Baby, Baby

by Natasya Ismail

My husband was three months pregnant when we discovered that the transport minister had decided to raise the bus fares to twenty percent.

It didn’t come off as that much of a shock as we munched on our toasted gorgonzola sandwiches prepared by my husband who was, at that precise moment, suppressing a bout of vomit that was rising and falling in his esophagus. Morning sickness they call it, but it seemed to be recurrent in balmy mid-afternoons when the dust motes spiral in the marmalade glow of the sun filtering in through the Ikea curtains. I tried to help ease the pain at times, stroking his warm back in disproportionate circles and muttering words of consolation in his sweating ear.

     Men’s egos tend to get the better of them, particularly during the first two trimesters of the pregnancy. Their partners are to be considerate of this abrupt shift in hormones and incremental discomfort as the belly makes room for the growth of the infant.

  • Heidi Murkoff, What To Expect You’re Expecting (Chapter 8, Pg 173)

He spent most of his spare time at work and home mulling quietly over the yellowed pages of What To Expect When You’re Expecting that we got off the fortnightly MPH sale last month. Normally a junk eater, my husband had taken the means of doing regular grocery runs to Cold Storage to get organic avocados that cost thrice the normal Mexican ones in the rattan basket just opposite and loaves of Ezekiel bread to spread them on. Our trolley was always the most expensive, I presume, mounting with fresh grain-fed meats and overpriced impersonation of rice called quinoa. Sometimes I wish women were the ones who got pregnant – I would have acted more rationally than this. I’ve known my friends’ husbands who stuffed themselves with bags of fluffy cheese balls and greasy burgers and still gave birth to fat, healthy pink babies who soon grew into mathematical protégées with bad bowl cuts in primary school.

The increased bus fares was possibly one of the main reasons why I thought the excessive grocery shopping was taking an abysmal toll on our wallets. But obviously I could not point this out without succumbing to a forty-five minute argument with my exceptionally hormonal husband and end up consoling the sobbing heap at the foot of our four-poster. So I started cycling to my office instead of catching the shuttle every morning. It became my form of temporal liberation from all the baby talk, whining of foot cramps and sudden outbursts of moodiness in between meals – it also made me realize how much I missed him. I missed watching him pull up his overwashed Gap sweatshirt over his head, as we got ready to cuddle in front of the television for the umpteenth rerun of Friends. I missed circling my arms around his waist as he shuffled around the kitchen counter, flattening cloves of garlic with chef precision and washing down slabs of searing Wagyu with a sizzling butter bath. I missed the sex – oh, the beautiful, amazing sweet bed action. These days he was always too exhausted, couldn’t even snatch a few kisses because he would already be dozing off by 10.

Oh god, the sex.

27 weeks. Why did they call it by weeks? Not just 6 months and a few weeks? We were at the clinic, waiting for our monthly check up. His fingers were cold and trembling slightly; we were going to receive the Down-Syndrome test results that day. I was quite certain everything was going to be alright, that our baby was fit, swimming contentedly in the amniotic pool of my husband’s womb after being fed with thirty-dollars worth of vegetation every day. Most of his shirts didn’t fit anymore so we bought some plain cotton t-shirts and maternity khakis to last the next few months. My breasts had begun to swell too, palpitating almost tumescent with the sustenance that flowed within. Even that had failed to arouse my husband. He was too preoccupied with the ache that had crawled up his spine the last few weeks from those protracted hours sitting at his desk. “Mr and Mrs Hakim, it’s your turn next,” the nurse, a petite and plump woman with a ring of mocha-brown adipose flesh strangling her neck, quipped from the counter, intercepting my thoughts. Somehow, she annoyed me.

“What is this smooth gel that you put on my stomach called, Doctor?” he asked.

My husband asked the dumbest questions, I swore. I tightened my grasp on his arm, almost to a pinch, as the doctor pulled the sonogram machine perched on a rickety, wheeled table towards us.

“It’s just called an ultrasound gel, Mr Hakim. It aids with tightening the bond between the skin and the probe. To reduce static also.”

He shivered a little as the tepid, jellied solution spread over his arched belly down to his naval, clutching my hand in his sweaty ones. The walls of my clitoris seemed to twitch at this sight, an uncalled-for wetness staining itself on the light nylon of my underwear. I swallowed heavily, gripping his fingers with equal pressure. He seemed to sense this, peering at me over his shoulder worriedly. Are you okay? He mouthed. I nodded, smiling meekly as I felt the beads of moisture traveling impossibly up my chiffon blouse.  My eyes swiveled down to my top as soon as he turned back to the dusty screen of the sonogram machine. A massive, white blob had seeped into the thin fabric near my right nipple. Lactating is a bitch, isn’t it?

My husband could not stop staring at the ultrasound images of our baby, rubbing his tummy while he was at it. One of the shots became his bookmark for What Do You Expect When You’re Expecting just so he could steal glimpses of it while he read. His cravings had grown more intense over the next preceding months too – butter and peppered king prawns one Saturday night while we were about to pull up the sheets, orange glutinous cakes steamed in scented banana leaves (otherwise known as Nagasari) just that Monday evening after work and the strangest one yet: lemongrass, raw. Before the pregnancy, I had always figured pregnant men who had absolutely delirious cravings were fictionalized, hyperbolic anecdotes of an otherwise dreary pregnancy experience. My husband, once again, proved me the complete antithesis to that theory. He spent the entirety of his eight-month gestation sucking on sticks of lemongrass. I could have sucked his but no.

“You don’t seem too happy these days. Why is that?”

Slumped languidly on the vinyl headboard, he turned to look at me. My fingers halted in between keys D and N, hovering emptily as I attempted to construct my train of thoughts into coherent sentences. My husband was never one to dwell on serious conversations like this, always passing it off as a mild phase that will die down within weeks or months. I was never one to probe the matter too, leaving it to eventually subside as we began to adapt to certain, inevitable changes in the relationship. It’s a simple question really; I could simply pass it off as work-related stress. Yet, a demon inside of me was screaming to claw and spew out every emotion, desire and thirst I had buried deep within my consciousness. He continued to stare at me, relentless in his pursuit for answers as our baby’s limb poked out slightly from the mottled skin of his drum-tight belly.

“It’s nothing. I’ve just been swamped with work. What with the manuscript deadlines and clients calling to check if everything’s done. I’m alright, honey.”

“Somehow I know it’s not about work. It’s something else. It’s about the baby, isn’t it?” he questioned further, forehead corrugated.

I inched closer towards him, clambering over the bed. This was perhaps the most intimate we had ever been for the past eight and a half months. Stroking his head, I knew that I had been considerably unfair to him. He was painstakingly bearing our child whilst juggling work and the overwhelming hormones and here I was, desiring to be fucked above anything else. Was I that selfish?

“I can’t be happier watching our baby grow inside of you every second, honey. I’ve just been really exhausted although I know it can’t match the exhaustion you feel. I’m sorry if I seem cold to you. But really, I’m okay.”

I felt like I was assuring myself more than him. We hugged for a while, his engorged tummy brushing softly against mine, as we savoured that moment before normality crashed the gates again. I sneaked in a kiss, pressing my lips against his coarse cheek tightly, and let go, returning to my desk. The last two months of the pregnancy had rendered him almost immobile, sprawled over the bed and snoring for hours on end. Thankfully, the absurd string of cravings had ended. The morning sickness had made its comeback, abated by mugs of iced plum juice or just the fruit itself, shriveled and dusted with coats of powdered sugar bought in kilograms from the market. Our daily grocery run was swapped for baby shopping – cashing out mindlessly on bottles of talcum powder, medicated oil for upset tummies, bags of Mamy Poko, a sturdy McLaren stroller (my husband insisted), white jumpers (because we didn’t want to know the gender of the baby yet), cute mobiles to hang over the hand-me-down crib from my husband’s older sister and varicoloured towels with baby animals knitted on them. I had never seen my husband that happy – not even during our wedding.

“What shade should we paint the baby room, dear?” he queried as the advertisement for toothpaste aired in the midst of Top Gun that Sunday evening.

I sipped some ice tea, pretending to mull it over when I had already planned every single nook and cranny of the baby’s room three months’ in advance. There was a sealed, brand new pack of baby pink (it was undeniable my husband was carrying a girl from the convexity of his belly) curtains I had kept in the store meant for the room – an impulsive purchase after the fourth appointment which my husband had no clue about.

“Maybe we could paint the room white? Since we don’t know the gender yet?”

Slipping his hands under my t-shirt, his fingers squeezed my nipples gently. My back straightened palpably on the couch like a jolt of electric had struck my nerves. He looked at me, seemingly amused at my reaction as his hands ensconced themselves under my heaving breasts. A youthful Tom Cruise was entangled in an intense act of osculation with a still firm, beautiful Kelly McGilis right about that time.

My husband had peaked at 42 weeks and was still not showing signs of labour. The doctor had said that it was perfectly fine, normal even and that we should just wait for it to organically happen. So we filled our time playing rubbish classical music on the turntable in the living room since it claimed to have astounding effects on the baby’s brain development, cooking up whatever’s left in the fridge that was organic or cruelty-free and folding freshly laundered baby clothes and sorting them into neat piles in the cupboard. My husband looked like a mammoth by this time, having to catch his breath at every step. His extremities had ballooned like mini sausages peeking out from his foam bathroom slippers that made the water retention slightly bearable. His body radiated warmth from every pore of his skin – hugs discomforted him during the past two trimesters but he seemed touchier the past few weeks, always reaching out to cup my breasts and squeeze out nobules of creamy, white milk intentionally. “You’re getting naughty,” I mumbled, biting softly the tender cartilage of his ear. He chuckled, pulling me closer against his chest. “How did I stop doing this for so long?”

Just moments after climaxing, our daughter chose to knock out a huge kick that shook and destabilized the walls of my husband’s uterus. My husband was oddly composed throughout, from struggling into the cab still clad in his pajamas to being strolled into KKH where probably twenty other men were moaning from their contractions as though they were climbing up to near orgasm. Possibly twenty seconds into, I conjectured silently as we waited for our ward to be cleared. I felt strange, seating beside my husband in the waiting room as he fought off the contractions that were starting to get regular by the second. How did it happen so fast? The last thing I remembered was rubbing against my husband on our bed where we conceived the child that was about to be born, feeling so good and wet after so many months. God, this child was already showing signs of hoarding my husband’s presence even before she was born! Perhaps I had hit a new low – who even gets jealous of an infant (who just happens to be yours) while your husband is just moments away from childbirth?

“Mrs Hakim, would you like to be with your husband in the labour ward? We encourage wives to be beside their husbands throughout the process in order to appreciate this miracle as well as to support their partners battling the pain.”

Was there any part in What Do You Expect When You’re Expecting on rejecting the nurse’s call to be beside your husband during labour? Any polite comebacks that could come in handy maybe? I raked my brains and found nothing of course as I waited for the coffee-dispensing machine to squirt diluted Nescafé into the Styrofoam cup like diabetic pee. I nodded, abandoning my fifty-cents caffeine boost and trailed the nurse’s hurried stride. The splick-splack of the nurse’s rubber tennis shoes were making a din in the empty corridors; it was so loud that it could probably wake the sleeping babies in the nursery. But they pervaded my thoughts quite well, filling the gaps in between paranoia and fear that jostled for space. Within the next few minutes, I was going to be a mother. The fluorescents were making my temples pound even harder, letting out a burst of cold perspiration that bubbled down viscously down my back. I was about to lose my husband, my two-year marriage and my sex life to this bundle of joy.

“Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Hakim. It’s a girl.”

A girl. If the doctor hadn’t announced it, I would not have been able to discern our baby’s gender just by looking at her. She had the smallest nose I had ever seen, tufts of jet-black hair that curled at the ends just like my husband’s, rogued lips that seemed like they could stretch a mile as she wailed her minuscule lungs out in that dim room and lids that resembled mini porcelain bowls. They wrapped her up in a silky, pink blanket and presented the package to me, like an overdue birthday present. I held her with trembling arms; my sweet little daughter, the pesky sex-ruiner, and I found myself confused again. Pressing the soft, veiny pouches of flesh that were her cheeks in between my fingers, I was staring at a human version of my love for my husband. With four perfect limbs, ten fingers and toes, bright marbled eyes and the loudest cry. How could I have not realized that such a thing of beauty was growing in my husband’s womb all this time? The bundle squirmed in my hold, attempting to break out of its cocoon and retaliate her mother’s muted orders to keep still at barely a minute old.

“How is she?” My husband had stirred from the diminishing numbness of epidural as the nurse propped his lolling head up with more pillows, fussing unnecessarily over the IV tubes hooked to his arm. I perched over the edge of the bed, unable to ignore the fact that the nurse was blatantly flirting with my husband who had just given birth moments ago. My husband was undeniably a pretty man – he looked almost feminine at a rough glance. His face, though crumpled and flushed from emaciation, was still beautiful and as alluring as it was the day I met him in Starbucks when he was a part-time barista. I felt a particular tightness in my chest, thinking I was about to have a heart attack, only to feel my shirt being soaked again by the liquid from my constricting breasts.

“She looks just like you, baby,” my husband commented, smiling up at me as though hoping for me to plant a kiss on his cheeks.

“I think I have to feed her. My milk is bursting out like crazy.”

“Oh well then I think you should, honey. Do you know how to do it?” Eyebrow cocked upwards, he watched me uncertainly.

     Whether your first time is a breeze, something of a struggle or somewhere in between, there’s a lot to learn. So the more you know about technique (how to position baby), mechanics (how to know baby is getting enough milk) and logistics (when a meal is over and when it’s time for another), the more confident and empowered you’ll feel.

Technique. Mechanics. Logistics. These words seemed like they had been extracted from my husband’s aerospace study notes when he was studying to be an engineer all those years ago. My hands shivered slightly from the frigid air-conditioning in the nursing room as I placed my phone as quietly as I could on the coffee table that sadly, had no coffee to lubricate my parched throat. Our baby was sleeping soundly in my arms, but my breasts had engorged to the size of golf balls waiting to gush out a stream of milk into her small mouth. What if she choked as I breastfed her? Mother Kills Infant Moments After Birth From Awkward Breastfeeding Action. They probably wouldn’t use that headline but I could see it being splashed over the papers if I managed to murder my daughter as I attempted to release the incremental pressure in my chest. I unbuttoned my blouse and pulled her closer to me. It was like magnet. Her lips hooked onto my pruned, chocolate nipples, her velvety gums sinking into my flesh as she slowly but determinedly sucked on them. I didn’t realize how sexual breastfeeding was when images of my husband sucking onto my nipples during intercourse resurfaced. Weird. I shook them off, sinking deeper into the cushion where hundreds other confused, horny mothers sat feeding their babies.

The nurse bought in a mug of steaming formula milk for “mummies” just as I was about to doze off. I asked for unsweetened black coffee but she told me (with the most bitter expression, god that bitch!) that the hospital only provided milk for breastfeeding mothers. It tasted like goat vomit but I had to gulp it down nonetheless because she kept guard, lingering at the threshold as she checked her makeup on the screen of her phone. She probably used makeup bought off SinMa Jewellery, those cheap plasticky lipsticks and adhesive-smelling, sticky mascara. Taking my polished mug from the table, she said, “You’re only allowed to use the room every 2 hours so if you’re done, please leave. Thank you.”

I pressed my lips into a hard, thin smile, buttoning up my blouse and shifting my baby over to the other arm. Two hours into being a mother and I could already multitask. When I returned to my husband’s ward, he was lying on his bed and watching a crackly live telecast of Manchester United Versus Chelsea on the hanging Akira television. The boxy, 1990s televisions here only had two channels – a bad reception of Fox Sports and the obsolete Channel 5. He barely flinched when I came in, our daughter wheeled by a senior nurse into the nursery.

“Baby, I did it. I managed to breast feed her without actually choking her! I’m the world’s best mum,” I gushed, blocking his view from the television on purpose.

“That’s great, honey. But I got a match to watch here so if you’ll excuse me-“

“Are we going to have sex again? After this? I just need to hear it from you,” I blurted.

The space in between his eyebrows wrinkled as my question began to trigger his irritation. He slammed his body against the bed, which must have hurt a little because it was as hard as rocks. I maintained my gaze on him as I kept motionless and mute, awaiting his response.

“Why are you asking me this now? I’ve just given birth to our daughter no less than a day and you’re pestering me about sex. Are you out of your mind?” he retorted, resentment saturating his tone.

“We’ve been having a dry spell for the past nine months, Hakim! When are you going to realize that I have my needs too?”

He snorted incredulously, turning his back on me. I felt every ounce of blood cramming my cheeks as the horny nurse stared at the both of us from the doorway, a sheepish smile playing on her raspberry lips. She must have heard how desperate I sounded, how bereft I was in the presence of my own husband as she approached the ward with our baby in her damn cadaverous arms. I fought back the tears that threatened to spill over my eyelids, battling the rage that licked every crevice of my heart. How could I be the best mother in the world if I could not even be a decent wife?

“I’m sorry, Mr and Mrs Hakim. Your baby here just won’t sleep. Would you like to be with her tonight?”

With the sweetest tone I could conjure, I answered:

“Yes.” 

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