Anna Goldsworthy’s new book Welcome to Your New Life documents the wonder and anxiety of bringing her first child into the world. In this edited extract, she contemplates juggling a new baby with freelance work.
In a few months, Kath and Bec and Sylvie will return to fulltime jobs, while I will continue my freelance existence: snatches of industry while you sleep; one-handed emails while breastfeeding; long afternoons of animal noises on the carpet. But now, as they enjoy paid maternity leave, my deadlines lurk closer and a great gulf opens between us.
Work. My secret vice.
“I just wish I were in more of a position to help you,” frets Great-Grandma Moggy over the phone.
“It’s okay, Mog. I’ve got Nicholas.”
“Happy days! Thank goodness for that.’
Nicholas is so good, everyone reminds me. He allows you to do your work. And he is. Of all the fathers I know, he is the most involved in his child’s care. But I cannot help register the double standard. “When Nicholas works, he’s a breadwinner,” I complain to Baba. “But when I work, it’s self-indulgence.”
“You just can’t win,” she agrees. “When you were born, I never heard the end of it: what about your medical degree? And then I went back to study, and it was what about that dear little baby? But you’ve got to give Nicholas some credit, too. He is good.”
On Monday mornings, I surrender you to him and jog down the road to the conservatorium. “Where is him?” demands the college housekeeper, as I hurtle back at lunch-time, enraged by slow pedestrians, desperate to hear of your latest breakthrough.
When I burst into the flat, I find you guffawing wildly at Nicholas’s pig impersonation. Why do you never find me funny?
“It’s happened,” he tells me, and I can see it in his face as he looks at you. “I’ve fallen in love.” The following week, under his watch, you discover the letter W, a particular wobble of the chin while vocalising – wa wa wa wa. Secretly I wish you had saved it for me.
Soon it will be time to return to the concert stage. I imagine I still know how to play: I can feel the imprints of the keys on my fingers, the precise angles of sound. But when I sit down at the piano, I am shocked by my clumsiness. I devote your nap time to rehabilitative practice; when you awake, I arrange you in your high chair at the treble end of the piano, where you bang out a gleeful descant.
“There’s no prize for being the multi-tasking genius of the world,” Nicholas tells me, but there is. The prize is more time with you. Sometimes a colleague suggests coffee, and I stare back at him in disbelief. Why would I squander our time apart on coffee?
Housekeeping is a vanity I can no longer afford. When Mariah comes over to visit, she wordlessly addresses herself to the unmade beds, to the stalled laundry, to the festering kitchen.
Probably I should feel shame at this, but all I feel is relief.
In March, I fly to Sydney for advance promotion of my first book, a musical memoir which I have not yet completed. It is a Thursday, so I will miss mothers’ group, akin to skipping a critical episode of a favourite television series: what if Leo has started to laugh? If Freya has rolled over? But I express as much milk as possible, don the clothes of a previous life and leave you at home with Mariah.
She peers at the Routine, dubiously. “I wouldn’t want to wake a sleeping baby.”
But she must, or the whole system will collapse! “Yesterday we were five minutes late for the 11:10 wake-up,” I caution her. “We spent the whole afternoon playing catch-up.”
The taxi beeps for a second time.
“Enjoy yourself, darling, and don’t give us a second’s thought. We’ll have a great time, this wee man and myself.”
At the airport, I see babies everywhere. Each of their cries triggers a small letdown, a gentle interior needling, as if my breasts had the ambition to feed all the children of the world. And then I am on an aeroplane, travelling away from you at eight hundred kilometres an hour, next to a businessman in a striped pink shirt.
His arm presses importantly against mine, moist and spicy with deodorant. Then it slackens and he starts to snore, leaving me alone in the company of this other stranger: myself.
What is it that adults do when alone? I glance through a book, but the words do not stick, so I channel-surf through the audio programmes, seeking a station that speaks to my condition – the amputation that is your absence, the way I crave you with my flesh. I want your body, baby, I want it now … sings a woman, but it is wrong, all wrong, speaking of sexual desire. I cannot remember how that ever seemed a good idea. When we hit turbulence, I remain calm. The excursion feels almost frivolous for its absence of risk: if the plane crashes, you will not be killed.
As soon as we land, I phone Mariah. The businessman jerks awake and points sternly at the lambent seatbelt sign.
“How is he?” I whisper.
“Good as gold. Nothing to worry about.”
There is a suspicious, muffled exclamation close to the phone, even though it is officially time for Morning Nap 2A, but now the hostess is approaching and I quickly hang up. When the seatbelt light is snuffed out I call back, but the phone is engaged. I try again from the taxi and there is no response. Perhaps I should call Nicholas and ask him to go home and check? No. Deal with the contractions when they come. Instead, I take out my notes to distract myself. At the conference, I will be playing the piano and talking about my memoir – talking about me! – but already I am bored by myself, so I close my eyes and think of you instead. Your toes like baby grapes. The yeasty smell of your scalp.
As soon as I arrive at the venue, I search for a bathroom in which I can express. Afterwards, clutching the warm jar of my milk, I emerge into an enormous warehouse crowded with stalls, with posters of books and authors, with the great hubbub of the literary enterprise.
“There you are!” calls out a publicist. “Would you like to store that … beverage?” I follow her to a kitchen, feeling vaguely reprimanded by the trapezium of honey-blonde hair. “Now there’s something you should know: the organisers have moved your performance to the foyer, because they couldn’t shift the piano. But I think this is even better. There’ll be a captive audience.”
Back in the foyer, I glimpse the piano, before the doors of the auditorium are thrown open and an excited crowd swarms out, encircling the instrument until it disappears. I see vaguely familiar faces – a celebrated poet, a well-known publisher – faces that carry a faint, archaeological lustre from a previous life. They descend avidly upon the morning tea.
An organiser guides me through the crowd to the small island of the piano and hands me a microphone. “Just start when you’re ready. Everybody will stop and listen.”
“I definitely saw Tsiolkas,” a woman exclaims. “I’d recognise him anywhere.’
There is a single, empty row of chairs next to the piano, and I turn towards it now and clear my throat.
“When my publisher asked me to write a memoir, my immediate thought was moi? A memoir?”
The crowd noise continues around us, echoing this sentiment, as the publicist takes a seat in front of me, offering an encouraging smile.
“Who did I think I was, writing a memoir?”
A man in a navy parka sits down at the far left, cradling a lamington like a small pet.
“If I hadn’t met my teacher, I certainly wouldn’t have become a pianist.”
I am not entirely sure what I am talking about. Am I in fact still a pianist? Or am I just the envoy of a deceased self? My old clothes hang strangely on my body, a fact which is in itself suspicious.
“Writing this book offered me a chance to clarify my own thinking about music …”
Back home, my mothers’ group would be meeting about now, talking about nappy services or settling techniques. Freya might have started cooing; Max might have perfected his clap. There are great things going on out there, but here I am hundreds of kilometers away from you, talking to a row of chairs about myself, an entity I no longer much believe in. What could possibly be more important than nurturing your child? The man in the parka takes a delicate bite of his lamington, then blissfully closes his eyes. A woman sits beside him, and frowns at me through oversized glasses, as if identifying a beetle. There are now three people in my audience, at least two of whom are awake.
“Perhaps I will read you an excerpt,” I offer.
Around us, the crowd surges with enthusiasm for books other than mine.
“Oh yes, of course. I know the vet who inspired Aisha …”
“Heard John Banville speak in the tents …”
Who would have thought that book lovers could be so noisy? That they would bang their crockery with so much vigour?
“More of a friend of a friend …”
“Of course the sorts of books that women read are not …”
I take out my manuscript. “It was my grandfather who found her.”
“Gave Fred the Undercover Kitty her vaccinations …”
“I was nine years old,” I continue. “And had been learning piano from a local jazz teacher …”
My breasts are filling again with milk, pressing against my shirt, reminding me that my place is not here.
“It sat well with the grand narrative I had in mind for my life,” I say, as a stripy haystack veers in from the left. I register its bulbous, doleful nose just moments before it collides into my side, bouncing off like a dodgem car.
“Sorry,” it whispers, huskily.
The man in the parka sits upright. “It’s GRUG! Grug’s here, folks!”
My two other audience members swivel their attention to the haystack, glance back at me, and then follow the haystack’s jolly progression through the crowd, as it dispenses autographs. I feel a new pressure in my tear ducts, from humiliation or mirth or perhaps both, as though my body seeks to expose me, exploding back into liquid components before this row of chairs.
“Perhaps the best thing now would be to play for you,” I suggest, putting the manuscript down. It is the first time I have performed since you were born, and I am not sure if I still know how to do it, but I need to remember, both to silence this audience and to quell my tears. I wait for a moment of quiet, and when none is forthcoming I place my hands on the keyboard like a prayer. But amidst the din of morning tea, in this giant auditorium, my playing is mute, silent. I can see my hands moving on the keys, but I can no longer remember what the result sounds like.
Back at home that afternoon, after Mariah has left, you wake crying and I carry you into bed with me to feed. I surrender, I call out to the Routine pasted to the fridge; to the book that needs to be completed; to the computer with its plaintive Facebook postings: Did you get my message about Isla’s first push-up? Outside the flat, the college hums with life, but here inside is my solipsistic, subversive bliss, lying in bed with you, occupying both of our bodies at once.
The sweetness of relief in emptying the breast, its gradual deflation, fine and exquisite as pissing; and at the same time – a part of the transaction I feel even more keenly – the sweetness of the milk entering your mouth. You unspool it from the breast, organise it rhythmically in your throat, and send it swirling down to your stomach – gulp-swallow-pause, gulp-gulp-gulp – so that you seem to grow larger beneath my hand. For a while my mind tracks idly between you and me, but then it remains somewhere in between, as when drifting to sleep with one’s hands interlaced, unable to unravel the sensation of finger on hand or hand on finger. Gradually your sucking becomes less rhythmic, and the suction of your mouth loosens until you release my nipple into the air with a small pop, cool with your saliva, and now we are both asleep.
Welcome to Your New Life is published by Black Inc. RRP $29.99.