Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Babies Do





This isn't really a coherent essay/blog post. I haven't attempted to make it so. I'm just thinking.

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A friend of mine was volunteering at a hospice. She told me about one of her clients, a woman with dementia who did nothing all day but care for a baby doll, which she would wrap in blankets, press tightly to her chest, and rock, humming into its plastic ear. She could no longer speak. She didn't seem to register the people around her or recognize her friends and family members. She treated health care workers and volunteers with irritation. But she loved that doll and woke every morning to find it in the toy bassinet by her bed, expertly swaddled, exactly where she had put it the night before.

All that is left of her, my friend said, is the part of her that was most essential, the part of her that was a mother.

I was pregnant when she told me this, just showing. I wondered what would be left of me when everything else was gone.

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Not being much of a "baby person" before I actually had a baby, I would generally greet claims about the ways that children deepened or changed one's emotional landscape with an eyeroll: here we go again. Another person saying that children are the only way to a real, adult emotional life.

You'll never feel love like this! People would say. It's the best thing in the world!

As a person on the other side of the baby/no baby divide, I still mostly roll my eyes, though I understand the evangelical spirit some parents have, and I do agree that a child provides a type of emotional connection and a joy that cannot be experienced in any other way (I have never been a person who much understood pure, uncomplicated joy, but I now get that daily--that's pretty big for me). I just dislike the implication that people without children are somehow less emotionally full than people with. I had a great love and empathy before I had a baby. My life was amazing. My life now is amazing, What I didn't have, though, was thisnterrifying sense of potential loss and fear.

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I'm an anxious person, so I spend a great deal of time visualizing every possible disaster. When my husband goes away for weekend Aikido retreats or overseas trips, or even drives to work, I can see all of the ways he could die: car accidents, of course, but also freak falls, random acts of violence, sudden illnesses. This doesn't even take into account the things I think about that are not sudden and tragic but simply part of human life: cancer, diseases that take years to set in, that take away cognition and movement and autonomy. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by all of the losses that I will, without a doubt, experience. We will all lose everything, at some point. It is difficult for me to not be aware of this even when I know it would be better for me to let this knowledge go. There's nothing I can do about it, after all. I've known people who seem to think that if they run long enough or eat enough kale that they will never die or experience the uglier parts of having a human body. I don't want to be that kind of person. I want to make peace with loss.

But I find some losses too unbearable to ever make peace with. My previous experience of fear of losing was nothing compared to what I experience now. When my son Roscoe was born, as he struggled on my chest, his head heavy, his hands fisted, the doctors detected something wrong with his breathing: he was struggling, his little chest making a shallow depression with every breath, his nostrils flaring. They whisked him away to the neonatal care unit.

I had just met him, and now I had to think about the possibility of loss.

He was fine, eventually. But that was only a small taste of what would come later. The fear of SIDS in his early months, a fear that is particularly panic-inducing because of the mystery around it. Now that he's mobile, the fear that he might drop something on his head. When we are in the car, the fear of an accident.

And, of course, he'll soon be going places on his own: to daycare, to school, to friends' houses, to camp, etc. And then, when he's an adult, he will drive away. There is little I can do to keep him safe when I am not there. Little I can do when I am there, too, if I am honest.

Still yet, I am determined not to suffocate him with my own anxiety: I don't equate worry with love. So the trick now is to know the possibility of loss, the inevitability of some kinds of loss, but to move through the world and not be overwhelmed by it.

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I think about 25% of my previous position that I would never have children came form anticipating  loss. The other 75% was all of the usual things: no overwhelming desire, a fantastic life already, a desire for privacy and quiet and freedom, fear of losing time to write, etc. But that fear of loss, that was a big one for me. Imagining my pets dying is enough to keep me up at night: how could I deal with the loss of somebody so close to me, somebody who will be the most intimate relationship I will probably have in my life?

Of course, most children are fine. It isn't really death that I'm worried about. It's change and the things I can't control. In the past, I have organized my life so that I have to deal with as little change as possible. I have limited my intimate relationships because having those relationships means the potential of loss, of change. Now, I have a baby: I cannot limit the level of intimacy and care and worry anymore. And I'm glad I can't.

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I'm thinking again of the elderly woman with dementia.

At first, this anecdote depressed me. Now, I think about it differently. I identify so strongly with my mind, with my thoughts. But what survived, for her, was her emotional connection to a child, something that is not located in the cerebral cortex, but in the limbic system, deeper in the mammalian brain. She could still remember those days of holding a baby close, soothing their nervous system with touch and murmuring, feeding them, setting them down to sleep. I spent most of last summer like this, utterly out of my thinking mind, all of my self focused on keeping Roscoe alive and fed. There was a freedom in giving over completely to that slow, soothing, instinctual rhythm of rocking and sleeping and waking and feeding.

For a while, this rhythm of life kept the anxiety somewhat at bay. I would rock the baby, wrap him, feed him, and lay him in his crib. `Although I could not control everything, I could do this. I could keep everyday life rolling. I could put the baby to sleep in his crib next to my bed and then wake to him moaning and squirming in his swaddle, exactly where I had left him the night before. 

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