Technologies for the Mother-Baby Dyad
Returning to work not long after giving birth to her daughter, writer Erin Sroka reflects on her digitally augmented maternity against the dystopian backdrop of Seattle’s tech prosperity.
I became a mother at my desk at work, timing my contractions on an app called Full Term, whose icon is an ultrasound image of a white baby against the swirled grey chaos of a womb. 18 months after giving birth, I see this icon on my phone and I shiver. It is a tracker for a hurricane of pain.
I started the stopwatch when the waves began and stopped when they eased; the app gave me duration and frequency. But I was giving it bad data. I kept getting distracted by work. Kept paying attention to my computer, because what if this was just the beginning of a days-long early labor? I didn’t want to be seen cutting out early on a Thursday for no reason. I waited for a moment when I felt beyond reproach, when my emails were sorted, my paperwork was filed, and a sick sweat had crept in with more powerful contractions. Then I drove home so I could focus on my app.
I gave birth with a worker’s body, got through it with a worker’s brain. I’d tried to make myself more natural, real quick before we left home for the hospital that evening, more like the women in the Orgasmic Birth film who go inward on the grass before their blissful deliveries. My husband and I walked slowly around our rented front yard, looked at some evergreens. But the pain occluded almost everything, so we cut it short.
18 hours after I’d left my desk, my daughter was born. A powerful little girl lying on my chest. It was too good. I couldn’t understand: she had been living in water and now she was breathing air.
At home with Harlan Fern, we nursed. I held her on my lap on a big stack of pillows. I held her in the cross-body position, in the football hold. We nursed lying down. She drank milk with great focus, then she passed out in a druggy bliss, her arms stretched luxuriantly over her head, her tiny hands in fists. We were a nursing pair—a dyad. We were up at all hours, feeling the cool air come in through the windows at night, sleeping well into the bright hours of the morning.
My husband and I stared and stared. Harlan stared back with alert eyes, an intelligence that made us say, whoa. She had cuteness like a superpower, cuteness like a force of nature to which we’d previously been naive. When we wrapped her in a swaddle and lay her down in the bassinet beside our bed, it felt too far away. We were terrified. My body was wrecked. I was living in hospital pads and disposable underwear, but everything was bearable if I could stay near Harlan’s cheeks.
To go back to work, I had to leave Harlan, asleep on my bed, my husband to watch over her some days, my friends to watch over her other days. To leave Harlan, I had to sever a connection between my heart and hers, ablate it before the feeling reached me, and get out the door in time to catch the bus.
I walked from the bus stop to my office building through Seattle’s industrial district, where the air smells like iron smelting and weed. My path went under a viaduct, past an overflowing dumpster, and through an encampment where I once saw a hawk kill a pigeon with its feet and a couple outside of a tent change a baby’s diaper while holding her in the air. Seattle’s tech prosperity glittered to the North of my commute, and I felt great pressure to make sure we could keep paying our rent. I carried two bags, one on each shoulder: a black work purse and the Medela Pump-In-Style, a breast pump disguised as a black work purse.
This was the technology that would enable the separation of my mother-baby dyad. So I could multitask making milk and making money.
But what were the underlying causes of our separation? I would wonder this on my commute sometimes, along with, how can I prepare Harlan for the future when inequalities have become pathological and how can I get out of my late afternoon meeting in time to get Harlan to her water babies class…
These questions that I didn’t have time to answer were subsumed by the mental fog of early motherhood, where every minute demanded my attention and many days I’d hardly slept at all. Some diehard maternal endurance kept me going. Its exploitation, I now suspect, is built into the system.
At work, I yoked myself back to my computer. It was easier than caring for a newborn. What was I more habituated to do than tending to a screen all day? And I had freedoms: I could go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. I could go to the kitchen and pour myself some tea. And every twenty or thirty minutes I would fortify my spirit by looking at pictures of Harlan.
I pumped milk in a storage room in the back of a conference room. My work friend Yasmeen helped me set it up, clearing out stacks of posters and folding chairs. One of the walls didn’t reach the ceiling and the door didn’t lock, but no one else wanted it, so it was mine.
It was cold back there when I unbuttoned my shirt. I didn’t like how you could hear my pump in the adjoining room, huffing air in and out, always sounding like it might break. I didn’t like how the plastic cups stretched my nipples out like those obscene oblong grapes they sell at the gourmet grocery store in winter. And when I pumped less than I knew Harlan would drink, I felt deep, foundational woe.
But when I pumped a surplus, I felt effective. And to obscure the noise coming from my storage closet, I started watching videos on my phone. It gave my milk sessions a TV-at-work vibe that I highly recommend. I watched Sarah Sanders, another working mom, tell a story in which journalists were too stupid to understand Trump’s tax reforms. I watched the doomsday clock guys say we are headed to minute zero. Sometimes I’d have to switch from the news to comedy because I worried I was getting cortisol in my milk.
Pumping milk was like what Donna Haraway said our lives would be like at this time: the boundaries between human, animal, and machine blurred all to hell, a cyborg mom getting milked by technology, turning to technology for a few minutes of escape.
My employer offered a concession to breaking up the mother-baby dyad: I could take Harlan to work with me once a week. I had my coworkers’ support. We called it Baby Fridays.
On Baby Fridays, I would wake Harlan up with propaganda: It’s Friday, so we get to be together all day. I’d drive us to work and go past it, taking the long road by Boeing field, trying to initiate a nap. If it worked, Harlan would sleep through my 9 am meeting in her car seat atop the conference room table. If it didn’t work, she would attend the meeting on my lap. I would take notes, and listen to my male colleagues as though my attention was on the topics at hand—more than, or at least as much as, the wiggly person trying to put my pen in her mouth.
I felt aware of my maternal body everyday at work, but on Monday through Thursday, it felt latent, presenting as a steam bag of breast pump components that I’d accidentally left in the microwave.
On Fridays, my maternal body was live—my baby on my hip, drool rag on my shoulder, my hands shuffling toys in her direction. I felt most comfortable in my office, where Harlan and I could work on achieving certain Baby Friday harmonies, like Harlan content in her playpen, me working on my computer, successes that I counted in minutes.
I bought a contraption called Lap Baby for velcro-ing your baby to your lap. I saw it online and thought, what kind of chump would think this would work? And then I put it in my cart, because, what if it did?
I opened a design file on one monitor, cued Moana on another, and scooped up my Harlan. Her head was still mostly bald and her cheeks were a puffy wonder. I situated Lap Baby around my waist and belted her in, distracting her with a lanyard. We had 10-12 minutes of attached, efficient harmony. Harlan watched Moana. She chewed the lanyard. I made progress on my work. My brain sang. Moana sang. It was the dream of Baby Friday: baby, parent, parent’s computer, together all at once.
On one of our last Baby Fridays, I was on the floor of my office feeding Harlan snacks when an impromptu meeting formed around us. Two colleagues came in, then three. My boss was there. Someone had an idea about a campaign we were running, and was getting the rest of us excited. People took turns entertaining Harlan. They were met with penetrating stares. My office smelled faintly of diapers.
What I want to remember is that, in the chaos of that room, we created a space where it was as legitimate for me to be with Harlan as it was for me to respond to my colleagues or mind my screen.
It felt good to stop pretending that work and parenting were discreet realms that could be separated; everything-at-once is the impossible logic that we live by.
I realize now that on the first day I left Harlan asleep on my bed so I could go back to work, my heart made a promise to return, somehow, to lie back down beside her in uncountable time, before any alarm clocks were set to go off. But I couldn’t figure out how to make this happen all through her babyhood; I still can’t.
Meanwhile, Harlan isn’t a baby anymore. She’s a cyborg toddler who’s learned the ways of the office at my hip. I want to prepare her for a bright egalitarian future, and also a dystopian surveillance state, just in case. And if she wants to someday, maybe she can use her cyborg instincts to help usher in a world where people can work less and be together more.
Erin Sroka is a writer who lives in Seattle and works in the labour movement. She studied creative nonfiction in Wilmington, North Carolina, and is a MacDowell Fellow. She loves to write at the junction of the personal and the political.
Making a life with nature and new technologies
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