I stare down at the screaming, pink creature in my arms, and I panic.
Panic is a maelstrom. It churns to life in your brain like a whirlpool, gaining speed as it funnels down into the rest of the body. Round and round it goes, causing your heart to race. Round and round twisting, knotting and sickening the stomach. Round and round, it hits your knees, weakening them before creating a cesspool in your toes. You curl up your toes, take a few deep breaths, and grab onto the life-preserving ring of sanity before the panic can suck you in.
These are my first ten seconds of being a mother.
I hand her back to her father. “We have to hire a nanny.”
I fan myself with a copy of Vogue, until it becomes too heavy, then I let my wrist go limp, dropping it to the floor.
“Can I have my Pellegrino?” I wiggle my fingers toward my bottled water, which is out of my reach, and lean my head back against the flat, hospital-issued pillow. These are the facts: a human being just fell out of my body after I grew it there for nine months. The parasitical similarities are enough to cause me to grab a doctor by his lapels and demand he tie my tubes into a pretty bow. My stomach — which I have already examined — looks like a deflated, skin-toned balloon. I am tired and sore. I want to go home. When my water doesn’t come, I crack open an eye. Aren’t people supposed to be running circles around me after what I just did?
Baby and father are standing in front of the window, framed by the dim afternoon light like a cheesy hospital advertisement. All they need is a pithy hospital catch phrase to caption the moment: Start your family with our family.
I make the effort to study them. He is cradling her in his arms, his head bent so low their noses are almost touching. It should be a tender moment, but he is gazing at her with so much love, I feel jealousy do a little squeeze-squeeze on my heart. Jealousy has a hell of a strong hand. I squirm underneath its touch, uncomfortable for letting it in.
Why couldn’t it have been a boy? It … my child. Fresh disappointment makes me press my face against the pillow, blocking out the scene in front of me. Two hours earlier, the doctor had said the word girl and tossed her blue, slime-covered body onto my chest. I hadn’t known what to do. My husband was watching me, so I reached a hand up to touch her; all the while, the word girl was crushing down on my chest like a thousand ton elephant.
I am going to have to share my husband with another woman … again.
“What are we going to name her?” He doesn’t even look at me when he speaks. I feel I’ve earned a little eye contact. Mon Pied! Already I was an afterthought.
I hadn’t chosen a girl’s name. I had been so sure it was a boy. Charles Austin — after my father.
“I don’t know. Any suggestions?” I smooth out my bed sheets, study my fingernails. A name is a name, right? I don’t even go by the one my parents gave me.
He looks at her for a long time, his hand cupping her head. She has stopped thrashing her fists around and is still and content in his arms. I know the feeling.
“Estella.” The name rolls off his tongue like he’s been waiting to say it his whole life.
My head jerks up. I was expecting something less … ancient. I scrunch up my nose.
“That sounds like an old lady’s name.”
“It’s from a book.”
Caleb and his books.
“Which one?” I don’t read … unless you count magazines, but chances are if it was made into a movie, I probably saw it.
I narrow my eyes and get that sinking feeling in my stomach. It has something to do with her. I know it.
I do not verbalize these thoughts. I am too clever to call attention to my insecurities, so I casually shrug and smile in his direction.
“Any specific reason?” I ask sweetly.
For a minute I think I see something pass across his face, a shade coming down over his eyes like he’s seeing a movie play out on his eyeballs. I swallow hard. I know that face.
The movie ends, and he comes back to me. “I’ve always liked that name. She looks like an Estella.”
A catch in his voice.
She looks like a bald, old man to me, but I nod. I am incapable of saying no to my husband, so it looks like the kid just got screwed.
When he leaves for home to take a shower, I pull my phone from underneath my pillow and Google ‘Estella’ from Great Expectations.
One website calls her an enchanting beauty, says she has a cold-hearted personality and a superiority complex. Another says she was the physical representation of everything Pip wanted and could not have. I put the phone away and peer into the bassinet beside me. Caleb does everything with purpose. I wonder how long he’s wanted a girl. I wonder if the nine months I planned on having a son, Caleb was planning on having a daughter.
I do not feel anything — none of the gushing, maternal things my friends relayed to me about their own children. They had used words like: unconditional, all encompassing, love of my life. I had smiled and nodded, storing the words away for reference when I had my own child. And, now here I am, emotionless. Those words mean nothing to me. Would I have felt differently if she were a boy? The baby starts to wail, and I jab at the nurse’s call button.
“Need some help?” a mid-fifties nurse wearing Care Bear scrubs walks briskly into the room. I eye her gappy smile and nod.
“Can you take her to the nursery? I need to get some sleep.”
Estella is wheeled out of my room, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I am not going to be good at this. What was I thinking? I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth like I do in Yoga.
I want a cigarette. I want a cigarette. I want to kill the woman my husband loves. This is all her fault. I got pregnant to secure the man that I had already married. A woman shouldn’t have to do that. She should feel safe in her marriage. That’s why you got married — to feel safe from all the men who were trying to siphon your soul. I’d yielded my soul to Caleb willingly. Offered it up like a sacrificial lamb. Now, I was not only going to have to compete with the memory of another woman, but a shriveled up baby. He was already staring into her eyes like he could see the Grand Canyon tucked away in her irises.
I sigh and curl into a ball, tucking my knees under my chin and gripping my ankles.
I have done a number of things to keep this man. I have lied and cheated. I have been sexy and meek, fierce and vulnerable. I have been everything but myself.
He is mine right now, but I am never enough for him. I can feel it — see it in the way he looks at me. His eyes are always probing, searching for something. I don’t know what he’s looking for. I wish I did. I cannot compete against a baby — my baby.
I am who I am.
My name is Leah, and I will do anything to keep my husband.
After forty-eight hours, I am discharged from the hospital. Caleb is with me while I wait to be discharged. He holds Estella, and I am almost jealous, except he touches me constantly — a hand on my arm, his thumb rubbing circles on the back of my hand, his lips on my temple. Caleb’s mother came earlier with his stepfather. They stayed for an hour, taking turns holding the baby before sweeping off to lunch with friends. I was relieved when they left. People hovering over me while my br**sts slowly leaked made me squirm in discomfort. They brought a bottle of Bruichladdich for Caleb, a Tiffany’s piggy bank for the baby and a Gucci sweat set for me. Despite her uppitiness, the woman has excellent taste. I am wearing the set. I rub the material between my fingers as I wait to be wheeled downstairs.
“I can’t believe we did this,” Caleb says for the millionth time, looking down at her. “We made this.”
Technically, I made this. It's convenient how men get to sign their names to these little creations without doing much more than having an orgasm and assembling a crib. He reaches out a hand and tugs on my hair playfully. I smile weakly. I can’t stay mad at him. He’s perfect.
“She has red hair,” he says as if to establish her credibility as my child. She’s a Ginger all right. Poor kid will have her work cut out for her. It’s not easy to pull off red.
“What? That fluff? That’s not hair,” I tease.
He brought a plush lavender blanket with him. I have no idea where he got it since most of our baby things are green or white. I watch him swaddle her in it, like the nurses taught him.
“Did you call the nanny agency?” I ask timidly. This is a sore subject between us, along with breastfeeding, which Caleb strongly promotes and I couldn’t care less about. Our compromise consists of me pumping for a few months and then getting an augmentation.
He frowns. I don’t know if it’s because of what I’ve said or because the blanket is giving him problems.
“We’re not getting a nanny, Leah.”
I hate this. Caleb has all of these ideas about how things are supposed to be. You’d swear he was raised by Betty Fucking Crocker herself.
“You said yourself that you’re not going back to work."
“My friends — “ I begin, but he cuts me off.
“I don’t care what those spoiled voids do with their children. You are her mother, and you will raise her, not a stranger.”
I bite my lip to keep from crying. By the look on his face, I know I’m not going to win this battle. I should have known someone like Caleb Drake stands over what he owns, teeth bared, not allowing anyone to touch it.
“I don’t know anything about babies. I just thought I could have someone to help…” I throw my last straw … pout a little. Pouting usually works in my favor.
“We’ll figure it out,” he says coolly. “The rest of the birthing world does not get the option of a nanny — they figure it out. So will we.”
He is done swaddling Estella. He hands her to me, and a nurse comes in to wheel me to the car. I keep my eyes closed all the way, afraid to look at her.
When Caleb pulls my new ‘mommy’ car to the curb, we discover that you cannot get a swaddled baby into the car seat. I would have immediately turned sour. When things don’t go my way, I lose it. Instead, Caleb laughs, talks to the baby about how silly he is while he unwraps her. She is fast asleep, but he keeps up a dialogue. It’s silly, a grown man carrying on like that. When she is strapped, he helps me in. Before he closes the door, he kisses me softly on the lips. I close my eyes and savor it, tasting his attention. There are so few kisses that make me feel connected to him. He is always somewhere else … with someone else. If the baby can bring us together, then maybe I was right to do what I did.
It is my first time in my new car, which Caleb picked up from the dealership this morning. My friends all have less expensive SUVs. I got the best. It feels like a ninety thousand dollar prison sentence, despite my initial excitement to have it. He points things out as we drive. I listen intently to the sound of his voice, but not the actual words. I keep thinking about what's in the car seat.
At home, Caleb lifts Estella out of her seat and places her gently in her new crib. He is already calling her Stella. I laze on my favorite chaise lounge in our big living room, flicking through channels on the television. He brings me a breast pump, and I flinch.
“She has to eat, unless you want to do it the traditional way …”
I snatch the pump and get to work.
I feel like a cow being milked as the machine hums and purrs. How is this just? A woman carries a baby for forty-two grueling weeks, only to be hooked up to a machine and forced to feed it. Caleb seems to enjoy my discomfort. He has a strange sense of humor. He is always teasing and delivering some witty quip that I often fail to respond to, but now as he watches me with that little smile playing on his lips, I laugh.
“Leah Smith,” he says. “A mother.”
I roll my eyes. He likes those words, but they give me heart palpitations. When I am done, there is a large amount of watery looking milk in both bottles. I expect him to do the rest, but he returns with a wailing Estella in his arms and hands her to me. This is only the third time I have held her. I try to look natural to impress him, and it seems to work because when he hands me the bottle, he smiles and touches my face.
Maybe that is the key — pretending to love this motherhood deal. Maybe that's what he needs to see in me. I stare down at her as she sucks on the bottle. Her eyes are closed and she is making horrible noises like she’s half-starved. This isn’t terrible. I relax a little and study her face, looking for some trace of myself in her. Caleb was right; she has the makings of a redhead. The rest of her looks more like him — full, perfectly defined lips underneath a weird little nose. Surely, she will be beautiful.
“You remember I have a business trip on Monday?” he asks, sitting down opposite me.
My head snaps up, and I do nothing to disguise the panic on my face. Caleb is often away on business trips, but I thought he would take a few weeks off to let me settle in.
“You can’t leave me.”
He blinks at me slowly and takes a sip of something in a snifter glass.
“I don’t want to leave her yet, Leah. But, she came early. No one else can go, I've already tried to find someone.” He leans down in front of me, kissing my palm. “You’ll be fine. Your mother is coming in on Monday. She can help you. I’ll only be gone for three days.”
I want to wail at this bit of information. My mother is a drama addict on top of being an insufferable narcissist. A day with her feels like a week. Caleb sees the look on my face and frowns.
“She’s trying, Leah — she wanted to come. Just go easy on her.”