No one thinks of Rilke in the recovery room
I had two more electrodes stuck to my shins. I only noticed when I got in the bath. Covidien. The last time I’d seen this brand was also in the bath, a few months before, when I was checking Amazon on my phone to see if you could buy postpartum mesh underwear in bulk. I didn’t, but you can. Now I was in the bath because I’d been in the hospital. I’d been in the hospital because I’d fainted, something that has happened to me periodically my whole life—a vasovagal syncope. The vasovagal syncope was once explained to me after I came to in a dentist’s chair after a filling knocked me out, scaring the dentist as he dosed me up with novocaine, as a misfiring of the fight-or-flight response. It’s an explanation I’ve adopted myself. When a normal person fights or flies, I collapse: fainting for ten or twenty seconds, adrenaline shutting down my most basic responses to fear. I normally come to relatively well, a little dry-mouthed and flustered, but basically myself again. But this time, when I’d come to, my husband had said I seemed different, scared, wild. “I see worms!” I had said. Later, I qualified this to a resident, whose tiny, perfect gold hoops shone in his earlobes, whose fastidious good health rebuked me. I had seen maggots: a field of brown maggots, writhing around, like life in front of me.
When you’re having a baby, the women you know who have had babies all say that one part of it is difficult for everyone. The part that’s difficult, that’s what changes. A lot of people focus on birth, because birth is often very difficult. I had gathered those stories to me for a long time, long before I became pregnant for the first time, and I was sure that birth would be difficult for me: I had a bad back. I had a vasovagal syncope. I hated needles. I was anxious. But, it turned out that for me, getting pregnant was the difficult part. It took a lot of tries, and I had a lot of miscarriages, before I was able to carry my son to term. I came through those woods with a screaming, pink boy, Apgar 10, 8.5 pounds, no epidural. He was perfect, and I had had an easy birth. I was lucky. I’d come home from the hospital, tired but alert. I thought that after my miscarriages, I was home free. The rest would fall into place. It would be hard, but it would come to me, eventually.
I’d wafted through those first weeks, taking baths when I could, eating when someone brought me food, learning to feed my baby, learning to cradle his head when I picked him up, learning to shush him down to sleep. But he didn’t sleep. And I didn’t sleep, either. Over time, it soon became clear that it isn’t just one part that’s difficult. Everything is difficult.
In those early days, I noticed that when you take a bath when you’re lactating, the milk sometimes lets down. If you squeezed the breast above the water, you’d get a thin, purposeful stream, and could titrate the stream with pressure: thin, thick, thin, thick. Narrow parabolas spraying out to the tile or the shower curtain. But if you do the same thing below water, the stream puffs out into a milky cloud, drawing out from the nipple only to dissipate, gray and nebulous webs, into the cooling water. When I noticed this three days postpartum, the milky gray clouds still mixed with thin strings of blood in the bathwater, and I knew it was a metaphor. But I didn’t know for what.