Anatomy of the Postpartum Mother
There is a species of frog, the gastric-brooding frog, that births babies from its mouth. They haven’t been seen since 1983, are believed to be extinct. The mother would swallow her own eggs and incubate the babies inside her stomach. During the six weeks she housed babes inside her, she would not eat. At some point, her lungs would collapse, and she would breathe through her skin to survive. Then she would birth the fully formed frog babies from her mouth through a single act of propulsive vomiting. Sometimes, in motherhood, when I feel like my lungs are collapsing inward and the weight of it is suffocating my organs, I think of that mother frog and I wonder if I, too, could breathe through my skin, if it came to that.
In the weeks following my son's birth—my second child—my body lived a double life. Two mothers were housed within its frame: the mother of a boundary-testing toddler and the mother of a ferociously breastfeeding infant. I tried to blend them, to intertwine the limbs of the two mothers, but they repelled each other. I yearned to split them apart, slice the seam down the middle. That’s when I started fantasizing about self-dissection, a splitting in two of the mother’s skeleton, a scalpel down the linea nigra, that unnatural natural pigmentation that forms in a straight line from bosom to birth canal in the pregnant woman.
By day, I mothered my baby boy; I was a sleep-deprived, sore-nippled sustainer of infant life, giving sponge baths in sinks and wearing my little eight-pounder in a snug wrap against my chest as I repeatedly threw laundry in the washer, transferred it to the dryer, and folded the nursing bras, burp cloths, and onesies. By night, I negotiated bedtime and teeth brushing, my husband holding the baby so I could focus on our daughter. I was determined that for at least a few hours a day, she would feel like nothing had changed between us, that I was only focused on helping her squeeze her toddler arms through pink dinosaur pajama sleeves. It worked, sometimes, when the baby had just been fed and burped, and his diaper was freshly changed. I could help my daughter build the tallest block tower, or hide from imaginary monsters in her teepee, or give her a kiss and a band-aid when she accidentally shut her fingers in the toy chest.
I tried to show her she was still the core of my world, that I was still hers to claim. But other times, the baby cried out for my milk, demonstrating that he was, in fact, my first priority, and sometimes my daughter just refused me. I had been warned by other moms that this would happen, that the older child would act out against the mother when her attention became divided amongst her offspring. I thought of the frog mother. She does not even try, too exhausted from the process of incubating and birthing. Her work is done. She abandons her young, leaves them to fend for themselves.
Some days my daughter forgot she was upset with me, and we went on like we always had, giggling and snuggling and playing pretend. Other days, she withdrew from my affection, screaming at me when I opened her bedroom door in the morning, insisting, "No mommy, NO! Only daddy!" Or she pushed me away when I tried to tuck her in at night, me desperately tugging at the corners of her blanket, her shaking her head side to side with hands balled up into angry little fists. I wanted her to love how our family had grown, adore her brother the way I had mine.
In childhood, my brother was a year older, so he gave me the lowdown on upcoming classes: the history teacher is cool, try to get into his class; watch out for that AP trig lady, she’s tough. Of biology class he warned, “The dissection was cool for me, but you wouldn’t like it.” He was right, and I could see how he would have enjoyed it; he loved taking things apart, examining their insides, reassembling them. At home, it was computers, cars, and even the toaster once. I pictured him slicing open the frog’s belly, retrieving its slimy guts, inspecting how they fit together like a circuit board. Taking his advice, I persuaded my mother to send a note to school that fall during registration: I request that my daughter be exempt from dissection activities due to a weak stomach, she wrote.
Before my son was born, I had wondered how it was possible for a parent to love two children equally. I wondered how my mother had done it. But I found that the problem was not that I didn’t have enough love for them both, but that I didn’t know how to divvy it up. I found myself desperately trying to figure out how I could love them both at the same time, in the same body. How could I merge these two lives together, and instead of being my daughter's mother and my son's mother, be mother to both of them at once? How could these two conflicting identities join forces together, become a supermom of two?
I found myself wishing I could physically sever myself into two mothers, the images of my dissection flashing under my fluttering eyelids as I struggled to stay awake for the baby’s late-night feedings. I would envision the scalpel’s incision across the top of my left arm, a clean carving in a cautious circular motion. The arm would go to my son, so that I could carry him. A surgical knife would see-saw over flesh to carve out a hip for propping my toddler, the jagged back-and-forth of the metal edges causing bone fragments to splinter off. Breasts would go to the younger babe, milk ducts and engorged orbs and all. My brown eyes would get separated, carefully pulled out of sockets with forceps: one to keep tabs on the toddler climbing over the back of the couch, and the other for making sure the baby is still breathing when his swaddled body appears motionless at night. Organs laid out on aluminum trays, forceps and scalpels, needles and scissors.
Even our new baby monitor, which we had upgraded to upon our son’s arrival, rated as the top choice for parents of two, couldn’t display both children at once. Instead, it cycled between the two children’s rooms in fifteen-second intervals. First, a glimpse at the toddler bed, adorned in twinkle lights and white fabric roses, my daughter’s head resting on a rainbow-patterned pillowcase. Fifteen seconds later, the view cycled to my son’s crib, the whales and sailboats of the hanging mobile in view. The monitor developers had also decided that one couldn’t keep eyes on both children at the same time, that a mother would need to choose which child to watch. But I wanted a life of picture-in-picture, a mosaic of the little bodies I tended to, a collage of my heart’s anxieties.
I kept replaying the dissection scenes over in my mind, ranking my body parts in terms of their efficacy in mothering my children: toes and hair were practically useless, but the breasts were of considerable value, the torso only necessary for that skin-to-skin contact the baby coveted. Perhaps imagining my body sectioned off into tangible parts was an easier concept for me to process than the notion of separating my love for my children. I could not isolate the love into buckets, apportioning some here for the boy and some there for the girl. Its existence was whole, equal towards both and all-consuming of me.
My body itself felt separate from me in those first few weeks, as if it was another child under my care, another body to tend to. My husband set reminders on his phone for my various medications and when the tinny bells chimed, he would fetch me the appropriate pills and a glass of water and I would feed my body. Bathroom trips were lengthy endeavors involving pads and disposable mesh underwear and witch hazel and some kind of aerosol spray. I tended to the parts the way an anatomy student tends to a corpse: gentle patting, patient preparation. To express those bodily functions was a chore, but a chore quickly pushed to the side as I tended to a cry or a whine or a tantrum from another being. My body didn’t scream for me the way the children’s bodies did, so I neglected it.
My body was under duress with all the new tasks suddenly required of it. My back was strained from leaning forward while cradling my babe’s head as he nursed, and when I was up, I was leaning over for diaper changes, or bending down to pick up my toddler’s blocks so she wouldn't trip on them. The movements of a mother are unnatural until they are natural, and then we are super-beings, swinging our legs over baby gates like Olympic track runners and swooping toddlers onto hips as we cook dinners for four.
I took the baby regularly for checkups with his new physician: they monitored his breathing, the fluid in his eyes, the changing texture of his skin. But of the postpartum mother? There was no follow-up until six weeks postpartum, and even then, the office’s schedule was so packed that I had to wait several weeks more. In pregnancy, mothers are made to feel like specimens, often: swollen legs splayed out like a frog’s, bare feet tethered to stirrups stretching past the edge of the examination table, cold jelly squirted from a nondescript tube onto the skin of the belly to magnify the sound waves of the ultrasound. What lies beneath the flesh, they ponder, a digital dissection: there are the fetus’s legs, the arms, bones of the ribs, and ah, a heartbeat. They prod, they probe, they measure, they listen to the mother’s body. In the postpartum period, we are abandoned like the tadpole.
Several weeks into my dual role as mother of two, my body finally spoke. In the midst of an evening of cluster feeding my ravenous newborn, I heard my toddler cry out for me. As of late, she had only been summoning my husband in her midnight panicked state, but this time, she wanted Mommy. With my other baby clutched to my breast, I raced down the hall, cradling his head in one hand and his bottom in the other. But at the doorway, my foot and ankle seemed to separate, the way I had dreamt they might, foot becoming a separate being from leg. Had I dreamt my body into its own breaking?
My husband found us there, me and the baby crying on the hardwood floor planks, my daughter standing over us, more scared of her mother than of her night terrors. Perhaps this body didn’t need to be dissected, I thought. Perhaps it needed to be sewn back together.
The next morning, I took the baby for a walk in the stroller even though I had said the path in the neighborhood was too steep. When I nursed him, I tossed my phone aside in favor of a fresh book from my to-be-read pile and fed my brain with something other than calculating what time the baby needed to nurse again. When he fell asleep, I took a shower that lasted longer than five minutes. That afternoon, I called my best friend while I carried him in my baby wrap and talked about nothing and everything. I called the doctor’s office and demanded that I be seen sooner, that my postpartum body was just as in need of inspection as their influx of pregnant ones.
And when my daughter came crashing through the door after daycare, it was as if she could see that my energy had shifted, my body had morphed amphibious. I was still tired, of course; I was still a mother. But I was a little more nourished, a little more sane, a little more me. And by filling my body with what it thirsted for, I had opened up more space within. My body had expanded, making room for that extra bit of love I now had as a mother of two. I could swallow my babies whole, breathe their life in and out through my skin.