SPOTLIGHT: Baby is a Thing Best Whispered by Keely O’Shaughnessy

Baby is a Thing Best Whispered

Before the rehearsal dinner, I learnt that only thirty hours after conception a fertilized egg begins to divide and starts to grow, and I thought I could sense the swelling of my shape right then, the quickening of life within me.

Disabled girls aren’t supposed to be married or be mothers. They’re meant to fade into dirt like leaf mulch. Yet here I am wearing an off-white dress and drinking fizzy grape juice from a champagne flute. The pearl of life in my belly only the size of a mustard seed.

Standing on the dance floor, I’m conscious of my chicken-scratch legs beneath the tulle of my skirt. The tight knotted mess of them against the newly gained curve of my bump, which nobody seems to notice. Coloured lights pulse. “Friday I’m in Love” plays as a side seam pops. 

My husband doesn’t know I’m pregnant. We were too busy drawing up seating plans and taste testing menus. He didn’t notice when I declined the Bordeaux that was paired with the spring lamb option.

I whispered the word baby to my seamstress during my second fitting, as she worked on her knees, pinning up the hem. I worried about the bodice corseted tight against my newly stretched flesh. She loosened the binding and zipped her lips with her finger. No squeals of excitement or gentle congratulatory hugs. I knew what she was thinking, because it was my thought too. If I cannot give the cluster of cells embedded in the lining of my womb the right nourishment, my child will not survive.


The speeches were long and winding, and I didn’t feature much. My mother is proud that I’ve found someone to care for me before my body parts seize completely.

She’s dancing now, throwing slow, bluesy shapes across the dance floor. An old friend of the family swirls about beside her. I don’t know if the friend is the same one that soothed her as she wept for the stillborn child that came before me. I was the consolation prize. When Mum was sliced open, I had already been starved of oxygen. Suffocating and too small, my brain was damaged. This is a detail that is unsaid but remains nestled in the dark of my mother’s throat.

She notices me and continues to move with a freedom I can only imagine. With a practiced look she warns me to stand taller: act more normal. A reflex, I stretch, my spine uncurling like a fern’s frond. Backlit by the DJ booth, my silhouette looks engorged.

At three weeks, a pre-born child’s heart is almost fully formed. Their eyes defined shapes, and their brain, spinal column, and nervous system virtually complete. At twelve weeks, there is a clear heartbeat. Hands pressed to my stomach, I sense a thrumming rhythm from within. Something forcing its way out of the dirt. Eyes closed, I feel my bump growing, organs shifting, fabric and flesh straining, and I know this is happening too fast.

Someone elbows me, my husband’s colleague, perhaps. He’s drunk, eyes blurred; my dress and veil spark nothing in him. I want to leave, but instead I’m pushed to the epicentre, helpless against the tide of swaying figures.

Looking down at my body, I’m startled by the new heft of it. And as more seams tear, I see there’s a rupture in me. Spilt flesh, jagged and raw. I clutch at the sides of the wound trying to keep them closed, to keep my child safe. Fingertips bloody, I know, as a mother, I’m already failing.

In the crush, familiar and unfamiliar faces merge. The beat reverberates through the sprung floor. The crack in my side widening, my child shifts pressing against my insides, macerating them. Blood and fluid seep from me.

I’m handed shots— Seven Deadly Sins and Baby Janes— and down them. Droplets of grenadine soak into lace and meld with streaks of darker, congealed blood. With each gulp, I bury any thoughts of the harm they could do. I lean into the impulse to spin. Arms up, I move as concentrically as my uneven and swollen body allows.

When the pains come, I’m not surprised. My entire bump contracts and quivers. My skin pulling taut and then slack. My grunting lost under the ‘90s playlist we devised nights before. Around me, the celebrations continue undeterred.

In the crowd, I can’t see my husband nor my mother, yet I’m glad. The room is muted. The waves of nausea, the pain, the blood and mess, and the baby, these are mine alone.

All at once, I’m present and I’m not. I’m hidden and then bathed in the strobes. As I moan, as flesh is cleaved, the smell of sweet, damp soil emanates from the widening spilt. The layers of dead leaves and earth that blanket my baby are exposed.

I let out long howls of shushing and panting as my bodice and skin give way like punctured orange peel. I’m softened, I am spilt open. I’m something new. My child is coming, and I wait to greet the creature I’ve created.


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