Felicity’s sister, Alice, was getting married. She and her partner lived in the UK, but they were both from Australia so they had chosen have their wedding at home. But they’d only arrive a week before their wedding day so Alice had been delegating to Felicity.
“It’s simple,” Alice had said. “You’re the only bridesmaid so you can wear what you like.”
“But what about the colour or style? Shouldn’t I try to compliment the theme and your dress? What about the flowers? And do I need to match the best man’s accessories?”
Alice had laughed.
“There is no theme. It’s just about us. We want the people we love to bring the pizzazz and the colour, so you can’t go wrong. It’s all about looking like you.”
“Really? I can’t go wrong?” Felicity doubted that. What did she look like anyway?
“No. You can’t go wrong. Just don’t choose anything boring or safe.”
“How about classic and elegant?”
“Semantics. You know it’s the same thing.”
“Yes. But it is me.”
Oh, how she was doomed to fail. It was Alice’s wedding, why couldn’t she tell her what to wear? A little prescription would make things so much easier, Felicity thought. She sighed.
“And no pastels, Flee! Actually choose a colour. You will not be the shrinking violet, ok?”
Great. Not a daunting task at all. Felicity felt like an embossed figure on paper next to Alice bursting off the page in every colour imaginable. Even in photos she seemed blurred while the focus favoured Alice. And that was how Felicity liked it.
“Don’t worry. You can’t go wrong,” Alice had concluded.
How do I go wrong? Let me count the ways.
It was natural to turn to Emma. They had only met a week or two before, outside Understudy’s Cafe, and while Felicity wouldn’t actually say they were friends yet, she was open to trusting her, and she liked her.
They drove the hour and a half to the city and hit the stores. It almost reminded Felicity of shopping with her bridesmaids for dresses, as Emma, who had no intention of buying anything, tried on dress after dress just for laughs, just because the dresses were beautiful and just because she could.
Felicity couldn’t seem to stop doing laps of the shop or to get her hands out her pockets. She gravitated to the natural shades. They had names like latte (how she’d love one), mushroom (sauté with garlic and butter, serve with poached eggs and hollandaise) and blushing nude (well, that was too easy!). She tried to tell herself she was looking at the styles and not the colours because of course she could have any style in the shop in any colour. But she felt very safe in that beige corner.
A moment of honesty. She had lost all perspective on her body, its proportions, and how to flatter it. She didn’t gain too much weight with her pregnancy, about 12 kg, but she hadn’t managed to lose much of it, or any of it really, since Brigit’s birth. And she hadn’t been trying hard enough, she knew, so it was her own fault. But she felt so lost. Did every new mum go through an identity crisis? Have no idea how to dress or how to be whatever they were supposed to be? Her good features had changed beyond recognition so that now her problem areas were better to emphasise. Her breasts were flat and gravity afflicted. Her waist looked ok from the front, but turn her side on and she was round from her ribs to her pubic bone. And nothing was firm. It was all soft and mushy, like dough that was too wet. She had not felt comfortable or presentable since before she fell pregnant.
Why did appearance matter so much anyway? Days like this just depressed her. Reminded her of the long quest to separate the idea that she needed to be beautiful to be lovable. It was easy to call out that lie, but so impossible to really believe how big a lie it was.
She loved beautiful things. She let her right hand run down the length of a satin dress and then drifted it towards some soft, floating chiffon.
Felicity jumped. Emma was surprised to see a guilty look on her face.
“Were you actually going to try something on?” Emma said.
“I should.” It was a resigned, dispirited response. God, I sound like such a loser. Can’t I just shake it off?
“Sorry, Emma. I just don’t know where to start. I’ve got no idea what Alice wants.”
“You mentioned that. More than once.”
They smiled at each other.
“Just a guess, but I think Alice might want whatever it is that you want.”
“Thank you, but that is absolutely no help at all.”
“If you didn’t seem so genuinely lost I’d want to slap you around the head,” Emma said.
Felicity stood there, watching, waiting. The dress she was holding hung in front of her like a shield but she hadn’t bothered to raise it. If only being slapped around the head would bring some sense and if only someone would slap her really, really hard!
“Ok. Remedial shopping. Get in that change room, get your gear off, and put on whatever I pass to you. Then come out and show me.” Emma pushed her in and swung the curtain across. The wooden rings tap danced along the curtain rod as they shuffled over.
“But I don’t even know where to start for sizes.” How embarrassing. And now she was whingeing. But she put down her handbag and took off her jacket.
“Consider that my problem,” Emma said. She passed two dresses through the curtain. “Try these.”
Felicity laughed. “I have a feeling the 22 will be a bit big.”
“That’s what I thought.” Emma sounded flippant. “Here try it in a 12.”
Felicity slipped it on. It was the kind of dress she would usually choose. A strapless, floor length, a-line with some scattered beading embellishments across the bodice.
“Show me.” Emma demanded.
Felicity stepped out. Emma marched her over to the mirror.
“My waist makes it a tight fit and I don’t have enough substance for the bust,” Felicity said.
“Yes. This dress is wrong. But now we know where to start.”
Felicity was back in the change room and in her knickers before she knew it. She was completely under Emma’s thumb and it was such a relief. Dresses flew in at her. Some she loved, some made her nervous, and some just made her laugh, but she suspected that was Emma’s point.
As she stood in front of the mirror in a dress that reminded her of the toilet roll covers that were also Barbie dresses crocheted out of tulle ribbon (how many of those had her grandma made in the 80’s?) Felicity realised she had laughed enough to relax.
“Well, we’re not getting this one,” she said.
“Party pooper. Indulge me and try these last two on.”
Felicity took them from her.
“Emma? What did you do before taking time out to be a mum?” Felicity had realised, mid change, that she hadn’t asked. In a way that was nice. Too often people began with the ‘what do you do’s?’ and sometimes friendships never took off. But now she was curious.
“I’m a psychologist.”
Of course she was. Hadn’t Felicity just been played by a master? But she had consented to it, in her own way.
“Are you going to charge me for today?” she joked.
“Maybe. Or you can just buy me coffee later.”
Felicity came out in the last dress Emma had given her. She didn’t know if she liked it. It was floor length, satin, with an asymmetric neckline and cap sleeves. The bodice was swept across and fell into a narrow a-line skirt. Tiny crystal beads followed the fall of the fabric and glittered along the hemline.
She caught herself in the mirror before she really looked. For a second she knew that the reflection was lovely.
Except the shop one was in a pastel pink. Even Felicity thought it would qualify as an icky pink bridesmaid dress if she bought it in that colour. She would have to decide on another colour.
“Emma? This is the one. But not this colour. I think this shade qualifies as an icky pink.”
“I thought I was banned from neutral colours,” Felicity said as she got dressed.
“You are. But let’s consider colour options over coffee.”
They sat in a cafe drinking coffee and indulging in glorious cupcakes. A swatch book lay open on the table between them. Felicity leant over to look but didn’t touch. She looked just like a little girl in a shop who held her own hands because her mum had told her not to touch anything. They were mostly silent.
“Have you always been this indecisive and cautious?” Emma asked when her coffee was almost all gone.
“No.” Felicity didn’t look up. “I used to be very intuitive and impulsive. I used to always just know.”
Felicity went very quiet. She seemed to lengthen and become much stronger.
“Emma? I just need a friend now. If you try to be my therapist we’re done here.”
It was a fair boundary, but such a fine line. Especially when you care. Especially when you think you know what you see.
They broke the ice by ordering another coffee.
Felicity leant over the table again and stared at the swatches.
“Red. I want that dress in red.”
“Why red?” Emma had to ask. She had expected the colour decision to take longer than the style choice.
“Because I want some red shoes.” Felicity smiled.
Emma frowned. It made no sense and she felt like there was a whole other truth to Felicity that she couldn’t access, and damn it, she was curious.
Felicity winked. “Every girl needs a pair of ruby slippers when she’s not in Kansas anymore.”
“...and the dress to go with them,” Emma concluded.
Under the table Felicity clicked her heels three times.
© Lorinda Tang 2013
Felicity’s first skirmish in the mummy-wars was an ambush, and she was its only casualty.
She had driven past the cafe several times. It was en route to the child care centre where Brigit spent one morning a week. It looked quirky, in a sophisticated way rather than the earthy style, like it was snubbing the modern hippie even while it proclaimed organic credentials.
It was called Understudy’s Cafe and she had been eyeing it off since they had moved into the area. Partly because it looked like the nearest place to her new home that may make a decent coffee, but also because a sign out the front indicated it hosted Mainly Music. She hadn’t fully scoped it yet, but it seemed the second storey above the cafe held a dance studio and a few private rooms for music teachers to rent.
The quirkiness and the creativity appealed to Felicity. Nathan had heard that some mother’s groups met there too, since it was child friendly, and the back corner of the cafe had been turned into an enclosed play area.
“You should go,” he had said the other night.
Felicity stayed quiet.
“You’ll never meet anyone or make any friends if you don’t get out.”
“I know. It’s only been a few weeks, though.”
If she was honest, she was terrified. In the last few years her friends had scattered across Australia. That had made moving here easier in some ways – home is only home if the people you love are there. And all she really had was Nathan, since her sister moved to the UK. There was no other family for her, so she shouldn’t feel so displaced, should she? Like the only thing that made sense and that was right was Nathan and Brigit, but that somehow they didn’t belong with her. She could admit she was lonely. What to do about it was the puzzle. Nathan’s solution: bare your soul and people will like you. Sure they would.
She sighed. Apparently she had been sighing a lot lately. Get on with it woman, she said to herself time after time. With what, her inner-self retorted. Whatever.
The ambush happened the first time she went to Understudy’s.
Felicity had learnt that having a baby with you took the edge off going to lots of places alone. It made for an introduction. It also made her feel more secure and less like a stupid loser with no friends. Brigit’s soft babble and eager scanning of people encouraged Felicity. Brigit was such a sociable baby. She sparkled from her eyes, to her smile, and happily waved at everyone. When they waved back to her she clapped her hands.
It was actually quite comfortable, sitting there with a flat white, watching Brigit and offering her a toy or distraction every so often. She was pleasantly relaxed when she approached the counter a second time. The lady serving was called Susan, according to her name tag. Felicity tried to file the name and face together.
“Could I trouble you to heat up my daughter’s bottle? And may I also try a chai latte?”
Felicity held out the bottle. Her eye was still on Brigit, sitting upright in her chair and waving at her. She waved back and smiled a huge cheesy smile at her bubba. Brigit laughed and waved back.
“How old is she?” Susan said.
“Oh. She’s nine months,” Felicity returned her attention to what she was doing. She was still smiling. She always laughed with Brigit. Her daughter’s laughter felt like champagne bubbles rising up through her body and tickling her nose. Like pure molten gold bubbling and bursting for joy.
“Alright then,” Susan said, taking the bottle from her. “She’s not very big.”
“She is petite,” Felicity agreed.
Felicity had thought she had been dismissed and began to turn back to her table.
“You should feed her more.”
Ok. What was that? Felicity glanced at Susan’s face. She seemed neutral, but she wasn’t warm. She didn’t seem especially happy. Or easy.
What was she supposed to say? That Brigit was growing consistently? That she ate all she wanted, and sometimes a little more?
“She on solids?” Susan persisted.
“Yes. She loves her food. She just has the bottle for morning and afternoon tea now, and one for supper.”
Brigit squealed. She was ready for her morning tea. Felicity moved towards her.
“I’d say she needs more milk. Proper milk.” Susan delivered her opinion to Felicity’s back.
Felicity wondered what she meant. How should she respond to that? Well. Her back was turned. She pretended she hadn’t heard. Instead she made eye contact with Brigit, grinned, and said ‘boo’ as she lifted her out of the high chair.
When Susan brought the bottle to the table it was much too hot. Having seen it though, Brigit wanted it desperately. Felicity moved it out of reach, cuddled Brigit close on her lap and began to read her a story book she had brought. Brigit loved the pictures, loved the sound of turning pages and Felicity’s voice. And she loved to try and help the story along by interjecting baby sounds and turning pages at the wrong moment. Added bonus, she could hide the bottle behind a book.
At first Felicity was engrossed in Brigit and the story, until she heard someone say ‘breast is best’ and her eyes flickered up. Susan was speaking to a mother with a baby nearby. For a microsecond their eyes met and Felicity realised it was a conversation she was supposed to overhear.
Yes. Breast is best. She thought. Unless you come up against a barrier that you can’t get over, under, around or through.
“You’d think the doctor’s wife would know that,” Felicity heard over her narration.
“Probably too vain,” Susan said.
Felicity couldn’t help smirking at that assertion. Wasn’t it a shock to every mother to find out post-baby that bras were not just decorative coverings for perky boobs? That once the hormones were gone you felt like you had two wind socks on your chest and no wind whatsoever?
But she wasn’t vain. She had tried and tried and tried to breastfeed Brigit. She had consciously and deliberately surrendered her body to pregnancy, birth, and motherhood, consciously fighting the stereotypes and pressures and fears about being beautiful and focusing on being strong, on being nourished and nourishing. She had even resisted the panic of needing to be a yummy mummy (though it was hard not to wish she was) and focus on health and recovery. There was no way she could fit into her pre-pregnancy clothes now and nothing about her body looked like her anymore.
She tried to ignore them.
“It’s a pretty baby, but too skinny.”
“Bit like a lollypop.” The women laughed.
Felicity hunkered down behind the picture book.
“Look Brigit,” she said, pointing. “There’s a picture of a duck and a pond and a frog on a waterlily. Can you see the flowers? Can you see the trees? And isn’t that a lovely blue sky with happy balloon-y clouds? She pressed her cheek against Brigit’s. A tear ran across both their cheeks and landed on the picture. Brigit reached out to touch it and tried to pick it up. She smudged it across the page.
Felicity tried to smile. Someone had told her that Brigit could tell what she felt sometimes before she felt it so she had been trying to learn how to relax through her emotions. No matter how anxious or hurt, to let herself relax and to let it bypass her and instead surround Brigit with love and peace and contentment.
She held Brigit’s hands and finished the story. She shut out Susan’s commentary on mothering.
Oh how she wanted to go home!
But Brigit needed her drink first.
It was still a little too warm, but not hot. Drink fast, please bubba. Don’t give yourself a tummy ache, but be done with it quickly so we can go home and be ourselves.
She felt like the whole cafe was staring at her. Brigit, luckily, was oblivious and happily sucked away, patting the bottle with both hands and occasionally reaching up to touch Felicity’s cheek. God, even in that moment it was beautiful to stare into her baby’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Brigit,” she whispered very softly, so only Brigit knew. “I’m sorry.” She had nothing else to say. Even if she did, she probably couldn’t articulate it without turning into a massive soggy mess and she wanted to leave with what dignity she could salvage.
Brigit stopped sucking. She had tiny beads of sweat on her nose from the effort and the warmth. So adorable. They looked into each other’s eyes and grinned. Yep, all good here. Just checking in.
Felicity had completely tuned out her surroundings. She wondered if what she was experiencing was similar to deafness and tunnel vision. She didn’t care. Home time.
But she mustn’t sook. She had to make this relocation work for Nathan. She had to suck it up. Or something.
Felicity was halfway to the car when a lady touched her shoulder. She shifted Brigit’s weight as she turned and tried to focus.
“You left this, in the cafe.”
It was the picture book. Felicity was suddenly very teary again.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’d have been pretty shattered to lose it.”
She felt like some other explanation was needed.
“It’s not just a book, you see.” Which made no sense. But it was true.
It was suddenly awkward.
“I’m Emma, by the way.”
“Hi. I’m Felicity and this is Brigit.” We are not the droids you are looking for, she felt like saying.
“Thanks again.” She began to walk away.
“Felicity? It’s none of my business, but do you know those women, in the cafe?”
“No, not at all. I’m a bit of a newbie.” She paused. Had every one watched her humiliation as the guilt had piled on?
“So they don’t know you at all?”
“No. Nobody here knows me.” Felicity cuddled Brigit tighter.
Felicity sighed. What a relief to remember that! Nobody knows me. It was good to be reminded. She smiled and Brigit laughed.
“Thank you, Emma,” she said.
© Lorinda Tang 2013
Felicity came awake quickly. She had become so good at waking up instantly that she had forgotten how to sleep soundly.
It didn’t matter. She slipped her feet into her slippers and tried not to shiver after the warmth of the bed. Her husband was toasty warm, an energy source that just kept radiating.
She had turned off the baby monitor but she could still hear Brigit. It sounded like a crescendo was on its way. She yawned and tiptoed down the hall. It was still so hard. That said at every milestone she still reflected that the week or month before had been harder. The first two weeks are the worst, she had said. Then the first six weeks. Then three months was the killer. Six months felt like some kind of summit where she could stretch tall and breathe freely again. Now, at nine months, it seemed that had been a false summit.
The hinges to Brigit’s door had been well oiled. The door swung so it felt weightless. Ahh. Easy problem to solve. Her nose announced it. An epic poo. Clean nappy, pjs and sheets required. Brigit fell asleep mid clean-up and with relief Felicity transferred her back into the cot. Hooray, and back to bed for me.
She still went back up the hallway slowly, listening to be sure there were no more sounds before she fell back into bed. Once up she could stay up if need be, but it was torture to drag herself out of bed once she had retreated back into it.
Nathan was snoring softly and had rolled over onto her side of the bed. She put the monitor back on and slid under the covers, pushing gently to make Nathan move over and give her more room. It must have been her night. He rolled over, and for once didn’t take the entire doona with him.
She was almost sleepy, but still wondering if maybe she should have given Brigit a top-up feed, just in case, so she could be sure of getting the most sleep she could. It didn’t matter. Brigit had been so sleepy and settled she would probably last. At work Felicity had dealt with complex decisions all the time. Strangely, that just seemed like an intellectual game of analysis, problem solving and reason. It was nothing to the decision making a first time mum had to make. To do, or not to do, that was the question.
Maybe work had been easier because it was someone else’s problem. Maybe it was because it had felt like the world was on her shoulders then. Now her world was sleeping in the next room. It had a face and a heart and a soul and she saw how every action or inaction was received. There were mysteries, but no secrets.
She sighed and began to dose.
She heard Brigit sigh and stir. No, she thought. Go to sleep bubba, you can do it. I’m sending you the sleepy feeling. Close your eyes, let sleep be your surprise. There was quiet. Some little babble sounds. Quiet. Go to sleep Brigit, go to sleep! Babbling. No, bubba, sleepy time. Shhhh.
Brigit sang a loud babbling song. Then quiet. Maybe, just maybe she’d be lucky. Nope. She is Brigit. Hear her roar!
Slippers back on. Brigit must be thirsty or hungry. Nothing else came to mind. Two teeth had come through last week, and she didn’t have wind or anything to eat that may give her gas.
Felicity opened the door and Brigit fell quiet immediately. She waved and made her ‘da da da’ sounds in her real voice. There were only tiny traces of tears.
Felicity smiled at the welcome. Cheeky bubba. Let’s have a feed then.
She held Brigit close. She was such a warm armful. Their eyes locked. Then Brigit scanned the room curiously. Eyes back on mum. So precious. Her hair was starting to grow and it was a like an afro, but fine and straight, each silky spike sticking straight up. Felicity ran her cheek against it and let it tickle her nose. Her baby was going to have absolutely beautiful hair. Brigit would always be beautiful. Felicity was almost sure that opinion wasn’t just bias.
Brigit stopped feeding and dosed off. She was smiling and holding her own hands, head very heavy and relaxed right into Felicity. Could she get Brigit back into bed without waking her up, or should she sit here and hold her longer?
They both sighed at the same time. Felicity’s head fell back in the rocking chair and she let her eyes relax on her daughter’s face. She’d just sit a minute. She hummed softly. I would stay awake just to hear you breathing (and I frequently do, she thought), watch you smile when you’re sleeping, while you’re far away and dreaming. Nathan had shown her a YouTube clip with that song and a baby trying desperately not to go to sleep. Great song, too many memes. And really, if Nathan watched her in her sleep she’d find it creepy. She was sure she’d know. She got self-conscious so easily. But it was a perfect song for her and bubba. For lots of mums with bubs. Every moment spent with you is a moment I’ll treasure.
But I need sleep now so I can treasure tomorrow’s moments. Back to bed, Brigit. She had learnt to stand with her arms full of baby. To somehow keep her upper body still and stable while she moved. It was astonishing the things your body managed to do when you didn’t want to wake a baby.
This time she moved down the hallway quickly. Brigit had everything she needed. It was unusual for her to need that extra feed, so she really should sleep till morning now. Well, it was morning, but there were still a couple of hours before the day properly started.
She gave a huge yawn, and was compelled to follow it up with a second jaw-breaking one. Crawling into bed a third came. So tired. Not the tiredest she had been. She had managed much worse (that first two weeks, then the first six weeks, then the first three months...) but it still felt shattering. Perhaps not quite so torturous or psychosis inducing, but bad enough that her body didn’t want to move anymore and her mind couldn’t be bothered to try and make it. It didn’t even matter that she wasn’t entirely comfortable. She’d be asleep in a minute. It shouldn’t even take a minute.
An eye sprang half opened. The light on the monitor had flashed. She heard Brigit stomp her feet and squeal. Really? Really?
She must have dosed for a few minutes. Not long, but it felt like she took a long time to regain conscious thought. Brigit was crying again. Not her ‘help I really need something’ cry, or her ‘right now’ cry and not her ‘I’m waiting, mum’ cry. It was a new cry that Felicity had been hearing for about a week and what it meant was unclear to her.
It was five o’clock. She trudged down the hall, zipping up her hoodie as she went and scuffing her slippers on the floor boards. What is it Brig? What’re you trying to tell me?
Opening the door. Surprise.
Brigit had managed to pull herself up onto her feet and was clutching the cot rails. Felicity had never seen her stand herself up before. Brigit grinned and waved with both hands. And down she went, howling.
Felicity scooped her up and held her tightly with one hand on the back of the bumped head. The crying stopped immediately and she felt Brigit push away from her. It hurt. She wasn’t done with the comforting.
Brigit patted Felicity’s face and smiled. Did you see what I did, Mum? Did you? Did you? Her eyes were round and delighted. Cheeks quivering from constant smiles.
“Who’s my precious, clever girl?” Felicity whispered softly, pulling Brigit back into a big cuddle.
They sat down together in the chair. No way was this little girl going back to sleep.
Brigit babbled softly and clapped her hands. Felicity let her cheek get tickled by that promising hair. So many things would be happening to them, soon.
Nathan found them there, in the chair, sound asleep. He lifted Brigit back into the cot.
Felicity stirred. Nathan took her hand and led her back to bed.
“Is Brigit ok?” he whispered.
Felicity nodded and yawned.
“What did she want?”
“She didn’t want me to miss a thing,” she mumbled.
And then she was asleep, a smile on her face. Sweet, sweet dreams.
© Lorinda Tang 2013