Perils of Parenting by Garine Isassi
The Belly Button (nostalgic for the good old days)
I’m looking at my three month old baby and wondering if she feels nostalgia for the good old days. The days when she could lollygag around, swimming and floating, without having to worry about the responsibility that weighs so heavily on her mind today: eating! This is the number one concern of the newborn – as it should be. Zabel was a hanger-on. She was two weeks late to come out, and even after prodding; it took hours and hours longer than expected to coax her into the world. I figured she knew just how good she had in there.
Well, she made it out all right. She screamed her way into the world. She was a trooper. Her instincts were intact. She sucked. I mean that literally, don’t you know. The main thing babies do is suck. She was relentless. She had the power to get her nourishment. Yet, after weeks and weeks of getting what she needed, she still hung on to that last vestige of the womb – that small leftover part of umbilical cord attached to her future belly button.
Now, as a basically weak kneed sort, I cringe at the sight of blood. I gross out with one look at a cut on my finger. I’m sure that I’ll lose my lunch when confronted with anything resembling ooze. And there it all was, every time I exposed my baby’s tummy. The doctor assured me, three weeks and it would fall off. He instructed me to clean her belly button area with alcohol every time I changed a diaper and make sure that it was not rubbing on anything.
Many cultures have mystic symbolism attached to that little section of connection – an actually organ that, after the birth, does not belong to either the mother or the child. It’s an enigma. For months, it fed and nourished the baby. It was her life force. Without it, she was nothing. In the Middle Ages, they used to keep in a little leather purse to help ward off evil. In many cultures, the witch doctor would take it and use it for mystical cures. In the Native American tradition, the thing would be buried somewhere and then, when the child was old and nearing death, she would come to that spot to meet her maker.
It’s all very magical but that did not help me a bit. The first few weeks of motherhood are hell. Ask any mother. Babies are freaked out at the prospect of breathing, eating, and the general disorientation of the worldly environment. And I was equally freaked out for my own reasons. After the fourth week of belly button maintenance, I was getting a bit concerned. There was no sign of exit. That tiny, expanding stomach was hanging on to it. This was a valued friend. It was there for her from the start, through thick and thin. How could she just discard it without a fight? She couldn’t.
“Please,” I implored to the round little midsection of my child, “Move on with your life! You must learn to get past these bouts of sentimentality! You must not live in the past!!!” But did that belly listen to me? No way. It just gurgled. Zabel had no clue that her tummy and I were in conflict.
Another week passed and I became obsessed. This little scab and I were at war! I was armed with my weapons: alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and que tips. It was immobile; standing it’s ground. We were at a standoff. A week went by and each day, I tugged a little more. I dipped and cleaned. I extolled curses and warnings. And then my mommy cool was tested for the first time.
One day, Zabel was against my chest, feeding contently; the sweet, suckling babe, and then she suddenly gave out startled cries! Rolling back, I saw the blood soaked through the front of her shirt. Deep breath. Racing heart. And in my mind – “Pull off the shirt, see what’s going on. Don’t freak out. She’s all right.” It was trying to leave. It was falling aside, but underneath, her belly button was still open!The frantic call to the doctor’s office had a nurse on the phone within seconds. She was obviously well trained to deal with calls from hysterical, first-time mothers. She gave me assured, calm instructions to put pressure on the area. Hold it for at least five minutes. Stop the bleeding. Then get the kid, carefully, to the office. The 15-minute drive to the office was the worst time I’ve ever spent in a car in my life. You do not want to be on the road in front of a mother with a baby emergency.
I managed to get us there without running over anyone. The doctor used these long sticks with nitric acid on the ends to cauterize the belly button. They looked like the long fireplace matches that my father used to have stored in ‘70’s paisley decorated cylinders by the fire poker and brush. He gave me a few to take home, in case we had another episode like this one. He gave me the mandatory assurances to calm fretful first-timers.
That night, I watched her intently. I had a magnifying glass in my hand. I had a spotlight on her tummy. I had cotton balls with antiseptic. I was going to be ready. And then, as my head nodded from obsessive fatigue, it happened. Like a little ladybug, it hopped and slid away. My foe had finally given up. I had won. It was over. The small scab in my palm looked like a lonely, little hat. I showed it to Zabel. She smiled her toothless grin and waved her arms. I placed the little hat on bureau and looked at it. I did not know what to do with it exactly.
It’s still sitting there. I have plans to plant in the garden or in a park near our house. But, I don’t want to get rid of it just yet. I guess I’m just nostalgic for the good old days, when my baby was new and her tummy longed for the womb.
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