| Fiction, Print Issues

The Mother Compact

Blair Hurley

Mostly, missing her old life before the baby isn’t a conscious thing. She’s too tired to have a thought like that, with actual words and sentences. It’s more a fuzzy sense of something lost, like her glasses or phone; it must be in the other room, it isn’t far away, yet she hasn’t seen it for a long while.

The Husband (she thinks of him in these terms, because why not, she has become the Mother) is there, somewhere; when she looks up from rocking or feeding, he always seems to be one room away, catching up on work or taking a nap. He has a demanding work schedule, and he needs to refuel. He needs the energy to carry himself outside this home strewn with laundry and milk-stained clothing, out into the normal world. She remembers, vaguely, in that pre-baby time, that he was eager to have children, talked about the games he’d play and Sunday morning pancakes he’d make for them; but now, in these wailing fourth-trimester days, he seems strangely absent. His first business trip is coming up, two weeks in a distant city. They argued about it, around and around the hours of an evening and the following morning. He kept saying, “I’m not abandoning you. I’m not some kind of deadbeat father because I’m taking a trip.”

“You don’t get it,” she kept saying, though she wasn’t sure her point made much sense. “You can just go. You could spend the whole time not thinking about us. But if I did that, if I left the baby, that would be monstrous.”

She remembers the flush of exhilaration she felt during this conversation, when she was finally speaking plainly, something she had never had a talent for. This was the new, direct self that her baby would need her to be. All of the bullshitty parts of her life, she was cauterizing away.

“I’ll be thinking about you,” he protested.

“Not the way I have to. You’ll think about us for a moment and you’ll worry a little. But I can never stop thinking.”

Maybe the trouble started then: she realized what parenthood was like for him, and it bore almost no resemblance to the life she was now living.

What she misses is being alone. The absolutely shattering freedom of wandering from one room to another in an empty apartment, picking up a book and reading a while, the day stretching ahead of her in all its structureless possibility. Sitting on the toilet as long as she pleased, studying her chipped toenail polish, thinking of nothing at all. Her friend Nessa told her, “You’re an emotional squirrel, neat and contained and busy, storing up small pleasures for winter.” Just a free afternoon, a cup of tea, the hours, hers, was all she needed for contentment.

Except now that it is her and the baby, there’s no room for that kind of life. Just crying fits, a helpless, flailing body that can never be put down, the terrifying floppiness of her neck, a constant, wailing need emanating from every inch of her tiny, fragile form. Those useless hands that can’t even pinch or hold or point at what she wants, what she needs, what will stop her crying.

She knows it’s perfectly normal to feel unhinged now, nothing inhuman or pathological about feeling a little desperate during this time. In the five minutes after the baby finally falls asleep, she leans over the bassinet and whispers the things she’s too exhausted to say when the baby is awake. My love, my dear, my sweet. She sleeps poorly, waking just to watch her chest rise and fall the way countless clichéd parents have done before. Only with the Husband gone, it’s just the two of them, struggling to survive. If she lets her attention, her focus, slip, for even a moment—

Better not to sleep. Better to train all her senses into the dim shape in the bassinet. Up, down, goes the shape, the merest adjustment of the little rib cage. Up, down. That’s all that she has room for in her life right now, the study of that paltry movement.

Now the gap between people with children and people without has become obvious. There’s no comparison, really, to the coworkers and friends on videochats who offer breezy congratulations and ask a question or two about the color of her hair or how she’s sleeping, the things they’ve heard to ask about, and then they’re off to different things, you can tell they’ve already forgotten. What TV are you watching, how’s life treating you. The notion of it—absolutely fucking astounding. There’s just her, and the baby, there is absolutely no room in her head. To expect anything else seems like an obscene joke.

Early in the mornings, since they are both up already, she takes long walks by the river bank near her apartment. With the baby in her sling, she paces along the narrow river that courses through the center of the city, breathing in the chilly spring air. She likes how the river flows and twists as it pleases, a vein of wildness in a concrete grid. This time of day seems primeval; she hasn’t seen the sun rise in years, and it seems like an hour that exists only in fairy tales and storybooks. On the dawn of the third day… the baby nuzzles and wrestles, smelling the milk nearby, restlessly searching for it. Her baby books call this behavior “rooting,” an instinctive back-and-forth head motion to locate the nipple. In truth it looks like a pig rooting in the dirt for mushrooms.

Their only companion is an old woman leaning on the railing, wrapped in an old coat and with a scarf covering her hair. She looks like she comes from another time too. The Mother watches her out of the corner of her eye and feels an obscure, tugging longing: she wants to ask this old woman for advice, for comfort, the sort of sturdy salty wisdom her own Russian grandmother would have given her had she lived to see her first great-grandchild. She was the one who told her about the bath house demon and to beware Baba Yaga and her house standing on its chicken feet, who is sometimes your friend and sometimes your enemy, sometimes both in the same story. She’d have said the right prayers of protection, sung songs, told her how to hold the baby, bathe the baby, what sorts of modern devices were nonsense. 

The woman turns and looks at her. “She is a crier,” she says, and it is not a question.

The Mother wonders how she knows and also how the woman knows the baby is a girl. “Yes.”

The woman nods, impassive, unsmiling. There are deep creases at the corner of her dark eyes. A tangle of chunky necklaces wound into the fluttering ends of her scarf. The one knobby hand on the railing is thick with rings. “You are very tired,” she says.

Again the Mother says, “Yes.” 

This first time, that is all they say to each other.

The husband’s bags are packed by the door. She won’t get up from the couch, where the baby is asleep spread-eagle on her chest, the only way she will settle after a long feed. The single first moment of the latching on—when her gummy lips clamp improperly on her mangled nipple—is the single most painful thing the Mother has ever felt, far worse than labor, every time. She gasps and frantically worms her fingers into the surprisingly strong mouth and adjusts until she can breathe again.

“Isn’t it supposed to feel good?” he asked, once, during this ritual. “Isn’t it supposed to be natural?”

She won’t get up and say goodbye to him. She wants him to see what he’s leaving, the laundry still in piles on the stairs, dirty bottles in the sink. She knows she is being bitter and vindictive. She was not a graceful person before having a baby, and motherhood has not conferred grace magically upon her. He stands by the door, torn apart. “I will think about you,” he insists again. “Everyone says, it’s hard at first, and then—before you know it, you’ll feel great. It’ll be easy—second nature.” He gives a thumbs-up. “You got this.”

“Just go,” she says.

And outrageously, he does.

To help get a good supply of breastmilk, the lactation consultant tells her, you should feed her first, then pump at least eight times a day, round the clock. It takes a minimum of forty-five minutes to feed her and to get the breast pump set up and then to pump, hunched forward to get a good flow going while she bounces the baby in her seat with one foot. By the time she disassembles everything and washes it for the next session, she has about forty-five minutes before she has to start again. It’s a special kind of madness, she thinks, that a woman is expected to go through; these newborn days. A temporary torture that you’re supposed to love. Any man forced to endure this would consider it intolerable, would demand a change to things, though she doesn’t know who to blame or how. She has mostly become a creature of rage. She can see it in herself, shirtless half the day and night, hunched over the bottles attached to her bare, dangling breasts like a harpy, some mythical embodiment of decayed womanhood.

The baby cries when she stands up; cries when she sits down. Cries when she is swaddled or when the Mother stops making loud shushing noises just long enough to draw breath. When she finally falls asleep, the Mother curls up beside her on the floor, willing the silence to continue. 

In the night, she startles awake after one hour, after two hours, thinking each time with heart shuddering, Where’s the baby? Where is she? Something feels wrong. She feels like Sister Clara in the Madeline books, rising with the declaration, Something is not right!

Every time, the baby is quietly asleep in her bassinet. She’s beginning to realize that she has a good baby. It’s she, the Mother, who must have something wrong with her. The baby was safely inside her, manageable and hers. Now she is, terrifyingly, outside of her. It’s all wrong.

In the morning, pouring the boiling water into her mug of tea, she wonders, idly, what it would feel like, really, to pour the water onto her skin. Surely it couldn’t hurt worse than that clamp on her nipples she endures at hourly intervals. Surely. Would it hurt fifty percent more? Would it cause her to leave her body for a moment, just step out of herself? What would it feel like, just this slip of the hand, the water so close to splashing? The skin peeling free?

These are dangerous thoughts, she knows.

In the dawn walk by the riverbank, the old woman is there again, leaning on the railing. The woman nods to her. The Mother wonders what she sees. Just your typical exhausted woman with child?

“I have seen you here a few times. I could help you. There is a service I offer, for mothers.”

The Mother expects her to flourish a card: for nanny services, house cleaning, daycare. Any number of ways that people hire others to help. But what she hasn’t been able to explain to any of her friends is that the problem is bigger than help. It is in her mind, it is in how she has to think now.

“I can give you an hour,” the woman says. “Just one hour, when you will not have to think about the baby at all.”

The Mother smiles a little. This isn’t how the pitch typically goes. But the woman does not smile. There is something eerie about her direct dark-pitted gaze.

“What do you mean?” the Mother asks.

“Give me the baby for one hour, and you will not think about her for that time,” the woman says.

“You mean, like, babysitting?”

The woman shakes her head impatiently. “No. Not ‘babysitting.’” She says the word lightly, mockingly. “Give me your baby for one hour, and for that hour, it will be as though she had never been born.”

The Mother has heard just about enough. There’s something more than a little unsettling about this woman; half-crazed, surely, offering to take a stranger’s baby.

“No thank you,” she says, and hurries away.

“I will be here again, if you change your mind,” the woman calls after her.

There are moments when the wallpaper seems to blur and buzz like certain plaid prints on television, making endless rainbows. She keeps telling herself she should hire a sitter, take a glorious six-hour nap, or just go to a cafe and sit for a while, reasserting her claim to herself and her mind. But motherhood has a degree of savagery to it that no one warned her about. She’d still be here, bleeding into her giant postpartum pad, everything about life permanently altered.

She starts dozing off when the baby is in her bouncer, just tiny micro-dozes, the kind of thing you do when you’re driving at night and the yellow line in the dark hypnotizes you, and for a moment your eyes close and the wheel drifts in your hands. Just tiny, dangerous moments. Each time she wakes and only a few minutes have passed, she thinks. The baby asleep, or watching with her neutral unsmiling face, her lips working gummily. She starts setting her phone alarm for fifteen minute increments so that, no matter what happens, something will jar her awake.

Her friend Nessa calls during one of these intervals. “Honey, how are you? Do you need anything?”

“I’m fine, really.” It’s such an effort to say. “Just tired, you know. Like, I feel drugged most of the time.”

“It’s something else. The tiredness is something else.”

“And I start thinking people have kidnapped her. I wake up when I should be sleeping because I have to check. I go around locking the doors. And then when I carry her downstairs, I start imagining that I’ll trip. I try to imagine the best way to fall, when the tripping happens, so I won’t hurt her. I picture it happening over and over.”

Nessa says, “Oh boy. I could come.”

Nessa has two small children, and she lives a four-hour drive away. It would be ridiculous for her to come. The Mother tries to hide the shakiness in her voice when she refuses. “But I feel like I’m losing it just a little. That thing people talk about. Without talking about it. Am I depressed or just sleep-deprived? I met this woman—” she trails off, is unsure if she should go on. She begins to wonder if it might have all been some kind of sleep-deprived hallucination. A postpartum fever dream. “This woman came and offered to take Abby for an hour—”

“An old woman? With a headscarf?” Nessa’s voice has gone serious and quiet.

“Yes. How do you—”

“I’ve heard she only comes if you really, really need her to come,” she says. “I never saw her. But a friend of mine did. A single mother, her newborn had bad colic, she was absolutely losing it.”

“Wait, are we talking about the same woman? How do you know—”

Nessa hurries on as if she hasn’t spoken. “She gives you an hour. For some people, it’s enough. It’s just barely enough. You get to imagine your life if things had gone another way. You get to reset.” Then her voice drops to another register, low with urgency. “Don’t be late.”

The timer is beeping. Abby starts from her sleep, and a cry rises from deep inside her, some pit where that much volume can reside. The Mother picks her up for another feeding. “I have to go,” she says, and hangs up. Her heart is pounding. When she pumps, the milk comes out bloody, “strawberry milk” the online forums call it. It’s perfectly safe to drink, they say. Your baby can drink your own blood. 

She isn’t sure if the call she had with Nessa was real, or if she dreamed it.

In one of the micro-dozes, time expands loopily out from itself and she dreams she is walking down a dark snowy path lined with impassive pine trees, and Baba Yaga is calling to her, pulling her down and down and down into the snow and night. There is the house on its chicken feet; there is the old woman, stirring her pot full of bones. She beckons with an arthritic finger, the knuckles huge. Here you are, my dear. What did you expect? You didn’t think it would be this way? Come here, my dear. Let me help you understand. Her clawlike hand closes around the Mother’s throat, and it’s almost gentle. She has to break free, draw a breath, but it’s too hard, she’ll never know what it feels like to breathe again.

She jolts awake to the sound of her phone alarm. She’s done it again, fallen asleep and left the baby unwatched, and this time the blanket she draped over the bouncer to shade her eyes has fallen and Abby is lying there with a blanket over her face. She jerks it aside, heart hammering, lifts her out of the bouncer. Now she’s awake and crying, but at least this is better than suffocating silence. She walks and bounces and sshes, desperately. The house rings with the baby’s shrieks for a long time.

The next morning when they go for their walk by the river, they’re again alone. She thinks she won’t see the strange woman again. She dreamed her, a postpartum hallucination, a longing for relief. Her parenting book will have it in its glossary, right after “diapers (adult)” and “depression.”

But when she’s gone farther than she normally goes, when the very end of the riverbank is in view, where the water dives secretly underground in a culvert, to emerge somewhere far away from the city—there she is.

She is bundled in the same old coat, wearing the flowered headscarf. “Well?” she asks, before the Mother can say anything.

She didn’t know it herself, but she’s been making a private compact in her own mind: if I see her again, I will accept. “Just one hour,” she says, hesitantly.

“Just one.”

She nods, slowly. Unties the sash strapping the baby to her chest. She is heavy and limp, deeply asleep from the motion of walking. Most likely she will sleep the hour away, oblivious to her absent mother. The Mother hasn’t even thought to bring extra diapers and wipes and a bottle with some pumped breastmilk, a blanket; all the normal things. Nothing. Everything in her resists. But it’s only an hour. Haven’t we been trained to fear the world more than the world merits?

“You’ll be here, in an hour?” she asks again.

“Yes, yes.” The woman is getting impatient now. She takes the baby unceremoniously by the armpits and tucks her into the folds of her coat. The baby looks preposterously right there, bundled away without modern carriers or sophisticated equipment. She looks timeless. She could fade away into a black and white photograph. Old woman with child, undated.

“Go now,” the woman says.

The Mother turns and walks away, not in a straight line, tacking dizzily from side to side against the riverbank. Doesn’t look back out of the Irish superstition from her other grandmother that if you watch someone out of sight, you’ll never see them again.

When she closes her apartment door behind her, the rooms resound with emptiness. There’s nothing to hear: no sound, no movement, no cry, no sounds except the ones she’s making, dropping her keys in the dish. She listens to the silence for a long moment. 

An hour. What should she do with one hour?

She should be putting a load of laundry in, changing the sheets, making a meal to freeze. Maybe curl up for a nap. Those would be the prudent things to do. But prudence has already gone out the window; she has just handed off her baby to a stranger. The woman’s promise is what is ringing in her head: she will not need to think about her baby at all. 

It’s exhilarating; a little dizzying. What should she do? She opens a book at random from her crowded shelf; she can read again, the sentences make sense. She looks up from a page, has to tear herself from it: twelve minutes have gone by. 

What else? These things she had forgotten. Her breasts have mysteriously stopped aching. She goes to the kitchen, opens the fridge and drinks from a carton of milk; she hasn’t had dairy due to the baby’s acid reflux. She spills some on the floor, wipes her chin with her hand, doesn’t clean up the puddle on the floor. Another three minutes. How free, how free. She can feel her mind changing, slipping back into some careless mode she didn’t know was careless. 

She steps into the shower, turns it on full blast, lets steam thicken and solidify, lets her hand travel between her legs, rubs herself raw in the heat of it. She’s thinking of certain times she did this in the shower stalls of boyfriends and one night stands in her twenties, washing the night’s destruction off her, leaning into the pleasure she could give herself that felt so different from what anyone else could give. She was skinny and a smoker and alone, she ate cereal out of the box for her one meal of the day and needed nothing else, her body seemed as light and flexible as a strand of wire. She climbs the hill of her own climax, remembering. Her skinny legs and those black high-heeled boots she wore everywhere. The professor who asked her out for drinks and told her she was a real talent, leaning so close, both of them knowing what could happen next, both of them wanting it to happen. Why not live that life a little longer, return to it again. Walking in the moonlight alone, riding subways at night. Everything belongs to her but nothing needs her, no one exists who could destroy her just by disappearing from her life—

She is pressing her forehead so hard to the tiled wall that it has left crossmarks on her face, she can feel them with her fingers. She’s raw and burning between her legs. But also soothed. There’s a freedom in having the power to hurt herself, recklessly, the thing she hasn’t been able to do through a long pregnancy. Like smoking a cigarette, drawing a razor blade down your leg just to watch the red beads well up—that’s always the verb people use, a welling up—just to know you were in control, this body was yours to dominate and fuck up. How selfish she once was, able to share herself with no one.

She steps out, dripping, steaming, and the phone rings. She glances at the screen: it’s the Husband.

“Hey,” he says, and instead of launching into him, as she’d planned to do when he finally called, she says simply, “Hey.”

“How are you?” he asks. 

“I’m fine,” she says, caught a little off guard. And then, “I’m good. Really good.”

“That’s good,” he says, and she hears actual gladness in his voice. The raspy, bearish voice she loved. 

“I was calling because—the truth is—I’ve been missing you,” he says. “A lot. I don’t expect you to sympathize. I just keep thinking, you know. About how happy we were together. Before.”

“Sometimes,” she says.

“Sometimes,” he agrees. “I just think I was this other me. A good me. And we wanted each other. And the wanting felt so good.”



“Have you been dreaming about me?” she asks. It’s such a stupid, adolescent thing to say. But it has been so long since she was desired, longed for. It’s touching; it’s unbearably seductive.

“Sometimes,” he says, teasing now. She almost forgot, he has this shy sense of humor that comes out only with coaxing, and how she always felt pleased with herself when she was able to bring it out; he is delightful, he was once hers, they were once beautiful together. She allows herself to imagine them together, walking down some city street, alone.

In her first trimester, reading the statistics on miscarriage, both how wildly common it was and how all the books tried to make it into a nonevent (you miscarried! Oops!), she tried to cultivate non-attachment the way she’d learned at a Zen retreat she went to a few years ago. Hello, baby, she thought, touching her belly, and then allowed herself to contemplate this baby’s non-existence. Bye-bye, baby.

Maybe the trouble started then, because what other mother would allow this thought into her head? Maybe it was dangerous, like laughing at the gods.

But you have to be permitted to think these things. You have to be allowed to love your old life. And why not? Hasn’t she worked hard, dedicated herself to this impossible lonely work? She deserves some sort of reward. Some vision of the future she’ll have that will make this time worthwhile. She deserves a breath of her baby as a toddler, an eight-year-old, a grown woman. She deserves the feel of a small hand in hers, the pull of her, the pair of them grown together like knots of wood in a tree. It could be hers, this future.

And with that thought, her eyes slide to the clock. It’s been sixty-eight minutes.

The room goes hazy, the Husband’s voice is far away. She hangs up the phone mid-sentence. But she can’t seem to get herself to stand up, to put her feet back in her shoes, her arms through the sleeves of her coat. Everything is underwater. She sits back down on the couch for a moment, trying to get her breath. She has fucked up. At times like this in her life, she previously backed away from the mistake, run away and discovered there were still ways to make things all right. There was the time she slept through a final exam in college. When she woke, blearily, and saw that she was a half hour into the test, she turned over again, assuming it would all work out somehow. And it did; she pled her case tearfully, blamed it on illness and a death in the family, and got a makeup test. Life usually worked out that way; you skated through on middle-class girl privilege and second chances.

But not this; once you are the Mother, there is no room for mistakes.

There are more people on the riverbank now, in the morning sunshine: more joggers, old people on benches, mothers pushing strollers. How strange, that only an hour ago she was one of those people, and now, who is she? A woman alone.

There is no sign of the old woman. Not at the far end of the riverbank, not anywhere else. 

Her steps slow. How could she describe her to a police officer? What on earth would she say? “Officer, I gave my baby away to a stranger, and now she’s disappeared.” They will think she’s gone mad.

She thinks back, tries to fix the woman firmly in her mind. Just a typical older woman. Wiry hair poorly wrapped in its flowery scarf, a shapeless old canvas coat, a dumpy shape. And a face gone old with grief. Some long-held sadness. A void in her dark eyes. She can recognize it now as a look of loss. She can feel something coming for her, charging around the corner, a sound of thunder: there’s anguish coming like she’s never seen before. An annihilation.

Long ago, that woman lost something, or made a bargain with a high price. Almost like the decision to have a child in the first place: some nameless, faceless god says to you, “Here. I’m going to give you what you want. This vision of happiness. But you have to give up everything that ever made you happy before. You have to replace what you knew with this other self, this other life. You have to hold onto it, protect and cherish it, every remaining moment of your life. And if you don’t, if you ever let your devotion slip, even for a moment—the devastation will be unspeakable.”

Who would accept that kind of deal? 

Anyone would think her mad, to accept it.

Blair Hurley

is the author of THE DEVOTED, published by W.W. Norton, which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her work is published or forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and two Pushcart Prize nominations in 2019.

Art: “The Comfort of a Story Repeated” by Camilla Taylor

Comments are closed.