Category Archives: Nonfiction

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.

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

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

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.

Pregnancy Journeys by Marie-Ange Rukundo

I’ve been wanting to write for a long time but I found myself stuck in a rut unable to think of what I should write about. Then I remembered a piece of advice I once heard: write about a topic that you’re familiar with or one that speaks to you and the words will flow naturally. So here I am, about to write about babies, more specifically pregnancy. I can’t think of a more appropriate topic to get started and hopefully I’ll catch the writing bug along the way.

Current situation: I’ve got a 16-month old. In my close friends circle, there are 6 babies under 3 (including mine), in my extended social circle there are at least 5 babies that were born the same year as mine and a close friend of mine is currently expecting. In short, I got a baby, they got babies, everybody’s got babies *Oprah voice*

***

Before the beginning

I got pregnant about 1.5 years into my marriage. My husband and I had talked about it and decided we were ready for it. I had 3 friends who were recent moms and they were all quite open about their respective pregnancies and motherhood experience that they made the whole idea of getting pregnant appear less scary than I’d imagined. Let me tell y’all, movies lie and Hollywood has made a fortune based on lies. Don’t ever make the mistake of using your favorite mama comedy as a measuring stick for your future  pregnancy. You might be thoroughly disappointed by the absence of weird cravings- that would serve as funny tales to tell your friends and future child– and the fact you may end up getting daily nausea that “eating for two” won’t even be an option.

You may be equally shocked by the sudden onset of nightly insomnia when you used to be a perfect 8-hours-of-sleep-per-night kinda gal. I don’t mean to scare you but there are so many symptoms, occurrences that mainstream media doesn’t even scratch at the surface of in common dialogue that I found my pregnancy journey to be baffling at times, if not throughout the entire period. Through this series, I will share my own and my friends’ experiences which may serve as inspiration, encouragement or… just cause for you to delay your plans. That last one’s a joke. Lol! 

***

The early days

Sleep had never been so good. I had always been an avid sleeper but man, pregnancy sleep was a whole other dimension of sleep I had never experienced. Quick to come and long to last. Every single episode was sweet from beginning to end; it was as peaceful as I imagined an induced coma to be like. I never slept so much in my life as in my first trimester. At a certain point, my sleep statistics became alarming but thanks to Google I discovered that the first trimester is when the hCG pregnancy hormone peaks and its primary side effect is to induce dreamy sleep. Surely it had a relevant function other than but I defer those details to the doctor. I had no nausea or discomfort and I thank God for that. One of the downsides of sleepiness was the inability to concentrate on anything. I found myself avoiding meetings at work because it was really hard to focus on what people were saying or to follow complex dialogue. It was a strange feeling and if I’m being honest, it was uncomfortable and it made me feel insecure. It felt like my brain was stuffed with a bunch of fluffy clouds. Try to remember how uncomfortable it is to breathe through a thin passage of air in a single nostril or through your mouth when you have a stuffy nose…Well, apply the same scenario but now to your brain. When I reached that point, I started tracking obsessively the hCG hormone chart (courtesy of Google) to find out when the hormone levels would decrease so I could estimate when I’d get my brain capacity back. Spoiler alert: it was never fully restored.

On cravings and eating for two

Depends on who you ask. My husband’s version is that I had all sorts of untameable cravings but my version-which happens to be the correct one– is that I had compulsive streaks of preference for one particular food item lasting between 1 to 2 weeks at a time. Among them: scones with strawberry jam, ice cream bars and gorillo’s. If it wasn’t for my being restricted by a gluten-free diet, I think I would have eaten pizza everyday. Throughout my entire pregnancy, my appetite was steady. I never felt like my hunger was larger than usual but the one thing that changed was the intensity of hunger. I woke up with serious hunger pangs every single morning and every time I approached mealtime, I could barely wait to warm up my food before intense hunger swept over me. 

***

Favorite sleep position

I never realized how much I loved sleeping on my stomach until my belly became too big to sleep on it comfortably. My new subscription to sleeping on the back was quickly halted when I read that it was not “safe” as it restricts blood circulation to the heart. That’s basically when I kissed sleep goodbye. Even my lifesaving U-shaped pillow was not enough to restore my sacred sleep. 

***

Surprising moments

Definitely the “I gotta eat NOW” intense feeling and the ability to fall asleep at the drop of a dime. Also, the amount of attention and care that’s given to pregnant women, it’s a beautiful thing!

Unpleasant moments

My least favorite part of being pregnant was the frequent visits to the doctor’s and the never-ending waiting for my turn to enter the doctor’s office. Hopefully by the next time I’m pregnant the number of ObGyn will have increased everywhere in the world. 

***

Unexpected symptoms

There were two. The first one is insomnia. While I could easily fall asleep I developed a bout of insomnia somewhere in the middle of my second trimester, whereby I woke up almost nightly around 2am and was awake for up to 2 hours. My solution? I bought myself a Kindle and got through my reading list. The second symptom I developed is itchy eyes, like seriously, for days at a time, I could not stop rubbing my eyes. I mentioned it to one of my mom friends and she told me it also happened to her during her pregnancy. Odd, right? Oh and how could I forget the profuse sweating!!! I’ll spare y’all the details. 

***

Actual pregnancy vs what I thought it would be like

I never dreamed about what pregnancy would be like, I didn’t ever envision the whole thing from beginning to end. In fact, I always feared the act of giving birth so never gave much thought to the state of pregnanthood. Having said that, there were a few factors that were different from what I expected of pregnancy. For example, I was taken aback by how 40 weeks ended up feeling like halfway to eternity. Also, I expected my hormones to lead to all types of emotional meltdowns but that didn’t happen. 

***

On bonding with the babe

Honestly, until my belly started growing and my baby started kicking, I did not feel any bond. There were like 5 wholes months of pregnancy when it felt like I wasn’t even pregnant yet because my body had barely changed. The only sure giveaway was the fatigue and extreme hunger. But when my baby started kicking, the surrealness of it all was undeniable and I developed feelings for him. I always felt awkward talking to him but I tried my best as I was advised (lol!) Real talk, for some of my friends talking to the baby in the womb came naturally but for me it wasn’t the case. There are no negative after effects that I know of, so do you.

While bonding with the baby was not something that came naturally to me, pregnancy did help create all sorts of new bonds. For starters, with my co-creator, also known as my husband. The pending birth of our son gave us so much to dream about, a future we both looked forward to with so much excitement and that we knew would be totally transformed by the arrival of our sweet munchkin. He handled his co-creator role really well, most importantly by attending every doctor’s appointment with me and making sure I was fed on time! I made him late to work so many times, but he never complained once. Waking up with an alarm while pregnant is practically impossible.

On a closing note, never have I felt more loved and taken care of by my girlfriends than when I was pregnant. Becoming a mother opened the doors to new conversations, new vulnerabilities, new perspectives, new sets of worries but also amazing advice and encouragement.  I’m going to let you in on some classified information here, there’s a secret society of mothers waiting to sweep you up into their large security blanket and take care of you throughout your pregnancy. Whatever the state of your heart, joy, fear, excitement, or worry, one of them will avail themselves for you and that’s the truth.

To me, that was one of the purest form of beauty I’ve witnessed during my pregnancy journey and I’ll forever be thankful for that.

Previously published in Fromthe1Inside

Marie-Ange Rukundo is a dynamic Rwandan, mom to the cutest boy in the world and married to one exceptional man. She is at her best when connecting with fellow humans on topics that speak to her heart, including motherhood, identity, food, the mystery of life, and God.

She advises university students in career matters during the day and when she is off the clock, you can find her at home with her family. She keeps her schedule busy with playdates, books, podcasts, a blog and trying out new recipes.  She is an extroverted libra on an unending quest for balance. 

Insert photos (1 & 3) by Iris Lasry, Cynthia Butare.

Gathering Myself Together by Temitayo Olofinlua

I: Are You Not a Woman?

I have injured myself again. The broken china decided to punish me for being careless. As I packed its shattered pieces, glistening on the floor, it left a wide thing on my index finger that could not be kept from my mother. That is why I am sitting down here in front of her, why she is sitting on a small stool in front of me, dipping and dipping a towel in the steaming bowl. That is why the steam from the bowl is mixing with my sweat, mixing with my tears, streaming down my face and forming a small pool on the floor. Mother squeezes the towel until every drop of water falls from it.

“I am dead-o.” I shout before she brings the hot towel anywhere near me.

“The dead do not scream.” She pulls my hand closer to her, trapping it with her left armpit.

“Pa ara e po,” she says, ordering me to brace myself, to gather myself together.

To express pain is to let yourself go. To let your body scatter in many places. To scream is to transport your voice, your pain, your body to places beyond you. The pain is soon to hit me. I shut my eyes tight. I shut myself tighter.

“Don’t you know you are a woman?” She asks, drawing me from my reverie.

I do not understand her. What does being a woman have to do with this pain permeating my body? What does it have to do with shouting out pain? Today, I refuse to be a woman. I scream myself hoarse. After mother is done with “burning” my wound to “heal” it, she applies methylated spirit. It shoots more pain from my finger through my body, making me dance an ugly dance, as it moves swiftly though me, to my brain; it sits there while I seethe.

“Wrap your pain inside your body.” My mother says, taking the now cooling bowl away.

“Your body is where it belongs. It must not be scattered for all to see.” The wound heals. The scar remains.

“You may have learned from your mother or any other hunted woman. Smiling at devils is a useful learned thing. Swallowing discomfort down in spades. Holding it tight in your belly. Ageing on the inside only. Keeping it forever sexy.” ― Yrsa Daley-Ward

II: Hello Pain

It takes me years before I understand my mother’s question: Don’t you know you are a woman? It takes my period arriving for me to feel this pain associated with being a woman. It comes with the blood clots streaming down my thighs. The pain makes me curl up in bed, days before I even see the blood, making my waist heavier for my body to carry. When it finally arrives, the aching spreads beyond the waist, straight through the ridge of my spine.

Mother does not understand how period pain bends your spine and curls you into a foetus. Her period never brought pain. Mine warns my body before its arrival. And when it arrives, it commands my world to a halt, like a Nigerian politician arriving to commission an incomplete road, causing traffic, causing the people to be at a standstill. And once done, blowing dust and siren in their face as the entourage hurries away.

It is in the way period pain forces my body to stop that I gradually begin to understand it. I start to touch it, to feel its rough jagged edges. Now, I prepare for its arrival, getting things done quickly before it knocks at my door. I have become familiar with it, touching my belly with a warm bottle, using its heat to cancel the pain in my waist. Pain cancels pain. At other times, I pop the pills. Paracetamol when it is a slight pinch. Ibuprofen when the long nails of pain pinch deeper. On some nights, I pop no pills; I pop a can of Star. The slumber knocks the pain out as long as my eyes are closed. The next morning it is there, in my body waiting for me.

“Hello Tayo!”

“Hello Pain!”

I wince as I gather my body together as one. Every month, we know ourselves better. Month by month, pain becomes less and less a stranger. Period. When it arrives, I pull a seat and invite it to drink: beer or coffee?

“Blood,” it says, “your blood.”

“Cheers,” we click glasses. I shudder; it smiles.

***

III: Ma-fo-ya

My first child chooses to stay in my belly beyond the days that we expected him. A doctor looks at my distended stomach and demands a scan. After the scan, the doctor says that if the child doesn’t come out within the next two days, we may have to bring him out.

“So how can I hasten him?” I ask, not wanting to go under the knife. I want to be there, to be awake, to hear his first breath, soft against my chest, his first cries renting the room. I have prepared for it, for the pain to come.

“Exercise more.” He says. I walk back to my friend’s house. The road is uphill and it demands more pressure to climb. As I inch closer to the house, I walk back and return. Going and coming, back and forth, I continue until my feet are tired. I make this walk every evening. Yet, rather than come out, my child sits in my stomach, a sigidi—a statue—refusing to budge despite the sacrifices of its worshipers. It’s deadline day. I am put under. That experience is a series of first—first time hospitalised, first drip, first surgery, first baby, first death, first resurrection.

Before I walk inside the surgery room, I try to imagine what will happen in that theatre as gloved hands tear through layers and layers of my skin, reaching inside me to pluck my child. Pain is knowing that I will never know what happened in there. The now fading scar, lying below my belly, hiding beneath the folds of flesh, is a silent testifier of my pain. It reminds me, even when I want to forget. Strange hands were here. It reminds me of how my body was opened up so that I would be clothed—omol’aso—your child is your cloth. It reminds me of how I died, so that I could give life — bi inabaku, a f’ erub’ oju; b’ ogede b’ aku, a f’ omo e r’ opo — if a fire dies, it is replaced by ashes; if a plantain dies, it is replaced by its sapling.

When my eyes open, my ears also open. The whole room turns round and round, as a loud whirring pierces my ears. Soft raindrops caress my face as I am wheeled into the maternity ward, a robe covering my nakedness. I struggle to match voices with the blurry faces in front of me. I feel nothing until my baby starts to cry, until he is tossed into my arms.

“Feed him.” It is the nurse.

My right hand is strapped down by a drip; drugs flowing through my veins, antibiotics washing my body clean of bacteria, pain relievers bringing calm after a storm.

“You have to suckle him or else your breast will be hard.” She places him beside my breast, my nipples in his mouth. The hungry boy suckles. He draws my pain with each suckle. In that moment, I experience the answer to my mother’s question. I do not feel all the joy, love and excitement associated with motherhood. I feel a sense of responsibility for this tiny thing that wades through my pain just to be fed.

I learn that to be a woman is to be able to bury your pain in your body, to be able to fold it neatly like freshly ironed clothes after you have worn it once, the heat from the iron melting away the smell from your sweat. To be a woman, your pain must not stand in the way of your motherhood. To be a woman, you must be able to take all that life brings your way, to carry it on your shoulder as though it were a feather, to carry all your sorrows within you and not break, lest you are swallowed.

Days later, still in the hospital, now sitting, my son looks at me, as he smiles a toothless gummy smile. He seems happy to see me. In that moment, my eyes locked in his, his in mine, I know that my life will never remain the same again.

“I think about the tragedies the women in my life have faced. How every time a child gets sick or a man leaves or a parent dies or a community crumbles, the women are the ones who carry on, who do what must be done for their people in the midst of their own pain. While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope…. Have women been the Warriors all along?”―Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior

IV: United in Pain

My second son comes like my first. He is carried out of me. I do everything I read in the books, so that I will not have a big baby. I do everything so that I will be able to push him out myself. I want to deliver like the biblical ‘Hebrew woman’.

On the day he should have come, I barely weighed 60kg. Yet, like his brother, my sacrifices mean nothing. He is in no hurry. He is brought out of me one humid Wednesday evening. He comes out a small dainty thing, at first.

Days later, he becomes a small dainty yellowy thing. Jaundice. I am recuperating by the drip when they carry him away from me, to be tested; to be sure that what the doctor’s eyes saw was what was in his body. Then, he is taken to the photo-therapy lights to suck the yellowness out of his body.

For three days, his father and I shuffle between the maternity—for early morning baths and doctor’s checks—and the pediatric ward. We hold shifts around the clock to ensure that the handkerchief protecting his eyes from the direct glare of light stays in place. We slap biting mosquitoes off our flesh as we watch. We did all we could to hold our baby down here, on this earth with us. During this time, I learn to ignore my pain, to pretend that it is non-existent. Whenever it arrives on the operation site, I bring out my bottle of methylated spirit and cotton wool, clean and clean even as I continue watching over my baby. I do not entertain it to a drink. I am too busy ensuring that I do not return home with an empty nest in my hands.

Every morning and evening, we carry him into the laboratory. He is pricked. With each prick, his screams pierce the silence in the air as some of his blood is drained into a small tube with his surname written on it. Every day, the results from his blood work shows increasing bilirubin levels in his body. Dr Google tells me that the higher the levels, the higher the damage to the child—brain damage, even death. I am suspicious of the lights here—the place does not look like the photo-therapy units I see online. I am more suspicious of our lack of electricity. He is not getting enough of the not-good-enough photo-therapy light: That’s a fact. We are afraid of losing our child, my husband and I. So, we take him away.

As the cab carrying us home stopped at the hydra-headed junction, we weighed our options: What do we do? What do we know about caring for a jaundiced child? Where can we take him?

“Should we go to UCH?” I ask unthinking.

You see, University College Hospital, Ibadan, a Federal Teaching hospital in Ibadan is famous for protocols, queues and lack of beds. The peeling walls of the towering hospital can be seen from afar. Today, we do not have a choice. It is our only choice. We carry our swaddled child and head to UCH.

This is after another child that was born on the same day as ours underwent EBT–Exchange Blood Transfusion—a medical procedure that involves taking out some of her blood and replacing it with another blood, a way of “crossing out” the bilirubin levels in her blood. Her screams as she was transfused on a table in the open air still rings in my head; this was after the chief pediatrician asked me: are you Jehovah’s Witness? Is that why you don’t want blood transfusion for the child? We sign an undertaking that we took our child away against medical advice.

***

That night as we arrive at UCH, the pungent smell of drugs mixed with disinfectant rush into my nostrils, I look at the doctor, a young looking dark complexioned man and ask, “Will my child get the kind of treatment you would give your own child?”

“Yes,” he assures me as he takes the child from my arms, place him in the last available bed, in a room where he shared with another baby patient. There is a sink opposite the bed, a hand washing soap stands atop it. We are given a list of things to buy—drugs, syringes, cotton wool, and more— and the items sit in a nylon hanging at a corner of his bed. We fill all the necessary forms as we hand him over to the hospital. Blood is drawn. Tests are carried out. The treatment begins. I feel as if my son is treated like a human being: his eyes are covered with a black sleeping band that makes me call him my Spiderman; his penis is also covered before he is swaddled in diapers. Asides these coverings, he is naked as the blue glow of the light shines on his skin. Goosebumps rise on his skin. A nurse shows me how to turn the machine on and off. She instructs me to wash my hands before and after I carry my child.

That first night, I cry myself to sleep in the ward, on a hard bench as I wait for dawn to crack. That is the first and last night I sleep at the hospital. I have to leave him every night, there under the light. I have to t(h)rust him into the hands of nurses, praying that by the next morning he will be better, that daily, the light sucks out the bilirubin in his body.

The noise of walking feet and voices of other mothers arriving to take care of their children wakes me in the morning. I see women gather around the low benches as they bring out their breasts and squeeze and squeeze milk into open cups bearing their children’s names. I join the other women, breasts in palms, squeezing and squeezing milk into cups. Strangers united in mission: to nourish their children to health. As drops of milk fall into these cups, we swap greetings; exchange tips for coping with hospital life.

“The more hot pap you drink, the more you lactate. So better to drink it before coming here.”

“Better to sit down straight, your back relaxed before you start squeezing.”

“When they give you a long list to buy things, just buy what you can afford.”

After several minutes, I squeeze a full cup of breast milk but there are some black particles sitting on the white fluid. I’d to trash the milk as the nurse said it was not good enough. Then, I washed my breasts before squeezing again. That day, I return home to take a bath and change my clothes.

Every step is a prayer, to once again return home, with my living healthy child in my arms.

“You will rise…and are you less of a woman for this? No. What is woman? Woman is this— enduring. Listen girl, you will survive this–you will. But what fool said you had to do it silently? Here is a tip—scream”― Salma Deera, Letters from Madea

V: The Rise

We spend days on standby in the hospital’s restroom with two beds. The nurses always need you to buy things, from cotton-wool to baby food, to answer questions, to do something. You may be needed to do blood work, and to run around carrying small bottles with your child’s blood from one floor to another floor in another building. In the restroom, we rest our tired bodies, side by side on the beds. Others perch on any available spaces, shutting their eyes in quick naps. Once awake, we swap tales of our birth experiences.

“My baby has been here for five months,” the light-skinned petite woman says, going into the child’s medical history, how she was born premature—barely 24 weeks—and how she has survived.

“I had twins, the first did not make it,” says the hijabi woman who has to get rid of her hijab every time she comes into the ward. She wears it back in the dressing room before she heads home.

“My child did not cry when he was born,” another woman says, narrating how she ended up spending days and days at the hospital, and how she looks forward to going back to her trade, to being normal. As they speak, I think of how a woman’s body is seen as a life-giving thing, always giving and giving. Yet, I wonder: what happens when that same giving body births a half-formed thing that takes and takes, drains and drains her until she is all but an empty hole? What happens when the body refuses to hold the living thing inside? How does the world hold such women? Many times, it turns around and calls the woman a witch for something that she has no control over as though she willingly decided to squeeze her own womb together, cause herself pain, until the child arrived, dead or alive. It seems as though by sharing the stories, pain becomes easier to bear. It is as if with each passing tale, two burdens are lifted–one off the tale teller, the other off the listener.

These stories also make me ponder on my mother’s question: how womanhood is measured by how a woman carries her pain. Was it the same reason some nurses were unkind to other women during labour? It is assumed that a woman should carry pain well, without wincing. This same thought flows into the depictions of womanhood, of how the best women are thought of as the ones who bear it all in silence. In my mind, I see that popular image of a woman with multiple hands, doing so much at once, bearing a lot of burdens on her back too. I doubt if that is the ideal image every woman must aspire to. I think about how many women die trying to be that ideal.

Here, in this room of women, I remove the cotton wool and methylated spirit from my bag and clean my operation wound. Here, when your cotton wool finishes, another woman offers you hers. We are all bound together in our pain, broomsticks held together by a thin rope, wincing as it sweeps us everywhere. Here, we do not care to be ideal women, we are real with our pains.

There is a way that listening to women who stare death in the face, who yank their children out of its jaws drains and strengthens. It is like a jar being emptied and filled at the same time. It seems that by sharing, stories and resources, by holding our hands together, patting one another on the back, we become more alive.

I learn that motherhood is not just about having a child, it transcends seeing yourself through your child, it is a journey where you choose daily, to see and be yourself. It is hard, for the world wants us to be lost, to be swallowed, to be unseen. In that room, I join other women, acknowledging my pain, seeing myself.

***

One by one, our children are discharged. One by one, we leave the room, the hospital. As you leave, you share whatever medical supplies you have left in your child’s bag with those you leave behind. They share their smiles with you.

I am leaving, lost in the support of these acquaintances who are now my sisters, cradling my child in my arm, tears welling up in my eyes, threatening to break my eyelids.

“It is well,” one of the newly-come women says, patting me on the back.

“Thank you!” I respond but what I really want to say is this: “This pain did not swallow me, it will not swallow you.” It is an acknowledgement of myself, of the other women, of our pains, of finding joys through pain. I turn around to leave.

The tears come down.

(Previously published in The Village Square Journal)

Temitayo Olofinlua is a creative writer, editor, and communications specialist with a series of awards to her credit. She has completed writing assignments for various national and international organizations such as Facebook, Global Press Journal, Mania Magazine, One Global Economy, BudgIT, to mention a few.

She studied Literature-in-English at Obafemi Awolowo University. Her essays have won several awards including the Peter Drucker Challenge (2012 and 2014) and the 2019 Paula Chinwe Okafor Prize for Creative Non-fiction. She has also completed various ghost-writing projects. 

She is currently finishing a Ph.D. programme in African Studies at the University of Ibadan.

(c) Featured image courtesy of Femi Amogunla

After Three Children, Reclaiming My Body and My Mind

Nurse Ruth’s face was set in tense lines of seriousness as she probed my cervix with a metal instrument. I knew this procedure by heart, having been through it five times in the past 17 years: dilate the cervix, measure the uterine cavity, insert the intrauterine device.

But Ruth was frowning. The last time, another nurse said the depth of my uterine cavity was too short. Twelve years ago, after the birth of my third child, I learned that my retroverted uterus had yet to properly settle itself nicely inside my pelvis and that my cervix had partially descended into my vagina.

Now as Ruth brought out the instrument and gazed at the blood smear on the tip, I trained my eyes on the crumple of her brow and tried to decipher what she wasn’t saying. In another life, I would not set my foot within a 10-mile radius of this place. But here I was, 36 and frightened, and I willing her to say something positive; I willed her to say that childbirth hadn’t ruined me that much.

But she didn’t say those words. Instead, she worked until I could no longer endure the discomfort of metal scraping against the soft of my womb. Because my cavity was still so short, Ruth suggested an alternative contraceptive — a progestin implant. She feared my uterus would expel an IUD if she went ahead and inserted it.

True, the last IUD had snapped and poked at my insides all night until the following morning when I found a doctor, who pried open my cervix and got it out. The one before that, my body began to act strangely and I experienced unexplainable vaginal bleeding whenever sex was vigorous.

“I have heard terrible things about the implant,” I told Ruth. “I hear it can reduce me to the biblical woman with the issue of bleeding who was healed by Jesus.” She laughed, despite the seriousness of the moment, but then she had positive and convincing things to say. She invited me to the clinic’s family planning seminar scheduled for that week. She gave me an emergency oral contraceptive for the time being, and we agreed to have the contraceptive inserted into my arm at my next visit.

I smiled and thanked her. Then I cried all the way home, ignoring the curious looks of concerned passersby, some of whom paused, as Nigerians are wont to do, to ask what made me cry.

***

My husband G was waiting at home when I got back. He looked pensive but tried to act cool until I had kicked off my shoes and changed into a house dress.

“How did the procedure go?” G asked. He wanted to know if I was fine. By “fine” he meant if my uterus had behaved and accepted another IUD.

“I am fine,” I said.

He tried to have a conversation but I just couldn’t. I went through the motions of my day; tried to keep my mind off things. I wrote pages of a story and deleted them. I picked up a book but the words kept bleeding into each other. I watched our son watch cartoons. In the middle of the night, when the world had fallen asleep and only the chirps of crickets and rustlings of night animals sifted in from our open window, G woke up and found me loitering by the shelves.

“Something is bothering you,” he said.

“Do I look like something is bothering me?” I said, as I rearranged the books which I had arranged the week before.

He begged me to come to bed. He held me. I coiled into his embrace, and then I wanted to fuck. But as he slid inside me, I held my breath and tightened my vagina muscles, willing my cervix to behave and not leak drops of blood as it had done sometimes in the past. After he rolled off my body, I hurried into the bathroom, slipped a finger into my vagina, and inspected the wetness for blood stain. I saw none. I crouched over on the floor and wept into the cup of my palms.

This was not my first panic attack, and it was not the worst.

***

I can easily recall when I found out the possible name for this ailment that ate at the seams of my mind, but I can’t put a finger on when my Postpartum Depression actually began.

Perhaps it all started that the day after I gave birth to my first child, my daughter Chi, in September 2002, when I got home and found the small wooden stool my mother-in-law had brought for me. A new mother is required to sit on this stool, to press her legs together and make herself small. The belief was that this posture would keep the pelvis region clenched, to help restore vaginal muscle tone. There was also the wild belief that women who suffer postpartum complications, like uterine prolapse and pelvis floor problems, were those who did not strictly perform this old ritual and the many others.

That was the year when I learned that our society also manufactures ready-made excuses for terrible men, that new mothers must work hard to make their bodies sexy again or they will be blamed if their husbands philander or become terrible partners. Add that to the fact that many new mothers struggle to comprehend the harm wreaked on their bodies by childbirth. But they do not speak about it for fear that they will be dismissed as weak. They do not have support groups. The pregnancy literature accessible to them is always about how to “snap back” and become sexy again. At church, they are endlessly taught how to please their men and make them comfortable. No one really cares about how the women feel, if they are still haunted by the memories of childbirth, how they are coping with the immense bodily changes, if they are emotionally ready to have sex, if they even want to go through pregnancy ever again. They are expected to perform their roles as virtuous wives and good mothers, or they’ll fall short of societal expectations, of which the consequences are grave.

As such, the women relive their traumatic experiences. They walk around with shoulders hunched by these burdens. They put on a smile and perform these roles, ignorant of the symptoms of their hormonally-triggered mental illnesses, until they buckle under the weight of it all.

It would take many years before I learned that there is such a thing as Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or even Postpartum Depression.

***

While my body went to pieces after the birth of my first child, I still submitted myself to the process again and again. That is what I was taught marriage is all about — giving birth to children who will carry forward the man’s torch after you all are dead and gone, no matter the emotional and physical cost.

On our wedding day, families showered me with prayers: I would give birth to seven sons and two daughters, they would all gather again in exactly nine months to celebrate the arrival of our first child. I hefted those sacks of expectation on my frail shoulders like my mother had done and the mothers before us all.

***

My first labor stretched for three days. I was just 19. Because I had become too weak by the third day, the doctor took a scalpel to my perineum, fused a suction to my daughter’s head, and pulled her out. The suction cap left a huge red swelling on her scalp. After I was wheeled back to my hospital ward, my first inclination was to feel the floor with my toes to be sure I had truly survived this. Then I wanted to sleep for a whole week, the very idea of standing or walking turning my knees to mush.

My daughter was asleep in her cot when a sister-in-law scooped her up and began to inspect her body. She saw the swelling and gasped. “You must never let anyone see this or they will call you weak,” she told me, and drew a hat over my daughter’s head.

She was a middle-aged woman who herself had had three children, a girl and two sons, the second of which had put her through a traumatic birthing experience that left her immobile for nearly two months.

I shrank but nodded in agreement, believing she knew better and was speaking from experience. It sounded so right; relatives roamed around us, hugging and thumping my husband’s hand, praising him for marrying a woman who in the end conquered childbirth and brought him a daughter. I sat on my bed and smiled and laughed, even though my stomach felt gorged out and I became dizzy whenever I tried to sit up straight. I pretended to be strong. A strong woman was a husband’s pride, was what I was expected to be, what I would be.

I kept my daughter’s hat on and performed my role of a strong wife. My episiotomy was stitched so tightly that I cried when I bent to pee or defecate. My inverted nipples had blistered and bled each time my daughter latched on to suckle. Pregnancy had messed with my lower intestine and I would sit on the toilet bowl for hours, crying as I passed constipated shit because my bowel had forgotten how to regulate the usual flow of feces. I moved through each day in pants, dizzy with fatigue, and my husband counted down the days until we could start having sex again. My stitches would take weeks until they really stopped itching, leaving a jagged dark scar that travelled from my vagina, past my perineum, and into my anus.

On the first day we resumed sex, I clamped my mouth shut and moaned sensually, but not too much, to aid my husband as he galloped toward orgasm. Then I spent maybe 20 or so minutes sitting my butt in a bowl of salted warm water to soothe the ache that had begun to throb where my stitches had supposedly healed.

I was happy that I had given birth to a child, but I do not mean “happy” in the mindless joyful way of one who had achieved what she had always yearned for. My happiness was the kind of relief that washes over your body when you have passed a difficult test and proved to your family that your education wasn’t really a waste of money. I would often stay up at night, gazing down at my daughter as she slept in her cot, fascinated by the fact that this chubby, beautiful human being who’d weighed 3.7 kilograms, or 8.15 pounds, had popped out of my body. I remember obsessing over her breathing pattern, rearranging her blanket and pillows, afraid they would smother her in her sleep. I was tenaciously protective of her. But while having my sitz bath later, I would lock myself inside the bathroom for a long time, listening to the chatter of the children in the neighborhood, the passing cars, and laughter of passersby on the street below. I would breathe in the spicy deliciousness cooking in the restaurant beside our house. Until my daughter woke with her usual cry. I knew I should go to her, but when you are 19 and your body has undergone an unbelievable trauma and you are sore all over, you will wish to shape-shift into a fly and wing your way out of the window. I had none of such extraterrestrial powers, so I simply cried and cried until someone heard and banged on the door and asked if everything was alright.

This became a routine. Sitting in warm baths. Weeping when no one was looking. Performing my role as the strong wife. To family members, I was a capable mother, but my hands shook all the time. I drifted through hazy days inside this altered body, unsure of how to wear it, what to do with it. I no longer knew myself.

Those days, the memories of my first labor often came, without warning, in debilitating flashes. Sometimes I wished I could reach into my head and twist something so I wouldn’t be haunted by such unfair vividness. This continued as my baby grew, as I got pregnant again just a year later, as I neared my due date. Many months had passed but I still could not shake that sense of horror that filled my very bones when I thought of childbirth. I began to wonder if I was trapped in some kind of capsule — had the sense that everything else had seized and this fear was the only thing real. I would often wake up in the middle of the night, sweating.

My husband found me staring at the wall one night, a few weeks before our second daughter Som was born. Outside our window, the world was dark and still, the air filled with the symphony of generator noises in the neighborhood. He asked why I was awake and staring. I looked at him. Our lamp sat by the door, casting orange shadows on the wall. I remember how worried he looked, how he shifted closer and held my shoulders.

“What if all of this is just a dream?” I asked him.

“What do you mean,” he said.

“What if I didn’t really wake up that day in 2002 when I went to give birth to Chi? What if I am in a sort of purgatory or a dream and none of this is real?”

He shook my shoulders and said I must stop talking rubbish. Then he said we must pray. We knelt by the side of the bed, him clasping my hands tightly in his. He shut his eyes in piety, his face squeezed in intense sorrow. He told God to keep me safe. He was so downcast.

I muttered, “Amen,” and smiled and said I was finally fine. He hugged me. He believed me.

***

Where I come from, if a woman so much as reveals she is depressed — an affliction that is still associated with evil spirits and demonic attacks — she is taken to the church for exorcism. She is considered tainted, bad luck to her husband, a threat to her children. And so knowing the repercussions for speaking one’s truth, knowing it can bring your harm, what is the point of speaking it?

In June, 2007, three months after our son Chu, our third child, was born, I visited the clinic to have an IUD inserted and learned that my uterus had yet to nicely anchor itself within my pelvis. I had leaked drops of blood the week before, after I had sex with my husband, and had thought it was the remnant of my postnatal shedding. We were going through a period of financial crisis. In all my imaginations about my future, I had not anticipated becoming a permanently mutilated thing. I was a mess.

In the following weeks, I still could not shake that feeling of bereavement. I began to mourn what I had lost, the sense that I would never again regain who I used to be, that I would have to make do with what childbirth had left me with. I took to walking, from Faulks Road to Okigwe Road to Brass, on sunny days. And when I got home, I would not remember what I saw during those walks, or who I had talked to.

My detachment from reality soon began to worsen. I trailed off in the middle of conversations. I struggled to suppress the truth about my body. The legacy of patriarchy had taught me that I must appear perfect for my husband, for the community, or I would be considered weak. This struggle ate at the seams of my mind. When I finally accepted that I was depressed, I did not know what to do with that information.

What do you do when your egusi soup shows signs of turning? My mother taught me to add a bit of potash, to boil the spoilage away and scoop the froth out, to add some pepper and crayfish and salt, and the soup would return almost as new. But when the soup fully sours, you throw it away; there was no remedy for that kind of rot.

I was frothing over and there were no therapists in my area of Nigeria whom I could talk to. My husband could not understand my mood swings, why I kept fading out of simple conversations. I kept the truth of my depression and mutilation from him because I feared he would consider me weak, that he would be repulsed and no longer find me sexually appealing. It would take a very long time before I stopped believing in those patriarchal myths, began to put myself and my health first, and charted a path to true relief. But before this, before I began my journey to redemption, I tortured myself with my silence. I could smell the rot of my corrosion, the unravelling of my mind’s seams. How quickly I was disappearing inside my altered body. My clothes became sizes larger. My hairline began to recede, my hair grew ashy and fell off in clumps.

What do you do when you turn like soup and there are no remedies for what ails you? Do you throw yourself away?

Being a Christian means casting your burdens upon Jesus. Whether religion solves the problem or not, it doesn’t really matter because that act of spiritual supplication slaps a temporary Band-Aid on your affliction, so you can breathe, even for a minute, before your wound erupts again. And you return to Jesus again.

***

It was difficult to convince my aunt, a bible-thumping Christian, that I was depressed. It was difficult to find the right language for my affliction, and so I went along with her conclusion that I was being haunted by evil spirits. She made appointments with a spiritual healer to intervene in my case. We went for the exorcism with the items the healer demanded: two bars of soap, two bottles of olive oil, a packet of salt, a white kerchief.

The healer was a small light-skinned woman who wore a white scarf tightly over her head. She received us with curiosity. She asked if I was married to my husband, and I showed her my wedding ring. She washed her hands with the soap we had brought, and wiped them dry with the kerchief. Then she called me to the middle of the room, muttered incantations, sang Christian songs, and danced and clapped her hands.

For a long time she prayed and sang and danced. I sang along, clapping. My aunt, too. The room was dimly lit, lazy rays casting hazy shadows on the carpeted floor. From the open window, I heard the thumps of pestles into mortars and the clang of spoons into pots. I heard the cries of children playing in the field nearby. The neighborhood was awake and bustling, and I wondered what it would feel like to join the kids and yell at the top of my voice, to play with such reckless abandon. To be somebody else again.

“She was attacked by an evil spirit during her first pregnancy,” the healer paused amid singing to tell my aunt. She swayed. She muttered more incantations. She yelled at the supposed spirit to flee from my body.

“Her husband is facing financial difficulties, is it not true?” she asked my aunt again. My aunt bobbed her head furiously. “The spirit is ruining everything she touches.”

I was dizzy with confusion and irritation. My stomach gurgled. My last meal had been the scoops of spicy jollof rice I had the afternoon before, and I had stayed awake most of the night, gazing at the ceiling. Now I was dizzy, fatigued. Darkness hovered before my eyes and I slipped into it. When I opened my eyes briefly, I was crouched over on the floor.

The healer sang victorious songs. My aunt thumped her hands heartily. They danced.

“The spirit is gone,” said the healer. “She is free in Jesus’ name!”

My aunt yelled, “Amen!”

I had an explanation for that fainting spell, for our financial situation, but I held my tongue because I knew it would be dismissed as rubbish, or that they could subject me to more prayers. On our way home, my aunt held my hand in hers, her eyes bright with happiness.

“You are free in Jesus’ name,” she said.

I nodded and said something in the affirmative, and she was pleased that I had accepted my healing. It was a hot afternoon and sweat pooled under my arms. My scalped itched. She talked all through the ride home. She reminded me of the prayers and fasting I must perform daily for two weeks, and the bible passages I must read; it would be a serious time of piety — that’s what the healer called it — and this fasting stretched from six in the morning until six in the evening, every day, to keep the evil spirit permanently away.

My husband was in the sitting room when I walked in. He took one look at my face and asked if everything was alright.

“I have a headache,” I said. “I want you to do something for me.”

I got a pair of scissors, sat by his feet and told him to cut my hair, all of it, down to the scalp. My hair had suddenly become an itchy, heavy burden, an unwanted thing I must remove from my body or I feared I would never be able to breathe again.

“Why?” he asked, giving me an incredulous look.

“Please,” I said. “Or I will cut it myself.”

He began to say something but stopped. Maybe it was the look in my eyes. Maybe he understood that I wouldn’t be fine until the hair was gone. So he took the scissors.

***

When I first moved to Aba, I had recently turned 19 and the air was mildly hazy with the harmattan dust that coated everything with a film of brown. People walked around swaddled in thick sweaters and wool stockings and complained about how cold every day was, which I thought was hilarious because the temperatures were consistently in the 60s, nowhere near the dire situation in the city of my birth, Kano, in northern Nigeria, where the harmattan was so severe that it sucked all the liquid from your body, cracked your lips, broke your heels, flaked your skin, caked your hair and eyebrows and eyelids with dust, and the cold winds howled outside your windows like an old Volvo with a really bad engine. I was enthusiastic about my marriage and was excited when neighbors addressed me as Nwunye Olisakwe — Olisakwe’s wife, never my name, because, as programmed by my socialization and all the years of the Sunday School classes and church sermons, bearing my husband’s name was an honor every girl must aspire to, the prerequisite to attaining that prestigious status of the Virtuous Woman. I was desperate to get pregnant.

On Mother’s Day that year, we sang the famous old song that went, “Sweet mother, I no go forget you, for the suffer wey you suffer for me,” and I was pregnant with Chi. I danced and sang along with the other women, happy to be performing this rite of passage, this celebration of suffering that would guarantee my continuous membership in this pantheon of Virtuous Women.

But then childbirth happened, and my postpartum complications followed. Everything soon became bleak.

My husband is beautiful in a laid back, unassuming kind of way. He’s average height, sturdy and white-goateed — 16 years older than me. He remains bright-eyed, despite all the financial turmoils he’s endured, and speaks about his future business plans as though he’ll pluck the start-up funding from the guava trees in our yard. He’s refused to be subdued even in the face of intense hardship. He’s the most optimistic man I’ve ever met.

But one morning in August 2017, he looked defeated as he watched me dress up to go grocery shopping.

“The wig looks nice,” he said after I had donned the lush afro that swallowed half my face, swallowed even the desolation that had dulled my skin, and shrank my cheeks. When I looked into the mirror, I thought, I look elegant.

I was going through another phase of depression and was no longer optimistic about anything. I could not bear socializing with family friends and had shaved my hair, for the second time since my marriage, down to the scalp, with a pair of scissors and then a blunt razor that left red markings on the edges and the back of my neck.

“Have you had anything to eat this morning,” he asked me, and I said no. “You should eat something,” he said. “You are getting thinner.”

For an instant I saw myself through his eyes, how tired I possibly looked, how quickly I had begun to disappear again inside my dress. How unappealing. Something shrank inside my stomach. I muttered excuses about not being hungry, and quickly grabbed my bag and left.

Down the street, I met a neighbor who had known my family throughout my marriage. She stopped to say greetings. She called me “Nwunye Olisakwe” and asked if my family was all well. I began to respond as I usually would, but instead asked if she knew my first name. She frowned, then laughed incredulously and asked, quite simply, if everything was alright with me.

“What is the matter with you,” she asked, her eyes bearing concern. I said something incoherent and ended the conversation.

I walked to the junction to board a bus and tried to brush the encounter away from mind. I felt as if I had not only sacrificed my body and mind to marriage and childbirth, but had also lost my name. I had thought, I should ignore this; it was the way things are, how it always had been. But I was still upset, and made even more so because of the expression on the woman’s face; she had looked at me with concern, as if I had lost my mind, as if she could not believe that an Igbo woman like me would reject the prestige that came with bearing a man’s name.

I stopped at the junction but did not board the buses that rolled to a stop before me. It was getting hard to keep denying how thoroughly unhappy I was. I felt as if I had reached the end point in my situation. I could feel the anxiety clawing at my insides, the desolation nibbling at the seams of my mind, the sweat pooling under my arms. I knew that I was hurting my family with my moodiness, my husband especially, because I had walled myself away from him. I no longer felt any sense of joy in our city, in our life. I was anxious, triggered by even the simplest things, but unable to explain my anxiety to others. I knew I needed to heal, to find myself. I knew it was time to leave home.

That evening, I told my husband that I wanted to apply for an MFA; it had been three years since a friend suggested I apply to schools in the United States. We both sat in the room after our children had gone to bed, and I stared at a spot on his forehead because I could not look into his eyes. I did not want to see if they carried the mix of emotions I felt, the confusion and desperation and fear rumbling inside me, all at once.

“So, you will be gone for two years,” he said quietly. “But you will come home every holiday to be with us, right?”

Inside my head, I told him how unhappy I was and that I blamed him for the trauma my body and mind had been put through. I blamed him for marrying me when I was merely a teenager and changing the course of my life. But I could never have said those words to him.

“I will come home every holiday,” I said instead, fervently. I told him about the advantages to getting an MFA, why I must get better at writing, this thing I loved to do. I promised to always come home.

For a moment, he watched me, saying nothing, and I felt uncomfortable under his stare and also felt the need to reassure him that I was not running away forever. Then he said, “You will do well in America. I trust you.”

I wrapped my arms around his waist, pressed my lips against his, fumbled with his shirt buttons. He held me tightly, then pushed his arms under my blouse, under my bra cups. His fingers were warm and callused. “The children might walk in,” he said, and quickly stood up.

In the bedroom, we undressed silently, pressing against each other in the dimly lit room. I mounted him, my movements slow. His face was oily, his features firm, but there was a sheen in his eyes and I could not tell if it was from excitement, or if it was something else, before he turned his face away from the faint light sifting in from the window. Later, I waited until he had fallen asleep, before I returned to the sitting room to switch on my laptop and look up schools in the United States.

In 2018, I went ahead with my plan, and moved to Montpelier, Vermont to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

***

I am now living the first chapter of the new part of my life. Before attending the first day of classes, I gazed at my family photos, thinking. I could almost read the expression in my husband’s eyes. His face is stretched in a smile, his eyes are mild. He’s become the primary caregiver to our three children — Chi, Som, and Chu. He has eight siblings and one living parent; he’s burdened with other responsibilities, too, and there I was, so far away from him, so far away from home. I felt crushed with guilt. I cried as I prepared for class. I cried when class was over. I cried when I spoke with them later over the phone. I cried because I was again putting everyone’s feelings first before my mental health. I cried myself to sleep in my room, the first place I could call my own in my 36 years. I thought moving away from home would give me the opportunity to heal, to find myself, but I isolated myself in my room, pummeled myself with guilt, could hardly handle hanging out with the new friends I’d made, and would stare at my computer, paralyzed, until my friend Rebecca knocked on the door and asked, gently, if I’d like to join her at the Three Penny Taproom Bar, or on a trip to Burlington.

Then one morning, during a class with the poet Bianca Stone, she asked us to make a list of the things we’d rather write about, the things we were afraid to write about, no matter the forms we primarily write in. I made notes about my postpartum complications and the cultural myths surrounding childbirth and motherhood in my community. After that class, I broke into tears. I cried all night. I coiled in my bed and wept, and all of the following morning. During subsequent classes, the conversations burrowed holes into my carefully stacked traumas, and I wrote a poem about childbirth.

I wrote that poem four months ago, and I returned home to spend the summer with my family in Nigeria, during which my agent sold my novel to a publisher in the United Kingdom. Many of our relatives think my decision to attend school abroad is a shocking anomaly, and always tell me this. They believe it is an abomination for an Igbo woman to leave her children in her husband’s care, for a wife to live so far away from home. I initially tried to explain the importance of my education, but then I learned to assuage their concerns with typical responses: I tell them that our children are almost all teenagers. I tell them that Chi is already 16 and has graduated from secondary school. I tell them that my husband is doing just fine. And sometimes my husband throws in the clincher, perhaps to taunt them: “They will soon join their mum at school in America,” he’d say. And this always ends the conversation.

I have since found a new rhythm and I am no longer as anxious as I used to be.

***

Speaking out is like lancing a boil; the body will not return to its prior state, but you are filled with relief once the poison had seeped out.

It is now 17 years since the birth of my first child, and my altered body has finally begun to feel right. I have learned to wear it. I have slipped easily into a new life, one occasionally wracked with the memories of my experiences, but I am no longer afraid because I now know my affliction.

Previously published in Longreads

Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma

Feature Image by AntoineLanz from Pixabay

Shattering the Silence Surrounding Childbirth and Postpartum Complications

We are so excited to announce that the inaugural webinar for #TheBodyConversation will be held virtually on Zoom, on June 20.

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

Meet our special guest and panelists:

Nneka Nwogu is an Oil and Gas practitioner specialising in Social Performance with almost 25 years of office and field experience. She is an educator, an entrepreneur, a wife, mom, trainer and an analytical strategist.

With a first degree in Engineering, a post-graduate degree, several certificates and diplomas from various universities, including the Warwick Business School UK,  Nneka clearly loves the walls of teaching and learning.

She is the initiator of the award-winning Safe Motherhood intervention for Rivers State women, in collaboration with The Adolescent Project (TAP), a pet project of the then-Wife of the Executive Governor of Rivers State, Justice Mary Odili. This project was recognised at the International Conference of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood in Washington DC, USA.

Nneka, the founder of New Mums Lounge is very passionate about Motherhood, Children and Education, having scaled through more than 10 years of infertility.

Ujuaku Akukwe is an international award-winning documentary filmmaker, entrepreneur,  author and mother of three. She is the CEO of Frances-Ashley Media and the co-founder of Leaps and Bounds Entertainment ltd.

Her extensive experience and practice cut across media consultancy, content design and social works. She is a recipient of a Certificate of Recognition from the California Legislature Assembly for her use of film for community engagement and won the Nigeria Women Entrepreneurship Award for her contribution to positive parenting. Her films have won several nominations and awards globally, including the winner, best documentary Silicon Valley African Film Festival, United States. Winner, Woman Producer of the Year and Award of Excellence both from the International Film Festival, Zero discrimination and Social justice Indonesia, amongst others. 

She is an alumna of the New York Film Academy, University of Nigeria and Pan Atlantic University, with certificates in Entrepreneurial management, Strategic management, Documentation strategy, Digital marketing, and communications.

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.

Marie-Ange Rukundo is a dynamic Rwandan, mom to the cutest boy in the world and married to one exceptional man. She is at her best when connecting with fellow humans on topics that speak to her heart, including motherhood, identity, food, the mystery of life, and God.

She advises university students in career matters during the day and when she is off the clock, you can find her at home with her family. She keeps her schedule busy with playdates, books, podcasts, a blog and trying out new recipes.  She is an extroverted libra on an unending quest for balance. 

Temitayo Olofinlua is a creative writer, editor, and communications specialist with a series of awards to her credit. Temitayo has completed writing assignments for various national and international organizations such as Facebook, Global Press Journal, Mania Magazine, One Global Economy, BudgIT, to mention a few.

She studied Literature-in-English at Obafemi Awolowo University. Her essays have won several awards including the Peter Drucker Challenge (2012 and 2014) and the 2019 Paula Chinwe Okafor Prize for Creative Non-fiction. She has also completed various ghost-writing projects.

She is currently finishing a Ph.D. programme in African Studies at the University of Ibadan.

Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor is a graduate of Nnamdi Azikiwe University Medical School and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He is a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. He is the CEO of EpiAFRIC and the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch. He is a leading advocate for universal health care.  

Ifeanyi’s health communications and health advocacy efforts are hinged on the University of Global Health Equity’s mantra, to achieve equity in healthcare, there must be equity in health education. Ifeanyi is a Thought Leader in Global Health. He has written over 55 opinion pieces for different publishers including, The Hill, BioMed Central’s Bugbitten Blog, Scientific American, Project Syndicate, Devex, Inter Press Service, African Arguments, AllAfrica, The Globe Post, Nigeria Health Watch and Vanguard Nigeria. One of his opinion pieces is titled, “Let’s Prevent Post-partum Depression and Provide Care to Those in Need”. 

Ifeanyi is a TEDx Speaker – his 2018 TEDxOguiRoad Talk is titled, “Without Health, We Have Nothing”. In March 2020, Ifeanyi spoke at “Exploring Media Ecosystems Conference” at the Samberg Center of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Title of his talk was “Forward this to 10 People: The epidemic of health misinformation in Nigeria”. The Conference was organized by Media Cloud – a joint project by the MIT Center for Civic Media & the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

In March 2020, Ifeanyi was also recognized among the Coronavirus Top 100 healthcare professionals globally. Ifeanyi is married to Omegie and they have 2 daughters (Yagazie and Chimamanda) and a dog, Simba. 

#thebodyconversation

Feature Image by Guilherme Reis from Pixabay