Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
[p.6]It happened again last night: I gave birth to a tiny baby girl in my sleep. She was light and bright and beautiful and I cradled her in my arms and smoothed the thin, blonde hair over the soft spot on her head. When she became hungry, I nursed her from my swollen breast. Sometime near dawn her baby noises woke me and I stumbled through the dark into the bathroom. I turned on lights, drank water, and sat on the edge of the tub holding my face in my hands. I am twenty-seven years old. I have never been pregnant or given birth to a child.
But all around me, friends are having babies. I listen to colleagues and college roommates discuss breast-pumps and Pampers; I go to baby showers and send flowers to celebrate new births. I listen as friends, married and not, confide about family planning and strategically chartthe births of their children against grids of career goals and the number of child-bearing years they have left. I am quiet in an awkward way during these conversations and don’t know what to say when well-meaning people, knowing that my husband and I want a family, ask when we will have our first child. I swallow tears at the back of my throat and keep silent the secret that I cannot yet have a baby.
But the dreams keep coming: I am seven months pregnant and another woman, tall and lean with a basketball belly, comes to me and asks, please, can I carry her baby alongside mine. I respond a firm no, but somehow the dream fetus is given to me and it wrestles in my womb next to my own. This dual pregnancy doesn’t work: my water breaks and I give birth prematurely to twins. They both die.
In my waking hours I have spent the last five years recovering from an eating disorder. For the first twenty-two years of my life, I lived in a body whose soul belonged to someone else with a man’s voice and pen-[p.7]chant for work, production, and perfection. At his hands I became a perfect Sylvia-Plath-over-achiever: an all-American good-girl whose starve-binge cycle left her voiceless. I made straight A’s, ran five miles a day, and rocked myself to sleep at night with chocolate and promises of starving. I rattled and shook inside myself until the false imagebroke. From its death came the children of my baby-dreams.
Often in these dreams I am rescuing, saving babies. On thirteen-month-old girl has been left in a car seat her whole life: strapped in on the passenger side of an ugly four-door sedan. She is starving and covered with her own feces and sweat and tears. I unbuckle the car seat and take her soiled, innocent body in my arms. We enter a dark, unfamiliar house where I bathe her, feed her, love her. I turn on lights and promise to keep her from the car seat.
In my professional life, I teach a class at Chicago’s Roosevelt University to adults who have returned to school. Most have overcome tremendous personal and professional obstacles to bring themselves back to school at middle age. We read together Toni Morrison’s Beloved and watch as Sethe, Paul D., and Denver confront the pain of their pasts and make lives for themselves they can own. We rock and mourn and churn with the book, learning from it and one another.
The worst dream came last week: I have lived through ten hours of natural childbirth—I have needed to own my womanness and my ability to bear a child in a way that drug-quieted labor would not allow. I am exhausted but my baby is born. The hospital is white and sterile and stainless steel. The men in the room do not have faces, only huge mouths and deep voices behind tightly-tied surgical masks. I reach for my baby and am rebuked. Loud, monosyllabic words frame what is wrong with her: head too long, weighs too much, come too soon. I snatch my baby from their large, cold hands, wrap us both in one clean, white sheet, and flee the hospital on stumbling, blood-stained legs.
I have a friend who had an abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. At eighteen and already struggling to raise a pre-school-age son on her own when she discovered she was pregnant again, she felt she only had two options. The women’s rights organization, that arranged for the abortion and stayed with her while it was performed on a kitchen table in a posh New York City suburb, feared detection by the authorities and urged her not to go to an emergency room, no matter how bad her [p.8]hemorrhaging became. She took the bus home after the procedure and spent a week in bed recovering from the IU. She is clear with anyone who asks that abortion saved her life: her other option was suicide.
When I was four years old, my parents gave me a doll for Christmas that I named Baby Marion. By Valentine’s Day I had already given her a haircut with my safety scissors and there were marks on her plastic legs and face where a neighborhood boy had drawn on her with a crayon. But I loved her deeply and would respond with tight hugs and outpourings of four-year-old affection every time she rolled on her stomach and said, “Maaa, Maaa.”
I hear this child doll crying today and know I must respond. I call my parents and ask them to pull Baby Marion from the dark, crowded cedar closet where she has lived for the last twenty years. The UPS man brings her a few days later. I touch her jagged hair and smooth my fingers over her stained face. I hold her tightly to me, and when I am ready to let go, I place her on my desk next to a black-and-white photograph of me taken when I was two and a half years old.
All around me my friends are having babies. In my quiet, pre-dawn moments, I sit in the bathroom gathering courage to begin living my baby’s dream. When the sun comes up, I leave the bathroom and find myself curled in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair, acknowledging the pain of having a labor and delivery story that is so difficult to tell, a body whose stretch marks and full breasts only I can see, and a baby I can’t introduce to friends but who cries and wakes me in the night. I draw my knees to my chest, wrap my arms tightly around myself, and look out on Chicago’s cool, grey morning. I sing songs to my infant, coo softly to her, and accept the awkward, tender recognition that in her survival comes my own.