Leaky orange Mazda, baby, and me

When I left my system management job at Digital Equipment Corporation, I had to leave behind the best part of the job, a brand-new mint-green Corolla. The model was dictated by my junior-level position (my boss had a Corona) but the colour choice had been mine. I certainly didn’t miss the chilliness of the mandatory Friday afternoon drinks in the black-glassed meeting room overlooking the harbour. And my proposals to work part-time or from home when my baby came were largely ignored.

Anyway, after almost a decade in the workforce, not counting the 18 months on the hippie trail through Asia, I was ready to embrace the role of earth mother, baking bread, sewing baby clothes, and being a shining presence in the home, a benign blend of my alternative friend Sally Sutherland and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsey. 

I spent the last few weeks of my pregnancy gardening in the summer sun with the cat sprawled alongside, sewing pin-tucked baby nightgowns, and knitting baby bootees. The final few nights, as the pre-birth nesting instinct kicked in, I ironed everything in sight. 

Our baby girl arrived, under-weight and over-cooked, after a prolonged labour during which the music we’d chosen receded into irrelevance; but still Pie Jesu and my baby’s birth are inextricably linked in my mind. Until the moment of announcement, Kate was to have been called Cam after the free-spirited young girl in To the Lighthouse, but either common sense prevailed or courage failed. The name Kate, it turned out, was an unoriginal choice, while Cam became a popular name for boys.

Arriving home from the maternity unit on a sunny day with baby in the capsule car seat rented from Plunket, it was wonderful to sit in the familiar living room, a huge sense of well-being with the newborn swaddled in a lacy-knit baby shawl in my arms and cups of tea delivered by an attentive husband. Friends and family arrived for short admiring visits bringing gifts of adorable stretch-n-grows and lifting the filmy canopy to coo over the beautiful baby the old-fashioned bassinet.

Soon however the days hazed into an unremitting regime. I stayed in bed as long as possible hoping for more sleep. Getting up lay ahead like a great swathe of grey industrial carpet, uninviting, scratchy and unavoidable. I would feed the baby while lying in bed. I abandoned the changing table that was at standing height so I could kneel instead to change her nappies; and at last the relief of being able to put her back down to sleep. Then came the culmination of the morning’s exertions, a shower, before crumpling back into bed. Some nights I slept in the spare bed in the spare room with the ever-hungry baby, so at least Doug could function the next day. By late afternoon, I awaited his return from work urgently – someone to cook the dinner and take over the chores while I fed the baby and watched television. Coronation Street had become a habit in the evenings after work before Kate was born. That wasn’t quite as per my plans to enrich the life of the child in the womb with washes of Mozart and Vivialdi. But she seems to have turned out fine nevertheless, not addicted to Coronation Street – not a classical music aficionado either.

In those early days, as the baby lay and kicked on the floor, I was magnetised, watching her every move and tracking her gaze, seeing before me the intricate network of neurons and synapses grow, and conjecturing as to what kind of person this unformed entity would become. What she would do? Television reporter? Concert pianist? War correspondent?

It was several weeks after bringing her home before I could face deciphering the sheet of instructions that came with the fold-up MacLaran buggy and venture out for a walk around the streets. Before that I had finally one evening yielded to Doug’s urging to venture out on my own to the Three Kings library, taking the car and leaving the baby at home with him. Some time for myself. But the jittery zinging of anxiety and visions of a distraught child made it a hasty trip. 

From the library, I took out a book that walked through baby development in the first year. A change of behaviour was to be expected at six weeks it said, so when Kate became unsettled with bouts of unaccustomed crying, I told my stressed self it was normal. Until it became too much to cope with. The doctor diagnosed an ear infection and I berated myself for being a bad mother. 

Around this time, Doug came home with a second-hand car – cheap, orange, with a rusted leaking back window – for me to get around in. A car commiserate with my ignominious new status as a mother with no income. I went for hair cuts and shopping with my sister, shallow-breathing, stomach-sinking, as I spent money I hadn’t earned.

About this time, six weeks in, was the start of playgroup. There was Alicia who I’d briefly met before from across the road, Teresa her friend from their days at med school, and Teresa’s back-fence neighbour Nina who had turned up on her doorstep to announce she needed some kind of new mothers’ support group. We all lived in the same block and we were all in the same boat. Professional women, floundering in our unstructured days, husbands striding off to jobs each morning leaving a strew of newspaper pages and coffee cups behind them, while we remained at home to tidy up and cope with our supposed bundles of joy. We sat in a circle that first day on the floor of Teresa’s immaculate living room with babies lying on mats or propped to sitting in front of us like offerings. We assessed each other’s babies and each other. It was clear that the other three were far more cheerful, competent mothers, more confident women; only much much  later did I realise we were all struggling one way or another.

Once every four weeks it was my tightly-wound turn to host playgroup. The house needed to be clean, the baby well-behaved or preferably asleep, and the cake to go with the coffee needed to be home-baked and delicious, for we were all breast-feeding mothers eager for sustenance by mid-morning. 

Little by little we opened up; and month by month we wove strands of friendship that criss-crossed and strengthened like the increasingly complex neural network of our babies’ brains. To mark our birthdays, we left our babies with our husbands and went for long Sunday brunches at Mt Eden cafés. At playgroup dinners, the husbands remained unconvinced that the main topic of discussion each week was not our diminished post-baby sex lives. In later years, we took off on shopping trips to Ponsonby or Sydney or Melbourne, stretching budgets but bolstering self-esteem with designer clothes and shoes.

It was Alicia who introduced us to the sleep programme that first year. Leave your baby to cry at night and it will learn to learn to sleep through. It seemed heartless, quite at odds with all my ideas on parenting – I’d read my way through all of Maria Montessori’s writings well before Kate was conceived – but I was desperate for sleep. After several agonising nights listening to a distraught baby crying its heart out, it worked. Kate slept without waking in the early hours and so did I. Life took a turn.

Kate was nine months old when Doug said to me out of nowhere that I needed to get a job. He was right. I recognised it instantly. ‘Yes,’ I said in relief. It would be a project; I’d have something stimulating to do, not just housework and the nappy-changing a seven-year-old is capable of. A month later, I was busy expressing milk and dropping Kate off at the home of a Barnados caregiver in Onehunga for a few hours a week. Then I headed off in my leaky orange Mazda to tutor adults in basic computing at Unitec.

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