Charlotte’s Web

By Emily Strong
Web Exclusive – June 19, 2006

newborn babyI scoot closer to the edge of Miranda’s couch as nausea, like the itsy-bitsy spider, climbs up my esophagus. My options are to make a beeline for the potted ficus or to navigate the minefield of toddlers at my feet to reach the bathroom. Pride and a fear that seeing me puking on “mommy’s favorite tree” might leave scars on two-year-old minds, force me to choose the latter. I dart right to avoid a tea party, jog left to miss the music circle, and attempt a long jump over train tracks. Landing squarely on Thomas the Tank Engine is not at all pleasing to the arch of my foot, but it is even more distressing to Miranda’s son, Liam, whom I hear sobbing as I dry heave over the toilet.

When the nausea subsides, I slump onto the cold tile, hold my head in my hands, and wonder how this pregnancy could be so vastly different from my first. During my pregnancy with Eliza, I basked in the miracle of developing earlobes and pinkie toes. I sang lullabies to my taut belly bulge so she would know the sound of my voice. I fear this baby thinks her mother is a drill sergeant, as I have been irritable and demanding since her conception.

I wipe away the tears and splash water on my face, hoping the moms will think the blotches are from surging hormones. As I enter the room, Eliza is announcing something to the group.

“Mommy doesn’t like baby. It’s a bad baby. It makes her sick.”

I needn’t have worried about blotches, as my face is now beet red with embarrassment. I sweep Eliza up under my arm, grab our backpack, and quickly thank Miranda for hosting. She tries to take my hand, but I brush it away saying, “I’m fine. I really think I’m coming around the bend with this vomiting. It can’t last much longer. Thanks again! Bye!”

As I pull into the YMCA parking lot, Eliza’s head falls forward like a drunk’s. She’s been sleeping in her car seat like this every day for two weeks while construction workers tear apart our house and put it back together again. My guilt that she has to nap here rather than in her own bed is compounded by the fact that she’s never complained, not about that or about having a grumpy mommy. I recline my seat all the way back so I can cry unabashedly, as six months of pregnancy misery washes over me.

During the second month, my lungs began to rattle like the engine of an old work truck. The doctor diagnosed bronchitis and prescribed three hours a day of inhaling a steroid-free medication through a contraption of tubes and pumps called a nebulizer. With a Snow White figurine in one hand and an oxygen mask in the other, I’d attempt to keep Eliza entertained.

“Oh, you dwarfs did such a lovely job” (Darth Vader-like inhale) … cleaning the cottage” (inhale) “and I loved the whistling!”

When the gunk finally cleared out of my chest, my husband, Eric, decided it was a good time to replace the Pergo flooring with real wood. It would be a mess but, at worst, he assured me, a three-day affair. Two weeks later, and my kitchen appliances are still in the garage, dust covers every surface in my home, and the chemical smell from the finish is so strong I worry about its effects on Eliza and the baby.

So, here we sit in this parking lot, while workmen rip apart my home, plank by plank. But it is me that has come undone. I suddenly realize that this is too much for me to shoulder on my own. Pressing a button to raise the driver’s seat, I rise like Frankenstein’s monster and prepare to meet the unknown: asking for help.

As I stall on her doorstep, I see Miranda through the window. She is cleaning up the aftermath of the play date, a mess equivalent to thieves ransacking your home. Liam must be napping, which means I am interrupting her quiet time, the sacred hour or two that all mothers cherish. She glances out the window and spots me. My instinct is to duck out of view, but I give her a weak smile instead. Now, not only am I embarrassed about needing her support, but I’m also mortified that I appear to be a peeping Tom.

She answers the door with a bin of Legos in one hand and a tambourine in the other. Her face registers surprise that I have returned, but quickly changes to a look of knowing. She must recognize that I am close to a nervous breakdown.

“Let me guess; you need this,” she says as she runs over to the coffee table.

What is she getting? Prozac? A suicide hotline number? A straight jacket? “I thought this was yours,” she says, shooting her arm toward me in triumph. She is holding a Sippy Cup. A flippin’ Sippy Cup. “Well, actually, no. I didn’t come back for the cup. It’s not the cup. It’s that I’m kind of losing it here, Miranda.” And, once again, I break down in tears.

“Oh, my gosh. Come in. Tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m so sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” I say, slumping down on her couch.

I dump it all out, and Miranda listens in just the right way. No solving, no judging, just listening.

“Eliza is right, I’m not excited about this baby.” I check for signs that Miranda thinks I’m a monster. Seeing nothing but compassion, I go on.

“Honestly, I’m so worn down I don’t know how I’ll get through labor and then take care of both Eliza and a newborn. But that’s not even what I’m most freaked out about.”

“What is?” she says, taking my hand in hers.

“What if I harbor some weird irrational grudge against this child for life?”

“You won’t,” she says.

I know she’s right. But I’m surprised how good it feels to admit it.

“Would you like to bring Eliza in and put her on the guest bed?” Miranda offers.

I worry that it’s too much of an imposition, but I’m so tired of the damn YMCA parking lot that I agree.

Miranda pulls back the covers for Eliza. With matted curls pasted on her forehead, my little girl looks peaceful. My sense of peace is being restored too. While Liam and Eliza nap, Miranda and I laugh, cry, and bitch, and it feeds my soul.

For the remaining three months of my pregnancy, I turn not only to Miranda but also to other friends, who nourish me with compassion, understanding, humor, and best of all, occasional babysitting.

Then, a week before my due date, these friends gather at my house for a “blessing way”—a baby shower that focuses on giving the mother strength for the birth. Miranda comes early with dozens of candles. In the dim light, I can forget that the baseboard still isn’t finished, and the room feels magical. As each friend comes in, balancing Tupperware containers and hot dishes covered in aluminum foil, we kiss on the cheek and exchange volumes wordlessly. My vulnerability fills the room, but in the presence of these women, it is strangely comfortable.

After sharing a delicious meal, we sit in a circle and I am presented with a bead from each friend that I will thread into a necklace and wear during labor. I receive a gold bead shaped like a star—a gold star for enduring this pregnancy. Another bead is a swirling blue color, representing the ocean, reminding me to give into a current more powerful than myself. Another is a tiny bell whose ring signifies the little soul in my womb who will soon announce her arrival into the world. Once everyone has contributed, I balance the small basket of beads on my lap and run my fingers through each sentiment, absorbing my community.

Now Ananda, my birth coach, who has recently returned from Hawaii, performs a dance for us. I am mesmerized as she sways her hips to the Hawaiian music. She folds her arms as if rocking a baby who she tenderly kisses on the forehead.

Miranda reaches into her bag, pulls out a ball of red string, and instructs each woman to wrap a piece of it around her wrist. The result, a giant spider web connecting us all, makes us laugh. As Miranda cuts individuals free, she instructs them to tie the string and wear it until receiving word that I am going into labor. At that point, they will all cut their bracelets to signify the letting go that will allow me an easy delivery.

Two weeks later, my friends are still waiting.

“Any word yet?” they ask each other over the phone.

I am not surprised this baby is late. Why should she make things easy on me now? Ten days after my due date, Ananda comes up with the idea of asking my friends to cut their bracelets.

“It will be a collective release. It will free you of the fear that is keeping this baby inside you,” she says.

“Whatever,” I secretly tell Eric.

Ananda makes a phone call that trickles to everyone in the group. Within two hours, Eric is driving me to the hospital. Six hours later I am holding my sweet Charlotte in my arms. She is so beautiful and precious I laugh out loud at myself for thinking I could ever hold a grudge. That night, when we are alone in our hospital room, I tell her the miraculous story of how she introduced me to a village and how, with their help, she came peacefully into the world.

Emily Alexander Strong taught middle school before becoming a freelance writer. Essays about each of her two daughters will appear in the upcoming anthologies, “It’s a Girl” and “A Cup of Comfort for Expecting Mothers”. Emily, husband Eric, and their girls live in Ashland, Oregon.