‘the fact that who needs heart shapes getting in the way all the time’
—Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
She is lying in bed in the afternoon, reading a big thick book with lots of pages. The book prompts her to have a thought. Maybe if I have a child, I’ll make sure to take care of the both of us? When a thought is a question, is it still a thought? The book is red and blue and so hefty she used it to press down the collar on one of her shirts a week ago, because she doesn’t own an iron. The book feels nice to hold, like an animal in a box, and it flattened that fabric out in no time.
‘the fact that they’re doomed but they grow anyway’
She is thirty-five years old and she doesn’t have any children. It feels like she has been telling herself—and everyone around her—that she wants a child for years now, in between the times when she realises she doesn’t necessarily want one, or that she doesn’t want to be the type of person who wants one, or needs one, or the type of person who doesn’t care about the fact that if she had a child they would take up air and drink up water, and have more privilege than many other children who already exist, or will exist soon.
If she has a child now, if she becomes pregnant and balloons, her pregnancy will be a geriatric one. Can she bear that? Can she bear her body being monitored, appraised? Can she bear not having almost every hour of every day to herself?
The narrator in the big thick book has four children, and says that her life is their life now. It would be nice to have a purpose, to love selflessly. She thinks that motherhood sounds absolutely horrible and magical.
‘the fact that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’
She consumes the book very slowly, though she has no legitimate distractions. In between reading the big thick book with lots of pages she reads other books, and finishes them, and starts more books, and finishes those too. She reads curled up on the couch, though she has bad knees these days, and has to stretch them out sometimes, for relief.
If she has a baby, will her knees hurt more than they already do? The weight of a tummy full of baby would surely aggravate them. She doesn’t want to give her body over to someone else. She doesn’t want to put on too much weight, or swell ungraciously, but she doesn’t tell anyone this. It doesn’t seem appropriate to want to be slim when she has been told that she should love her body anyway.
She has had more than one chemical miscarriage, and the heavy, bloody, soggy feeling in her body when it happened felt like a glimpse of what was to come. Women go through so much, she reflects, their bodies the sites of the real world wars.
‘the fact that I wonder if women have always remembered their dreams while they’re cooking’
Sometimes the book sits there, humungous, on her bedside table for a whole week without her even acknowledging it. She dreams that she has a little baby and then forgets about the baby, like she has forgotten about the book. She has a dream that she births a baby and keeps bleeding and bleeding until she dies, the first time she has ever died in a dream. She knows that after childbirth some women do bleed and bleed until they die, and she wonders how most blood clots, and whether hers would.
It could be that she is avoiding the book because it is simply too much of a masterpiece, and her own writing fails to thrive in comparison. She can’t quite work it out: when she is reading the big thick book she loves that she is reading it, and feels like it is feeding her with its breasts. The book makes her smile, sometimes even chuckle, and it provokes thoughts she wouldn’t have otherwise had. It prompts her to make new things: German potato salad and cinnamon rolls and pomanders, from oranges and cloves. When she is reading the book, she resolves to keep reading it every day until she finishes it. The last time she made this resolution, she didn’t pick it up for a month.
‘the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there’
She wonders whether the narrator of the big thick book thinks about her mother with such infatuation, such yearning, because the narrator’s mother died when the narrator was only thirteen years old. She wonders if this is why her own mother, who lost her mother when she was ten, has often behaved like an infatuated, yearning child, too. She wonders whether she will carry this yearning she has felt all her life, the yearning her mother bore into her for a love her mother lost, and whether she will force it upon her own children, if she has them. They might not even be close, her and her child; they might have a fractious relationship. She could very well render them anxious, or ambivalent, or both.
People in her life—her partner, her closest friends, her colleagues—tell her she will be a wonderful mother. She imagines falling deeply in love with a child if she had one, she imagines that sometimes she would wish this same child away. She worries she won’t fall in love with her baby tout de suite—many mothers don’t. She worries that if she doesn’t, the baby will know, and it’s miniature heart will grow wary. She imagines how she would feel if her child contracted cancer, or if they drowned chasing some ducks, or were shot by a man who couldn’t help himself.
She thinks the narrator is a good mother, in her almost-fretful, almost-flighty way. She realises as she reads that the narrator isn’t able to deal with her own specific pain. She remembers this inability to deal with pain is universal.
‘the fact that things taste so much better once you’ve forgotten the effort of cooking them’
It takes her seven and a half months to read the book: six weeks shy of the nine months they give you for a full-term pregnancy. She misses it when it’s over, the way she has heard some mothers miss having their baby inside them after the baby is born.
She has grown so very fond of the narrator, who is effacing and relishable and pretty—she imagines her to be pretty, even though this shouldn’t matter, and doesn’t matter, really. She misses reading every single thought that pops into that dear woman’s head, though sometimes she could have shaken her. The book has reminded her that there are so many other things to think about: things other than herself.
She knows she is being sentimental about the big thick book. It took her so long to read it; she kept putting it off. Despite this, she looks back on the act of reading the book with such fondness that it feels intolerable that she isn’t reading it anymore, and that she will never read it for the first time again. She worries she will schmaltz like this about her childless life, if she ever has a child. She buys the audiobook, and listens to it on her long, mazy walks—the walks she won’t be able to indulge in when she is a mother.
‘the fact that it takes guts to love somebody’
At least if she has a child she will feel like less of an albatross around the neck of her friends and their children—less like something sad, or a child herself, who has never experienced anything as heavyweight as childbirth, or maternal love. She knows they see her as a full person, but sometimes she doesn’t feel like one when she watches them mother.
It is a big motivator, the idea of sharing this identity with her friends, now that many of them have children. She feels left out, like she is running late, but this is not robust enough a reason to buckle down and procreate. Sometimes she tells her friends what she thinks about babies and raising a child. In return, she has been told more than once, ‘you’ll think differently when you have one.’ She both recoils from and strikes at this fortune like an Australian sea snake.
She can’t help but think that it seems so boring, being a mother, but she is bored more than she likes to confess anyway, and she knows that life is boredom, really, spliced with brief moments of rage, grief, titillation, and joy.
She knows that it is protection, in the end, that really matters, and she is certain if she had a child that she would be fierce for them. She is certain if she lost them, it would darken her every day, like the lioness, whose ‘cries made rain cascade like waterfalls’. She is certain that she would search until she found them, and she would give them only a nip behind the ear.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker living in Melbourne, on the unceded land of the Kulin nation. Her short stories have been published widely in Australia, and her debut novel, Cherry Beach, was published in February 2020 by Text Publishing. You can find her at lauramcpheebrowne.com.