It starts off badly. I dream that the baby is a girl, a daughter, but she has no lungs and when she is born she cannot even gasp before dying, wide-eyed and still trailing her umbilical cord, on my chest. I remember to bring the camera but forget the memory card, so I can’t record the scan for Kirsty who is at home juggling four toddlers and a tsunami of home deliveries. But I am not late, which is a start, and there is a cafe nearby that will make me a decaffeinated almond-milk latte; the woman behind the counter recommends the chocolate cookies and so I order one of those as well, on the grounds that we want the baby to be awake and active for the ultrasound. It works. The baby fizzes around inside of me like one of those menthol-in-Coke experiments and then, two minutes before I go in to the scan itself, falls asleep again.
The trainee sonographer calls me into a side room and tells me that he is going to check my weight and blood pressure and I tell him that he isn’t, that he has forgotten to explain the necessity and ask for consent. He looks about twelve, though he can’t be that much younger than me, and I am instantly ashamed. I don’t know why I always approach these appointments as though they are a battleground; everyone is always so kind to me. But language is important. Consent is important.
Do other women feel this..? This prickly need to maintain control? The sonographer is a quiet man with serious eyes and a kind smile. He tells me his name and it promptly escapes my mind, settling myself on the table and tucking the paper around my underwear. He asks me if I’d like to know the sex and I tell him that I most certainly do not; my voice is too loud in my ears when I tell him that we are looking forward to a surprise, that we have two of each already and we have always found out the sex early but this time we want to wait until the birth. He is smiling when he promises to tell me when to look away and I wonder whether he has been forewarned that I tend to be a little awkward, a little anxious, or whether he is just used to awkward and anxious women laying like a slab of meat on his table. The jelly is warm as it hits my skin. I close my eyes, to settle my breathing, and then I open them again to my baby on the screen.
He or she looks like kittens feel in my hand; all spine and ribs. It’s a strangely tactile image; it reminds me of my wild youth, of the summers I spent bottle-feeding motherless kittens, sweet tiny babies whom I would cradle in my palm for feeds and tuck into my shirt pockets to transport about the house. I want to reach into the screen and stroke my finger down that spine, to map the tiny body. I am incredulous that the human on the screen is growing beneath my skin, that in the moment between my heartbeats he or she is there, and sleeping.
The small human is transverse, upside-down, face buried in my hip. It makes me smile because all of my babies have been awkward little buggers; every time I try my best, and without fail I find myself doing star jumps in the hospital toilets, trying to spark activity with sugar and caffeine. This time, the sonographer skips straight to forcibly manipulating the baby into a better position. He says, Tell me if this hurts too much. I don’t know what ‘too much’ is. It’s not unbearable, which is I suppose what he means, but the feeling is strange – like my body is a loaf of unbaked bread being pummeled into shape, like it is not really a part of me at all. But it’s not awful. And then the baby moves.
It has a sweet profile and looks simultaneously like all of my children and none of them. I watch the baby on the screen flex and clench its little hand, and I am astonished at myself that I am not asking after the sex, I am surprised at my restraint. But aside from a little idle curiosity, I actively do not want to know. I am more interested in other questions, whether the baby will have Lysander and Embla’s infant curls, Olympia’s blonde, Balthazar’s wide owl eyes. I want to know which sibling it will connect with the most fiercely, whether it will attach to the breast as easily and as needily as Olympia or whether it will be another little hip baby for Kirsty, identical to her in expression if not in looks. I have so many questions for the baby on the screen; I am full of wonder for the person it will become in time as I gaze at the small seed of being that is unfurling inside of me. I want to say, Who are you. But it is fun to wait, to have these secrets revealed so gradually that we barely realise that we are making the discovery. And I do not ask the sonographer to tell me the sex. I do not even peek.
I do not know whom you are, little one. I do not know what you will love, what will set your heart alight and your cheeks aflame and make your eyes sparkle. But I am excited to get to know you, perfect stranger. Little by little, kick by kick, in time.