Phoebe was in a state. That wasn't new. She always seemed to be in some kind of mood. What made today's remarkable , though, was that a) I was not the source, b) she wasn't just crying hormonally, and c) the reason for it's onset was something she did rather selflessly as far as I could tell.
It had been a month since McKenzie was born, and in that time the only people who had been permitted to interact with her apart from the doctors and anyone who'd visited at the hospital, were Bobby, Ranger and Steph twice, my parents once and one of Phoebe's work colleagues who dropped by to pick up a file last week. The entire rest of her life had been spent mostly in the sole company of her mother, and while I was aware that they needed bonding time, and to settle into this new phase, I worried that the lack of early socialisation would impact on her development. If Phoebe was always creating the perfect atmosphere to soothe and calm the baby, how was she going to learn to react to the unexpected ways people acted? Phoebe had proven herself to be fiercely possessive of our little girl, which was the start of too many horror movies plots for my liking.
I'd tried to suggest they come with me to office for an hour or two and let the other guys, and especially Ella, meet Kenzie, but she'd baulked at the idea, rambling about germs and men who don't know their own strength and who knows what else, so I'd dropped it. She obviously needed more time, and I wasn't willing to push the issue and make my own life a living hell.
That was a week ago, and I hadn't tried to expand Kenzie's world since, which is why it came as a shock to me last night when she brought the topic up.
Kenzie hadn't been screaming when I entered the house, which was unusual enough to put me on edge as I made my way down the hall. Following the sounds of plates clattering to the kitchen, I discovered my angel asleep in the travel bed – not much more than a tiny mattress with walls - in the middle of the table, and Phoebe at the stove making what I hoped would constitute both our dinners, because even with my regular mid-work-day naps, I was still beat, and the thought of even making myself a sandwich at this point was draining energy from my body just by existing in my brain.
"She's not crying," I stated the obvious, unable to hide my surprise. Fourteen days of arriving home to Kenzie crying had me thrown for a loop. It wasn't a healthy routine, but it was the routine we'd fallen into, and at the very least, the fact that the only way she calmed down was by me holding her guaranteed I at least got a few minutes with her each day. Even if her mother glared at me the whole time. Disappointment stirred in the pit of my stomach.
"Uh, yeah," Phoebe nodded stirring a pot. "She was, but I grabbed a shirt out of your hamper. I figured since she always calms right down with you, your scent might…" She shrugged the rest of her sentence away, eyes trained on the pot. She didn't want to admit that it was still me that managed to soothe our daughter's distress, even in my absence. I was glad she'd found a solution that worked rather than dragging out the suffering until I got home from work, but the warmth of being needed only seemed to blanket the disappointment that I hadn't been able to be there for my daughter in person, it didn't dispel it. "I made paprikash," she said, changing the topic as I gently brushed the back of my finger along Kenzie's chubby cheek. "If you're interested."
"God, yes," I groaned, sinking into one of the chairs at the table. "That sounds amazing." Anything I didn't have to assemble myself was a blessing at this point.
We spoke a little about our days, touching base in a very normal and married-couple way that left me feeling like I'd stumbled into the twilight zone, as she finished up the cooking and served it up. I hadn't seen this side of Phoebe since the hospital, relaxed and warm. Considerate. It was a welcome change, but at the same time, I had to wonder just how long it would last before the next mood swung through. I hated that the one time she wasn't being a bitch to me, my entire body was tensed waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Handing me a plate, she took a moment to lean in and check on Kenzie before settling in the seat next to min with her own plate. Another unusual occurrence. Usually, we liked to keep three feet of distance between us to avoid either of us causing bodily harm to the other if driven to a sudden bout of anger. We'd never lashed out at each other yet, but I'd like to keep that way.
"I noticed on the calendar that there's a Manoso Family Dinner tomorrow night," she mentioned quietly, conversationally.
Apparently we weren't just going to sit in silence this evening. What was this small talk? What had changed? "Yeah," I confirmed, peering at her as I chewed my first bite. "Don't worry, though, I already let Tia know we wouldn't be there."
A frown tried to crease my forehead, but I fought it back to maintain as neutral an expression as possible. Were my ears deceiving me, or did she sound disappointed? Surely she hadn't actually be thinking that I'd insist we go after the stink she kicked up over an hour long visit to Haywood. I just assumed she'd take Kenzie out when she was ready and not before. And I doubted that I would be privy to the fact if she did. "I'm sure she'd be thrilled to have us if you wanted to go, though," I added, giving her the opportunity she seemed to need.
She looked up at me from her plate. "Are you sure?" Her voice was timid, unsure in a way I wasn't used to seeing. "I don't want to be a- If you've already told her we're not coming then I don't want to cause any last minute rushing around to make sure there's enough food, or-"
I shook my head, allowing a small smirk to lift the corner of my lips. "You really think the Manosos are in danger of not having enough food two extra mouths?" I asked, taking another forkful of paprikash into my mouth and chewing slowly once more. "You saw the spread last time. They make enough to feed an army no matter the length of the guest list. I'll call Tía after dinner to let her know we're coming after all."
She nodded, eyes shifting to the slumbering baby in the middle of the table. "Okay," she said. "I think it'd nice for Kenzie to get to know her grandparents and obvious that includes her great grandmother."
"Bisabuela," I corrected automatically.
"Bisabuela," she repeated, testing the foreign word on her tongue. "Tell Maria I'm sorry for changing my mind last minute when you call," she requested.
"Of course," I agreed, and because I was curious and the calm in the room was doing things to me that I couldn't quite handle, I asked the question playing in my mind. "What brought this on?"
Silence, broken only by the scraping of forks and the soft snuffling sighs of our daughter, filled the room and I thought she was going to keep the answer locked up tight as she hunched lower over her plate, her hair falling from behind her ear to hide her face from my view. But then her shoulders heaved and a small sob escaped her control and I knew that it wasn't so much that she didn't want to tell me the reason, it was that she didn't want to acknowledge the reason herself. I waited patiently for her to compose herself, passing over a clean napkin to mop up the tears she was battling, until finally, she sniffed loudly, straightened and raked her hair back from her face.
"I called my parents today," she said, and that familiar heat was bubbling behind her expression; anger, tinged with sadness. "I thought they might like to know that they had a granddaughter. I thought… I hoped that they'd want to meet her, but-" She shook her head forcefully, pushing her plate away swiping at a rogue tear that leaked from her steely eyes. "They didn't. They don't want anything to do with me or McKenzie. And I just got so mad that they can't find it in their hearts to love an innocent baby. And then an overwhelming sense of grief settled over me that she'd never know them. But your family was so accepting. All of them. Even the ones who know the whole truth. And I-" She took a deep breath. "Family is important, you know? And kids need to feel loved, so I thought-"
I covered her hand with mine on the table. "I get it," I told her. "I'll call Tía. They'll be thrilled to have us. All of us."
That was last night. Calm, honest, a little poignant, but hopefully a turning point in Phoebe's motherhood journey.
This morning was a completely different story.
"I can't go looking like this!" she shrieked from the bathroom.
Being that it was Saturday, and I didn't have work, she'd taken the liberty of a long bath to attend to a thorough cleansing of both her body and her soul without the worry that Kenzie would need her nibbling at the back of her mind. Kenzie and I were chilling on the couch paying only slight attention to the news as we sipped our respective forms of sustenance. Her: a bottle of warmed breast milk from the freezer. Me: protein shake. The sound of her mother's voice ripping through the house caused McKenzie's face to crumple, mouth opening on a wail, the bottle forgotten.
Quickly adjusting my hold to provide more comfort and soothe her little cries, I stood, following he sounds of my wife fuming to the master ensuite. "What's wrong?" I asked, rocking side to side once I'd come to a stop in the doorway.
Phoebe was standing in front of the mirror, naked, with a disgusted look on her face. "Why didn't you tell me how hideous I'd become?" she accused.
"You're not hideous," I countered reflexively.
A frustrated sound erupted from her, and Kenzie flinched against my shoulder. "Regrowth!" she exclaimed. "Dark circles! Chipped nails! And whatever the hell is going on with this whole sections!" She finished up her list of apparent flaws by circling her flat hand in the air in front of her torso, stretch marked and pooching. "I'm a hag."
I sighed, rubbing Kenzie's back. "You're a new mom," I pointed out. "It's normal to not feel-"
"Don't tell me about what is or isn't normal for me to feel," she snapped, turning to face me. "You're not that one that sacrificed your body for this child."
No, I thought, But I did sacrifice a large chunk of my life. And wasn't she the one who wanted the baby in the first place? She had to know that this all came with the territory. Real life parenthood was nothing like they portrayed in movies and tv shows. But I wisely chose to keep my thoughts to myself. She was right, after all, I wasn't the one experiencing six million of body and hormone changes all at once.
"What can I do to help you feel better?" I asked calmly, hoping she would take my cue and lower her voice before Kenzie started bawling again.
She looked at me like I'd grown a second head as she wrapped a towel around herself. "Unless you're a beautician, nothing!"
"You're right," I agreed, mostly because I hoped that hearing the words would help her calm down. "I don't know how to fix the problems you've identified. But that doesn't mean I can't help. What do you need?"
"A hairdresser, a manicurist, a facial," she listed. "But I can't do any of that with a baby in tow, it's-"
Of course she was completely overlooking the fact that I was perfectly capable of looking after our daughter for a few hours. "Go do what you need to do," I instructed, cutting her off. "Kenzie and I can hold down the fort here."
She tried to protest some more, but in the end, all I had to do was remind her that Kenzie needed her family in her life to convince her to go see to her beauty needs so that she'd feel comfortable presenting at the Manoso house this evening. She was crying as she left, babbling about being a terrible mom for leaving her baby to get her hair fixed, but I assured her that she needed to take care of herself so that she could continue to take care of McKenzie, and that seemed to strengthen her resolve. Ultimately, this whole fiasco was so that Kenzie would grow up surrounded by people who loved her.
We waved goodbye to Phoebe from the porch until the car had disappeared around the corner, then I turned on my heels and carried my baby girl straight to my bedroom. We had a couple hours to ourselves before her mom would be back, and I intended to use that time to go on record about a few things with my daughter.
Removing the onesie from the back of my sock drawer, I carefully changed Kenzie into it, following the directions so ironically printed on the garment, and settled her onto the bed in front of me.
"Alright, Muffin-head," I said seriously, attempting to pat down her downy hair that had decided to frizz out into a small poof, reminding me of the baked goods Ella provided in the break room sometimes. "You and I need to talk, because as I'm sure you've already figured out, your Mom is hard work, so I think we need to stick together, okay? I'll help you out, if you help me out, got it? That means, even though you miss me, you gotta take it easy with the water works in the afternoons. You're stressing your Mom out, and she doesn't like it when you show favourites like that. Maybe you could try faking some preference for her when I'm holding you or something. I dunno, think about it. In return, I promise to try to temper her, uh, temper, I guess. And, of course I'll give you all the cuddles you want when I'm at home."
She sighed, already drifting off in the middle of our big, important chat.
"I'm going to take your falling asleep right now as agreement, since you don't have motor skills to sign a contract yet," I informed her, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "You and me, kiddo. We gotta have each other's backs."