After Birth: The Postpartum Bedroom in Seven Takes
By Lucy Bryan
Den. In the days following the birth, there is no escaping the animal smell of your bedroom. Your clothes stink of leaked breastmilk and musky, hormone-laden sweat. Every now and then, you inhale the tang of your own blood. Another soiled diaper awaits removal. But lean in, and bask in this: the lemony fragrance of wild roses rising off your newborn’s skin.
Temple. The afternoon light streams onto the bed, where your child dozes beside you. You stare at this being you have made, feeling completely unmade by his long eyelashes, his velvety earlobes, and his toenails, tiny as glass beads. In the soft spot atop his head, his pulse leaps, quick and miraculous.
Torture chamber. Bone weary, you search for an impossible solution. You cradle your son, balance him face-down on your forearm, then prop him against your shoulder, stroking the downy fringe at the base of his skull. You try bouncing, stepping, dipping, and turning. You memorize the creaky floorboards. When, at last, your baby sleeps in the bassinet beside your bed, you find it impossible to close your eyes. You count his breaths and, when they become slow and shallow, hover a hand over him, waiting for his belly to meet your palm.
Tree house. Your bedroom windows overlook the treetops on this Appalachian ridge. Today, as a thunderstorm approaches, you watch their chaotic dance. The oaks, maples, aspens, and locusts move asynchronously, as if possessed by different spirits. Oblivious to the din outside, the baby sleeps on your chest. You consider retreating below, worried that the blighted ash beside the house might release its grip on the earth. You also consider waking your son and lifting him to the glass so that he, too, might witness the whirling, thrashing, and trembling of the trees.
School. Lessons learned: How to fold a diaper so it doesn’t rub the tender stump of your newborn’s umbilicus. How to suckle him while you sleep, arms and knees encircling the half-moon of his body. How to trim his fingernails, soft and thin as rice paper. How to clean the creases in his neck. How to inhabit a body that has been suddenly and violently vacated.
Refuge. You remember the story of O-Lan in The Good Earth, who returned to the fields immediately after giving birth—one form of labor succeeded by another. You imagine the mothers, now and throughout history, who have born children into wars, refugee camps, brothels, factories, and wildernesses. You think of those who return to work too soon after giving birth—labia swollen, breasts engorged, hearts yearning for their children. Resting in this quiet room, with its lavender walls and view of the forest, you cry with indignation—and also, relief.
Zendo. You have been meditating for years, but the days and weeks after birth invite you to practice mindfulness in new ways. Being present is suddenly easy: the warmth and weight of your son on your naked chest holds your attention for long stretches. Every day demands radical acceptance—of your atrophied limbs, your weak bladder, your sagging cervix; of your son’s wakefulness in the long, gray hours before dawn; of the inert mass of your sleeping partner, wrapped in the handmade blanket you received as a wedding gift. And every day demands trust in your ability to feed, soothe, and care for this new being. You watch your child squint at light filtering through leaves, and you see two beginners’ minds—his, and your own.
Lucy Bryan splits her time between Ohio’s Appalachian Plateau and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where she teaches writing at James Madison University. Her essays have appeared in Newfound, Earth Island Journal, The Fourth River, and Quarterly West, among others. She is currently working on a novel about land and water, creation and destruction, family, love, identity, and the complicated business of putting down roots.