Literary Orphans

Sweet Potato Baby by Sarah Bradley

At eighteen weeks, my baby is the size of a sweet potato. That’s what the chart inside my yard sale copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting says.

I don’t like thinking of my baby as a sweet potato. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store to get milk for Gram and ended up in the produce section, turning all the sweet potatoes over in my hands. Gram says that some babies are born looking like sweet potatoes, all orange and bald and puckered. I told her that isn’t true, but she says I don’t know anything about babies.

Gram is right—I don’t know anything about babies. That’s why I got the book. The mother who had it before me highlighted so many sentences that the pages just look yellow now. I wonder if she felt more prepared when her baby came. The book says that I’ll have instincts about what to do when the baby is sick or hungry or tired because I will know my baby better than anyone. But so far I don’t know this baby at all.

I go to the hospital once a month to hear its heartbeat. I lie on the crinkly examination paper while the doctor squirts the lubricant onto my stomach. She asks how much heartburn I have, how many times a day the baby moves, if I have changed my mind about not telling the baby’s father. Do you want to know the sex? I tell her no—I like surprises.

She moves the heart monitor from side to side, pressing down on my bladder and leaving smears of cold jelly behind on my skin. The baby’s heartbeat sounds like a tiny galloping horse, or a wind-up toy that never stops. It’s the steady thrum of something powerful and determined. Frightening. Beautiful. Alive.

I tell the doctor the baby keeps me up most nights, hiccupping rhythmically on and off for hours. She tells me to eat less spicy foods. Drink milk before I go to bed. Sleep on my left side instead of my right. I wonder if she is making it all up. I wonder if anyone really knows anything about babies.

She asks if I have started shopping yet. The book has a three-page list of all the things people buy for their babies. I doubled my hours at the coffee shop but I still can’t get past the first page without running out of savings. I tell her not really, not yet. She says I have time; it’s only April.

April. It’s already April, and I only have one thing: a silky cotton onesie with a shiny row of snaps. I still had morning sickness when I bought it. The baby was the size of a lentil then. I only knew it existed because it made me throw up my breakfast every day. Now the baby somersaults inside my stomach, arches its back against my ribcage, presses its feet down on my pelvis. It’s living a whole life in there, with and without me. We are intimate strangers. I bought the onesie so I could get used to being around something that small. I take it out at night after I get home from work and lay it across my arm. I wish it was bigger. Everything for babies is miniature; socks fit on my thumb, hats nestle into my palm.

Gram says babies don’t need socks or hats or any of the other things people buy. She says a baby could sleep in a dresser drawer lined with a bath towel, but I won’t let my baby do that. Next weekend, I going to drive around the local yard sales again looking for a crib. I don’t need a big one: babies are small, and there’s not much space in the bedroom where Gram lets me sleep. But the baby should have its own place—somewhere to sleep and wake at night, watching headlights stretch across the dark walls like long, bright fingers. I read that babies like looking at things that are black and white.

Gram tells me she won’t get up with the baby at night because she’s still tired from having her own babies forty years ago. She says I will be on my own. I think about what that will be like: the baby and I reaching out in the darkness for one another, like we are the only two people in the entire world. The baby sucking on its fingers, kicking its legs, crying so hard its body trembles. Me rocking it back and forth, touching its feathery hair and looking into its large, blue-black eyes. Still knowing almost nothing about it—only that it is mine.

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Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher from Connecticut. Her nonfiction essays on life as a homeschooling mother of three boys have been featured at The Washington Post, Real Simple, The Writer, Romper, Today’s Parent, and Mom.me, among others. Her fiction has appeared in The Lost Country, The Forge Literary Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Haunted Waters Press. She is currently writing her first novel. You can find Sarah documenting her attempts at finding a mother/writer balance on Instagram

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–Art by Piotr Kaczmarek