This Is Also a Test: On Newborn Island

From underneath a sleeping baby, Nada Alic offers a dispatch “from the first draft of motherhood,” in an excerpt from LARB Quarterly no. 41, “Truth.”

This Is Also a Test: On Newborn Island

This is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 41: TruthBecome a member to get this issue plus the next four issues of the LARB Quarterly.


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MY BABY WRITHES against my chest, grunting in an animal way. I hold him close and vow not to move a muscle because, like an animal, he can sense fear and this is a test. I will spend an hour contorted into this shape, a human container for this slippery eel, this pulsating nerve. I wait for my baby to tire himself out, maintaining a placid facial expression, as if to say, This does not exhaust me. I am an ancient, unbreakable stone for you to thrash against. I stare at my phone, just out of reach, and attempt to move it using the power of my mind. I take a breath (my mistake) and he throws his head back with muscular force, then slams it onto my collarbone.


I cradle his neck and for a moment he is still. He looks up at me and, without breaking eye contact, releases an oceanic shit into his diaper. Good job, I sing, patting the damp pool spreading up his backside, good job, as if we’d both just taken the biggest shit of our lives and now we can finally rest. He looks satisfied, near sleep. His eyes roll back, and his eyelids fall and rise and fall again. This is also a test. Despite the obvious visual cues suggesting that he is very sleepy, he is very much awake. I understand this to be some kind of baby performance art, which, like all performance art, is meant to annoy the audience. Soon he will open his eyes and scream. I want to scream, too, until I remember that I am a stone.


My baby is eight weeks old today. I am writing from the first draft of motherhood. I am raw and hormonal and I am mostly winging it. I possess almost no maternal wisdom, a quality that is acquired in hindsight, with enough time and experience. No, I am in the right now of it. I am in real time, in real life. My memory has yet to be pruned and polished into a coherent narrative and I feel too tired and stupid to smooth out the edges. I tell myself that coherence is a form of deception. That we evolved to arrange chaos into patterns as a way to cope with death. That my attempt to write from inside an experience is actually subversive, and not lazy and diaristic. That my embarrassment is a sign that I should keep going, that I’m tapping into some fundamental truths about life.


Is this art? I wonder, taking a photo of my baby. It’s not. I look at the photo, while holding my baby in my other arm. The baby in the photo sits still, allowing me to behold him. I zoom in on his ears, his cheeks, the tiny white bumps constellating his nose. Arm baby pukes in my hair. I use my shirt to wipe it and return to the photo with renewed focus. I want to send the photo to someone, but I try to space it out every couple of days so as not to exhaust people with my profoundly ordinary obsession, my bursting heart and the endless punishment I incur for having it (sleep deprivation, boring personality, leaking breasts, etc.). Sending a photo of your baby is like recounting a dream: its meaning disintegrates upon contact, leaving you feeling exposed and humiliated. But I need them to see how beautiful he is and forgive me for disappearing. If they can see how beautiful he is, they will know that my disappearance was worthwhile. Also temporary, as evidenced by my effort to reach out (do they know how hard it is to reach out from newborn island?), I will text something like “I’m alive” and wait for an “aww” and that will be enough. No time for an exchange of how are yous because the baby is always so right now, so all the time.


Too many wants. I want more time to write this piece. I want this piece to flow. Or I want it to appear fragmented and wabi-sabi-like but ultimately to have an underlying narrative that makes it work. I want to be forgiven if it doesn’t. I send a draft to my brother and he tells me it starts off strong but then loses steam halfway through. I agree with him, but doesn’t everything lose steam halfway through? Isn’t that just physics and therefore natural? I want to work on my manuscript. I want to rewrite the draft and make it good this time. I want everyone to stop asking me how the novel is going. I want the novel to be exactly like it is in my mind (brilliant). I also want to give my husband time to work. I want him to be free to do what he wants. I want to want less and feel content to just take care of a baby. I want to go back to how things were, but with my baby and my new perspective. I want to be online. I want to pay off my credit card. I want my old clothes to fit. I want to be an artist and a mother in that order, or at least in equal measure. I want my mom to come back. I want my mom.


I wonder if all of this could’ve been easier, or at least less of a shock, had I spent one human second preparing for life with a baby. I was so sick my entire pregnancy that I could only manage to watch a handful of YouTube videos made by a homesteading doula who cheerfully sang “hey, mama!” before unleashing her tirade against hospital births and offering placenta encapsulation services. Beyond learning what size vegetable my fetus was, I was mentally checked out. My pregnancy “journey,” or what I like to refer to as The Worst Time of My Life, was more about survival than preparation. Pregnancy brought me to my knees, literally, as I spent the entire nine months vomiting with constant food-poisoning-level nausea. I also had gestational diabetes, which is diabetes … but pregnant! This meant I had to test my blood four times a day and report to a specialist at a place with the least comforting name: High Risk Maternity. When I thought about pregnancy before it happened to me, I only thought vaguely of cravings and stretchy pants. Now I think only of illness.


If newborn life is an island, pregnancy sickness is a distant, uninhabitable planet. The relentless pain of pregnancy blotted out any trace of my former self, of my egoic preoccupations, and with them, my will to get out of bed/live. I told very few people about what I was going through and instead disappeared under my covers crying and watching paranormal reality shows. I was ashamed, as if my body’s reaction revealed my ambivalence about having a child. I spent a lot of time thinking about the truths we hide from one another. The people who disappear from time to time and what they might be going through, the silent pains they endure, the meaning they try to make of it.


On newborn island, there is a constant appraisal of time and of making the most of it. I calculate the hours between feedings and naps, the shoddy patchwork of minutes between tasks that feel like nothing. I measure my time against my husband’s time: who has cared more, whose suffering matters more, who gets to put the baby to sleep and who gets to wipe the crud off the sanitizer (me). Our commitment to equality and fairness has an undertone of competition; the only prize is to continue playing the game forever. I am so glad to be playing with him.


Every day is a sand mandala that I construct and my baby destroys. The daily repetitive tasks and the physicality of caring for another body interrupt my thoughts and short-circuit my tendency to ruminate, mercifully jerking me back into the present moment. I feel entirely alone and at the same time suffocatingly tethered to the billions of parents who came before me, who all felt the same way, and probably other, more complex and interesting ways, rendering my experience wholly unremarkable and basic. I search “newborn stage hard reddit” and realize that parenting is too universal to complain about, like traffic or being broke. Who cares? I mutter to myself, knowing that I secretly do, so much.


I am new kinds of tired, exotic kinds that cause auditory hallucinations. A symphony emerges from our white noise machine. Sometimes voices. “What?” I ask my husband. “I didn’t say anything,” he says.


When I’m alone in my car, which is almost never, I put on Eastern European gangster rap as a way to channel my adolescent aggression. The fact that this music is not meant for me only makes me like it more. As if I have anything in common with these teen boys from the Balkans. I want to be angry at the world too, instead of just afraid of it.


In the afternoon, my baby falls asleep in my arms and I let him. I’m supposed to transfer him to his bassinet but I don’t want to. He recognizes my heartbeat, the smell of me, and I think, What an honor to get to provide my baby with peace and comfort. For once, I feel like a mother. In the evening, he is sound asleep on my husband’s chest and my heart sinks a little.


Thoughts I have while warming a bottle at four a.m.: How do I make a lot of money fast? Will I ever write again? Can a person die from lack of sleep? Can lack of sleep cause long-term brain damage? Two minutes and twenty seconds. I am someone’s mom. I will never not be someone’s mom. A mom is a person and a person can have any kind of thought. Even the bad ones. Can my baby tell when I am having the bad ones? Two minutes and three seconds. Who gave us this Baby Brezza bottle warmer? Babybrezza. Baby. Brezza. Thirty-nine, thirty-eight, thirty-seven seconds. Jesus Christ. Twelve, eleven, ten seconds. How long can my baby cry before his brain registers this as trauma? Should I pick him up or wait? Hurry the fuck up. Cold. Room temp. Quick warm. On/Off. Four, three, two. 


All my life, I thought that if I could spend enough time in my head, I could get at the truth, as if it were something that could be solved. I now know that to be misguided. The truth is right in front of me, in the doing of life, not in the thinking about it. The truth is simple: it mostly involves hunger and sleep. Everything else is just fantasy.


My baby’s tiny hand grips my finger. I wonder if he can tell that the guardian assigned to him by God is still afraid of the dark and cannot locate most countries on a map. He doesn’t yet know that I am unqualified to protect him from the ugliness of the world. Right now, he is too preoccupied with something on the curtains. My baby is always looking at the curtains and I’m convinced he can see something I can’t. This is because he is closer to the spirit world than I am. What do you see? I whisper cautiously. His pupils dilate and contract.


He begins to cry. Do you remember me? I say, looking into his bright blue eyes. I pick him up and rock him. It’s me, it’s me. Characters from my unfinished novel materialize in my mind with urgent messages. Where have you been this whole time? I ask them. My arms burn from the weight of my baby. Why now? They hover just out of reach. The baby’s cries clear them from my mind like an Etch A Sketch. I let them go.

LARB Contributor

Nada Alic is the author of the story collection Bad Thoughts (2022) and a forthcoming novel from Knopf. She lives in Los Angeles.

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