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Whistling Motherhood

Before the morning sun light can infiltrate the small hospital room, a medical resident barely out of school is grilling me about my baby boy’s bodily functions. It’s five to six in the morning and I can smell my own bad breath as I speak. I smooth out my wrinkled shirt and tell myself not to be embarrassed. The doctor isn’t embarrassed.

I eye him. He’s from the generation that isn’t even a little uncomfortable with the consonants and vowels he strung together. He doesn’t blush or stutter.

“Did he seem to be constipated last night?”

“No,” I say.

“Are his bowel movements normally—”

I close my ears to the descriptive words he uses, which evoke flashcards of images I’d rather not see in my head. I’ve been a mother for six hundred and seventeen days and very few of them have been free of discussion with friends and complete strangers about bodily fluids. It’s a stupefying fact. When Eric and I became parents, I didn’t realize my days would never be the same. That we would never have a meal with other parents would inevitably dissolve into funny stories about leaky diapers, or projectile vomit or some of the words the young doctor used.

A few weeks ago, I heard some mothers at the park were talking about an app that keeps up with a baby’s bodily functions as I walked by. I didn’t sit at their bench. But the next day, my son’s daycare informed me I should have this same app on my phone.

“To coordinate his bowel movements,” the caretaker said without a hint of sarcasm. I made a joke that it wasn’t necessary, but she didn’t laugh. Her lips thinned into a line, conveying the utmost judgment.

I downloaded the app.

I didn’t know it would ping users who were nearby. Who would want that, I ask you? Not me. So, imagine my surprise when two women approached me at the park, eager to discuss their children’s bodily fluids. I admit I stared at them longer than was acceptable, feeling as though I’d just been told time travel was possible. When they turned to me to add to the conversation, I made up a mumbled excuse and rushed away.

The hospital room feels smaller than before. I wish I could scoop up my baby and rush away as I did in the park, but the doctor is still speaking. He asks me for the bowel activity app, assuming I would have it.

I pull it up and hand it over, imagining the worker at the day-care watching me with pride.

The animal sheeted bed moves. My son’s eyes flutter open. His tiny brain registers a strange ceiling and a strange beeping noise. His head turns when he hears a strange man’s voice. His face scrunches when he sees no colors on the walls. I whistle. Low and even. The man-boy doctor narrows his eyes. Already irritated that I’m not paying attention to him, he looks at me like I’m crazy.

I imagine the headline: Woman, crazy with worry, can’t speak, can only whistle.

“It lets him know I’m nearby,” I say to the man-boy doctor. His head pulls back in a semi nod, his eyes bulging as though trying to not roll them in disbelief.

The bank laid me off two weeks before my maternity leave was up. Head held high, I threw myself into being a mom while searching for work. We filled our days with mommy and baby clubs. My skin itched at the very idea of them, but I needed friends and my son needed socializing. So we went.

The second mommy and baby club we attended, my son paused in the middle of a gaggle of babies, suddenly looking lost. The more seconds that passed with him locking eyes with me, the more fear filled his eyes. As I watched him, I thought of my father. He used to whistle when we went hunting together to tell me he was nearby. Hearing that deep whistle always reassured me.

Without any training, my baby knew the whistle was me. Perhaps he knows instinctively what kind of mother he has. The kind who hunts but doesn’t acknowledge body functions. I tried the whistle in several locations: the park, playdates, at home. Sometimes he comes running towards the whistle, other times it just helps him settle down. Never once has he burst into tears after hearing it.

This morning when I whistle, a smile breaks out on his face, showing the cutest front teeth. I never thought the very sight of teeth could shoot love through my heart. After all, they aren’t fuzzy or soft or cuddly. They leave a mark and hurt like the dickens when they clamp down. Who knew baby jaws could be so strong? I found out the hard way. At eight months old, my cuddly baby boy almost broke skin on my index finger from his two cute, tiny teeth, and then giggled in my face about it.

I’d let him bite my finger every day to hear that giggle. My weakness.

Thankfully I’ve found Donald Duck cartoons and tipping over towers of stacked blocks are less painful alternatives that produce that giggle. And just in time since he now has eight giant, adorable white daggers protruding from his gums.

“Did he sleep through the night?”

I turned back to the man-boy doctor and nod. A heavy, diapered bum rears up in the crib. In an instant, my son is standing up, rubbing his eyes with the back of his fists.

“A-da!” he declares. “Mama!”

To emphasize, he pulls himself to standing and strikes the top of the railing with his fat palms. I whistle in return and am rewarded with a giggle, throwing him off kilter and onto his backside. The same nurse as the day before comes in, springing on her toes as though over the moon to be at work. The tray she carries holds only foods to stimulate bowel movements, she announces. I try to smile, but am sure it looks more like a grimace. If I had my choice, they would all leave us alone. Or really, we would leave them by going home where stuffed animals ruled the roost. They were quiet and never spoke of unseemly topics.

But we aren’t allowed to go until the nail my son swallowed works its way out of his intestines. Surgery is next if it doesn’t come out in the next 48 hours. Imagining a scalpel near his soft, dome shaped belly makes me nauseous.

Either finished with his line of questioning or too annoyed to continue, the doctor turns on his heels and heads towards my son. I don’t know why any of this requires a stethoscope, but my son seems to enjoy that part. He tries to stick it into his mouth. The man-boy doctor coos and talks in the voice all adults take on when speaking to babies: soft, low inflection in all the wrong places. I return to the sofa where I slept to tidy it up. I’d like to use the accompanying restroom, but instead I sit down and cross my legs. Yesterday evening I could hear everything my husband was doing in there. I’m not about to make this resident and nurse privy to my morning routine.

My baby boy curls his lip at the applesauce the nurse offers him and bounces up and down. His knees bend over and over, but his feet never leave the hospital crib mattress. A drool-applesauce mixture dribbles down his chin, but the nurse doesn’t sigh or mutter or reprimand the baby. Instead, she makes popping noises with her lips, which my son tries to imitate by opening his mouth wide. In goes the applesauce to the back of his throat. Hie eyes widen in surprise at the trick, then in delight as the nurse squeals and vibrates her tongue to imitate a motor.

I’m convinced the over stimulation is making my baby delirious. But at least he’s eating. The faster his inner organs comply with what the doctor wants, the sooner we can go home.

A tall shadow darkens the hospital room doorway, the scent of my husband, Eric, reaching my nostrils. I greet him, feeling a little lighter at the sight of him, my bones no longer so exhausted as his arms curl around me.

“He looks happy,” he whispered into my unbrushed hair.

“Da-da-da-da-da!” our son demands.

Apple sauce be damned, he wants an airplane flight or perhaps tickles on his belly or, their latest thing, to be used as a fantasy football and soar across the imaginary field safe in Eric’s hands. Such are the things they do together. I wonder if that kind of play might help massage the nail out. Or if Eric’s large, powerful hands would have it poking through a tiny liver or intestine. My hands jerk at the image of a nail poking through my son’s flesh, blood pouring out of it.

“I’m going to run to the restroom and get a coffee,” I tell Eric. Then I turn and emit a low whistle. When my son hears it, his roaming eyes find mine.

“How d’you teach him that?” Eric asked, lifting his nose out of my hair.

I struggle out of Eric’s arms to cup my baby’s face in-between my palms. I squeeze until his cheeks touch his nose and his mouth opens in an oval shape. My mouth meets his squished mouth that tastes of baby slobber and applesauce.

Turning back to Eric, I shrug. “Babies appear to be trainable like puppies. You just have to keep doing the same thing over and over while rewarding them.”

Eric laughs and asks our son if he’s a puppy or a boy. Giggles are his answer, along with raised chubby arms demanding to be held. As I leave the room, another resident comes in. I hear him suggest my husband put our son on the floor to walk the nail out. I snort. The resident clears his throat and specifies that he means any kind of physical exercise the baby can do so far. Eric places my first born on the floor and calls for him to crawl towards him. He meets the suggestion with an enthusiastic attempt. Good thing babies wear padding on their bottom parts.

The lights in the hallway are harsh; unnatural. It’s hard to believe that two hours have passed since the first doctor did his rounds. Yesterday, as we waited for hours to see the results of the x-rays, time went into a deep freeze. Now it was speeding by, like a clock in an old Looney Toons cartoon. If the nail didn’t come out soon, time would slow to molasses again outside a surgery room.

I’m no stranger to hospital time. The slowing and stopping and speeding up. As my son grew in my belly, I watched my father slowly die just a few floors up in this same hospital. Those days, slow and yet fast, left few memories other than the beep of a machine and my father’s ragged breathing. That hospital time diminished me, leaving me with the sense of stepping into another dimension.

Down the hallway, I find the bathroom in the same place as my father’s floor. I turn away from the hallway that would parallel my father’s, where he took his last breath, and enter the bathroom. Inside smells of bleach. I try my best to wash my face and brush my hair with my fingers. A haggard, tired, racoon-eyed woman looks back at me from the mirror. I wait for her to wink like Mary Poppins and almost fall asleep waiting. Cold water helps wake her, wake me. ‘Washing with cold water keeps you looking young,’ my father used to say.

It at least wakes you up.

More refreshed, I head to the coffee cart two floors down and buy two lattes. My time of freedom quickly ends as I walk back, taking the stairs instead of the elevator for a moment more of a reprieve. Huffing on the landing with two more flights to go up, I wonder if Eric will go to work today and whether I should or shouldn’t check my emails. I almost drop a latte trying to check if my phone is in my pocket or not, finally giving up just before making a fool of myself. Eric always says I try to do too many things at once.

Finally, up the two flights, I pause again to gulp in oxygen, then push the stairwell door open with my backside. From down the hall, I can hear my son giggling while Eric makes silly noises. When I reach the room, my baby boy is lying on the bed, the parts of his body that should remain hidden, exposed to the fresh air. Eric is peek-a-booing through the crib bars, a giant smile on his face. He jumps up from his crouched position when he sees me, producing a startled bodily jerk from our son.

“He pooped! He pooped out the nail!” Eric shouts, grabbing me by the waist and twirling me around. I almost drop the lattes in my effort to hug back.

A nurse in pink scrubs turns from the table next to the crib and holds up a half-inch nail grasped in tweezers.

There are some dirty truths about motherhood.

Like the fact that boys, even tiny ones who can’t walk, like shiny objects. They like to hold them and they like to eat them. Because of this, they can get themselves into a mess of trouble. Especially when the shiny object is long, thin and pointed. Like a two-inch nail.

No one ever shakes a mother, telling her to snap out of it when she thinks her son is too intelligent to swallow a nail. Nor do they tell you how you can live for minutes even after your heart stops from shock when a day-care worker says your son is on his way to the hospital. Sirens in the background for maximum effect.

And I could never, ever imagine, even if they had told me, that I would burst into tears at the news that my son had a bowel movement.


Kat Caldwell is a novelist and short story writer. She writes both historical and contemporary fiction, sometimes dabbling in magical realism when life needs an extra sparkle. You can find her books and more about her at

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