Time to write is sparse and passes with a 10-pound being breathing warmly on my chest. Too sparse to bother with hypotaxis and refined style. As such, I present but a list of the things I’ve learned in the past 5 weeks since my son Felix was born. Some of these lessons feel universal; others are undoubtedly conditioned by the particulars of the world in March and April, 2020, this bizarre counterworld of the Coronavirus quarantine.
It is a bad idea to get a dog before having a baby. Daft and pacified by pregnancy hormones, I thought that would bring joy earlier this year. Visions of my domestic paradise. Thank god my partner was wise enough to think otherwise.
Footed onesie pajamas should have zippers. It’s ludicrous that they make pajamas with snaps. Way too hard to get onto a newborn who screams crying when changed in the early weeks of his life. Every new mother should know this.
Birthdays with a newborn during quarantine are humble, just like any other day. The highlight of my birthday was a walk alone with my partner while my parents watched the baby. We ate chicken soup for dinner because my partner had stomach issues to heal. A birthday with a newborn indexes the complete toppling of priorities from self to other: it’s for him that I want presents now. No need for anything else.
Towards the end of my pregnancy I discovered that touch is a more fundamental medium of communication than language. Now, in the first month of my son’s ex-utero life, I’ve learned the importance of music and movement. I have sung and danced more in 5 weeks than in the last 5 years or more. Perhaps than in my entire life. I sing Felix to sleep after a 3:00 am feed, rocking back and forth to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty to ease the spit up that prevents his sleep. I improvise melodies, finding a Phillip Glass- or Max Richter-like motif I can repeat over and over and over in harmony with my rocking squats to calm my son. He loves Bach, Mozart, Gould playing Bach, Sokolov playing Bach, Sokolov playing Schubert. He heard his father play piano every morning in my womb for nine months, and it is his home.
You learn how to do nothing. You watch him feed, watch how his eyes look out into space with a keen curiosity as he coos. Watch how his hands gradually open up as his stomach fills. You learn to accept that tasks won’t get done. You’ll start to assemble his play gym and he’ll wake up crying and you have to stop and leave the task partially complete and attend to it later. Your friend Marion mentioned that you have to love the process, not the outcome. That outcomes-focused thinking, the drive of hitting OKRs that drives life in business, is toxic to the unruly spirit who has no need for goals. He needs love, care, unconditional attention. Your sense of accomplishment is overhauled, replaced with the solid awareness that he is gaining weight well, thriving, healthy as can be. That it would be devastating if it were otherwise.
And yet, you also learn how to prioritize better and differently than before. You fit a load of laundry into your morning routine, taking advantage of the few spare minutes while your partner cares for your child. You make the transitions fast: out for a run now, don’t bother with the fussing, if you don’t go, you won’t get it in. You settle for short distances, as your postpartum body is still healing. You feel a sense of accomplishment when you realize you can do the laundry and cook a wholesome meal and even write a blog post with your baby.
You see the beauty in the little things, effortlessly seeping into the holiness of everyday life that somehow felt like play acting before, somehow felt like something to strive towards and that is now a given, a ground you walk on. The heat of shower water over your shoulders, as your back muscles release from the new strain. The light reflecting off the painting in the piano room, that’s been there evening after evening but only noticed now that your son gazes upon it from his 4Moms swing during dinner time. The magenta inlay in the painting Bruce Jefferson gave that hangs in the nursing room, which you discovered watching your son watch it. The etching of the tree branches against the evening sky. The feel of the wind on your cheeks. The taste of carrot juice in the morning. The fluffiness of the duvet when you get in for the third time in one night. The details of the world sing. There is no longer a world outside distracting you from noticing them.
The baby loves to look at the new world. His eyes are keen and curious. He loves to look at the rafters that line the ceiling in the basement. Loves to look at the back porch after dinner. It’s the best way to soothe him at the cusp of the witching hour.
One way for a new mother to make herself miserable and strip the joy from raising a newborn is to read the internet and compare her child’s development to what’s expected at certain ages. She starts to see her child against the backdrop of a statistical norm, blinds herself from seeing him, uniquely, seeing the wonders of his personal journey and development. Fatigue cuts the integral into a derivative: each green poop, each subtle variation from the perfectly healthy baby catalyzes massive anxiety. But wait a few hours and the pendulum shifts back to normal. And if I stay off the damn internet, I see him for who he is, grow with him, respond to what he’s telling me rather than imposing external methods and guidelines onto him. For we are one, both one and not one, a unit that emerges from our interaction. He is calmer when he senses authentic interaction between my partner and me. He feels it’s right. We supervene on one another. Therein lies the joy.
Beauty is not the same as joy. There are moments of sublime beauty as I observe the curvature of his closed eyes, the color of his skin, olive like his father’s, against my chest. My son, for me, is more a bundle of beauty than of joy. There are joyful moments but not when I force Mom voice upon him to get to a smile faster. Our joy cannot be feigned.
Fatigue is not depression. It can feel that way, but it’s just fatigue. It plays nasty tricks upon the mind and has a funny way of making us regress back to the most shameful inlets of our selves. But it’s just fatigue.
The body adapts more easily to punctuated sleep cycles than I ever expected. Feed for 30 minutes, keep him upright for 20 minutes, fighting off sleep, slowly, slowly, transfer him to his bassinet, wait, deep breath, hoping he’ll stay asleep, hop into bed, wake up in 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 120 minutes, longer stretches as nights advance, feed again. And the key is to just lie there and let the images wash over the mind and let sleep come. For it comes. It has no choice.
Face masks strip us of emotional entanglement with other beings, a core emotional and spiritual dimension of our humanity. When a new mother gets a runny nose in normal times, she may wash her hands more frequently and make sure she sneezes into tissues, but only a few are paranoid enough to put on a face mask. But the age of COVID-19 wants otherwise. Having a sore throat and runny nose is means for panic, panic, fear something could happen to him, even if infants are reputed to be more immune. But it is torture to wear a face mask while breastfeeding, as the mother is deprived of her ability to look upon her son. All she sees is blue, a blue curtain blocking their connection. He cries, and she cannot console him. She cannot read his cues. She is isolated, apart. The dilemma is heartbreaking. But time helps wash away the pain.
6 feet doesn’t feel like enough on walks. 9 feet. Walking in the middle of the road, nearly getting hit by cars, to avoid runners and walkers and dogs. Fear and anxiety lace time outside, time that would otherwise capture the joy of seeing him at ease in the fresh air, hearing the coos from the carrier on my chest, on my partner’s chest. Someday. Someday we will go for long walks and love the sun and greet people without fear they will harm us or we will harm them.
The underpinning social mechanisms of different companies are revealing themselves clearly, showing differences that weren’t as apparent before COVID. Netflix, Amazon, and Zoom are tuned for an isolated, separated society. Facebook too, absent the advertising business model. These companies thrive on distance, thrive on people staying at home away from one another. WeWork, AirBnB, Uber, the sharing economy companies, represent a fundamentally different concept of social engagement, one where people share spaces, share belongings, come together across the digital divide. Is the distributed, isolated world enabled only by companies like Amazon the political infrastructure of our future world? Will the nation as political unifier surrender to this new kind space? Will we somehow come back to normal or will the civilization my son grows up in look different from that I grew up in, from 1984 to 2020? What can I do to influence his world? What should I do? For now, our world is small, contained, insular. A sleeping boy on my chest as I write, listening to Glenn Gould, the master isolationist, playing Mozart piano sonatas.
The featured image of me and my son Felix. We looked more or less like this while I wrote this post.