I had my first fight with my daughter when she was 36 weeks in the womb. It was then that she first defied me. I was sitting on our balcony one night and felt her squirming, and all of a sudden I felt something large and round lodged under my ribcage. It felt like a head — which is exactly what it turned out to be.
I was pissed. I tried in vain to turn her back around. I let an acupuncturist burn my toes. I suffered through an external version, which was painful and violent, and accomplished nothing. I saw a chiropractor. I took hot baths with frozen peas on my belly.
I strategically placed my iPhone speaker between my legs and tried to lure my daughter’s head downward with Aimee Mann, Wyclef, Tracy Chapman. I played my whole damn music library to my vagina. But she insisted on staying put.
Unless my water broke before labor, my midwife said, the disobedient fetus might come to her senses and correctly position herself for her journey down the birth canal.
It was about 8:20 p.m. on a Thursday night when I felt the trickle of water down my leg.
The due date loomed two weeks away, and earlier that day I had given the requisite round of hugs to my coworkers. I planned to “work from home” until the Big Day, but what I really planned to do was stock my freezer with casseroles and tackle the mound of baby gear in the corner of our 600-square-foot condo.
My husband was making a drink when the first drop of water began meandering down my leg. At first, I assumed I was peeing myself. By 38 weeks, I had lost all semblance of control over my body, and anything was possible.
But it didn’t smell like pee. And as my husband cracked open a seltzer bottle, a few things slowly registered:
- My water was breaking
- This baby was two damn weeks early
- I was going to have to get a C-section
- My freezer currently had zero casseroles in it and one half-eaten gallon of Breyer’s
I told my husband, “You might want to put down that drink.”
At the hospital, a nurse confirmed that yes, my water had broken, and yes, a C-section would be in order. The hospital room was a far cry from the warm, wooden floors at the birthing center, where I was supposed to be, a place where doulas brought you iced tea and C-sections were the Absolute. Last. Resort.
Most importantly, the birthing center had not one, but two jacuzzis. Though I had initially been on the fence about a natural birth, I discovered that for some reason, drugs and jacuzzis are mutually exclusive. I had to choose.
I chose the jacuzzi, which was now sitting empty four miles away, while I was strapped to a table in a room with blue-white lights, about to have a drug cocktail pumped into me via multiple IVs. And it was all my daughter’s fault.
I started to shake uncontrollably. The reality of a knife slicing me open was only now sinking in. Plus, after those blue-gloved hands fished around inside my stomach, I was going to have a baby to deal with. I wasn’t ready! I wanted a full night’s sleep. I wanted a last meal. I wanted to set up the crib we hadn’t yet bought. I wanted to make a pasta casserole.
I was strapped to a table in a room with blue-white lights, about to have a drug cocktail pumped into me via multiple IVs. And it was all my daughter’s fault.
But the operation marched grimly forward. The morphine kicked in. I tried not to think about what was going on behind the flimsy blue curtain that shielded me from the knives and my own gaping stomach. I felt some pressure here and there. I knew there was a bag somewhere filling up with my blood. I kept my gaze focused on the blue curtain. I wondered why the hell everything in this room was blue.
First I felt an enormous lightness in my belly. My right rib cage, no longer burdened by a human head, was rejoicing. For a moment, I was worried I might float away.
The cries brought me back to earth. Of course, it’s natural for babies to cry after they are born, but these cries were at a volume my ears were ill-prepared for. They jolted me out of the fog of my painkillers and, I was certain, were waking up every last patient from Floor 1 to Floor 12 and from pediatrics to the ER.
The surgeon said, “That baby has some lung power.” It was the only thing he had said to me since offering a weary, distant introduction 15 minutes before he sliced open my abdomen.
I heard the cries and saw a blur of flesh. The blue gloves whisked her away, did whatever it was they had to so urgently do, and then deposited her, calmer now, in my arms. I learned that she was seven pounds exactly, a fact I would repeat dozens of times to curious friends and family because for some reason, we are curious about these things. She had all 10 fingers and all 10 toes, not to mention a very healthy set of lungs.
I no longer cared about the empty jacuzzi. She was in my arms now, all seven pounds and 20 digits, and I finally was able to behold the sweet, docile baby I always knew I’d have. A look of contentment was etched into her slightly upturned lips as she rested her head in the crook of my elbow. She purred slightly as her perfect belly rose and fell against my chest.
Then she opened her eyes.
They’re like two black suns staring straight into your soul. That’s how my then-12-year-old stepson described them. Quite poetic for a 12-year-old, but there was really no other way to put it. Her eyes possessed no distinction between pupil and iris, just burning, bottomless black that expressed an intensity of emotion I didn’t know a five-minute-old human being could muster.
She looked defiant. A little smug. Kind of pissed. And vaguely disappointed. Her eyes said: This is it?
A week later, I was back at home, glad to be off Percocet but missing my magic phone. Whenever I was hungry during my four-day hospital stay, I could pick up the phone, and within an hour, a hot meal magically appeared in my room. The magic phone even conjured up ice cream on demand. It was amazing. It was almost worth the C-section.
At my house, the lone half-eaten gallon of Breyer’s in my freezer had already been consumed on day one. I was hungry all the time. My daughter was also hungry all the time, but unlike me, she had a magical milk fountain she could demand any time she pleased, which was at least once an hour.
I had not been prepared for breastfeeding. She latched on aggressively and pumped those little lips, and it hurt. It seemed that every time I stood up, she suddenly got hungry. So I’d sit down, steeling myself for the chafing, shooting pain, and no sooner would she latch on, than I would realize that everything I needed was just out of reach — my phone, the remote, the one slice of peanut-butter-slathered bread from a sandwich I’d started making 30 minutes prior.
Sitting on my couch had never been so exhausting.
At the end of week two, my left breast suddenly turned scarlet red and ballooned to twice its already enormous size. I self-diagnosed imminent death, but Google told me I had mastitis, which was almost as bad. My precious baby had managed to not just rub my nipple raw, but to create a hole — yes, a hole — which in turn had caused an infection, which in turn had resulted in my current condition.
It looked like a boob job gone horribly wrong, after which said boob had been left to burn in the sun. I didn’t even know how my body could support the monstrous lump protruding from my chest, and apparently, my body was also confused because it lapsed into a 100+ degree fever, as though to say, “I give up. I’ve had enough.”
The worst part was that my daughter did not express even a trace of empathy for the suffering she had caused. She still hollered for her hourly meal and appeared peeved when I didn’t rise up out of my hallucinatory slumber on the first cry.
I told my husband: “This is not the baby I was expecting.”
He tried to comfort me. Even a calm baby with normal eyes, who followed her mother’s birth plan and who did not gum holes in her mother’s nipples, would not be capable of empathy, he reasoned. Empathy was his department.
I told him that unless his nipples could spout milk, or unless he had imbued his phone with magical powers that could conjure ice cream on demand, he could take his empathy and shove it up his butt. I may have put it more delicately. I probably didn’t. By that point, my fever had reached 103 and I hadn’t slept more than one consecutive hour since my Percocet-laced days in the hospital.
But two things I knew for certain: my daughter was utterly devoid of my genes, and she seemed determined to make my life miserable.
Of the many things that I incorrectly presumed when it came to parenting, my children would resemble me. (Other things I incorrectly presumed: I wouldn’t care if my children tracked sand in the house, I would spend Saturday afternoons helping them build Pinterest-worthy forts with cardboard boxes, I would never let them eat Cheetos or McDonald’s french fries).
I knew from the start that my children wouldn’t look much like me. I am pale and blonde, with vein-laced legs that resemble salami under fluorescent lights. My husband is at least three-fourths Black and allegedly one-fourth Cherokee. His brown skin has warm red undertones and looks beautiful under any light.
Still, I expected my daughter to take after me in other ways. Strong, but understated. Introverted, but open and funny in the company of friends. A deep thinker and an avid listener. Someone who liked to take in the world from a distance.
My daughter took after me in none of those ways. Even at two weeks old, she was overstated and extroverted. A fast thinker and an impatient listener. Someone who liked to swallow the world whole. She was on a constant quest to locate the boundaries of her universe for the precise purpose of challenging them. The quest had started in my womb and would, as far as I could tell, continue well into adulthood.
She had a strong right hook, perfect for shattering glass ceilings or bruising my cheekbones. That right hook said, “I refuse to accept whatever limit you are imposing on me.” Bathtime? I beg to differ. Unequal pay? I think not.
Once she began crawling, I realized that I would likely not sit down for at least the next 700 days. On Friday afternoons, I sometimes walked with a group of moms down to a park that hosted a family-friendly live concert, complete with food trucks and permission to bring beer. I always optimistically spread out a blanket adjacent to the other moms and cracked open a beer. I was forever optimistic. They would sit down with their babies in their laps. My baby would sit on my lap for precisely .03 seconds before taking off to explore what lay beyond our arbitrary blanket boundary.
“You have a very active baby,” the other moms would comment when I returned 45 minutes later to my warm beer and uneaten rice crackers.
“She was an active fetus, too,” I said, and everyone laughed… except me.
I still held out hope for my Mini Me, but if anything, my daughter became even less like me as the years progressed. As with mourning or alcoholism, the key, I found, is acceptance. I have learned to stop fretting over the qualities that make my daughter so unlike me and instead appreciate the qualities that make her uniquely herself.
Now that I can sit down for more than three minutes at a time, these qualities are a little easier to appreciate.
At nine years old, she still does things her way, and I (mostly) love her for it. I ache with pride when I think about the feisty, headstrong, fearless young adult I will release into the world.
That is if we can survive her adolescence.
Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.