The baby was crying. Again. Susan had just sunk into sleep ten minutes before – blessed, blackout unconsciousness – and was now wrenched back to the surface by those piercing, incessant cries.
“No,” she moaned, pressing the side of her face deeper into the grubby warmth of her pillow. Laundry, among other things, was overdue. “Shut up.”
I can’t take it any more, she thought, groggily, as the cries escalated. It was the four-month sleep regression. Apparently that was a thing: sleep regressions.
Something that had not been a thing, for Susan: The Golden Hour. Her son, instead, was whisked straight to NICU and intubated through a perspex box. Another thing, but not for her: The Letdown. In Susan’s case it applied purely in the emotional sense – no breastmilk, no oxytocin hit. After weeks of squeezing and pumping, she’d accepted defeat and resorted to formula, despite the exhortations of a parade of nurses, breastmilk advocates and healthcare visitors. One more thing, for the record: a Partner. No dad’s better than a bad dad, Susan frequently told herself. Plenty of women struggled with unhelpful mates, she knew; but in her alternate universe, in the dead of night, there was a pair of hands to lift the screaming baby from its cot and remove it, somewhere else, out of earshot.
The baby continued to cry, louder now, no doubt needing a nappy change, a feed, a cuddle. It was incessant, relentless. “Shut up!” Susan yelled, shoving back the bedclothes and propelling herself upright. One sleep cycle was all she needed, a straight ninety minutes, then she could cope. Just one. On top of four months of broken sleep, it had been several nights in a row of waking hourly. Hourly. Her brain felt scrambled, swollen, bulging within the confines of her overheated skull.
She stormed around the bed to reach the cot on the other side, her vision swimming in the dark. The lump of her child lay within, wailing mouth aglow in a shaft of moonlight slanting past the edge of the blind. Seized by fury, Susan gripped the wooden edge of the cot. “For the love of god,” she screamed, for the third time, “shut up!”
The silence fell so immediately that Susan took a moment to register it. Then she wondered if she was, in fact, dreaming, or if she’d had a stroke. Had she fallen instantly deaf? For there lay her child, mouth open, the image of a squalling infant – yet no sound emerged.
Shocked by an icy jolt, Susan reached in and picked up the boy. He remained frozen – not just mute, but stock-still, a stone statue in mid-scream.
“Jakey,” she said, clutching his swaddled body to her before holding him aloft in the moonlight. “Jakey! Wake up!”
She pressed her ear to his chest and there, fast and soft, fluttered his heart. Raising him to her face, she felt the whisper of his warm breath upon her cheek. She sank onto the bed, cradling his small form – her darling, her beloved. The room whirled, so quiet that Susan could hear a faint ringing, like tinnitus.
She drew back and placed the baby gently on the bed, unwinding the folds of his swaddling cloth. His fists lay tightly balled, bent legs stiff in the air. Mindlessly Susan changed his nappy and flashed onto the memory of changing a plastic doll in prenatal class, a class that purported to prepare you for everything yet only proved, in retrospect, to prepare you for nothing.
With the baby clean and wrapped up again, Susan gathered him to her chest and slid back into bed. His mouth remained open wide, soundless; body warm yet unmoving. Susan drew the covers over them both and leaned back into the pillows. Tucked up warm with the curled animal of her infant at her breast: this was the dream of motherhood, the very picture of parental bliss. The maternal fantasy, the ideal.
The silence was a gift, surely. It couldn’t last long; ideals never did. So Susan resigned herself to sleep, and sank numbly into blackness. Reality would return soon enough. It had to.
A. S. Partridge has published poetry, flash fiction, and short stories in numerous magazines including Aurora, Malahat Review, Popshot, Scribble, and others. She lives in Edinburgh, where she is working on a satirical novel about motherhood.