Quantum Physics for Mothers

Motherhood means thinking about fiery nuclear death all the time

When I was pregnant, I learned that North Korea had finally developed a missile capable of reaching the United States, one that might someday carry a nuclear warhead. The improbable Donald Trump had met the news with taunts and jeers. Kim Jong-un was Rocket Man, a crazed Kubrick-esque villain.

• • •

My body swelled, and I listened to the reports on NPR with one ear as I held the line with the insurance company with the other. I was ordering my breast pump, a Spectra, to arrive a month before the birth of my child.

On the one hand, the news from North Korea was very bad, and I—who, as a child, after Chernobyl, had developed an anxiety disorder that would see me into adulthood—should have been worried for, if not my own safety, then the safety of the animal inside of me, which had been measured in increasingly larger fruits week by week (blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, kiwi, peach). On the other hand, it was difficult to feel much as the point of my interest raced inward.

• • •

Sure, Kim Jong-un might decide to nuke Seattle. North Korea burned with the masculine power of nuclear fission—world destroyer. I wondered blandly whether I should buy potassium iodide pills and big jugs of water and store them in my radon-mitigated Michigan basement. I imagined giving birth among the spiders and old paint cans. I imagined teaching the baby to spell by scratching the dirt floor with an old paint stirrer, the tip made creamy by my favorite white: Benjamin Moore Swiss Coffee.

Scratch scratch scratch. D-O-G. This is a dog.

The dog herself, old, patchy, irradiated.

What sounds would seep through the eighteen-inch stone walls at night? What songs might fill the silence—“The Unicorn” for what was lost; “Over the Rainbow,” for what may be. The baby’s fat dimpled hands as they patty-cake mine and my husband’s: colorless under the grime like a deep-sea animal.

• • •

But the terror of the hour would not stay in my brain, and I never did order the pills or stock the water. As the world sputtered and the country flailed around us, my daughter’s cells multiplied rapidly inside me. They intermingled with my cells so that I was now a chimera—I contained two separate sets of DNA within me, and not just in a transitory sense; even after my baby was born, I would retain some of her cells inside my brain, my heart.

• • •

Months later, the first time I left the house without the baby, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d forgotten something. The feeling was so strong that I walked back into the grocery store to look at the cart I’d left just inside, wondering if my bag, which was definitely hanging from my shoulder, was also somehow still there: Schrödinger’s Purse. I realized when I got home that the thing that was missing was her. I hadn’t meant to take the baby, of course. I hadn’t actually forgotten anything.

Cellular haunting.

• • •

This wasn’t the splitting of fission. This was multiplication. The rocket man might be lonely out in space, but I would never be alone again. My inner space now housed two hearts. Two brains. Another soul. The infinity of the space inside me, which was after all a small space (even if it didn’t feel small as I grew enough to fill our entire queen-size bed. Domestic dictator: I kicked the dogs and husband out). The way an atom can be both a tiny and an enormous thing.

My baby is three months old, and I am reading to her from Quantum Physics for Babies, by Chris Ferrie. It’s one of those books people get you as a joke, but the baby likes its stiff cardboard pages and bright shapes. In it, Ferrie explains the basics of atomic energy:

“This is a ball. This ball has zero energy.”

Yes, I thought. That’s me. Postpartum me. A ball with zero energy.

“All balls are made of atoms. There are neutrons. And protons. And electrons.”

A tiny electron bebops around the relatively stable and boring neutron and proton, drawn in the Ferrie book huddled together like a couple on a couch.

• • •

It was on our couch that I proposed the idea of a baby, knowing it would be ill-received, perhaps even rejected. Neither of us had ever been very interested in a baby until, suddenly, one of us was. I did not feel in control of my own desires, but steered by something inevitable. Something subatomic.

• • •

I said I could not imagine sitting here, on this leaf-green couch, reading our separate books, each petting a different dog, for the next forty years. Or, rather, I could imagine it, and it was not what I wanted, this life it had taken us a decade to build.

Inwardly, I gave it a 50 percent likelihood that one or both of us would regret the decision, this thing we couldn’t take back.

We took the usual step of people our age in this position and had our fluids analyzed by computers.        

• • •

My doctor called the day after Trump won the election. I was on my way to class, carrying a bundle of copies of Letter from Birmingham Jail for my students and a belly full of grief for all of us. When I heard her voice, I felt my grief sharpen into something special for myself.

“These numbers are not good,” she said.

Something I had not known I wanted was now maybe something I couldn’t have.

• • •

I cried a lot that fall. To my mother, to my best friends, who were also nearly forty, who had no children, who had perhaps not yet realized they had a decision to make. I cried to a pregnant colleague I was still getting to know, over a mediocre sandwich from university catering.

“It’s too late. We waited too long,” I said, and cried pork shreds out of my mouth and felt ashamed. My colleague was eight years younger than me and glowed with fecund youth. The baby she was growing had a hole in his heart, but she was calm about it. This happened, the doctors told her. She had faith the hole would seal up, and it did. I wanted her faith and her calm, but mostly I wanted her baby, hole or no hole. I felt calm about nothing. I had faith in nothing. A maniac was about to be our president, and I had fucked away my fertile years with fools. I had been naïve and self-indulgent, and now I was being punished, though I could not have told you by whom.

• • •

I felt strongly, through all of November, that I had somehow been bumped into a parallel universe. That in the real universe, a woman was president, and my husband’s sperm cell had fertilized my egg, and that zygote had split and split and split, creating an infinity within me. I just had to wait until the show we starred in came to a heroic climax and I would be bumped back into the real dimension where everything was going according to plan.

The next August, I tested my own fluids in our dingy purple bathroom and felt a blast of heat and fear and disbelief when the line turned blue. Organic chemists at last: our experiment had worked.

• • •

My little electron. My honey baby. My chain reaction.

According to quantum mechanics, subatomic particles can exist in multiple states at once. This is Schrödinger’s famous, absurd cat. The cat, stuck in a box, unobserved, will be poisoned when a particle decays to a particular extent. But, in theory, the particle can be both decaying and not at the same time. The cat, goes the popular interpretation, is both dead and not dead until someone opens the box to see. Of course, the cat is really only ever one or the other. Theory is settled by practice.

Nevertheless, this thought experiment contributed to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which in turn led to the Back to the Future franchise.

• • •

Motherhood, a friend points out, is largely theory settled by practice.

• • •

For thirty-nine weeks, I wear out a series of unanswerable questions. What will it be like? Will I hate it? What if I’m bad at it? What if she hates me? How will I ruin her? Will I regret this?

And then she is here and there is no time to wonder much of anything anymore. I sleep sitting up, my glasses on. I wake up, gasping, in the middle of the night, fear clenched in my chest like soft prey. I am in a new world where the shell of me has been cracked open to make way for something new.

• • •

New motherhood: For weeks I can’t shake the feeling that—though I am here, and so is Mattie, my sweet potato, and we spend our time together in a hazy rondel of nursing, playing, and napping—in another world, I died.

• • •

The complications: strep B positive, hypertension, fetal heart-rate decelerations, occiput posterior position, fetopelvic disproportion (head size: 100th percentile at birth), slowed labor. Verdict: that common mutilation, the emergency C-section. We would not have survived in the wild.

• • •

I spent a day and a half moving my body in accordance with what it wanted—launching it to and fro, squatting and stretching up and leaving the room as it tried to walk away from itself, from the process inside it. And then the nurses would come in worry-faced and make me beach myself in the hospital bed—to lie down on my left side to counter the disconcerting way her heart rate flattened out.

Eventually, we both made it out, but it could have easily gone otherwise.

• • •

Maybe I died of a hemorrhage on the operating table, or of a stroke when my blood pressure redlined. Sometimes I feel like in another world the baby died (I can’t bear to write her name in such a sentence) and my husband and I have spent the summer bleary with grief. Or we both could be dead and he . . . What would he even be doing? Just sitting there on our dog-stained green couch. Staring.

• • •

A physicist might say these other realities are so. That no one version is more legitimate than another.

• • •

But I know people who have lost children. How perversely luxurious to pretend. My grief is only a thought experiment, a bitty cavity in a healthy tooth. I dart my tongue there, feel the edges of a pain hole, dart away.

• • •

She survived, but in my mind she dies a thousand times a day. I imagine losing her at the top of the stairs, the way her body would bounce and roll. I put my face in her bassinet and try to breathe through the mesh and nylon sides of it. Ten times a night, I check and recheck that her swaddle has not ridden up over her mouth, feel her tiny doll’s face in the dark, that dimpled chin from her father. I buy a small machine that encircles her ankle and tracks her breathing, but I never put it on her, since to do so would somehow mean the end of my rational self.

Something inside me insists she was never supposed to be here in the first place. That she could so easily be sucked back into the ylem from which she came. That perhaps it would be my karmic comeuppance for a lifelong breeziness, my perpetual indecision.

• • •

Her cord was wrapped around her, shoulder to waist, like a beauty queen’s sash. Every time my body contracted around her, the cord kinked. Over and over again I imagine her in there, inside me, her animal panic. What if.

• • •

Maybe, a friend suggests, you keep thinking about her death because you were told you wouldn’t get to have a baby in the first place.

• • •

My own death, too—I am here of course. But what to do with the information that I labored my blood pressure into “the danger zone,” as my nurse put it to my husband, and of course I hear Kenny Loggins, that deadly synth, and imagine my husband a dashing widower with a new baby and how hard they would fall in love with each other and how he would talk about me to her when she was old enough to wonder. How I would exist as a story my husband began anew every night, snuggled with her in the overstuffed leather chair in her room, the one with the claw marks of a strange cat on its arms. What would he tell her about me? How the story started—a night together in a smoky, red bar. The way he held out his hand as we sat together, nervous and beery on his couch, another couch, not green but gray. The way I took his hand. How our adventure began.

“Siloed” is the word many journalists have been using to talk about the way our country has shattered. We get our news from different sources. We believe very different things about, for instance, the value of human life versus the rule of law. We seem to be living in completely different realities. Nuclear warheads are siloed too. What seems to scare many people the most about Trump is his ability to unsilo. To unite us all in fiery nuclear death.

• • •

Part of motherhood is thinking about fiery nuclear death, like, all the time.

• • •

Part of motherhood is feeling broken into parts. Is feeling separate selves siloed. People in my various social media silos describe themselves under their profile photos: writer, mother, teacher, artist, gardener. I used to think they meant that those were all things they did, but now I understand this list is a gathering of the self to the self. They mean they are a loose collection knit together in a bag called Self. There is a kind of silent struggle among the terms. They aren’t equal. They can’t be. The term “mother” overshadows and threatens to engulf the others. The writer and artist and teacher and gardener stand sentinel. They keep the mother self in check. No one could write or teach or garden or art all day, every day, without a break. But the mother self! Oh yeah. She could. The mother self wants to eat all the other selves and belch them out as fire.

• • •

The mother self is power and beauty, but she is also destruction. Lately, I have spent entire days sitting and looking at my daughter. The other selves fall away, and I find it difficult to engage in conversation with other adults. I seem to have fewer actual thoughts. I experience early motherhood as a kind of obliteration. The granulation of existence. Doing a thing here for a second, a thing there, giving off energy. I started this essay on my phone at 3 a.m., using my left hand to type as my baby nursed.

• • •

Those first sleepy months are like being hit with a beam from a Star Trek phaser: I am instantly constellated into a billion tiny bits. It would be easy and pleasant to stay out here in the ether. To never reconstitute.

• • •

When a woman gives birth she gives birth to many worlds. Even when every outcome is good, she has given birth to her own worst fears. A fear can never be undreamt. So just like I will be a mother until I die, I will also be afraid and keep those other worlds alive in the darkest places in my heart. This, I think, is the true nature of new motherhood: a splitting. A multiplication. Many cells out of one. Molecules branching out into infinity. A dark magic. Like the power to make a bomb.

• • •

The first atomic test was called Trinity. The father and his son, the ghost between them. A perversion of the dark magic of the mother, Trinity: world destroyer. Mother is a teeming multiverse.

About the Author

Susan McCarty

Susan McCarty’s essays have appeared in Ecotone, the Iowa ReviewUtne Reader, and elsewhere. She is the author of the story collection Anatomies (2015, Aforementioned Productions) and teaches at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. 

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