On being a baby

Voiceless, prone, powerless, even naked, I had a couple of experiences this week that made me feel like a baby. As I was lying on two very different tables, I considered how I might improve my own baby’s experience in the first months of his life.

The first instance was pure bliss. When I was pregnant, my book club friends gave me a gift certificate for a massage at a yoga studio. I have had only one other massage and do not remember it much. This one, though, either because of the zen atmosphere or the considerable skill of the masseuse, left me feeling actually loved.

The part I remember most was having my legs and feet lifted. I have never liked my legs. Tree trunks, elephant legs. My feet, too, are neglected. I had not polished my toes. My heels were a little cracked. And yet, lying there, legs lifted and massaged, how could I dislike something that was being treated so tenderly? My feet were held and caressed like I caress my baby’s feet. I don’t mean to say that the massage therapist loved me or anything. That would be weird. But she allowed me to love myself and to relax utterly. I felt like a baby must feel when rocked to sleep, allowed to rest in warm arms, cared for and protected.

My experience yesterday was less good. In the dentist’s chair, I felt not protected but powerless. I have had a wonderful dentist all my adult life but she has recently acquired a partner and somehow, by not protesting, I ended up as his patient. He is a nice man and his dental work seems very good, but he is not nearly as gentle as my previous dentist. Anyone who has been in the dentist’s chair knows the particular feeling of powerlessness I felt yesterday. “Does it hurt?” Well, it did, but I cannot speak to tell you so. The dentist discovered the pain by my attempts to bury my head back into the table to escape the needle. I have never been afraid of dentists, but I get it now. When he asked me to open my mouth for the third needle, I couldn’t do it. My jaw wouldn’t cooperate. In the end, I did it because I had to, but also because that morning I had taken Seamus for his 4-month vaccination needles. He, too, felt shocked and abused. He recovered, as I did, laughing out loud by the time we left the doctor’s office. I couldn’t laugh. I was too disfigured by the anesthetic.

The two experiences were so similar in that I was at the mercy of someone else. The whole time, I thought, this is how Seamus feels. And while the one experience was soothing, loving, and comforting, the other was disorienting and painful. Now, obviously, shots aside, I don’t hurt my baby, but other elements of the dentist’s chair were uncomfortable, like getting sprayed in the face with water, twice, or having water drip down the side of my face into my ear. It was like baby drool, but without the loving parent to wipe my face.

I am sure you get the point. Like us, babies want to be respected. They want adults to be kind and gentle. I am not saying I won’t still walk around holding a baby slung over my shoulder while carrying the laundry up the stairs. I am sure I still will. But I will try to respect his need for comfort and security a bit more because of my two opposite experiences.

(Second) Try

At the grocery store today, Owen sat in the cart. It was a big cart with room for two children (very well-behaved children). Anyway, Owen wondered (as is usual these days): “WHY?”

“So someone could sit beside you.”

“But who?”

“Well, a friend, or a brother or a sister.”

“Oh.”

Later on, we bought a brick of mild cheddar. Owen placed it on the seat beside him. “This is my brother,” he said.

Oh, really?

Later still, the soap became his sister. At the cash, we bought his brother and sister. The woman in front of us had a two-year-old, a one-year-old, and a pregnant belly. I had Owen, soap, and cheese.

This is coming out all wrong, but I have a feeling that you, my clever readers, are catching on.

We’ve been sort of trying to have another child now since September. Sure, I’m older, but I thought it might take, you know, 4 months or something. My plan – ambitious, to be sure – was to have a baby some time in May or June, you know, to coincide with the end of the teaching term. I know people who have managed this before (oh, wait: me.) But this time, it’s just not sticking, taking, whatever it is “it” does. When Owen was just two, it seemed like everyone (strangers!) were asking me if we were going to have more children. And I would blush (because – um – are you asking if I’m having sex? Isn’t that private?) and say I hoped so and we’d leave it at that. The last people who asked us if we were having more children were the people whose house we’re buying. Lately, with Owen approaching 3, people seem to assume that we’re done: “Oh, so you have just the one child?” – like it’s some kind of “only child” mail-order choice we’ve made.

A well-meaning woman who came to our garage sale last week said she had “pumped out” another one in some particular month because it would be easier to get daycare that way. I mentioned that we had been trying, and she said “Oh! I wish I could lend you my body.” (and I was a little horrified, though I know she meant well).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not sad, or traumatized, or despairing. I have one beautiful, healthy child, and if that’s all I get, that’s pretty great. I haven’t suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage. I haven’t been pronounced infertile.

Speaking of infertility, a couple of months ago I went to a bookstore to kill some time and thought I would look up infertility issues – just to see. So (obviously?) I went to the pregnancy and babies section. I scanned the shelves and found books on feeding your children like the French (no snacks), baby-wearing-till-three, and the dangers of herbal tea. The “getting pregnant” books? Not there. No. I finally found them in the women’s health section, next to breast cancer and varicose veins. Seriously? Infertility isn’t a sickness. It’s just an absence, no?

We haven’t even been trying for a year, yet, so who knows. But I am beginning to realize a number of things: how miraculous a baby really is (funny how I didn’t get that last time); how surprisingly mysterious the workings of one’s body can be; and how very much I want this, despite having arrived at a stage where Owen is a walking, talking, potty-trained (!), self-reliant person. Why do I want to put myself through the sleeplessness  and why-are-you-crying-please-stop-crying phase? I think it’s because I want Owen to have a sibling, an ally, a partner-in-crime. I love big families. Ideally, I think the kids should outnumber the parents. I may not be able to offer Owen strength in numbers but, like I’ve told him before, I will try (with a little help from Duncan, obviously).

In the meantime, he has brother-cheddar and sister-soap.

Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)

While I was still pregnant with Owen, I thought, rather optimistically, that I would be able to brave the pain of childbirth without drugs. I made a “birth mix,” which seems kind of hilarious now. I thought that if I played lots of tunes, my adrenaline would carry me through labour or something. As it turned out, I didn’t want to listen to anything. I didn’t want to speak. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to do anything but … endure? survive?

Anyway, one of the songs I put on my birth mix was Janis Joplin’s “Try.” It was kind of a joke to myself. I remember debating whether I would think it funny when I was in labour. Probably not, as it turns out.

Someone asked me the other week whether I had a “good birth.” It’s a shame, but I still can’t answer that question in the affirmative. At the time, I equivocated, said I guess so. I still feel a bit guilty that I wanted (needed?) an epidural. Then, this wise woman said, “but your baby came out healthy?” and I had to acknowledge that yes – if that was the standard – if it wasn’t about my feelings of accomplishment – then I definitely had a good birth.

I guess I thought that if I had tried (just a little bit harder) that I might have managed to bear the pain, as if that were some kind of rite of passage or badge of honour. I didn’t try hard enough, I thought, healthy baby in my arms. I “failed.”

***

The person who’s been making me try harder lately is the boy himself. He sets me Herculean tasks.

“You make it snow,” he says, pointing to his lego house.

“I don’t know how to make it snow out of Lego,” say I.

“But you will try,” he says, shrugging his little hands.

I get an idea. Suddenly, small blue pieces of Lego are falling over the house.

“No, Mummy. You make better snow.”

I grab a kleenex, wave it over the structure. “Look Owen, it’s snowing.”

“That not snow. That a kleenex.” (Silly Mummy).

***

Another day, he asks me to draw a zebra. I admit, “I’m not sure I know how to draw a zebra.”

“But you will try.”

I start on the head, draw the back, get the legs done – a vaguely equine being is taking shape.

“That look like a donkey,” says my ever critical son.

***

Walking home from the park the other day, Owen asked me another, more delicate question.

“You make me a brother or a sister? Maybe, If I lucky?”

Many of his friends now have brothers or sisters, and he’s a bit jealous, I think.

“I don’t know if we can, honey. It would be nice, though, wouldn’t it?”

He nods. “But you will try,” he says, walking on.

Jesus uses the Potty: A Christmas Story

Last week, Owen and I built our first snowman of the year. The snow was powdery and impossible to pack together, but we made a little mound and then another one, and found some wood chips and branches for the eyes, nose, and arms. When we were finished (or so I thought), Owen said, “But the snowman need a penis for pee-pee in the potty.” Of course he does. So I (ever encouraging potty training) obligingly supplied a small twig in an appropriate location. We made this wee (wee-wee) snow man at the park… I kind of hope no one looked too closely.

When I was a teenager, and well into my adulthood, my family attended the candlelight Christmas eve service at a Presbyterian church in Rockburn. We weren’t Presbyterian (and we dropped into church one day a year), but it’s the prettiest church around, and I think it’s the closest one to my parents’ house. Because it’s situated in a rural area and because of generally dwindling attendance, this church always had a hard time finding ministers. One year, there was no minister at all, and the congregation had decided to put on the Christmas Eve service themselves. Children were sent up to the altar to read heartwarming poems they’d written about the magic of Christmas. Adolescents and adults read about the Nativity. The choir is always wonderful, so we heard solos and duets, and then joined in for the choruses. We held our candles and sang “Silent Night.” The most “creative” part of the service was a reenactment of “Mary and Joseph: The Untold Story.” Two parishioners went to the front of the church and, acting as Mary and Joseph, proceeded to have an argument about which one of them was going to change Jesus’ diaper. I think they were trying to humanize the holy couple, but the whole thing left me kind of aghast.

Anyway, at some point before Christmas, in an attempt to show Owen that the holiday was not simply about Santa Claus and presents, I told him the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay for the night so Mary could have her baby. It’s a beautiful story – I’d forgotten how human it is. A pregnant mother seeking lodging must finally accept shelter in a barn with animals. Mary (and Jesus) are so vulnerable in this account, and I guess the presence of the animals have appealed to children through the ages. After I told him this story, and throughout the Christmas season, Owen would every now and then ask me to draw baby Jesus, or make baby Jesus out of play-dough. Tonight, I was tired, so I explained to Owen how I made baby Jesus out of play-dough. We made a round head, a longer body, and then a blanket (the swaddling clothes). But Owen, toddler that he is, soon took off Jesus’s blanket and held him over one of the empty play-dough containers.

“I have to take off baby Jesus’ blanket.”

“Why do you have to do that, Owen?”

“I want baby Jesus to go potty,” he said.

Of course you do.

When asked whether he himself would like to go, the reply was a breezy “Not yet. After supper.” Meanwhile, he peed (and pooped) in his diaper.

(I’ll just let you guess what I was thinking).

His Father’s Son

OK – so there was never really any question about who Owen’s father was. It’s not like I had a mystery lover or anything. But we’ve joked about it and sometimes Duncan wants, you know, proof. One of the “tests” that we’ve been mentioning since before Owen was born was whether he’d be able to wiggle his ears. Duncan has this ability to move his ears without clenching his jaw or moving his face. Maybe there are lots of people with this talent, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered it and I certainly can’t do it. I mentioned this paternity “test” in class one day – I forget the context – we were studying a number of plays in which the notion of women as male property came up, and got onto the topic of why women – politically – need to be faithful to their husbands. Those babies have to come from a verifiable source (the father) or the whole kingdom falls apart. Duncan doesn’t have a kingdom, of course (though he is getting fitted for a crown this week after his emergency root canal – fun times). Anyway, we keep trying to get Owen to wiggle his ears. He does, but he uses his fingers, so that’s no proof of my fidelity. He has, however, inherited at least two of his dad’s quirks.

As we’ve discovered this week, Owen shares his dad’s delicious blood. Mosquitoes love Duncan –  clouds of mosquitoes will hover around him while I walk bug-free. Hanging around with Duncan is more effective than insect repellent. Unfortunately, like his dad, Owen is a mosquito magnet. His arms were polka-dotted with welts this week, poor kid. I bought some citronella and have tried to keep him covered, but they target him anyway.

The second is photosensitive sneezing. When Duncan feels a sneeze coming on, he looks at a light. He often sneezes when coming out into the sunlight and always sneezes twice (no more, no less) . Owen’s sneezing habits are pretty much the same. Owen also sneezes after one or two bites of yogurt. I have no idea why. We’ve learned to feed two bites and then stand back so we don’t get sprayed.

These are traits we have to keep in the kingdom.

The Problem with a Diagnosis

Owen and I both got some strange news this week. He’s had a couple of ear infections (or one that took a while to clear). Anyway, it turns out that the bacteria broke through his eardrum and now there’s fluid behind it. We have to wait to see if it clears on its own. If it doesn’t, we’re supposed to do hearing tests, etc.

This news was hard for me to hear for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially since yesterday, I’d been to the doctor and had (finally) been diagnosed with moderate hearing loss, not enough to qualify for a government-paid hearing aid, but enough, said the doctor, to benefit from one. I was surprised to hear that – not that I didn’t know I had hearing loss – that much was pretty obvious. Duncan gets frustrated with me all the time for pretending I heard something after I’ve already asked him to repeat it (I try only to ask once). I can’t hear crickets in the daytime. I can’t hear electronic beeps. According to the doctor, I can’t hear a pin drop. I’ve not tried yet, but I’ll take his word for it. I can’t hear students if they speak softly or if I’m not paying direct attention. I can’t always tell who spoke. It’s a bit stressful, I suppose, but I’ve managed (“quite well,” said the doctor). Um, yeah. So now I know that, officially, I have a problem, but that doesn’t make me hear any differently. On the contrary, I have been marvelling over how much I can hear. The car engine, the radio, birds singing, the rain, Owen’s sighs and cries, whispers, telephone conversations.

I asked the doctor how likely it was that I had passed along this “impairment” to my son – I got it from my mother, whose hearing loss is (and has long been) more severe than mine, but in the same pattern. My mother can’t hear the sibilant sounds (s, th, f – those whispers in everyday speech), so she pieces together words, supplying their missing pieces from her (sometimes quite inventive) mind.

Owen is certainly not noticeably hearing impaired. He’s learning to speak just fine and as far as I can tell he hears everything around him. But, of course, I’m so worried that he has what I have and that this ear infection will take more away from him. Because if he has the same hearing I have, part of me thinks, so what? – he’ll manage (quite) well. But I’d hate for him to struggle to hear any more than that. The doctor was gruff and brief and I didn’t think to ask the right questions (or any questions). I guess I’ll take Owen out of swimming (recommended last time he had an ear infection) and try to keep that ear dry. There’s a 90% chance this will resolve itself, he said – but I’d like that number a lot higher.

As we were leaving, the doctor got Owen to smile. And he says to me: “You know he has a little seventh nerve palsy.”

“What?” I said.

“A seventh nerve palsy. It’s a weak nerve on one side of the face.”

“Oh,” I said (thinking: we just called that a crooked smile. Did we need a diagnosis?)

“He won’t ever be a politician like Chrétien,” he said.

And we were off. I’m sorry. I’m sure he was trying to be helpful. But am I supposed to be worried about it? Owen’s smile has always been a little lopsided. I think it’s cute. My smile is a bit crooked too (though not as much as his). I worried a little that it would look strange when he got older, but it’s not that noticeable unless he really all-out grin or opens his mouth super-wide.

I googled it, of course, to be greeted with all kinds of frightening pictures. It can happen in infants, apparently, usually as a result of birth trauma. Owen’s birth wasn’t especially traumatic, but he did have the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and arm, so I suppose that could have affected something. And I did get an epidural – one of the other potential causes. I took him for an operation when he was 8 days old because he was tongue tied and it hurt me to breastfeed. Who knows.

Do you see what this diagnosis did? It took my adorable little boy and stamped him with a flaw. It turned his little crooked smile into a problem. It ratcheted up my guilt another notch. I needed to get this out of my system. I’ll file it away and ask Owen’s pediatrician about it when we visit in September. But I am a bit haunted by our trips to our doctors, who seem to have created conditions simply by naming them.

Mother-Hearts

Their mother-hearts beset with fears,

Their lives bound up in tender lives

(from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”)

I’ve read “Goblin Market” about a million times (OK, more like 20), but I noticed these lines only recently. I used to dismiss the domestic conclusion of the poem as predictably Victorian, with the nearly-fallen woman redeemed through childbearing and child rearing. But of course, there’s a wrenching truth to these lines, too, a truth that is impossible to get away from once you are a mother. Those tender lives that are our children do have a way of binding themselves around our hearts, constricting them with fear even as they expand them with love.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I noticed that there is an attentiveness to mothers that makes them sometimes seem absent-minded. Their eyes are so riveted on their children that they may miss punch lines, news items, and gossip, but their hands will almost always be the first to reach out to catch a falling toddler (or the dish he throws), as though each mother’s very body is in tune with her child’s.

My child is still very young. He still needs catching. The other day he wandered from the grass to the edge of the sidewalk near a residential but fairly busy street. I was too far away to grab him but I yelled louder than even I expected, and he stopped in his tracks until I got to him. I felt a surge of mothering-adrenaline in me at that moment – my yell was primal, and my boy heard me. Yesterday I saw him start to fall down our outdoor steps (he was trying to put my sweater over his head and it toppled him). I was across the yard, so I wasn’t fast enough to prevent him from hitting his head on the first step or rolling onto the second, but I did catch him on the third (still two from the ground). Poor munchkin. He wasn’t badly hurt… mostly scared.

I’m not there yet, but I think in some ways it must be harder to feel that maternal pull when your children are no longer children. My mother has mentioned on many occasions her desire (or need) to reach out to us (her children) when she feels that we are falling (not falling down so much, but away from her, away from her dreams for us, away from her expectations of us). I am sure her maternal reach is as visceral as my cry to Owen to keep him from the cars. How difficult it must be to let go. I hope I manage with as much grace as my mother has.

To all the “mother-hearts” (biological and adoptive mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, special aunts, godmothers, and guardian angels) whose lives are “bound up in tender lives,” have a very happy mother’s day.

One Year of the Postmodern Child

… and nearly two years of parenting … and I am still trying to figure out how to be a less lackadaisical mother.

After two nights of really really disrupted sleep (it took Owen 90 minutes to get to sleep after many tears and lots of song and persuasion), and a week of weird behaviour (tears, arm-holding, sadness)… I finally took him to the doctor this morning. I kind of hate that it takes me being inconvenienced before I finally take him.

We had a great doctor at the early bird walk-in clinic (where we had to wait only 1/2 hour!) who gave Owen a toy dinosaur and told him he’d swallowed a cow (making odd mooing sounds when he opened his mouth)… Anyway, he discovered what I suspected/feared… Owen not only has a little pneumonia in his right lung, but also has a little ear infection in his left ear… so that would account for a lot of his odd behaviour this week and the disrupted sleep.

It makes me kind of sad, though, that I’m still not in tune enough with my child to know that he needs to see a doctor. I was prepared to hear that something was up, but also prepared to hear the doctor say “He’s almost two. It’s a phase.” It’s tricky, too, when he’s mostly happy and chatty, to realize that he’s sick. He coughed a lot two nights ago, and then hardly at all last night. And then I wonder… did they give me antibiotics to get rid of me? Because even the doctor said we might as well so he doesn’t get sicker and you’ll have to come back in three days. Meaning he’s not that sick now?

In any case, I’m very glad my boy will be better soon, and I’m pretty proud that I’ve been writing this blog for exactly one year!

Newborn Love

I had the rare and precious occasion to hold a friend’s infant on Friday, and the experience made me remember my feelings of powerlessness in those first few weeks. I was surprised to feel so awkward holding my friend’s child, in ways I don’t exactly remember about Owen. Surely I grew confident in holding him in my arms, since that was all I did… I think what I remember is not the awkwardness but the successes (I carried him down the stairs to open the door; I propped him up in one arm to answer the phone; I strapped him into a baby carrier by myself, etc).

But of course, the newborn period is so very brief. The only people who get good at holding newborns are probably nurses in maternity and preemie wards (if you’re even allowed to hold preemies) – or mothers on their third? seventh? baby, or people with huge extended families – maybe by then the memory would stick.

When I was holding this baby, I remembered the obvious things, like holding his head, but sort of forgot what positions had worked best. Eventually I propped him up on my shoulder, which was Owen’s favourite place. Still, I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t my chilld or just because I’m out of practice, but I felt just as clumsy holding an infant now as I did before I was a mother.

On the other hand, this baby’s parents? Experts. Baby dangling from an arm like a monkey in a tree, nestled and snuggled, fed and changed. Quite magical to see my friends in their newborn-parent cocoon. Cheers to them!