Yesterday I interviewed Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. I’ll be sharing our conversation in an upcoming podcast. Today, I’ve been inspired by her to complete a writing exercise, which I’m sharing in this post.
Some smells have a way of instantly transporting me back to a time and place. The sanitized smell of cleaning products and new toys, for instance, brings me back to my daughter Hannah’s first day of daycare. She was two weeks shy of her first birthday when we started gradual entry in a new centre not far from our house. Easing her in was supposed to make the whole thing smoother. On the first day her father and I would bring her, and stay to play for half an hour. Once she was settled in and happy we would leave for an hour or so, just long enough for her to get her feet wet.
As I walked into the new centre, I carried her new backpack. She seemed far too young for it, not even walking yet. I had written her name on the back in Sharpie, punctuated by a smiley face. Somehow, I hoped the smiley face portended good things and happy days, while she was away from me. I could still detect that strong marker smell mingled with the rubbery smell of the new backpack as I walked down the hall, my baby on my hip, inhaling the daycare through my nose. The whole place was so different than our home. So institutional. I was putting on a brave face, but I didn’t want to be there. All of the brightly-coloured mats and decorations hit me like a slap to the face, their cheeriness standing in sharp contrast to my mood.
While my daughter played happily beside me, exploring her new space, dread grew in my stomach, starting as a small knot no larger than a pebble, and expanding until I could feel it in my whole torso, a ball of maternal anxiety. I knew that eventually the moment would come when we had to leave, and Hannah and to stay. Soon enough it did. My husband held my hand as we walked back down the long, dim hallway towards the door, long ribbons of light from fluorescent bulbs marking our path. Tears stung my eyes, sharp and hot, fighting to get out. I held them back, just barely, until the heavy blue door swung shut behind me. Then they fell unimpeded, and my nose started to run. As the cold air hit my face my mind travelled back to a different afternoon, eleven and a half months before.
It is just after lunch. I am wearing actual clothes for the first time in five days. I am in another place that is very institutional. The same smell of sanitization fills my nose. The same sorts of fluorescent lights give off a faint buzzing sound overhead. I’m leaning on my husband, still not having recovered fully from giving birth and then hemorrhaging severely. Until yesterday, I was wheeled around in a wheelchair if I had to go farther than three steps from my hospital bed, since no one trusted me to stand on my own two feet without collapsing. Now, I’m wearing maternity clothes and walking down the hallway slowly, since I have been declared ready to go home. My daughter is one floor below me in the NICU, under the bili lights. No one knows when she will be ready to leave.
I stop at the nurses’ station to let them know that I’ve finally managed to gather my things and I’m leaving. A nurse that I don’t recognize looks up brightly and asks, “Do you need any help setting up the car seat?” It hits me full force in the gut, an emotional punch that she didn’t intend to throw. While the cold, bright winter sun shines through the window behind her, my face crumples. On this day, I am too exhausted, physically and emotionally, to play at being okay with leaving my baby behind. I start crying, and the nurse’s smile is wiped away by a look of surprise and dismay. Another nurse explains to her that my baby is not coming home with me.
As I looked out the car window, my husband driving me away from the daycare on another cold, February day almost a year later, I cried for all of it. I cried out the pain of leaving my baby in the NICU, and the pain and worry of returning to work and leaving my baby behind after a year-long maternity leave. Once again I was driving away from an institutional building, knowing that it was what had to be done, wishing it weren’t the case. My throat was painful and tight as I cried, and a tear fell into my mouth, salty and warm. The taste of sadness. The taste of the moment when you have to muster the strength to walk away when you’d rather go running back. The taste of motherhood, and the ways that it sometimes chews you up whole and spits you back out. Tears, smells and fluorescent lights, and a tiny little girl that I didn’t want to leave.