In His Dreams

He is one day old and asleep. His face is calm and healthy pink. Now REM-charged eyeballs pulse his eyelids and he frowns, his brow tensed, grown-up and troubled, now the tension releases quick as an archer’s bow and his mouth curls up, a little more on one side than the other, into his first smile.

What does he see in his dreams?

Surely not images, let alone images recalled. When awake he manifests no experience of cinema; each time he looks at me I am new, a surprise; he doesn’t seem to clock cause and effect and sequence.

So he sees nothing but remembers sensations? The nurse’s needle jab, fluid rattling in his lungs, the womb’s warm hug?

No, no memory at all. His face in sleep, as when awake, is simply a live-stream of I feel cold, now I’m warm, now my belly hurts, now dad dropping a mug sounds bad.

But maybe he sees. By-product scenes painted by neurons firing and binding, and agitated rods and cones. Dreamscapes encoded in his DNA.

I’m too tired to orienteer the confusion I’ve stirred and happily let go of abstraction. His first smile. His adult brow. He is human: he is.

I see in his dreams the fact of life and it feels like peak art. I watch and hope to remember.

~~~

He is two weeks old and in a milk coma. Mouth parted, slack lower lip, arm hanging off mum’s arm as heavy as a church bell. He frowns the frown definitely inherited from dad, and now he pouts the pout my wife calls ‘banana mouth’, and now his full face buckles in distress. A bad dream.

The distress doesn’t recede as usual in five seconds or so. Instead he flushes, his face twitches, his body contorts as though ready to fit. He murmurs then feebly whines then howls and the howl sounds nothing like his most animated daytime cry. It is alien and ominous. It doesn’t come from him but from history; the howl of Great War widows and shamanic ritual and surgery before anaesthesia.

I am terrified. Throat tight, heart thrashing, I try gently to call him back. My wife calls too. He won’t wake up. We speak firmly now, we hug and sway, we’re almost yelling his name. Still he dreams.

It takes three or four eternal minutes for him to open his eyes, and another minute for him to recognise us and reality.

I know it is a night terror because I have had night terrors. I’m stung by what has troubled me most about having a child — the chance I’ve passed on the genes for extraordinary pain, melancholia, suffering. This ordeal hints yes.

I try to abstract myself away from the hurt… what does he see in his dreams? Hellscapes unlike anything he’s experienced in daytime, Jung’s demons of the collective unconscious, or maybe it is in fact sense memory, Otto Rank’s trauma of birth, or maybe he sees the dreams of his previously incarnated soul, or maybe the by-product scenes of neurons firing and binding, shadow puppetry of the brain’s organic imperative.

I’m too shaken to be distracted by the mental dust I’ve stirred. My child is trembling and disoriented. Too heartbreaking to look at. I don’t watch and hope to forget.

____

A Step-by-step Guide to Calming a Fussy Baby

  1. Insert milk.

  2. Not hungry? Sniff butt.

  3. Diaper smells fine? Change position. A baby’s digestive system is manual not automatic—often a simple tilt, shift, rub, or stretch will help the milk and air on their way.

  4. That made it worse? Ah ha, it must be air! Try your preferred burping and/or farting position.  

  5. Proper wailing now. Damn. Milk again? No. Tired? Doubt it. Try that new bouncing-shushing thing that worked last night.

  6. Try the swaying-humming thing that seems to work on overcast Tuesdays. 

  7. Ignore the glare from the retirees at table 14. They are dyspeptic grumps who’ve had a whole lifetime to realise that being easily offended is an easy way to poison the soul, and yet here they are, offended and poisoned. You can see in his thin-lipped scowl enough repression to drown a hippo. A mouth incapable of expressing love, the type that keeps score, that from his death bed will snark one last, terrible time at his daughter. And the woman. She has done her hair that way since 1983. No harm in that, were her coif not a copper-blonde, resiny, immovable, brutalist cube. She has spent an hour each morning for four decades constructing this testament to poor taste. And wearing that much perfume is a hallmark of those who’ve truly lost their senses; rotted away by bitterness. Whatever meal she orders tastes like chicken, roses smell like ashes, every movie she sees she dislikes just the same. 

  8. Right, baby. Frantically do the opposite. If you’re standing, sit. If you’re sitting, stand. Singing, stop. Babies have a great sense of humour. 

  9. Ask your dinner companions to guess whether the baby is hungry, tired, too full, overstimulated, gassy, or some combination. This won’t help, but it will make them complicit. Who says you have to be the bad guy.

  10. Stare at the cheese congealing on your getting-cold pizza. Mourn your youth. Miss hot pizza.

  11. Baby is calm, somehow. Hold very still. 

___

More With Less

Our child is here and so is the life of more with less. More errands, necessity, urgency. More love required. Less time, energy, choice. Less control and space. 

Before our son was born I feared these conditions. Can I be and do more with less? went the worry. A salad of fears, of commitment to a chaotic and stretched life, of scarcity of love, attention, money, of the loss or upheaval of the self. Of being not enough.

This life is here and it isn’t scary. The fears evaporate in the sunlight of the everyday; this bath, this load of washing, this stolen ten minutes to write. When I’m fearful of parenthood it is in the abstract, tomorrow, in the ever-tiresome psychomelodrama. Lesson learnt—rather relearnt, as all vital lessons must be—this is meta-fear, a symptom without an illness. It isn’t real. 

More with less isn’t scary but it can be tough. Parenthood is a blinding expansion of life. It is chaotic and I am stretched. Time is playing tricks. Yes, my self is neglected: unshaven, red-eyed, quasi housebound, reading nothing. My projects are late, this post is late, atop my to-do list is written to-do list x 2, this window I’ve given myself in which to write and create Once upon a Pancake, delaying the full-time pay check, is closing. Life is so wondrous right now but what if… and there we go, the fear speaks but from the future, the abstract. I learn again.  

I still balk at these conditions. I don’t know yet where compromise or constraint will bite hardest. But this world of more with less has brought two thrilling realisations. 

First, that some modes of busy can be happy. I’ve spent the last ten years protecting myself from busyness; it is a vicious weed. But maybe I was busy with the wrong stuff. There is an undeniable buzz and rhythm to busy, you’re in it, you’re making and moving. At its best it feels a like a good dance floor, spinning, losing time and breath, making hot steps and missteps and laughing it off. At it’s worst, well, it’s too busy, tugging and pushing through life. In moderation, then. 

The second realisation, or rather a remembering, is about the nature of love. It is never in fixed supply. It is that magical liquid that runs out only if it isn’t poured. 

Parenthood is a blinding expansion, but love fills the gaps. This feeling echoes falling in love with my wife. Another lesson to be relearnt. That’s fine. Our child is a sticky note—this life can be more with more. 

___

Getting Some Sleep

“I hope you’re getting some sleep” is the polite and expected thing to say to a new parent. It’s spoken as a sympathetic punchline. It’s “I hope you stay warm out there” chirped to someone who has to work all day in the snow, or “I hope you don’t stay too late” to a co-worker who will no doubt be eating sad, soggy noodles at their desk. 

Abandon all hope ye who enter here is inscribed above our bedroom door; where once we went to rest, now we go to toil, to take sleep in gasps like someone battered and tugged under by the surf takes breath, to float in a derangement of darkness and night-light green and changing-table-lamp yellow and daybreak, he wails or coughs or caws for food, we hum lullabies and mutter consolations to him and ourselves, ‘Forest Rain’ app on loop, too many smells, the witch hazel of our homemade baby wipes and pee and poop and pillowcases laced with soothing lavender which smell like lavender and sour milk, night after REM-shattered night in the asleep-awake bardo.  

And I don’t even have to breastfeed. 

Is it hard? Yes. It’s like solving a Rubik’s cube with panels that change colour. 

Is it fine? Yes. The act of ‘getting some sleep’ is hard but the sleep itself, when had, is the deepest I’ve known for years. The good shit, the Heisenberg Blue. Our bedroom bardo is also home to Elysian naps… ones I steal and those I witness; as I write now, our son lies next to me, duvet tucked under his armpits like a real boy. He sleeps facing mum who sleeps facing him, her hand rested on his belly. Their faces are tranquil and beautiful, so soft and aglow they looked like a Rembrandt, my Madonna and child… 

I stop here, even though there’s more to write about sleep, even though I’m very very uncomfortable leaving that last paragraph’s art-wankery unedited. Mom and baby are under. A chance for the rare joy of us all sleeping at once. I risk moving our boy to the safety of his bassinet and he doesn’t wake. Jackpot. Good night.

___ 

He Is Testing Me

It’s funny the first time. 

You’ve wiped and dried your baby and applied a soothing teatree oil spritz to their undercarriage. You say something cute like “there you go, nice and clean, little pudding”, as you unfold a crisp nappy. Baby wriggles and kicks off the towel you’ve placed over them in case they pee, and they pee. 

If baby is a boy then pee is on you, on the wall, somehow in his ear. He looks very confused and very adorable. You laugh and your partner laughs and you clean up together, smiling and chirpy, like in a commercial for detergent.

You try again. Wipe, dry, spritz. “Nice and clean, darling pumpkin”. You put on a nappy and you’re especially happy with this one; not too tight or loose, a good seal around the groin and hips. You click together the last button of their onesie. 

They smirk at you and lay waste to your handiwork. All good comedy routines have a callback. 

‘What a joker’, we’d say in Australia. 

The joke gets old. You stand at 3.07am with pee on your shirt and the floor and the just-washed changing mat, looking at him with a less-than-loving gaze. He is not an innocent cherub. He is calculating. He is Chaos, destroyer of all that is clean and predictable. He is timing his spits and shits and fusses at perfectly annoying intervals. 

‘Do you love me now?’ he asks. 

Ask me later. 

Much of early parenthood has the flavour of a biblical or Greek test of character. Some god has designed this trial just for you and your particular weaknesses, to stretch you to your worst. They are watching on with a bucket of popcorn Up There, waiting to taunt you when you finally break.

We enter parenthood with a notion of the parent we’d like to be, and that notion—like all self-conceptions not tempered by the everyday—takes the form of a pristine, total list: loving, generous, patient, reliable, giving. 

A good enough answer, but now the child is here and reality asks better questions—Can you love when you’re punch-drunk tired? Can you scrape your emotional barrel to give to your partner when their barrel is even emptier? Can you be patient when you haven’t gotten any work done for days, exercised or eaten well for weeks, are worried about a real or phantom lifetime scarcity of money and time, have just reheated for the third time a cup of tea in the microwave but then baby screams and your partner doesn’t budge even though it’s probably, definitely their turn?

There is great solace in understanding that nobody can be virtuous of mind and deed one hundred times in a row. This solace helps me vibe with the reality winning some and losing some, and it reminds me to heed little kindnesses, pleasures and resiliences. Being a good parent, like being good, is about tinkering—a craft more than a philosophy or grand plan. 

And of course it’s not as dire as all that. The desperate 3.07am moments fleet just like the rest. The testing is wholesome and satisfying: we’re winning most and losing few, we find ourselves again and again equal to our trials. 

My darling pudding trickster is changed and swaddled. I prop myself in bed and rest him on my chest—my heartbeat tends to calm him. He falls asleep immediately. In the divine quiet, by the soothing green glow of our hedgehog-shaped night-light, I watch him, triumphant.

___

His Eyes are Becoming

Nine days old and I still can’t tell the colour of his eyes.

In his olive-green jumpsuit, they’re most certainly green.

Sometimes I spot veins of caramel and gold—they’re hazel.

When his mood turns his eyes are infinite black. They suck all light from the room.

He looks over my shoulder out the window and they are blue. Every blue, lapis lazuli and blue jean and the shallows of Bora Bora.

They are in fact primordial grey. A pre-colour. They are becoming.

With these eyes that seem to change every day, he casts his newborn spell: pay attention. In the middle of fretting about tomorrow I see a hint of oak brown and I am here, now. I am present. His eyes are my spiritual teacher.

A friend comments that it can take a year for a baby’s eye colour to emerge. I tune out in case she blurts a spoiler. I know there’s a rubric for father with blue eyes and mother with brown, and occasionally my mind will dredge up from memory genetic probability tables I studied 20 years ago, big Rs and little rs in a mercifully fuzzy matrix without percentages. I don’t want to remember. I won’t give in to googling. I will watch his eyes become.

___

He Is Born

Compacted, pickled and purple, cradled by our doctor whom I’ve come to know by her lip-chewing, head-tilting inspections between each round of pushing, as though contemplating a chess board, as the Grandmaster.

Our boy is trussed up in his cord. The Grandmaster slips her fingers under the cord and slips it over his cone-head. The plan for the cord was to leave it a while before clamping (per the latest evidence) then for me to give it the snip (per cute tradition).

But no, hurry. I’ve come to understand the two moods of labour: one a hallowed conversation between mum, baby, doctors and nature, and the other a gloves-off scrap between the doctors and tragedy. This is a scrap. I know to let go of my wife’s hand and step back as a nurse takes my place.

Grandmaster clamps the cord and snips and passes our boy to a man and woman neonatal duo whom I hadn’t noticed come into our room. They look like the people you call when something goes wrong. They take our boy to an amber-lit crib in the corner and splay him and massage his chest and coo. They suck gunk from his mouth with a turkey baster. His breath is shallow and hard-earned, he cries but briefly, he stretches his arms and legs for the tight hug of the womb and flails… what I’d expected but not where; not on mum’s chest but in the corner where things go wrong. He feels close and far away, like a farewelled love who is sitting in a train carriage that hasn’t left yet. Please don’t go.

A nurse beams at me and I realise that the duo aren’t trading commands like “100 units” or “clear” but are chit-chatting, perhaps about their plans for the weekend or the shortcomings of the new payroll system. I see the Grandmaster is satisfied. It’s fine and was fine, just precaution. The mood is again a hallowed conversation.

I step to my wife’s side. Our boy is carried and placed on her chest. Mum holds him and says hello, maybe with words but I remember now only her eyes and smile. If you want a happy memory, look at someone you love when they are supremely happy.

My practical duties fulfilled, I’m left to wonder. Our boy is both the ultimate culmination and genesis, end and beginning. He’s the answer to What is love? Yes, a miracle, and I understand that the true meaning of miracle is not the suspension of natural order but the existence of it.

A few hours earlier, somewhere down the hall, a life must have ended. A siren and tannoy blared, all of our carers dashed from our room for a crisis more pressing than my wife’s pushing (at last, after 47 hours of preamble) and when our lead nurse returned forty minutes later I shouldn’t have asked but I did. “I hope everyone’s okay.”

“It’s been a long time since… and…” She stopped before her voice broke and I finished her sentence with the image of a mother’s eyes closing, or a baby’s never opening, or worst of all their eyes meeting for the cruelest moment.

I touch our boy’s skin. Warm. Alive. I kiss my wife’s forehead. A miracle.

___