Dear Husband & Father of Our Child,
Thank you for stopping by the grocery store on this cold, drizzly morning to pick up bread and milk. Our cupboards need refilling so much more frequently these days, and the kid isn't even eating solid foods yet!
And thank you for swinging by Crepes d'Elen for a pain au chocolat, as well. It was a lovely treat to have awaiting me after I failed to put our daughter down for her morning nap. Again. After having been cried and screamed at for almost twenty minutes in the dark.
Drinking a cup of hot tea and eating a French pastry allowed me to hold it together a bit longer. Meanwhile, you played on the bed with our daughter, distracting her from her fatigue, making her smile. You know, by juggling or making hand-fart noises. Whatever works.
Isn't that smile beautiful? And isn't it a rare kind of privilege to be one of the two people on earth who know exactly what to do to coax it from her?
I love watching her draw a tiny, pink palm across your face, perplexed a bit by the texture of your stubble. This is Daddy, she is thinking.
Daddy. The guy who woke and sat up in bed beside me last night at 3am as the kid cried herself into an unprecedented frenzy. This, after I'd fed and changed and burped her. We were all up for more than an hour for the first time in months. Your hand on my back as I sat on the edge of the bed, sighing heavily at the thought of returning to her room again--oh, again--made the whole thing infinitely more bearable. Your level of calm maintained my level of calm. You refusing to blame me for any of these tough moments makes it easier for me not to blame myself.
Well, no. I still blame myself for every failure--major or minor--but I don't have the added pressure of your blame. And I can turn to you in those dark moments of self-flagellation and hear you say, No, she's not still awake because you're doing something wrong. She's still awake because she's a baby. She's 25% the product of what we do and 75% random banana. (Which, by the way, is my favorite thing you've ever said to me. Ever. When she goes bananas, I always think of this. It saves me. It save us all.)
In one of the least explicable parts of early motherhood, I find that, after battling to get her down for yet another nap, and finally finding some peace and alone time, I spend some measurable amount of that priceless time flipping through photos and videos of the kid sleeping in the next room. As if I miss her. Which is true. This shocks me. It's like the way I miss her when I manage to get away for a quick, afternoon run--the way an astronaut's body must miss gravity while in space. I run in a loop, and I find myself picking up the pace to get back to her, even though my bondage to her was what I was running gratefully away from in the first place.
These days, the Hazelnut is more alert than ever. She bounces and wiggles when she wakes up and sees me. Being awake is her joy. As I hoist her from the crib and press my lips to her cheek, I am simultaneously overcome by two thoughts:
Look how marvelously big and healthy she is, and
Where is the the little newborn she was just yesterday?
There's so much I won't miss about those first weeks. For example, how in the dark I was about why she was upset and how I might stop it. Attempting to problem-solve through the air-raid level of her wailing.
Actually, come to think of it, that's it. That's all I won't miss. I mean, I wouldn't want to go through the physical discomfort of labor or breaking in my breasts for nursing again, either, but other than that, it wasn't so dreadful. What I do miss is the general tininess of her. The crumpled, curled-up look of her. The dark eyes meeting the light in the room as if for the first time each day.
She is always making new sounds. The latest is a high-pitched peal that seems half sigh, half screech. She explores the bounds of her mouth with itself, sucking at nothing and pushing her tongue in behind her upper lip so that she looks like a little monkey. Every part of her seems to be moving unless she's asleep or leaning that way. I'm exhausted and I yearn for her to nap long and deep and without needing me.
Then, the second this happens, I begin watching videos captured after her last bottle of the day before--huge smiles and prolonged, happy noises--or of her twisting on the activity mat in a bid to roll over. Or, many weeks ago, swaddled and gazing uncomprehendingly into the camera's lens uttering the faintest, least intentional, most darling series of little coos. What a thrill that was, and how far we've both come since then. My heart cracks at this thought.
There's no going back. There's no again. From here on out, there is only new and different and forward and bigger and louder and more complex and more sophisticated.
That crack in my heart mends quickly under the balm of hope for the future--hopefulness being a byproduct of the mere presence of such unabashed and vital youth in our home every day--but there remains a scar. A hairline of glistening, slightly stretched skin. It joins the rest of the little splinter-sized heart scars: one for the first night we moved her out of our room; one for the first time Jonathan fed her with a bottle, and my breasts went disused; one for the first onesie she outgrew; the swaddle we discarded; the first time she seemed to recognize her name; the first time she looked for me when placed in the arms of a stranger. All these good milestones I prayed to come to pass. They hurt. And they are what make me want to run into her room and pull her close and breathe her in just the way she is now. Bottle the moment. Never let her go.
Today marks our little Hazelnut's 100th day on the planet. In honor of that, and in honor of the super-sized crush I've got on my kid, I thought I'd list one hundred things I love about the fact of her. A little sappy, I'll admit. Don't care. I'm too sleepy to be more original, and too much in love not to do exactly this.
1. 1. Pulling open the curtain and looking at her for the first time each morning.
2. 2. Her big, bright, blue eyes, so much like her Daddy's.
3. Smiles of recognition. (Mommy. Daddy.)
4. How toasty and cozy she feels once unwrapped from her swaddle or sleep sack.
5. Nursing. I never expected it to be so precious.
6. Tiny fingers brushing back and forth across my chest, gripping my fingers, feeling the air.
7. The way her body alternates between firm and floppy.
8. Her constant (constant!) kicking
9. Placing her between us in bed for morning snuggles.
10. Planting kisses on those cheeks!
11. Watching her play with Daddy.
12. Little soft burps.
13. Great big window-rattling burps.
14. The growing range of intentional sounds she makes, like a piglet, a cricket, a mouse, a bird.
15. Furrowed brow as she inspects anything "new," from a rattle to a blanket to her own hands.
16. Smiles of wonderment. (The sounds of whistling.)
17. Smiles of joy. (As she kicks the jingling heck out of her baby gym.)
18. Adorable baby clothes.
19. How fast she outgrows them!
20. The fact that she has grown five full inches and doubled her birthweight in three months.
21. Her hair, soft as duckling down, blond in some light and dark in others.
22. Eyelashes. Invisibly blond when she was born, now dark and long and precocious.
23. The way she brings her hands together and entwines her fingers, as if plotting.
24. Talking to her all day long.
25. Hearing her "talk" back.
On the floor, she kicks and kicks
and looks at me
and kicks some more,
softly and firmly,
so that I might expect little grunts of effort
--like a piglet or a tennis player--
but she is silent.
I lift her to me,
glad at the breadth of her
abiding little body between my hands.
Blue eyes open wide, and bubbles
burst from pursed lips.
Her shoulders shrug upward
as if to say,
I wish I knew.
I sing; she smiles.
Lying at my breast.
the way her hands press my flesh,
the way my life transfers to her. So hot,
in the duck down of her hair.
Satisfied and serious, she speaks.
In the babble, the gurgle,
the burble, the coo,
I hear something else, too.
Though I didn't know I hadn't yet heard it
--and in a language alien to all but her and me--
she calls my name.
Dear Mom of the Crying Newborn who lives on my street:
Yes, I hear her. But I also hear you, moving in the darkness of that room alone. Or maybe with a boyfriend or husband or partner. But still, mostly alone. You are trying everything you know how to do, as well as quite a few things you don't, in a bid to soothe that little screamer. The one with the big eyes that are identical to her father's. The one who hasn't yet learned to smile, but will, and when she does, will light up your life with a single flash of those pink gums.
Yes, I, your neighbor who wants to sleep blissfully in my own home, can hear your crying child. But I can also hear your heart, beating harder than ever these days. There's the anxiety of trying and failing to calm your baby. There's the fatigue after so many nights of interrupted sleep, and what feels like a million napless days in a row. And then there's the stress over how your little one's wailing might be perceived by the rest of the adults who inhabit your city block. Because they can hear her. Oh god, WE can hear her.
Can I tell you something? Forget us. You're on the front lines of hell: a screaming child who cannot communicate her needs any other way. You're growing a seedlet of human being into a person, and these first months are a level of crucial that rises above the desires of others. Yes, one day you'll be responsible for keeping your kid quiet in our civilized society. But not today. Today, it's about feeding her. Keeping her clean, dry, warm. Bringing her to your heart and singing every song you know. Walking the floor in your home until she is soothed.
And this will go on until your feet hurt. Your throat aches. You're light-headed from all the shhhhh-ing. Until your arm goes numb. Your eyes burn. You smell like sour milk. It's all you, babe. I hear you. And I'm with you all the way.
The next time you're in your home and your newborn is shaking-the-walls-wailing, don't think about the neighbor who might be disturbed or offended by those cries. Don't allow her insensitivity to ratchet up your loneliness and desperation. Don't stare bleakly and angrily at the contorted face of your baby and hiss, Shut up! Miss So-n-so needs her sleep! Don't close your windows if it's too hot and stuffy for your baby to sleep, or for you to breathe. No, dear one. Rather, think of me, your fellow mom-of-a-newborn, also in the dark, also wrestling a child into a swaddle she doesn't want, or out of a bathtub she wants to stay in, or through the first cycle of a nap that she can't complete without help. You aren't alone.
We are in the darkness together, windows flung open for a reason. And anyone who doesn't understand that... anyone who doesn't have sympathy for our position... anyone who doesn't trust us to make the right decision for our kid under the heavy artillery fire of a late night scream session can go straight to hell and sleep there.
I hear her. I hear you. And you know what? There's something you've said a lot recently--have whispered endlessly over the cradle to ears that often can't seem to hear it--but it may have been a while since anyone else has taken you in their arms and said it to you. So, allow me:
It's okay, it's okay, shhhhhhh, it's okay.
Those first four weeks after bringing the Hazelnut home from the hospital were some of the most overwhelming of my life. Scratch that. They were THE most overwhelming of my life. Exhausted, confused, desperate, frustrated, fearful, and utterly clueless about how to manage life with a newborn. I became the single neediest person on the planet.
My husband took his standard two weeks off after the birth. (His Norwegian papapermisjon will begin in January.) My mom flew in from California for two weeks. While I fed and changed and comforted my wailing baby daughter, they fed and changed and comforted me. Then my mom flew home, and Jonathan returned to work. And there I was, with a tiny baby who seemed to cry endlessly, angrily, and inconsolably.
Here I have to state for the record that I am exaggerating. I didn't know it at the time, but the Hazelnut's crying was absolutely within the normal range. Maybe three or four hours total during the day in the beginning, and never consecutive. Any little thing would set her off, which made it seem endless; the sound she made--frantic, earsplitting--made her seem angry; the fact that Jonathan and I apparently sucked at consoling her made her seem inconsolable.
After eight weeks, I'm happy to report that both of us now have a repertoire of baby-comforting moves. Rocking, bouncing, shushing, swaddling, patting, pacifying, dancing, singing, swinging... No single thing always works. No single thing works two days in a row, in fact. But something works. Every time. It might take five minutes or an hour and a half. It might need to be combined with something else. But she calms and, eventually, goes to sleep. She's done it every day, multiple times a day, for the last two months. This is something we have to keep reminding ourselves of, especially on those days when she fights off her nap, and it seems that she may never ever ever ever ever sleep again.
Thankfully, in my neediness, I was never alone. I've managed to surround myself with strong, savvy, sensitive women in Oslo over the last four years, and many of them are mamas already. When I was at my most lost and confused in those first weeks, my friends came through for me. The following are three products, introduced to me by my mama friends, which have saved my sleepy, weepy self over and over. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh delivered to me by three wise women.
On one especially rocky Saturday, the Hazelnut stayed awake for fifteen straight hours. I didn't know newborns could do that. She was exhausted and on edge the whole day. Jonathan and I were beyond fried as the screamy time stretched into the evening. Along the way, I posted something about our mini-hell on Facebook, thinking I was being self-deprecating. I wanted to tell the "truth," while hiding just how hard it was actually hitting me.
When the doorbell rang after 9pm, Jonathan and I stopped and stared at each other. We were zombies. Unshowered, dressed in pajamas from the night before, with spit-up covered burp cloths draped over our shoulders. The Hazelnut was weeping madly into Jonathan's chest. I picked up the intercom phone.
"Audrey? It's Maddie. I have wine. Let me up."
My neighbor, my hero. Maddie swept into our home that night with hugs for me, an offer to babysit, a bottle of wine, chocolate, chips and salsa, and some advice. Carry the baby, she said. Strap her to your chest. Like a bomb, I thought.
But baby-carrying, especially in the first three months of her life, was something I'd always intended to do. It's just that neither of the carriers I had (ErgoBaby360, Sakura Ring Sling) could be employed fast enough or comfortably enough to be convenient.
It was Maddie who told me about the stretchy Boba Wrap. She'd donated hers to the Oslo Sling Library, but she urged me to borrow it. So easy, she promised. And the Hazelnut would sleep in it. And I'd get my hands back.
All this sounded too good to be true, but I attended the next Sling Library meet-up and tried the Boba. Immediately I was in love. Tying it on is already second nature to me, and it takes a simple knot. Because the material is stretchy, it will continue to accommodate my growing daughter for months. The Hazelnut sleeps long and hard in the sling, both in our home and out on walks.
This week, I stopped in at Bæreglede in St. Hanshaugen to buy my own. I use it every day. My hands are more often free. My heart is lighter. And I owe this to Maddie.
This morning I shuffled to the Moses basket-style bassinet in our bedroom, pulled back the hood and looked down into it, my eyes still taut with sleep, and looked into the face of my daughter. It is a face I already know better than my own. Round as an apple. Cheeks like marshmallows. A hint of a widow's peak. Tiny upturned nose. An expressive little mouth and two big, bright blue eyes. It is a face I have both dreaded and craved in the last seven weeks. So often, this face is contorted with displeasure or discomfort into a frown, a grimace, a cry, a scream. Far more often than I would have imagined before she arrived.
That was late April. Back before I had learned how to dance with an infant on my shoulder until she calmed. Back before I'd learned to eat, wash, type, and live with only one hand at a time. Back before I'd learned abject humility. I knew nothing about motherhood and even less about babies. But there I was, teetering on the brink of this freefall, excited.
I'll leave my birth story for another day. Suffice it to say, with one or two exceptions, my labor was average and the birth was a natural one. Suddenly there was a small, warm, wet lump of human being laid on my chest. Her eyes were scrunched shut; her hair was slicked flat to her soft skull. In awe and terror and excitement, I looked to Jonathan. He was holding onto me, tears in his eyes. We'd done it. There she was. Still attached to me. Breathing. Heart beating. Flesh turning pink as the dawn outside the windows.
She rooted and found my breast on her own. I cried with relief and joy and fatigue. It had been 27 hours since my first contraction, and now it was over.
But I kept crying. For four days at the hospital hotel. For four weeks at home.
Nothing could have prepared me, though I'd tried valiantly to prepare myself. My life was upside down. An apt cliché. Everything revolved around feeding the tiny breathing, pulsating human I'd given birth to. My daughter. I heard myself say those words aloud, but they felt utterly foreign. Almost fake. My child. I knew it was true in an empirical sense, but in my arms, she was still an alien. I feared an absence of love. While a great, primal force compelled me to feed her and comfort her and protect her, I knew it was biology. The thing which has perpetuated our species since the beginning. There was extreme wonderment. I could spend hours staring at her, counting her invisibly blond eyelashes, marveling at her miniature fingernails, tracing my finger down her spine and feeling the velvet of her skin. But love? Perhaps. But it felt off-kilter and heartbreaking.
Especially as I watch events unfold like the university massacre in Kenya--where 150 Christian students were executed for their beliefs by members of a terrorist group pretending to be acting in line with Islam--I begin to think religion is the bane of our world. When a father tosses his child into cold bay waters from high atop a freeway bridge, I doubt there is a god. When thousands of women and children in Nigeria remain missing after being kidnapped by terrorist groups like Boko Haram, I definitely doubt that the god up in his heaven is the one I've long believed I know. Still, my faith remains. Like lint on a black shirt. Like a cat hair interrupting the surface of a fresh cup of coffee. Like a plastic bag tangled in the branches of a tree. Inexplicable. Unexcisable. Inconvenient.
I'm in the midst of a thoughtful and provocative anthology titled Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics & Atheists. Little interests me more than philosophical writing by poetic people on their personal systems of belief. Every one feels like a touchstone for me. They remind me to live an examined life. They remind me of all I have in common with the majority of mankind. It is a peaceful, hopeful, thoughtful, reasonable majority, and one I'm happy to point out does exist.
In Anne Perry's essay What Do I Believe?, I came across this gem:
That brings me face to face with my black dog of a word: obedience. I have no respect for disobedience nor for an instant do I advocate it. As children, we must begin by obeying. We are not safe to do anything else. But I want to move as fast as possible to the concept of learning, discovering, eventually doing the right thing because I understand it, and it is who I wish to be! To do something because I am told to and will be rewarded for it--or punished if I don't, or even to please God--is not a worthy purpose. It may have to be part of the process, but my goal is to become the person who does the brave, honest, or kind thing because it is my nature. It is not what I do; rather, it is who I am.
I want to be brave, not just look like it; be honest because I have no wish to lie, above all to myself. I want to help others because I see my own pain in theirs, and I want to ease it--for them, not for me. It may be a long journey!
Here in my safe, happy corner of Oslo, there is little I can do to stop angry, violent people from doing angry, violent things to those who are helplessly located in the path of destruction. All I have are my prayers and my vote to affect the big picture, and often both of these things seem laughably inadequate. But I can work on myself toward a definable end, namely the one Anne Perry so eloquently outlines here. I can examine my own life and actions and affect the people in my path, encouraging them to do the same. Who knows? Perhaps this butterfly effect will reach someone who has known real peril. Perhaps the good can still own the day.
As I close in on the birth date of my daughter, I'm also reassured by quotes like the one above. Life is a long journey, and hers is just beginning. Obedience will be one of her first, cognizant stages in life. She will be looking to Jonathan and me to guide her choices. But I will want her to know that we'll still be learning, too. That all of us are lumps of clay.
I received a past due notice from the university library this week. I owe them 80 nok and a Norton Anthology of American Literature. The book has been sitting in our front hallway awaiting its return since last month, but I haven't been on campus since just before my birthday. It turns out that, even an easy pregnancy like mine is too taxing in the last month to make sitting behind a desk for four hours twice a week worth it. I miss being in school, but I'm happy with the reason.
My baby girl, my little Hazelnut, is due today. We discovered my pregnancy fairly early, at exactly four weeks, so this day has been a long time coming. At the same time, the pregnancy has moved smoothly, so my moments of real impatience have been few. I wanted to feel her sooner than I did (21 weeks). I wanted to start to "show" sooner than I did (26-ish weeks). And now... I want to meet her!
For a control freak, pregnancy can be especially strenuous. We can't control any of the aforementioned milestones. We have no idea how our labor and delivery will go. Instead, we dutifully watch what we eat and how much we exercise, and we read book after book about pregnancy and childbirth until we have at least a false sense of control on that issue.
Here's the stack I've worked through over the last few months. My favorite was Becoming a Mother by Gro Nylander. I read the English translation of this Norwegian classic, and its reasonable, encouraging tone made me confident about motherhood. It's one of two books I'm bringing to the hospital with me. The other is Australian midwife Juju Sundin's Birth Skills, which has equipped me for labor. By that, of course, I mean that I understand that the pain I feel will be purposeful, and I hope this will alleviate my fight or flight reflexes and keep me calm. I also have a list of strategies to help me cope with the pain. Whether I will have the presence of mind to execute those strategies when the big day comes is anyone's guess. But still, a false sense of security is better than none at all in my world!
Beyond that, I found the two What to Expect books to be a little cliche, but the First Year edition should be a good reference. And I'm very pleased with The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp. Here's hoping his fourth-trimester philosophy makes as much sense in concrete as it does in the pre-baby abstract.
Last night, I led what may have been my last Oslo Writers' League (OWL) meeting for a few months. At the tail end of an unseasonably snowy day, ten of us managed to make it to Cafe Fedora (our generous hosts) to discuss the third OWL anthology. At this point, everyone contributing to the anthology has swapped their pieces for critique. So, to start us off, I ran through a few tips on revision... that dreaded, necessary next step.
Take a couple of days between accepting feedback and attempting to apply what you learned to your manuscript. As noted in an article titled Write First, Edit Later, "Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you'll know which."
Now that someone else has given your piece a read, it's a good time to ask the big question: Does the story achieve its goals/the goals of the author? This is a question the author alone can answer. Remember that, once the story is out there in published form, you can't stand over the shoulder of every reader interjecting page flips with, "What I meant to say..." or "See, that makes sense because..." Once released, your story is open to each individual's interpretation.
Revision is the author's chance to take feedback from initial draft readers and use it to make certain that the story works on the appropriate levels. It is interesting? Is it memorable? Is it surprising? Is it easy to follow? Is it consistent in pacing and/or voice? Even if you didn't ask your reader these questions beforehand, go back and ask after the fact.
The opening line
Stephen King makes the case for the importance of the opening line: "We've talked so much about the reader, but you can't forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who's actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it's not just the reader's way in, it's the writer's way in also, and you've got to find a doorway that fits us both."
Now, I'd say that the writer's way in is only important in the first draft. It's the thing that gets your pen onto the paper, which is sometimes half the battle. Finding an opening that is unique, beautiful, gripping, informative, all-of-the-above for the reader is something that can best be done in revision. Use the fresh pair of eyes offered by your critique partner to help you identify the ideal opening. Often, you've already written it, but it may be buried deeper in the piece.