, the doctor said, and Carrie didn’t know if that was a joke; avoiding strenuous exercise and getting as much sleep as she normally wished she could; and paying regular visits to the doctor, where they weighed her and checked her urine and measured her “fundus” and listened to the baby’s heartbeat, entering each measurement on a huge chart that unfolded from her thickening file. Did she have any questions? the doctor asked each time, and she tried to think of some, to have some ready, collected through the week, but pregnancy made a girl so scatterbrained—how could she remember?

“Ask her how you’re going to support this baby when you can’t support yourself,” her father suggested. “Ask her how you expect to take responsibility for a child when you aren’t even responsible enough to take your birth control pills. There’s some questions for her. You can write them down if you think you’ll forget.”

He’d been against her ever since he’d gotten remarried, and now it was worse, since he thought the mayor ought to be the center of attention. When he was trying to talk her into having an abortion, he’d told her that having a baby was too hard, even though he’d had two, and that she’d be a welfare mother, just because she’d signed up for Medical Assistance, and that any baby she had now was guaranteed a life of poverty and disadvantage, although she could see for herself how happy Crystal’s and Tiffany’s babies were. He always knew better, but this time there was nothing he could do, which was, she guessed, what made him so mad—and though there was some satisfaction in that, she stopped seeing him at all after this latest attack. It was probably just as well, because the mayor was having a difficult pregnancy and it couldn’t help to see Carrie positively glowing.

And anyway, she had plenty to do without finding time for her father’s harangues. There was all that baby equipment to be hunted down and begged and borrowed off mothers of toddlers; there were doctor visits and childbirth classes and a breastfeeding clinic (ugh); and there was her search for a better job than the one she had waitressing—all while she was so tired, with a sore back and swelling ankles (“edema”) and borderline high blood pressure.

Though it meant more discomfort, she was actually glad finally to be past the phase when people thought she was just getting fatter, when fat girls at the grocery store and the mall would smile at her in a warm sisterly way and she would have to find a way to let them know that she had a reason to be so big, which wasn’t always easy or sometimes even possible. If the fat stranger gave her that look in passing, what could she do? Chase her through the mall to ask, panting, if she knew where they sold maternity clothes?

She had just reached this stage when her father’s wife, who’d never really looked pregnant, had her baby—three weeks early—and as much as Carrie wanted to see her half-sister (she loved to see little babies these days), she just couldn’t subject her unborn child to the unhealthy atmosphere of her father’s disapproval.

Her half-sister was almost six weeks old before Carrie found the nerve to visit—precisely when her father found fit to invite her. Her stepmother, so tired that she had actual bags under her eyes and seemed on the verge of tears all evening (but what did she expect, having a baby when she was almost 40?), was surrounded by every bit of baby gear imaginable (some Carrie hadn’t even known existed, like that diaper machine), everything Carrie couldn’t afford, all so new and deluxe that Carrie began to wonder if this didn’t explain at least some of her father’s objections. Maybe he thought a person had to be rich, with all the best things, to be a good mother. It was so like him to forget what it had been like when he was young and first a father—she and her sister didn’t have any of these things.

In the middle of this reverie, Carrie felt the baby move, a nudge and a flutter, nothing like the acrobatics it was doing on the ultrasound, she said, prompting another lecture from her father. “Ultrasound? Spare me,” he said. “What kind of life—“ but then she’d stopped listening. Again, the Medical Assistance. Her mother had explained it: He’d become such a Republican.

Her mother was her labor coach. They went to the classes together and practiced the breathing and techniques for relaxing, her mother touching her first on the temple, then on the shoulder, the arm, and so on, each time saying in a soothing voice, “Relax,” which invariably made Carrie giggle, “a waste of concentration,” her mother would whisper, not wanting to seem critical in front of the others. Except for the relaxed attitude toward pain medication and the more realistic one toward the breathing, things hadn’t changed that much since her day, her mother said, and Carrie tried to imagine her mother and father in this posture, on the carpeted floor of a public building, in a circle of couples who were probably strangers. It was a ridiculous image, but touching too.

It was near the end, when she’d started to waddle and knock into things, when Jade and Tiffany said, “Don’t you feel like, just get it over with?” and she said yes because it seemed to be the thing to feel—it was then that she actually felt that she wouldn’t mind being pregnant for a good while longer, much longer than she would be. The monitoring of her condition was a constant comfort to her. The attention that pregnancy drew and the concern it inspired were new to her and just as agreeable as she’d always imagined they’d be. When she went to the doctor for her last weekly appointment before her due date and found that her cervix was dilated two centimeters, and the doctor said, “See? You’ve probably been having contractions for weeks and you didn’t even know it?” she felt pleased, inexplicably proud, as if she’d done something remarkable and good with no effort at all—as she suspected it was for most people most of the time.

She was also relieved, because if this was how contractions felt, then labor was not going to be what she’d feared. She continued to hold to this notion through the first contractions that she did feel, but abandoned all hope as soon as active labor set in. By then she had gone to the hospital with her mother only to be told to go home and come back when she was further along, at which she found herself crying, “Like when the head’s hanging out?” The nurses were firm, but her mother insisted, and finally they put her into the jacuzzi in the bathroom of one of the birthing rooms that she’d seen on the tour her class had taken. Though she had to leap out and get back onto the toilet, because the pressure was so extreme, the jacuzzi did some good, as the nurse discovered, sticking her hand up and measuring Carrie’s cervix with her fingers and bringing on another contraction so painful that she was positive she would faint—but she didn’t.

That was when she started asking for the epidural, and her mother murmured to her, “I don’t have a thousand dollars to pay for that, Carrie, do you?” No matter how Carrie pleaded or cried, her mother maintained her stance, saying in that sickening murmur that it was only pain, everybody got through it, look at third-world countries, all those babies, and had they ever heard of an epidural? She was like a monster out of a fairy tale who’d taken her mother’s place, impervious even when Carrie cried and whimpered, “I want my mom.” All she did was hold Carrie’s hand and tell her to breathe, then to push.

As the baby slid out, with that last push after the head had popped out and been suctioned and cleaned, Carrie was already seeing the ordeal as if from a long way off, reviewing the details through the haze of her exhaustion as she might relate them to Jade and Tiffany. “A girl,” her mother said in what seemed like a sad way. Carrie thought she was going to get a rest because of all the business the nurses had with the baby, but instead they were thrusting the baby at her, telling her to nurse. It was the last thing she wanted to do, but everybody was watching, so she cradled the baby at her breast. Though more eager, the baby was no more expert than Carrie. At the nurse’s suggestion, Carrie kept adjusting her hold, shifting the baby, breaking out in a terrible sweat.

What she felt for the baby was not at all what she’d expected. For being so tiny and helpless, everything that made her appealing, the baby was remarkably assertive, crying for a breast or dry diaper whenever she woke, which was much more often than anybody had said it would be. The baby was supposed to be sleeping all the time now so Carrie could recover, but she wasn’t—she was up every hour or two, wailing to nurse even though she wasn’t getting anything but colostrum so far, which meant that the wreck she was making of Carrie’s nipples was almost pointless. Even though the delivery had been so horrible, worse than anything she’d ever felt or imagined, it was far enough away and faded two days later that when her milk came in Carrie was able to tell Jade with perfect sincerity that this, the baby gumming her nipples when her breasts were engorged, was the most painful thing she’d ever experienced. On top of that, the nursing made her uterus cramp, she was still bleeding gobs, her stitches pinched, and she hadn’t slept more than three hours at a stretch in three days. But Jade—like Tiffany, like her mother and her sister—like everyone, only made the most perfunctory sympathetic remarks before turning back to the baby. She was so cute! She was so tiny! Poor thing!

Even the nurses and doctor and the lactation consultant, when they tried to help her, realigning her arms, correcting her posture, were not really concerned about her, she suspected. They just wanted to make sure the baby got breastfed, they were mad about breastfeeding, so they had to be nice to her, because she had the breasts. She began to see that they’d taken such good care of her throughout her pregnancy for the same sort of ulterior motive. That had been OK, all she could ask for, as long as she was pregnant and the distinctions between her and the baby were mostly hard to make out—but now it was just as if she’d disappeared, except as some kind of baby support system. She was surrounded by interested people as she’d never been, but all they were interested in was the baby (even her mother, as if Carrie weren’t her baby first)—how the baby was nursing, how she was sleeping, why she was crying, with only token attention to what this was doing to Carrie—and that probably because an exhausted mother wasn’t best for a baby.

She lived for a while with this terrible feeling, telling herself in her most reasonable moments that sleep deprivation was warping her thoughts, that, as Tiffany assured her, everyone felt like this; it even had a name: baby blues. Still it seemed possible that her life, which had recently been so rosy and glowing and round, so satisfying for the first time she could remember, had turned hateful, nothing but punishment with no end in sight. And through all the bleary-eyed sadness and doubt, she had to keep giving her raw nipples to the ravenous baby, had to change her dirty diaper every time she woke up and then try to get her to sleep; and then, every once in a while, when she was walking the baby round and round the bedroom, she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and the sight of her big flabby post-partum belly would plunge her into a deeper depression.

For a while she was too desperate and tired to do anything but function, and not very well, but then, as if her plight had suddenly become clearer, she started to cry, all the time watching herself from a distance, like a curious doctor observing a patient. It was hormones, she told herself; she’d heard all about it. This was when the baby began to cry too, not as she had from the first, until Carrie fed her or changed her or rocked her to sleep, but inconsolably, for hours at a time, day after day. To know that this was colic, to know that it wasn’t all that unusual, didn’t make the crying any easier to bear. For hours Carrie walked the floor, weeping until she ran out of tears and veering back and forth, almost as frequently as she turned, between violent resentment toward the screaming baby and deep wracking sorrow over her child’s mysterious misery. Then whenever the baby at last fell asleep, she would stand for a long time looking down at the bassinet and marvel over the power exercised by such a small, helpless creature.

In those moments she finally knew what mother-love meant: It was helplessness too, in its own way. Everyone had scolded and lectured and warned her about what it was to be a mother, had implied or said outright that it was such an inordinate feat of character and strength and wisdom that she couldn’t possibly be ready. Now she could see clearly how wrong they’d been. Motherhood was something she could submit to, as she submitted to the baby and had submitted to pregnancy, had submitted to one thing or another all her life. It was a condition like any other to be endured. And when Tiffany or Jade or Crystal called to find out how the baby was and, hearing for themselves how, even muffled against her mother’s shoulder, she screamed without pause, said, “You poor thing,” Carrie looked down at the squalling red infant with her tiny clenched fists, grabbing grabbing grabbing, and knew this was as happy as she would ever be.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury