This story was written by Dunni Olayebi and she chose to write about a new mother experiencing adult realities. This story is about Tatenda, a new mother who is struggling with the challenges of being a mother. Dunni hopes her readers, new mothers or not, are able to connect with, or at least empathise with her characters, or an experience which could bring the story to life for them.
The New Mother
For the past two months now, time seemed to be at a standstill for Tatenda. No honking cars, no voices telling passengers to ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’, no stories from strangers made privy to the eavesdropping ear, no laughing children in parks, which she remembered used to warm her heart. Nothing.
Except Tatenda and her thoughts. And of course, the distant wails from Rikki which were distant even when she was in the arms of Tatenda. Tatenda’s mind had now developed the seemingly supernatural ability to block out the baby’s cries. She heard the cries as if Rikki were miles away. And Mark who didn’t know how to manage Tatenda in her emotionless state would tiptoe around her. He was worried that even the slightest of confrontations would cause an explosion of feelings that his wife kept concealed. They were strangers in their own home.
For the past two months, they had all settled into a routine. They had clearly defined roles that each knew by heart now. Mark would wake up at 5 a.m., an hour earlier than he typically did for work. He told Tatenda this allowed him to be more productive and fit more into his day. She believed he deliberately did this to avoid Rikki’s waking hours. When his alarm would go off, he’d quietly tiptoe through his morning routine, trying not to wake Tatenda. He’d spend ten minutes in the shower and ten minutes out of the shower. This gave him just enough time to grab some toast and coffee for himself.
Occasionally, he would fry eggs and put this in the oven, leaving Tatenda a little note on the oven door. Eggs for my Queen x. His idea of a sweet gesture, to compensate for his absence during Rikki’s daily colic episodes. Most days, he was back before it turned pitch black outside, and would spend the first few minutes oohing and ahhing with Rikki in her cot. Other times, when he returned later than usual, he’d turn up bearing gifts – another way to make up for his absence. Chinese takeout for Tatenda and a soft toy to add to Rikki’s baby mobile collection. He’d also try to be affectionate to both in his own way. A pinch on the baby’s cheek. A kiss on Tatenda’s forehead.
These interactions felt forced and lately, it almost seemed as though he was trying to tick the box of doting husband and loving father, in ten minutes. When enough of the moment had passed, he’d revert to his original mode, which meant retiring to his bedroom, accompanied by Jack Daniels.
Tatenda couldn’t help but nurse a growing disdain towards her husband and his futile efforts. She too felt like a stranger in her new role as mother. Every morning, as Mark tiptoed around preparing to disappear for the day, Tatenda would lay awake silently in their bed, staring blankly into the darkness. Then when she’d hear his car engine fade as he drove off, she’d close her eyes and try to shut down again. But Rikki, almost like an alarm herself, would start to scream from her cot on the other side of the wall at precisely the same time every morning. Still, Tatenda would lie there staring into the emptiness, and what struck her every time, was the absence of guilt. Because the room was dark and she couldn’t read the time off the wall clock, she lost the concept of time in those moments. It could go on for minutes or hours, but she’d lie there still, staring into space. The only sounds she welcomed were her fast beating heart and intermittently, the ticking wall clock.
She would finally rise from her bed when the soft morning light began streaming in through the chiffon curtains till it eventually flooded the entire room. At this point the hands of the clock became visible to her and begrudgingly, she’d throw her legs off the side of the bed, sit up, and head to the baby’s cot. Rikki’s tiny fists thrust in the air, her face turned an angry red, mouth stretched wide, gums glaring. Again, it would amaze her what lack of closeness she had for this child – almost as if she was babysitting and soon enough, she would have to return it to its owners.
Beyond the plain lack of affection, she really didn’t have the faintest idea how to soothe the child. Neither the countless YouTube videos Mark forced her to watch nor the phone calls from Tatenda’s mother, giving a blow-by-blow of her personal experience, seemed to work. So, Tatenda would submit to a combination of feeding, diaper changing, bouncing the baby gently then not so gently, as she moved in and out of the rooms in the house. Again, in these moments, she lost track of time until the wailing quietened down then stopped and started again.
For the past two months, this had been her life in a never-ending cycle. Two months that seemed like a lifetime, an eternity with no concept of an end. She would dream that when Rikki was old enough to start school, she could resume her life again and go back to work. The boutique clothes store where she excelled at making sales would probably take her back in a second. But Mark had always been a lover of big families, and when they first started dating, he’d enthral her with stories of a basketballer son, a lawyer daughter, and somewhere in the mix, identical twin girls who would always cause mischief but whose incredible cuteness would excuse them from all consequences. What if he wanted another child? That would take Tatenda right back to the start of the cycle.
Currently, Tatenda stood in front of the long mirror in their master bedroom. Other than neglecting her new-born, she had also been seriously neglecting her looks. Her eyes were sunken in or maybe the eyebags which bulged out just gave it this effect. They were now tainted a dark brown. Her dry lips had started to flake and crack in certain places so that it stung a little if she attempted to smile. Her cornrows hadn’t been re-done since before she went into labour and now little bushy tufts sprang out everywhere so there were really no rows to speak of. Even her wigs, which used to be well-kept and sleek, now lay abandoned and dusty at the bottom of her wardrobe; she hadn’t properly left the house since the baby so had no real need to revive them.
Tatenda lifted her night dress which was stained with dried milk and stared at her protruding stomach. The dark line, running from her belly button down into her underwear where she’d had the C-section, staring back at her almost tauntingly. She stood a little to the side and sucked in her stomach hoping to see a little bit of an improvement, but the bulge remained. This was one of the most exasperating parts for her. She remembered going on and on to Mark about her guaranteed ‘bounce-back’.
Months before she went into labour, she’d stocked up their fridge with greens – spinach, kale, broccoli, you name it. She’d insisted she needed to eat as few calories as possible to not gain belly fat leading up to the pregnancy even though Mark thought she was being ridiculous and needed to eat more for two. She’d even started going to the gym more regularly and when she got too big to leave the house as frequently, would succumb to home workouts. She had put in so much effort to come off as the pregnant woman who had her life together so seeing herself like this now, was damaging to her self-esteem.
She was unrecognisable, even to herself. But what struck her the most was what she saw when she looked into her eyes; beyond the blood-shot redness that came from a lack of sleep. She was a shadow of the person she remembered; even while she was pregnant, she’d been vibrant, decisive, the person who would dominate, or at least co-dominate intelligent conversations. Now, she was passive, and meek, scared to even be looked at for fear of what the other person might think of her appearance, or worse, her suitability as a mother. And she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d been engaged in a conversation that didn’t involve pampers, baby monitors, baby formula. Baby this, baby that. Her lower lip quivered, and for the first time in two months, tears ran down her cheeks, her shoulders shaking with every silent sob.
**End of Part 1**
Read Part 2 of the story here.
Motherhood is something many women struggle with but it’s not often talked about. When I read this story, my first thought was that Tatenda might have postpartum depression. Have you had children or do you know a woman who has had children? What were some of the challenges they faced? How can we support women who have had children? Let me know in the comments.
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This story was written by Dunni Olayebi. Dunni grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria, and moved to the UK when she was 15. She comes from a family of creatives which spurred her on in her early years of writing fictional stories. She currently works as a Technology Consultant at Accenture, but still enjoys writing short stories from time to time and is planning to compile these in a Medium site this year.
This story was born out of her desire to reignite her initial passion for writing, before studies and work meant she gave it less of her time and attention. She wrote this story from a more mature perspective to reflect the growth in her writing style.