Ex-girlfriend by Cara McDonough

When my daughter was born, my younger brother and his girlfriend came to visit me in the hospital the very next day, traveling from Washington D.C., where they lived, to New Haven. I’d had an unexpected C-section and when they got there they asked me if there was anything I needed. I casually mentioned that a magazine or two might be nice as I had several days in the hospital ahead.  
 
Later that night, after they’d gone to dinner, they returned with the biggest armful of magazines you could imagine. My fantasy magazine collection – the stuff I’d buy at the grocery store every single time if I had no restraint. Oprah’s magazine, “O.” “Real Simple.” Celebrity gossip magazines. Food and wine magazines. It was obvious that my brother’s girlfriend had taken the initiative. He asked her, as she delivered them to my bedside, “Really? ‘Oprah?’” She responded, simply, “It’s a good magazine.” I confirmed this and gleefully accepted.  
 
The next four days recovering were wonderful. I loved my newborn daughter, so sleepy and small, wrapped up like a little burrito in the hospital’s striped swaddling blankets. I loved my dutiful husband, who slept on the couch in my room – all 6’4 of him – without complaint. I loved having visitors and loved ordering breakfast from the hospital cafeteria menu. My recovery from surgery wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined it would be and as soon as I was able, I walked the halls of the maternity ward with my daughter’s rolling bassinet to speed up the healing process, just like the nurses told me to do.  
 
But my time there, of course, came to an end, and we were sent home with our little girl in her pink sweater, many sizes too big. I could tell you a lie, that it was great to be home, but the minute I walked through the door I realized we’d made a big mistake by leaving the confines of Yale. There were packages from well wishers piled up under the dining room table and all I could think about was how we were going to have to deal with all that cardboard and bubble wrap.  
 
I spent a week feeling rather dejected about the whole state of affairs, and if they would have accepted me, I would have marched right back to the hospital and made myself at home in that corner room with the big windows, where we’d cuddled in my tiny bed one night watching “Desperate Housewives” while our newborn daughter slept and slept.  
 
My hospital nostalgia passed however, as did the – rather common, I learned – hormonal shifts that caused my “baby blues.” We had visitors and trips to plan. While life with our new baby was certainly tiring, I was a happy – if sometimes disheveled – new mother. I finally came to realize that maternity leave meant a lot of down time, as our baby still dozed for hours and hours at a stretch. I had time to simply lie around like I’d never had before, and I still had that pile of magazines my brother’s girlfriend had so thoughtfully given me when they’d come to visit.  
 
Then I learned that they weren’t doing so well, my brother and this girl, and that they’d probably break up. The news didn’t come out of the blue, exactly. They’d been dating for over a year and a half, and we’d come to know and love her. Perhaps I loved her most of all. But they’d had a few ups and downs, and the downs had been accumulating those last few weeks of my pregnancy and after my daughter was born. They had come to see us, though – together – and I thought that maybe everything would be alright.  
 
I’m not sure it’s important to go through all the details here. The important part is that my brother, who is four years younger than me, explained that they were separating and it was for the best. That they’d wait and see about the future. Only you could already tell the future wasn’t promising.  
 
I was sitting there on our couch nursing my daughter on a beautiful, crisp fall day shortly after learning this news, when a break up song called “Dry Your Eyes” by the British band The Streets came on our stereo. The words to this particular song are heartbreaking, even if you’re not suffering from the actual condition. But suddenly I felt that I was. I couldn’t believe the level of melodrama I was sinking to; the new mother breastfeeding and emotional about other people’s love stories, and then to make matters worse, I started crying.  
 
My husband came in from the back where he was doing yard work, and asked what was wrong with some, if not total, alarm. After all, I was a new mom and crying occasionally comes with the territory. I waved him away. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing. It’s just this song,” I said through my tears. “Can you believe this song?” I recognized that I had become, at that moment, a bit of a caricature, and I laughed. I told him that I was sad about my brother and his girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend.  
 
Time passed and the end of my maternity leave loomed. I still had the magazines. I hadn’t read them all, at least not as thoroughly as I wanted to, and despite the fact that almost nobody has time to read every single article in one magazine, not to mention a huge stack of them, I clung to them, leaving them in our magazine rack week after week. I did this despite the fact that keeping old magazines and newspapers in the house is a pet peeve of mine, and I often scold my husband for this very sin, and for the clutter that results. I sometimes attempt to throw his stash of dated publications away, secretly, but he always finds out.  
 
Of course, for me, there was an obvious and deeper issue at bay, and realizing that I truly needed to get over my little brother’s relationship was what finally drove me to pile up the magazines – including “O,” which was the most difficult to let go of – and put them in the recycling bin.  
 
I’ve wondered, since, if lamenting a relationship that is not our own is somewhat of a luxury. The pain of reliving dinners we had together –laughing and drinking great wine – is more personal, but similar to the pain we feel when a favorite character dies in a book we are reading. We indulge in it when we need a good cry or when life requires a dose of theatrics. We can take it or leave it, unlike the two people actually involved.  
 
I’ve heard friends joke of their own siblings’ romances, that, “I took it harder than he did when the two of them broke up!” Why trivialize our grief? Maybe it is fleeting, maybe we aren’t the primary players, but our feelings are perhaps truer for the lack of petty annoyance a romantic relationship’s close may bring to the parties directly involved.  
 
I often think about how much those magazines meant to me while I was in the hospital and afterwards. I don’t regret feeling that way, nor do I regret standing up for my brother’s girlfriend when we got in family discussions about their plight during and following their break up. I do, however, recognize the benefit of the way things turned out.  
 
Still, I allow myself the occasional sigh, even all these months later. Mostly, though, I remember the happy times. That well-lit hospital room filled with all the people I love. Dinners, laughing, great wine. Those equally intense and idyllic days at home following the birth of my child made letting go more difficult. But just as that beautiful fall yielded a harsh New England winter, and my newborn became an infant who learned to smile and roll over, I moved on.
 
Cara McDonough is a freelance writer who lives in New Haven, CT with her husband, two children and two dogs, who got a lot more attention before the children came along. She writes about parenting and other issues for several publications and web sites, including The Huffington Post, and writes the Motherland blog for New Haven Advocate, http://www.ct.com/blog/motherland