The Motherhood Contract by Laura Besley

You must not tell the mother-to-be that she may not instantly love her child.

On the second of April 1997 Elspeth is standing in her dimly-lit kitchen doing the washing up. Don’t Speak by No Doubt comes on the radio and as she leans over to turn the volume up, her waters break, followed by a short burst of pain. She can no longer remember exactly what the midwife said about how many minutes apart or centimetres dilated, so she rings Dave on his newly-acquired-especially-for-this-purpose mobile phone. It goes straight to voicemail. She reverts to the conventional method of ringing the main number and sure enough somebody tracks him down. Within thirty minutes they are on their way to the hospital.

They needn’t have hurried. It takes another two days and an emergency caesarean before a screaming baby is born.

Elspeth steals glances at her, and feels nothing.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that breastfeeding hurts.

Breastfeeding is the most natural process in the world, or that’s what you’re led to believe. Books have been written about it, magazines have printed photos depicting it, and doctors talk about it. But it’s a myth.

Elspeth buzzes for a midwife and a blur of blue appears in the room, whipping the baby out of the small cot next to the bed. She flips the baby over one shoulder, holding her in place with one hand. With the other she opens Elspeth’s nightgown, and squeezes a breast until thick, creamy liquid appears.

‘That’s your colostrum. Right,’ she says, and lays the baby down, wedging some cushions underneath.

‘You’ve got to get the latch right, or nothing’ll work properly.’

The baby clamps down.

Elspeth sucks in her breath. ‘Should it… hurt this much?’

‘Some women find it painful in the beginning.’ And the blur of blue disappears.

Days later Elspeth cries when the baby cries, tears falling gently but steadily down her pale face, knowing now what’s going to happen. One of the midwives suggests formula, but that isn’t an option, because then Elspeth would be a bad mother, failing at the first hurdle.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that the lack of sleep will almost kill her.

The first couple of nights the baby sleeps in chunks of three to four hours and Elspeth feels that at least one part of this process is under control. I can do this, she keeps whispering to herself.

But then they take the baby home.

‘Elspeth,’ Dave says, standing over her side of the bed with the baby in his arms. ‘Elspeth, I think she needs feeding again.’

‘She can’t possibly need feeding again.’ She looks at the digital numbers glaring out from the bedside cabinet. ‘I fed her only two hours ago.’

‘I’ve been walking up and down with her for an hour and she won’t go back to sleep. She must be hungry.’

Elspeth rearranges herself in bed and reaches out for the baby. The baby who no longer sleeps in chunks, but merely in slivers, and usually when Elspeth has visitors and then she has to endure comments such as ‘Oh, isn’t she a good baby?’ and in those moments Elspeth wants to match the baby’s screams.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that she will lose herself.

Elspeth feels cheated. No-one warned her that she would no longer recognise herself: physically, mentally, and in every other way too. She looks in the mirror and wonders who that person is with pale skin and massive purple globs under her eyes; lank and greasy hair; and a body that still looks six months pregnant months after birth.

Meeting her old friends no longer holds appeal as she has nothing to talk about but the baby and their frustrations seem so trivial. Meeting the women from her antenatal class is unappealing because all they talk about is babies. And going out without the baby isn’t an option.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that her relationship will break down.

When the baby is born, Elspeth and Dave have been together for 291 days. Their relationship which once felt like a luxury cruise ship, large and with a full programme of onboard entertainment, is now empty and rusting under the constant battering of a newborn’s demands.

Elspeth wants Robert. Having a baby with Robert would have been easy. She would have had the support of her parents and his parents. She would have had the comradery of her real friends who would have been having babies around the same time, instead of these forced friendships she has with women who think she’s a silly girl for having a baby at 22.

If there was an exam that you needed to pass to be allowed to have a baby – and there should be since it’s the only important thing that you do that you don’t need to sit an exam for – Elspeth feels that she and Dave would have failed it.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that there will be days when she regrets her decision.

Elspeth wants to turn the clock back, not just to before the baby was born, but to before she was conceived, to that sunny day when she was feeling reckless and aching for something exciting in her life, to when she walked into a pub and out of it with a man who bought her a packet of salt and vinegar crisps.

She wants that comfortable life she was once so scared of; the one in which she knew the rules.

Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared both online (Fictive Dream, Spelk) as well as in print (Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, vol.9 No.1) and in various anthologies (Adverbally Challenged Vol.1&2, Another Hong Kong, Foreign and Far Away) @laurabesley facebook.

Image: Aditya Romansa