Small Betrayals

Many months ago The Rumpus posted an open call for essays that examined the topic “mothering outside the margins.” I thought about the prompt for a few days and then early, around five am, one Saturday morning I sat down and wrote a 1200 word essay about my experience as mother in the first few months of my son’s life.

It came out quick and fervent and I admit, I was a little surprised, but I also knew I had a lot to say. I spent about a week or so tweaking it and then sent it off before I could think too hard about it.

Ultimately, though my little essay made it the final round for the “mothering outside the margins” call, it didn’t make the final cut, but I was encouraged by how close it came to publication, so I sent it to a few other places and soon enough the editors at Utterance sent me an email letting me know they’d decided to publish it. Unfortunately, that journal is no longer in print, but you can read my essay in full below:

Small Betrayals  




My son did not enter life by my push. He was pulled through the slim red lips of a wound that opened across my abdomen like a hungry mouth.  




He is small, so small his entire body fits in the space between my wrist and elbow. He is so small he has to visit the pediatrician every week for weight checks. He is so small that his newborn onesies billow around his tiny body like giant pastel sails. He is so small that the hat knit by my dear friend, his “go home” hat, envelopes his entire head in red wool. The wool is same color as his face scrunched tight as he screams.  



The lactation consultant visits my room on the second day of his life. I am exhausted from an unexpected car accident that brought an unexpected c-section that brought this unexpectedly tiny baby.  


We work on latching. I remember her saying, “he knows where the nipple is,” as if this was some sort of accomplishment. I just nod and smile, feeling his tiny chest move against mine like a second heartbeat.  


The next time she comes, the last day we’re in the hospital, she brings nipple shields. She helps me attach these plastic discs to my breasts, assures me they will do the trick because my son “knows where the nipple is.”  


By the end of the following week the slick smell of that plastic makes me nauseous.  







My son never latched onto my breast. He latched onto the aquamarine egg of my engagement ring, his fingers ghosting over mine, seeking the brilliant flash and holding on. 




He is hungry all the time. His mouth opens dark angry wet with every cry for more. I cradle his tiny body in one arm and press his mouth to my breast as my husband helps with the pump. 


No milk.  


He is starving.  


His rage is primal.  


No milk.  


Nipple shields slip from my sweating fingers; the breast pump squats on coffee table, watching, waiting, useless. I try again. 


No milk.  


He is starving. 


At some point my husband says, “Babe, why don’t we make him a bottle?” 


At some point we are back in the pediatrician’s office for yet another weight check.  


At some point the kind doctor, his deep voice filling every corner of the exam room says, “It’s formula. Not swamp water.”  


At some point we give him his first bottle and when he closes his eyes and begins to suck the quiet sound is its own kind of ecstasy.  




I watch Spring turn to Summer from my living room window. I watch our Redbud tree leaf out deep green. I watch a small fledgling wren fall from the eaves of our porch and sit on the ledge while his mother swoops worms into his mouth.  


I walk the floors of our small bungalow in a thick, white fleece coat even though it is pushing eighty degrees outside. The air conditioning blows from the vents, turning my fingers to ice as I circle the living room, into the dining room, through the kitchen and back.  


He is still hungry. He is still hungry all the time. We walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk. 


My shoulders ache from holding his still too small body in the same position. Tendonitis flares up in my right wrist, hot and pulsing as I shift his head from shoulder to forearm and back again.  


My husband leaves us everyday. He goes to work and comes through the back door every afternoon in a wash of summer sun.  


Days shift in the shadows the sunlight casts through my living room window. 


We walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk. 




Loneliness is my husband rolling over to touch me in the middle of the night. Loneliness is feeling his hands at my back, my hips, my abdomen.  


My abdomen that is still a gaping wound that bleeds.  


Loneliness is the want that builds between the two of us as our son sleeps just a few feet away.  


Loneliness is the pull of clothes, the tear of a condom wrapper and the smell of latex. Loneliness is the quick urgency and then nothing.  


Loneliness is when he rolls away and falls asleep quickly.  


Loneliness is the sound of my son’s breath as it mingles with my husband’s. Slow and even, they sleep deep in the dark. Their rhythm out of sync with my own erratic breath.  




When I go to visit my parents, my son is three months old.  


I am not prepared.  


I am not prepared for my mother, afraid to hold her grandson.  


I am not prepared for my father standing behind me while I hold my son, who is gaining but still so small, to say “yeah, your mom is feeding you that powdered shit,” casting a judgmental eye toward the bright yellow container of formula.  


I am not prepared for my sister to feed my son a bottle, her eyes stricken when she looks at me.  


I am not prepared to lie in the guest room in the dark, tears and sweat mingling as I rock my baby to sleep. Upstairs, my sister, mother and father sleep in cool, air conditioned darkness.  



We walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk and he eats and we walk. 


And all of a sudden, he wants nothing to do with me.  


His obsession for his father is sharp and frightening. It is to the point where my husband hides in the kitchen, cowering behind the very island I circled a thousand times.  


If he comes into the living room, if my son’s blue eyes lock on his, it’s all over. 


My husband jokes about being exiled to the kitchen. He jokes about our son’s devotion to him. He jokes about our son’s disregard for me. He jokes, and with every joke, I feel another piece of myself break.  





He puts on weight. 


His wrinkles fill with fat; his whole body warm and pink and white. His mouth now opens soft rose as he leisurely takes another bottle. 


He widens; lengthens; expands.  


He is no longer small. 


He is no longer hungry. 


He gains.  


I lose sleep, hair, blood. 


He gains. 


I lose his weight in my arms. 


He gains.  


I lose his breath beside me in the dark. 


He gains. 


I lose. 


He gains.  



To say that I’ve been surprised and humbled by the response to this essay is an understatement. So many women have reached out to me share their stories and I am so grateful for the dialogue.

The beautiful artwork that the editors included with my piece. 

Earlier this week I learned that the editors nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize, which is a tremendous honor and truly means a lot to me in light of the response I’ve received. Admittedly, I was nervous about sending these words out into the universe. It’s an intensely personal piece of writing and I wasn’t sure if I’d done the subject matter justice, but the fact that it seems to have resonated with readers has helped immensely. I suppose this experience just reinforces what I’ve been telling my students for years: if you have something to say, say it. For me, the best writing always feels like it has something at stake, so if you feel it in your bones, don’t be afraid to open your mouth. Someone is ready to listen.


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