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Mother, 1972

Faintly, automatically, through two open doors she registered the low murmurings from the baby’s bedroom across the hall. Pianissimo. Crescendo would soon follow. She must prevent him reaching fortissimo or even mezzo forte. Working hard to push upwards, out of the still dreamless sleep which had held her, like a deep-sea diver she broke free of the surface. Her husband lay quietly behind her, locked away in sleep. Shirley got out of bed, put on a dressing gown and went to feed Jonas. It was just after two in the morning.

She switched on the hall light and used its beam to find the switch on the little side lamp in Jonas’s room. Sudden bright lights, she had read somewhere, were very traumatic for a young baby fresh from the warm aromatic darkness of the womb. Jonas blinked and waved tiny pink paws. His mouth was moving. He reminded her of a hungry kitten.

Shirley picked him up. His white crocheted shawl, the proud gift of a school friend in the excitement following the birth, had loosened. She re-wrapped him against the February chill. There had been a hard frost when she and her husband had gone to bed four hours earlier and it still felt very cold. Their rented Edwardian mansion flat was redolent with faded splendour. It had never occurred to the landlord, in appearance and manner as old as his properties, to install central heating.  She switched on a small electric fire and sat down in the arm chair with Jonas.

Already she could feel anticipatory spurting in her enlarged, tight breasts. As she opened the top of her dressing gown  dark streaks of milk began to shoot down the front of her blue night dress. Holding Jonas on her lap with her left hand she used her free hand to lift her left breast clear of the damp fabric. It rested heavily and stiffly in her palm, pale and criss-crossed by a map of small hard bluish veins.  She lifted her son and carefully guided  the large brown nipple into Jonas’s eager  mouth.  He drew deeply and ecstatically  on it, this: his source of nourishment and security. Shirley settled back, the tension in her breast subsiding as the distending milk was sucked steadily away.

She looked at the suckling boy who was now the centre of her universe. Yet, only three weeks ago he’d been a condition not a person. The events of an early morning in late January had changed everything, her feelings, her relationship with her husband, her attitude to her parents and friends. It was as if she had woken one morning to find that she had been unaccountably transformed, like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis. She had gone to bed one Sunday night after listening to a jolly performance The Pirates of Penzance on LP records and eating a peanut butter sandwich for supper. The next day everything changed, permanently.

Of course she had prepared. For months she had knitted. She and her husband had redecorated  the spare room. Her father-in-law had repainted and restored the family cot and erected it in  loving readiness for his first grandchild. She had grown used to the novelty of  being at home after leaving her teaching job in November. Nothing, however, had or could show her how she herself would be permanently, irrevocably transmuted.

Each time she got up to attend to Jonas in the small hours was a miniature re-enactment of the day of his birth. As now she had awoken at about two. She felt the mildest of fluttering in her abdomen. It was hardly noticeable but it disturbed her.  Wide awake almost immediately – no slow pull out of sleepiness on this occasion – she got up, leaving her husband obliviously asleep. Was this it? What should she do? Nothing  dramatic was happening. Perhaps she would sit up for a while and monitor the situation. She made tea and sat, cat on what was left of her lap, hunched over the kitchen table and read The Forsyte Saga.  It seemed a vague and unreal possiblity that her life was about to be torn apart and remade.

At about four her husband appeared, his questioning face still dark with sleep. He had woken to find her place in bed empty. Anxious, loving, concerned, responsible but out of his depth, he wanted to put on hot water for the planned home delivery. Should he phone the midwife to alert her?  A very young man, he struggled bravely with the magnitude of the uniquely grown-up situation in which he found himself. The squeezing of Shirley’s womb was growing more urgent. As the last hours of the long winter night  slowly dissolved into cold grey dawn, Shirley was gasping in regular, seering pain, beyond reading, eating or even talking.

How innocent and foolish we were, the metamorphosed  Shirley wisely mused now as she shifted Jonas gently to her right breast which he began to drain steadily. The eighty year old building  sighed around her in the still darkness, protective of its occupants, resisting the icy cold outside. The baby, snugly solid and warm against her  body, sucked more slowly. Nearly satiated he was becoming drowsy. His mouth lost its grip as his eyes closed. Shirley lifted the sagging breast by placing her first and second fingers flat on either side of the softly wet nipple, now elongated by pulling. Softly, she brushed the child’s mouth with it, in invitation.  Aroused, he took it and  began gently to take a little more milk.

She had given him her breast for the first time within a few minutes of his birth on that extraordinary Monday morning. When the midwife had finally bustled into the flat it was too late for any of the primitive rituals with razors and syringes  which medical science usually forces upon women in labour. It was also too late for anaesthesia.  Shirley lay, naked from the waist down, writhing on the sheeted mattress of the single bed in the room she had so painstakingly got ready for the baby.  All the midwife really had to do was to encourage Shirley through  the final few tortured minutes of the delivery. Invaded by gigantic ragged waves of pain which shook her whole body and forced her to cry out in agony, Shirley, so calm in real life, felt, in the tiny corner of her mind with which she could still think, as if she were trapped in some appalling nightmare. ‘I can see the head,’  the midwife declared encouragingly, ‘Push as hard as you can now’. Shirley needed telling only once. She wanted more than anything else in the world at that moment to escape from the clutches of this pain. She flexed her supple young pelvic muscles and held on. The baby was violently and suddenly ejected in one slithery wailing rush.

It was over. The pain stopped. It was quiet. She relaxed. During the hours of anti-climax there followed washing, cups of tea, stitches, a late breakfast, phone calls and the first visitors. Shirley had a changed identity. She was now mother first and everything else second. Instantly, in less than twelve hours.

Now, three weeks later her youthful body felt almost healed.  Jonas, a smooth skinned and attractive baby even at birth was filling out and very healthy. His head fell back as he finished his feed. Shirley lifted him and stood up, yawning.  She held the fragrant, milky boy against her shoulder and tenderly rubbed his back. She waited until she had felt and heard a large belch jerk abruptly out of his small body. Then deftly with all the practised expertise of three weeks’ experience, she laid him face up on a coloured plastic changing mat. The mat was decorated with Beatrix Potter figures. How she had enjoyed the silliness of choosing it a few weeks before. It had seemed like a childish game of mothers and fathers then.  Holding Jonas with one hand she unpopped his sleeping suit and unpinned and lifted out a steaming  nappy. After cleaning his  tiny, hot, red bottom, bathing his little bud of a penis and wiping beneath his miniature scrotum  she quickly, folded and pinned a fresh dry white nappy in place. Odd that she had dreaded this part of being a mother for there was nothing to it. This child was a product of her own body. It was part of her. The umbilical cord couldn’t be severed by a midwife’s scissors. Looking after Jonas’s body and cleaning it was no more unpleasant than taking care of her own of which it was an extension.

There were rustles from the overgrown communal gardens at the front of the flats. Cats, hedgehogs and rats and foxes lived a few feet from the windows in this small rural patch of inner London. Even knowing this,  noises in the dead of night always made her feel ill at ease and very much alone apart from the sleepy Jonas. Then a sudden loud knock from the flat above assaulted the quiet. Shirley often heard this sound. A very elderly lady with poor eyesight lived upstairs. Only the day before Shirley had taken Jonas for a visit, a matter of inspection on the old lady’s part and of showing off her lovely son on Shirley’s. The old lady read  heavy large-print library books which habitually fell noisily off her bed in the small hours. Irrationally jumpy now, Shirley  cuddled Jonas more closely. Perhaps for once she would take him back with her into the bed she shared with her husband instead of putting him in his cot in another room.

She turned off the lights and slipped into the delicious heat of the double bed. Her feet and legs had grown cold in the three quarters of an hour that she had been up. Her husband, radiating warmth and dependability stirred, grunted and resettled in his sleep. Shirley, her empty breasts now lying slack and comfortable, settled on her back with her side pressed companionably against her man. He sleepily and protectively threw a relaxed arm across her.  In the crook of her left elbow Jonas slept as peacefully as his father. She lay awake in the frame of their bodies: the two males who had both occupied her body. The one penetrating her in passionate appetite; the other in a nine-month long occupancy and dependency. In their different ways both still relied on her body. She could satisfy them both.

Peacefully fulfilled in motherhood and marriage Shirley drifted off to sleep. It wouldn’t always be like this.

Susan Elkin


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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