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The Secret of Motherhood

Birth May Come Naturally, Sometimes Unexpectedly, but Nurturing Must Be Learned

January 25, 1998|SUSAN STRAIGHT | Susan Straight last wrote for the magazine on the neighborhood children who gather at her house

A neighbor came to my door last week looking for clothes for a newborn. I am used to this, since my daughters are now 2, 6 and 8. These clothes were for a boy, my neighbor explained, and the mother didn't care if they were pink. She didn't care because she had nothing. She had no idea she was even pregnant until she lay down on the living room floor during a Sunday family gathering and gave birth.

According to my neighbor, this girl was 19, newly married to the neighbor's relative. She'd been raised in an abusive home and then in various foster homes, and either no one had ever explained the facts of life to her or she hadn't understood. No one in her new extended family had noticed her slight weight gain, they said. When she lay on the floor, they were shocked. The girl delivered the baby just as the EMTs summoned by the family arrived, and they transported her to the hospital, where she then delivered the placenta. The hospital staff was incredulous. This is the age, after all, of hundreds of books about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. The girl didn't have a single infant T-shirt, didn't understand the umbilical cord. She didn't even have a car seat to transport the baby home.

When my neighbor left, I was so unnerved that I immediately began sorting through my youngest daughter's clothes. Rosette had worn mostly hand-me-downs, as had my other two girls. I had an entire network of women who lived around me, who helped me with the questions and fears and problems of keeping a newborn child alive and well and not crying every minute of the day and night.

And it was still hard, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. When I had my first baby, Gaila, at the hospital three blocks from where I live, I was 28 years old and I'd been planning her for a while. I'd read everything. I'd talked to everyone, including friends and my nurse practitioner, a no-nonsense woman from Panama whose advice always comforted me, if only briefly. "Don't let anyone tell you it won't hurt. It will. Always does. And then it's over, and the baby's here, and that's that." The last months of pregnancy were scary and uncomfortable, of course, labor was frightening, of course, and then the really difficult work began.

I came home from the hospital 12 hours after Gaila was born. She fell asleep for two days, wouldn't eat, and I thought my chest would literally explode. Crying, I told my husband he'd have to clean up the resulting blood and milk. Crying, I called the hospital, where a nurse told me to flick the baby's feet hard with my fingers and sprinkle cold water on her face. We did that, and her anguished cries melted into mine. Then she went back to sleep. Finally, a friend came by with dinner and saw me sobbing. She brought over her breast pump, something I'd missed in the literature, something my mother had never seen.

Now I gathered up tiny T-shirts and newborn sleepers and put them into a shopping bag. I was sad to see some of those little pajamas go, with their animals and snaps and sleeves the size of a large finger. But I didn't need them anymore, and this new mother did. I packed Rosette's educational-type blanket, with the mirrors and rattles, and some bibs and even a Snugli someone had given me for Delphine, my second daughter. I never used it, just held my babies in my arms when we walked up and down the sidewalks in our neighborhood. I still hold my girls, touch them all the time, and then I thought: When they are teenagers, will they ever keep themselves from me so well that I won't know they're pregnant?

I can't imagine it. But all over the country, teenage girls have given birth secretly and then abandoned their babies, or even killed them. Last year, a 17-year-old girl alone in her house in a city adjacent to mine gave birth to a girl in her bedroom. She thought the newborn was dead. She wrapped it in towels and put it under the family car in the garage. When her brothers came home and heard mewling, they found not a cat but a baby.

The girl was arrested, kept in jail for three days without a shower or a postpartum doctor visit, vilified and questioned. I read all this in the newspaper. I wondered why I saw no mention of the baby's father. I wondered how no one could have noticed another life inside her. You can't disguise late pregnancy by saying you had a big lunch. I hope my daughters won't want to hide anything that serious from me, that they won't be able to. I'm the kind of mother who knows everything they've eaten from the way their breath smells, who knows when they've been to someone's house where cigarettes are smoked, who knows if they've scratched their mosquito bites too much.

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