This Is What It's Like When Your Baby Doesn't Look Like You

In Rumaan Alam's new novel That Kind of Mother, a white woman adopts her black nanny's baby in the aftermath of tragedy. Read an excerpt here.

At the Montessori drop-off/pickup there were two types of women (there were only women): the working moms and the mom moms. Rebecca cast her lot with the larger tribe and never discussed poetry. She didn’t even bother brushing her hair. You’re forgiven much when there’s a baby on your hip. Among these women, Rebecca was a legend. Word of what they had done had spread, metastasized. This was a sort of fame and Rebecca thought of Diana, a mid-length skirt, the red-headed prince at her hip. Everyone loved Diana and everyone admired Rebecca.

“I’ll see you this afternoon. Have a great day!”

Jacob was uninterested. He ran away, and Rebecca and the baby walked back to the Volvo in chummy quiet as they did, now, mornings, because Christopher had gotten that job after all and was busy at the bank, a place she’d never been. But Rebecca had fulfilled her vow, put on something pretty and shook hands with the big boss, the man still called only 'the secretary.’ He was quite elderly but he was still handsome. The secretary had gripped Rebecca’s hand tight and leaned in toward her ear. She couldn’t remember what he had said. Christopher was proud: The man had known Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, he told her. The man was a legend, and he’d tucked Christopher beneath his wing and there’d be lots of money to boot.

Rebecca drove. She couldn’t help a little smugness, even if satisfaction was a mere siren call. Whenever Rebecca thought, Job well done, there was something: bronchitis, a field trip, Christopher schlepping up to New York, the time she thought Andrew had swallowed one of those curlicue gold Bs that held her earrings in place. You couldn’t get accustomed to a rhythm that staccato but Rebecca gave herself over to it because sometimes it felt good to be punished and maybe some punishment was in order. How dare she feel joy like this after a sadness like that? But she glanced in the rearview and Andrew’s eyes were closed and that was as it should be.

You couldn’t get accustomed to a rhythm that staccato but Rebecca gave herself over to it because sometimes it felt good to be punished and maybe some punishment was in order.

She turned the music down, and sang quietly. “‘Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky. Maybe this time, he’ll stay.’” Her life was full of he; Jacob Andrew Christopher melded into a singular he that Rebecca was charged with satisfying or waiting for or worrying over or imploring to stay. Those early days, with Jacob, Rebecca had relived in every passive moment the experience of giving birth to him. She took scant recollections and sensory impressions and polished them into something resembling a memory but probably far from reality. She had Tchaikovsky, and masked attendants, the frustration of not knowing her own body, the reassurance of Priscilla’s hand, the beautiful pulsing whorl of Jacob’s soft head, the prickle of maternal feeling. She’d formed the whole thing into something effectively emotional but with no relationship to reality. It was like that Christmas commercial for freeze-dried coffee; it made you cry even if that coffee was disgusting. With Andrew, in these found moments, Rebecca thought of nothing in particular.

There was a duck pond, not far from the grocery, but pond, like poem, had an elastic and generous definition. It was a man-made puddle, and Rebecca suspected it had something to do with plumbing and the condominiums nearby. Some ducks had taken up residence there. Who knew where ducks came from, and how they chose a home for themselves. Mothers like Rebecca went there to throw balls of gummy bread into the water, so at the very least there was food.

Andrew was nine months old; what did he care about ducks? Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her. The more clever rhythms in some of Seuss seemed strictly for Rebecca’s benefit. The days were long and repetitive, too. She pulled into the little parking lot and sat for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. Rebecca let them slip by. She did not even fidget. Then he stirred, and Andrew was out of sorts, sweaty and confused. He wailed as she changed him. Thank God for the ducks, bless the ducks, Rebecca wanted to kiss each and every one of them. She was happy to look at a living thing that needed nothing from her.

She found a bench and gave him his bottle. Then he finished and recovered his equanimity. Whether or not he could see the birds, could recognize them as something akin to but different from himself, Rebecca couldn’t know. His body shook, not that perpetual quiver of a child’s body, but uncertainty, incompleteness. He was still so unformed. She wrapped her hands around his torso and he wobbled happily. “Duck,” she said. “Duck.” Then: “Duck!” A warning, a joke, she found it hilarious and laughed.

“He’s mine.” This was what she always said, because it was what she wanted him to hear, and because it was true.

A brunette grinning so hard she looked idiotic pushed a stroller past Rebecca, hesitated, then asked if she could sit. Rebecca was accustomed to the smiles (the smiles concealed stares) and the half attempts at conversation. This was part of parenting, collegiality, but it was different with Andrew than it had been with Jacob. The only black people living in their neighborhood were some Nigerian millionaires who sent their daughters to school in Switzerland. Most people seemed to smile at Andrew the way they did the ducks.

“Of course.” Rebecca pantomimed making room, though she took up little space.

The woman sat, went about her settling, lifting the baby from its stroller, coaxing the pacifier back into its mouth. “How old?”

The argot of mothers. Shorthand for Can we be friends? “He’s nine months.”

The woman lifted the arms of the baby on her lap, as though in triumph. “What a sweetheart. This is Michael. He’s five months.”

“Hi, Michael.” This was the way such things were done; the mothers mere regents, vessels, unimportant, even though they were the ones conducting the conversation. “This is Andrew. I’m Rebecca.” These casual chats never blossomed into friendship, so she rarely learned or retained the names of these women. Eventually everyone got back into their cars and went back to their lives.

“Caroline, hi.” The woman sounded relieved. She pushed her modish sunglasses up her nose and smiled at the emerald-headed fowl that were tantalized and scandalized by the one morsel of bread Rebecca had tossed their way. They were unafraid, these birds: dogs, cars, mothers, toddlers. “He’s yours?”

Rebecca had never mastered this kind of intramaternal talk, because it was a minefield: comparing milestones, spousal jobs, vacation destinations, zip codes, makes of automobile, postnatal weight. The mothers she met never had anything else to discuss; none of them seemed even to have jobs. Perhaps that was why she had no friends.

Rebecca had been happy to let Priscilla handle all this. Perhaps that’s why she and Priscilla talked so much, conspiring over lunch, lingering after the five o’clock hour; a desire for a conversation about something real. Rebecca was unworried about coming up short—Jacob had walked early, talked early; Christopher had a great job; they lived in a fancy zip code; she drove a Volvo; she weighed the same as she had at sixteen— but she had no desire to discuss the question of Andrew’s origin. Let strangers think her ovaries had failed her; she didn’t want the baby who would one day be a boy to hear his mother discussing him as she might new drapes, an exotic ingredient, fashionable sunglasses: as a thing so lovely that you had to wonder about its acquisition. His story could not be easily summarized, but Rebecca didn’t want to say even that.

“He’s mine.” This was what she always said, because it was what she wanted him to hear, and because it was true.

Caroline looked at her meaningfully, then turned her attention back to her baby, the pond. It seemed she understood the tone in Rebecca’s voice but was unable to help herself. “Good for you.” A pause. “My uncle was adopted.”

Becoming Andrew’s mother was neither the least nor the most she could do; it was, simply, what she had done.

Rebecca knew that people were unable to stop themselves remarking on Andrew. He did not need strangers to ratify his existence yet there was this desire on the part of people who knew neither baby nor mother to do just that. This had happened at one of those parties Christopher had implored her to attend. A wife with whom Rebecca had nothing in common save that they were both wives had clucked appreciatively. “It’s so brave, what you’ve done.” Rebecca wanted congratulations for the things that she had done. That fat, formless poem had won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Instant, institutional approbation. Rebecca was a poet, even if she’d spent the last several months thinking about bottles and diapers. That was a matter to celebrate. Motherhood, at least Rebecca’s instincts about it, was selfish. Becoming Andrew’s mother was neither the least nor the most she could do; it was, simply, what she had done. A kind of madness, a moment that snowballed into a life, just like all life, if you think about it, sperm meets egg and there you go.

She looked out at the ducks. No particular response seemed warranted.

“It can’t be easy.” Caroline had more to say. “I mean, it’s hard for me! And what you’re doing is a whole other thing. The complications are so scary, I know. Withdrawal, they call it? Well, he looks so perfect. So healthy. He’s so lucky!”

Rebecca lifted Andrew off her lap and to her chest, securing the buttons on the carrier. He weighed little on her lap but pulled at her back. The baby kicked his feet, either protest or instinct. Rebecca felt like she must say something but the words would not come now but would visit her later, the right riposte. That was her work, wasn’t it, the search for the tidy turn of phrase, the most apt anapest. She did mumble something, some improvised Have a good day and Enjoy and See you later and Take care. Something utterly meaningless. Where the world, or Caroline, saw a crack baby, Rebecca only saw Andrew. Once, fetching Jacob from Woodley Park Montessori, a woman Rebecca barely knew held her by the wrist and pronounced her a saint. At the woman’s touch she turned into something else, not stone, but dust; Rebecca dissolved. She wanted to be someone completely different from the person everyone seemed to think her. She drove to fetch Jacob, an hour too early, and the baby fell asleep in the car once more, which ruined the day’s carefully worked out structure, one more reason to hate Caroline. ●

From That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. Copyright 2018 Rumaan Alam. Excerpted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Rumaan Alam is the author of Rich and Pretty (Ecco) and That Kind of Mother (published in May 2018 from Ecco). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, New York magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He studied at Oberlin College, has recently become special projects editor at the New York Times Book Review, and lives in Brooklyn.

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