An excerpt from “I Only Said” I didn't want you because I was terrified
I can’t believe it. My baby’s here, no longer stranded in a sports bag, wrapped in towels and feeling hungry. As I look at her and she snuffles, I forget the pain in my butt and breasts; everything ceases to exist except for this perfect human being nestling into my arms.
Something very strange happens to me; I can feel my nipples tweaking and an urge comes over me… I have to put my baby to my breast, to allow her to suck. I don’t know where the urge comes from and I don’t care, I just do what feels natural.
Miss Tina helps me to position her so that she can get as much of my nipple into her mouth as possible and she clamps onto me with the desperation of a drowning man and I understand. I felt the same desperation yesterday, or was it the day before, I have no idea. She sucks and sucks in order to sustain herself and to form the attachment that was destroyed the moment I cut the cord, and I marvel at her determination to cling to life.
Jacky has got tears in her eyes and so have I, but we laugh through them.
“Oh, Hannah, she’s so beautiful, I can’t believe it.”
I take my baby’s hand and she coils her tiny fingers around one of mine and grips so tightly that I giggle; she’s not going to let me go, and briefly I wonder how I could ever have thought about letting her go. I know that no matter what happens, I’ll never leave her again, ever.
She makes little snorting noises as she sucks, and I stroke her face, taking in everything about her -- her tiny perfect fingernails, the creases in her ears, her wispy dark hair and tiny little eyelashes. She’s a miracle.
She falls away from my breast, a dribble of milk oozing from her rosebud lips, sound asleep and full, and we look at each other and smile with the wonder of it all.
“She looks like Dad after eating a pot roast,” Jacky laughs.
“How is Dad?”
“He’s quiet, very quiet. It was Dad who found you, and he was beside himself.”
“I know he must have been angry.”
“Not angry so much as terrified, I think. He says that he opened your bedroom door, something he never does, to check on you, and it was only because you were bleeding so much that he saw a stain on the sheets. If he hadn’t had seen it and just thought you were asleep, you’d have been dead by the morning from blood loss, let alone the overdose you took.”
A tear runs down her face.
“Hannah, I couldn’t have handled it if you’d died. What would I do without my little sister? I think Dad was really shocked because he doesn’t know what made him check on you, and I think he’s frightened at just how close you were to dying. Nothing’s ever so bad that it’s worth dying for; promise me that if you ever feel that much despair again you’ll talk to me, or if not me, then someone else. Promise me, Hannah.”
“I promise, and I’m so sorry. I just didn’t know what else to do, and when I saw on the news that my baby had been found and I heard the terrible things Dad said, I just couldn’t see any way out. I’d thought about committing suicide while I was pregnant, but I knew that I couldn’t kill the baby inside of me, but once it was out then I felt that it would only be me that I was killing.”
“But, Hannah,” she says, with a wail in her voice. “What about us? We all love you so much, how could we have ever coped without you? Killing yourself may have stopped your own pain, but what about ours? Ours would have gone on for the rest of our lives. We’d have each been left wondering if it was something we’d said or done, or something we hadn’t done that had tipped you over the edge. Although we would all have carried on, because we’d have to, I guess, none of us would have ever really known true happiness because that little seed of doubt would sit inside us forever.”
I’m crying now, not tears of joy anymore, but tears of shame and sadness. I can’t bear that I’ve hurt my family so badly, but I’m also crying because the way Jacky’s talking lets me know that my parents really do love me, even though I’ve always doubted it. I’ve always known Jacky loves me, but I’ve felt as if I’m second best to her and a disappointment to my parents after she was so good at school.
“I don’t say these things to make you feel bad, baby,” she says, taking my hand, “I say them because I don’t think you realize just how much you mean to us all in this family. Maybe Mom and Dad don’t say it enough. I know they’re constantly getting on you about your grades, but it’s only because they want you to do well.”
“I’ll never do as well as you,” I sniff.
“Hannah,” she says sharply, “you are your own person, you can shine at other things, you don’t have to follow me. Find what it is that you want to do, then go for it.”
“That’s easy to say, but when Mom and Dad constantly compare me to you, it’s not so easy to live with.”
“I know, and they shouldn’t do it; I’ll speak to them.”
She hands me a tissue and takes the baby from me while I blow my nose. She pats her little back and giggles when the baby burps, but then becomes serious again.
“I’m so scared inside, Hannah,” and her face twists with pain as she struggles not to cry. “We could so easily have lost you, and this little one… I can’t stand to think about it.”
I blow my nose again as fresh tears fall down my face and my nose runs. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful family, and I vow that I’m going to make it up to them somehow, although I’ve no idea how.
We hold hands as our tears subside, and I’m comforted by her strength and she’s comforted by my presence. She eventually lets go and says, “Try not to worry about Dad; it’ll be alright. He’s got a lot of thinking to do and it’s not going to be easy for him, but it’ll be okay. He has to learn that you’re not me and that we’re different, and we are good at different things. I think he’s been so desperate to not be like his family that all he cares about is good grades and getting into college, and he’s lost sight of the fact that there are other things that matter as much. All his adult life he’s wanted to be different from his family and then, what does he do, he’s behaved in exactly the same way they do by resorting to fighting. So not only is he going to have to go to court, but he’s got to deal with the fact that his behavior is just the same as his family’s after all his struggling to be different, and that’s got to be hard for him.”
“It’s all my fault.”
“Hannah, you didn’t make Dad go over to that boy’s house and assault his parents, Dad made the choice. He could’ve behaved differently, but he chose not to.”
Miss Tina comes back and tells Jacky that it’s time to leave, so she kisses the baby before handing her back to me and kisses my cheek as she stands up.
“Bye, babe, take care of my beautiful niece,” and I giggle because it sounds so strange.
Miss Tina comes back after Jacky’s gone and she sits on the edge of the bed.
“Are you alright?” she asks. “You’ve been crying,” and so I tell her the things Jacky’s just said to me.
“It sounds to me as if your dad measures his success as a parent by the number of good grades and awards his children can achieve, and by whether they go to college. He also seems to be living his life through his children’s successes, so that would explain why he appears to be closer to Jacky, and why he’d give you a hard time about not being as bright as she is, although I don’t think that’s true. Try to understand, if you fail, he sees himself as failing, and as it’s so important to distance himself from his own family, he has become obsessive about both you girls being successful at school and in your careers.”
“But what about my feelings? You make me sound like a circus animal… I’ve got to perform or else I’ve got no value,” I say, dismayed.
“Yes, I can see why you feel that way. Don’t be too hard on him, Hannah. What we do here at Beach Haven is to help kids understand but not to blame, for when you understand how something has come about, there is no room for any blame.”
I sit in my bed feeling glum, listening to her.
“It’s normal to want to do things differently from how your parents did them, and it sounds like it was really important to your parents to give you girls a better life than the one they had. That’s fine. But in being so determined not to make the same mistakes their parents had made, they’ve made other mistakes instead. This happens with every generation, Hannah, and I’m certain that you won’t make the same mistakes your parents have made because you know how it feels. But you will make other mistakes and in twenty years your daughter will vow not to make the same mistakes you’ve made, and so it goes on.”
She grins at me as I sit with my face set in a pout.
“I’ll never forget the day my daughter told me how ashamed I’d made her feel when she came to tell me that she had a hairy big toe and I’d said, ‘Yuk’. So when her own daughter came to her to complain that she had a hairy big toe she remembered the pain she’d felt, and said, ‘Oh, how wonderful. Not everyone has a hairy big toe; that means you must be special’.”
I smile at her and she giggles.
“And I dare say her daughter will feel hurt because her mom didn’t do anything to make it go away. That’s how it works, Hannah. All parents make mistakes. Some are serious mistakes and others, like the hairy toes, aren’t serious, except to the person who feels hurt. What makes one person feel hurt may be different from what makes someone else feel hurt. Complicated, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say, feeling suddenly very scared that everything I do for the beautiful baby sleeping peacefully in my arms will be judged, as I’m now judging my parents.
“Why don’t you spend a little bit of time getting to know your beautiful baby, sweetheart, and I’ll come back in a little while to get her so that you can get some sleep, okay?”
She leaves and I’m left alone with my daughter. I can’t believe how beautiful she is -- she looks like Jacky and I’m so pleased -- and I try to chase the thought away that I’d hate it if she looked like Zak.
She’s sucking her bottom lip as she sleeps and I smile. I can’t believe that she came out of my body. I whisper to her and tell her that I love her more than anything, and I promise I’ll never leave her ever again. I also make a promise that I’ll do my best and that I won’t make the same mistakes my parents have made. Then as tears roll down my face, I hold her close to me and whisper, “I only said that I didn’t want you because I was terrified.”
Miss Tina comes back half an hour later and takes the baby from me.
“I’ll bring her back when she needs a feed. Try and get some sleep,” and as she walks out of the room I feel a strange sense of loss.
I’m asleep in seconds and only awake when someone shakes my arm. It’s still dark outside.
“Your baby needs feeding,” Miss Tina says gently.
I’m so bleary eyed that it takes me a minute to understand what she means as she puts the baby into my arms.
“What time is it?”
“Two o’clock in the morning,” she laughs. “You’d better get used to being awakened because sometimes it can take months before a baby will sleep right through the night.”
She turns the nightlight on and helps me to latch the baby onto my breast properly, and then she sits and talks to me for a while.
“Night feeding is one of the hardest things about have a new baby, and because you never get a proper night’s sleep, it’s easy to get tired and run down. For the first few months make sure that you concentrate on getting enough sleep; when your baby goes to sleep, try and rest too. It’ll help you to cope.”
It all sounds so strange and I realize that my life is never going to be the same again; it’s changed forever.
“What I used to do with my babies was to make sure that during the night feedings I gave them no stimulation at all, and then they went back to sleep easily. Keep the light very low, just so that you can see; don’t talk or play with her, just feed her, burp her and only change her if you have to. Diapers these days are so absorbent that, providing they haven’t pooped, it should be okay to leave until the morning. Changing a baby wakes it up… they sense the change in temperature. Some people change their babies before feeding when they’re already awake, others change them half way through because sometimes the act of feeding will stimulate the bowel and babies often poop while feeding. You’ll soon get to know your baby’s habits. So if you have to change her during the night, try feeding her just a little more afterwards so that she’ll fall asleep at the breast, and then very gently lay her back down in the crib.
“One of the good things about breast-feeding is that you don’t have to get out of bed and go to the kitchen to heat up formula, which would make you wide awake. If you have the crib by your bed, the whole feeding can be done without you or the baby becoming really wide awake, and it can take as little as ten to fifteen minutes before you both go back to sleep. I’ve heard of some parents who have been up for two hours during the night, pacing the floors trying to get their babies back to sleep, and then just as they begin to drop off to sleep themselves, the baby wakes again for its next feeding.” She shudders, “How awful!”
I’m trying to listen as the baby snuffles and sucks on me.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to get enough sleep during the first few weeks, because you’re dealing with huge changes in your body and in your life, and how you cope with them will impact your baby and the relationship you’re trying to build with her. Everything you feel, she’ll sense. She’ll know when you’re happy and sad; babies know these things without words. One of the things you can do to set off on the right foot is to try and recreate the same environment that your baby’s known since the moment of conception.”
“How?” I ask, wondering what she’s going to say.
“Think about it -- being born is a real shock to a baby. It’s squashed into the birth canal, thrust out into a bright light, and feels cold and hungry, which it’s never experienced inside you. It’s then put into a crib where it can’t feel anything warm against all of its skin, like it did inside the uterus, and then it lies there in silence. An unborn baby is never hungry or thirsty because it’s fed through the umbilical cord. It’s never alone because it’s held within its mother, and it feels safe and secure because the uterus holds it tightly. The mother’s bowel sounds and pulse make loud noises for the baby to listen to, so it knows it’s not alone. It’s been described as being in heaven, so being born is a real shock to a baby. You can minimize that shock by trying to recreate the same environment during its first month. Always wrap your baby up, leaving its hands by its mouth. I’ll show you how… the Indians used to do it all the time.”
She takes the baby, who starts to wail, and shows me how to wrap her, and it’s like magic… she stops crying right away.
“It’s like an Indian’s papoose; the baby feels safe and secure, just as she was inside you.” She hands her back to me and I put her to my other breast. “Babies like to hear noise, they’re used to it because from the moment of conception they’ve been surrounded by sounds, so don’t leave her in a silent room, and except for the night-time feeding, as you hold her, talk to her, or sing. When you burp her, and her ear is close to your mouth, talk or sing to her. The sensation of your cheek against hers will give her the same stroking feeling that she felt as each part of her body was being stroked by the walls of your uterus next to her skin.”
“How long do I have to do this?”
“Usually only the first few weeks until your baby is more used to the new sensations around her, and is starting to take more notice of her surroundings. You’d be amazed at how much a newborn baby takes in during the first few weeks of life. It’s truly amazing.”
The baby’s finished feeding and is asleep.
“Okay, can you see how feeding and sucking sends a baby to sleep? Right, gently put her on your shoulder and pat her back at the same rate as your heartbeat to help her bring up any air she’s swallowed. But more importantly it will soothe her, as her brain will recognize the rhythm and sounds she heard inside you when she sensed that she was safe and secure.”
I gently pat her back, thud, thud, thud, as I focus on my own heartbeat, and her face is right by mine.
“Now, talk to her softly,” Miss Tina says, “because the sounds will let her know that you are there, even though she’s asleep.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I say, feeling my jaw moving against my baby’s soft cheek.
“Just say anything. Your baby will feel the movement and it will let her know that the connection to you, that she’s always known, is still there. Don’t listen to people who say that if you hold the baby too much you’ll spoil it, it’s not true. Babies that are left in their cribs all alone until the next feeding become irritable and anxious; they cry a lot and then their moms start to become anxious, which makes the baby more anxious.
If a baby isn’t fed when it’s hungry, it will become very distressed and will do the only thing it can to call its mother... scream. You’re in danger then of setting up a vicious circle. You’ll become stressed because your baby is screaming, and your baby will become even more stressed because it can sense that you are stressed.
“That’s why the first few weeks are so important, because the way you deal with your baby during that time sets up a pattern of how it’s going to be between you both in the future, and whether the attachment between you both is secure.
“Hold your baby, whisper in her ear, sing or say anything, it doesn’t matter what, so long as it’s in a gentle tone of voice. Wrap her firmly, leaving her hands free so that she can comfort herself by sucking, and never make her wait for food. If you do all these things, then your baby should be content and secure, and the bond between you both will be very secure. She will know that you are always going to be there and she’ll have no need to scream, or become irritable and anxious.”
I have an overwhelming urge to cry, for it all seems insurmountable to me. I’m too young to be responsible for how secure my baby will feel. I had no idea how serious it would be to have a baby and to be responsible for it. I’m really scared. What if I mess up? Will she hate me when she’s my age?
“It’s a bit scary, isn’t it?” Miss Tina says, with a twinkle in her eye that reassures me a little, but not much. “It’s a big price to pay for one night of sex, isn’t it?”
She smiles at me, so I know she’s not being mean.
“Okay, sweetheart, let me take her back to her crib so that you can get some sleep.”
I lie in my bed for some time before sleep steals over me, thinking about how determined I am to get it right. I’m going to hold my baby as much as I can, whisper gently in her ear and learn as many nursery rhymes as I can to sing to her. I’m going to pat her back, and her butt, to the same rhythm as my own heartbeat, and I’m going to wrap her like an Indian papoose to make her feel safe and secure. I’m going to do all these things so that I can get it as right as I can, even though I’m only a kid myself.
I spend the next day getting to know my baby better and I practice everything Miss Tina told me, and it’s easier than I imagined, for it comes naturally. She lies in my arms and doesn’t cry at all; she opens her eyes and stares at me, as if she’s looking deep into my soul, and I stare back. When I blink, she blinks, and when I poke my tongue out she does the same. She makes me giggle and I’m amazed by her.
Mom and Jacky visit, and I show them how she copies my facial expressions and we laugh with the wonder of it all. It’s amazing, but the most amazing thing is how much I love her already. I can’t imagine life without her; it’s unthinkable.
That evening Miss Tina comes into my room and says, “How d’you feel? D’you feel ready to meet the other kids here? I know they’re dying to meet you.”
I feel a bit scared and it must show on my face.
“C’mon, it’ll be fine. It’ll do you good to reach out to kids your own age, and tonight we’re going to be talking about reaching out to people when you need help.”
I lower my eyes, knowing that I should have reached out to someone, anyone, during the past nine months. I follow her in my pajamas trying not to wince in pain as I walk, but it’s not far, and as she opens a door which says “Group Room,” a sea of faces looks my way.
“Everyone, this is Hannah.”
They all say “Hi,” and smile.
I sit down gingerly, not wanting anyone to realize that my butt feels as if it’s on fire.
A girl smiles at me and says, “My name’s Candy. We’ve been dying to meet you and to see your baby. What’s it like having a baby?”
I feel shy and don’t really know what to say.
Miss Tina comes to my rescue.
“Hannah, this is a place where everyone is honest about what they think and feel. You will be accepted for who you are and no one here will be judged or rejected. You can say exactly what’s in your heart and it will be okay. Part of growing as a human being is to know who you are, what your feelings are, and accepting that they are okay… we are all different but we all have equal worth.”
Candy asks me again, “What’s it like having a baby?”
I pluck up the courage to answer her in front of all these kids who are looking at me, demanding an answer.
“It’s… terrible, frightening, and yet…”
I drift off for a moment as I remember my baby sticking her tongue out when I stuck mine out, and blinking when I blinked.
They’re all staring at me, waiting for me to say more.
“It was terrifying because I couldn’t tell anyone, and even more terrifying to give birth on my own with no one to help me. It’s also scary to think that another human being is totally dependent upon me, when I’m only a kid. Yet, I don’t know, when I hold her in my arms and she looks at me, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.”
Some of the girls sigh but others press me.
“But how come you didn’t tell anyone that you were pregnant?”
I swallow hard and try not to cry because I suddenly feel overwhelmed with guilt.
“I couldn’t… it would’ve killed my parents. They wanted me to follow in my sister’s footsteps and go to college. They wanted us to be better than anyone else in their families.”
“How did you manage to keep it from your parents? Didn’t they notice that you were getting bigger?” a girl asks.
My face is burning and I mumble, “I couldn’t eat, and I wore baggy clothes. They never noticed; they were too busy with my sister.”
There’s a huge lump in my throat, and as all the kids look at me, a tear rolls down my cheek.
“I feel I’ve let them down so badly.”
I clear my throat. “My dad wants me to go to college like my sister, and he wants us to do well. He wants us to be totally different from his and Mom’s family because he’s ashamed of them.”
“Because he thinks they’re no good.”
Miss Tina speaks out, “D’you think they’re no good, Hannah?”
I look at her. There’s nothing in her face that gives me a clue as to how to respond, so I figure I should just be honest.
“No, I don’t. I like my cousin Jade, who just got married. Dad was really mean about her because she was six months pregnant at the time. Mom and Dad hate their families and think they’re worthless. They say that half of them are on welfare… I don’t know if that’s true… and I don’t care if it is. I know that most of them aren’t married but they’ve got loads of kids. My parents haven’t allowed us to get to know our cousins because they don’t approve of them and they think they’re beneath us. I hate it because I don’t feel that way. They’re my family whether or not they’re working or married.”
“They sound like snobs to me,” one kid says.
I feel really bad because the way I’ve described my parents does make them sound like snobs.
“My dad’s worse than my mom,” I say quickly. “Mom doesn’t seem so down on her family, well, not as bad as Dad is about his family. He has drummed it into us since I was really little that he expects great things from Jacky and me so that we don’t end up like our cousins…” tears roll down my face… “but that’s just what I’ve done. He’ll see me as being exactly like the people he’s spent his whole life trying to get away from.”
I feel such despair that I can’t stop my tears.
“That’s why I couldn’t tell my parents… my dad would have freaked out, he’d have been ashamed of me and would have disowned me. I couldn’t tell anyone else either in case they told my parents. I felt trapped, alone and scared.”
“But didn’t you have any friends to talk to?” a girl asks.
I nod. “My best friend, Linda, but I couldn’t tell her either.”
“Well, mainly because at the beginning I couldn’t believe that I was pregnant… I just, kind of, ignored it and hoped it wasn’t true. Then when it was obvious that I was, I couldn’t tell because something would have to be done and that would’ve meant my parents knowing. But then… ”
I swallow hard. “I couldn’t tell as the months went by because I was ashamed. Telling would have meant that I’d been lying for months to everyone I love.”
“But in the end they knew you’d lied anyway,” a boy says.
“I know,” I mumble, “I couldn’t think straight. I just didn’t know what to do. It was like living in a trap, in a spider’s web where I knew I was going to be eaten, no matter what I did.”
Miss Tina says, “Y’know, everyone has troubles in their lives, that’s perfectly normal. I’m not saying getting pregnant and trying to be a mother when you’re just a kid yourself with all the world ahead of you, is okay, it isn’t. But everyone has troubles to deal with. It’s lonely and frightening to try and manage your troubles alone. Everyone needs to reach out for support and to gain another person’s point of view, because that will help you challenge the way you see things.”
I think I know what she means because until Jacky told me how devastated Mom and Dad would have been if I’d died, I’d never have known. I believed that Dad would have disowned me for bringing shame upon his family, and I never stopped to think that my parents might actually care about me. They always seem so down on me when I don’t make the same grades as Jacky. Success and status seems to be the only things that matter in our house… status to distance us from Mom and Dad’s family. I feel sad, for my baby has their family’s genes in her and yet she’s perfect. It feels too complicated. We’re born with all our family’s genes in us, which dictate how we’re going to turn out, but then we turn into something else by the way we’re raised.
Candy looks sad, “You should have told someone… anyone. It’s not right that you should have gone through all that on your own. You could have died.”
“Yes,” the rest of the kids say.
Miss Tina smiles at me and says, “They’re right, Hannah. It’s awful that you felt so alone and frightened. Everyone should reach out to other people, people they trust, when they’re in trouble, or when they’re hurting.”
The kids nod and smile at me.
I shake my head, and say, “I know, but I just couldn’t because my dad would think I was scum… that’s what he calls people who he thinks are beneath him.” I feel ashamed.
Miss Tina says, “I’m sorry he feels that way, and I understand why you felt that you couldn’t tell your parents. Y’know, all people are different but they all have equal worth in the eyes of God. To help you understand why some people believe that they’re better than others, and also how important it is to reach out to others and not be isolated and all alone, I’m going to read you a little story.”
She gives a little cough, and one of the girls starts to suck her thumb.
© Celia Banting 2006
This excerpt can be found in the novel, "I Only Said I Didn’t Want You Because I Was Terrified"