“A boy,” I cried. Leaned over, doubled over. I wept as if they had just told me, “You have black lung.” But the news was “a boy.” A snapshot of the evidence. The doctor wrote “penis” on the sonogram. Said I could embarrass him in years to come. Put it in the album. But I was crushed.
My dream of pink girls. My dream of girlhood. My dream of femininity, prissiness, lace dolls, crayons and purple drapes and flowers was gone. The childhood I had never had.
Raised by a feminist, such a feminist she didn’t even call herself a feminist. Who never taught me to wash a dish, bake a cake, stir a stew, plant bulbs or calla lilies. A sexy professor whose pastimes were love, erotica, English as a second language, and fierce autonomy. She served TV dinners and never mended the curtains – they still have safety pins in their hems forty years later. And my father? He was a charming loner who lived inside books. Who woke up every morning at five a.m. to write. I’d pad behind him in my nightgown and sit down to move my fingers on the pretend typewriter keys that he had carved into the wood of my desk, so I could be just like him.
Instead of food, I grew up eating words and definitions, dictionaries and books of etymology for dinner. My fantasies were not of weddings or men in shining armor, but of independence and a bed made especially for writing in all day long.
As an adult, I ended up with two left hands in the kitchen and became confused by a needle and thread. It would be through my daughter that I would repair my feminist and bookaholic upbringing.
I would teach her not just what my mother had taught me, but what she had not: to be a hostess, a glitter girl, a wife, and a cream puff. Together, my daughter and I would learn to make cupcakes and conquer the world. But, instead, the sonogram showed a penis. With testicles formed already in utero.
“Nine point nine,” the nurses exclaimed as my boy screamed out of my C-sectioned stomach, the doctor’s hands pulling him out without any grace. John watched from the top of the tent as I asked, “Will I vomit?” And the anesthesiologist said, “I know the theme of this one.” “Will I throw up? I feel nauseated,” I said over and over again. And out of desperation, I grabbed the nurse’s arm, caressing the dark hairs that ran to her shoulders. The last touch I would have before I was forever changed by the sight of his mouth, his eyes, the sound of his cry.
They stuck oxygen on my face as I continued with the “Will I vomit/I feel faint” litany. I cried through the mask as John held his dangling body up for me to behold. His very long limbs, and yes, his testicles. His face, like a girl’s. Squinty eyes that had a good look at me. And rosebud lips. A tiny nose. And from then on, everything up to that point in my life was utterly insignificant.
Wheeling him in his plastic see-through bed down the halls of the hospital, I have bare feet.
They say, “Don’t you have slippers?”
But I don’t care, I want hospital all over me. I want to gush blood on their floor. I want to pee for the first time, shit for the first time, as a mother. Feel the whole thing. With him in my arms. All night long.
My hospital roommate says, “Don’t take this wrong . . . ”
“Yes?” I ask.
“He has the most beautiful cry.”
And I agree.
I will hold his mouth up to my ear and let him scream his 9.9 out of ten voice into me.
We couldn’t name him. I wouldn’t settle on anything. Twenty years of naming fictional characters, and I was incapable of naming my own flesh and blood until forced to sign papers for the birth certificate and proof of fatherhood. Liam was his name, because of his legs. He had Liam legs. Enormous mitts and fingers with the sweetest nails.
(Later, I remembered, trying to keep it in my mind for the rest of my life, the first real tear that fell down his cheek. The first tooth that cut through his swollen gums. And good-bye to that toothless mouth that opened wide with the sadness and joy of life.)He sings nursing songs. And then he farts. A word I could not actually bring myself to say until now.
He spits up milk. Runs down his cheek. And onto my blouses that now smell rotten. My tits have worry lines. I’ve got nipples for days. And then the breast pump from hell.
Pull at me like a handle. I’m fat and now I can’t imagine anything but a boy. Not a girl. But a boy. And though we will cut his tongue, untie it from his rosebud lips, we will not cut his penis. Keeping its integrity, I feel blessed and relieved that now I don’t have to confront a woman. That I don’t have to be the mother to a daughter. That I don’t have to stand up and live this feminist, postfeminist dream. That I can live ensconced in men and boys. And remain the one girl in the house. Writing erotica and R-rated films.
He will be our little boy, with a widow’s peak and pudgy feet. I shall feed his weeping into my ear and let him grow up to be a thug, a street fighter, a lawyer, a failure, an actor, a dropout, a genius. He may, and is allowed to, scratch my face off, begging for food.
He sings nursing songs. And then he farts. A word I could not actually bring myself to say until now. Shits up his back. Like Grey Poupon mustard.
This is the way you write when you’re nursing. No time for sentences. Just shorthand in hieroglyphics. “That’s a good boy. That’s a good boy. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” And then, “I love you.”
His breath rolls across my face. And I write with my eyes along his flesh. Because I don’t have time, because I only speak in baby talk, because I am embroidered with his feedings. No procrastination. No capital letters. The logarithms of motherhood. And I realize, this is what I was meant to be. Twenty years of writing was only practice to do that thing that everybody I went to school with did right away. Now they are having midlife crises. And I am forty, finally doing what I was born to do. By making rice cereal and wiping it off his fingers and taking the boiled carrot off the top of his eyelids from where he smeared it, by picking up his shirt the moment it drops to the floor, by telling the story of the caterpillar who ate the apple and imitating the quack of a duck, I become the bunny I was meant to be.
I learn how to walk and talk like a woman. Other women finally speak to me with more than furtive glances. And I learn to write like a woman, with no punctuation and no pause. Because now I have no time.
Now I can repeat myself, introduce the theme halfway through, or even too late, establish who I am after I dive into the wrack of emotions. I can skip all the introductions, just full speed ahead, get it out, before he wakes from his nap.
And so many times, long ago, in the million years before the six months that have just passed since his birth, I had to write or fuck in an attempt to have a baby. And all along, all I had to do was say, “This time, don’t pull out.”
I’ve been wasting my time fucking without conception, writing without sperm. Now, in my new incarnation, I’d like to set up arts and crafts tables, knit in my spare time, and have infinite patience.
His ear is a tiny fossil. I look into his past as he drinks and laughs for hours. I watch as his two small layers of eyelashes form on his lids. And the day he stuck out his tongue for the first time.
My heart is already broken by the boy who will become a man, who will step into the shoes I give him and walk out our front door. I kiss his feet and mourn the moment it will become inappropriate. I want to wrap his toes in dough and eat them as hors d’oeuvres, fry up his fat knees for supper. The smell of the back of his neck and the sweet milk breath with the white on his tongue that we wash away with a silver spoon full of boiled water every night.
He is, at first, no more than half a centimeter from my body at all times. Because his tiny intestines need my warmth.
Besides, all the books say he still thinks he’s inside of me.
He falls asleep with his hand and mouth open. And I am rolling in motherhood. Drowning in milk. And the wiggle of his mouth: the way he latches on in one fell swoop.
He is a bomber, a peacekeeper, a hippie, an economist. He will hate his parents for being hippies, he will spray paint the peace sign on his bare chest, he will wear the tie-dyed onesie my shrink gave him, look at the Diane Arbus print given to him by Stephen. “Because,” as he wrote on the card, “you will not be born once, but reborn every day of your life.”
I tell myself, he is not the center of the universe, but then he just plain is. I want to play washing machine with him when he is six months old in the YMCA pool, teach him to skate with his father on the long river in Ottawa. I’ll draw his face on napkins. I cannot be healthy about this. My body is his to graze upon.
This essay is an excerpt from the essay “Milk Dress: A Nursing Song,” which originally appeared in the anthology The May Queen.
Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin