Even before I got pregnant, friends and family began breathing down my neck about the absolute importance of breastfeeding.

Most of this was in the form of welcome, solicited advice. They shared horror stories of cracked nipples, sleepless nights, fussy babies, self-doubt and more. I steeled myself for all of this and looked up ways to prevent the worst case scenarios.

Both my mother and mother-in-law had breastfed four children apiece. At first they tiptoed around the issue, describing it as a joyful, rewarding experience and showed no regret. As soon as I expressed the desire to follow suit, the (well-intentioned) advice and graphic details poured in.

One friend admitted that her milk took almost two weeks to come in, and even then, it didn’t make the ordeal much smoother. By the time she truly felt like she’d gotten the hang of it, five months had passed. Five months of feeding every couple hours. Of sore arms and bleeding nipples. Of feeling dejected and inadequate when she had to supplement his diet with formula milk. Her child is thriving, but so is the child of another friend who never breastfed for a day.

One friend insisted that I had to solicit the help and advice of friends who had breastfed their children “for at least 3 years, or it doesn’t count”. She also endorsed a book about breastfeeding that she claims had helped her immensely through the process. Photos of her infant daughter on social media bore the hashtag #breastfedbaby. I later found out that she had not been able to breastfeed her child at all, and had instead resorted to purchasing breastmilk from a milk bank. When her child stopped receiving breastmilk –in 9 months — a new hashtag, #whydidIgiveupbreastfeeding, appeared.

A relative with two children of her own would steamroll through every conversation we had by loudly and enthusiastically urging me to breastfeed. The entire conversation started before I even got married, with her asking if I’d had a boob job. I hadn’t, and she quickly covered up with “oh because I know you want to have kids, and if you’ve had a boob job you can’t breastfeed.” Ever since, she has been a flood of “DON’T GIVE UP” exclamations, both spoken and in written texts. At first I figured this was all with good intentions, until she made snide remarks about someone else’s boobs and I recognised a pattern. As soon as she heard the news that I had literally just pushed my child out of my body, I received this text from her: “How is the breastfeeding?” I told my husband that if she ever so much as breathes the word “breast” in my direction from that point on, she would be banned from our home.

Male friends would say “but it’s got to be worth it, right? That’s why everyone recommends it. Women have breastfed their babies since the dawn of time — it can’t be that bad.” It was the same logic I followed, up until the day I started trying it myself.

My breastfeeding experience was described by every midwife, nurse and doctor as “impossibly smooth” — and it was horrific.

After the first suckle, my nipples immediately started burning with pain. It hurt to wear bras, and hurt not to. Warm water felt good on them when I showered, but I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming when toweling them dry — even with the gentlest dabbing — afterwards. They felt like they’d been slashed with a knife when I had to make the baby suckle them again. And again. And again. Pretty much on the hour. Ointments and lotions provided very brief relief. Everyone told me “it would get better” and tried to be encouraging.

To help the baby get used to latching on, all “fake nipples” were forbidden. Before my milk came in, we had to feed the baby formula milk — poured into his mouth from a cup — but first, we had to make the baby suckle for as long as he wished. Pacifiers — which were so effective in keeping him calm — were declared contraband because they caused “nipple confusion”.

Day 2, they checked my posture and declared I was doing everything “completely wrong” and that my breasts were producing “absolutely nothing”. I bit back tears as the baby sucked on my sore nipples and a doctor pushed, pressed and squeezed my arms, shoulders, breasts and the baby until she was satisfied. I would feed while the baby suckled what we knew was nothing, silently wishing my milk would come in, biting my lip to keep from screaming every time he latched on, my toes curling from the pain that persisted as he continued to feed.

My husband and mother in law, both of whom I adore under normal circumstances, made me contemplate murder when they “helpfully” “re-positioned” my body while I breastfed. Just as the baby latched on, sending pain shooting through my entire body, they would push my shoulders back. They were every bit as eager as I was for this to work, and overly critical of my wincing expression and tightly-coiled posture, practically shrill with cries of “relax! Just relax! Push your shoulders back! YOU NEED TO RELAX!” Or so it seemed in my head as their shoving and prodding made the baby lose my nipple and panic wildly so that I had to calm him down again and deal with more pain as he re-latched. Sometimes this process made the baby tug desperately on my nipples so he wouldn’t lose it — it was painful enough that I worried my nipple had come clean off.

I told my husband, as calmly as I could through a flood of tears, that I didn’t want anyone touching me while I fed the baby. Anxious to provide some form of support, he tried rubbing my legs instead while I fed, which made me feel terribly ticklish while I was coiled up with pain — so even this gentle gesture had to be banned.

Day 3, the doctors gave us a plastic syringe and told us to drip formula milk onto my nipple to hold the baby’s interest. Breastfeeding became a two-man job — I would hold the baby in the precarious, fully-horizontal, doctor-prescribed position with one hand and squeeze my breast with the other hand to fit his tiny mouth, while my husband dripped milk every now and then with the syringe.

Day 4, the doctor suspected my milk had finally come in, and showed me how to squeeze my breasts to express it. When we saw those first drops of milk my husband and I were jubilant. It was no longer pointless! The baby could have my milk at long last.

The pain persisted, and new pains presented themselves. Burning and swelling when they were full, bruised and chilly when they were empty. I had to cover up with blankets after every feeding. My nipples chafed and peeled, as did the area around them. Through the second week, every time the baby fed the area around my nipples would flare up with a burning pain — the baby’s gums rubbing against it repeatedly was causing the skin to come off. Everything my nipples touched immediately soaked up with milk — my bras, clothes, the baby’s clothes. Milk dripped onto my lap when I peeled back my nursing bra to feed him. I had to pad my breasts with countless pads, towels and drop cloths — often while wrestling a desperate, panicky baby.

Nothing made him cry harder than hunger, and I soon discovered why other mothers would drop everything, wherever they were or whatever they were doing, to feed their newborns. Breastfeeding seemed to comfort him through everything. Before the baby I would have been mortified about showing too much cleavage. Now, whipping my breasts out in front of friends and family or in public was No Big Deal if it eased his suffering.

Sometimes my milk ducts would become clogged, and I would practically beg the baby to feed in order to ease the terribly bruised sensation. Sometimes my husband would sleep topless without blankets and still be sweating, while I huddled freezing under the duvet, wrapping it tightly around my breasts while trying to stay still so I won’t wake my newborn child, who can’t sleep unless he’s cuddling me.

Every time the baby finished feeding, he would perform a little dance of sleepy, expressive contentment. His eyes would close, his body would relax and grow heavy, his legs would fold up, his face would break into a radiant, self-satisfied smile. I would smile back, stroking him gently, and in two minutes I would reluctantly sit him up or hold him over my shoulder for a little burping, or risk his projectile breast milk vomit. This was our special, private dance every one to three hours.

He steadily gained weight. His body filled out with healthy fat and grew longer and stronger. He grew smarter too, and began to smile and gurgle excitedly when he knew he was about to be fed.

In those moments when I am feeding him, and his tiny body is in my lap, his big bright eyes are concentrating hard, his little fingers are curled up around mine and I’m stroking his soft hair, there is nothing more important to me in the whole world.

The pain persists.



You were born just after midnight.

When they first put you in my arms, I was a little confused. You were inside me for almost 41 weeks, and the labour lasted over 72 hours. And yet… are you really here? Is it really you?

You looked every bit like your father, at first. Your eyes were dark but shone with a blue light. The hair on your head was brown, but a light — almost white — and impossibly soft fuzz grew all over your forehead, brows and cheeks. Even your feet, which we thought looked like mine in the ultrasound, turned out to be long and incredibly nimble – the same feet your father and his family have.

We barely slept that first night. Your father was buoyed by your arrival, while I was given many instructions that I, being a Type A to the end, eagerly hopped around with the intention of fulfilling. Take a shower. Drink a whole cup of hot chocolate. Change your clothes. Hold your son to start the bonding process. Try breastfeeding him. Announce the happy news to your family and friends.

“Sleep” was also somewhere on the list, but before I got to it, I blacked out. L caught me with one hand as I was falling into the chair — his other arm was cradling the baby.

“Please,” he said, horrified but trying to stay calm, “lie down and stop moving.”

I was determined to recover ASAP. I asked for another cup of hot chocolate, wolfed down two (terribly plain) cheese sandwiches and a couple of tiny, lukewarm slices of cucumber, then finally had a quick nap. Your father rocked you to sleep in his arms.

When I woke, they were taking your temperature. You were immediately placed into a warming cot, wrapped up snugly in blankets, towels, and a flimsy, thin hat provided by the hospital. I replaced it with a hat we had brought from home, with teddy bears printed all over it. We had been congratulated on your birth with many gifts of snuggly toys — mostly bunnies. One of these, which I had worn to sleep in my shirt for several weeks so it would have my scent, was tucked in with you in the cot.

We waited with you, calm and happy. You slept. We tried to sleep, but were unable to manage more than a few winks at a time. Your temperature was taken several more times — it went up and down. This was nothing unusual — you were still trying to adjust to life outside my womb. We picked you up many times to snuggle you, but for the most part kept you inside the cot, cosy on its heated mattress. Your body temperature had to stay stable before they would release you. The day flew by, somehow.

Later, we were transferred out of our private delivery ward and into a shared pediatrics ward, with other new mommies and new babies. L went home to shower, have lunch, and bring me some of Mom’s home-cooked food. In between sleeps, you would suckle me eagerly, even though my breasts were still empty.

L was not allowed to stay after 8pm. A loving, protective husband and a brand new father, anxious to care for us both, forced to sleep alone in an empty bed. We missed each other terribly.

Once he left I wolfed down my dinner — Mom’s fried chicken. She had joyfully prepared a platter of it to welcome us home, but it had gone soggy as she waited for us to be discharged. That day, my mother hadn’t been allowed to see you at all.

The night was terrible. You cried strong and hard and refused to sleep. To avoid waking the other mommies, who unlike me could barely leave their beds, and their equally tearful newborns, I would run out of the ward with you in my arms every time you started crying — which was very often.

I walked you up and down the halls, rocking you and singing lullabies while you stared at me with shiny, beautiful eyes. Exhausted, singing softly, wandering the near-empty halls in the middle of the night in my thin white hospital gown dotted with blood, I must have looked like a ghost. But it was the only way to calm you down.

As the hours went by, it seemed you started to look more like me than your father. Your eyes and lips were almost carbon copies of mine — big, brown, curious eyes and curvy, pouty lips. Your hair, limbs, the shape of your head, and every inch of your skin was like your father’s, but your appearance will be dominated by my strongest facial features.

I first tried putting you in the cot, then wrapping you in blankets and placing you next to my head. You wailed in disapproval each time, and I had to scoop you up, rush out of the room, and gently rock, sing and walk you to sleep again. In desperation, hours later, I took my gown off, laid you down on my chest. It was at this point that I realised someone had taken our blanket. Instead, I huddled under the thin hospital sheets with you.

Except for the warmth from your tiny body, I was freezing. But we both finally slept, exhausted and inseparable.


Everyone tells you labour is painful, but also that it’s different for different women.

My pregnancy had been smooth and painless, so I didn’t see a reason to panic. I diligently showed up for every test and meeting, and baby and I were both declared completely healthy each time. I was advised by the second trimester to scale back my vitamin supplements. We travelled internationally until week 29. I did all the light packing, conducted tours of the flat for potential new tenants, and supervised the heavy lifting as we moved house on week 32, still cooked almost all our meals until my mother joined us on week 38, was waddling around the office, shopping malls, Ikea, and showed mom around while working full-time on week 40, and hosted a massive housewarming party 3 days before my due date. NBD.

Maybe, I thought to myself, these were all signs that my labour would be relatively painless too.

From contractions to episiotomies, it can all be a bit too much to think about — so I didn’t. I’d read up about all of it because I had to, but if something seemed particularly horrible, I’d tell myself I probably wouldn’t have to deal with it.

My “birth plan” boiled down to “let’s wing it”. I’m sure the professionals know what they’re doing, and who knows what I’ll have to deal with?

If they say I can deliver naturally, I’m down with that. If they insist I need a C-section, sure. If my pain is mild enough to manage, let’s go au naturel. In the much more likely case that the pain has me envisioning the seventh layer of hell, ring in the epidural. I’ll kegel every day of my pregnancy, but I won’t think about why. I couldn’t even figure out which birthing position I preferred. How on earth would I know until we got down to the deed?

Three days before the due date – a Saturday – I felt the first signs of contractions. It was like mild, constant cramps, coupled with a mild headache. Mom shuffled around excitedly saying “not much longer now, not much longer”. We’d watched videos, read pamphlets, and nodded our comprehension as they were explained to us by midwives and experienced acquaintances, but just to be sure, my husband and I Googled furiously for “signs of labour”, “warning signs” and “when to go to the hospital”. The cramps subsided in the evening, and didn’t return. On Monday I worked from home.

The due date came and went. Family, friends and colleagues texted eagerly, but I wasn’t experiencing any of the signs.

Three days past my due date, the contractions began in earnest. In the middle of the night.

I woke from the pain and realised immediately what it was. Using an App on my phone, I measured both the frequency and duration of each contraction. They were coming every 7-8 minutes.

Two hours later they were 4-5 minutes apart, and I discovered in the bathroom that I’d passed my mucus plug. I woke my husband, who was excited enough to forget that it was barely approaching dawn.

The next contraction came 10 minutes later. Then 15. Then 14. Then 10. Then 12. Then 20. Then 8. Then 10.

We called the hospital anyway, just to be sure, and were advised to wait until they came in every 4 minutes or less for a solid half hour.

Hours passed, but the contractions were still wildly inconsistent. Our hearts sank. The pain was becoming almost unbearable. I took Advil, parked myself in front of the couch, and tried to take a nap. I woke up every time a new contraction built up, and lost consciousness as it slowly died down. Eventually I gave up and watched mindless sitcoms to distract from the pain. The husband went through his emails, tying up loose ends at work.

Mom started off in high spirits, asking every hour or so about the frequency. Eventually she would just glance at me with tight lips, hovering anxiously and trying to be helpful. She cooked and cleaned and sometimes whispered suggestions of items we might need to pack for our eventual hospital visit. None of my pants felt comfortable anymore — even the maternity ones. I borrowed Mom’s sarong and sat on towels all day.

When it was time for bed, I couldn’t lie down – in any position – because if I did, the pain from the contractions intensified and pierce through my torso to my back. So I sat up in the living room couch, propped up by a nest of cushions, one hand on the contraction timer. My husband joined me there, laying his head next to my lap and holding onto my foot because if he held my hand I would wake him by squeezing it too hard every time a contraction hit me.

In the morning I showed them the timer record: still inconsistent. Mom cooked. My husband baked a loaf of bread. We talked.

This went on for over two days. The contractions mostly hit 10-15 minutes apart. Sometimes it would dip down to 4 minutes apart, then climb back up to 7, 8, 15 minutes as we got excited. The pain was getting worse. I was on the verge of tears.

When I passed more blood, I called the hospital again, begging them to take me in for a check-up at the very least. They said no, we hung up, and less than five minutes later they called us back: okay, we can come in for a check-up-

Our bags had already been packed. I wrapped the thin sarong around my belly, thankful that the weather was still warm. We also had the baby’s car seat waiting. Somehow my husband managed to carry everything and still hold my hand as I slowly waddled to the car.

At the hospital we were sent to a shared pediatrics ward where I was ordered to change into a shapeless white tent, disposable underwear with a giant pad as thick as a mattress, and to “save” my sanitary pad so the doctor could examine it. A midwife came in, politely introduced herself, donned a pair of latex gloves and poked around inside me. “You’re 4cm dilated. You’re not going anywhere.”

Six years ago I had a terrible bacterial infection in my stomach that gave me such strong pains I was unable to walk. I was otherwise young and physically fit, and unless I had just spent the day hiking and my legs were jelly, always chose to stand rather than take up a seat on public transportation. When they had to roll me around the hospital in a wheelchair, I felt absolutely mortified.

They made me sit in a wheelchair, now, for the short journey from the shared pediatrics ward to our own private delivery ward. I felt at peace with this.

I was instructed to take a shower. Then they strapped two monitors to my belly — one to track the baby’s heartbeat, one to measure my contractions. I dealt with my great phobia — needles — for blood tests and two separate drips. Holding my husband’s hand helped me through it all. However, the monitor for the baby’s heartbeat kept sliding off, sending staff flying in to check on us.

“We’ll have to stick the heart monitor to the baby’s head,” my nurse eventually told me.

“…Inside me?”

“Yes.” Her face was grim.

I groaned, but nodded. Another pair of latex gloves, another stranger’s fingers reaching inside me. She felt around for the baby’s head, then inserted a long, hard tube inside me. Once it attached, she pulled a cold, hard metal spring through the tube. It was supremely uncomfortable. The sensor fell out and she gasped.

“I’m… sooooo sorry, but I have to do that again. Your baby must have grown its hair because it didn’t attach very well.”

I squeezed my husband’s hand and focused on my breathing, though it was incredibly difficult to do so while someone is reaching inside you with their fingers and a series of cold, rigid tubes.

When asked for my thoughts on painkillers, I had no pride. “May I try the laughing gas on for size, please? If this doesn’t work, I’d like to up the dosage until it does.”

The midwives nodded sagely. “We understand.”

They coached me on how to use the gas mask. It helped for an hour. I always had to anticipate the contraction before it began or it’d be too late to ease the pain. They jacked the gas up a couple times, then my husband suggested we switch to something stronger.

“You won’t be able to relax at all at this rate,” he said, both firmly and pleadingly at the same time.

I agreed, and an anaesthesiologist was summoned. He introduced — almost presented — himself, and a meek young student apprentice. Then he delivered a polished speech about the procedure and risks in a no-nonsense, rapid-fire pace that I appreciated deeply.

It was paramount that I stay perfectly still while he inserted the needle into my spine, so we had to time it in between contractions. One came quickly enough, and losing all sense of decorum I screamed into my gas mask, desperately grateful that it might be the last one I had to endure without the epidural. Once it abated, he worked quickly. I felt a short pinch, and then they were taping the tube along my back and shoulder.

Everyone stayed quiet waiting for my next contraction, and they didn’t have to wait long. When it hit, I could feel the pressure, but almost none of the pain.

They all stared at me expectantly.

“This stuff… is awesome,” I said with an exhausted smile.

The anaesthesiologist smiled back and quietly bowed out. He knew exactly what I meant.

I spent the next hours on a cloud, finally spared from pain. The contractions came in hard, heavy, and at least every three minutes, but I felt relaxed for the first time in days. As soon as I relaxed, so did my husband. We napped for an hour. Every now and then a nurse would come in, shove her fingers inside me and measure my dilation. It was progressing like clockwork until I hit 7cm, then it kind of plateaued.

At dinnertime, a nurse came in and said they were going to mildly induce the birth. “Let’s see if we can get your baby out before midnight,” she said with a wink. They gave me an IV drip with an extremely low dose of oxytocin, diluted with saline. A couple hours later I was 10cm dilated: “go” time.


They offered me a walking aid and coached me to get on my feet, holding onto it while I breathe and squat through my contractions to help the baby along. Even with the epidural, I was starting to feel the pain of the contractions again. The pressure was intense, but I persevered with the exercise. My husband took over the coaching and, observing my unsteady legs, held me firmly from behind the walking aid in case I fell.

Finally I started crying out and saying that the pressure had increased significantly. The midwife told me to lie back on the birthing bed, rolled me onto my side and lifted one leg onto a stirrup. They sprayed me down with local anaesthesia and guided me to push.

It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, physically.

My husband cheered me on and kept me sane. I didn’t let go of his hand for a second. His voice mingled with cheers of encouragement and guidance from the midwife and nurse.

“One more time, you can do it!”


“Relax. Breathe. Now wait for the next one. You’re doing great, darling.”

“You’re so good at this! Maybe you should work here.”

“Breeeeeathe in as much as you can. Now puuuuuuush!”

“Get the towel ready.”

“Just focus on pushing, dear.”

In a haze of pain, the pressure suddenly abated and I felt something slippery. They opened my hospital gown. In a matter of seconds, my baby had been pulled out and placed naked on my bare chest. They covered his back with a towel, and I was holding my baby in my arms.

My husband was practically singing with excitement, but I couldn’t see anything but the top of my baby’s head.

“Is it definitely a boy?”

“Yes it is darling!”

“What time is it?”

The hours had flown by — it was just after midnight.

“How does he look?”

“What do you mean? He looks fine, darling.”

“Is everything okay? All ten fingers and all ten toes?”

The midwife said, “why don’t we hold him up so she can see her beautiful baby?”

The nurse held my baby up, right above my chest. He looked sleepy, and as far as I could tell, perfectly healthy.

“Hi,” I said weakly, reaching for him.

They placed him back on my chest. Then they tied and cut his umbilical cord, and asked me to push one more time so they could pull out my placenta. They showed me two transparent plastic identity tags with matching serial numbers — one to place around my wrist, and a tiny one for his ankle.

They lifted the baby off my chest then, to give him a few quick tests. That’s when the baby started to cry, loud and strong. He cried and cried until, the tests rapidly done, they put him into my husband’s arms.

“Well, there’s definitely nothing wrong with his lungs,” my husband joked. They all laughed. Then he said, “he’s so strong. He’s really, really strong,” and I heard the nurses murmur in agreement.

I was exhausted. The nurse went to fetch a coffee, a pitcher of sugary juice, and two mugs of hot chocolate.

My husband held the baby while my eyes slowly studied the room.

Everything still looked the same. But our world was completely different now.



Sometimes he asks me if I’d had dreams, because I dream a lot. Vivid dreams can be a symptom of pregnancy, but even before we got knocked up I’d have a lot more dreams than he did.

This has been the first week where he had more dreams than I did.

“I dreamed last night that we already had the baby.”

“Oh, as a newborn? How did it look? What happened?”

“Nothing much… all I can remember is I was holding our baby. And I was so happy.”

“Other moms tell me it’s the best feeling in the world, when the baby is finally born, and you finally get to hold them.”

We sit quietly for a minute, not saying what we know we’re both thinking.

How can I miss someone I’ve never even met? How can I miss them so terribly when we have never – not for a second – been apart? When they’re kicking and wriggling around inside my belly and I can feel their every move?

If this is how I feel, I can’t imagine how L feels. He’s actually jealous that I can feel the baby inside me. He eagerly puts a hand on my belly and encourages baby to kick. Sometimes he’s rewarded for his patience, but usually he isn’t.

“Are we going to get another ultrasound?”

“Not unless we pay for one, darling.”

“How much will it cost? Maybe we’ll just get one so we can see it…”

I think about it for a while. Extra ultrasounds do cost a pretty penny, but it’s not the cost that I’m worried about.

“I’m always so sad when the ultrasound comes to an end.”

He laughs and mimics a back-and-forth conversation between me and a doctor: “Okay, we’re done now. No we are not! But your time is up. NO. TEN MORE MINUTES.

“Don’t worry darling, I’m meeting the midwife again this week. She’ll check up on the baby.”

* * *

“Can I see the countdown again?”

9 weeks and 4 days, says the countdown.

He looks a little sad and extremely happy at the same time. “By the time I’m back from the work trip, it’ll be… 8 weeks and 3 days? Then after we move, it’ll be… 7 weeks. Then after my parents’ visit, it’ll be… 6 weeks and 2 days. And then…”

Usually he’s one of the calmest, most patient people in the world. But right now he’s trying to break time down into smaller, more manageable chunks that still need to pass before he can hold his child in his arms.

Because waiting a whole 9 (and a half) weeks is almost too long to bear.

“Your belly is sooooo round!”

He would grin or chuckle as he watched me, now barely able to move without waddling like a duck.

“What is it?”

“Your belly! It’s sooooo round!” his voice is filled with sheer glee.

“Well… you did this to me.”

“I KNOW.” his grin grows even wider.

“I’m actually worried. I didn’t expect it to get this big.”

“Isn’t that a good sign? It looks perfect to me.”

“It hurts sometimes. And it’s difficult for me to move around now…”

“I’ll help you move around. I’ll rub lotions on it and rub your back and everything.”

I sit down beside him, unable to stifle a loud grunt as I do so, then with the grace of a water buffalo (and a few extra grunts), try to get into a comfortable position. I turn to look at him, still with his giant grin on.

You did this to me.”

He chuckles and wraps his arms around me.

“I’m scared. This baby is going to be a big, Dutch-sized baby. I’m not built for carrying tall babies.”

“You can do it, honey. If it was abnormal, your midwife would have warned us. The baby is doing great, and so are you.”

We both put our hands on my belly and sigh — him with 100% pure joy and me with maybe 99% joy and 1% trepidation — as I sit very still and wait for the baby to kick.

Mommy and Daddy already love you… so very much.


“Black and white man, black and white!”

We were in Rome, and an African man with dark brown skin and a massive white grin was walking up to shake L’s hand.

“I like your shoes man, peace. You’re not a racist. You’re black and white! Black and white, one love!”

It took me a while to realize he was talking about us — L was white and, at least in this man’s eyes, I was “black”.

Since my skin tone is almost as light as L’s, I never really saw myself as “black”. I would cop to being yellow, Asian, Chinese, East Asian, South-east Asian, and even though “Oriental” was derogatory, it would technically be more accurate than “black”.

I knew when my Chinese friends visited South Africa they had to tick a box to indicate their race, but were given only two choices: black or white. Some of them had ticked (with great uncertainty) the “white” box and been told off by immigration officers: “You don’t know that you’re black?”

Throughout our courtship, race was never an issue for me and L. We both spoke superb, neutral English, were not religious, and shared plenty of common interests. Our families stumbled a little over our cultural differences, but this was more than outweighed by eagerness and warmth from both sides.

Yet as soon as they found out we were planning to have a child, our families have fixated on the issue — or wonderment — of our vastly different physical features. Will it have L’s thin, dark blonde hair that shone platinum when he was a child? Or my thick mane of black hair that ligthens to a dark brown in the summer? Will it have my tan, even skin tone? Or L’s lightly-freckled, pale skin that refuses to tan at all? Will it have my curvy, pouty mouth and large teeth? Or L’s soft, thin lips and easy smile? Will it have my flat, round nose, or L’s perfectly straight one? Will it have my almond-shaped brown eyes, or L’s piercing blue-grays?

None of this matters to me half as much as what personality traits it will inherit, but my friends and family, excited by the sheer possibilities, throw casual speculations back and forth:

“Oh I hope it’s a girl, and a blonde one. Like a doll.”

“Boy or girl, I want it to have blue eyes.”

“Blonde babies are so cute; too bad it’s a recessive gene. Don’t worry, at least it will very likely not have black hair, but instead have beautiful light brown hair.”

L and I were both beautiful babies. Big, bright eyes, heartwarming smiles, ten teeny tiny fingers and ten little toes. I’ve hung up our baby photos beside my baby’s ultrasounds. There is a chance it will look a lot like me, or a lot like its father, or even a cross between both. Looking at our own happy baby photos it was hard to imagine it would be anything short of perfect no matter what combination it draws… but it’s painfully clear whose traits are getting the most “requests”.

My father described my eyes as “sparkling with a special light”. My mother often looks at me and sighs, “I have no idea how a plain woman like me birthed a beauty like you.” To this day whenever my grandmother holds a baby she would say, almost matter-of-factly, that I was “the most beautiful baby of all.” Since my mid-teens, friends, family and strangers alike have lavished praised on my looks.

And then I married a blonde, blue-eyed husband. Ever since, I’ve heard endless wishes for the child to emerge blond, or blue-eyed, or both.

My husband grins and points at his niece and nephew, both born platinum-blonde with sapphire eyes. “Aren’t they beautiful? Won’t it be great if our baby looks like them?”

“Or it might look just like me,” I point out, hugging my belly defensively.

“Maybe,” L admitted, then joked (without realizing he was walking on thin ice): “but it has my genes, and my genes are strong!”

“Which features of mine do you want it to inherit?”

L shrugs. “I don’t know, but we’ll see.”

I want someone to say, with the same enthusiasm that others have shown for L’s qualities, that the baby will be lucky to inherit my looks: my black hair is beautiful and thick, optometrists declared my brown eyes too pretty to hide behind glasses, and my smooth, light-olive skin is always a skip and hop away from a beautiful, light golden tan in the summer sun. I dread that if the baby is born with these traits, which were so admired before the politics of my marriage to a white husband, that someone I care about will be genuinely disappointed — and worse, they will say so out loud.

It’s ironic, really. People have called me “exotic” for years. Men of different races have approached to ask where I’m from and remark about how “exotic”, “rare” and “interesting” I am. But when it comes to my baby, it seems all I hear about is how important it will be to pass on my husband’s Caucasian traits, because black hair and brown eyes are “common” while blond hair and blue eyes are “rare”.

For now, all we have is a black-and-white ultrasound. At the time of the ultrasound, it hadn’t grown hair on its head yet and its eyes were always closed, but the doctor showed us its beautiful round head, tiny nose and lips, kicky little legs and strong, grasping hands. It has a perfectly formed heart, perfectly formed brain, and all its little organs are coming along nicely. It curls up and squirms this way and that, already utterly adorable. How could a baby possibly be more perfect?

“Ooooohhhh don’t you think his head shape kind of looks like L’s? I can’t wait to meet your blonde baby!”

“Does that light colour around its head mean it’s got blonde hair? But look at how it shines! Hair like gold, how lucky!”

Sometimes I look at my husband, thinking of the traits my child might inherit from him, and smile. It’s not because I want my child to be blonde or blue-eyed. It’s because my husband has a deep, intelligent expression that sometimes sparkles with mischief, and because his eyes fill with love when he looks at me. It’s because he smiles easily — genuinely — and has soft hair that I love to touch. It’s because he has a deep, reassuring voice and warm hands.

I know he jokes about having blond babies because in the years that he has dreamed of starting a family, he never imagined – until he met me – that he would fall in love with an Asian woman. Both his brothers may have dark brown hair now, but they were born blond just like L. Their eyes tend to change colour over the years too. Caucasian colours can be fickle that way, and neither of his brothers have chosen blonde partners. His older brother is expecting a child with his Thai-Indonesian partner, while his younger brother is expecting one with a stunning dark-skinned beauty from Suriname.

I take another look at the ultrasounds. Among full-body snaps of our child is one close-up snap of its tiny little foot. While moving the ultrasound scanner around, it caught a perfect image of my baby’s right foot and L and I cooed in unison, so the quick-thinking doctor printed it out for us.

The toes on my baby seem flat along the top. L’s toes are long, delicate and form a sharp, slanted point. My toes end in almost a flat line, all except for the smallest toe which, compared to the rest of my toes, looks like a little stub. There is no mistaking it — my baby has inherited my feet.

“Look at the toes,” I tell L. “Look at how flat they are. It has my feet!”

“You’re right!” L says, a huge smile instantly spreading across his face. “That’s so great! You have very cute feet.”

A small victory perhaps, but significant nonetheless.

And even if you are born blond, my child, I will teach you to speak Chinese.

Tiny, flat toes…