Once, I worked nights. I drove through the darkness to other people’s houses, sat on their couches, held their babies while they slept. Sometimes I would sleep while the baby slept, rising along with them, feeding them bottles of their mother’s milk. Mostly I stayed awake. Alone, except for some small creature lying beside me. The whorl of hair on the back of their skull. Their eyelids, fluttering. I studied the shape of their bodies, tiny curled fists, chests rising and falling with breath. I became adept at swaddling, learned when stirring led to waking and when it was just stirring. I knew in my bones how much time to let pass in between feedings.
I was not a mother. I never wanted to be a mother. I wasn’t even sure I liked babies, but the work was there, and I knew how to do it.
I washed bottles in the hottest water, scalding my hands. I set them out to dry on towels that lined the counters. The diaper pail filled. I emptied it. I held the babies over my shoulder, patting their backs to burp them. Listened for their sighs of relief. Together, we spent the night this way.
The nurseries were painted pale colors, yellow, pink, blue-gray. There were shelves filled with books the babies couldn’t read, toys they didn’t yet know how to play with. For what is a baby if not some hope for the future, an amorphous belief that a full life can be provided. Some nights, I gave the babies a bath, holding them in warm water, running my hands across their soft, translucent skin. The soap I used was gentle, my motions, gentle. Still, the babies cried, no longer accustomed to floating, as they once had done for nine quiet months.
Every morning, before the sun rose, I brought the babies back to their mothers. The mothers, they would turn to me smiling, half awake.
“Thank you so much,” they would say. “You are a godsend, truly.”
And they would take their baby in their arms, content, well-rested. And I would once again drive through the darkness, the unforgiving dawn, back to my empty home.
During those years of doing that work, I slept in my own bed as the sun rose. Even in dreams, I felt the phantom weight of babies beside me, breathed in their milky scent. I would wake, startled, hearing cries that didn’t exist, only to stare at the ceiling and wonder which house I was in. I learned how to lull myself back to sleep in broad daylight with the words, it’s okay.
I didn’t talk to my own mother. I ignored the messages she left me, I threw away letters unopened. Most people, when they found this out about me, assumed that something horrible had happened, some unspeakable truth that split us apart. Really, though, there was nothing to hold us together, aside from our blood, my time spent in her body. We drifted, or I drifted, and I didn’t look back.