I find the donut where I always do: in the drugstore aisle between support hose and the adult diapers. The label reads ‘invalid ring,’ a crushing name for a person who has just given birth and can’t sit down. It should be called the ‘ring of relief.’ I’ve bought this inflatable ring many times as a postnatal gift, more times than I can remember.
I slip inside my friend’s house, take off my shoes, douse myself in hand sanitizer and sit down next to her on the sofa. It’s day three: boxes of diapers line the wall by the front door. There are prune-filled muffins on the kitchen counter to ease things along. Laundry sits in a basket on the floor, a tall mug of herbal tea is on the coffee table, slowly getting cold. Her tiny baby is nestled to her breast; feeding him hurts, she says, they’re still getting the hang of it. It takes time I say, in the meantime, cabbage leaves soothe raw breasts. There’s a sheepskin under her legs, the way it was over thirty years ago when I was her teenage babysitter. Her mother had sheepskins for all her babies. She tucked them in their strollers, car seats and laid them in their cribs so they would feel at home, wherever they were. And now she’s a mother, her sweet face mottled with broken blood vessels from the strain of delivery and disposable underwear creeping up her abdomen. The reality of delivery, I say, the details I should have told you about.
She is overjoyed, she is sore, she is exhausted. I reach for the ring of relief, bring it to my mouth, and start inflating.
Day three: It’s the end of February, 2004, and I’m sitting awkwardly on the edge of a kitchen chair. The early morning sun is streaming through the window, it feels good on my face. Our baby is snoozing on the table, his little fists up by his head, clutching bits of the sheepskin beneath him. It’s where James puts him while he putters in the kitchen. He doesn’t know this is dangerous, that in a few months the baby will start rolling over. He didn’t babysit for years like I did. But I don’t mind. I am so happy that he takes over so I can sleep for a few hours in the morning. This is our new routine – I struggle through the night, napping and feeding, napping and feeding, then at 6am James takes the baby and I sleep hard until the sun is bright in the kitchen and my body is ready to start again.
I shuffle on the seat, trying to find a spot that doesn’t hurt. Ice packs help. Sits baths help. But I have to sit, I have to eat. My mother called yesterday and told me about an inflatable rubber ring, available at every drugstore in Canada. She could send one to England, she said, but it could take a while.
My water broke just after midnight a few nights before. I was standing in the bathroom off our bedroom. It was dark, but I knew it was amniotic fluid flowing down my legs onto the dark blue floor tiles. I patted my hands around the shelf above the toilet, looking for a clean towel amongst the metal Ikea containers filled with hotel shampoos and hair elastics. It’s time, I whispered to James, and by two am I was walking the hallways of the labour ward, stopping every few minutes to grip the wall when contractions came. Betsy, our Jamaican midwife, said she’d stay with us until eight am, when her shift was over. Oh no Betsy, I panted, we’re doing this together. At seven am I was pushing out my ears, my eyes, through every follicle on my head. Eventually Betsy put a gloved finger on my perineum and in a soft patois said, push here my dear, right here. Luke was born just before Betsy clocked off at eight.
I spent two days in the maternity ward, where beds were divided by curtains and babies slept in plastic bassinets beside their mothers. I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom and the breakfast cart, trying to find a way to ease the burn that shot between my legs. Just a few weeks before, friends had thrown me a shower. I went home with baby clothes, diapers and swaddling blankets. No one gave me an inflatable rubber ring.
Luke turns 18 this week. We’re still stumbling along, learning. But I’ve collected mentors along the way to help. They’ve shared the wisdom of sheepskins, parenting, recipes and ways to find comfort, especially when life hurts.
Is this a good time to share a recipe for the true ring of relief, a Bundt cake?
This recipe is filed in my collection as “Mrs. Innis’s 7-Up Cake.” Mrs. Innis is the mother of my mother-in-law’s friend Barb, and like all good recipes, it has slipped from hand to hand. It’s a simple pound cake, reliable, not too sweet, and a science experiment of sorts. The 7-Up replaces leaveners, lifting the cake with lemony sweetness and a touch of nostalgia.
I made it this time with an orange and pomegranate San Pellegrino. Why not? I added the zest of an orange and pulled out my spectacular bundt pan. The result was a ‘crispy on the outside, moist in the middle’ cake that you can slice and hold in your hand, say, while feeding a baby.
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Grease a bundt pan and set aside.
In a mixer whip together 1 ½ cups of salted butter with 3 cups of sugar (yes this is a ‘once in a while’ cake). When everything is light and fluffy, add 5 eggs, one at a time, and the zest of an orange. Slowly add 3 cups of flour. When mixture is just coming together, add 1 cup of 7-Up, or in my case, orange- pomegranate San Pellegrino. Mix on low for a minute or so – the liquid will slosh around, beware. Stop to scrape everything down, then mix for a minute longer. Spoon batter into the prepared pan and bake in the centre of the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a rich golden crust has formed and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool cake in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
Dust with icing sugar, if desired, when the cake is cool.