Will You Believe Me?

This doesn't sound like him at all


in First Person • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


The following content may contain descriptions or discussions of emotional abuse, which can be triggering or distressing for some individuals.

You told me many times how much you loved being pregnant. You didn’t talk about nausea or how much weight you put on. You talked about how people treated you so well those many years ago, how they opened doors for you, carried heavy bags for you. They stood so you could sit. They looked at you with wonder as if you were doing the most incredible thing. Your memories were so vibrant, so sharp as if it hadn’t been 45 years since you were last pregnant. You wished you could be pregnant all the time, you told me. 

“I wish I could say the same,” I would tell you. “I hated every minute of it.” 

“She had bad morning sickness,” R- would say. “Remember?” And he would look at me as if it hadn’t been me who had been retching over the toilet. 

I’m sure you thought I was pathetic, complaining about morning sickness as if a little bit of nausea could detract from how incredible it was to be pregnant. And I let you think that. I let the conversation roll back to you because I liked watching you remember that time in your life so fondly. I liked that my being pregnant gave you pretext to remember a joyous time in your past, especially because you had such hard times ahead. 

I told myself it didn’t matter that morning sickness wasn’t the reason my pregnancy was so difficult. You didn’t need to know. That’s what I thought. It’s not as if I could have possibly told you the truth. You wouldn’t have believed me. 

I don’t know if you knew that they called mine a geriatric pregnancy. To be called geriatric at 39 should have been offensive, but I had other things on my mind. I wonder if your pregnancy had started off with doctors telling you it was geriatric if you would have had a different experience. Would you have started out a bit indignant? Would you have been resentful of a system that forced you to wait to start a family because you had to establish a career first but was now telling you that you had waited too long? 

You never talked about your labor. Was K- attentive? Did he cook dinner? I know he left six weeks after R- was born, but was he with you at the hospital? Did he at least give you that? Were you ever alone in a basement with a stopwatch? If you were, did you ask yourself why you let it happen, or did you steel yourself for what was to come? 

I was induced on Halloween. They wanted the baby out. I wanted the baby in. I didn’t want him born on Halloween. I wanted him to have his own special day for the rest of his life without witches and goblins getting in the way. 

Due to my geriatric state — so there was at least one benefit — I had an ultrasound a few days prior to my due date, and too much amniotic fluid was discovered in my uterus. I was transferred from my midwife’s care to a doctor’s care at the hospital, where I was induced immediately and sent home. I was given the same instructions I assume you were given: Come back only when your contractions are five minutes apart. I was terrified to return any sooner.  

It was a lovely evening. Warm enough for just a light coat. No wind. R- and I handed out candy to a tiny firefighter and a few masked crusaders, and then we walked along the Danforth because walking can induce labor. It didn’t. 

Red raspberry tea too, apparently, can induce labor. Are there raspberries that aren’t red? I had no idea. We stopped at a tea shop. I drank the tea happily but still no contractions.  

You would have been proud of R-. I sat down while he ordered, and then he brought the tea to me. I know this doesn’t sound extraordinary to most, but I imagine it does to you. Had you been there, you likely would have squeezed his hand and told him how thoughtful he was. Like the time S- was two and we had gone to the Science Center. Do you remember? 

We had just arrived, and I realized I had forgotten my sweater. I was cold, as always. R- was wearing a fleece. I know you noticed. I noticed. There had been a moment of silence as we all noticed. R- didn’t say a thing.  

I suppose I could have asked for his fleece. If I bring it up now, he will tell me I should have asked. He will ask how he was supposed to know. And some might think this is reasonable. Some, our second couple’s therapist, for example, might say you need to ask for what you want. But by that time I knew not to ask. I knew if I asked, he would have said out loud what I knew to be true. He would have said out loud what I didn’t want to hear. He would have said out loud what I felt deep down and thought keeping it quiet would make it less so. 

It’s the reason I stopped asking to sleep on the bed when I was pregnant. In my second trimester, I was tossing and turning and could no longer sleep comfortably. I was keeping R- awake too. He moaned about this, and I felt guilty. We brought the spare twin mattress up from the basement and laid it on the floor next to the bed. R- slept there the first few nights. He then complained he could feel the springs in the mattress. 

“I can try sleeping there for one night,” I said. 

“Okay,” he said. 

And so I did.  

The following night I asked to return to the bed. He groaned but yielded. But in the morning he was miserable. He said he didn’t sleep at all. He said he couldn’t work. He said he could barely function. 

“I’ll sleep on the mattress tonight,” I told him. 

“Okay,” he said. 

Seven nights later I told him a week on the mattress was too much. I couldn’t feel the springs but my back needed more support. “It’s because of my belly,” I said, and then I told him it would be nice to sleep on the bed again. I asked him if I could. 

“Then I won’t get any sleep,” he said. 

“Seriously?” I said. “What about me?” 

“Fine,” he said, in a huff, and threw his pillow onto the mattress. 

The following day he didn’t speak to me, except in the evening to ask me to move heavy boxes of tiles out of the way because the plumbers were coming the following day for the renovation we were doing in the basement. 

“My back kind of hurts,” I told him. 

“So does mine,” he said. 

I never asked for the bed again, and at the Science Center that day I didn’t ask for his fleece. But do you remember what happened in the afternoon? Four hours later when I was no longer cold, when R- was, in fact, rather hot, as he always is — we’ve had fights over what temperature to keep the house — he took off his fleece, threw it at me, and said, “Here.” 

What happened next I have never forgotten. You were so effusive with your praise — praise I now know he had gotten used to over a lifetime, praise you thought would make up for his trauma, praise I now believe was damaging in a way you could never have known. You tossed your head back, clapped your hands, and exclaimed, “What a good son I’ve raised.” You turned to me. “Isn’t that wonderful?” you said. “Isn’t he such a good husband?” 

I was stunned, so stunned I must have agreed. So stunned I don’t think I said another word the rest of the afternoon. So stunned, in fact, that I didn’t realize, until years later, he had never been cold in the first place. So stunned that even now it’s hard to believe that when we had first arrived, when I was actually cold, when I had indeed needed his fleece, he didn’t give it to me on purpose. 

My contractions started just before midnight. I remember this because I knew I had made it. I knew I had held the baby off until after Halloween. Not that I was doing it on purpose, as if I could magically prevent contractions, especially after having been induced. Perhaps the ghouls and goblins had been on my side. It’s nice to think there had been someone on my side. 

R- ran a bath for me. He was rather attentive. At least I thought he was. I suppose running a bath doesn’t take that much effort. It didn’t occur to me to ask for more. A person gets used to the level of attentiveness or appallingness of a partner so it becomes quite normal. 

It turns out hot water does nothing for cleaving pain. The contractions were worse than I had ever imagined, and I had imagined the worst. I would later understand that since my cervix wasn’t dilating with each contraction, the pain was in fact worse than it should have been. 

I called for R- to help me out. He came. He helped. I thanked him. 

It was so late by then, after midnight. My contractions were nowhere near close to five minutes apart. All I could think was: “The pain is supposed to get worse?” I cried. I wailed. I bowed my head and breathed slowly. I told myself to get it together, to pull my socks up, not that I could reach them. Millions of women have done this, without baths, without modern amenities of any kind. One of my good friends had done this at 16, when we were just kids ourselves, when we weren’t even allowed to go to an R-rated movie. How pathetic was I? 

I realize now I wasn’t pathetic. I was just alone. 

Dried off and into comfortable clothes, doubled over on our bed, the very bed I hadn’t slept on in months, somehow R- got to talking about how tired he was. 

“I should get some sleep,” he said. 


“If I’m going to be able to support you when it’s time, I need sleep. I’m so tired.” 

When it’s time? Isn’t it time right now? 

He looked tired. Really drained actually. It was the first time that night I noticed it. His eyes were beady. His face was drawn. He looked like he often did when he’d had enough, when he’d expended all possible energy he had to give. 

You would have felt so sorry for him. I can see it now, had you been there, how you would have reached out to him. He would have felt cared for. I’m not sure either of you would have even noticed me. 

“I don’t think I can sleep,” I said, not that he’d asked, and he looked at me as if he hadn’t considered this. His eyes were blank, his eyelids wilting. “I’ll be writhing about,” I explained. “More so than usual.” I had assumed he meant we should both go to bed, that we should both try to sleep, and since we had already moved the spare mattress into the basement, we would have to share the bed. I remember thinking how nice it would be to lie down one last time on our comfortable queen bed. 

“Since you’re going to be sleeping downstairs anyway,” R- said, “you could go down there now.” 

Which, as you know, was the plan. Since the baby’s bedroom was going to be in the basement, we had decided I would sleep down there as well, on the pull-out, while I was nursing. 

“And I could stay up here,” he added. 

“Oh,” I said, trying to think it through, this idea that R- had come up with, this plan that I should go to the basement and he should stay upstairs. I was shattered. My brain was drained of all possible mental clarity, and all I could think of was that I had to save resources to do math. 

“If you’re not going to sleep anyway,” R- said. “Right? That’s what you said? That you wouldn’t be able to sleep?” 

“Yeah,” I said, doubling over, positioning myself into an upside-down L on the edge of the bed in case that felt better. It didn’t. 

“And I’ll be able to support you better if I get some sleep,” he repeated. 

He stared at me, waiting for an answer, waiting for me to let him off the hook, waiting for me to empathize with his exhaustion, waiting for me to give him an excuse, waiting for me to make it my fault. 

“I guess I could try the bath down there,” I said, as we had just put a new bathtub in the basement. As if that bath could do something the bath upstairs couldn’t. 

“Good idea,” he said. 

And so down we went, just like that, so quickly I couldn’t change my mind, down two flights of stairs into the basement with its lovely new floors, my favorite part of the entire renovation, the soft cork in the den and bedroom, and the patterned Italian tiles in the bathroom. And I remember thinking, at least I’ve got those. At least looking at the lovely geometric pattern in the tile, a pattern everyone thought I was bonkers to put in a bathroom, would bring a smile to my lips as I chomped down in pain. 

R- yanked out the pullout, put the spare mattress on top of it, and arranged the bedding. You’ll be happy to know he was very helpful with this part. You would have been proud, although I now know it never mattered what he did: You were proud regardless, even when you should have been appalled. 

“But I need to count the contractions,” I said when he was ready to head back upstairs to our bed. 

He thought a minute, for there was no clock down there, and I didn’t wear a watch, nor did I own a phone yet. He went back upstairs and returned with his iPad. He helpfully showed me how to open the stopwatch app, how to start the clock, and how to reset it. Because that was the important part: I would have to reset it many times, over and over again because I had to get to five minutes. Five minutes. Five minutes. That’s all I was thinking. Five minutes. 

“Okay,” he said, ready to leave again. 

“Oh, wait,” I said. “I’ll need to call the midwife. Or . . . ” I was trying to think straight, “Or you’ll need to call the midwife. Someone will have to call the midwife, and I don’t have a phone.” 

He thought again. Longer this time. And I knew not to speak while he was thinking. 

“Got it,” he said, and he set up what I’ve always referred to as an elaborate system. I was so impressed he had come up with something so ingenious. I would be able to call his phone from the iPad, and he would answer immediately and rush down to do whatever I asked.  

“Oh, this is brilliant,” I said, genuinely, and I felt truly grateful he had come up with a way for me to reach him. He soaked up my gratitude as I commended him for coming up with a plan, a plan to wake him after hours of labor on my own, a plan we both stood there congratulating him for, a plan over which you might have thrown a party for him. I now realize this plan of his, this impressive elaborate technical solution he had come up with, was just FaceTime. 

“Okay?” he asked again. 

“So I just press this, and you’ll hear it, and you’ll come down, right?” I confirmed. 

“Yes,” he assured me. “It’s easy.” 

And so he left. And there I was: In the basement, in labor, on my own. As he walked back up the stairs, I do remember thinking, Oh, okay. This is a bit weird. As I drew my own bath in the basement, as I got out of the bath because it wasn’t helping, as I paced around the basement, freezing because R- liked to keep the house cold, I do, honestly, remember thinking this is rather odd. Why am I on my own? Why has R- left me on my own? 

He’ll tell you now, if you ask him why he left me, it’s because he didn’t feel connected to me, that I had been cold to him over the years, critical. And you’ll believe him, even though if you ask him again, another day, he’ll give you a different reason. 

I don’t know why I’m telling you this now. I know you won’t believe me. But I guess it’s because I thought you had cared for me, even when you were apoplectic that time I left for a weekend to attend my friend’s wedding and you said R- wouldn’t be able to cope on his own. Or that time you thought I hadn’t gotten R- a cake for his birthday and you shot daggers at me all day until I surprised him with his favorite cake in the evening. Or the time you touched my curly hair in the way white people touch Black hair and you exclaimed, “Oh, it’s soft.” I still thought you cared. 

I guess it’s because you had been there after my C-section when my own mother wasn’t. You had helped me with my bandages and taken care of Baby S- when I was trying to get a few minutes of sleep. We had laughed over the years when making those one-cup brownies together and watching that older shirtless guy across the street wash his red car and you thought he was so cute. I guess it’s because I needed someone to care, because my mother didn’t, and I thought you’d be better at it than R-. 

With every contraction, I would open the stopwatch app and wait for the pain to subside so I could press start. But when the pain subsided, I was so relieved I would forget to press start. Or if I pressed start, when the pain started up again, I was so distraught I would forget to press stop. Turns out the stopwatch app was not very helpful. 

Turns out the whole plan wasn’t very helpful. I panicked at some point during the night, remembering all those times R- complained there was no space for him in the condo to have a home office and when I suggested the basement, he said the internet would be spotty down there. Spotty internet in the basement? Crap. 

The contractions were so bad I wanted to scream. Do you know what my first thought was? Don’t scream: you might wake R-. And not because I wanted him to sleep. I know you’ll think I’m cruel I didn’t care if he slept or not. But the reason I didn’t want to wake him was that if I did, he would have been so angry, and I feared what he would have done, what he would have withheld, what he would have made me do had he been stirred out of his slumber. 

I know what you’re thinking. R- doesn’t get angry. You’re saying to yourself you’ve never heard him shout. He’s never gotten into a single fight. This doesn’t sound like him at all. And you’re right. This isn’t that kind of story. He doesn’t shout. He doesn’t hit. He doesn’t rage outwardly. When Richard’s angry, he leaves me in the basement alone when I’m in labor, and he makes me think it was my fault. 

Is it my fault FaceTime didn’t work when I finally had to use it? Is it my fault I had to climb those stairs on my own and scream for R- to wake up? And I know it upsets you that I’m blaming him. It was the internet’s fault. How could I blame him? How was he to know the internet wouldn’t work? He had done everything in his power to hook up this elaborate system so that I could reach him. But . . . technology. Everyone knows technology will let you down. 

But you know what? It wasn’t the internet. That’s not why FaceTime didn’t work. FaceTime did work. I did exactly what I was supposed to do. The reason it didn’t work, the reason R- didn’t wake up, the reason I had to climb those stairs on my own is because R- had turned his ringer off.•


Christine Birbalsingh is a second-generation Caribbean Canadian mixed-race Toronto-based writer. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, Couples’ Therapy.