Danielle Pender is the founder of the biannual magazine Riposte and the author of the forthcoming short story collection Watching Women & Girls. In The List, an exclusive story for Stylist, one woman grapples with how to spend the finite time she has away from her baby.
Susie lay in bed and looked out the window at the rain that had fallen for five days straight. It’s June, she thought, pushing the unwashed hair out of her eyes. Maybe this is our version of global warming? She’d skim-read the headlines earlier that month when she’d grabbed five minutes to herself in the toilet and noticed something along those lines; that the UK could expect wetter summers as a result of global warming, but she’d not read the whole article, so she couldn’t be sure. She never read full articles any more. She was pretty sure nobody did. From the bedside table, her phone vibrated aggressively; a message from her mum shone brightly from the screen, “Just been to the big Tesco, but they didn’t have the ham your Dad likes. It was chaos! Hope you make the most of your childfree morning! Ring me later. Xxxx”
As Susie lay in bed, stretched beyond the invisible parameters of her side, she thought about how she would know if she’d done the most. When would the most have been had? When would she be satisfied? She wasn’t sure. In the current fog of satiating the needs of others, she’d lost sight of what might satisfy her own.
In anticipation of maximising this rare window of free time, she’d approached the empty schedule in the only way she knew. She’d made a list. Over the initial 12 weeks of motherhood, she’d compiled a list of things she might like to do with this first block of freedom. The list was comprised of new things to try, jobs that needed doing around the house, and activities she’d once enjoyed or had regularly made space for when she was in control of her own time. Creating the list had initially helped her feel calm; it was something to look forward to when the monotony of nappies, feeding and endless walks with the buggy closed in. The existence of the list in her phone notes represented an end goal of when she could get back to normal, but the presence of older lists in the same app under the headings, Injection Times, Fertility Diet, and Specialists to Contact reminded her that it had been a long time since things had felt normal or carefree.
Adjusting the pillows in bed to support the trapped nerve in her neck, she turned up the brightness on her phone and looked at the exhibition that had been all over Instagram recently, a retrospective of an influential Japanese designer at the Barbican. She guessed it would take an hour to get there and an hour to get back, leaving her with an hour to look around. Zooming in on images of his work, some of the pieces reminded her of the lamps she’d seen in Ikea recently when she’d gone with her husband and daughter to get out of the house because it had been raining. The baby had cried all the way through lunch, and Susie hadn’t been able to finish her meatballs. Is this exhibition going to make the most of my time? She thought. No, probably not. She closed the exhibition tab and read over the other items on her list:
Go to an exhibition
Buy new plants from garden centre
Volunteer at the food bank
Clean the back windows
Go to the cinema on my own
Get a facial or haircut
Go to the gym – no running I’ll piss myself!
Buy myself flowers
Clean under the bed
Make a meal from scratch
Organise a night out
Look for French courses
Do one of those gong bath sessions that Annie was on about
Read a book
It amused then irritated her that a past version of herself had envisioned French lessons as something this current version would like to do. Similarly, the patronising prompt of “make a meal from scratch” and “clean under the bed” made her want to scream until her lungs were empty or run away until her pelvic floor muscle gave way, which admittedly wouldn’t take long.
Instead of cleaning under the bed, she wanted to use her body to express herself, feel something exciting, and be anything other than a vessel for carrying, feeding and moving empty cups around the house. With a sudden burst of energy, she threw back the covers and sat up as quickly as her weakened stomach muscles would allow. Sitting upright, she pulled up her stained pyjama top that smelt like cheddar cheese and gathered the sagging skin of her once full belly. Intrigued by the deflated papery skin that moved through her fingers like jelly in a plastic bag, she lifted the excess skin and delicately fingered the scar that ran the length of her lower abdomen. It still amazed her that her pregnancy had basically been a science experiment. That her body had finally allowed her to grow a human and that a doctor had sliced her open to retrieve it. It all felt like a sci-fi or horror movie.
“We don’t really know why some IVF rounds take and others don’t,” her doctor had said after the fifth failed attempt to become pregnant.
“Yeah, weird that you said the same about the miscarriage,” she’d replied, to which he’d randomly clicked his mouse around his screen and avoided making eye contact.
Looking down at the knotted purple scar, she knew it represented the end goal she’d been so desperate to reach but sitting in her bed that morning, it was all so overwhelming yet at the same time so banal and so tiring. A deep thirst finally moved her out of bed and slowly along the hallway.
In the kitchen, nothing awaited her attention other than the areas she’d always said she’d deep clean when she had the time. She had the time, but she already knew that the deep clean session wasn’t about to happen. As the kettle boiled, Susie considered the list, her expectations of what she’d do with this time. She’d initially thought this space would mirror the experience she’d had in the past when she’d broken up with an ex, and without the influence of another person, she’d come flooding back to herself, reconnecting with the person she’d always been. But this time was different, and it reminded her that everything related to motherhood was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. Nothing could have prepared her for the reality, and each day brought its own heartbreaking and joyful reminder of that.
Waiting for her tea to brew to the perfect shade of brown, she watched the rain that continued to fall outside, and a new message burst onto her phone, “We’re heading back early. Rain has fucked up the plans. Be home in 15 mins. If ur still there, we won’t disturb you.” Susie smiled. She stirred her tea and, with a continuous motion, deleted all of the lists in her notes app, then went back to bed to wait for her family to come home.
Watching Women & Girls by Danielle Pender (£12.99, 4th Estate) is out 23 June