A Story of Motherhood
The sound woke me from a deep sleep. It must have triggered the instinct that caring for my own son had planted deeply in my brain because before my eyes were even open, my hand was reaching for Ishmael. I found him and put my palm between his shoulders, feeling his back rise and fall rhythmically with none of the urgency of the cries that filled my ears. I peeked out from under lids weighted with sleep and saw my Ishmael sleeping peacefully, legs folded underneath him, rump raised in the air.
I sat up, brushed the hair out of my eyes, and wondered if I was imagining the sound. But then the wind shifted, and the baby’s wails were even louder. I dragged on my warmest robe, tying it hastily, and left the warmth of my tent.
The sun was only just beginning to appear on the horizon; everything was gray and hazy. I blinked and strained my eyes, looking for the source of the desperate crying.
Then, out of the morning mist, stepped Sarah. At the sight of her, I followed another deeply ingrained instinct- drawing myself up straight and placing a hand to my chest protectively. I never knew what an encounter with Sarah would bring, and I always tried to be vigilant when we were together.
Sarah was almost unrecognizable. She had none of the confidence which normally kept her shoulders pinned back and her eyes lifted with pride. Her beautiful, long hair, which was always twisted into intricate braids, now hung lifeless and ratted.
She looked, for the first time that I could remember, like the old woman that she was.
I watched as she paused, and for a second it almost seemed like she would turn away and hurry back towards the camp.
“Sarah?” I called.
She whipped around at the sound of my voice, shook herself, and then slowly started to walk towards me.
She stopped a few feet away, and, for a while, we stood facing one another in the haze, the only sound the wailing of the child that was clutched in Sarah’s arms.
Then, she dragged her eyes upward and met mine. Her voice was scratchy as if she hadn’t used it for weeks, but still she croaked out, “Good morning, Hagar. I hope that we didn’t wake you.”
I tried to cover my surprise at how cautious and formal she sounded.
I shrugged and said, “After Ishmael, I’ve never been able to sleep through the cries of a baby.” Sarah looked pained and embarrassed, so I rushed to add, “But it’s so nice to watch the sun rise in the morning. I should thank your little one for getting me out of bed.”
Sarah nodded, but her eyes cut to the side. A knot started to twist in my stomach. Sarah was so unlike herself. Something was wrong.
The wind picked up, and Sarah shivered. I realized that she wasn’t wearing a robe to protect herself from the morning’s chill. I cautiously reached out to her, gently touching her arm as I said, “Why don’t we go back inside my tent. We’ll talk while you warm up.”
Sarah let me lead her inside, and all the while the child she carried wailed and wailed. The knot in my stomach grew larger. Sarah was many things, but she was never passive.
I folded a few blankets, and when I gestured for her to sit down, she collapsed onto them as if her legs could no longer support her. I looked over at Ishmael and saw that while he still was lying on his pallet, his eyes were open and curious. I gestured for him; he scurried over and clambered into my lap.
Sarah’s eyes popped wide at his movement, and she started to stand. “I’m so sorry,” she sputtered as she rose. “Now we’ve woken your boy. I shouldn’t have come.”
Again, I reached for her with a gentle hand and guided her back to the makeshift seat. Again, she let me lead her. I sat back, cuddling Ishmael close and watching as Sarah folded herself over the crying baby in her arms.
Ishmael poked me with one of his chubby fingers. “Mama,” he said in his sweet way. “Whose baby?”
Sarah’s body seemed to fold even deeper- almost as if she was being crushed by an unseen weight.
“That’s your Aunt Sarah’s new baby,” I told Ishmael.
“His name is Isaac.” Sarah’s whisper could barely be heard over her child’s ceaseless sobs.
Ishmael wiggled, trying to catch a glimpse of the child but unwilling to leave the safety of my lap. “Can I see, Mama?”
“I don’t know, Ishy. It’s up to Aunt Sarah.” I looked up at the other woman, feeling a little anxious about her response to Ishamel’s request.
Slowly, so slowly that I wondered if I was imagining it, Sarah straightened. I found myself leaning forward as well, caught up in the same curiosity that Ishmael was feeling.
Saying nothing, Sarah unwrapped the noisy bundle she had been clutching to her chest, eventually revealing the red, mottled face and puckered mouth of an unhappy infant.
Cautiously, Ishmael crawled over to Sarah and knelt in front of her. He leaned as close to the baby he could and whispered, “Hi Isaac. I’m Ishy. Don’t cry.”
Sarah seemed to deflate at his words, and soon her cries joined those of her son.
Ishmael looked at me in alarm and moved quickly away from Sarah.
“That was kind of you, baby,” I said. “Why don’t you go back to your bed while I talk with Aunt Sarah.”
Eyes wide and anxious, Ishmael retreated to the other side of the tent and snuggled back into his blankets.
I turned my body so that I blocked his view of Sarah, trying to offer the woman some privacy.
I paused, trying to find the right words for this moment. In truth I had never been able to speak easily with Sarah. She was my mistress and there was so much pain and tension in our past. I hadn’t even seen her for months, not since she received the news that she would have a child of her own. Not since she learned that she would no longer need to force herself to love the son I had given us.
But no matter our history, I could not stop myself from feeling deep concern. She was radiating distress, and the tiny infant she carried was obviously struggling.
“Sarah,” I said, pitching my voice in the same way I would if I were trying to soothe a wild animal. “Sarah, why did you come all the way to my tent before the sun had even risen? Is there something wrong with the baby?”
For a bit, I wondered if her sobs would be the only answer I would receive. But then she said, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve been trying for days, but I can’t make him stop crying. I came here because your Ishmael never cried like this…” She paused and then added quietly, “I didn’t know who else to ask…”
I sighed and said, “May I hold him?” She hesitated, and I wondered if she had allowed anyone else to hold Isaac for even a moment since he was born. “I’ll stay right here. Right next to you.” She nodded, and I watched powerful emotions fill her face as she forced herself to pass Isaac into my arms.
I placed him gently in my lap and crooned soothing nonsense words to him while I unwrapped his blankets and checked him over. He was clean but surprisingly small. “What a handsome one you are,” I murmured. I snuck a glance at Sarah and saw that she was watching us anxiously.
“He’s beautiful, Sarah. You must be so pleased.”
She nodded vigorously, tears still streaming down her cheeks.
“I wonder though,” I continued, trying to be as gentle as I could. “He seems a bit small. Have you had any trouble feeding him?”
Sarah’s face crumpled, and the words came tumbling out of her. “I knew it was my fault. He’s hungry isn’t he? That’s why he won’t stop crying. I’ve tried, and I’ve tried...but he never seems to get enough. I’m sure that it’s my fault. My body is too old… I told God that it was ridiculous to think that I could have a child at my age. But God didn’t listen, and now I have Isaac, and…and...” Her voice broke, “...and I’m failing him. I’m a terrible mother.”
I sat in silence as she cried, holding the baby and trying to give her space to expel some of the pain that she had obviously been carrying.
When she quieted, I handed Sarah her whimpering child. The moment he was in her arms, her body once again shaped itself around him. I moved so that we were face to face, inches apart. I tried to make my voice as calm and reassuring as I could, “Sarah, have you ever seen a woman nurse her baby? Did you sit with your mother when she fed your siblings?”
Sarah shook her head, “I was the youngest in my family.” She paused before admitting, “And once I realized that I could not have children, it was too painful for me to sit close to the nursing mothers in our camp.”
I nodded and said, “I was the oldest of my eight siblings, and I would often help my mother with the babies and sit with her while she was nursing. My youngest brother was the only one she had trouble feeding, and when he was very hungry, he would scream and scream just like Isaac.”
I kept speaking softly, calmly, and Sarah seemed to be lulled by the rhythm of my words.
“After she had my baby brother, my mother wasn’t able to sleep because he fussed and fussed the entire day and night. After a week of his crying, my mother’s aunt appeared in the doorway of our tent. She was the midwife for our village and was a wise and compassionate woman. I remember that she walked over to sit next to my mother, smoothed her hair behind her ear, and said, ‘Sweet niece, you are a mother many times over, but there is always more to learn. Let me help you and the baby.’ For the next day, my aunt stayed in our tent with us. She showed my mother different ways to hold my brother and how to keep him awake so that he would eat enough to be full. She showed my mother how to move her body so that my brother would latch on and be able to drink. I remember that when the day was half gone, my brother stopped crying. I remember that as the sun set that evening, my mother’s eyes started to sparkle again. I watched my aunt so closely while she was in our tent. I tried to pay attention to everything that she said and that she did so that I would ready when I had my own children.”
I placed a gentle hand on Sarah’s arm and said, “Sarah, you are a wonderful mother. Your body has experienced a miracle, and you obviously love your baby more than anything else in this world. But sometimes miracles and love are not enough, and in those moments, women rely on one another to share the wisdom they have inherited from their mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends.”
I paused, trying to find the right words, “I am no midwife, but I can show you what my aunt taught my mother and what I learned from being the mother of Ishmael. Would you like to stay with us today?”
As silent tears fell down her face, Sarah said quietly, “Yes. Yes, please.”
I hesitated, aware that at any time the fragile peace that existed in my tent might explode and injure us all, but I made myself ask, “Will Abraham be worried about you and Isaac? Do you want me to go into the camp and let him know where you are?”
Sarah spoke quietly, “He is the one who suggested that I come to you.”
My eyes snapped up, locking with hers, and for a moment, we sat, linked once again as the silent stories of our lives- the pain of comparison, the cruelty of being forgotten, the consequences of competition- flowed between us.
And then Isaac let out a wail that sounded like frenzied laughter.
I shook myself, nodded, and said, “Why don’t you and Isaac get comfortable while I get Ishy ready for the day?” I stood and went to Ishmael, allowing myself a single moment of comfort where I clutched him close to my heart and buried my face in his curls.
And then time restarted, and our day began. I helped Ishmael remove his damp nightclothes, listened as he babbled an explanation that included the night-monsters outside of our tent, cleaned him up, and helped him dress. As I bustled about, I snuck quick glances at Sarah. At first, she sat stiffly, obviously uncomfortable. But as time wore on, she started to shift and rearrange the blankets that I had given her as a seat. Eventually she found a position where she looked more comfortable. I noticed that when Ishmael and I spoke with one another, Sarah’s eyes locked on Isaac’s face and filled with incredible longing.
When Ishmael and I were both ready for the day, we returned to Sarah and sat across from her. “Why don’t we feed our boys together?” I offered.
Sarah’s eyes jumped from Isaac’s face to mine,“Hasn’t Ishmael been weaned?”
I shook my head and said gently, “Not entirely. He’s begun eating regular food, but I am still nursing him. My body is still making milk and this way I don’t need to worry whether he’s getting enough to make him strong.”
I watched as Sarah took in what I had said, and I could swear that even with that small amount of information, I was able to see her understanding of motherhood begin to shift and rearrange.
In our first few hours together, I showed her what my aunt had taught my mother. I helped her move her body in ways that allowed Isaac’s angry, puckered mouth to find purchase.
In the warmth of the late afternoon, I heated a pot of water and added flowers with calming scents. I showed Sarah how to soothe her son with a gentle bath. When Ishmael fell asleep and Isaac drifted into a fitful nap, I added more water and more flowers to the pot and offered them to Sarah. I watched as her eyes darted between the makeshift bath and the baby she still held. “I’m sure even your strong arms could use a rest,” I said. “Why don’t I hold him for a bit.” Again, it seemed that Sarah had to force herself to let go, but she did. And so, I sat on a blanket, within easy reach, rocking a crying Isaac as Sarah washed away some of her exhaustion and strain.
When the sun came up the second day, I thought Sarah looked a little more like herself. Isaac was still crying… but now it was more of a soft mewling rather than an angry scream. After we fed our sons, I asked Ishmael if he wanted to go outside and stretch his legs. He enthusiastically agreed and then looked at Isaac, “Isaac come too, Mama?”
This time, it seemed easier for Sarah to pass her child into my arms, “That sounds nice, Ishmael. Maybe Isaac could go with you two. I think I might stay here and sleep for a few more minutes.”
I tried not to act surprised by this show of trust. I held Isaac close to my chest and said, “What a wonderful idea. We’ll be right outside.”
And so, for a time, I carried Sarah’s son in one arm and held the hand of my own as he practiced walking and skipping, and running. I made sure to stay close so that Sarah would be able to see us immediately if she left the tent. I tried not to notice how much our boys resembled one another.
That afternoon, Sarah and I were once again seated in the tent. Ishmael, exhausted from our time in the sun, hadn’t made it to his pallet, instead sleeping spread across my lap. I carded my fingers through his hair, gently combing out tangles from his curls.
Something felt … different. Not bad or good… but changed. I looked around the space, trying to identify the source of the shift. My gaze landed on Isaac, who had finished eating, and was sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms.
“Sarah,” I whispered.
“I just realized. Isaac hasn’t cried in hours.”
Sarah looked at me, at her son, and then back at me, a smile growing slowly on her face.
I couldn’t tell you how long we sat there, grinning at one another as our sons slept. It was a moment that existed outside of time, a moment when the tent felt suddenly full with the wisdom and love of our mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends. It was a moment when we were not Hagar and Sarah, two women bound together by pain and history. Instead, for that brief, eternal moment we were simply two mothers, two women sharing a hard-won peace.
The next morning, as the sun began to rise, I once again stood with Sarah in the gentle light. It had been two days since she had emerged from the haze, two days since I had been awoken by the cries of an infant.
If time was judged by the change in one’s countenance rather than by the path of the sun, I would have said that eons had passed. Sarah was transformed.
She still looked tired, but the light had returned to her face, and her shoulders were once again pulled back with pride. I had given her the long piece of fabric I had used to carry Ishmael, and I had shown her how to wrap and twist and knot it so that Isaac would be safe. From within the folds of his cocoon, I caught glimpses of Isaac’s sparkling eyes and tiny smile. I leaned closer, gently squeezed his clenched fist, and said with a laughing voice, “Be good to your Mama, little Isaac. She loves you a lot.”
I stepped back and looked at Sarah, my smile fading as I saw that her face was covered in tears.
“Hagar,” she paused, obviously struggling to find the right words. “ Hagar, you’ve been so kind… you’ve helped me so much...and I was never… I never treated you…”
She stilled, dropped her eyes to the ground, and stood silently, breathing in and out… in and out… gathering everything back into herself, back under her control.
I watched as she roughly wiped the tears from her cheeks, as she slowly shifted back into the woman I had known for so many years, a woman that carried so much pain that she only felt safe when she could hide behind a wall of her own making.
Unconsciously, I stepped away from her, straightened my back, and raised a hand to my chest- reshaping myself to fit the space that she left for me.
“Sarah?” I asked again.
Sarah nodded, almost as if she had made a decision, and then said, “Thank you for your help, Hagar, but it’s time for me to go back to Abraham.”
I flinched at his name. Neither of us had spoken it aloud since that moment two days ago, when Sarah told me that Abraham had suggested she seek me out. Her saying it now felt like she was drawing a clear boundary. Our time of friendship had ended. She was once again Sarah, the wife of Abraham. And I was once again, Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s eldest son.
“Be well,” I whispered. “I hope that Isaac continues to thrive.”
“Thank you,” she replied.
Was I imagining that slight shift of light in her eyes? Was even a piece of her still there?
“I hope that your son,” she paused and took a deep breath before continuing, “I hope that Ishmael thrives as well.”
I stood just outside of my tent, watching as Sarah made her way back into the camp. I continued standing there even after she had disappeared amidst the tents of her husband’s attendants. I may have continued standing there for all time, transformed into a pillar of salt because I had caught a glimpse of what could have been, but soon enough, I felt a small arm wrap around my leg.
“Good morning, baby,” I said.
“Morning, Mama. Isaac?”
I looked down on my son’s upturned face, “Isaac went back home.”
Ishmael’s gaze snapped to the tents where he knew his father lived, “Aunt Sarah?”
I knelt down in front of him, “Aunt Sarah had to go with Isaac. You know that mamas stick close to their babies. Aunt Sarah would never leave Isaac, just like I will never leave you.”
I watched as my son nodded, accepting without question both that we would always be together and that he would never have a place with Sarah.
I allowed myself to feel the pain of the old wound that I carried, the wound that had formed around the knowledge that our lives with Sarah and Abraham could have been so different. And then, a sound split the silence, a kind of roar and gurgle.
A half embarrassed- half delighted smile grew on my son’s face, and I leaned forward, pressing my ear against his stomach.
“Ishy! There’s a lion in your belly!”
“A lion, Mama! Grrrrrrrr!”
I scooped him up, threw him over my shoulder even as he continued to growl and roar, and started to prepare our breakfast.
As time went on, and Ishmael and I continued living as we always had, I started to wonder if I had imagined spending those days with Sarah, sharing the wisdom of my aunt and my mother. But then, months later, as our camp began to move, I caught sight of her walking next to her husband, back straight, eyes lifted. As her body turned, I saw a plump baby strapped to her chest, wrapped in the fabric that I knew so well, the fabric that I had used to carry and protect his brother.
“Come here, Ishy,” I called. He scampered to me, and I hoisted him as high as I could. “If you look carefully,” I said, pointing, “You can see Aunt Sarah and baby Isaac.”
“Baby!” Ishmael exclaimed loudly. “Hi Baby! Hi Isaac!!” The winds must have conspired with my son, because they carried his words straight to Sarah, and she turned to face us.
Seeing that she had heard him, Ishmael started waving both of his arms while yelling, “Hi Baby! Hi Isaac!”
I lifted a hand, offering a wave of my own.
Sarah’s lips turned up in a small smile, and then she lifted Isaac’s chubby arm and waved it in acknowledgment.
Ishmael flung his arms around my neck in glee, and for the next several minutes, I listened as my son babbled happily about seeing the baby, and I watched as Isaac’s mother turned back to her husband and walked farther and farther away.