Like a Mother



Published 6:30, Aug. 2, 2023

Émile said it was the easiest birth he’d ever seen. “She just shot right out!” he said, and he punctuated the statement by slapping his hands against the steering wheel.

We were taking Pearl to meet Émile’s friends who also had a baby, only their baby was older; he was already being measured in excessive months. Fourteen months? There’s a whole year in there. Just say one.

“How many of those things have you seen, anyway?” I said.

“Two or three,” he said. “Once in health class in grade school, and once I watched one online out of curiosity.”

“And what about the ‘or three’?” I said.

“Can’t remember,” he said, and he lifted his chin to look at Pearl in the rear-view mirror. I liked the way Émile looked at Pearl, like she was the most important person on earth, even though I was a little nostalgic for when he looked at me that way. I couldn’t complain, though. Being looked at by Émile like I was the second most important person on earth was a miracle too.

I also loved how often Émile looked at Pearl. But sometimes I did wonder if checking on her so much meant that he wasn’t watching the road. Proactive, not reactive, he’d taught me when he was teaching me how to drive. Since Pearl’s arrival, he’d become a little reactive, flinching each time he caught a glimpse of movement in his peripherals, flipping other drivers the bird and saying, “The sign says ‘Baby on Board,’ can’t you read?” I worried he might become transfixed by Pearl one day and get into a crash and kill us all. It was perhaps a warning sign of psychopathy that I would even think the words kill us all about my family.

Illustration of a green car under a sun and cloud

Family still felt funny when I said it. Émile and I never called ourselves a family when it was just us two, even though, according to the law, that’s what we were. We always just said us. Now there was Pearl, and I was two people: a wife and a mother. I hadn’t figured out yet how to just be me again.

Émile was still Émile, and sometimes I was envious of him for that reason. He always did his half of everything around the house—I don’t mean it like that. But I envied him for having the choice. Fatherhood was an opt-in situation in some ways. If he decided to be a worse man, he could spend every night at the bar. I, on the other hand, had to get out of bed slowly each morning, or else I felt like my organs might all fall out through my vagina.

But that wasn’t his fault! The hormones make me dramatic. The doula told me not to even think about sex until I felt good and ready.

“If he wants it, he wants it,” she said. “That’s his burden to bear.” I did feel good and ready in my brain, but my body was wide open and raw. I wondered if I only felt I wanted it because I was worried Émile would stop thinking of me in that way if we didn’t start doing it again soon. If I thought too hard about it, I could feel a pain deep in my abdomen. It was like something had taken a big bite out of me. When I looked at Pearl, it was hard to believe she’d been such a violence against my body. She was so sweet smelling and pure. Plus, she was a near-silent baby. We’d only known her for three weeks, but so far, she was uncannily silent. She just lay around all day and looked out at the world with big bug eyes. If I got up close and kissed her cheek, sometimes she would make a small sound like a sigh. “I love you, P,” I would say when I kissed her. I kissed her all the time. I even told myself to resist one out of three times I wanted to kiss her so I wouldn’t go overboard. I didn’t want her to be coddled and develop a complex later in life.

“Don’t call her pee,” Émile said. “It might stick.”

In the mornings, I liked to sit at the kitchen table with Pearl against my chest and tell her things I’d learned online. The sleep deprivation made it impossible for me to work or write, so instead, I spent a lot of time researching whatever came to mind. Most recently, I read about a shade of blue discovered at Oregon State University in 2009.

“It’s called YInMn Blue,” I told Pearl. “It’s the first new blue discovered in the last two centuries. The name comes from, um, let me think. Something, something, something, and manganese.” Then I kissed her cheek, and she sighed.

Émile’s friends were instructors at the same polytechnic institute where I worked. I didn’t know them until Émile introduced us, because they worked in science and I worked for the literary magazine in the creative writing department. Most days, I didn’t leave my office until it was time to go home.

I felt melancholic thinking about my office at the college. It seemed like by the time I was ready to go back to work, the whole place wouldn’t even be there anymore. Émile offered to go on parental leave as soon as I felt able to work again, but it just didn’t make sense due to the difference in our salaries. Émile got tenure at the institution not long before we found out I was pregnant. We tried to celebrate three weekends in a row, but every time we sat down for dinner, I’d puke. Still, it was an exciting development for him. Mine was what my father called a career of passion. It’s true I loved the job, but now I loved Pearl more than anything. Well, I loved Pearl and Émile exactly the same. It worried me, even, the fact that that was true. I knew Émile loved Pearl a little bit more than he loved me, which I thought was definitely the right thing. I just couldn’t pick one.

I imagined, with each feeding, that I might become less of a mother and more of my old self.

Émile had a lot of love in his heart, and I didn’t need to be the only recipient of it. That’s why they promoted him so early in his career, because he cared about every student. All of them! One semester, an undergraduate student neglected to show up to lecture once, and on the last day of class, she emailed Émile and said that she was sorry but her anxiety had gotten the best of her.

“What do I do?” he said. He wondered this the whole drive home from his office, all the way through dinner, and so on. It kept him up at night. “I can’t fail her,” he said.

Throughout my pregnancy, my feelings for Émile changed in a way I couldn’t explain to him. It wasn’t any less or any more. “It’s just different,” I told him. “Like I’d strangle anyone who made you feel any kind of bad way.”

“You’ve always said that!” he said. “But now for real,” I insisted. “Like hands around throat.”

Once I met Pearl, I realized that was the way I loved Émile: like a mother. I learned on the internet that breastfeeding can burn up to 700 calories a day. Women reported feeling their stomachs shrink a little more each time their babies fed. I imagined, with each feeding, that I might become less of a mother and more of my old self. But when I saw the purple marks where my skin had stretched and the size of my bloated and painful breasts, I knew that to be a mother once was to always be a mother. Anyway, I didn’t want to go back. Not all the way. When I saw photographs of my old self, with bags under my eyes and a rib cage like a greyhound’s, I felt the same as when I saw photographs of my mother. Both of those people were dead.

The friends were Lucas and Marina. They lived in a townhouse just outside of the city with their baby and Marina’s mother, Tatiana. Marina’s father had died the very same day her baby was born, and that’s when her mother had moved in with her. Marina wrote a very beautiful announcement about the death and about the birth and posted it on Facebook. Émile and I read it over breakfast one morning, and we were both brought to tears. I think we each were thinking about our own fathers. Although they were complicated men, we didn’t want to lose them. Especially not now, with a new woman we wanted to introduce to them. (Émile and I love to call Pearl a woman. It never fails to make us laugh.) In a way, I felt, we were giving them both another shot at being good dads.

Marina’s mother answered the door with the baby on her hip. His name was Mordecai, after Mordecai Richler. It seemed funny to me to name a baby after a famous misogynist, but perhaps not everyone saw it that way. Mordecai was fourteen months old, and he looked more like a child than a baby. Looking down at Pearl in my arms, I couldn’t believe her size. She was like a little lima bean.

“Come in, come in,” said the mother. She turned swiftly, and Mordecai’s head bobbed. He watched me follow the woman into the kitchen, where Lucas and Marina were setting a small round table. Between their two seats was a high chair with old dried food spills on the tabletop. I promised myself then that I would never let Pearl’s high chair get like that, but I felt guilty for judging another mother, and I knew that that’s probably exactly how Pearl’s would end up looking. At the centre of the table was a big scalloped casserole dish that had some sort of pasta with broiled cheese and bread crumbs. All around the dish, like orbiting moons, were bowls of limp green vegetables, whipped mashed potatoes, sliced French bread. A small saucer of jam, one of butter, one of pitted green olives. On the kitchen counter by the sink: a German chocolate cake. There was so much food. I knew with certainty I wouldn’t be eating any of it.

Illustration of four wooden chairs around a table with empty drinking glasses on top.

We were seated and served in a whirlwind. Mordecai whined and cried and hit his hands on the table. Marina looked at him the way a person looks at a painting in a gallery. I tried not to look at him at all for fear of betraying my inability to care about any child but my own.

“How’s it been?” said Lucas, loudly, to speak over the sounds of his son.

“Oh, you know,” said Émile.

Marina went to the kitchen and wrestled with her breast pumps. Mordecai’s increasing volume was causing her to hurry, which was unfortunately slowing down the process of sorting out the tubes.

In my adolescence, I would sometimes touch myself and think about a device similar to the breast pump, but somehow sinister and invented by aliens. I was always being abducted in the fantasies, I should clarify. The alien breast-pumping machines would be attached to my breasts and would pump forcefully until I began lactating, and I guess the aliens were harvesting the milk or something. I never got further than the lactation, and then if I hadn’t finished yet, I would more or less start the fantasy over.

“Do you pump?” said Marina, and I worried she’d been reading my mind. I shook my head.

“I’ve been thinking it might be a good idea,” said Émile.

“Oh yeah?” Midway through saying this, Marina lifted up her shirt. Of course, it was not in that way, but still I felt a twinge of aggression. You’re just going to show him your tits? I thought.

“Émile is only saying that because he’s a saint,” I said. I took two slices of bread from the dish and buttered them and placed them on my plate. “So he can feed Pearl while I go about my day.”

“Anyone should be able to go about their day,” he said, and everyone laughed at his display of saintliness. The joke was that he was playing it up and I was playing it up when I said what I said. Of course, I do think highly of him in earnest.

Marina turned on the pump, and it started to make a terrible noise.

Marina and Lucas’s was such a baby house. Our house never felt like this one with its plastic bins in pastel colours piled with plush animals and all of the small strange baby accessories on every surface.

“Save me some,” said Lucas.

Marina laughed.

“We do that too!” I said, turning to Marina, whose top was rolled up under her shoulders. She had a pump on each breast.

“What?” she said.

“The milk!” I said. “We drink it. We even made lattes.”

Illustration of a silver fork, knife, and spoon

The metal ladle cut through the broiled surface of the casserole with a crisp sound like a boot through snow. I spooned a large portion onto my plate, and on top of that, I piled some arugula salad.

“What?” said Lucas.

“We made breast milk lattes,” I said.

Émile placed his hand very gently over mine, which in his language meant shut the fuck up.

Interacting with the food was making me feel embarrassed, and I hoped no one would see the mess on my plate. It was the wrong thing to do to keep talking, but I would rather be seen as a nuisance than a glutton. “Once we each ate a strand of the other’s hair,” I said. “Not Pearl’s, just each other’s. And when we first got together—well, this is how we got together, I guess I should say—we cut our hands and shook them. Like blood brothers.”

“Blood brothers,” said Lucas.

“A blood pact!” I said.

Marina’s mother looked at the baby like he might hear me and become upset by all of the blood talk. Marina came over and scooped him up and placed a bottle in his mouth. “Sorry,” I said. “Enough about all that!” I pierced the casserole with my fork and then lay the fork down on my plate.

Pearl struggled against my chest. I stroked one of her fat little arms, at the place where her elbow bent, where it was fattest. I loved all of Pearl’s fat. She had fat arms and fat legs and a fat little torso. Her face was fat and round like there was dough proofing around her features. She was stunning.

Marina very seamlessly changed the subject from the kitchen: “We found that our natural rhythm came back once he hit six months.”

Lucas’s mouth was full of food. He made a noise and nodded, with one finger in front of his mouth. This was a way of reserving his place in the conversation. We waited for him to finish.

He swallowed and said, “Once we could turn around and not worry he’d be gone when we turned back.”

“I don’t think I’ve turned around in three weeks,” said Émile, and everyone laughed. Émile was lucky to be occupying this role in the room. Or maybe he earned it by being normal and funny and not opening his big mouth all the time.

“Please,” said Marina’s mother. “Eat.”

Lucas and Émile picked up their forks. It was like Marina’s mother—Tatiana, forgive me—had inserted their batteries.

Lucas was explaining to Émile an experiment he was doing at work involving hunger and SSRIs in rats. Both Lucas and Marina regularly killed rats at work—this was how Émile had first explained them to me. “We do too,” I’d said, trying to make some sort of clever comment on authorship. Character as lab rat, you know. Émile had said nothing and checked on Pearl.

My plate was full. Domed, like a face looking up at me. Hot and oily and smelling of herbs and spices and the hormonal twinge of cheese. Some evil entity wanted me to let it inside of me where it could fill in all of my hollow parts and stretch me out. I moved some pieces of arugula around with my fork. The others were at least halfway through their meals—I’d never catch up. There was nothing I hated more than eating after somebody else had already finished. I hated eating to begin with, and I hated it even more in the presence of others. But eating alone in the presence of others? Complete horseshit.

I looked down at the top of Pearl’s head and felt remorse. Telepathically, I sent her an apology for her having chosen this planet, this city, this family, with a mother who hides bites of food in her napkin and calls things horseshit. I sent Pearl a lot of telepathic apologies. At night, while falling asleep, I would compose a sorry list in my mind and send it to her mind. E.g.: I’m sorry I became a writer and not a teacher or a social worker or some other profession that breeds kindness; I’m sorry I didn’t start to get better earlier so I’d be more prepared for you; I’m sorry you might grow up and get my nose, or the disease in my brain, or both. I didn’t want to say the sorry lists to Pearl out loud because I didn’t want her to grow up in a melancholic household. I tried to be joyful on the outside and keep the melancholy to the telepathic channels.

A certain amount of compassion is given to new mothers no matter their displays of instability.

One year had passed since the wedding and one year since I started to gain weight. There was a whole new wardrobe in the closet, all cotton dresses and linen slacks and big knit sweaters and sweatpants with elastic waists. Then I got pregnant. Who knows how I would have handled the weight gain if it hadn’t been for anyone. It seemed easy to imagine gaining weight for the baby and then losing it all and being my old self again.

I felt I could do anything for Pearl—even eat. But then here I was with a plate of untouched food.

“Congratulations, by the way,” said Lucas to Émile.

“On what?” said Tatiana. Thoughtfully, she placed an olive in her mouth. She was fairly slim, the mother. Could I be that way? Could I eat the olive and still be slim?

“Tenure!” said Marina.

“What does that mean?” Another olive. Mesmerizing.

“It means he can’t get fired,” said Lucas.

Émile said, “That’s not true,” in a very kind voice, to Tatiana.

“I’m going to go change her,” I said to Émile, hoping he wouldn’t look at my plate. Perhaps enough time had gone by that he stopped watching me the way he used to. “And maybe feed her too.”

I knew that restricting food would affect my milk supply. Pearl’s milk supply. That was all she ate! If I didn’t eat, she didn’t eat. Imagining my milk drying up because I was starving again made me want to kill myself. But I couldn’t kill myself because I had to protect Pearl for as long as I lived and I had to be a good wife to Émile and try to make him happy. I don’t mean make. I mean do my best and hope for the best. Yadda yadda.

Standing over the table gave me a view of all of the food at once. It was breathtaking in its beauty. Marina and Lucas and Marina’s mother had put all of it together. They’d sliced the bread, shaved the butter into curls, steamed vegetables, grated cheese, baked a cake! For Christ’s sake.

Pearl’s fat little arms were straining toward my plate. I was holding her face out so she could take in the beauty of the spread. I lifted a slice of buttered bread and let her smell it. Who knows if she smelled it or cared. To her, it was just another object in the room. So I ate it.

Then I took Pearl into the bathroom and had a brief cry. I turned so I wouldn’t accidentally confront my reflection in the mirror. So much food had gone into my body in twelve months. I couldn’t help but feel it all in there, like it just kept piling up. Every day, every meal. Even if I wanted to go back, how would I ever get there? It seemed like I could fast for the rest of my life and, at eighty years old, I’d still be working off a risotto from last week. It was obvious, I felt when I came out, that I’d been crying in the bathroom. No one said a thing for a moment. A certain amount of compassion is given to new mothers no matter their displays of instability. Lucas smiled at me the way he must have smiled at Marina when she acted unstable. Something that happens to husbands when they become fathers is they start treating all women like wives. It’s good, I think, because when they’re just husbands, they treat women like delicious French pastries.

I was starving. My apologies to the men of the world—the French pastry thing came out of my own desire.

“If you want some privacy,” said Marina’s mother, “you can feed her on the balcony.” “Thank you,” I said. It was relieving not to have to take part in any more of the conversation. I did like hearing about the hungry rats, but I knew when it came time for me to contribute, I’d mess things up again.

It was a beautiful day in early September. The leaves hadn’t turned yet, but they would soon. Lucas and Marina’s balcony was on the first floor, elevated a foot or so off the ground. It overlooked a courtyard where there was a garden and a bench and a small bird bath. Living in that townhouse, overlooking that courtyard, eating olives and buttered bread, what more could a person want?

With Pearl on my breast and the smell of the change of the seasons, it seemed everything might be all right.

I looked in through the French doors and saw Émile and Lucas and Marina and Tatiana eating and talking. That was what it was all about, I thought.

I hadn’t noticed a man on the neighbouring balcony, smoking a cigarette. He was sitting in a sagging canvas folding chair with his legs spread open, and he was looking at my bare breast. The other was covered by Pearl, who was having a meal. I knew if I looked back at the man, in the eye, he would pretend not to have been looking at me. But I was too shy. “Drink it in,” I said. 

Fawn Parker
Fawn Parker is the author of five books, including the Giller Prize–nominated What We Both Know, the forthcoming Hi, It’s Me, and her debut poetry collection Soft Inheritance. She is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of New Brunswick.
Jon Klassen
Jon Klassen is an award-winning writer and illustrator of children’s books, including This Is Not My Hat and The Rock from the Sky. His new book, The Skull, came out in July.