Year One1. FrontierCHAPTER ONEFree-fallingHe stands on the railing of his crib, one foot on the ledge, the other swinging back and forth like a Rockette’s. It looks like he’s going to fall. I try to lunge forward but can’t move a limb.He is laughing.I try to scream but can’t utter a sound.I notice he has a mouth full of teeth—in one glimpse, pink gums; in the next, neat rows of tiny Chiclets gleaming with saliva. He begins to speak, an adult voice in diapers.I begin pulling white cotton burp cloths out of his mouth like a magician tugging scarves from a hat.His head is covered in spit-up, dipped in it, like cookie batter, and I’m wiping it with towel after towel, but nothing’s coming off.He’s lost. I find him curled up, the size of a sparrow, napping between two paper plates on a picnic table under a tree.Seventy-two hours across the threshold of new motherhood, turbulent hormones bathing my imagination in an intoxicating brew of euphoria, awe, and mortal terror, these are my dreams.The sky is black as ink. The dim glow of a nightlight reminds me of where I am—home—huddled in the rocker with my newborn son in the middle of an icy February. I am holding a gossamer cloud of a boy, swaddled in pale yellow cotton, his skin soft as flour. A wise old man without wrinkles.Amnesia sets in. When did I have a baby? When was I ever pregnant? It’s as if everything before this birth has faded into snow on the TV screen when the cable is down.
Nicholas is born on a Thursday at 9:28 p.m., just in time for our OB to get home and watch E.R. My husband, David, and I enter the delivery room with terrific volumes of knowledge, our heads crammed with anatomical terminology, charts, and time-lapse photography. We know how to make a baby, how to deliver a baby, how to prepare a house, a room, a car, a diaper bag for a baby’s arrival. But what we never anticipated, never knew, never read in any book on what to expect, is what happens after you see your baby, this baby you conceived and named before meeting him. What happens inside your head full of facts and figures and misconceptions that drain like bathwater the instant you lay eyes on your child.I was prepared to have a baby, but who or what could have prepared me for a carnal fear of loss or this love so profound it knocks the wind out of me?It is 2 a.m., and I lie still in the dark after a one-hour bout of adrenaline shakes. I suddenly feel so small in my bed with the faint voices from the nurses’ station in the hallway, so painfully aware that the safest time of this baby’s life—my life—is now over. He is forever untethered.I realize the moment I see his face for the first time that I will have to let him go in tiny, imperceptible increments every day from this moment on. A moment of incomparable regret.There’s no turning back for him. Or me.I have crossed a new frontier. Strangely, I feel like a guest and a trespasser. This is the baby who played soccer with my spleen, the one I felt I knew so well just looking at his black-and-white sonogram. Somehow, he looked more familiar silhouetted inside my womb than he does in my arms.
Pulling out of the hospital parking lot, our It’s a Boy balloon bobbing in the back window, we wave at the security guard. We are all three cocooned in fleece and down. I can see my breath. The windows are fogging. My eyes well. The sun is setting. Glancing at the hospital entrance in the side-view mirror, I remember the nurse’s parting words: “Sleep him on his back. Breast milk is best. Nap when he naps. Good luck!”On our first night, our baby son cries from 9:36 p.m. to 4:09 a.m. My heart has lodged itself in my throat, my pulse thrashing wildly as if this were the scene of a crash and I’m sifting through twisted, steaming metal until the paramedics arrive. I’m watching myself in the third person, hovering over my life. I call the doctor’s office.“If this is a life-threatening emergency, please press one …”When we finally reach a pediatrician at 3:27 a.m., he instructs us to bundle up the baby and go for a drive. In the dead of night. On our first night. In the dead of winter.Sitting next to him in the backseat, I can’t take my eyes off his perfect face, the size of a navel orange. He is tranquil at last. We make our way back at 4:10 a.m.4:16 a.m. Dave and I are under blankets, seconds from slumber, when the baby begins to wail hysterically. We keep blinking in the unfamiliar darkness to remind ourselves that we are not dreaming, that Nicholas is in fact real and weighs only six pounds nine ounces despite his magnificent voice. We are in a fog with this tiny gargantuan person.We all finally get to sleep at about seven that morning. In the daylight, everything seems a little less terrifying.
Apparently, newborn infants cry when they’re being changed or bathed because they instinctively feel like they’re falling. Our baby must feel like he has been pushed, blindfolded, out of a Cessna, free-falling without an umbilical cord. He is frantic. He sobs when we sponge-bathe him. We try to keep him warm, to hold him, to dim the lights, to speak softly and touch him gently. I try nursing him just before his bath, even during it. We try a pacifier, but he spits it out as if a clove of garlic had just been placed on his tongue. We have actually gotten the bath down to a clean thirty seconds, enough time to wet him, dry him off, rediaper and dress him. I pretty much stop breathing during diaper changes and baths. Fortunately, both are relatively short procedures.I had absolutely no idea that the sound of my baby’s cry would affect me so deeply. I think I hear him crying when the washing machine whines in a high-pitched tone as it reaches its last cycle, or the water pipes whistle in a plaintive vibrato when the shower is running, or when the neighbor’s white Persian yowls in the eaves trough above our balcony. Sometimes, I think I hear him crying when it’s perfectly quiet in the house.The crying, in and of itself, is not the central issue. It is, after all, the baby’s language. It isn’t even so much that I have to learn this new language. I hear his cry as more than a call for food or a diaper change. He is saying, Stop everything you’re doing right now and commit to me!It is a kind of commitment I have never known before. And it scares me numb.I now realize that despite a university degree; a fairly extensive collection of well-thumbed books; three and a half decades of life knowledge, street smarts, and hard-won lessons; and thirteen years as a journalist and television host traveling the world, interviewing thousands of people from all walks of life—Senegalese orphans, Holocaust survivors, war vets, Olympic athletes, mothers against drunk drivers, AIDS researchers, oncologists, movie stars, musicians, and political figures—I pretty much know nothing.A new mother who knows nothing. At a time in my life when I ought to know something. Like how to console my child.He cries. I go through a random maternal choreography with him, in search of ways to unlock the mystery of his cues. There are moments when I feel our divine symbiosis, and others when the path to each other seems hopelessly labyrinthine, an intricate maze of mixed messages and misunderstandings. How do I know if I’m right or wrong? Whom should I trust?My husband and I take our newborn to a pediatrician, whom we chose rather arbitrarily. His practice is half a mile down the street.“He seems to be crying a lot, especially between five and eight at night,” I say to the doctor. “Is there anything we can do for him?”“He has a little colic,” says the doc, shrugging. “You have to let go and cut the umbilical cord.”A little colic? Is that like a little pregnant? Or a little married? Let go? I blink at the doctor; then I consult with Nicholas, his face raging with baby acne.“Do you have children?” I ask the man.“No,” he says, grinning.I realize at this moment that finding a pediatrician is not a random choice. Let go? Alright, if you insist.The next baby doctor has three kids and a golden retriever.“If you pick up the baby every time he cries, he’ll cry to get picked up,” he explains. “It’s all conditioning.”He nods at Dave and me; then he slides his pen back into his coat pocket and closes our son’s folder.After three attempts, we eventually find a doctor, a mother of four, who takes the time to get to know our son and us. Nicholas screeches at the mere crinkling of examining-table paper, and howls desperately while she checks his ears. Still, she smiles at his beautiful, contorted face, checking his throat while his mouth is conveniently open.“You’re such a handsome little guy,” she coos. “And smart, too!”He wails and writhes, clutching my sweater like a frightened kitten.“He’s doing fine,” she concludes after his first checkup.Great, I think. Now what about us?There are the books written by pediatricians, child psychologists, behavior specialists, and family therapists. There’s my mother’s experience and my mother-in-law’s experience—a combined storehouse of eight children and seventy-nine years of parenting. There are neighbors. Friends. Strangers. And there’s Public Opinion, that universal playbook that apparently applies to all babies everywhere except mine.Then there’s my feeble Gut Feeling, that faint voice calling from the bottom of the well, the so-called hunch, which may or may not qualify at this point in time as my Maternal Instinct.And then, of course, there’s the baby.
When I was pregnant, I never thought of his cry. I only prayed for a healthy baby. The ten-fingers-and-ten-toes prayer.I never remember wishing that our baby would be the kind that slept ten hours straight. I never once prayed for proper latch-on or a good appetite or a baby who loved the stroller or traveled well. I read books about what to expect, how to achieve the optimal blanket swaddle, how to burp a baby three different ways. (Who knew?) I read about rashes, vaccines, a little about cradle cap. I knew about different poop colors and how many pee diapers meant he was getting enough milk.But the stuff you only know about a person when you know him—not his vital stats like his resting pulse and his Apgar score, but the particular way he likes to be held, his favorite perch, the spot where he burrows his face between your collarbone and shoulder tip, the way he likes to be rocked from side to side not back and forth, the sound of his sighs in triplicate just before he goes limp for the night, the subtle gradations of mood shifting across his tiny face like a cloud across a late afternoon sky, his newborn eyes still puffy and crossed, his heart-wrenching cry—these things I could never know before now.Having a child has forced me to confront my idea of control. I realize this the moment my OB walks into the delivery room and tells me that the baby has a twenty-four-hour window to come out with his hands up or she’ll have to go in after him.In his newborn fear of falling, this child has asked me to stare long into a new life and trust. Myself, him, the process, God. Not an easy thing when you’re used to relying on tangibles, feedback, and visual cues.But as I lie crouched between the walls of my newborn’s helplessness, it dawns on me that whatever control I thought I had over my life prior to the birth of my son was nothing more than a sleight of hand I had learned to buoy me in an uncertain world.The days pass. I write. On napkins. Envelopes of unopened bills. Grocery receipts, unfurled white ribbons with a tidy purple price list on one side and the tiny, nearly illegible thoughts of a not entirely desperate new mother scratched in black ink on the other. I sit at the computer, tapping keys with one finger while I hold my sleeping boy in the crook of my other arm.I write to preserve myself, my mind, memories, untamed fantasies, dueling emotions, the ancient language of pantomime between a baby and mother in the first stages of courtship. I write to lay down the tracks of the journey as we embark on our unbeaten path, placing syllables along the ground like small stones to guide me back when I need to return to the place where we started. I search for words, frames of reference, a map of new motherhood to which I can refer for reassurance and refuge.I find, instead, that the territory is mine to chart. There is no external compass, only this baby with his sky blue eyes for arrows and his voice that sends me into the woods hunting for clues.I write of my baby in need and his mother in conflict. I wrestle with the notion of my own competence. What do my baby’s needs have to do with my sense of adequacy? We are now two, separated at birth. And yet, it seems impossible to ever separate our sensibilities from this moment forth.Sometimes, when he is sleeping on my chest listening to the rhythm of my beating heart, I wonder how on earth I am ever going to have the courage to let him go. That’s when free-falling feels like an eternal passage. I look at my son in these first weeks of our new life together and wonder if my feet will ever touch the ground again.CHAPTER TWOBreatheI don’t think I have breathed since delivery. That was several weeks ago. I harbor so much doubt about “doing it right.” Not by-the-book right, but rather a yearning to do right by him and for him. I keep thinking my baby might break. He is so delicate. His neck is so floppy. He is so confused about everything. How to swallow without inhaling. What to do with phlegm. Why he has to wear clothes, have his nails clipped, his belly button swabbed.The gas thing really throws him. And me. I realize that he hasn’t had much intestinal peace in these first weeks. He always seems to have that Uh-oh-I-think-I’m-gonna-hurl look on his face. I live in fear of The Hurl, because when it happens I’m convinced he has brought up all of the food he has eaten since he was born. My legs tremble while I clean him up and smile at him and sing a sweet made-up lullaby about baby spit-up.I search my newborn’s eyes for a sign that he is, you know, happy with me. I look at him, studying his features, his gestures, his small but impressive repertoire of reactions to my responses. And I feel like he and I have so much in common. We are both innocent, both newly born, needing to feel physically and emotionally safe with one another. I am trying to make sure he feels secure and comfortable, even though I want to curl up in the fetal position and sleep for a month. I have never been so God-help-me-tired in my life. My hair hurts.
It’s the middle of the night. Dave and I take turns rocking the baby. The trick is to rock him standing up, teetering from side-to-side as opposed to back and forth. It’s uncanny that such a small being can sense the difference. The moment we even think about inching toward the glider, the baby cries his bone-rattling cry of protest.Our friends Rosemary and Eric put their baby daughter in her stroller, lay down about ten hockey sticks on their living-room carpet, and then roll the stroller across the bumpy slats until she falls asleep.For them it’s hockey sticks; for others it’s the whir of the dryer, or the purr of a vibrating bouncy seat. For us, it’s side-to-side squats. I’ve never had better quads in my life.People tell me to put him down.“He’ll become too attached,” they reason, as if I’m making him dependent on me.He makes it clear that being held is more preferable to him, right now, than lying in his baby seat, or on the floor under that red, black, and white thingie we bought to stimulate him but that only causes him acid reflux. People say I ought to let him get used to not being in my arms, to condition him to get along without me.It’s not that I want to dismiss tradition. It’s just that Popular Opinion is apparently not popular with my baby. I peer into the great chasm between my intuition and the roar of the crowd. It’s hard to hear, let alone trust, my own voice. I pick up my son, and the chorus chants “You’ll spoil him.” I go to him at night—“He’ll never sleep on his own.” I soothe him—“He’ll be too dependent.” I answer his call—“He’ll think the world revolves around him.” When he cries, he is called “difficult,” while other infants are “good” babies. When I fulfill his needs, I’m “coddling him.” He’s the “overindulged” baby who is bound to become the toddler “who won’t take no for an answer,” the dreaded “brat.”He has been out of the womb for forty-two days. And people I have never seen before in my life are laying claims on his future. On our relationship. Drawing the dividing lines. Picking sides. Home versus Visitors. Whose needs are more important—his or mine?
When people told me life was going to change, I’d balk, as if somehow I would be exempt from that fate. Your life, as you know it, will be gone forever, they’d foreshadow. And they cackled in that way voodoo witches tend to do when they are casting spells that don’t rhyme and can’t be undone. They said my whole focus would be different. In fact, and not to nitpick here, my entire center of gravity has shifted.My senses have been sharpened. I can hear the baby’s lips purse through the wall in another room. I can now see in the dark. My maternal sixth sense has been supplanted by a seventh: anticipating.I shuffle the few steps from the bassinet to my pillow, knocking the mattress with my knees as I approach, holding my breath as I slide my toes down to the bottom of the cool sheets. I take a breath, a slow endless yawn that transports me from the day’s long thread to the dream shards I remember in splintered bits that have no beginning or end and sometimes make me worry about my sanity.I had heard about postpartum blues, though I never paid much attention to the term before. It can’t be real, I thought. I remember this now as I cry over spaghetti sauce. Wrapping paper. The doorbell. My breasts. I look at the baby’s toes and sob. It hurts so much to be awake. To be aware. To feel. So melancholy about his and my future. I feel like I’m mourning something, a loss. But what? My empty womb? My carefree life? The fact that I can never guarantee his safety again?Is this my life from this moment on? Will I ever again want to stand tall and walk swiftly with my eyes on the horizon like I have a sense of direction, of purpose, of wanting to go anywhere at all? When will I not feel so self-conscious about exhaling? Will anyone notice if I never leave the house again?These can’t be the blues. Blue is the color of the sky, of the Aegean Sea, of my favorite winter turtleneck, of minty toothpaste that leaves my tongue tingling. Blue is cool and fresh. I like blue.This is charcoal. It’s the dead of night with the stars sealed behind a dome of clouds. This is muddy brown. Sepia. Mulch. Wet wood chips. Black soil. These are the colors of my postpartum rainbow. The only blue I see is in my baby son’s eyes. Dark blue pools of concern darting back and forth, searching, searching.I paw at the woolen stuffed monkey and giraffe that our neighbor Patty knitted for the baby, and I snivel into a handful of balled-up tissues. I can’t believe that women have babies more than once, that my mother had three, my mother-in-law five. I cry for mothers with sick children, for mothers who have lost children, mothers of missing children. I cry for babies who are abandoned, unloved. I sob as if there has been a death in the family, not a birth. Here I am, basking in the miracle of this new person, weeping for all of humankind. Somehow, I manage to dry my eyes and compose myself in front of my son. I think he has enough on his mind after nine months of relative peace and quiet. My friend Janice assures me that I am not going crazy, that these dark clouds will soon blow away. I want to believe her.It occurs to me that after fourteen hours of nursing rocking burping nursing changing rocking soothing washing nursing burping walking changing soothing rocking holding—after two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep—I must do this again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.I need to get out.I want to take long walks with the baby, to clear my head, leave the house, change the scenery, but Nicholas is not comfortable anywhere except in my arms. I try the pouch, but by the time I strap him in, he is so distressed, I make it as far as the front door and abort the mission.The day we actually make it outside, the sky is overcast and the air is damp. It’s midafternoon and the sidewalks are barren. I walk with my baby in a forward pouch, his left ear against my chest and his belly against mine.He sleeps.Twenty muted minutes.I have the feeling that I may walk forever.
The first six weeks have been a kind of hibernation. I have turned our bed into the dining-room table, the changing station, the place we nap, eat, nurse. I could put a dairy farm to shame. I just can’t fathom the sheer volume of milk pouring forth from my once imperceptible breasts. They’re like showerheads. I have to lie down just to slow the flow.Every time the baby’s tiny mouth approaches, I clench my jaw in anticipation of an exquisite, lingering pain. I feel hot and itchy and desperate. Guilty that I feel such dread and remorse and shame every time I hear my son’s hunger cry.I try warm compresses. Ibuprofen. Chamomile tea. Prayer. I even tried wearing chilled, uncooked cabbage leaves to relieve engorgement pain. But I just smelled like sauerkraut. Jane, the lactation nurse at the hospital, assured me that the pain would pass. I long to breastfeed my baby without flinching, or checking my watch. I try to focus on one feeding at a time. Just like him.A week later, Ann, lactation consultant, parent educator, and mother of three well-adjusted adult children, makes a housecall. She examines my baby’s latch-on and my bloody nipples. I whimper on her shoulder that I feel defective, that the baby prefers me to sit upright to feed him, and then stand up to burp him—every hour and a half at night—that my girlfriend Mercedes could actually lie down to nurse her baby so she still got some rest at the same time. Ann listens with terrific compassion, and then gives me an Olympian pep talk about the psychology of running a marathon.“I feel like I’ll be limping to the finish line,” I sniffle.“First of all, don’t compare yourself to others. Every mother is going to have her own personal experience,” she says. “And remember, this isn’t a race. Nobody’s timing you. Nobody’s judging you. You’re feeding your baby. This is between you and your child. And soon, the two of you will nurse like it’s simply part of your language, a way you communicate with each other.”But when?“A few more weeks?”I swallow hard. Sometimes I feel that this baby, with all his most essential and primitive needs, could drain the life out of me. And still need more. The fact is, he needs me. And I don’t want to shortchange him.
In these early weeks, I hear his cry—insistent, coded, fearful, hungry, primal, essential, urgent—and feel a quiet panic loosening my seams, reawakening all that is dormant inside me. I am this boy’s mother, and yet, there are those times when I can’t make it better for him. “What’s wrong with him?” becomes “What’s wrong with me?” Is he looking for something I am not giving him? Sometimes, he looks annoyed with me. Unsure. I’ve got to stop thinking he doesn’t like me.It might help if it was anywhere near acceptable to discuss any or all of these feelings honestly in public with other human beings. I have staccato conversations with people whose answers make my ears ring.“Oh, but it’s all worth it, isn’t it? And he’s just so adorable!”This does wonders for my sense of isolation.I suppose people say it’s all worth it when you’re at your low point because they sense you’re feeling that it’s not, that you’re somehow regretting your decision to have conceived in the first place. But, can’t a new mother feel momentarily plagued with despair and feel the inexorable worth of this experience, this child, this life—both at the same time?I realize how necessary it is to find support. Being a happily married woman, I never expected to feel so alone as a new mother. This, I can see, has little to do with my husband. Somehow, sharing your struggles, confessions, and irrational fears with other mothers can be a kind of lifeline. There is nothing quite like a little old-fashioned validation from another mother who can listen without judgment, shining a light in otherwise shadowed corners.It is so hard to remember this is all temporary. There are times when I feel like he will always be my tiny, miserably gassy baby, and I will always be his mother feeling his pain, stifling my panic, holding my breath. This is probably because I never imagined how hard it could be to give when you feel so tired. I never knew how different giving feels when it isn’t reciprocal. I never knew that you just give, somehow, despite your unspeakable weariness and sense of defeat.Giving when your cup is full feels great when you’ve got enough left for yourself. But giving when you’ve squeezed your last droplet of energy into feeding and calming the baby, when you’ve heaved the dry clothes on the bed in one swooping arc like a diskthrower in a decathlon, when you haven’t showered or talked in full sentences for days, when you can’t finish a thought, a page in a book, a hot meal—well, giving can feel downright life-threatening.I feel humbled and intrigued that this newborn boy is teaching me how to give, how to love, how to trust, how to know him—and myself. This blessed, miraculous, wondrous, precious person has unknowingly thrust me down the well of my own life to plumb the depths of my own issues of dependency and fear and helplessness.Sometimes, I have my hand on the horn. Not wanting to yield or merge entirely. How could I ever see in this baby’s tender eyes, the wrath of El Nino? I feel sorry for having such frequent flashbacks of my former life just 1,344 hours after walking through the pearly gates of Motherhood, for taking his tears so darned personally.I have spent the first few weeks as a new mother trembling at the crossroads of fear and love, expectation and reality, resistance and surrender. My baby urges me to stand in his chaos. In my own. To find order in it. I look in his eyes, and I see my own complexity reflected back at me.
It’s raining on my birthday. The baby has been crying on and off from dawn to dusk. I nurse him, change him, rock him, sing to him, walk with him, hold him closely, whisper to him, kiss and cuddle him, but nothing has calmed him for more than a few minutes at a time. For hours, I hold him and seesaw in his favorite sideways motion, but he starts to cry the moment I stop. Eventually, he gets tired and dozes off on my shoulder, at which point I carefully recline on my bed with him. If I adjust the pillows for my comfort, he wakes up crying. I walk him back and forth from the living room down the hall to the bedroom in an endless loop, until my feet are hot and swollen.By late afternoon, I sit on the edge of my bed with my weeping son cradled in my arms, and I do something I haven’t done all day: I join him. I let the tears pour like rain. I can feel the ache fill my lungs until it begins to billow like the sails on a boat. Finally, I let it out in whispery sobs, my shoulders shaking with each wave. And suddenly, all I hear is the sound of my own voice. Nicholas is still at last, as if a switch has been flipped back to off. We silently stare at each other’s wet flushed face, both of us blinking back tears.And that’s when he smiles at me. It isn’t gas.I’m absolutely positive it’s a real, bona fide smile—the best birthday gift I could imagine. The rain continues well past midnight, but that smile glows like a sunrise. And, for a brief moment, I can see the horizon.CHAPTER THREEBlessed and BoundI’m out on the front porch on a vibrant spring morning, picking at a turkey sandwich while the baby sleeps. The forsythias have just woken up after a winter’s nap, long canary yellow ribbons of bush in resplendent bloom. A light breeze catches the scent of one lone cherry-blossom tree up the hill and carries its perfume downwind to where I am.Our postman, Larry Christmas, walks up the wooden steps to hand-deliver a package about the size of a loaf of bread. It’s a gift from Lori, my best friend from high school. Inside the box is an adorable red, white, and blue striped baby overall and hat she knitted for Nicholas.Lori’s note says, “Do not despair! Eight weeks approaches fast!”How did she know I was desperate for some marker, a flare on the road to let me know where I might be?
The blues are pretty much done with me. Several eternal weeks of dense postpartum clouds poured without letup. Dave could only stand by and watch, helpless and anxious, alternately sympathetic and impatient.“This will pass,” he would reassure me. “Won’t it?” he’d sometimes add, hoping for an affirmative answer.These days, my blues are more shades of pale gray. There are times when I am filled with such divine gratitude for the very existence of this little boy. Then, there are moments when I wonder if I’ll have enough energy to sustain us both.I feel privileged and trapped at the same time. Blessed and bound.Sometimes, I catch myself wishing the baby would hurry and grow, hold his own bottle, sit upright in his own chair, walk. But then I imagine him boarding a little yellow school bus, his cartoon knapsack on his shoulders, flashing me his impish smile from the window, and my chest tightens.I’m caught between the baby and the boy, fear and faith, hoping for a smooth ride for both of us. I wish I could guarantee his safety forever, though I know I can’t, and I fight that fact daily as though I’m leaning into a strong wind and losing.When he’s asleep, I embrace the silence, the stillness of doing nothing. For a moment, I feel such deep relief because my hands are free. I can write. I can make a snack, open mail, have a shower, return a phone call. But soon, I begin to feel distracted by the silence.I peek through the crack of the door into the room where he is napping. The sight of his small face, his soft flower lips, his boyfingers curled into baby fists like he’s holding something special in his palm—a seashell or a candy—somehow breaks my heart: I cannot imagine feeling a deeper love for and devotion to any living creature on earth, yet I feel a strange sort of betrayal. The silence has lured me into its fold for a few brief moments, then filled itself with emptiness. I can’t hear the quiet now without feeling the longing.I stare at his feet a lot. I gaze, bleary-eyed, at his Flintstone feet in the moonlight, his big toes pointing skyward, his slivered toenails looking more like clippings than nails.He is sprawled across me like a blanket. I nurse him in the rocker by the window. The pain is gone now. In fact, I think I can vouch for Nicholas when I say that he and I can scarcely remember the weeks of agony and anxiety that preceded this moment. Now when he nurses, he occasionally hooks his fingers onto my tank top like he’s riding the subway and that’s his strap.I drift in and out of sleep while he suckles, half-dreaming that I had a baby. Here, in our cocoon of impenetrable security, I don’t want to think of bike helmets and designated drivers. I don’t want to think of scraped knees and curfews. I don’t want to think of the wrong crowd, the heartbreak that sends him reeling. Right now, all I really worry about is gas. Will that bubble that I didn’t manage to get out wake him in the middle of the night?I think we’re getting our routine down a little better every hour, every day. Sometimes it feels as if we actually have a rhythm, and some days it feels like mayhem.“He’s getting organized,” says Rebecca, my OB, at my six-week postpartum check-up. He’s getting organized. What a brilliant alibi! It lifts the burden right off me and my baby to feel—or be—any different than we are right now. We are both getting organized. I’m trying hard not to let my baby’s tears make me weak in the knees. Just be there, I keep thinking. He just wants me to show up. Answer the call.But sometimes I can’t decipher the call, and I feel dumbfounded, dumb, numb with helplessness. I get a sense that his language is more profound than words and I’m still weighed down by clumsy vocabulary.After I feed him, I hoist him onto my left shoulder. His eyes are closed, his belly filled, and there he hangs in his Charlie Brown way, arms by his side, his cheek to my shoulder, the last weary couple at the dance marathon. Our chests rising and falling together, his almost twice as fast as mine. I cup his foot in my palm and gently stroke his heel, as silken as a polished stone. I wear him like a priceless stole I never want to take off, listening for the succession of breaths—heavy triplets, sixteenth and eighth notes—until his breath is so shallow I can barely hear it.
“Does it hurt when I do this?” asks the physical therapist.I don’t make a habit of yelling in public places, but this pain is so bad that I have recently started dropping napkins and cotton balls because of their sheer weight.“DeQuervain’s syndrome,” says the woman who looks twelve even though she has three children in school. “It’s from holding the baby in the same way for long periods of time, like during nursing. Think carpal tunnel.”Rest the hand, she advises, and then instructs me to wear a splint on my hand and wrist that immobilizes my thumb. For two weeks. Is she kidding me? Change a diaper, nurse, make meals, drive a car with one hand?In the middle of a diaper change, my son looks up at me with a face that seems to say, “What’s with the slo-mo, Ma? I thought you had this down already.”A few weeks after Nicholas’s birth, I can only vaguely recall the curve of my belly, how it felt to massage the bumps where he kicked and changed positions.I find it so difficult to relax as a new mother, even when there is a reprieve. This is not due to my fatigue or the relentlessness of caretaking, but rather to the long string of intangibles I tie around my finger that remind me constantly of his fragility—and mine. The vulnerable child within me begins to ask with quiet shame, What about me? What about my aches and pains and worries? Who will take care of me?How does a new mother stay in the moment and keep her eye on the horizon at the same time?I have things to learn from this baby. Life lessons. Big marquee blinking, ah-ha moments no therapist or pastor or pediatrician could reveal to me. Nearly two months old, my son stays in the moment so well. He has no awareness of what’s to come, no concern about the next meal or diaper change. His needs are current, unencumbered by expectation. I envy his lack of defense, his motivations devoid of yearning and regret, his simplicity of desire. He doesn’t second-guess himself—or me.
I hear my baby’s siren song between dusk and dawn. I lumber through the shadows of our bedroom with a kind of melancholy. There’s no audible conversation at that hour. In the solitude of overnight feedings, it’s just me and the boy in the dark.Really, it’s just me in the dark. Nicholas won’t remember any of this. He’ll never know how persistently I tried to get that bubble up, how gently I rocked him and kissed the nape of his neck before laying him down to sleep.Everything I did before this has faded to black. I once knew other things. Now, I know this baby. I know him in the way that a person knows anything after so much time and energy have been invested. In my overnight haze, I feel so solitary; all I can do is look at my baby and memorize his form before he outgrows it.It’s a double bind. Intimacy and loneliness. Connection and separateness. Wanting to be with him and wanting a moment alone. Wanting to fulfill his needs and feeling overwhelmed by them. Wanting to stay home with him and wanting to forge my own path in the world. Loving him so deeply and fearing his loss, my loss.How can I feel an iota of hopelessness during a time of such hope? How can a time of such bonding feel binding?I stand in the shower between the curtain and the tiles with my prickly loofah, sloughing off dead skin and contradictions. Trying to wash my ambivalence down the drain. I have about a minute and a half to loiter, not quite enough time to steam up the entire bathroom mirror. After a shower, I have this feeling of starting over, a cleansing on many levels. Like this shower is the line between chaos and sanity, despair and hope.Baby wakes up crying after a thirty-minute snooze. I stand under the waterfall for an extra three seconds before my thumb jabs the faucet back into the wall, wondering if my ambivalence is here to stay. I realize that as a mother I won’t always have the answers.Maybe the contradictions are about learning to live with and accept some degree of duality and ambiguity. Maybe ambivalence is patience in disguise. Maybe it’s a rest stop, a detour, a scenic drive. Part of the journey.Maybe standing at a fork in the road is a moment of grace, not just a time of choice.
Nicholas sleeps ten hours straight on May eleventh, a date I want to frame and hang on the wall, the day I win the sleep lottery, the day he awakes rested and content and flashes me the fattest smile I ever saw, the day I can finally see tomorrow.Overnight, I go from feeling shackled and forsaken to feeling free, motivated, hopeful, and inspired. Even though I am still jolted awake by breasts that have a life and time zone of their own. Still, after ten minutes of pumping at 2 a.m., I don’t have to burp them and rock them back to sleep, so already I can see some improvement in the general scheme of things.Then again, maybe improvement is too strong a word. But when you’re eager for a beacon, something to give you a sense of direction—of progress—it’s difficult not to think in terms of improvement.I think of Lori’s note. How that eight-week marker feels like a mirage, something so abstract and impossible. How a figure eight is burned into my mind, skywritten across the clear blue, making way for a giant scrim to descend from the rafters designating the end of act one.LET THE BABY DRIVE. Copyright © 2004 by Lu Hanessian. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.