I was on a gurney in the OR, a paper sheet pulled up to keep me from seeing the teams of nurses surrounding my open belly, and they asked me which child I wanted to hold first. I would hold one, skin to skin, and my husband who sat behind me would hold the other. It was my choice. I had to choose.
How do I decide what is fair while my body is cut open and my head is swimming with drugs? I asked for Eleanor. She was born first, so it’s only fair I should hold her first, right? The nurse went to grab her and I told my husband he could never tell our kids I asked for her first. They placed her on my chest and I held her while the doctor began sewing me up and I loved her and I was scared for how small she was and how unfinished she looked and also, as they put Henry on my husband’s chest, I was afraid that I’d already failed him. I was asked to choose between my children, and I asked for his sister.
Early in my pregnancy I was already worried about my own social failings. I read something about how babies read expressions and in a mild panic I texted a friend. I don’t always remember to have facial expressions! Especially not when tired, and I’m going to be tired with two infants to take care of! The kids won’t see me smile, how can they come to trust me when I’ve got my serial killer face on?! My friend reminded me that my kids won’t have the same societal expectations that come with a woman’s neutral face. Maybe it’ll even be good for the kids to know that neutral does not mean angry or cruel.
They calmed me in that moment (Thanks, Collin <3), but expressions are only a part of the insidious fear that crops up in social contracts. I rarely know what is correct, so I focus instead on what is fair. I’ve come to understand it as “The Tally.” How many seconds of eye contact have I given during this conversation? How long have I been talking? How much space am I taking up here and is it equitable to the median space taken by everyone else? The Tally asserts itself when I’m in an unfamiliar social space. It’s especially loud when I feel the need to perform.
I had never been a mother before. The pressure was on.
The Tally started whispering at the hospital when the nurse placed my daughter on my chest. It got louder that night when I had to attempt breastfeeding. Who eats first? How many pictures have I taken of each? How much time have I held one child in my arms?
This is not to say that my first days with my children were dominated by The Tally. There were other anxieties that come with hospital stays, but mostly there was love and curiosity and one extremely nice breakfast with my husband while the kids slept in their bassinet and we got to enjoy the view out of the eleventh floor of the hospital. And then it was time to leave.
Henry was in his car seat. He was smaller than Eleanor, small enough that the nurses needed to make sure he’d fit, and his car seat was on a cart pushed by my mother. Eleanor was in my arms while I sat in the wheelchair, waiting for Erik to come to the front of the hospital with the car. It was a long wait. My mom got a text from Erik about car troubles, and left me with the outtake person and the kids to figure it out. When they came back, Erik said the car was gone.
“The car was stolen last night. We’ve only got Henry’s car seat, so you and Henry will ride home with your mom and I’ll wait here with Eleanor for her to come back and ferry us home.”
He’d worked out the plan with mom before talking to me. A plan makes it less scary. I love my car. It was bad that it was stolen, but there was a plan, and in that moment, I had a small revelation:
“Henry can’t be mad that I held her first, because he’s going to be the first one I bring home.”
Somehow this balanced the books on love in my brain, and Erik and I started laughing. Yes, I was crying, too, because my car was stolen and I was leaving the hospital and I was so not ready for all the things I didn’t know about being a mother, but in that moment The Tally couldn’t touch me. I brought my son home, and sang to him until his dad and sister and grandmother arrived and my husband and I held each other and cried with relief that we’d all survived the scariest days we’d had as a couple.
It didn’t break The Tally. There were moments in the weeks after coming home that I worried people were holding Henry more than Eleanor, or taking more pictures of one than the other. But it shifted The Tally to actions outside of myself, and I can set those aside more easily. I settled into a rhythm with the kids. It does not matter who eats first, so long as the time between eating is roughly the same. Everyone is held, eventually.
And I love them. Easily and individually. Henry watches everything with stoic curiosity. Eleanor smiles and tracks your eyes. I don’t have to tally my minutes with them because there are enough minutes now that I’ve lost track. And the big disparity; who do I hold first, who do I bring home, was balanced for me.
Time makes The Tally small. Time enough to lose track of my facial expressions and eye contact until I’m just existing and accepted for existing in that space. It’s been six weeks with my children, and it’s easy now to love them equitably. I always loved them equitably. And from the beginning, my heart knew that love is not a pie to be parceled out until there’s no more pie. I love my husband wholly, and my son wholly, and my daughter wholly.
And my cat, too.
And when The Tally returns, I can tell it to fuck off. I’ve already balanced the books.