Charlie's the first baby born of my body, and the only one I'll have. I am always aware that he is my single chance.
I don't mean that I'll never again have the pleasure of watching a brand-new baby wake up to the world around him and gradually make it his own. If our second child is an adopted newborn, I'll feel the same sheepish awe I feel now sheepish because in my conviction that Charlie is deeply brilliant for, you know, learning to focus his eyes, I'm no different from any other parent, ever.
And I don't mean that I think I won't love this much again when another child joins our family. It'll be different, but I know it'll be good. I have my friends inside the computer to thank for that certainty; those of you who've written so honestly and beautifully about your adoptions have made me confident of that.
What I mean is as simple as this: this is my only chance to be a first-time mother. It's changing me, and for once I'm not talking about my rack. I'm learning surprising things about myself, inspiring and appalling things, things I otherwise never would have known.
Realizing this, I try very hard to stay in the moment. I try to let myself feel every emotion of his babyhood, good and bad. I try not to wish even the hard parts away, because they bring with them split-second glimpses of beauty and joy that don't come any other way. But there's a problem with living in the moment: once you've gotten good at it, it's hard to see beyond it.
On a day like today, it's hard to believe that some things will get easier, that Paul and I will have grown-up fun again, that one day Charlie will go for more than 30 minutes without needing something urgently, that eventually he'll make his needs known in ways that aren't uniformly unpleasant. I know those things are true, but when you live resolutely in the moment, you lose the knack of taking a longer view.
When you forget, because you're living so immovably in the moment, what everyone's told you that the naps will get longer, the nights will become more peaceful, the interactions will grow richer, that above all what bothers you now will change it's easy to sink into a shell-shocked sadness. I'm not convinced that living in the moment is everything it's cracked up to be, not when the moment's so hard.
Don't tell Mom the babysitter's odd
A few weeks ago I was shopping at the local hippie food co-op and paused as usual in front of the big bulletin board at the front of the store. Between the suggestions from members "Please bring back vanilla soy rBST-free fair trade tie-dyed hacky sacks!" and notices of community events "SolsticeAlive! 'Round-the-Stump Rondelé Kokopelli Naturist Invitational" there is always something to make me leave the store humming happily, tripping merrily toward my SUV on my pedicured toes (lacquered glamorously in Love That Patriarchy Pink).
That day, what made me happy was this sign:
Caring young woman with
10 years of child care experience
B.S. in child development
Newborns to 4 years
$10 / hour
Not only did I tear off one of the tabs with her number, but I tore down the whole goddamn sign to be sure, absolutely sure no one else would snag her first.* And I took home that tab and called her.
We made a date for her to come over and meet us. She arrived punctually while Charlie was napping. She and Paul and I sat at the dining room table and conducted the world's most perfunctory interview. I believe the only questions I asked were, "Have you ever been in jail?", "Are you high on drugs right this very moment?", and "When can you start?"
She was perfectly pleasant, if a little...well, odd in speech and manner, prone to a silent smiling stare. I chalked it up to those drugs she was high on right that very moment and showed her around the place. When Charlie woke I introduced them. As we all played on the floor with Charlie in his baby gym, he didn't scream, shrink away from her, or indicate in any obvious way that he'd recognized her face from the "Wanted" posters at the post office, so I decided the babysitter would be Charlie's new best friend and invited her to come back the next Sunday.
"Oh, yes," she said, and played with the baby. Three minutes and several cycles of the musical star later she looked up and said gruffly, "Can you pay me?"
"...Huh?" I said, nonplussed.
"Pay me. Can you pay me for that time on Sunday?"
Now, where I come from, that part of the relationship is understood. She makes nice with my kid and pretends she finds him delightful; I slip her a twenty and pretend I called her references. But okay in addition to the high on drugs part, I figured she must be nervous and eager for the work. "Oh, yes," I said heartily, and laughed a beefy ho-ho-ho as if she'd said something witty instead of something...well, strange.
Her first session with Charlie proceeded without incident. Paul and I were both home, loitering ever so casually to make sure she didn't turn him into her own tiny lackey. Charlie cried, but then he does, so I didn't worry. And, yes, I paid her.
The second Sunday he cried, but then he does, though I worried just a bit. I'd resolved to let them sort it out together. I equipped them with toys, books, and bottles, let the babysitter know that I was available for questions, and then sequestered myself in my sewing room where the hot hiss of the steam iron might drown out the yelling.
It didn't, not entirely. At the two-and-a-half-hour mark, I could stand it no longer, and loitered casually down the stairs if "loitering" could be presumed to be locomotive, and if "casually" could be construed as tripping all over myself, falling ass over teakettle and asked the babysitter if there was anything I could get them.
I meant more books, more toys, a warmer bottle. Her eyes brightened, and she said, in a guttural bark, "Do you have any food?"
"...Huh?" I said, nonplussed.
"Food. Do you have any food?"
Now you must understand that this was during a mere three hour engagement, nowhere near a mealtime, and I found both her timing and her manner worthy of a cock of my eyebrow. Eager to please, however, and interested to see what she'd do, I got out the peanut butter and the bread and watched as she put Charlie in his feeding seat and left him there crying while she made a sandwich.
I can do that. Paul can do that. God knows we do it all the time. Why, some of the finest sandwiches I've ever enjoyed were moistened with the savory tears of my son. I can even see a babysitter doing it when she's on a long shift and it's inarguably time for a meal break. But I can't figure out why she thought it was a good idea to do it while I was watching.
She finished her sandwich, collected her pay, and said she wasn't sure if she'd be able to come back "but I'll call you to let you know as soon as possible." It's Tuesday and she hasn't called. It's not looking good.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm disappointed not to hear from her again. From the start I'd found her odd, but not in any alarming way. She was pleasant to Charlie; she clearly liked him and was even able to coax a nap out of him. Her services were affordable, even factoring in the astronomical cost of feeding her. And it was easy: one sign, one tab, one call.
I'm not looking forward to starting back at square one just when it had started to feel like we might get some kind of short weekly break from the relentlessness of child care. And I'm also a bit taken aback, wondering why she might prefer not to return. She obviously liked the baby, so that's not it. I paid her asking price, so that's not it, either.
I am forced to conclude that she simply didn't care for my cooking. Great. Now not only do I have to find a new babysitter; I have to hire a personal goddamn chef for her to boot.
* I can't believe I have to say I didn't actually take the sign with me, but if I don't, I'll get ten e-mail messages excoriating me for it, one high-fiving me, and one from an amiable-sounding chap named Floorboard D. Nuisance with the subject line, "Re: Hi Im Jenny! I jsut put my wbcam 0n l ine !!1!"
Imperfectly normal at last
This is not an original idea, but I am reiterating it to help myself believe it: women who are mothers after infertility are just as entitled as anyone else to find it all a big motherfucking drag sometimes.
I spend a lot of time in self-flagellation (and not the fun kind, either). I feel like I should be better equipped to handle it when Charlie is difficult to please. I feel that infertility should have magically endowed me with an incorruptible shield of patience, a constant mindfulness of our good fortune, an unwavering gratitude in short, an inexhaustible wellspring of goodwill toward the child I worked so hard to have.
But it hasn't, and it kills me. When I have to leave the room lest I speak harshly to Charlie, it's not anger at him that propels me. After all, he's a baby; it's his job to get on my nerves when his needs have gone unmet. No, it's bitter disappointment in myself, sometimes verging on disgust, for not always knowing his needs, for not always being able to meet them, and, I'll say it, not always wanting to meet them.
I'm not always the parent he deserves. The guilt of knowing that is punishing. Is it no more than the same guilt every mother feels? I don't know, but I do believe infertile mothers put enormous pressure on ourselves not only to be exemplary parents, but to love or at least appreciate every minute of it.
We do it because we know how difficult it was to become mothers at all, and we do it because of every unthinking acquaintance who reminds us, "Well, you asked for it," and we do it because we know that there are millions of women who would give anything to have what we do, relentless screaming and all. I am always aware that if I complain, even here, where I feel more comfortable than anywhere else, I'm surely hurting someone.
That's not normal. But then in most ways, infertile mothers aren't. We couldn't enjoy could barely endure conception. For many of us, pregnancy was a time of white-knuckled fear instead of pastel-tinted joy. And a lot of us were blindsided by complications, bed rest, hospitalization, traumatic births, and an unusually difficult newborn phase.
And that's why we should try to liberate ourselves from that special kind of guilt we carry around. We couldn't be normal before, but now, as we feel frustrated or exhausted, as we find ourselves only half as competent as we fantasized we'd be, as we realize we're loving only every other minute of parenthood, we are finally perfectly normal.
I wish I could say that being infertile, losing pregnancies, and having such an eventful pregnancy and birth prepared me in any special way for the everyday challenges of being a parent. No such luck. In the end, the struggle doesn't make us perfect and it doesn't make us saints. It doesn't make us anything but mothers.
We don't miss much
A few weeks ago, my mother and I were discussing her upcoming visit on the phone. She said, "While I'm there, I want you and Paul to go away one morning, spend the night, and come back the next day." Her tone suggested that she expected an argument, but I was frantically stuffing clothes into a filthy torn plastic shopping bag before she'd even finished her sentence.
Once my mother was here and settled and versed in our routines with Charlie, such as they are, we reserved a room at the most expensive hotel we could find, tore out of town without filling up with gas, and drove to Montreal like we were being chased. It was a stormy day and the highway was awash, so we hydroplaned our way to the border at full speed, slowing just enough to wave our passports at the surly uniformed Québecois and to drench him in our wake.
At the hotel we were greeted with those three little words that make any traveler swoon: "You've been upgraded." And indeed we had: we were shown to a gigantic suite with 14-foot ceilings, two bathrooms, a separate bedroom and living room, floor-to-ceiling arched windows, and a gas fireplace that flicked on and off with a handy remote control.
"Never," I told Paul as I flopped onto the king-sized bed and made an angel in the down comforter, "am I ever going back."
We partook gluttonously of the hotel's free wine and cheese, then sallied out into a drizzly Old Montreal. We explored for a while, then had dinner steak frites, more wine, and a generous portion of my favorite dish, mocking the patrons next to us sotto voce. (If you were the fiftyish gentleman next to us who was bursting with noisy bonhomie, merrily jingling the keys to his Hummer, and reeking of Donald Trump: The Fragrance, I want you to know I regret nothing.)
As the meal wore on and as time passed, the wine and the months of cumulative sleep deprivation took their toll; by the end of dinner, the expression of our scorn was reduced to monosyllabic grunts and uncontrolled eye-rolling. We knew it was time to go when the waitress solicitously asked Paul whether I was having a seizure and offered to slip her pen into my mouth to prevent me from swallowing my tongue.
We made it back to the hotel without incident, tongue intact, and I filled the Jacuzzi for a long soak. I'd hoped to find it relaxing, but the motor made a sound like a Harrier during takeoff and the jets were powerful enough to ultrasonically destroy any kidney stones I might have smuggled past customs, so I decided instead to wrap up in a snow-white hotel bathrobe and take my ease in front of one of the suite's three flat-panel televisions.
We were, however, in Québec, where French is the predominant language. Although I speak and understand French, I was too drunk and sleepy to follow the rapid-fire dialogue on eleven of the hotel's twelve channels, so we settled on the single English-language offering, which was showing a news program on Karla Homolka. And nothing, but nothing, soothes me into a relaxed, romantic mood faster than detailed descriptions of cold-blooded rape and murder.
Nevertheless, after we consumed three desserts courtesy of room service, sleep came easily to me. It was the first and only night of uninterrupted sleep I've had since Charlie was born even while he was in the hospital, I woke, either to cry or to toil and chafe over the breast pump. I did not wake at all. I did not dream at all. And, no, I did not miss Charlie at all.
Did I think about him while we were away? Certainly. Did we talk about him? Some, but not much. And I have to confess I didn't miss him. To me, missing means wishing someone were with you, dwelling on thoughts of him, feeling reluctant to turn away from the picture that stays in your mind's eye. For a short twenty-four hours, knowing he was safe in my mother's care, I was ready to turn away.
The next morning we slept until the decadent hour of 9:30, then spent a leisurely morning walking, dawdling in front of gallery windows, and eating crêpes in the shadow of the basilica. It was with great reluctance that I repacked my torn plastic bag, pocketed the unused hotel toiletries, and called to let my mother know we were heading home again.
When we got back, Charlie greeted me with a wide, toothless, indiscriminate grin, the one I see when I pick him up after a nap, the one he uses to signal his eagerness to have another glob of cereal, the one he'd been giving my mother all week. He was happy to see me, for sure, but he hadn't known I was gone. He's still a young baby who can't, after all. So while I was busy not missing him, he hadn't missed me, either. And that was just fine with me.
How to alienate half your readers with one simple sentence
Charlie cries it out.
If you've been reading for a while, you might recall that when left to his own devices, Charlie takes naps of no more than 47 minutes in duration. I asked Charlie's pediatrician if there was any help for it, and she shook her head grimly. I consulted Weissbluth, who warns that children who take short naps are less adaptable, less attentive, and more likely to mow down their kindergarten class in a devastating hail of gunfire, but also says without so much as an apology for destroying my fragile dreams that "you cannot make short nappers into long nappers." And then I asked Charlie's neonatologist, who said, "Oh, that's easy."
"When you put him down," she said, "set a timer for an hour. Then go outside where you can't hear him, and don't go in until the timer rings." Then she paused, to give her next words special weight. "And do not," she said sternly, "take the baby monitor with you."
We started that day. At the end of the hour, when I went back inside, Charlie was just winding down. Hearing his complaints diminish, I planned to wait five more minutes before going in to see him. It didn't take even that long: before five minutes were up, Charlie was back asleep, and didn't wake again for another hour.
Since then we haven't looked back. We've made some adjustments; if he wakes much before the magical 45-minute mark, it's generally because he's hungry or has rolled over and can't get comfortable again, so one of us goes in and soothes him back to sleep, usually without difficulty. I no longer set a timer, having developed a sense of how long is long enough. And I seldom go where I can't hear him.
I think it's supposed to bother me to hear him cry. I know it bothers more experienced mothers than I. And I've heard more than once about parents who are determined to try, but crumble in the face of prolonged howling. I get the distinct impression that hearing him cry and not going to him should make me feel like my heart's being ripped, still beating, from my chest (heaving, natch, with sobs).
But I have to tell you it doesn't. I know he's not hurt, ill, hungry, soiled, or wet. He's physically fine. And though he's unhappy, it's transient and, I believe, superficial. See, I don't interpret those premature-end-of-nap cries as "Help me, I'm alone and frightened and I'm worried you'll never come back." I hear it more as, "Hey, here I am, ready to play! Hey! It's time to wake up! Heeeeeeey! Big lady-shaped person! C'mere! I've had enough sleep!" To which my response must necessarily be, "The hell you have."
About 80% of the time I'm right. Most of the time, after 10-15 minutes of low-level complaining, he settles back in for a long continuation of his nap, for a total of anywhere from two to two-and-a-half hours, a reasonable length by anyone's definition. The rest of the time, I let him round out the prescribed hour, then go to him in his crib. He stops crying immediately, and is invariably delighted to see me not heartbroken, not inconsolable, not betrayed just as he is when he's managed that longer nap. The difference is, when he's slept the longer stretch, I'm delighted to see him, too.
I am only too happy to trade those 10-15 minutes of crying for the sleep he certainly needs and that mutual delight. It seems like a fair exchange.
I'm well aware that people who oppose crying it out might accuse me of a lack of empathy or warn that I'm jeopardizing Charlie's trust. The only answer I have to that is to say that I do care about Charlie's feelings, passionately. It's just that I care about his obvious need for solid sleep and the collective sanity of the family a little bit more.
But then I never thought I'd be the kind of parent who couldn't leave a baby to soothe himself. I didn't feel a visceral resistance to doing so, and I never thought it was categorically cruel to hear your child cry and yet not respond. So far I see it as a means to greater household harmony, one I hope will be only temporarily necessary. After all, I don't enjoy hearing him cry...it's just that in this case it doesn't gut me.
Am I damaging our boy or our relationship? Do me a favor: if you think so, don't tell me. I won't hear it anyway. I'll be in the yard, out of earshot.
This morning was business as usual: I unloaded the dishwasher while Charlie sat in his chair after breakfast, contentedly gnawing on a rubber-backed coaster, laying salivary waste to the top half of Central Park. I had the small kitchen TV tuned to CNN on the off chance that some useful nugget of information might somehow fight its way past Charlie's high-pitched yodeling and my sleepy brain's defenses to lodge itself into my consciousness.
I turned my head for a moment to face the screen as I stacked Charlie's bottles in their customary pyramid on the counter, and saw the chiron, "OHIO MOURNS." The anchorwoman said it had been a bloody night in Iraq, bringing the toll to at least 24 American servicepeople dead this week, 19 of them from the same Ohio Marine battalion.
The anchorwoman was speaking to the parents of one young Marine who had died Edward, called Augie heroically trying to get them to conform to the network's pro-war thrust. To my surprise, given how recent their loss and how strong my own prejudices, they resisted.
"Was it always his dream to become a Marine?" she asked, for example. No, they answered, but he had always liked to serve, ever since he got his EMT certification in high school. To me they seemed as proud of that as they were of his enlistment; I liked them for it.
I liked them even more when the anchor asked, "Did he feel what he was doing was worthwhile?" Augie's father hesitated, then said, "The longer he stayed, the more he questioned whether it was worthwhile."
The anchor swiftly tried to put his remarks into a more comfortable context. "...What with the insurgents coming back again and again?" No, the Marine's father clarified, and spoke of his son's reluctance to disrupt the lives of the ordinary people of Iraq, subjecting them to searches and uncertainty, constant fear and danger...
Then a brisk "Thank you for being here." Cut to commercial.
Charlie was fussing; he'd thrown his coaster to the floor and wanted it back. I gave it to him, and when I saw his smile of satisfaction as he carefully worked his fingers around it in a still-unperfected grasp, it hit me for the very first time.
There are all kinds of things people tell you you won't understand until you're a parent. If you're infertile, you bitterly resent that, and you might not quite believe it. I didn't. But although I knew it intellectually, I did not understand, until I gave my pajamaed son his coaster and watched him jam it against his gums with a shudder of eagerness, that every soldier who fights and dies was once some mother's baby.
The same parents who spoke of their son's valor while quietly showing their own used to bend and get that jettisoned toy, used to aim that spoon of prunes toward the moving target of a rosebud mouth, used to laugh in exasperation when that baby sneezed with a mouthful of food.
And I know this isn't an original thought. This is what we're supposed to realize, what we forget only at our peril, after all, when we talk about grave subjects like war and death, that we're all connected, that "they" are also "us." But I've never felt it before, not with the visceral lurch of true understanding I felt this morning. And it made me queasy, and it made me cry, and it made me plant my nose at the base of Charlie's neck with uncommon fervor, breathing deeply, wishing it were different for Augie, his parents, everyone, us.
My oldest nephew calls my father grantfather, hard T in the middle. My middle nephew calls him gra'far a speedy elision by a kid who's always on the go. My youngest nephew, in the babyish tones of a four-year-old, has always called him gran-dah-oo. Charlie's done no more than eye him curiously, an unfamiliar man with a loud voice and a heavy step he's seen only twice in his life.
In April 2002, my father was driving to a meeting one day and began to feel shortness of breath and a terrible pain in his chest and leg. It was bad enough to make him turn around and drive to the nearest hospital, where he was immediately admitted into the ICU blood clots in his lung and his leg.
Although he recovered quickly, this frightened us all. My brother responded to his fear by moving his family 800 miles closer to my parents; they now live a single block away. "Dad's not getting any younger, you know," my brother says meaningfully. When he does this I want to fly at his face, ripping off the bushy eyebrows he's lowered in an expression of concern.
My father just turned 60. He's in both poor health and good poor because he has diabetes, a history of smoking, high blood pressure, and overweight, and a worrisome family history, but good because he now eats right, exercises frequently, and astonishes his doctors regularly, who tell him his vital signs are as strong as those of a man half his age.
He just had a battery of stress tests last week, my mother told me this morning on the phone, which he passed with flying colors. Yet last night, he was ill enough that they called his doctor, a friend who lives in their neighborhood, who went to their house immediately, talked to Dad for a few minutes, then wrote on the kitchen notepad, where only my mother could see it, "CALL 911 NOW."
Dad was immediately admitted to the same hospital he'd stayed in three years ago, where they observed him overnight. At the moment he's having an exploratory angiogram; the doctors will inject dye into his heart to see where it goes, and will place stents if necessary. My mother called to tell me this when he'd already been taken to surgery. She'll call when it's over, when they know more.
This is exactly what my brother, whose sons have had the chance to build a close day-to-day relationship with their grandfather, who is now at the hospital with my mother, foresaw. I hate it that he was right.
When Mom was telling me about this, I kept flashing back to my own experience last November. Like I did, my father had a few isolated episodes of pain, bad enough that he'd ask my mother to call a doctor, that would then magically lift, leaving him certain he didn't need assistance, sure that it was indigestion, fatigue, overexertion. Like it did with me, it finally got bad enough that he knew it was time to get help. Like me, he expected only to be given a quick once-over, then to get a reassuring pat on the shoulder and perhaps a prescription or two. But like me, he's ended up in a gown and a bed, wondering what he should have done differently.
In part, it's my father's medical history that makes me reluctant to try to get pregnant again. We know that I'm at high risk for developing gestational diabetes again, of course. And although my own blood pressure is low, his tendency toward hypertension is not encouraging. And his doctors could never pin down a reason for his blood clots without knowing why they happened, or what in his makeup made him prone to them, who's to say I wouldn't experience another placental problem?
When I think about the possibility of my father dying, I am clear that my brothers and I are adults. It's unspeakably difficult to lose a parent once you're grown; that I know from seeing Paul through the death of his mother. But how much harder must it be for a child? Although I wouldn't be likely to die if I got pregnant again, or even if I developed complications, I came close enough last time that it terrifies me to think of leaving Charlie motherless. When I think of my last pregnancy and I wonder what I could do differently, the answer that keeps surfacing is simply not to take the risk at all.
"Julie, he's a miracle," Dad said on the phone, having watched the video I took (QuickTime, 216 KB) of Charlie while he was still in the NICU.
After spending the balance of his adult life away from the church, in the last five years my father has returned to the Catholicism of his childhood. He is a contributor, a participant, a believer, regularly attending services at St. Rose's while my mother sleeps in on Sundays. When he says miracle, I think he means miracle.
"He certainly is," I answered. I don't believe in God, or in miracles the way he does. But I do believe in random convergences of unusual grace the burst of strength that can inhabit us when we feel most sapped; or the mysterious force that can drive an unintended act of heroism, leaving the hero shaking his head and saying, "I didn't stop to think; I just did it"; or the stroke of serendipity that puts the right doctors on duty, leaves the right nurses watching, the right treatments available. So I agreed that Charlie's a miracle.
I don't pray. Without a God, there's no obvious place for the buck to stop, so instead I simply hope. I hope for that same serendipity that brought Charlie home with us. I hope that my father's all right. I hope this is only a scare. I hope the phone rings soon
Update: Bypass surgery tomorrow, the kind where they part the ribcage, fire up the heart/lung machine, and go fishing around in your leg for a nice juicy vein to move. Thank you all for your good wishes. They really, really help, more than I can tell you.
In five minutes I will be very drunk indeed
Around here, a good baby day satisfies these criteria:
- Charlie has at least one long nap and at least one additional shorter snooze
- I end the day wearing the same clothes I began it in
- I have not called my mother to ask for advice on whether I can smother Charlie with a pillow from my bed, or whether I must stick to the more appropriately sized throw pillow
It started off promisingly enough, with Charlie waking in the night only long enough to moan for three or four minutes, long enough for Paul to get down the hall to the door of his room only to find he was already drifting back off. Oh, sure, he did this nineteen times between 11 PM and 5 AM, but the important part is that he required no intervention. When he woke for good at 7, I was happy to go to him so that we could start our day.
He was wearing a sleeper I like, a footed fleece affair with blue jailbird stripes, and he was solid and snuggly as I hoisted him from his crib. I swapped his sodden diaper for a fresh one while he chirped happily on the changing table, fed him almost all of an eight-ounce bottle, and took him out to the den to roll on the floor. And that is where the day of rage began.
For the rest of the day, he was impossible to please. His regular naptime came and went, with him rubbing his eyes and yawning, but howling in fury when I put him in his crib. I rocked him, I fed him, I walked him. I sang, I read, I whispered several interesting new swear words I'd just invented for his amusement. All of it was in vain.
So back out to the den, where he grudgingly acceded to a vigorous romp, the linchpin of my plan to exhaust him into torpor. And once he rubbed his eyes and yawned some more, back to his room and the rocker and the crib. And the howling. And the swear words. And the rocking. The rocking. The rocking. The rocking. The rocking, which finally forced him into a sleep deep enough that I could lay him in his crib and tear out of the room as if my spit-up-soaked clothes were on fire without his waking and yelling some more.
I thought then that the day could be salvaged. As his nap wore on, I felt good once again; it was a nap of respectable length, and I imagined he might be more easily managed after a decent rest. And in fact he was cheerful when he woke. He was friendly, eager to entertain and be entertained, guffawing appreciatively when I taught him a new trick. (Note to self: encouraging a baby to find head-butting hilarious is ultimately a very bad idea.)
But when it was time for his next nap, nothing doing. Rocking, singing, feeding, patting, all to no avail. In the course of all this, Charlie spat up on me not once or twice, which I would normally expect, but no fewer than four times, enough to make me suspect that it was an editorial comment of some sort. In desperation I thrice presented him a kingly Lunchable, which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious. (Right about now I was longing for a whole wagonload of Senators to come jolting down the Appian Way, ready to put me out of my misery by gettin' stabby wid it.)
By now it was near dinner, past the point at which the start of a nap would have been desirable, so we gave up. Paul gave Charlie his Prevacid, which I'd forgotten to do in the confusion of this morning's snit. He took Charlie outside, probably to escape the vomity funk that was now wafting from my clothes, and carried him around the yard. Charlie was calm and interested in the leaves and bark Paul showed him, and it all appeared to be going well, until Charlie spit up once again, a great gout of undigested milk mixed with the precious beads of Prevacid.
We couldn't know how much of the medication had stayed down, so in an act I can attribute only to razor-keen paternal instinct and deep, abiding love, Paul actually got down on his hands and knees in the grass, searching for the elusive patch of vomit to evaluate its contents.
Unable to bear seeing the man I love combing our lawn for baby hork, I took Charlie inside. I came to my office and put Charlie in what we've come to call his office, where he's surrounded by many important things to do: an appointment book to consult; an intercom with which to summon his secretary; a globe to whirl pompously, looking bored while others speak; that kind of thing. He was happy there, happy enough for me to lift my camera to take his picture. But the moment he saw my face obscured by the camera, he lost his tiny mind.
Soothing, then supper. After today's spit-a-ganza I wasn't going to chance anything more volatile than plain cereal with formula, which he ate agreeably enough. After his meal I left him happily occupied, sticking his spoon industriously into his eye Annie, Queenie, the Baby Bjorn spoons are simply splendid for eye-sticking, and for feeding besides and dashed upstairs to set up his bath.
When I got back downstairs not three minutes later to release Charlie from his feeding seat thank you, Rebekah I was met with a scene of carnage so gruesome that I will never be able to eradicate it from my mind's eye. See, there's a reason they tell you not to leave a baby unattended, ever. And it's not because of any concern for the baby's safety. No, it's because they know something I didn't: babies shit. (Okay, I knew that part.) And when babies shit, given even a whiff of an opportunity, they like to play in it. With their hands. With their toes. With their Baby Bjorn spoon, which they are sticking...in their...
I can't even say it.
Charlie had deposited a copious load, which miraculously left his diaper unscathed but instead escaped down the crotch opening of his onesie, down his leg, between his toes, all over his feeding seat, all over his bib sorry, Nance, it'll never be the same all over everything. Even his...
I can't even say it.
And so it happened that I found myself cradling a shit-covered baby against my vomit-reeking body, trudging up the stairs, wishing I were dead.
Et tu, Brute?
At least bedtime was easy. After a thorough bath for Charlie, a change of clothes for me, and a bonfire in the back to destroy every flammable item either of us had touched all day long, he dropped off with nary a peep.
But my day wasn't over yet. I donned my beloved yellow rubber gloves, shouldered the hose and the bottle of Clorox, and took his seat into the driveway, where I attacked it with a brush on a very long handle. Special tip: aiming a focused jet of water onto a blob of human excrement is a capital way to get it deflected back onto yourself in a cold, shitty torrent, just in case you wondered.
Fed up at last and glazed with a wet film of baby flop, I debated whether to take the chair behind the barn and shoot it, Old Yeller-style, since it has now acquired a taste for human feces, which can only make it crave more, ever more. But then I decided that sufficient unto the day was the destruction thereof.
Wait, that's not accurate. I have an almost-full bottle of vodka and my liver seems to be functioning just fine. There's still plenty more damage to be done.
Manning the pumps
The night before I left for a visit to my parents, Paul told me that the state police were collecting donations for those affected by hurricane Katrina clothing, toiletries, and baby gear. Shortly before I went to bed, then, I crept into Charlie's room and began rummaging through his closet and his dresser, collecting the outgrown items I'd planned to donate locally.
Though I tried to be quiet, he stirred, and I froze: he's been teething, and getting him to sleep has required great effort and patience. If he woke, I knew I'd be screwed.
For a moment I resolved to leave his room, and then I remembered what I was doing. And then I felt a surge of self-disgust so powerful that I actually did a little dance of agony. A city is underwater. Thousands of people are homeless. We don't know how many have died. Yet there I was, worrying that I might be inconvenienced.
Many of you have asked about my family. I am so grateful for your concern. I'm relieved to report that everyone I know was lucky. They were only inconvenienced. They've had to leave their homes, and for a few, the date of their return and the status of their property are uncertain. But they all got out early and unharmed.
My aunt lives in a suburb of New Orleans and routinely leaves town when storms threaten. This time as usual, she evacuated to my grandparents' house in north Louisiana, where she is most welcome but not always ideally comfortable. After a week there she needed a break, so we all convened at my parents'.
We don't know what's happened to her house. Though it's unlikely that there was any significant flooding, wind damage, downed trees, broken windows, and lawlessness are still of some concern. "It's just stuff," she and my mother reassured each other, and in her case that is true. It's just a house.
But it's much easier for me to focus on the specific and the personal to think about the stuff, to obsess about the details, to worry about whether her refrigerator will have to be junked outright than it is to take in the enormity of the general. If I think for long about what's been lost, not only life but a way of life, I get a little crazy.
Here is an example of my focus. I tried to help my aunt apply for assistance from FEMA, specifically the $2000 promised to people who were displaced by the storm to supplement their living expenses while away from home. Two weeks after the storm hit land remember this, two weeks here is what we experienced:
- Wait times on the phone in excess of half an hour
- An impossibly broken Web site
- Operators who could tell us nothing about the criteria for getting assistance
- Random hang-ups while holding for an operator
- A bored operator finally telling us only after the holding and the hangups that the FEMA help line, where one manages an application for assistance, would be down for 24 to 72 hours.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is our emergency management system, not even in the heat of the crisis but two weeks afterward. Not even in an unexpected calamity, but one we saw coming. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," indeed.
Jesus gay, I don't even know where to start. Maybe the details are worth obsessing about after all.
I usually confine my expressions of scorn for our political leaders to the occasional sly aside. And I usually confine my posts here to topics related to infertility, pregnancy, and parenthood. The fact that it's now all intertwined, that I find it difficult to separate my apprehension at how rickety this hellbound handbasket really is from my hopes and fears for Charlie, makes it harder to keep things light.
Two things made me stop watching hurricane coverage on TV. One was the sight of a young mother, fretting that her 7-week-old baby, formerly active and alert, was now listless and didn't wake up much. Another was the report that at the height of the crisis, premature babies were not being evacuated from hospitals hospitals which would soon be out of water and power because it was judged too dangerous.
On September 1, on ABC's Good Morning America, President Bush admonished Diane Sawyer that there is a time for politics, and that this isn't it. I disagree. I believe that when the alarming weaknesses of our federal emergency system have been exposed; when it's revealed that the aid Louisiana requested for shoring up its flood defenses was denied in favor of funding the war in Iraq and homeland security; when the head of FEMA, the unqualified beneficiary of a patronage appointment, is not immediately fired or removed from natural disaster duty but instead simply removed from managing this hurricane; when the wife of one former president and the mother of the current one is so profoundly out of touch that she asserts that forcible relocation is "working very well" for some of the poor who've lost everything; when our current president waits two days after Katrina hit land before deciding to cut short his five-week vacation well, is there a better time to get politically galvanized?
But sputtering rage, I must remind myself, is ultimately unproductive. We can help in concrete ways. Natalee has set up a site organizing donations to evacuees in Dallas. Cooper and Emily have created the Katrina Clearinghouse to help match donors with specific families in need. And of course there are the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and many other worthy organizations distributing aid.
There is also, thank God, the March of Dimes, whose president sent this e-mail:
This special email is sent to update our volunteers, donors and friends on how we are responding to the crisis. Your continued support is critical at this time to allow us to continue to support infants and pregnant women in need:
- March of Dimes specialists are assisting with direct service and support for over 100 sick and premature babies who were transferred to Women's Hospital in Baton Rouge.
- March of Dimes is currently working to obtain much-needed clothing and other supplies for displaced pregnant women and babies in the Gulf Coast area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
- Our staff is also working to ensure that those Katrina survivors who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or are parents of newborn babies, receive essential information on nutrition, safe water, safe preparation of formula and the signs and symptoms of premature labor.
- The March of Dimes is gearing up to provide even more urgently needed services over the next 3 to 12 months as the number of premature births is expected to rise along the Gulf Coast due to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Those premature babies are the ones who were initially left behind. Some got out in helicopters, until the shooting began. Some got out in boats. Some had to leave in canoes.
Later, I heard that they're safe, thanks to the tireless care of doctors and nurses who "were using hand pumps to keep blood circulating in babies too small for their hearts to do the job alone."
I recognize that it's self-indulgent for me to write about how this affects me, given the fact that I'm not there and my loved ones are all unharmed. It's easy to imagine Charlie in the place of those tidefaring babies, and to cry as I think of the parents who evacuated not knowing where or in what condition they'd next find their isoletted child, but I fight my own eagerness to identify. It's not us. It's not about us. It's awful enough on its own without my putting us there.
If only I could help it.
I did it. I did what every parent, no matter how conscientious, how vigilant, how tenderly attentive eventually does: I pulled a boner so breathtaking that I have set up flattering lighting, pushed "record" on the Handicam, backed the resulting footage with a score composed on my Casio keyboard, burned it to DVD, and am advertising it via e-mail with the subject line, "All w0mens neEd th1s!!!1!Huuge P3nis vX6Qw."
I was at my parents' house with Charlie. I'd just put him down for his afternoon nap, and knew he would sleep for at least an hour. My father, just two short weeks after heart surgery, was napping as well. With my father in the house and Charlie down for the count, I figured it was safe to go out with my mother. It would make a much better story if I said we'd gone out to score some smack, or even for cocktails and a facial, but the fact is that we just went to the grocery store a half mile away.
When we pulled back into the driveway after our 45-minute absence, we both noticed at the same time that my father's car was gone. It could only mean one thing: that he'd called my sister-in-law, asked her to bring over a rear-facing car seat, awakened Charlie, strapped him safely into the center back seat of his vehicle, and gone for a slow, leisurely drive around the neighborhood, obeying all traffic laws and never once exceeding the posted speed limit.
Okay, I guess it could mean two things.
Once inside, I tore up the stairs in a panic, expecting to find Charlie sad, gone, ill, or dead. He was none of those things. He was sleeping peacefully with no sign of trouble, unless you count the fact that his leg was extended clear to his hammy thigh through the bars of the PortaCrib, a state-of-the-art model from 1965. (Look, it could have been a lot worse. I could have found him hungrily chewing the lead paint off its pastel-painted finials, right?)
My father later explained that when he woke and found us gone, he assumed Charlie was with us. And this was a reasonable conclusion to draw. But I don't think my assumption was that outrageous, either: I had no idea my father would even wake, much less leave. It didn't occur to me, or to my mother, who knows his habits well, that we needed to consider that.
Still, it was bad. Really bad. Sobering, chilling, good-God-can-I-really-handle-this? bad.
I said at the beginning of this that every parent sooner or later makes a big mistake that could compromise a child's safety. My evidence for this belief is, I admit, anecdotal. I ask you, parents and those who have cared for a child in other capacities, am I right? Tell me. From letting the baby roll around on the bed and then hearing that sickening clonk on down, don't we all pull a boner sometime?
Uh, please feel free to post anonymously.