By Antonella Gambotto-Burke
“I didn’t start out as an attachment parent. Pregnant, I studied Gina Ford’s soothingly bureaucratic baby manuals. I stocked up on pacifiers, bottles and bought a bottle warmer, lots of sparkly things to suspend from the ceiling, little white sheet sets, a cashmere blanket and a beautiful walnut cot. I drew up a feeding schedule that would allow me to work without too much interruption. Like a general anticipating hostilities, I had armed myself against the Invasion of Baby.
And then I gave birth.
I did not experience those graceful doula-directed births featured in Shea Caplice DVDs – neither doulas nor Shea Caplice had ever featured in my consciousness – but endured your standard seventeen-hour hospitalised drilling in brute fear, involving much lowing, cursing and the flying of random cannulas. My husband Alex, who had conscientiously pored over birth partner manuals and joined me for birth preparation classes, held my hand, his eyes wide with animal terror. When the midwife asked if I wanted a mirror to see my baby’s head as she crowned, I summoned all the dignity anyone can summon whilst naked on all fours before strangers, and said: “I’d rather die.”
The midwife slid my baby under me, hoping for some show of interest. “Is it dead?” I asked, looking down at the inert violet jellybean. “OXYGEN!” the midwife bellowed. The jellybean, now breathing and a fetching shade of orange, then screwed up her dear little face and squeaked: “MA!”
Which is when the universe as I knew it was washed away like so much mouthwash.
Once in the suite, I lifted my baby out of her Lucite cot and bundled her into bed with me. The desire to be with her was surreal. I wanted only to smell her, feel her, kiss her, gaze at her. When the midwife carted her off for her first wash, I crept after them into the bathing room.
“Oh,” the midwife said, surprised, “you’re here?”
Casually indicating the bare grey walls, I replied, “I was curious about the décor.”
The idea of being parted from my baby was unthinkable. Having survived the suicide of my 32-year-old brother, I understood the importance of seemingly irrelevant moments and the deep value of presence. My child’s infancy was a symphony that would never be repeated. I wanted to relish every moment: her first laugh, her first cry, her first word. Her fragility was in itself a gift, allowing me to develop a patience and tenderness I had never before experienced. I remember tracing my index finger over her face, watching her eyes widen with the surprise of sensation.
Babies, I realised, give us the opportunity to rewrite our lives in the language of love.
On returning home, I threw Gina Ford out. We never used a single pacifier, and donated the cot and bottle warmer to DOCS. Alex and I stripped our bed back – deeply-tucked low sheets, light blanket – and took our baby into bed with us (she slept between me and the wall; men are not hormonally primed to be awoken by their baby’s voice). Bethesda rarely cried, other than during the week I mowed by way through seven family-sized chocolate bars in an effort to restore the energy depleted by breastfeeding (the caffeine in the chocolate had seeped through my breast milk). I stopped the chocolate, she stopped the crying. She doubled her birth weight in three months and weighed ten kilograms at six. Years later, a doctor scoffed, “That’s impossible; you must mean ten pounds.” But she really did. She was taller than most boys. In her immunisation book, the numbers. And as she slept, I worked – in shifts, like a security guard. I was exhausted but spiritually sated.
Without ever having heard of William Sears, I was practising attachment parenting.
The joy I experienced in those first six sleepless months was both glorious and fathomless. I was wild with love, as high as a kite on breastfeeding hormones – prolactin (responsible for feelings of satiation) and oxytocin (superstar of the neuroanatomy of intimacy). My husband watched me transform from a stressed workaholic partial to Chanel La Précieuse lipstick and Boucheron into a merry if utterly disoriented woman who barely remembered to brush her hair. Still overweight from the pregnancy and in those vast maternity underpants – I gave birth during a heatwave – I sang to my captive baby at the top of my voice, great operatic bursts of passion as I danced about the house.
The enemy I had prepared for turned out to be the greatest love I have ever known.”
Antonella Gambotto-Burke is a regular contributor to Vogue. Her new book is Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love. She can be contacted through www.antonellagambottoburke.com.
• Steve Biddulph will be launching Mama at Mosman Library at 7pm on April 23 (bookings essential: http://events.mosman.nsw.gov.au/events/731/steve-biddulph-in-conversation-with-antonell-gambotto-burke)
• Dymocks CBD (Sydney) will be featuring a talk and signing at 12:30pm on April 24
• Lennox Head Library will be holding a Mama event at 10am on May 6
• Readings (Hawthorn) in Melbourne will be holding a lunchtime event on May 30 (http://www.readings.com.au/hawthorn)