By Jordana Jacobs
There was a stretcher waiting for me, the freakin’ brake already disengaged, I’m sure. The OB hovered over me, practically breathing up my vulva, sharpening his cesarean scalpel. The baby’s blood pressure was falling. No longer Ms. Nice-Guy, the midwife blocked him with her hippy little body, yelling, “Push!” in my face. I looked at my husband. He was texting. The spirit to push swirled out of my body like the soul of a heaven-bound cartoon character.
“This is it,” the midwife said, “push her out now or we are off to the OR.” I rallied. Strapped one on, as the girls used to say. Pushed my brain into my uterus, pushed my husband out of the frame, pushed so hard, I practically turned my body inside out like a bloody glove.
I had expected to hear a wail. It was explained to me later that all they saw after that final push was an umbilical cord stretched to nowhere. “What’s going on?” I asked. No answer. The midwife seized the end of the umbilical cord in her latex-gloved hand. “There’s something here,” she said. She cut the cord and hovered with the team over a small metal table, out of view.
The silence after the decisive battle, that’s how long I waited, holding my breath in my plundered body, imagining my baby girl, all blue.
It came. The wail.
“You have a healthy baby! Seven pounds, three ounces.” The midwife whispered hoarsely, a tear trickling out of the corner of her eye, which I’d understand better if this were her first rodeo. She cradled the baby in one hand and placed her on my chest. I looked down. Where is she?
“Your baby seems to be healthy in every way,” explained the obstetrician, to whom the midwife, standing in the corner, sobbing, now deferred. “Only she has a very rare condition, which she could very well outgrow. The cells of your child’s body are ocularly indiscernible. Vapourillious Dysplasia: VP. She is invisible.”
“She’s invisible,” I repeated, cupping the little head in my hand like it was an heirloom tomato.
“Of course, this will make caring for her considerably more complicated. However, all of her vitals look good. Her apgar is normal. You heard it yourself–she has a healthy wail.”
My husband and I looked at each other for the first time. “Is this some kind of fucking prank?” he said.
“We will monitor her carefully for a couple of days. I’m calling in a team to assess her. Do you mind if I bring a few residents into the room? They will be interested–”
From the corner, the midwife interrupted, “No tourists.”
I felt a light bobbing at my chest and adjusted the baby’s head until I could feel her warm little lips brush my nipple and clamp on, surprisingly hard. “She’s nursing,” I said, smiling for the first time as a mother.
Everyone warns you about the first few days. “Get some sleep while you can!” they say, as if sleep can be banked. They humble-brag about deprivation: “I didn’t shower for the first two weeks!” They give you advice: “Treasure every moment. It goes by so fast!” They line up like ants at a picnic to ask you your birth story. They bring food, though, and with the baby sucking all the calories out of you, you are starving.
No one is prepared for an invisible baby. Friends visit once, even try to help swaddle, which is harrowing. Don’t suffocate her! After that, they send texts–Thinking of you!— and vomit emojis at you. You get flowers, of all things.
The baby smells like yeast, cloves, and milky magic. You take a whiff. As the dopamine or whatever positive-vibes mama-juice is coursing through you recedes, you sniff another hit. Her little chestnut-sized hand curls around your finger. Friends and medical staff prepared you so much for postpartum depression that you are surprised by your need to sacrifice, find a railroad track to lay yourself down upon, take a bullet, nurse all day and night on a full bladder and a crook in your neck, submit meekly to your husband at the start of an argument for the sake of peace.
“Come here!” my husband calls from the kitchen.
“I can’t. I’m giving the baby a bath.”
“Just for a minute.”
“Are you crazy! She could drown.”
“Don’t be a drama queen.”
There isn’t much to wash. Getting under the folds of her neck is the hardest part. They call it milk neck or neck cheese, the little black lentils of dirt that bead up in the creases. This, the waste in her diapers, spit-up, and the blackened umbilical cord that fell off early in the second week are the only visible evidence of my baby. I almost want to collect them, put them in a keepsake box.
I walk into the kitchen with the baby, her body wrapped in a small towel.
“Look at this,” my husband says as he opens the freezer. A bag of my pumped milk had overturned, spilled onto the frozen peas and carrots. All that 3 am pumping, suction cups tugging monotonously at my overworked nipples, wasted. “You need to be more careful.”
“You are absolutely right.”
I interview nannies. Some make the sign of the cross and look to heaven. Some sit, hands in their laps; politely but obviously playing interview charades. One wrote out the name of an osteopath but didn’t specify if it was for me or the baby. They all seemed nice enough except the one who wordlessly picked up her bag and let herself out the door.
I called my boss and told him I wouldn’t be returning. I pushed my blazers and pencil skirts to the back of the closet and signed up for a class called BYOB: Bonding with Your Own Baby.
Including me, there were a bunch of moms, one dad, one nanny, and Britt, the teacher, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the rug. Brushing her flame-red hair off her face, Britt silently beamed at us each in turn until we held eye contact for a sufficiently awkward period of time. She sat better than the rest of us: years at an ashram, probably. When the ritual was over, Britt broke the silence with hushed tones. “I’d like you to share a Wonder Moment from the past week,” she said in a soothing, suicide prevention hotline voice.
Playing with their baby’s little hands or smoothing the curls on their heads, the moms told the group about first smiles–it was probably gas–and laughed self-deprecatingly. Smiling nervously, the nanny shook her head and stared down at her lap for the remainder of the session. The dad discovered that his daughter, a baby with a shock of white-blonde hair, napped most soundly in loud bars. Game-changer. After each report, Britt put her hands together in front of her chest. Namaste.
When it was my turn, I took inventory of the week. There was my being able to walk, finally, at a normal pace without retearing my episiotomy stitches. I shared that I was excited to stream soap operas from my childhood while nursing. I waited for my Namaste. Instead, Britt stared at me intently. “She’s already invisible,” she finally said, shaking her head in a way only I could see.
I tried nursing the attachment parenting way. I gently spread my fingers over my baby’s face to locate the light flutter of lashes and I stared at that spot, smiling, scrunching up my nose, making big eyes. I’m gonna eat you, my little veal chop! I stared through her to the crook of my arm and made up riddles of love until I could feel her moist little mouth slip off my nipple in sleep. Protecting her from an oncoming train would be over and done with more quickly. Soon, I gave up the pretense and put on my soaps. I’m not proud to admit it, but sometimes, often, after a few hours of watching evil long-lost twins go in and out of amnesiac states, I’d forget my baby was there.
Trying again at being a woman of the world and not a woman ignoring her already invisible baby, I found Sandy’s name on a Brooklyn parenting listserv.
Amazing nanny. Sandy has been with us for four years and has become a part of our family. It breaks our hearts to let her go. 25+ years’ experience.
When I opened the door, Sandy was already mid-greeting, her smile in full bloom. Below the black lustrous hair of a teenager parted down the middle, she had the most wizened face I’d ever seen, including those old photos of Abraham Lincoln and Depression-Era Appalachians.
Inside the house, the baby wailed.
“Lunch!” Sandy exclaimed.
I scooped her up, settled down in the glider, unclipped my nursing bra and pulled the stretched-out collar of my shirt under my breast.
I nursed while Sandy and I took turns smiling at each other. She seemed happy to just sit across from me and the baby without speaking, occasionally nodding encouragement. I finally cleared my throat and asked questions like I was shopping at a flea market, prying into bins of old clip-on earrings and medals that have lost their honor, trying to find something useful. I collected a few facts: Sandy has lived in the United States for nearly 32 years and has worked with young children all that time, she’s about to become a grandmother, and she lives with her daughter, brother, and two nephews in Queens.
The baby’s lips detached. I felt her head turn. At that moment, Sandy reached over with fluttering, tickling fingers and accidentally poked my exposed breast.
Already reclining in the glider, there was nowhere for me to recoil to. Staring at my breast, Sandy spoke and cooed as if I weren’t there. I had to pee, but I didn’t feel I could interrupt. When Sandy reached out for another tickle, I was ready: I swerved. The wailing was higher pitched and more alarming than I’ve ever heard. Sandy must’ve poked the baby’s eye when I took my boob out of the line of fire.
I stood to indicate that the interview was over. Sandy hovered over me, concern pulling on her face, until, with hiccuping cries, the baby calmed.
Putting on her sweater to leave, Sandy said, “She looks like you.”
“Beautiful eyes,” Sandy said.
“You can see her?”
“Yes and no. Mostly yes,” Sandy said.
Sandy described her to me. My baby had fine light brown hair, grey-green eyes, a pink little mouth with a full lower lip, and squishy, rolling thighs.
I couldn’t get her out the door fast enough.
When the door was shut and I was sure Sandy was off the stoop, I put my baby on the bed and I kissed her head, eyes, nose, and belly over and over, a little harder than usual. I felt my tears streak her little body and I suppressed the howling and whimpering noises that could scare her. After a couple minutes, she began to fuss, so I swayed with her the way she likes, willing myself to see what Sandy saw. I brushed my cheek against her warm, tender skin, I breathed in her opiate milky smell, I rested my lips on the fine down of her scalp. I looked at us in the full-length mirror and saw what I always saw: a mime holding a baby.
Copyright Jacobs 2022