Before I’d even had the chance to press the down button, I heard the cables grinding in the shaft, lifting the elevator to my floor. Inside I heard the hungry squalling of my newborn son, twelve hours old. I pressed the button then, stabbed it really, multiple times, hurrying the doors to open. Finally they did, and the nurse looked surprised to see me.
‘On your way down, were you?’
Next to her, in his roller-crib, my son was crying.
‘Yes. I couldn’t sleep.’
I think at that point our wristbands were checked and cross-checked to make sure we belonged to each other, but it’s hard to recall. After all, it was about 5am. I pushed Riley back into our room, put him on my breast, and cried myself. Not just for the horrendous labour – although that was a factor – but because already I could sense something was… off. I was agitated and feeling guilty that I’d requested he be taken to the nursery. Just for a while, so I could sleep. But the sleep never came and instead I was alone in a dimmed room feeling lonely.
My colostrum was not enough – in birthing a big baby it was normal for them to be hungrier, I was told. Only with the occasional supplement of formula was he satisfied and eventually discharged at a heavier weight than his birth one. We went home and he thrived on my milk once it came in, but the ‘off’ feeling worsened, deepened, and it sickens me to admit that when I look at some of the photos of those early months, I can only recall fragments and feelings. I felt absent in my own life. Not many things come back to me as distinctly as the memory of putting one foot out of the bed, then the other, and padding along a corridor to two silver doors and the sound of my present and future being returned to me, his cries echoing inside the elevator.
Here he comes, I thought.
Here he comes.
My dear son, four months after you were born I was referred to counsellor care. She came to our house to talk me through my feelings of guilt and despondency triggered by my postpartum anxiety attacks.
‘I’ll suffer through until he’s five, I suppose, and he’s ready for school,’ I said. ‘Then I… can think of what happens next.’
She leaned over and said to me very slowly, ‘Karen, five years is a long time.’
She was right.
And she was wrong.
Happy fifth birthday, Riley. I can’t take back those early in absentia days, not that I hope you (or your sister) even remember them, but I want you to know you’ve coloured our lives in ways you could never imagine.
I love you.