The Summer I Washed My Daughter’s Clothes by Hand

julie-johnson-uCr6VI7Kwfk-unsplashIt’s been one year since the summer I washed my daughter’s clothes by hand. I was a brand-new mother then, with a soft, bulgy belly, and hips that were still too wide to fit into shorts I’d worn easily the year before.

My heart moved frequently between heavy and light(because I needed more reasons to feel exhausted), and my breasts felt foreign to me. Too big for my chest, too delicate to sleep on, they ached at certain times of the day and no longer belonged to me.

I was without a washer or dryer temporarily, but I had my stainless-steel kitchen sink, a bar of laundry soap that smelled of cypress oil, and I had my clothes rack, the kind that folded into itself, that I would set outside in my backyard on laundry days.

I loved to sit on the stairs that came out of my kitchen’s back door—my baby in my arms, still too delicate to hold her head up and look out into the world—and watch her clothes hang there in the sun, tiny, colorful promises of big joys to come. I never thought laundry could look so cute.

I felt anything but cute.

My hair was still lush from pregnancy, but my body felt deflated and enlarged at the same time. The swelling in my hands and feet had gone, but I still felt like the whole of me was swollen. I had been thrust out of the celebrated realm of mother-to-be—to this strange reality of am-now-mother, who’s supposed to know how to be. I had nine months to prepare for this day, but I felt disoriented and unaware of who I was, or who I would become, with this new feathery weight on my arm.

I’m mother, I heard my heart say on the steps of my kitchen’s back door, as I watched my daughter’s onsies, white and pink and yellow and blue, play in the wind. An image of her playing in this backyard one day, wearing those same colors, conjures before me. I see her but I can’t see her face. I wonder what she will look like, just as I had wondered what she would smell like when she was still doing somersaults in my womb.

My womb feels like a bruised grapefruit.

I feel like a fallen tree.

I’m happy, I tell myself, watching my baby sleep.

I’m alone and it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, probably. I don’t know, I don’t check the time these days. I’m happy, I say again to my heart, as though it needs instruction. There’s no selfie here and no social media to prove my feelings to. There’s no one who calls to ask if I’m happy. I think my friends are giving me space. Others, I think, don’t know what to say. I’m too busy, they must think. Too busy being a mother and being happy.

I sit and watch my daughter’s clothes, shine then fade, shine then fade, as sun passes through clouds.

The days pass this way, slowly, but when I look at the calendar and see my return-to-work date, my heart panics—so I push the date from my mind and think of the weeks that stand between us.

My hands sting from laundry soap, even though it’s supposed to be gentle on the skin. I need gloves, I think, and suddenly I have a mission. I will go to the store to buy washing gloves. My ankle pops as I stand up but my baby doesn’t wake. My breasts throb, and I think, I should wake her. Or should I? Aren’t you supposed to never wake a sleeping baby? (My motherly intuition is still growing its roots; I urge it to hurry up.)

I feel milk leaking into my bra, which doesn’t fit me right. I haven’t found the right bra yet. Nothing fits me right, or is it me who doesn’t fit right in anything?

People come over to hold my baby. I don’t put eyeliner on for these occasions, but I put on earrings. Earrings make me feel pretty.

They stroke her sleeping face, softly, with their fingers, and my insides scream. Please don’t touch her face, I want to say, but I decide to wait it out and be polite. Later, I run a damp wash cloth over her cheeks (as she still sleeps).

Everyone told me to get ready for no sleep, but my daughter sleeps so much; it’s all she does, all day, she sleeps. Sometimes, I sleep too. Other times, most times, in the silence of the day, I watch her sleep. I google questions, which lead to other questions I hadn’t thought of. I watch movies. I drink so much water. I wait for my husband to come home.

My dog wonders why we don’t walk together like we used to. I try not to think about it because I don’t have it in me to consume the sadness.

Washing gloves… I’ll walk to the store to get washing gloves. I’ll take my daughter and my dog. But my daughter, she’s so new and the sun is so hot. What if she gets thirsty or too hot and she can’t tell me? What if I trip and fall while crossing the street and the stroller goes rolling out of my hands? What if it starts to rain?

I decide to stay home. Her laundry is done anyway, and her clothes are probably dry. I go down to inspect the tiny colorful things. I’m happy, my heart tells me again. The clothes are dry and I’m happy.

I look down at my daughter and memorize her eyelashes, her nose, the dip in her upper lip, her chin. I try to remember what it was like when I didn’t know this face, when I was so eager to know it. The wind is warm and it’s blowing a little too strongly. The rack shakes and threatens to fall, but instead of grab the clothes I retreat inside with my daughter (still asleep).

You’re happy, aren’t you? I ask her, and for a moment I imagine her replying, Yes, I’m happy, mother, because I’m with you. Can’t you see? You’re the only person I’ve ever known and the only place I want to be. You’re perfect for me. (I hope that I am.)

I’m inside now, away from the wind. I settle into my nest of pillows and throw blankets on the couch. Yes, my daughter is happy, definitely. She’s content. I feel a bubbling in my heart because I know this to be true, and the sureness of it and its simplicity puts me at ease. I kiss her nose and hear the soft thud of the clothes rack fall outside in the grass, but not a drop of worry accompanies the sound.