I became an aunt last week and as soon as I walked into my sister’s labor room, I felt overwhelmed and ill-equipped and scared.
My dad and I had taken the elevator up to the 11th floor. On the ride up, I reminded myself not to cry, to assume the steady gait of the wise, soothing, EXPERIENCED mother that I am, there to smile knowingly and rub the new mother’s feet and forehead and say helpful things, like, “You’re doing great,” and “You can do this.”
A nurse buzzed us into Labor & Delivery and my nausea announced itself like a subway going out of service mid-ride. “Which way?” I asked my dad, but I think I sounded more like that sleepy drunk person whispering to you at 1 a.m. on the F train.
Her door was a little bit open and I secretly feared (and hoped) some enraged authority figure would run over, slam it, and shoo me away. You don’t belong here! You have no idea what you’re doing!
Instead, I tiptoed inside, took one look at my mother smiling at the foot of my sister’s bed and shuddered back a sob. And then, there was my little sister, in the thick of labor, holding onto her husband mid-contraction. I grabbed desperately onto her foot, not to calm her, but so that I wouldn’t faint. “YOU CAN DO THIS!” I said to myself.
Nearly three years earlier, I’d birthed my own baby in a room down the same hospital hall. I’d threw up so much, they put me on IV fluids; I groaned in every octave; and my little sister, so eager to participate, had raced in to catch the final three delirious hours of pushing and was, I believe, holding one of my legs for the finale.
It was my turn to hold the leg, so to speak. So what the hell was wrong with me? My sister’s birth might well have been my own and my own, I could bear! I’d said for months before her birth that hers would be an easy one – so fast and simple that I’d actually feel jealous. (WHAT KIND OF MONSTER AM I? WHO CURSES HER SISTER LIKE THAT?)
I realize I’d been telling her all this to comfort myself, not her; to shove into a drawer the horrifying prospect of seeing my sister in pain (pain that, of course, she too, could bear, and did).
That sister is two weeks into parenthood and I only continue to disappoint myself as an aunt. I had visions of myself waltzing through her apartment door carrying roast chickens and magazines, singing, “Hellooooo!” into that thick newborn haze and bringing with me the light, the jokes, the assurance.
Instead, I chase my toddler into her living room and yell, “Not his head! Don’t touch the baby’s head!” My greatest contributions so far have been bringing her pairs of socks the size of my ear, showing her how to untie the twisted ends of her Moby wrap, and protecting her child’s posterior fontanelle from my spawn.
It is so scary, the beginnings of things. New babies are scary and new motherhood is too, and so is, it turns out, new aunt-hood. It’s unsettling to hear a baby cry or to watch a new mother cry, especially if you remember when that new mother was a baby.
My sister’s husband kindly reads stories to my son in his son’s new bedroom while I stride around the apartment like a newborn gazelle, employing all of the rocking techniques I remember, which is to say, none. My sister says it’s nice to know that I got through this part, too. “How exactly?” she asks, sort of laughing, but serious too, and my face goes blank. “Um, ah, let me look in my email. You know, I think maybe I emailed someone about it, about what I did, back then?”
I can’t find the email.
I do find, however, a note.
It’s on my iPhone and it’s called “Parenthood 4 Weeks and 5 Days In.”
In a shaky voice, I read the first sentences aloud.
“No smile yet so when I put him down, all swaddled and sleepy, and then pick him up when he wakes crying, I wonder, irrationally, if he’s mad at me for letting him sleep alone and not on my chest.”
At this, my sister smiles immediately and says something like, “That’s so comforting.” She sighs. “I feel so much better knowing you felt that way, too.”
And then I’m wearing a cape. I’m looping around her ceiling in flight. I have actually helped!
Of course it did not involve baked birds or wisdom. How could it have? I’d forgotten that some of the finest words a new mother can hear are not advice, but her own terrifying thoughts spoken out loud by someone else, someone who’s gone through it. There is no substitute. It’s why message boards exist, why friends exist, and, that afternoon, why sisters exist.
Can you see, we shout at each other in the dark. No, can you? No! Okay. Okay. Okay.