For the first six weeks I can’t walk further than a few hundred metres. I feel like I’m practicing a walking meditation without experiencing the mental effects of this exercise – to focus on one activity, to centre myself. I’ve just had a baby; I am profoundly de-centred. In my current state, I can’t push the pram, or wear my new baby on my body, or drive a car. When I lie down at night, it feels like all my organs will spill onto the bed. Other fluids seep out – milk, tears. My body produces these things, and I cannot control them. I had not planned for the baby to exit my body in the way that she did, and for some reason this causes me more pain than the scar that now bisects my abdomen.
At first, my husband is home, and he brings me bowls of almonds and grapes, refills my water bottle. Once a day we shuffle down the street, with him pushing the pram and me telling him not to go so fast. But after a few weeks he must return to work, which means the baby and I are housebound. I prop my water bottle on the couch’s armrest, and then sit for five hours watching Workin’ Moms on Netflix. I enjoy this dramedy because the mothers are imperfect and because they appear to be leading independent lives postpartum: they drive places in their SUVs, they see friends, they go to work. Most of my days are spent holding my newborn as she drifts between wakefulness, feeding and sleeping. The boundaries between these states are blurred, as are the boundaries between my days and nights.
One evening, I watch an episode where the lead character is confronted by a bear in a forest while she’s on a trail run with her baby. Kate shakes with terror as she puts her body between the wild animal and her baby in his jogging pram; she raises her arms, makes herself bigger, and screams. It’s a comical scene – I’m laughing, but then I’m also crying. The idea of having to defend my baby from danger has touched something raw in me, something that feels like it will never heal. My husband Carlin asks whether I am laughing or crying.
‘Both’, I choke out. ‘It’s both.’
Boundaries that seemed firm no longer hold, and I feel blurry, too.
Prior to having a baby, I spent several years thinking through my relationship to gender and my body and writing a book about finding comfort in being changeable, in being a person between the binaries. Delivering the book dovetailed with the birth of my baby: I was reviewing proofs on my hospital bed as I waited to be induced. Pregnancy had been a unique hormonal experience; rather than feeling like I was becoming more female, or feminine, I felt myself becoming something else entirely – a multiple, inhabiting one singular body. The broadening of my subjectivity was fascinating and terrifying; I clung to any control I could grasp, making a birth plan and a spreadsheet of baby items. I imagined myself as a labour warrior, breathing through contractions, but the baby’s movement from the dark, watery, interior realm of my body to the brightly lit theatre was an experience that eclipsed my preconceived notions of childbirth.
On our first morning together, my baby breastfeeds while I gaze at the light filtering through the faded hospital curtains, illuminating their pattern of bottlebrush flowers and leaves. This ordinary moment moves me deeply, perhaps because I know my daughter has never seen morning light before. I notice that there is still a little of the creamy biofilm called vernix in the crease of her neck. I rub it into her skin; it will protect her during this transition. When the ward opens, Carlin arrives. He changes and swaddles the baby as instructed by the midwives; I will learn these skills in a few days when I am out of bed. Our daughter looks around the room with large grey-blue eyes. As the sunlight reaches her irises, their colour has already begun to change.
A few days later, when we take our new baby home, I realise that I am crossing the threshold with a new person, and as a new person. My body has changed, and even my DNA has been commuted by the presence of another being, a process called cell trafficking or microchimerism – a word that is reminiscent of the incongruous monsters on the Twitter account, Weird Medieval Guys. The bidirectional transfer of cells is an exchange my baby and I have both participated in, however I feel like the scales are unevenly weighted: she is perfect, I am monstrous, misshapen, scarred. I don’t have much time to dwell on these thoughts. As the primary caregiver, every moment is now directed towards attending the needs of another human.
In A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk’s memoir of early motherhood, she says that she ‘read somewhere that it is inappropriate to refer to a mother and her newborn child as two separate beings: they are one, a composite creature best referred to as mother-and-baby or perhaps motherbaby’ – an idea she finds ‘threatening’, though it ‘perfectly describes the change in the co-ordinates of [her] being.’ I wonder if this transformation occurs during early pregnancy, at the same time as microchimerism, or at the time of birth, or if it happens gradually, postpartum. I feel that I am in a state of metamorphosis, ensconced within the suburban house in Mulubinba Newcastle that we moved into two weeks before the baby arrived. As I fuss in my cocoon, wrapping and unwrapping the baby’s muslins, it rains ceaselessly. The damp, cool air of this continent’s second consecutive La Niña furs the walls and furniture and even the windowpanes with mildew. At night I wake up drenched in sweat and worry that I am ill, but after googling on my phone in the dark, I learn that it is a normal postpartum process; my hormones are in freefall, my sweat is waterfalls.
During these first twelve weeks – the fourth trimester – I am adjusting to the fact that the baby I had carried inside me, safely packaged away and nourished by the placenta, now exists on the outside. My arms have been reupholstered as baby carriers, my breasts converted to baby-feeders that are endlessly, magically refilled. In an article for the New Yorker, American writer Jia Tolentino recalls of these early days, ‘Caregiving was humiliating and transcendent and unending, and I was unnerved by how quickly it could decimate me.’ As I sit in my house each day, trapped by rain and lack of transportation, I hold my newborn and the Netflix episodes autoplay. Whatever I was prior to motherbaby is being dissolved, digested from the inside out, my cells broken down and rearranged.
Throughout my recovery from surgery and adjustment to motherhood, I am confronted by a new reality: bodily autonomy and freedom of movement are now foreign concepts. I have become a food source, bed, comforter, and a mode of transport. What I sometimes forget is that my daughter is adjusting, too. She flails her arms and legs, stretching into spaces that didn’t exist in her uterine world. When I place her on her stomach for ‘tummy time’, she struggles against gravity to lift her large head. I hear her grunts of frustration, and at the first hint of crying, I pick her up. We are sharing this transitional experience, but if there is any suffering involved, I do not want her to bear it. At night I lie in bed and listen as my husband paces the hallway, cradling our baby and singing endless rounds of ‘Row, Row, Row, Your Boat’, helping her drift into the stream of sleep. He places her in the bassinet on my side of the bed, and I sleep with my face just inches from the mesh that separates us.
When the recovery period has passed, I am keen to go walking.
My daughter is nine weeks old, and I am strong enough to push the pram a short distance. The movement of her limbs as she lies in the pram bassinet is more controlled now, and she turns her head to listen to the sound of passing cars and low-flying cockatoos. Before the move to the suburbs, I used Google Maps’ Street View function to plan how I would leave the house with a pram and return safely. There are no footpaths on my street but if I go on the road to the street beyond, there is a footpath that takes me to the main road, where I find a humble collection of shops – butcher, newsagent, petrol station. I take this route a few times before realising that it is rather dull.
As I gain confidence walking with the pram, and my fitness improves, I decide to explore the residential streets beyond ours. I venture onto the bitumen surface of the road, glancing over my shoulder and hugging close to the parked cars, much like I did ten years ago when my daily commute involved weaving through Sydney traffic on my bicycle. I felt invincible then, but it was only luck that I never got car-doored. Now, I am more vulnerable, yet I am required to put myself and my baby at risk, just to get around. I go walking regardless. If I don’t get to move my body and see something outside of the house, I’ll become sessile, a barnacle cemented to my grey couch.
One day I decide to walk as far as I can during my daughter’s nap, and I push the pram towards the busy main road. It’s not ideal: the road is noisy, and the vehicle fumes bother me, and there is nothing to look at – no beckoning gardens or lazy cats to spy on, no trees or flowers to attract my attention. But there is a footpath, and that is why I am going this way. I had tried another route a few weeks earlier, one that zigzagged through shady backstreets towards a stretch of cycleway, but the journey had been complicated. At every intersection I looked for the kerb ramps that allow someone using a pram or other wheeled transportation, like a wheelchair, to cross the road. These ramps exist because disability rights activists argued that accessible urban design benefits everyone. Kerb ramps are now common in places of high pedestrian activity, however, they aren’t present on all suburban streets, which makes me wonder: if you require a ramp but cannot access one, are you supposed to stay home?
At one point on my walk, I could see in the distance the café that I was trying to reach, where a mothers’ group was meeting, but when the footpath unexpectedly ended, and my pram became stranded in a sea of wet grass, I was forced to take a detour around the block. I arrived sweaty, dishevelled, and with a baby needing a nappy change. My plan to walk to the café, a 45-minute trip, had concerned the mothers; they had been discussing how I would get home. One woman offered to install her spare baby seat to give me and my daughter a lift. The more common way for mums in this part of Newcastle to get around, I realise, is to drive your car to a nice neighbourhood with leafy parks and well-constructed footpaths. Of course, if good paths were something you could expect in every suburb, my journey would have been more straightforward.
I had never thought about kerbing, pre-baby, but I am beginning to see how features of the built environment that may seem trivial to some people can determine the outcome of another person’s day, the places they are able to go. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with mothers, and with my father-in-law, who has recently begun using a motorised wheelchair. We live a twenty-minute stroll from my husband’s parents; to visit his granddaughter, Kim maps the route while factoring in the battery power of his chair. There are paved footpaths most of the way, apart from one section where he must go on the road, right at the crest of a hill that may obstruct a driver’s view. Having to plan your trips removes much of the joy of spontaneous outdoor excursions. Even the local taxi service requires wheelchair users to book well in advance of the time they want to go out or return home, and in some cases, despite careful planning, the taxis simply fail to arrive.
There are other ways for me to get around, in theory. For example, there is the bus. But the thought of lining up my daughter’s naps with the infrequent and unreliable bus timetable is more than I can manage. I have a baby carrier, however, I am afraid to walk a long distance while baby-wearing in case I trip. My centre of gravity shifted during pregnancy, and things are no better now. Besides, there are advantages to walking while pushing a perambulator: it affords me a brief window of time in which I get to put the baby down safely, go for a walk and take her with me. My daughter seems to enjoy these slow adventures, too. She is beginning to see in colour; my face, hovering in the sky above her like a moon, is just within her field of vision.
Perambulating is not just about walking slowly, rambling. It’s also connected to surveying: ‘perambulating the bounds’ or ‘beating the bounds’ refers to a medieval British tradition where people walked the boundary of their parish every year, beating landmarks with sticks so the people would remember them, and asking the land for protection. In a sense, perambulating the bounds is what I’m doing. Only the boundaries are not the land that I own, but the distance my baby and I are able to cover, physically and emotionally, before we must return home. I’m not used to being restricted in this way. On the walks I used to take, I would always be pushing to go further, to see something new, to approach the edge of my known world. Now, I have someone else’s needs to factor in – my walks are circumscribed not just by suburban infrastructure, but by the very act of caregiving.
There are days when going out alone with the baby seems impossible, due to poor weather, or my low energy levels, or if I forget to take the pram out of the car before my husband leaves for work. But I feel the difference on the days I don’t go. Walking offers a pathway back to myself, a moment to turn my attention to my own thoughts. I sense that the return trip will go via a different route, one that is more circuitous, and is, perhaps, not a return at all, but a way to move forwards.
One afternoon as I leave the house, I see a bird with brown and black markings and for a moment imagine that it is a nankeen kestrel, the bird I loved to watch at the cliff near the sea, where we used to live. When my eye registers the bird as a common myna – a drab, harsh-voiced, introduced species – I feel the brief flicker of mental excitement extinguish itself. The disappointment is not just the error of misidentification, it is the realisation that those encounters with nature that had sustained me in my former life are now a thing of the past – something I have traded in for my three-bedroom house in the suburbs. I feel immense gratitude to have a stable home for our family; a sense of guilt accompanies my private mourning for the old familiar places. Nevermore will I see whales breaching on my morning walks, or spend hours investigating a few square metres of rock platform, or stand at Strzelecki Lookout at the end of a day and watch as the nankeen kestrel hovers, motionless in the cool breeze, before dropping into the grass at the edge of the earth.
The nankeen kestrel was a bird I came to think of as my neighbour, and a friend to my writing practice. Sometimes I would see one from my study window when I paused mid-sentence to look out. My study gazed west over the suburbs to Sugarloaf Mountain, offering countless variations of sunset colour gradients and cloud formations, the slant of light on the horizon changing with the seasons. Our apartment seemed to float above the city, a bubble in which I spent most of my days alone, writing. After a few years, I added a cat. I put a blanket on a chair next to mine, and she would curl up and sleep while I entered the flowing, timeless realm of creativity. When I thought about having a baby, and what writing would look like after she arrived, I think I must have pictured myself in this room, with the baby sleeping in a carrier strapped to my chest or playing happily, independently, on the floor, but when I imagined this, I did not know anything about babies.
On the day that the myna bird pops my nankeen fantasy, my daughter is just out of the newborn phase. She concentrates most of her energy on the task of trying to roll over; I am still figuring out how to place her in her cot for long enough so that I can use the bathroom. Less than a minute away from the baby feels like an eternity. It is as if all the hours I once had to myself have been taken to the precipice of a cliff and given a firm shove in the back. ‘Falling forever’, Maggie Nelson calls it in The Argonauts – the total lack of control that comes with having a baby. Falling forever, yes, but also landing in a heap. Broken forever is how I feel. My scar has finally healed, but long days and nights of baby care make me feel like I am coming apart. I will never sleep again, I will never write again, is what I tell myself. At an online reading that I attend with my baby on my knee, I ask the people present how to write after becoming a parent. A female author who replies tells me that during the first year not much writing happens, but I should walk often, and take notes.
As I stroll downhill, my pram rolls along before me and my daughter’s eyes begin to close, and then she is asleep, and I can feel, for a moment, almost alone. Near a cemetery on a hill, the footpath runs out. I don’t wish to cross the road: I want to be on this side – there’s a paddock with horses and beehives, an almost rural vista that might break up the suburban monotony. I wait for a break in the traffic and hurry across. The path takes me to a vacant reserve with a concreted section of Toohrnbing Ironbark Creek, its unnatural banks festooned with columns of high-transmission power lines. Their presence fills me with a creeping dread, and I plan to move quickly past this place, but I hear some birds making a racket and stop to look. Perched on the powerlines is a small raptor. I want to get closer – close enough to photograph and upload to iNaturalist, my favourite citizen science app. Then I’ll have a record, proof that nature magic exists, even here.
I try to push the pram over the grass but it gets bogged – the ground is still saturated from all the rain. I consider leaving the baby here, briefly, but when I imagine motorists passing and seeing an abandoned pram in an empty reserve, I change my mind. I can’t get a photograph from this distance, so I try to memorise the bird’s markings. When my daughter stirs, giving me the signal to head home, I am confident I will remember, despite the super-low battery mode of my sleep-deprived brain. Later, I identify the bird as an Australian hobby, or little falcon. I feel that it is carrying a message; I record my thoughts on the note taking app on my phone.
In my former home, the view had always given me a vast, expansive feeling. Sometimes I’d stand at the lookout and sing Björk’s ‘Hyper-ballad’: I liked the idea of going alone to a high place and throwing things off, a ritual of release performed daily to feel safe enough to be in relationship with other human beings. If I felt lonely, or concerned about my hermit-style tendencies, all I had to do was walk into town. But after multiple lockdowns and a heightened fear of contracting COVID-19 while pregnant, I’ve forgotten how to socialise without anxiety. Now that I live deep in the suburbs I used to look down on, I am unsure where to go to experience the sensation of lightness, of daily troubles lifting. Every street here looks the same to me – 1960s bungalows clad in weatherboard or Forever Boards or asbestos. There are no points of interest on my walks, no destination to arrive at and return from. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her chapter on walking the suburbs in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, ‘Freedom to walk is not much use without someplace to go.’
So that I don’t suffer too badly from boredom, I begin to invest ordinary things with more intrigue. I tell myself I am walking to the street’s largest tree, or to see the progress on someone’s home renovations, or to the edge of the water treatment plant where I have seen Eastern rosellas alight and chirp softly as they search for dropped seeds. I often stand at the boundary to this fenced-off area and rock the pram. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is watching me, questioning what I’m doing at the bottom of this dead-end street, trying to find a distance to stare into, but usually there is nobody around, just me and my baby.
As the weather clears up and daily outings become part of our routine, I begin to follow a regular walking route. It takes me downhill to a rehabilitated section of a creek, along a quiet street with a reserve that follows the creek’s path, and then uphill to a park with a cricket pitch and several tall redgums. I call this place the Top Park, and it’s here that I am reunited with the view to Mount Sugarloaf, only now it is closer, a more distinct shape on the horizon. There is another bitumen road with a gate across it – the northern entrance to the land that belongs to Hunter Water. I can rock the pram and forget about cars and footpaths and feeding and sleeping and just write, in little bursts, into my phone. Behind the gate there is a small stand of trees and field of unkempt grass, terminating in a precipice.
A path has been pressed into the grass by the feet of people who have disregarded the sign that says NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY. I like the way the path seems to disappear off the edge of the earth, at the place where the ground and the sky separate. On one visit, I watch a young woman drop her bicycle and step through the fence. She is not wearing a helmet, and her hair trails freely down her back. There are places I would like to walk but cannot, with a baby, but I wonder if I would have walked here, had I been alone. I’ve always been afraid of unknown paths, and long grass, and trespassing. Yet I find myself drawn to this place, often at the end of the day, when galahs play on the powerlines, and masked lapwings stalk the cricket pitch, and the calls of frogs can be heard coming from the ponds in the distance. I know that on the other side of the hill is the wastewater treatment plant – I have looked at its rectangular pools of churning brown water on Google Earth. It’s the literal shit of the suburbs, I think to myself. Not very romantic, but this is the only place where it feels like I am approaching an ‘edge’ from which I can cast off the day. It feels like the end of the suburbs, the end of the known world, beyond which something wild and uncontained might exist.
The wild place that I can glimpse in the far distance to the north is Burraghihnbihng Hexham Swamp, into which all the small creeks of the suburbs eventually drain, before emptying into Coquun Hunter River and returning to the sea. When I trace those connections in my mind, it makes me feel less homesick for the hill by the ocean. I am not so far away; the perspective has just changed. Instead of a bird’s eye view of Mulubinba Newcastle, I’m closer to the ground. I have not lived here long enough to know what insights this will bring. But I can feel how my daily visits to the Top Park are softening the edges of the break I felt between the old life and the new one.
I take my baby out of her pram and hug her close to my body as I walk across the freshly mown grass in the afternoon light. We look at the view together. There is a peacefulness here which is different to the silence of my study. I feel that I am more present in the world, and in my body, than I have been for years. I cannot hide away now. Perhaps that is what scared me, when I started parenting – losing control of the boundary between myself and others. But that fear, too, is starting to shift, as all things are in these days of rapid transmutation. In my arms, she coos and babbles and I reply.
When I stop walking and hold up my phone to capture this moment, my daughter smiles with me.