A meditation on motherhood, parenting and the medical system from Emma Espiner’s new memoir.
The day after our daughter was born, Mum was there. She bought a bag of plums and put them on a plate with a handful of paper towels neatly folded nearby. She sat in the chair for hours with Nico wrapped like a poorly constructed burrito. The clothes we had brought with us were too big for her; we didn’t have a hat, just a perfect wool blanket knitted by Sue from work, a confection of pastels around her tiny body. I can feel the memory of the ache in my lower abdomen from the fresh stitches, holding my recently repaired self with my hands when I got up to have a shower, feeling like my insides might fall outside my body if I wasn’t careful.
I was so slow, aching everywhere physically and emotionally. Mum and Guyon were gentle, relieved. They had cast aside the masks they had worn to cover their worry when Nico’s heartbeat was slowing down and the obstetrician bounded into the room and announced we’d better go for a caesarean section for the baby’s safety. When the baby came through the incision, behind a blue sheet, she soared up into the air in the obstetrician’s hands, a slippery goblin, outraged and red.
‘I thought you’d have sailed through a natural birth,’ this obstetrician, a man who reminded me of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, said ruefully. I recently saw him at Middlemore Hospital, where he is doing locum work now, and I remembered a conversation we had during one of our regular clinic appointments at his private consultation rooms in Mount Eden. At the time, he had given up his work in the public system with high-risk pregnancies to work solely in private practice. He explained how it had been a difficult decision, but his private clients couldn’t tolerate his not being available for their births when he had to prioritise a really sick mother or baby in the public system.
Middle-class mothers like me, who didn’t need an obstetrician for medical reasons, but who paid thousands to have our own obstetric doctor on call for us, would get grumpy with an obstetrician who specialised in high risk pregnancies when he needed to be there for a woman who couldn’t afford the fees. He works solely in public now, for those women, and when I see his tall, lean frame stalking the operating theatre corridors I feel grateful that he came back.
Our first proper meal as a family was at Birthcare, the postnatal facility set in the grounds of the Domain, in Parnell. It was three days after Nico was born. Mum and Guyon were drinking little bottles of Lindauer sparkling wine. We ate a surprisingly delicious hospital meal, and the November sun set through the tall balcony windows. It was one of life’s perfect moments. The little baby was curled up like a kitten in the middle of my hospital bed, next to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for scale. When she woke we held her carefully to show her the view across the gardens, and her eyes screwed up like raisins against the light.
Nine years later, I learn to parent by watching other mothers who are better at it than me. I observe my friends’ easy affection with other people’s children when I am only capable of kindness towards the children I like. I nibble at homemade pastries whipped up for an afternoon tea with mum friends and think that I could probably sacrifice some of my solo book-reading time in bed on the weekends to bake something nutritious for my child, rather than stealthily ordering Subway on Uber Eats when her father is at the gym so I don’t have to cook lunch. I watch my daughter’s teacher line all the girls up in the changing room at swimming, squeezing the water out of their long hair, deftly tying ponytails, plaits or tight buns. I hover, with my too-expensive leather handbag gripped to my side, my own child’s hair dripping down her back.
On the occasions that I can’t avoid being a parent helper at school events I am awkward, attempting insouciance but succeeding only in looking impractical. I’m grateful for my medical training, as it signals to other parents that there is something useful I can do. The unfortunate truth, however, is that paediatric medicine terrifies me and I have no idea what I’d contribute if anything went wrong.
Our memories of Nico’s childhood are carelessly stored. I sobbed in the bathroom when my husband gave away her first book to a friend in an uncharacteristic surge of generosity at a barbecue. We were sitting on our newly built deck under the cabbage trees in the muggy Auckland summer, watching as the friend’s baby listed to one side, then another, on the bright cushions. Social etiquette dictated that I pretended my husband’s faux pas was okay, but one of the few things I remember after giving birth is Guyon, eyes wild, returning from the hospital gift shop with two books for our newborn daughter. There were limited options available at the hospital gift shop, and we were both out of our minds with the enormity of what we’d just done. I laughed and then cried when he presented them to us. One was The Noisy Book, a collection of pictures and sounds which over the years developed the perfect beauty of an adored book with its raw plywood spine and soft dog ears. The other book, Pets, was an oddly mesmerising catalogue of animal breeds — guinea pigs, hamsters, horses, cats and dogs, a taxonomy of fur that our baby, then toddler, loved and demanded nightly.
When my husband held out The Noisy Book as a gift to his friend, who I love, a monster inside me wanted to scream. “Take it, we’d love you to have it, she’s got too much stuff,” he said. I saw the moment moving towards us like a train, and had to get out of the way. I abruptly collected everyone’s dirty dishes. I rinsed the plates for the dishwasher as I glared at the kitchen sink, and said not-casually in a rage-whisper, “Let’s not give away everything of hers, shall we?” He often wanted to clean out Nico’s room, by which he meant throw everything away. In an instant I could see this ridiculous generosity going too far, the books from my own childhood, painstakingly preserved by my mother from house to house over more than thirty years, being stuffed into a supermarket tote bag and gifted to these friends, who I now loathed. Men, who don’t do the work of naming and dating kids’ art, or packing the baby knits into a box with tissue paper, or dry cleaning the wedding dress and carefully preserving it for the future, don’t know the value of memories when they give them away.
I look at old photographs that my family has kept: Ethel, 1986, Lake Cres. Kura and Martin, 1981, Pōhara. I scroll through my phone, everything date-stamped, nothing really contextualised, too many faces. Who teaches you to do that? To put a name and a date on the back of a photograph so that in fifty years’ time your daughter looks at it, wonderingly: “That’s when I was eight years old.” My memories surprise me when I go to the attic to get a suitcase or my winter coats and find Aunty Donne’s silver mirror and hairbrush, or Nana’s floral wedding outfit that I inherited, or Mum’s netball team photo where I’m sitting on her knee as the team mascot in sky-blue knits, top to toe, to match the team uniform.
Becoming the mother of a daughter linked me in a mirror room vortex with my own mother. I started to see the impact motherhood had on her reflected in the ways I was changing by being a mother to Nico. I was interested in my mother in ways I had never been before, wanting to understand how she had felt, what she had done, what she could remember about becoming a mother.
When she moved to Auckland to be near us — first for the birth, and then forever because the centre of all our worlds shifted when this child arrived — I was so relieved and then immediately humbled by the prospect of how hard it would be to do this without her. Wildly emotionally labile during the first nine months of Nico’s life, I apologised to Mum over and over for being such a shit of a teenager. I felt desperate, thinking of how awful I’d been to her for not letting me go to parties, for telling her that she was embarrassing me by insisting on speaking to friends’ parents when I wanted to stay the night, for not buying me alcohol like other parents did, for being a bloody lesbian when nobody else’s mum was. I imagined nightmare scenarios where she disowned me for the worst of my behaviour, when I said I hated her or that I wanted to go and live with my father. I wouldn’t have had the courage to apologise or admit I was wrong, and I could have gone all these years, ended up needing her but lost her for good.
The last time I really hurt Mum’s feelings was by making an offhand comment on a breakfast TV show about how she had poor financial literacy. Granted, The Paul Henry Show wasn’t a place for nuanced and complex discussions about intergenerational poverty, but tens of thousands of people watched it and she sent me a curt message afterwards: “I spent five years on the domestic purposes benefit so I could raise you, Emma.” She never calls me by name unless she’s volcanic with rage, so I knew this was serious. I remember sitting in our rusted yellow Toyota Starlet that wouldn’t start on cold days, and which you had to put your whole body into when winding the window down, listening to the radio and squealing at Mum to turn up the volume on “Sweet Lovers”, the Holidaymakers’ 1988 hit cover of Bill Withers’ song. I was four years old and sang, “We could be sweet llamas in the night”, and couldn’t understand why everyone was laughing.
I googled that song recently, and immediately I was a child again, in the back seat of a shitty car, driving somewhere great with my mum.