My son often watches me put on makeup in the morning, sitting on the floor while I peer at myself in the mirror. It’s a short procedure, but one that keeps him engrossed, because there is a chance I might reach down and swipe him on the nose with my powder brush. Sometimes he grabs a comb as I brush my hair and passes it clumsily through his short locks. “Bruss bruss bruss,” he says, satisfied.
In the mirror my face dissolves, swimming back into view as a series of parts: eyes, nose, chin. I dab concealer carefully onto blemishes and pat it dry, sweeping powder over the top in large, loose circles. I pencil in the bit of my eyebrow touched by a scar, balance out my brows for fullness. Then three quick swipes of lipstick—so swift and mechanical that my hand might be autonomous—and my mouth emerges in vivid focus.
In the bathroom cabinet, my lipsticks occupy the highest shelf. Owen is delighted with the transfer of color to material surface; paint onto paper, Texta onto wall. The few times he has found a tube, housing the tomato-orange of Mummy’s smile, he has tilted his head, uncapped the tube, and dragged rich, incongruous color across his rosebud mouth in exact mimicry of my gestures. I keep my lipsticks up high because they are expensive, and because of the eeriness of seeing my own expression played out on my small child’s face.
The lipsticks that I own are steeped in sex and blood. In my collection, I have Lady Danger; Relentlessly Red; Good to Go. Cosmo tells me early on that the painted mouth is supposed to evoke the labia, voluptuous and slightly parted, and the names of my lipsticks bear this out: they are unequivocal. There are fast cars, danger, and passion. There is fire, lust, anger, poppies, roses, all of them packed into small, dark tubes.
I wonder what my child sees when he looks at me in the mirror.
I have worn lipstick since long before he was born; every day, for many years. I can’t remember, though, when habit became ritual. I feel as though if I could, if I could pin down the moment that commenced a daily ceremony, I might demarcate between girl and woman with clear, metaphoric ease. But when and how do you become a woman? It is a long, raw process that doesn’t seem to end.
At thirteen—unlucky number—I become aware that my body is treacherously feminine, by which I mean: no longer self-contained. My lithe, sturdy child’s frame stretches out inelegantly, and my feet grow sizes and sizes. My skin, previously a trusted vessel for keeping me in, erupts into blotches and sores; my thighs and small breasts are lacerated with deep purple stretch marks. In the toilets at school, I begin to bleed.
“There is a fine, powdery shell between me and the world, a shell made of lipstick and pencil and foundation.”
After that first thin trickle of brown blood, I do not know with any certainty where my body ends and the world begins. In Sex Ed we talk about penetration, as though the body is simply a discrete article to be impaled by another, but the soft flesh below is both inside and out, and no one can tell me where in my body I am. Skin turns to membrane, hair to viscous discharge, and I become newly, dangerously permeable.
I have gone through lipsticks and lipsticks, trying to determine which ones will stay on throughout the day; which are too drying; which will erase themselves from the inside out, leaving a raw pink blossom at the center of my mouth. You could chart the last decade by subtle modulations of gloss and color, tiny variations in the pigment of undertones.
When we decide to have a baby I begin to dread my own blood. Ironic—for so long a gush of fresh red was a relief. Now I look at the toilet bowl with deep resentment each month, as though it is holding a loss.
I know that it will take time, that months might pass before implantation is successful. Six months or a year—six or thirteen small chances. I have been on the pill for ten years and don’t yet know, coming off, about the cluster of cysts on my left ovary that made me irregular as a teenager. At the time I thought that this irregularity was ordinary, that it was just my body not knowing yet how to regulate itself into neat 28-day cycles. I had perfect faith in my body working exactly as the Sex Ed pamphlets said that it should.
Now, trying to conceive, it seems that there may be many fewer than thirteen chances in a year; I have downloaded an app on my phone in ignorance, trying to outsmart my body, trying to time things perfectly so as not to feel the twinges that grow into spasms, cramps that begin deep in my womb and wrap around to the lower back so that it feels as though my kidneys are being pummeled.
I hate my body for sloughing off my richest asset, this unwanted endometrium. I eat steak and take iron pills. I want to hoard all of this blood, so rich and precious, and cushion all my hope with it. I stop drinking, in anticipation, and then get plastered each time the toilet water turns red; a bright red lined with white, the inverse of my mouth.
After sex, Mike cradles my belly, astounded at the alchemy that might be taking place. I am still astonished to see myself as beautiful in his eyes, not just for who I am but also for what my body can do. The story of my beauty I am not interested in—I grew up, I shed my adolescent skin, I grew into my nose. My body holds a kernel of possibility that is much richer than anything seen with the naked eye.
I wonder what I will tell Owen when he asks about how babies are made—when, in a few years’ time, he hears playground rumors and cutesy, misconstrued facts. I imagine he will squirm with horror, realizing what his father and I have done. But will he feel it deep in his bones, a premonition of what his own body will one day be expected to do? There is a schism looming in our experiences of childhood: he will never feel the fury and revulsion of realizing that his body will have to break open if ever he wants a child. I look at his soft white skin in the bath, his sex organs so casually on display. I kiss his protruding belly as I lift him out. He will always be preciously, casually intact.
After the blood stops coming my body begins to swell, first adjusting to the feeling of seasickness that holds me pinned to the couch through the stifling December heat wave. At night the temperatures dip below forty, but this provides no relief; in the bathroom, the coolest part of the house, my makeup melts and reconfigures in a tacky approximation of itself. Every morning when I put on my lipstick, I wipe a slick veneer of soupy color from the tip. The color doesn’t want to adhere. It mingles with the salt of my sweat, which makes a damp paste of my foundation.
Inside the house I wipe my face clean. My skin surges with hormones, makes me feel like a teenager again. I feel as if any grace or poise I have achieved as an adult has fallen away, and yet I am radiantly happy with my lumbering, swelling self. My breasts are full and large, my belly firmly convex. The tremors I have felt beneath the surface of my skin now resolve themselves into little kicks and hiccups, and then the probing of hands and feet. After seven months I can no longer sleep on my side: the baby pummels the mattress with his tiny fists.
I see my midwife regularly at the hospital, alongside the psychiatrist, and together we make plans that are too firm to ever succeed. I will give birth; I will be healthy; I will love my newborn son.
At thirty-six weeks, Owen flips over in the womb. God knows what prompts him to leave his comfortable, head-down position and somersault upward; it means that my plans change, they have to change. There are only two obstetricians willing to deliver a breech birth vaginally at the public hospital, and there is no guarantee that either of them will be available when my labor begins. Unless the baby resolves the position himself, I will need a caesarean section, officially labeled “elective.”
I am ready to push, though; it is so hard to explain. I feel as though the entire pregnancy has been building to this imperative of violence that will retroactively justify the mounting pressures of the body. My midwife recommends yoga, so I stand upside down on my shoulders twice a day, trying to coax the baby into another little spin. Once upside down, I am stuck there, the vast weight of my shifted center of gravity pinning me to the floor. Mike has to help me down, gently, easing me down a bit at a time so that he isn’t crushed by a sudden fall. It doesn’t help.
“I walk up a small set of plastic steps to perch on the side of the operating table, then hunch over and part the back of my hospital gown, exposing my spine for the insertion of the spinal block.”
I book in for an external cephalic version. On the table I take my skirt off, roll down my maternity tights, and lift my top up to just beneath my breasts. I can feel a little elbow lodged beneath my right ribs, and feet pressing just to the left of my cervix. The baby has been wedged diagonally for a few days now, kicking and hiccuping, defiantly right-way up.
After a few minutes, my midwife beckons in a strong-looking Swedish woman, and a blond student midwife with bright pink gum boots over her scrubs.
“What’s with the gum boots?” Mike whispers. “Delivery room,” I hiss back.
The Swedish doctor chats with us as she gives me an injection to relax my uterine muscles. Lying on my back, I can feel but not see the skin of my belly loosening, draping softly over the baby like bread dough over a rolling pin.
An external cephalic version sounds officiously medical, but what it amounts to is this: a strong Swedish doctor will try to turn your baby around from the outside of your body. I grip Mike’s hand as waves of pain and nausea ripple up my spine. I stare at the ceiling; Mike watches, wide-eyed, as our little boy is revealed line by furious line, resisting the turning hands with all of his surprising strength.
After the ECV fails, the registrar is supposed to book the C-section, but for some reason doesn’t. For two weeks I call my midwife at odd hours, trying to figure out what is happening. She has a habit of repeating back everything I say to her; I don’t know if it is a personal habit, a tic, or a professional strategy for making me feel heard, but it drives me up the wall. I try not to say anything, as she is so lovely and tiny, but my frustration tolerance is rapidly diminishing as the anxiety begins to spike.
“Katie, I’m really not sure what’s going on at the moment–”
“You’re not sure what’s going on, no–”
“But I really need to know when I’m having this baby. What if I go into labor before the caesarean is booked?”
“Go into labor—there’s a chance you’ll go into labor—but I’ll talk to the registrar again. I don’t know why you haven’t been booked for an elective section yet.”
“I just really need to know. When you find out can you give me a ring?”
“I’ll give you a ring.”
I sit in the bath every night, displacing monumental amounts of water, and try very hard to remember how to breathe. Mike sits with me, a calming presence in the room. Up until now the pregnancy has been free of panic, though I have been shutting down in the evenings, getting home later and later as work becomes more demanding, and going blank as soon as I am safely through the door.
Panic is a blankness like white noise—those little grains of light in the corner of the eyes, a closing-in of the world. I tell myself it is normal to be anxious; this is a real, not a phantom, source of stress. I am terrified of going into labor and then needing to be cut, of my body getting a taste of what it will not be able to have. I do not want the pain of transition without the catharsis of birth. I do not want this question to remain up in the air, my fate and my baby’s dictated by administration and bureaucracy, instead of confidence and foreknowledge and strength.
When the C-section is booked, Mike and I arrive at the hospital with a change of clothes and a few novels packed into a small black leather suitcase, hoping to fit into the day’s schedule. I am third or fourth on the list. If there are any complicated deliveries before me, my caesarean will be pushed back to tomorrow or the next day, as I have not, at any point, felt any signs of labor.
Signing into the hospital ward has the same displaced and anticlimactic feeling as waiting in an airport lounge. My sister Claire has a nursing shift at the hospital and comes down for half an hour, keeping us company and joking with Mike. I try not to let the waiting make me tense.
“Can I keep my lipstick on?” I ask the nurse signing me in.
“I don’t see why not,” she says, laughing at me a little. “You’re the first person to ask. Just as long as we can see your fingernails.”
I don’t laugh. I have stripped off my dress, divested myself of my stockings and underwear and bra. My nude body is covered flimsily by a hospital gown; my hair is tucked up under a baby-blue tissue shower cap. My lips stand out like flames on an otherwise pale face—the last visible sign of any choices I have made on my own behalf.
I have expected hushed lights, maybe soft music, but the room I give birth in is just a room, lined with Laminex cupboards that are filled with drugs. We had planned for walking, stretching, reading, music, and most of all—time. My friend Paulina, living between Poland and Australia, once talked about how much she wished for a long ship voyage, the benefits of a slow transition that are obliterated by flight; she could not believe that you could leave one country, hot and dry and speaking a language full of its own memories and resonances, and wake up a few days later in another land entirely. Here, the fluorescent tubes buzz; I cannot see any natural light.
I walk up a small set of plastic steps to perch on the side of the operating table, then hunch over and part the back of my hospital gown, exposing my spine for the insertion of the spinal block. The motherly woman who has come in to collect the baby’s umbilical stem cells—we are donating them—grabs my hands and I wrench them away, furious that anyone but Mike should try to touch me for comfort. He is still standing outside, waiting to be ushered in, entering only when I’ve been arranged and draped.
The drugs flow up my arm and I start to dip in and out of time.
“Tell me when they’ve started to cut,” I say to Mike. “They’ve already started,” says the anesthetist with a smile.
Mike sits beside me, holding my unencumbered left hand with his, and stroking my head through the blue tissue cap. Everything sounds a little bit too loud. I struggle to lift my head and see, but it feels too heavy under Mike’s soft hand. Then the obstetrician beckons to Mike, and a quick flash of mottled red flesh rises above the curtain separating my breasts from my open belly. It is a monkey of a child, alive in the world at last.
I want to be happy, but the room is beginning to swim. Mike casts a worried glance at me as Katie bustles him out, the bundle of Owen screeching in his arms.
The doctor exchanges a look with the anesthetist, and then she gets to work. The door to Mike is closed; the pain is ushered in.
I have always paced my breathing, in pain or in times of stress, to the rhythms of T. S. Eliot:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table . . .
Usually the words flow around and through me—but when you are that patient? The incantatory magic fails, and I begin to think of Homer, wildly, of the Greeks at Troy slashing long wounds into women so as to rape them through more and more orifices, an unending profusion of cuts. Is it Troy? I am beginning to hallucinate unnatural penetration, the long incision of the scalpel through my belly while my natural causeways, vagina and mouth, are draped and silenced and shut.
And then penetration in reverse—a child coming into the world through unnatural means, blessedly so, so as not to drown in amniotic fluid should the head get stuck, which happens, sometimes, with a vaginal breech—and my baby is alive, not from the bloody gush and tide of passage through the body, but neatly, through this drawing and quartering, a routine procedure, though my fingernails are of their own accord changing color.
I am beginning to hemorrhage.
Fresh blood spills out of me, the color of Russian Red, or Cherries in the Snow. The mantra of a spinal block is “pressure, not pain,” but the distinction is semantic. “We’re not going to be popular,” the obstetrician murmurs under her breath as she and her student begin hurriedly to soak up the bright blood.
Long strips of gauze turn red as the anesthetist tops me up with something that disconnects my mouth from my brain. “Hurt,” my brain says, and, “Stop!”
I think of the splashes of bright red, the vivid auras and fragments of Sylvia Plath’s tulips. Tulips—two lips. I am beginning to see double.
Underneath my lipstick, my lips are turning blue.
The French word for makeup is maquillage, a mask. This isn’t so surprising. My grandmother once asked of me, when I came for afternoon tea one day: “Got your face on, have you?” Women of her era put their faces on, a daily armor to face the outside world.
This face is the face of femininity, of a performance of womanhood geared toward social acceptance. Second-wave feminists decried cosmetics, which spun out subsequently the term “lipstick feminist,” or later, “lipstick lesbian,” the lipstick a metonym for all things coded woman.
But the mask has a more urgent, more magical property. It is the skin that keeps skin in. Julia Kristeva, the feminist theorist, speaks of the abject, that repulsive threat to order, that is neither of the body nor of the world. She gives the example of the skin that forms on the top of a glass of warm milk. She really could just say skin: an untrustworthy organ that is both of the body, and not of it, the boundary between the self and everything that threatens it. Where do I stop, and where does the world begin?
Since I first began to bleed, I have not been able to know. When a scalpel slices through the skin at the top of my mons pubis, I do not know. When, later, I grimace as my midwife pulls the metal staples from this gash, which is beginning to knit and heal and close, I do not know.
My uterus becomes so inflamed that it pushes against the scar tissue, a red-hot searing pain. I cannot hold the baby when he is cross, I cannot calm him; if his small foot brushes across the incision site, my vision goes white at this unbearable collision of pressures from both sides. I have never had a child before, I reason, I do not know how much pain is “normal.” I grit my teeth until the pain makes me behave badly, and the world, for a minute, disappears.
There is a trip to the emergency room. I lose the next few months in a fog.
There is a fine, powdery shell between me and the world, a shell made of lipstick and pencil and foundation. Where others might see the mask as an indulgence, a dabbling in performative femininity that could be powerfully stripped back for the feminist cause, I cling to it as I cling to everything that holds me together and holds me in.
It is a miracle, to me, that I can defer some of the horror of the abject onto this fragile construction. That my body, this leaking, porous, permeable household of my very shaky subjectivity, can be masked, held, cherished, clothed. Tangible proof that there is a barrier to stop me being subsumed is infinitely precious.
Discrete; tangible; self-contained.
Because I’m worth it. Maybe she’s born with it. Like flaming diamonds dancing on the moon.
In the bathroom mirror, my face dissolves, and then resolves itself again. My son sits on the floor as I examine the outward signs that I am still all of a piece. Look, there is my nose, hooked and wide, protruding from my face just as it did yesterday, just as it will tomorrow. There is the sweep of my jaw. I send nervous impulses down to my fingertips and concentrate on the texture of my hair as I pile it up, trying to memorize what my body feels like from the outside.
My hands reach out to touch my precious boy, so blessedly coherent when everything else fails. His skin is so soft, so perfect; a few freckles scatter themselves across his nose, and the pink that comes up under his cheeks is rosy and natural and fresh. He grabs my hands as I tickle him, giggles, swats me away.
I open my lips, outline them in pigment. Three quick swipes are all it takes for the consecration of a ritual. All day, in shopwindows, I will catch sight of my vivid mouth, floating in front of my pale, uncertain face, and I will will it to open, will my lips to part, to force out some declarative sound, to speak, to give breath and birth to something—to something—but what?
From Things That Helped, by Jessica Friedmann, courtesy FSG. Copyright 2018, Jessica Friedmann.