With a newborn in the house, I had learned to sleep amid a steady, unrelenting bedlam — all those tired, hungry bleats and anxious cries, as if we had replaced our two-bedroom apartment in the heart of San Francisco with some funhouse petting zoo, all the animals howling toward the moon. You quickly learn which noises need immediate attention: the anguished screams of a soiled diaper, the pathetic mewling of a hungry belly. And you learn to sleep through the gentle, dormant coos — the ones that had you rushing panicked into the nursery those first few nights but then, suddenly, seem to dissolve into your own content snoring.
I feared the silence. It meant they were feeding again.
Or trying to.
Awoken by that sudden absence of sound that seemingly rings in your ears, I slipped out of bed, untangling myself from the spiderweb of sweaty sheets and lurching toward the nursery, peering through the shadows into an empty room.
I found them in the living room, bolts of silvery moonlight slashing through the windows and painting half the room in some foggy, mystic light and the other half in darkness. I’ll always remember the tiny clock on the cable box below the television, glowing red and flashing like a dangerous siren against the walls.
They sat together in the dark, the red light blinking on their faces, rufescent shadow creatures huddled on an easy chair. Emmeline was sleeping but Dana’s body was hunched over, her head almost touching our daughter’s. Dana’s body heaved. If it had been an earlier hour, I would have thought she just heard a good joke — her body shaken into laughter by the punch line. But in the anguished, molten light, I could tell even from across the room what was happening.
Sleepily, as if in a dream, Emme bobbed her head and opened her mouth, groping for a latch against my wife’s naked breast. Like always, she found it impossible.
I touched Dana’s shoulder, and the heaving turned to choking gasps.
“I can’t do this,” she sobbed.
“Should I get the bottle?”
“I can’t do this,” she said again, her voice disappearing into the fog.
I rubbed my eyes and checked the clock on the cable box. No one tells you this part. They always say how great parenting is, how wonderful and life altering. They say your life will never be the same, that you won’t want it to be anyway.
“Kids,” they say, “They grow up so fast.”
Cherish it, they tell you.
But no one tells you that at 3:49 in the morning, enshrouded in some foggy dreamscape of pain and fear, you might look down at your new child — this innocent, sleepy cherub — and wonder if you’ve made some horrible mistake.
It felt safer in the hospital, of course, teams of nurses rushing in at every moment to help with feeding, to make sure Emme was OK. In the hospital, the nurses had already started her on formula, offering her a few thick, oozy ounces at a time. The sad defeat we felt in those first days was replaced by a sort of relief. At least she was eating. At least she was sleeping. At least we all were. With formula, it was easy to see how much food Emme was getting. An ounce here, an ounce there. Breastfeeding was different, of course, because there were no measuring lines — no Pyrex notches on the flesh. After every attempt at the boob, we stripped Emme naked and lifted her onto a digital scale, hoping she had ingested something, anything. Even with a few doses of formula, she continued to wilt before our eyes.
But we felt secure still, mostly. We were among experts. They would show us how. It would happen. We were sure of this.
And we had our moments. I learned to change a diaper from a bulky Eastern European woman who handled Emme like a sack of green potatoes. It seems like such a silly thing now, to be shown how to do the most basic of tasks. And while I had the mechanics of diaper changing correct, it wasn’t under that night shift nurse came charging into our room early one morning that I learned to do it with ease. While Dana slept on her bed and I stirred on the cot next to her, the nurse motioned for me to remain.
“I’ll do this one,” she whispered.
She grabbed Emme out of her bassinet and lifted her like some hardened doll, whereas I had been handling her like a cracked egg. I sat up suddenly, alarmed. What was this woman doing? I watched as she lifted Emme, wiped her and slapped on a new diaper, somehow whispering sweetly the whole time. It wasn’t ungentle but it wasn’t like juggling eggshells. And yet, the kid survived. It occurred to me that she was probably happier to have a diaper change in two seconds, as opposed to the five minutes it took me.
“See?” the nurse whispered, “Easy.”
The woman left and I picked up Emme. There was confidence in my movements now. I carried her with ease, knowing a casual change of arms wouldn’t break her. Dana was still asleep in her bed, while I held Emme in my arms, watching as she slowly dissolved into sleep — her eyes, searching and wild after the diaper change, suddenly growing limp and exhausted. She blinked them a few times more before closing them for good. I wrapped her in a blanket and waltzed to a chair, watching a widening line on the horizon as nighttime bled into morning. It was quiet, this time between night and day. That was the best part. There were no cries. No tears. For what seemed like the first time since she arrived, I was able to sit calmly with her and examine her: She had her mother’s lips, wide and smiling, and my own sorry wisps of hair sprouting atop her head. For days, she had a purple cone on the back of her head — a small, darkened rise jutting off the back of her head, revealing just how long she had tried to squeeze out of her mother. But that was gone now, flattened into the shape of a normal person. I listened to her breathe in the soft, encumbered chortle of a clogged nose and twisted wind pipe. I shifted her in my arms a bit, listening as the chortle faded.
“There, there,” I whispered, “Is that better?”
She kicked her feet spastically and then just as suddenly stopped, her body still in my arms except for the slow rise and fall of her chest, and I wondered what dreams might come for her. This is what I thought it would be like, this unburdened closeness and nighttime tenderness. I used a finger to trace her hollow cheeks and caress her tiny chin. Her arms and legs bound by the blanket, she twitched her nose as if to shoo a fly, and I stopped.
“Sorry, kid,” I whispered.
It wasn’t instant — not like I expected it to be — but watching her sleep, I wondered if it still wouldn’t work out, somehow. It was one of those small moments of grace that make parenting possible. For us, the clock was ticking. I would go back to work while Dana was on maternity leave, and then once her time at home ran out, I would quit my job and stay home to care for Emme. Moments like this helped me believe we could make it, that I could do this — that all the terror and pain of something seemingly so simple as trying to feed her might be an apparition.
In my lap, Emme kicked her legs again. She arched her back. I tried to rock her and shush her. Her eyes opened and grew wild again. Her mouth opened into a scream, and the shrill cries woke Dana.
“Bring her to me,” she said.
Dana exposed herself again, raw and naked, and put on a pair of determined lips that said unspoken, “This time, this time it will work.”
I tried to help, mimicking the words of encouragement of all the nurses and lactation consultants we had seen. And yet, like all the feedings before and to come, this one would end in tears. Just as quickly as it had begun, I realized my tender moment was over, and I felt selfish and guilty for careening so easily, so abruptly, between affection and … something else I could not place. Tears came again to Dana’s eyes, and Emme continued to kick and spasm on her wet chest, while I moved to the sink and began to silently prepare one of the bottles the nurses had left behind. Who was this interloper, I wondered, tearing apart the woman I loved?
The next day, they let us go home.
We went through the usual motions — taking pictures of Emme’s first trip in a car, a too-tight hat snuggled on her head. We took pictures of her arriving at home, strapped so tightly into the car seat that she couldn’t move. Although the hospital was just a few miles away, it took us nearly an hour to get home, as I slowed the car to a crawl. We took pictures of her first trip over the threshold, and we took pictures of her asleep, thankfully, in her bassinet — a stroller with a bed that flattened out completely. But it all felt like a blur, a dizzy, sleepless whir of motion, as if we were riding on some demented carousel. We just kept going around and around, lurching from one failed feeding to the next, all of us trying to nap in between. Her first bath, trying to sponge her down in a blue tub in the sink, her first walk around the block, meeting the cheerful neighbors, her first trip to a restaurant, parked in a stroller beside our table — they all seemed dreamlike, blurry, motions we went through to maintain some sense of normalcy. Because every time we tried to feed this child, it all fell apart. We began to live in two-hour increments, filling the gaps between failed meals with senseless activity or sleep.
In the early mornings, I’d strap Emme into a sling across my chest and march up and down our pitched hills, while Dana remained in bed, desperately trying to catch up on lost sleep. She needed her energy and will, I knew, so I took Emme on long walks every day — the two of us venturing around the fog-enshrouded city just stirring to life. I knew which coffee shops and doughnut stores were open at those early hours, and we managed to hit them all — Emme asleep in her sling, while I flip-flopped through quiet streets, singing songs to my chest or humming, searching for grace again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these would become our daily routes — the walks we’d take each day once I started staying home — and the streets on which I’d slowly fall in love and realize, finally, what it means to be a father. But at the time, I was always checking my watch, making sure to be home within two hours so they could try again. I dreaded the march home.
In those first weeks, we split our time between the hospital and home, taking Emme to be weighed and prodded and then returning home to bunker down for sleep or prepare for the next feeding. We also started visiting with any lactation consultant that would see us. At one point, I phoned one at nearly midnight and yelled at her for not coming over right away, and it seemed completely rational in every way. We had a new baby. We were special. Why couldn’t the consultant see that? The lack of sleep was making us crazy. In 10 days, we made 10 trips to these wizened midwives and doulas, hoping someone could help us. One threw up her hands and admitted she used formula for her own children, and even recommended a brand. After the visit, we pulled into the garage and remained in the car for a few minutes. Dana began to cry.
“I can’t anymore,” she said, “I’m missing all the good times with her.”
Dana pulled Emme out of the car seat, the two of them hugging in the cool damp of the garage. Dana kissed her cheek and held her close.
“We’re starting over,” she whispered.
I watched them walk up the stairs, while I remained behind to unpack the caravan of goods that had become a part of our lives: the car seat and diaper bag, the rented weight scale, the pumps and bottles and sanitary wipes and diapers. Starting over. It filled me with sorrow that we even had to.
The next day, I returned to work — and I’d be lying if I didn’t say how much I enjoyed it — getting out of the house, escaping the two-hour routines. I always hated my commute — a slow crawl over one bridge to the East Bay and then through a tunnel to the valley floor. One accident, one slow driver, one lane closed due to construction and my commute spiked from one hour to possibly two — stuck on the road, killing time with CDs or NPR. I taught myself to play harmonica while stuck in gridlock. But I remember on that morning how much I enjoyed the idea of sitting in the car, propping myself up in a comfortable leather chair, punching on the radio and stopping for coffee along the way — flying away, fleeing. Traffic was boggy that day, and yet the whole thing felt like some trip to a day spa. I didn’t want the drive to end, all that peace and quiet. I thought of Dana, at home alone for the first time with our daughter, and I turned up the radio, as if blocking out some worrisome clang from the engine.
What kind of father was I becoming? Why couldn’t I start over too?
It became our new routine. I’d leave for work, while Dana would remain behind, trying to set up some type of awkward sleep schedule for Emme. I’d get emails at work, detailing the increments our daughter would dose off. Usually, she was up for an hour or more and then down for an hour, falling sleep in Dana’s arms. By the afternoon, I’d start to get e-mails asking when I’d return, when I might be home.
One evening I came home to find Dana on the couch, Emme asleep across her chest. As I approached, Dana waved her arms wildly, motioning for me not to speak.
“She just went down,” Dana whispered, fearful of waking her. “She has barely slept all day! I’m exhausted!”
Dana’s shoulders slumped. There were heavy bags under her eyes. There was some unidentifiable substance on her shoulder and a wad of spent burp cloths next to the couch.
“She just went down?” I asked, doing the math in my head.
“Uh huh — can you believe it?”
“No,” I whispered, “I mean, if she just went down, that mean’s she’ll be out for an hour, right?”
“Um,” Dana said.
“So do you mind if I go for a quick jog?”
“I’ll be back long before an hour is up.”
Dana’s shoulders slouched a little more but she put on a brave face, saying she didn’t mind while I leaned down to kiss her cheek and Emme’s, too.
“Great,” I whispered, “I’ll see you two later.”
Starting over. In a few short weeks, I’d be staying home with her, waiting for relief myself, and yet I couldn’t wait to get away, to run, to escape, to leave behind for a few more minutes the notion that I might not make it — that all our new family plans, like breastfeeding, would have to be altered. I slipped on my shoes and an iPod, making sure to sneak out of the house quietly. I turned to close the door gently behind me and saw Dana, alone on the couch, stretch her neck and try to rub a shoulder with a free hand. Then I closed the door and ran away into the twilight.
This is incredibly flattering, and I had to share. I’m so excited to say I’ll be reading a short essay during the BlogHer keynote next week — hope to see you in Chicago!