Her First Week by Sharon Olds

The poem, ‘Her First Week’, inparticularly reveals both sides of motherhood and the many facets of feeling and emotions that come along with having a baby.

Sharon Olds grew up in a conservative environment, which she later grew up to despise. Olds’ poetry reveals her beliefs in many ways. She embodies feminism, giving voice to previously taboo subjects. She speaks out for her gender and for her beliefs through her works of poetry. One of those feelings women generally avoid mentioning is one that comes with motherhood. Although it is common to mention the joys and thrills of motherhood, many women avoid speaking of the pain, exhaustion, and feelings of entrapment that also come with motherhood. When Olds first began to give voice to these kinds of feelings, her voice was one that pioneered women’s freedom to openly discuss such feelings.

Her First Week by Sharon Olds

 

Her First Week Analysis

Lines 1-4

She was so small I would scan the crib a half-second
(…)
from some sky an inch above the mattress. I would

The opening lines of ‘Her First Week,’ which can be read in full here, create an image of a newborn baby, and a mother who relentlessly checks on her in her sleep. Those who share the experience of motherhood will know the feeling intimately. The newborn infant is so small and so frail, and the mother knows that the likelihood that an infant would stop breathing during his sleep is at its highest during the first few days of life. This feeling is relayed in the opening lines of ‘Her First Week when the speaker describes the infant, and the way her eyes would frantically “scan the crib” every “half-second”. At this point, the speaker describes a scene that every mother fears, that she would find her infant face down. She describes the baby as “face-down in a corner, limp”. At this point, the reader wonders whether the speaker is describing the loss of a child as something she has actually experienced or merely as a deeply rooted fear. Many mothers have experienced the traumatizing thought of losing an infant. Sometimes, the thought can be so real and the image so vivid that it is almost as if she can picture it happening. The unfortunate few have seen this fear become a reality. The speaker cuts off her thought mid-line and continues with the following lines.

 

Lines 5-8

tuck her arm along her side
(…)
of damp laundry, in the dryer, Id slip

The speaker continues to describe her actions, upon finding her child face-down and limp. She “would tuck her arm along her side” and “slowly turn her over”. The speaker describes the infant, saying that she “would tumble over part by part”. She compares the feeling of her limp daughter to the feeling of a damp load of laundry as it tumbles in the dryer. This description continues to allow the reader to share in the feeling of horror that this woman has lost her child.

 

Lines 9-13

a hand in, under her neck,
(…)
the puckered, moire sacs, and her neck –

In these lines of ‘Her First Week,’ the speaker describes the way she picked up the infant, who was so small that her “little bottom” fit in the palm of her mother’s hand. She described her chest and her neck. The reader can imagine this mother picking up her baby girl gently by placing one hand under her neck and the other under her bottom. The imagery allows the readers to see the tenderness a mother feels for her child. The suspense of the previous lines combines this feeling with one of intense suspicion and tension, wondering if there is still life left in this child.

 

Lines 14-17

I was afraid of her neck, once I almost
(…)
eyes and looked at me. It was in

The speaker describes a time when she was afraid that she had heard that tiny neck snap. She suddenly relieves her readers, however, when she describes the newborn and the way that it “swivelled her slate eyes” and looked at her. However, it is still ambiguous whether the baby is presently alive, or whether the speaker merely remembers a time when the child looked at her.

 

Lines 18-20

my care, the creature of her spine, like the first
(…)
of the vertebrate had been placed in my hands.

With these lines of ‘Her First Week,’ the speaker relays the fear involved in being a mother. The tone of these lines reveals that the mother is in a state of fear and astonishment. She simply cannot fathom that “the creature” is solely dependent upon her. She marvels at the reality that “the history of the vertebrate” has been “placed in [her] hands”. She knows that this young child’s future, and thus some future person’s history, is dependent on her ability to care for this small, dependent creature. Those who have experienced motherhood know that this feeling is not one of sheer delight. Delight is there, but there is also a tinge of horror at the idea that a tiny human life could be so utterly and completely dependent. Many mothers have felt the weight of this responsibility and been unable to know exactly how to process the new responsibility placed on them – a responsibility that seems to eclipse all else.

 

Lines 21-28

Every time I checked, she was still
with us – someday, there would be a human
(…)
minuscule scars like creeks in sunlight, I
felt she was serious, I believed she was willing to stay.

The speaker offers a sense of relief to her readers, as she relays her own sense of relief when she realized that her infant was still alive, and would someday birth “a human race”. This reveals the mother’s sense of her own enormous responsibility. She realizes that it is not only this one small infant who depends upon her but also all of her future offspring for generations upon generations. Although the mother feels relieved that the child is still alive, that relief is immediately followed by a sense of gravity at the responsibility that lay before her.

The speaker then describes the way she “gathered her like a loose bouquet”. The descriptions she uses to reveal the delicacy of the child. The reader can imagine the delicate flowers in a “loose bouquet” and becomes aware of how delicate a newborn baby feels in the arms of its mother. The speaker then describes the way she “offered the breast” revealing that the physical needs of the child are wholly dependent upon the mother.

The speaker describes her breasts as “greyish-white” with “miniscule scars”. This reveals the effect that pregnancy and childbirth have had on her body. Her body is not her own anymore, just as her life is not her own. Bringing a child into the world has meant a sacrifice of her body and a sacrifice of her freedom from the weight of having a child wholly dependent upon her.

The last line of ‘Her First Week’ reveals a shift in tone and meaning. The speaker suddenly talks about the child as if it is the child’s own decision to whether or not to live. She had often feared losing her baby in her sleep, just as she had feared that the child’s fragile neck might break. Now, however, as she feeds her, she looks at her and states that the child seems “willing to stay”. Somehow, this transfer of responsibility from herself to the child offers the speaker a sense of peace without removing the responsibility the speaker clearly feels for the life of her infant daughter. The speaker implies that she has given everything, her body-mind, and soul, to the well-being of this child. The speaker has already revealed in previous lines that she intends to continue to give all of herself to the care of this child. Thus, it is now up to the child whether or not she will stay.  

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Allisa Corfman
About
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
  • Avatar Elsy Matthew says:

    Thanks Allisa Corfman for posting your work on Her First Week. It helped strengthen my understanding of the Poem.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for reading! We are glad it helped.

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