Nourish by Claire Miller

It’s the hottest Easter Monday on record, and you are one day old. The air is thick, outside the grass is parched, and you won’t drink from me. The midwives say you’ll feed next time I try, and I believe them. I’m not concerned, my happiness cannot be diminished today. Despite my unresponsive legs, my whole body tingles with elation, as though every one of my hairs is reaching out to welcome you.

***

Later, I lie on the bed in the almost-dark and wait for a midwife to help me feed you. An unfamiliar hand pulls at the blue curtain and my tired eyes focus on the syringe. You lie swaddled in lilac cloth and adoration, and I wince as hard plastic scratches at my nipple; a stranger mining my body for liquid gold. Disappointment begins to wrap its arms around me, staved momentarily by your satiated state. I promise that I’m going to feed you, my treasure.

Four days in and my breasts are still full. My nipples are raw and I sense your determination. I hold your tiny head to my chest, and wear a hopeful smile for the midwife who again asks if you are feeding yet. As they try to post my nipple through your pursed lips, I wonder if I’ll ever know what it’s like to breastfeed. Your hunger is palpable as you dive toward my chest, but once there you don’t want it: an arched-back banana baby, peeling away as I try to hold you close.

***

I hear the phrase ‘breast refusal’ from outside of our cocoon. I know these words are bound for us and I want to protect you from them. The sound of grumbling wheels announces a midwife with a machine hungry for milk. I sit alone with it, my nectar taken with uncompromising urgency. From umbilical cord to syringe to bottle; the degrees of separation grow. But it means we can take you home now, so that we can learn your ways. Unhurried, and far from inspecting eyes.

***

Weeks pass and our bedroom bursts with the weight of anticipation. Lips to nipple: nothing. Nipple to machine: milk. Bottle to lips: drink. Skin to skin: sleep. A two-hourly cycle of hope followed by defeat. I’m consumed by your feeding, it’s heavy both in my heart and on my chest. Expressing on car journeys and in public toilets, the machine’s sad hum is the soundtrack to my days – and it’s on repeat. I question how is it possible to feel full and hollow at the same time.

At ten weeks old you’re into your stride and then, finally, you drink from me. I watch you claim my chest as your territory, your delicate hands controlling the borders. There’s no dispute, my landscape is yours to harvest. Our complication resolved without words, embrace our only language. I’ve become your favourite scent, your comfiest pillow, your cookhouse and your first love. The summer heat is here now, and with it my shoulders relax.

Claire Miller is mother to daughter Madeline. She is also an Architect based in Bristol UK, and uses design as a vehicle to help young people and community groups take authorship of their own environments. Mothership Writers gave her an alternative creative outlet for her thoughts and feelings as a new mother. Madeline is 15 months, and still feeding.

Nourish first appeared in the Mothership Writers anthology Dispatches from New Motherhood.

Slut by Ukamaka Olisakwe

i

Grandmother said there is a slut trapped in every woman, a wild taboo that must never be set free.

So mother dipped her fingers in a tub of pomade, and massaged her daughter’s clitoris until the puny thing grew thinner and disappeared into the fold of skin.

ii

Ugwu nwanyi bu di ya. Imekwa enu, mee ani, ugwu nwanyi bu di ya. 

She packed up her books, took his name, and became dignified.

iii

Perhaps in the next life, she will come as a man. Perhaps she should make the best of this body. So she made her husband a pot of soup and prepared a table for him to eat. She laid back and watched him eat. 

And though his face was riddled with pleasure, she did not know the taste of her own food.

iv

I stood under a shower, my breasts drooping closer to my stomach, and I thought: oh, you sad things! It’s too early to fall asleep.

v

There was a masseuse who lived down the street. Her fingers were sleek and long, body thin and shapely. 

One day, I stretched on the bed and let her hands work my nerves, her fingers easing my knotted tension. 

My slut stirred, and I bit my tongue until I tasted my own blood.

vi

Tell me how to make you happy, he said. Here, take my hands, speak with them.

I don’t know what happy is, I said. What does it taste like?

Like the guavas after the rains had washed the trees of Harmattan dust, or the onugbu soup after mama had added the dollops of ogiri?

vii

Did I tell you about the girl who took a hammer to my slut’s cage and caused everything to fall apart? 

Sex had always been a ceremony for man’s orgasm. My hands were just tools to stir my husband’s eagerness, my body his to devour. He would hover above me, face stretched in taut lines, sweat breaking from the sides of his face. And I would think, oh, how beautiful it is for this giant to quiver above me like the okra branch in the winds. And when he collapsed on my chest, I would hold him and think, I had fulfilled my purpose. ’Cos what else was the purpose of the woman than to keep her man satiated?

Until Nneka. Wild one, with a body that tapered like a Coke bottle and limbs that stretched from heaven to earth. Nneka, with a mouth that spat words like hot corns, her head filled with sin. She gazed at my cage, shook her head at my slut and said, “Chai, who did this to you?”

Then she picked at my locks, tantric fingers exposing the other way of freedom, and I have never been the same again.

viii

Grandmother looked at daughter and said, “This one is spoiled.”

Mother shook her head and said, “Her chi succumbed to slumber and this happened.”

Daughter strutted away. A proud slut.

ix

My husband used to joke about how docile I was before I joined the choir. One day, he paused between thrusts to trap my moans with the flat of his palm.

“Who are you?” he asked. “I have never seen you like this before.”

I bit his hand, threw my head back, forced him down and he disappeared in between my thighs.

He has yet to emerge ever since.

—from Rattle #65, Fall 2019 Tribute to African Poets

Feature Image by Clarence Alford from Pixabay

Finding My Freedom Within Marriage and Motherhood

I have a distinct memory of her on my wedding day, dressed in a flowered lace buba, her lips bright red like her shoes and purse. She was sitting at the corner when I gave my husband the palm wine and took him to kneel before Papa. She didn’t come to spray us with money, as every other guest did, when we danced to Osadebe. The yard was bustling with activity, highlife music booming from the speakers propped at the corners of our compound, people dancing in all directions. For the first time in my life, I saw my cousin slink away from the crowd.

Papa said she had turned down every suitor because she thought the men were too poor or too short. She worked for the government and had an apartment in the classiest part of the city. She had been to London a few times and could talk endlessly about the streets wrapped with cobblestones and buildings that reached for the sky. She spoke an Igbo softened by the sliding sounds of English and would often pepper her sentences with foreign words. When she left after each visit, my siblings would pinch their noses and repeat things she had said, laughing with amusement.

Later, after the ceremony, she came into my room while I was undressing. She asked if I was already sleeping with the man I had just married, and when I gasped and said no, she insisted, quietly, that I must begin to do so, because if I didn’t get pregnant by the next Christmas the neighbors would mock me and call me barren. She said I must never, ever fail as a woman.

I wanted to say it was inappropriate to discuss such things, but I was too surprised to say anything, too taken aback to articulate any sensible response. Something bad must have happened to her, I thought. After she left, I finished changing into new clothes and went to join my husband in the waiting car. Driving out of my father’s compound, I kept thinking of what she said to me. Like mmuo ojo prowling at night, seeking souls to devour, her words ate me up.

And so it was my first objective as a married woman to get pregnant, the Michelin calendar on my bedroom wall marked with days I must have sex with my husband. More than once, he asked if I was performing some kind of ritual because I would prop my legs up against the wall after sex to keep his sperm from leaking out.

When my cycle stopped two months later, while my husband was on a trip to Dubai, I was delirious with happiness. The world began to make sense. For the first time since I got married I was able to stand straight. The relief came with such a great force that I called everyone and told them that I was pregnant. It was all working out for good, until an in-law visited, when I was five months gone.

We were eating jollof rice when she said she hoped the baby would be a boy. Suddenly, the food lost its delicious spiciness. My appetite disappeared. Something trembled in my stomach. My mind, long made fertile that day my cousin spoke those words and shattered my naivete, had begun wrestling with a new, worrying thought. Getting pregnant, I realized, was just the first step: I was married, happily married, but I was still sitting with one buttock. Only a son would plant my feet firmly in my husband’s house.

My husband was not burdened with these things. He went about his days as usual, talked endlessly about his trips, his blossoming business, the consignment he was shipping from Dubai, his plans to travel to Singapore and Vietnam and China. He was living out his dreams while I worried about the sex of our baby, about my place in his home.

My husband is kind and thoughtful, but he lives in a society that lets him stride past the tedious hurdles all women must jump. I wanted to give him a son, and I wanted him to share the emotional rigor of bringing that son into the world. But that is not how things work, and I resented that he did not see how I was shriveling under the weight of expectations.

I resented him for making us dine out with friends to drink fresh palm wine and eat spicy nkwobi served in wooden bowls. I hated the childish abandon with which he enjoyed Lionel Richie and Osadebe and Fela and Bob Marley, how he sang aloud when we drove together, his voice pushing against the roof and the wound up windows, competing with the voices from the stereo. He made plans for our baby: A custom bed built by a skilled carpenter. Ante-natal classes at the best hospital at Pound Road. Expensive baby clothes from Dubai. SMA Gold. I smiled and put up a good front when neighbors dropped by on weekends to eat the ofe akwu or ofe nsala I made. But at night, when he snored lightly beside me, I bit my fingers to the cuticles and prayed for a son. I prayed every day. And this phase was so excruciating that I didn’t get my hospital bag ready until the morning I was coming out of my room and my water broke.

I gave birth to a girl. Actually, the doctor helped me give birth to my daughter. Because I was drifting between sleep and wakefulness after two days of labor, he took his scalpel, nipped at skin, fused a vacuum device to my baby’s head, and pulled my daughter out.

After my daughter was born, I was always fully in act, cooking and serving and smiling at the family who was often around. Though I had a couple of childhood friends I kept in contact with, I had few new friends; the women I socialized with were the wives of my husband’s friends, those women who identified themselves by their husband’s aliases—Nwunye Emeka Japan, Nwunye Nonso London, Nwunye Tony Italy. A husband’s name, or his alias, commands respect, and our society permits a woman dignity only through marriage. You are a nobody without your husband’s name, no matter how much you have in your bank account or how many businesses you own. You belong to someone, and you are supposed to give him children, to give him son(s).

Many of the women had given birth to sons first. They walked with extra oomph in their steps, their laughter loud and free. My friend, the only classmate I could bond with at the polytechnic near our home where I pursued my diploma, already had three daughters. She was two years older than me and was often the light in the room, the one who made funny jokes, who dreamt of working in an oil company after she graduated from school, who talked about her dreams as though she could reach up and pluck them from a tree. Before my eyes she underwent a frightening transformation. I saw inside her an agony so deep that it ate her inside out, turned off the light in her eyes, wrinkled her skin, and hunched her shoulders. She walked like she carried invisible sacks of garri on her back, sacks so heavy they didn’t let her stand straight. And one semester, when she didn’t return to school, I learned that her husband had gotten their house help pregnant and this help had given birth to the son my friend never gave her husband.

This was what would happen to me if I didn’t fulfill the purpose for which I was married, I was sure.

In 2004, while everyone was terrified by the intense inter-communal violence and rise of insurgency in the Niger Delta, cities mere hours away from where we lived, I was yet again praying for a baby boy.

For months before my due date, I was in the middle of a deep depression. I had suddenly become a “prayer warrior” and would kneel in the middle of my room every night, whispering to God, asking for just one miracle. Labor was swift this time. I clutched onto a pamphlet with Jesus’ face I had gotten from church and chanted prayers all through my labor. And when the nurses pulled my baby out of my body, I waited for the magic words.

Imulu ife mgbowa, the nurse said in Igbo. “You have given birth to a being with a vagina.”

She was smiling. I was crying. And for hours, after we had been moved to a private ward, I stared at my daughter, at her pouted lips, the hair curled around her ears. I thought she was perfect.

Relatives did not come immediately to the hospital. I got a phone call or two, generic congratulations on the birth of my child. My father was ill, so my mother couldn’t come as quickly to care for me as our Omugwo culture demanded. I bathed my baby, cooked my own meal. It was liberating. There were no judgmental eyes around. But I did not stare too long at my husband’s face for fear that I would see disappointment staring back.

We moved into our own house, a small, unpainted bungalow that sat at the edge of a hill. Houses here are all bounded by tall, looming fences; we could go months without seeing our neighbors. But they saw us, our front yard riddled with wild weeds. Often I worked the yard with my husband, plowing the hard earth with rusty hoes and machetes, cutting the grasses. We planted guavas and papayas at the front, and ugu and bitterleaf and nchuawu at the back. I watched my daughters with an obsession that bordered on paranoia, keeping them in sight so they wouldn’t go tumbling down the cliff behind the house. On Sundays, we sat at the side of the house and drank Pepsi, and I made soups with vegetables I plucked from the backyard.

My husband and I spoke little about our depleting finances. Things had changed over the years. His business was struggling. His store had been broken into, his shipment of mobile phones stolen. It was a difficult time. Family and friends gradually stopped visiting. For the first time since we married, we were alone. And I was pregnant again.

My son was born on a warm Wednesday morning. I had spent the night squashing fat mosquitoes against the wall of my ward and breathing through my mouth. And when my husband drove us home the following morning in his red Toyota Bluebird that creaked when it rode over potholes, he kept reaching over to cup my cheek, to touch our son, his eyes bright with happiness. I had finally fulfilled my purpose. I searched my heart for joy and relief but found nothing. For many days, I wondered why I shrank each time neighbors came by, each time hugging me and congratulating me on my redemption.

Though my husband put up a good performance for our visitors, although he still laughed and listened to his favorite records, though he loved his daughters and his new son, he would often sit in a corner and stare at the middle distance, his eyes clouded with unspoken sorrow. He was disappearing before my eyes, this vibrant man I had married, his neck now thinned like a plucked chicken’s, his pants now loose at the waist. This man who laughed often, who was the happiest when throwing a feast for friends, had become a shadow of himself.

The week after my son’s birth a relative was sitting stiffly in the sitting room. He refused the beer I offered.

“Our son was doing very well before he married you,” he said to me the moment we were alone, his eyes raking over the bare sitting room, his lips thin with displeasure.

At nights while my husband snored lightly beside me, I would slip into the bathroom and cry my eyes out. One morning, out of the blue, I thought of leaving my children behind and running away. But I had no money. I had no job. So, who would I run to? To my parents? They would bring me back. So I woke one morning and went to hunt for a job with the diploma I had earned.

I found a job as a customer service officer at a local bank. The first month, I withdrew my salary, counted the nairas to make sure it was complete, and stuffed them in my purse. Walking home that evening was like a journey over enemy lines: I jumped when people walked past, clutching the purse to my chest until I got home, sure someone would snatch my bag. I gave most of that money to my husband. Giving him the first salary I had ever earned in my whole life and seeing the sun rise in his eyes was liberating.

That weekend we ate an extra piece of meat. We had a side of salad. We sat around the TV to watch our children’s favorite animated movie, and when the power company cut the electricity, my husband bought some petrol for our generator. Many years had passed since we used that generator, and now it hummed again, joining the symphony of evening noises in our neighborhood.

And so it happened, as many things do, gradually: I began to contribute to our family’s upkeep. I paid our children’s school fees. I helped to fix things that needed fixing. My husband stopped walking as though he was permanently hunched at the shoulders. And laughter began to rumble in our home again.

Once, during a visit, my in-law squinted at the new slick flooring of our sitting room and asked when we got the tiles. My husband pointed to me and said, with a smile, “She paid for it. She has been fixing a lot of things around here.” The in-law shook my hand and patted my shoulder and said, “You are a good wife.”

I stared at him. For a long time, I just stared. Only a few years ago, he had blamed me for our struggles. Now, he was smiling. Now, he thought I was a good wife. And in the months to come, all other relatives had kind things to say to me. Although we still endured a few struggles because our earnings were never enough, I saw then that it was my financial independence that had lifted the sacks off my shoulders, unlocked the yoke around my neck, and broke the shackles bounding my limbs. I could finally stand straight. I could finally breathe well.

I saw my cousin recently on Instagram. I was scrolling through my feed when I found her, a grainy vintage snapshot of her leaning against an old Toyota. I noticed the cheap synthetic weave-on, the chalkiness of her skin. Seventeen years had passed, and she looked thirty years older. I could vividly remember the chic cousin who came home wearing the most glamorous clothes, talking down her nose at the villagers. I still remember that Christmas when she came home with a new, shiny car that she wouldn’t let anyone ride in, except for me. She invited me to join her for the Ede Aro carnival to watch masquerades. She was dark and lean and had a body that poured into shapely clothes, and I was tall and thin and worried too much about the tightness of my dress, the length of my heels. At the carnival, people looked at us, flashing smiles, and I wondered if they thought we were siblings, even though she was twelve years older.

I often wonder how things would have turned out if my cousin hadn’t caused me to walk into marriage with a chest pressed tight with fear. I wonder if my early years in marriage would have been happier had she encouraged me to seek financial independence rather than an immediate pregnancy.

Seventeen long years have since passed, with our lives taking different turns. She married and moved to Enugu with her husband, and they have three daughters. She resigned from her job because he wanted her to be a stay-at-home wife. She stopped wearing her chic clothes, swapping them for cheap wrappers and blouses. She sold off her car and, years later, after a long fight with her husband, asked my father for a small fund to start a trade.

But before this, before she buckled under the pressure and agreed to marry, before she resigned from her lucrative job and moved out of her fancy apartment, before she moved into the two-bedroom flat in Enugu and settled for a housewife, before everything changed, I was an awkward teenager and she invited me to ride with her in a car she owned. She was smiling, so full of life. She said she would invite me to visit her in Lagos. She said things that made my chest bubble with laughter and I imagined growing up to become like her: a single, successful woman, unburdened by society, living on her own terms. And in those brief moments in my memory, we are happy together.

This essay first appeared in Catapult.

Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma

Feature Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

In Conversation With Chika Unigwe

“When I had my 1st, we were told to have him lie sideways, my mother said rubbish! By the time I had my 3rd 5 years later, science had caught up with Igbo traditional wisdom, and I was told to have him sleep on his back! I am a big believer in science but science is constantly evolving, it’s not perfect.”

____

Omugwo is the Igbo term for traditional postpartum care, where the mother of the new mom, or a female relative, comes to take care of the mother and her baby.

Chika Unigwe had shared a brief story on Twitter, about her mother’s support before and after the birth of her children. So, The Body Conversation spoke to the writer and professor about postpartum care, family support and motherhood.

The images document her journey from childbirth to recovery: we see her protective mother caring for her and watching over her first baby; the last photograph shows her and Unigwe’s third child, five years later. Many Igbo families have pictorial records of such important moments, while others exist through reflections and memories.

The Body Conversation: The other day you shared an incredible story about how you were supported by your mother during and after the birth of your first child. My favourite part of that story was how she stood on guard during your son’s birth, and how she wouldn’t let you do a thing! Considering the stereotypes of motherhood many new moms are expected to perform—this idea that a mother must care and attend to her newborn and must put his needs first before hers; did you, at any point, feel any sort of guilt when your mother took over with caring for your baby?

Chika Unigwe: No. Not one bit. I was glad for the help, and it made her happy, so it was a win-win. In Belgium, you spend 5 days in hospital if you have an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. My mother (and husband) were there every day and at night, the nurses took over so I could sleep (all I had to do was call, if I needed help). My mother always says that a woman who’s just given birth has only just returned from a trip to be ndi mmuo and one who’s crossed the figurative 7 rivers and 7 seas to visit the dead and come back alive deserved rest. I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt, at all. She made me traditional Igbo soups, tied my stomach with a towel etc to help with returning the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size. When I returned home, the pampering continued. When she left, after 3 months, my parents-in-law who had been waiting impatiently, took over. S had a cot at their house, bottles, baby bath, clothes. By the way, she didn’t just do this with my 1st. She took her omugwo duties very seriously.

TBC: Ndi Igbo still practice the Omugwo culture, and the presence of mothers and mothers-in-law help many women with their postpartum mental healing. However, some women sometimes slip into depression and our mothers, some of whom have limited understanding of the condition couldn’t do much to help, despite all the domestic and moral support they offer. Is postpartum depression a thing in Igbo culture? Do we have a word for it? How would you describe postpartum depression in Igbo?

Unigwe: I cannot think of a word for postpartum depression in Igbo, and I have often thought of it. Our culture is one that cannot conceive of a new mother not being happy, especially one whose circumstances are ‘ideal’: husband, supportive family, financial well-being etc. It must be confusing to both those who suffer from it and those looking after them who are ignorant of it and who cannot imagine that it’s a thing. You know, a lot is made in the west about bonding with your baby in the first few minutes or whatever of life. In Igbo culture, that bonding is expected to be innate. The fact that you carried that pregnancy means that you’re expected to be happy and joyous and grateful. And when depression manifests itself, and what people around you see is you being sad, it is confusing for them.

Igbo, for all its sophistications, tends to lose its ability to be nuanced when it comes to describing emotions. It becomes very much like biblical language: you either love or you hate, you’re either happy or sad (there are no gradations, no grey areas). A lot more work needs to be done, urgently and intentionally, to get more nuanced about emotions and create spaces where we can name (and thereby acknowledge) postpartum depression and other mental health challenges.

TBC: In your Igbo Conference talk, you mentioned that your mom described the novel coronavirus as Alu kwo nwa n’azu, a well-known Igbo saying.. I still can’t get that powerful description out of my mind, particularly because it literally means “a curse with a baby on its back” and figuratively as double trouble. What do you think that saying portrays of the Igbo sentiment towards mothering and child care?

Unigwe: I don’t know that that saying is the right one to illustrate Igbo sentiment towards mothering and child care because I think that there are lots of other proverbs that speak more directly to the role and responsibility of mothers in Igbo traditional life. For example, a well-trained child is a compliment to the father, an ill-behaved one is the mother’s; the only one that knows the true father of a child is the mother and so on. These proverbs point to the fact that in Igbo traditional worldview, raising a child is considered as primarily being the mother’s duty. Fathers were supposed to hover around in the background, hopeless at changing diapers and feeding the baby. Thankfully, these days, men as much as women are putting in the work needed to raise their children.

TBC: I often think that many men would be more supportive post-childbirth if they witnessed the birth of their children. They would understand the woman’s possible mood disorders if they have an idea of the toll childbirth takes on the body and the mind. In Aba, where I lived, nurses do not allow men into the maternity ward until after the woman has put to birth. Do you agree that men participating in the child bearing process would affect how they perceive mothering and how they treat mothers?

Unigwe: I am shocked to hear that there are places, even now, where men are not allowed to witness their partners giving birth. Why ever not? I cannot imagine a new father being denied that. What I have heard—and I also struggle with it—is that some men don’t want to be present at the delivery of their children for whatever reason.

However, I do not believe that one needs to have witnessed a birth to be supportive of a new mother, particularly if you are in a relationship with that mother, particularly if you witnessed the nine months leading up to the birth, particularly if you are the father of that child. Men are not Thomas that must touch the wounds of Jesus to believe. One is supportive because one cares not because one has witnessed the mother of his child scream through hours of labor. There are many who do not feel the pain at all because epidural keeps them pain free. Do their partners think they need less support? I think the men who are not supportive post-childbirth are not influenced by the fact that they were not included in the last hours of a multi-month process, they are just insensitive, selfish, ignorant, or douchebags (pick one 😊).

TBC: One of the things I always looked forward to after the birth of my children was the elaborate meals my mother prepared for me—the ofe nsala packed full with chunks of meat and azu mangala, pounded yam, palm wine, even roasted chicken. But there were limitations to the other things I was allowed to eat, lest, as my mother said, they affect my babies’ metabolism and spoil something inside them. Did you observe all those rules, or do your people have a different perspective to postpartum healing?

Unigwe: As a bad and reluctant cook, I look forward to eating food made by people who cook well. I often joke that that’s why I married J. J He’s a brilliant cook. One of the perks of having my mother visit was that she took over the kitchen and I ate more Igbo food than I would usually have. She made me ofe mmili oku with ingredients that simulated uterine contractions and got me back to my pre-pregnancy shape pretty quickly. She also made me soups to “wash out the womb.” I ate whatever she gave me, and I didn’t miss what she didn’t. I remember dropping in on a Nigerian friend during one of my pregnancies, and this friend had made jollof but she apologized that I couldn’t eat it because it was “too peppery, enough to induce a pregnancy.” I also know that the postpartum soup my mom made me isn’t to be eaten during pregnancy because of the contraction-inducing spices

TBC: And then, there is this rule that a mother must sit on a low, wooden stool for three months. The idea was (and, I think, still is) that this posture would help gather the pelvis together. Also, the lower belly is massaged with hot water to help in her postpartum shedding, so that her uterus will heal and return to its previous position within the pelvis. Are you aware of these? I am interested in what other Igbo women think about this practice.

Unigwe: I have a lot of respect for our traditional methods because I am a living testament that they work 😊. Seriously though, like I said in my tweets, my mother raised 7 children, loves us all unconditionally, and so I trusted her. I ate what she swore was good for me, allowed her to take care of me and my infants, even when her ways clashed with the opinions of the society I was living in. It’s been a vindication to see that society begin to catch up to her ways. When I had my 1st, we were told to have him lie sideways, my mother said rubbish! By the time I had my 3rd 5 years later, science had caught up with Igbo traditional wisdom, and I was told to have him sleep on his back! I am a big believer in science but science is constantly evolving, it’s not perfect. In the areas in which our ancestors’ mothering and childcare methods have persisted and have been shown to have no adverse effects, I am happy to stick to them.

My mother had me squat in the bathtub every morning while she pressed my stomach with hot water; she tied my stomach with a towel or a piece of cloth everyday (I think I untied it to go to bed) and now, I see that stomach binding is a thing new mothers are encouraged to do in some American hospitals; she encouraged me to rest. When I couldn’t breastfeed. She told me it wasn’t a big deal, what mattered was that the baby was getting fed.

TBC: Any advice for pregnant women as they begin their life at mothers?

Unigwe: Do not be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your healthcare provider, your partner, your support network.

Accept whatever help is available and is on offer. You will be a parent for a very long time, you will have all the time to bond with the child, so take whatever time you need to rest and recuperate.

Do not work yourself into a state trying to make everything perfect, babies don’t need perfection. They thrive on love (they don’t care that the dishwasher is not loaded; that the pram is second-hand; that the windows are not cleaned).

It is normal to be afraid. I was so overwhelmed by the idea that J and I, both in our 20s, were going to be responsible for another human. How could we when we slept through alarm?. I remember thinking, what if I was left alone with S and I forgot to feed him? It is normal to question, no one has all the answers.

Most of all, remember, ogadimma. Everything will be alright. All the new parents you think are doing a good job are also mostly winging it.

Chika Unigwe holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, Holland. She is the author of four novels, including On Black Sisters Street and Night Dancer. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various journals including The New York Times,The Guardian, Aeon, Wasafiri,Transition, Guernica, Agni, and the Kenyon Review. Her works have been translated into many languages including German, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and Dutch. A recipient of several awards, she sat on the jury of the 2017 Man Booker International Award and is the director of Awele Creative Trust, an NGO she set up to encourage creative writing among young Nigerians.

Her collection, Better Never than Late, is available here.

Images © Chika Unigwe.

Author photo credit: woman.ng

Birthing the Sacred Woman by Samantha Kolber

Birthing the sacred woman

See how she’s grown

From empty-vessel innocent

To full-bellied, tired and spent

What fire awaits her body’s glow

To push bone against bone in that slow

Transition from woman to mother

Embodiment of power no other

Will love laboriously into being

A small, sacred body fleeing

Red womb house of berth

To milk, mother, Earth.

Featured Image: Sasha Freemind (Unsplash)

Samantha Kolber has received a Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and a Vermont Poetry Society prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mom Egg Review, Poems2Go, Tiny Seed Journal, Rise Up Review, Hummingbird, Hunger Mountain, Minerva Rising, The Meadow, and other journals and anthologies. Her poem “Year in Review Haiku” was featured on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition in 2019. She received her MFA from Goddard College, and completed post-grad studies at Pine Manor College’s Solstice MFA Program. Originally from New Jersey, she lives in Montpelier, Vermont, where she coordinates author events and marketing for Bear Pond Books and is the Poetry Series Editor at Rootstock Publishing. Her chapbook, “Birth of a Daughter,” is forthcoming from Kelsay Books (Sept. 1, 2020). Read and listen to her poems at her website, samanthakolber.com.

Feature Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Birth of a Daughter by Samantha Kolber

I birth myself anew

as I birth you, daughter.

I am me plus and minus the cells expunged

to create you, daughter.

You arrive, doll-sized, bright-eyed, a sponge

soaking up my milk—

more cells I shed to make you, feed you,

daughter. Am I the mushroom—

the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body

of a fungus, or are you? Or do we

form one as a verb? Do we mushroom

into this life, together, daughter?

I write this as you are away; we call it school,

though it is June and you are three.

I work, I write, I sit outside

in the sun, and I can’t lie: it’s delicious,

this time away from you;

it’s precious, as are you.

It has only taken me 42 years to realize

I am precious, too.

From chapbook Birth of a Daughter coming from Kelsay Books, Sept, 1, 2020.

Image: Tabitha Turner (Unsplash)

Samantha Kolber has received a Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and a Vermont Poetry Society prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mom Egg Review, Poems2Go, Tiny Seed Journal, Rise Up Review, Hummingbird, Hunger Mountain, Minerva Rising, The Meadow, and other journals and anthologies. Her poem “Year in Review Haiku” was featured on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition in 2019. She received her MFA from Goddard College, and completed post-grad studies at Pine Manor College’s Solstice MFA Program. Originally from New Jersey, she lives in Montpelier, Vermont, where she coordinates author events and marketing for Bear Pond Books and is the Poetry Series Editor at Rootstock Publishing. Her chapbook, “Birth of a Daughter,” is forthcoming from Kelsay Books (Sept. 1, 2020). Read and listen to her poems at her website, samanthakolber.com.

Feature Image by Guilherme Reis from Pixabay

Is It Still Beautiful? Motherhood and Mental Health During a Pandemic

The only photographs I have on my LG mobile phone are my children’s. They are 17, 15, and 13, and every one of those photos show them wearing big smiles or pouting or frozen in some silly Snapchat filters that make them look like characters in an animated picture. They live in Aba, Nigeria, with their father, and I am holed up in my room somewhere in Montpelier, Vermont—the city everyone I know mistakes for her Mediterranean namesake in France, the one with the extra ‘L’, but less gothic, more lush vegetation in summer, and famous for its delicious maple syrup.

These days I hardly leave my room. Cars no longer pull up under my window bursting with excited families and their dogs and their hiking or skiing gadgets as they used to a few weeks ago, when winter still pummeled the trees and the streets with its blizzard. My college has moved the remainder of the semester online. My fellowship at the college store has been suspended indefinitely and the library has been shut down. After the dreary and gloomy stretched-out months of winter, the sun wastes on the asphalts and concrete curbs because everyone is wary about the pandemic that is prowling from country to country, like the biblical beast of the night. Children and their coaches no longer play baseball or basketball or even soccer on the College Green.

Yesterday, I walked over to the college vestibule to pick up the document the kind student services person printed for me. On the doors of the college properties are polite precautionary warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic (a similar notice hangs on the wall of the lavatory sinks which I share with my colleagues in the dorm).

As I crossed the eerily empty street, I wondered if I was, in fact, living in one of those bizarre apocalyptic films of the 90s that scared me away from horror films and warped psychological thrillers till today.

I speak with my children via WhatsApp video or voice calls every other day, and each time they pick up the phone, my last baby, Chu, would ask, “How is Montpelier? Is it still beautiful?” He asks this all the time. He also asks after my friends, whom he respectfully calls Aunty, as Nigerians are wont to do.

“How is Aunty Noni? How is Aunty Amara? How is Aunty Rebecca? Have you seen them today?” he asked two days ago over voice call. He sounded light, happy. If I closed my eyes and imagined I was there in the parlour with him and his siblings, he would be sitting astride my favourite sofa, munching on a piece of biscuit or crackers, his attention half on the TV which most definitely would be displaying his favourite animated show, Avatar.

How is Aunty Rebecca?

My son is 13 years old and has a mild speech impediment, and as such, he chooses his words cautiously and pronounces them just as cautiously. Or recklessly, when he is upset. When we spoke, there was a certain carefulness with the way he worded ‘Rebecca’, because you see, my son sometimes rushes over the /r/ sound, jumbling it together with other easily-voiced consonants, such that if he is distracted or upset while speaking, ‘Rebecca’ would tumble out of his mouth as ‘ehBecca’. But yesterday, he said it right, his tone filled with joy, with laughter. He was not paying that much attention to me, I could sense, but he was aware enough to want to participate in the ritual of asking after all my friends and how the city was treating me.

Everyone is fine, I wanted to say, but his question had ripped a hole into my carefully-stacked comportment, because only moments ago I had shared the kitchen with Rebecca and we avoided each other like awkward strangers on a pathway. Before now we used to be in each other’s space; our arms are wrapped around each other in my favourite photos of us together. Now, there is a huge wall sitting between us because we have to adhere to the rules of social distancing, because we know the importance of keeping our hands to ourselves, because we understand that we both pose a risk and could bring harm to each other.

I wanted to tell Chu about this: I wanted to tell him that I can no longer hug my friends, that there is a weight pressing down my chest these days, and my body feels deprived of love, of warmth; that my classmates and I share amenities in our Glover Hall dorm but ever since the virus began to sweep through the United States, we have been practising new ways of being: how to congregate on video conferencing apps, to wipe down the surfaces with disinfectants after our mates have used them without coming off as rude; that we have to give each other a wide berth and laugh nervously when we walk into walls just so our bodies don’t touch. That I wash my hands too often, much more than I had done in my entire life, and the skin of the back of my hands has begun to peel, and it burned every time I let the lather sit for twenty seconds. I wanted to tell him all these, but only a whimper spilled out of my mouth.

“What did you do today? Tell me,” I asked him instead, after I had quickly gathered myself. He told me the efforts their father was taking to protect them from the disease. They wash their hands often and he no longer hangs with his friends as usual, even though there is no record of the incident yet in Abia State. His father does not trust this and I do not, too. Abia is already a city of polluted air and clogged drainages and potbellied roads and heaps of dirt lying in the streets which the rains wash into homes, into market stalls, into worship places. Every businessperson travels to Lagos (where there are, at the time of writing this, 51 confirmed cases) to buy goods which they take with them to Aba, the central city in Abia. The governor, while addressing the press a week ago, said the virus has yet to infect anyone in the state because: “Abia is the only state that is mentioned in the Bible. We have a promise from God.”

I thought all of that was bullshit. “Do everything your daddy says you should do, okay?” I told Chu. I repeated the same warning to his sisters, and after the call ended, I sent reminders to their WhatsApps, and my eldest, Chi, replied seconds later with laughing and heart emojis.  “You worry too much, mummy,” she said. “You worry tooooo much!”

IF I WERE with my family in our bungalow that sits at the edge of the hill—the small house with its high fence and simple decor, the yard dotted with guava trees at the sides, paw-paws at the back, and my small herbs garden behind the kitchen which blooms with nchuanwu and curry and waterleaf and onugbu plants—I would restrict the movements of our neighbours who throng in to see my children every day.

The state governor has yet to take precautionary measures against the virus and Chi tells me that people still carry on with their daily activities, still moving in cramped spaces. Chi will be 18 this September and is now as tall as I am. She carries herself with a grace that belies her age and has eyes that reminds me of my late grandmother who spoke less and listened more, traits I also find in my father.

Chi knows the long history of my anxiety. She also knows how to tame them. Her favourite speech consists of reminding me that my middle name is not ‘Worry’, that she has become the new mummy of the house and is capable of keeping an eye on her siblings, and I should enjoy my time in America. She graduated secondary school a year ago and insisted, despite my pleas, that she must to take a year off school to learn how to make things with her hands, and I caved and registered her at a tailoring school and bought her a sewing machine. The first dresses she made were for her sister, Som, who has become, officially, her style muse.

Will there ever come a time when I learn how to stop worrying? And how do I deal with this guilt that pokes every time I laugh too loud with friends, every time I share a glass of wine; this guilt that says a good mother must never be too ambitious, must never leave her children’s sight? There is a weight sitting inside my chest, lodged somewhere between my lungs and my ribs, which always makes breathing difficult. Last week, I woke from a feverish dream; something had terrible happened to my son and although the details of that nightmare flitted away with sleep, all I could remember was the horror I felt inside. My body was suffused with sweat. I called home and Chu told me he threw up the night before and in the morning and even that afternoon. “Daddy gave me medicine but I am still sick. My body is hot.” A wave of dizziness washed over me and I sat down and began to pace my breathing.

Their father, G., took the phone from him. “Nne, you have started again. Stop that! I can tell you are shaking. He is fine. Do you hear me? I say he is fine. It is just malaria,” he said, urgent Igbo spitting out of his mouth like a prayer, the same tone he uses every time we have a heated conversation.

And there was something beautifully depressing about those words. I can tell you are shaking. G. knows me well, knows how powerless I become before my anxiety and guilt. He repeated the comforting lines again and again, and I listened to him switch the gears of our conversation, listened as the minutes ticked by, as a cold breeze shook my window blinds, and something warm eased the knots in my belly, in my shoulders. I unclenched my jaw and the headache thrumming in my temples simmered into something comfortable.

I spoke with Chu one more time before we ended the call. “I miss you more than you miss me,” he said, and I held back happy tears, repeated the same lines. Later, I took to Twitter and got lost in the rabbit hole brimming with pensive news and ‘hot takes’ and breaking news about the pandemic. It was better that way, else I would be left alone with my thoughts, vulnerable to the moodiness that always lurked around, seeking the tiniest opportunity to wrap its talons around my mind.

TODAY, SOM PICKS the call on the third ring. Som is my second baby, the bubble of light and laughter who uttered her first clear word, mama, when she was barely six months old. She will turn 16 in a few days and had sent me the list of things she plans to do at home with her siblings. Today she says she will bake the cake herself; she has looked up a recipe on YouTube, and will follow the instructions to the letter because, “Mummy, this cake must be purr-fect!” I have never seen a child with so much energy, with so much light, the way her eyes shine, the excitement and joy sifting from her very pores.

Chi comes on next. She shows me the designs she has drawn of the dress she is sewing for Som, a birthday gift she thinks Som will absolutely adore. “Don’t tell her. This is supposed to be a surprise,” she says, and I zip my lips and toss the imaginary keys away. She smiles.

Chu’s happy face appears on the screen. He gives me a wide, toothy smile. Then his face squeezes into a mask of concern. He peers into the phone, bringing the gadget so close that I can see the nerves of his irises and the red caves of his nostrils. “Mummy, what happened to your eyes? They look different today.”

Something catches in my throat. He sees me; he sees through my oft faux positive demeanor. Lately, I have had trouble concentrating on anything; I’m often tumbling down in the bottomless news about the pandemic shared on Twitter. My anxiety revels in this atmosphere, eating into every inch of my mind, sucking all my will, all my strength, making it difficult for me to lift myself from these stories. I spend all day, lying in bed and fiddling with my phone, my thesis deadline ticking like a bomb waiting to explode, waiting to sink the ground underneath my feet and drag me in.

But I don’t tell Chu all of this. I do know, though, that talking with my children has become a saving grace. I give him my best smile, and bring the camera so close that my nose almost butts against his face, so that I can see, for the longest time, the concern and love swimming in his eyes. All just for me.

“I am fine, darling,” I say. “I am better now. How are you today?”

This essay first appeared in Brittle Paper.

Featured image by Chris Barbalis (Unsplash)

Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma

Episode 2: The Body Conversation Podcast

In this second episode, Ukamaka Olisakwe chats with Cate Dicharry, Aisha Sarkin-Pawa, Samantha Kolber, M. K. Martin, and Charity Ngabirano, about maternal mental health in the age of social distancing.

Cate is the Director of the Writing and Humanities Program at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine; Aisha is an entrepreneur and a wardrobe consultant; Samantha coordinates author events and marketing for Bear Pond Books and is the Poetry Series Editor at Rootstock Publishing; Charity is a writer, and an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda with a passion for social justice; and M. K. is a Minnesota born and raised author and editor.

Noni Salma, a film-maker, writer and avid film enthusiast, moderated the webinar.

The Body Conversation Podcast is edited and mixed by Ukamaka Olisakwe. Comments or suggestions? E-mail thebodyconvo@gmail.com.

Music credit:

“Sincerely” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Maternal Mental Health in the Age of Social Distancing

We are so excited to announce that the second episode of #TheBodyConversation webinar will be held virtually on Zoom, on June 27.

You can register for the episode by sending an email to thebodyconvo@gmail.com to get a Zoom invite.

Meet our panelists:

Cate Dicharry graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR with a BA in Political Science in 2003. Cate moved to China to teach English at Dalian Nationalities University and discovered a love for creative writing. Cate went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from the Low Residency Program at the University of California, Riverside. Cate is the Director of the Writing and Humanities Program at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

Cate lives in Iowa City with her husband and two small sons.

Aisha Sarkin-Pawa hails from Gusau, Zamfara State, and studied Biochemistry at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State. Aisha is an entrepreneur and a wardrobe consultant.

Aisha is a mother of one.

Samantha Kolber has received a Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and a Vermont Poetry Society prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mom Egg Review, Poems2Go, Tiny Seed Journal, Rise Up Review, Hummingbird, Hunger Mountain, Minerva Rising, The Meadow, and other journals and anthologies. Her poem “Year in Review Haiku” was featured on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition in 2019. She received her MFA from Goddard College, and completed post-grad studies at Pine Manor College’s Solstice MFA Program. Originally from New Jersey, she lives in Montpelier, Vermont, where she coordinates author events and marketing for Bear Pond Books and is the Poetry Series Editor at Rootstock Publishing. Her chapbook, “Birth of a Daughter,” is forthcoming from Kelsay Books (Sept. 1, 2020). Read and listen to her poems at her website, samanthakolber.com.

Charity Ngabirano is a writer, and an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda with a passion for social justice. She holds a Bachelor of Laws Degree from Makerere University and a Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Centre. Most notably though, Charity is a full time wife and mama of two beautiful girls. When she is not cooking and baby sitting, Charity loves to read African literature.

M. K. Martin is a Minnesota born and raised author and editor. Her novel Survivors’ Club was published in 2017. Her short stories appear in 0-Dark-Thirty, Wanderlust Literary Journal, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Hunger Mountain Literary Journal, and in several anthologies. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Between Minnesota and Vermont, Martin was an exchange student in Paraguay, joined the Army, got deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq, got a BA in Linguistics from the University of Oregon, and developed a deep love of tea. Find out more at https://mkmartinwriter.com/

Hawa Jande Golakai was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and spent her childhood in her homeland of Liberia, later living in several African countries when her family fled the civil war. Her crime debut The Lazarus Effect was nominated for three literary awards, and was published by Cassava Republic Press. Hawa was listed by the Hay Festival as one of the thirty-nine most promising African writers under the age of forty, and her work was included in the Africa39 anthology published by Bloomsbury.

Hawa’s photo was taken by Victor Ehikhamenor.

Writing Motherhood Taught Me About My Emotional and Psychic Inheritance by Megan Ross

I light a fire in your mouth
and whisper:
burn me.

Soon, I launch my first book. It is a poetry collection that in writing has helped me stitch together my fragmented self that were left after I gave birth to my son. The collection grew from the word corpse, a word I wrote in an old journal on the day postpartum women are told to expect the onset of baby blues.

I think I read that somewhere or it was told to me, by an aunt or my mother. Yes—my mom. And there we all were in the maternity ward at Park Lane Clinic, sobbing on day three. Cabbage leaves pressed to engorged breasts. Catheters inserted, catheters removed. For many women, lucky women, it is fleeting: the blues pass, and the colors of new life arrive; soft creams of brushed cotton bed sheets, the milky white of talcum. Baby colors: baby pinks and blues and yellows, cosseting, cuddling, containing.

For others, the baby blues is just the beginning. A second gestation where emptiness blooms like a blind, blackened magnolia, bursting open in cruel beauty to burn away the light. Poison bleeds into everything. Joy is eaten. Not even the wellspring of oxytocin is a match for it. The depression seeps into the floors and rises up the walls like damp.

***

I live in a surfing town. East London. We plot our days and weeks around the movement of tides. Against the whims of the moon we pin our hopes: praying for west winds, warm water, good swell. On days when the wind blows east, we shutter ourselves away in contempt, stitching jerseys to our skins, remaining barefoot, in shorts, though. Babies cry crocodile tears and refuse their pureed meals. Everyone is grumpy.

When the east wind blows it brings with it the dead, plucking them from graves, hurling them far across the oil-stained skins of our beaches. Quiet spirits rest in coral tree boughs, furious ghosts climb up walls. The worst of their kind, the ones who refuse a later departure, who prefer turns of malevolence to the rest offered by unending silence, overturn mugs of coffee and curdle milk.

On afternoons like these, when the wind turns, my mother tells me to take my son inside, take out a pile of books and read the afternoon away. An early bath, she advises, is the only antidote to a windy day. She isn’t wrong about the wind and my son’s mood, which becomes increasingly tetchy as the wind picks up and leaves are whipped into furious spirals and salted windows slam unexpectedly.

My sister is a child when she tells me that the wind is so annoying because you can’t see which direction it’s coming from. It’s not something you always even see; you can only watch its effect on the environment it enters. Watch as it sends stratus across the sky. Arches the trunks of trees like broken bodies in agony. Tears laundry from the line. If you were to tell an alien from a windless planet about this invisible force that turns swell into waves and animates leaves and hats and flags, they might struggle to believe you.

As a child I experience night terrors. I often wake shaking, sweating, sobbing. I am sure that there is something in my room that is watching me, something in the shadows knotted around my bed. Often, I scream, or try to. Sometimes, I hide under my duvet, praying that somehow my mom will know that I am afraid and rush through to my bedroom. Sometimes she does, and then I realize that I have been crying out: Mommy! Mommy! The nightmares continue throughout my childhood. A sensitive child, I am unable to watch horror movies at sleepovers. I do not read scary books. The R. L. Stine Goosebumps books are enough to trigger the kind of thought process that welcomes hypnagogic states: the planes of visitation, the place where ghosts come from. Like many small children who are afraid of the dark, I run to the bathroom at night, switch on the light, and on my return, leave the light on. I run into my room and leap as soon as I possibly can into the duvet. I want to avoid the monsters that prowl around my bed. I don’t need to see them to believe that they are there.

***

When I am sixteen years old, I am told that my grandmother had often complained of feeling empty. As if there was a vacuum in her middle, something missing in her core. Having no direct experience of Granny Valerie, I have only my mother’s words to go on. Words, words: I am told that I am good with them, as was the woman who birthed my mother almost three months too early in 1960. My mother should have died. She didn’t. The framed front page of the Rand Daily Mail hangs in our passage, dated sometime in September of that year, when my mother should only have been born. Gillian is a Miracle Wonder: Gillian Maclear, 2lb, 1oz at birth, sleeps contentedly in the arms of her mother, Mrs Valerie Maclear, when they left a Johannesburg nursing home yesterday. Gillian, who now weighs 5lb, 1oz, was born prematurely seven weeks ago.

While finishing my poetry collection, I feel as if my grandmothers are close by. This is especially true when I write the last poem in the collection, which I feel as if they urged me to write. There are so many signs along the way, a collection of private symbols that seem to say that they are egging me on. I dedicate the poem to them. Them, mothers of my parents, them, deceased. These were women who didn’t belong to the lives they had been given. Talented, ballsy, brainy women who should never have been bred into domesticity. Who, for their own reasons, some different, some similar, had no safe place to call home, or, had it taken away from them.

Valerie, my mother’s mother, died in the early 1980s. Marcia, my father’s, in 2005. My Granny Marcia died in a cold flat in the east rand of Johannesburg. Granny Valerie, in a hospital not long after my mom married my dad. Both women were alcoholics. Granny Marcia died drunk. Granny Valerie died going cold turkey.

***

Childbirth and its meaty aftermath made me feel strangely beastly. Milk soaked all my T-shirts. I became fiercely protective of my newborn. I was also frightened, and felt a sudden empathy for scared mothers—sow and sheep and cow and human—realizing, with a shock, that I was now one of them. I had a particularly difficult birth and the lack of empathy and institutional violence I experienced in addition to this wounded me. I felt abandoned and alone. When I expressed these emotions I was told that it was at odds with what mothers should feel, do feel, after childbirth.

Driving in my mother’s car one day, about three weeks after Oliver was born (still smarting and raw from my c-section), I told my poor mom that I felt as if I had died in childbirth, as had my child. I looked on this body of mine as a shell, and the person inhabiting it as a ghost. And what of your baby, my mother asked, concern forming creases in her forehead.

This isn’t him, I wanted to say.

Instead, I told her that I felt increasingly detached from my newborn son, as if the baby I gestated disappeared the instant I gave birth, and this child, a shadow child, had replaced it. I didn’t know how to tell her how much I had loved the baby that bounced around inside my uterus, a 4.36kg child that responded with kicks and hiccoughs to ’70s rock music and hip hop. Who began rolling around my tummy the instant I tried to sleep and poked about my ribcage. I could not reconcile the child I held in my arms with the child I grew. I felt as if I were a continent breaking apart. An island. A schism formed. When I cried out for help I was told that these emotions were abnormal. I felt apart from other mothers. Devious—monstrous.

While doing research for Milk Fever, a collection that became increasingly layered with intertextual references, I rediscovered the chimera. Despite studying the Homeric creature in art History and Classics at university, I had quite forgotten about it, and read about the creature with renewed interest. It appealed to me: this beast of many, this haunted thing considered a bad omen, especially in the maritime world.

Head of a goat, body of a lion, a tail ending in a snake’s head. Fire-breathing. Chimera.

***

Growing up I had many recurring dreams but there is one that still chills me to my core. In the dream, I wake up in my bed, and know, instinctively, to go to the passage that bisects our house into its north and south parts. I stand at the beginning of it, a landing, sort of, from which the bathroom and other bedrooms emerge, and watch as the faint outline of a figure forms in the darkness beyond. I know something awful is coming, something terrifying. The figure moves closer. Appears to be a woman. I am rooted to the spot and grow increasingly terrified. I become aware that it is a dream and I try to wake myself but I cannot move. Frozen, I watch as the woman moves closer to me, along the passage that has now grown impossibly long. When she reaches me, the dream ends. There is a dark quality to this dream, something subterranean that feels as if it was dredged not from my mind but somewhere further away, an ancestral place.

I am seventeen when I tell my mother about this recurring nightmare. Expecting her to comfort me, I am shocked when she recoils in horror. Pressing her to explain this unexpected reaction, she remarks, somewhat cryptically, that her mother complained of the same nightmare.

She’d wake up Grampa Keith and tell him something terrible was on its way.

***

Among other things, pregnancy is a miracle. It is also difficult, tiring, boring, and sometimes, downright traumatic. As a pregnant mother, I pore through “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and all manner of maternity manuals, hoping some of their wisdom will prepare me for becoming a mother. They don’t, of course; they can’t. But what they can do, and do do for me is explain the magical biological processes of the mother’s body, how information is passed from the developing fetus’s body to that of her own, the exchange of nutrients across the placental barrier. When I am breastfeeding, I learn that breasts are diagnostic machines designed to create a potent superfood individually tailored to each woman’s baby. When he breastfeeds, some of my son’s saliva enters my body and tells my breasts what nutrients he needs, and whether he may or may not require antibodies for a cold. My body responds with liquid gold and cements the delicate bond that is beginning to form through the thick of my postpartum depression. I become a breastfeeding advocate, and take on work with clients who do the same. It is another two years, however, before I discover the miraculous exchange that takes place across the blood-placental barrier.

Red blood cells, carbon dioxide, antigens and nutrients all pass through this channel from mother to baby and vice versa. This, I understood. Cells from the baby pass into the mother in order to communicate with her cells and tell her things like, Hey, make me some milk, please! I’ll arrive soon! What I didn’t know is that medical scientists have now discovered that these cells stay in the mother’s body, and travel the bloodstream like passengers on board a Nile cruise. From there, they continue to communicate with the mother’s body above and beyond what was necessary during pregnancy, possibly even predisposing the mother to inflammation and potential cancer risks later on.

These cells form small bodies that can influence the mother’s fertility, and, scientists have suggested they may even play a role in miscarriages. Every single pregnancy stores this living information in the mother’s body, whether or not the pregnancy is continued to term. Microchimeras, they’re called.

***

In an interview for the Paris Review (Art of Poetry No. 88) writer and interviewer Will Aitken tells Anne Carson that her poems feel more like objects than poems. “They feel constructed, like a painting.” Carson responds by saying, “But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. His mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

Growing up with a parent who suffers from substance abuse is terribly difficult. We know from studies that the impact on the child’s wellbeing and development can be enormous. I know from first-hand knowledge that when that child grows up and becomes a parent, they’re usually wholly determined not to become their parent and continue the cycle of abuse. (Sometimes, of course, it does go the other way).

Whether or not they succeed depends entirely on how much of their own shit they’ve dealt with. To understand the symbiosis between addiction, abuse, and distress in my family, this kind of intergenerational haunting, if you will, I wrote a poem where ordinary objects take on significance in relation to their symbolic attachment to addiction and abuse. A bedroom becomes a war zone, the driveway becomes the place a father beat his son, cracking the bridge of his nose, fracturing his wife’s skull when she tried to defend her child.

As the child of parents who experienced abuse and whose mothers were alcoholics, I become keenly aware of my parents’ fractured sense of time and memory, and how this impacts the act of home-building.

Growing up, I knew that I could always count on my parents; they were solid and stable in a way that theirs simply weren’t. And yet, the ghosts of their pasts hung around, so that when we were enjoying this stable childhood, this happy life, we were aware, my sister and I, that it hadn’t always been so. That it might not always be so. The specters of dead family members, afflicted, addicted, loomed ever closer as we entered our teens.

I remember reading an article about how children of children who were abused or who had alcoholic parents will inherit the same PTSD and struggle with similar attachment issues to that parent, even though the addiction or abuse is one generation removed. In my own life, I remember tiptoeing around my mother a lot, afraid of her outbursts, or that she would be mean to me, in a way that didn’t really match her actual behavior. It was almost as if I had inherited the way she acted around her own parents, through some kind of strange genetic osmosis, and it sawed this edge into our relationship. This cleaving space we both move very quickly into no matter how good things are between us.

***

My partner and I begin dating when I am nineteen. We break up and get back together and continue this pattern for years. At twenty-five, I fall pregnant with his baby in a Thai city not known for sleep and keep it and move back to South Africa. He knows me, all of me, as a man should when he is expecting the woman he loves to carry his child. Perhaps he knows me because we’re cut from the same cloth. Both stitched and sewn from broken hearts and women bent on changing that. Perhaps because there is something in him that is haunted too, he recognizes my own demons, and accepts them as his own. It could also be why he feels comfortable telling me when the haunting is too much: when the second selves and shadows have overcome the daylight parts of me. I think I am twenty-four years old when his cousin, also my friend, phones to tell Chad about a dream he has had.

Bro, it was fucking terrifying. I was in the house, her mom’s house, and I knew something was terribly wrong. I looked around me: saw bookcases, plants; but I knew something was off, you know, I just knew.

What he told Chad is what I already knew, because I had dreamt that same dream many times before.

I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. As had I. And the thing fucking stopped.I remember. And something evil filled the room.It always does. And then I was being held up by my throat in the corner of the room. Oh, yes. And I knew, I knew. Moment of truth. It’s not the house, bro, it’s her.

***

When female babies are born, they enter the world with every ovum perfectly formed inside their new ovaries. If you think about it, the potential children of a baby girl already exist inside of her. She is born carrying her possible biological descendants. And if you think about this even more, it seems possible that, in a way, her mother, who carried this child for nine months, has, in doing so, if only in their beginnings, met and kept her possible future grandchildren as well. Blood crosses the placental barrier in an exchange of cells that nourish and irrevocably change both bodies.

When I am pregnant with my son, I realize that his beginnings was in me when I was born and so in a beautiful twist, he, too, lived inside my mother. In pregnancy, she held me. She held her grandchild, just as I slowly realized, my Granny Valerie, who has existed to me only in polaroids and the faint whiff of her perfume in old clothes my mother kept, held me. These aren’t my memories, or my dreams. They enter me through my mother, as they did through her own. Loss is a bomb and I have been feeling for its heat. Hoping I could transcend the absence of Valerie and Marcia, somehow step over it to the glassy lake where my lost foremothers might have been swimming all along in characteristic poise and grace. I write the last poem in my collection and when it ends I have somehow convinced myself that I am exorcizing something of the memories that aren’t mine and in their place, summoning the flesh and love of real women. Expecting oceans, I was met instead with desert. Terrible, shimmering desert.

In writing, I wanted to fill this hollow with words. I wanted to build a cathedral where girls danced with their mamas and mamas sang them songs. I thought I could locate the genesis of this emptiness and follow its trail right back into the bellies of my foremothers. Maybe I thought I could erase their pain, at least some of it, or transport myself into their arms and be held and feel their love entering me in the warmth of their bodies and not the fond, detached gaze of family photos.

But I was writing about women in absentia. Piecing together personalities from familial myth and legend; painting with negative space and hoping it would birth portraits.

I have been writing about my son and my own motherhood, yet, unbeknownst to me, I have been trying to find the part of me that begins with one woman and the edge where I flow into another. Perhaps in defining what isn’t me I will trace an outline around the place where I might be. Where all of them are, where they still exist in me.

I was writing about my son, about myself, but as I have always done, I was unpacking emptiness, and finding that it contained centuries. Silence speaks volumes and absence can manifest a universe of joy, of pain, of inherited ghosts and intergenerational haunting.

Maybe it was my imagination, but my post-birth pain, elation, confusion—also contained a dead thing. A frightened thing. Nebulous and inorganic, it was the opposite of a seed. It contained no life. Held zero potential. And yet, there was something in this word corpse that spurred me on to write a complete poem, and then another, and another, until Milk Fever, a collection, was born.

Where will all my nothing go?

What began as poems to explore my own motherhood became a time machine I commandeered back into the murky waters of my mother, and her mother, and our line of women who have seemed, through blood or birth or coincidence, to harvest under their skins a homing beacon for haunting. How terrible this is, how strangely perfect, too? Parts ancestral, paranormal, biological.

Haunted, afflicted, addicted, yes, but how my foremothers loved and were loved in turn. These women who I call my own. These women who bore me, and continue to do so.

Where will all my nothing go?

Onwards, forwards, in blood and teaching and words. In the ways that I am able to send it on, because the nothingness, the emptiness, was never anything to be afraid of. Our earth was formed in the belly of darkness, in a universe black with night. Beneath the earth, seeds germinate in damp night, and break through the ground to receive the sun. Humans, like other mammals, grow round and warm in our mother’s wombs: a place of no sight, the place before.

Life.

The universe sprang forth from nothing. As do we. Each living creature echoes these patterns of creation, birthed from emptiness into a world of beauty and grit and gore. Maybe all we can do to survive whatever private afflictions are ours, whichever ghosts we inherit, whichever monster haunts our nights, is to honor the life-giving hollow. Flame, serpent, beast. Let it swallow us, and all our beautiful monsters. •

A version of this essay originally appeared in Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction.

This version appeared in Catapult.

Megan Ross is the author of Milk Fever (uHlanga Press, 2018) a collection of poetry, and several short stories and essays that have gone on to achieve critical acclaim.

She is also an editor, journalist and graphic designer, working on both the copy & art aspects of book production for publishers across the African continent. She is a recipient of the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction (2017) and an Alumni Award for the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik (2016), as well as a finalist for the Gerald Kraak, Miles Morland, Short Story Day Africa and Short. Sharp Awards.

Megan lives on the South African Wild Coast with her partner and four-year-old son.