Rhyme Time

 
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The sippy cup spout was still gunky, smeared with the remnants of a half-squished date. I stared at it in disbelief, then shoved it at my husband.

“How could you miss this?” I said.

I’d been busy packing the baby bag at that point in preparation for taking my daughter to Rhyme Time the following morning and it had been my husband’s job to do the dishes. But his definition of washing dishes involved vaguely waving them under running water at the sink.

He squinted at the spout, then shrugged and said, “You don’t have to be a cow about it.”

We’d only recently moved to a different state, which was an added layer of stress to the already stressful transition to becoming parents, with its sleep deprivation, zero downtime and chores that never end. Most nights we fought and there was a constant tension between us—a tension that felt confusing, because we were working together to raise our baby but pulling apart in so many other ways. All I knew about my husband at that moment, when he called me a cow for overreacting about the sippy cup lid, was that I hated him. Intensely.

Even so, I only meant to yell at him. But my hand, driven by hormones and a year’s worth of pent-up rage, seemed to have a mind of its own as it rose swiftly in the air, then connected squarely with his cheek.

I stood there, stunned. The man in front of me with the tired eyes was the love of my life and I’d just hit him! Immediately I apologised, but he brushed me away. “You’re not you anymore,” he said. “You’ve become a different person.”

That was last night—a night that marked a new low point in our relationship and I wondered whether other couples found the changes after having a baby as hard as we did.

Today I’m on a bus travelling to Rhyme Time—a group for mothers with babies—and I’m hoping to make some friends in a city where I still don’t know anyone. My daughter is on my lap and together we look through the window at the high-rises, the water inlets and the sun shining off the sea. This was all meant to be our new beginning—only it feels like the beginning of the end to me.

I get off at my stop and push the baby stroller down the road to the library. It’s crowded inside. I make my way to the back and squeeze into an aisle bench among a dozen other mums. They’re young and trendy in their city dresses and sandals and bouncing babies on their knees.

I unpack our supplies on the inch of spare space beside us: the pink sippy cup (clean, thanks to me), box of raisins and my daughter’s Peppa Pig doll that she’d insisted on bringing. The mum on our right gives me a quick polite smile, but before I can compliment her on her cute baby, she turns her face away.

Then, to make matters worse, just before the program starts, my daughter begins to cry. She has spotted the climbing blocks up front and she wants to play. For the sake of peace, I take her to the blocks. She climbs and crawls over the solid squares of foam, legs pumping furiously and when the presenters take their seats, she’s finally satisfied and happy to go back to our place.

But when I pick her up, I can see that a woman has taken our spot. She’s pretty and petite with straight black hair and a son, about two, who’s running to the front, where a large group of toddlers has gathered.

I approach, planning just to collect my daughter’s things, but when the woman sees me, she gestures at the bench and asks, “Was this your seat?”

The old me would have let her have our spot and we’d have stood at the back, but the changed me is tired. The changed me didn’t sleep last night after fighting with her husband. The changed me has a toddler in her arms and a weeping blister on her foot. The changed me is clumsy and awkward and simply ends up saying, “Yes.”

The woman blinks and then smiles before getting to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she says as she brushes past me and moves down the aisle.

I settle back down on the bench. My daughter wants her raisins, so I open the box and watch her tiny pink dimpled fingers fumbling to pick them out. The program is underway now and the presenters are holding up a poster with the lyrics for “Welcome Today Little Starshine,” the first rhyme we’re going to sing.

Then I see the woman who’d taken our seat. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor at the edge of the group of toddlers, holding her little boy’s hand. As I watch, she shifts; I see her full side profile and I do a double-take.

How could I have not noticed?

Beneath her V-neck blouse, pushing up to her ribs, is the perfect basketball shape of what must be at least a seven-month pregnant belly.

Shame so deep that it feels like a physical wound sears through my brain and my face burns a bright red. I try to catch her attention. We’ll be on the floor and you can have our seat. But she doesn’t look my way. I know I should get up and go to her, but I’m too embarrassed. Instead I sit, mortified over the way I made a pregnant woman move. Then reality hits and I realise the truth in my husband’s remark last night, “You aren’t you anymore.” I look away and stare blankly at the aisles of books in the library.

I look at the young woman again and her cheeks are bright like polished plums as she smiles at my daughter.

Then Rhyme Time is over.

“I’m so terribly sorry!” I say, as I step to her side. “I didn’t notice that you were pregnant!” My apology sounds so lame, but when I look in her eyes I can see that they’re shining.

“Do you want to get a hot chocolate?” she asks.

We sit at a table in the library’s café. We keep busy rescuing crayons from the floor, wiping sticky little faces and mopping up spilled water. But somehow, around all this, we manage to talk. She says she has days with her toddler when it all feels too hard and I know exactly what she means. But at this moment it seems like the easiest thing—when I can share the day with a friend.

Back on the bus and on our way home my daughter falls asleep on my knees. I look through the window at a multilevel car park and a massive shopping centre. And I realise there’s no going back to that now. Those days are gone forever.

My husband is home late and by the time he steps through the door, our baby is asleep in her bed. He finds me out on the deck, gazing at the night view: tall apartment buildings thronged by a river, their reflections shimmering on the black water’s tide. A steady stream of traffic flows over the bridge and the lights from houses spread across like the embers of a fire. He comes and stands beside me.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he says.

“No, I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

He puts his arm around my shoulder and we stand here silently, watching a boat chugging down the river.

“I miss us,” I say.

He pulls me closer. “We’re still us,” he says.

At the base of the bridge, down on the sheltered beach, a couple of locals have set up for night fishing. Lanterns shine on the rocks, buckets in the sand. We see them cast a line and it occurs to me that my husband is right. We are still us. 

Being a couple is important, but so is being parents, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Sure, we used to go to the movies a lot and sleep in on the weekends. But we have something now that is much more powerful than leisure: the desire to work together to raise our precious child.

Down the river, the boat is coming in to berth. Just beyond the jetty, two cranes flank the sky, their turrets glowing with lights and as I watch them I realise that the city is just a city.

I give his fingers a squeeze. We’re our new beginning.