If not a saucy baby, than…

Before I had one of my own to deal with, I’d never thought much about baby personalities. The idea had always been abstract. Babies were babies, akin to dogs in my mind. I was that person at dinner parties interjecting with stories of how silly, smart, dirty my dog can be. Babies were flat cartoons of themselves doing baby things like pooping and mimicking cuss words at inappropriate times.

Even now, after socializing primarily with an infant for seven months, I’m finding it difficult to grasp the concept of baby personality. There’s a thin line between what I perceive to be a trait and that which I have projected onto her, rendering her a white canvas. Of course her life has been short and she has little experience to draw upon, but Joanie is definitely not blank. There are specific tendencies she displays that are undeniable, despite my skepticism on the subject.

Joanie is first and foremost a sociable baby. She’s fascinated by faces and comfortable in anyone’s arms. Usually she’s very sweet, except for earlier this week when she grabbed another baby by the cheek and wouldn’t let go. I’m sure she meant it as a gesture of friendship, or at least an exploration into the world of other humans. Her caregiver couldn’t discipline for this act because Joanie did it with her big toothless smile, the very same that has won her the title of Favourite Baby at Daycare. Which leads me to her second trait: Joanie is cheerful, ecstatically so. When the other babies start to cry, following each other’s cue until they reach a crescendo of wails, Joanie remains smiling if not slightly confused. “Why are all you dummies crying,” she seems to say. They, those that wrote the ubiquitous baby manual, say one shouldn’t compare babies, but how else will I know which characteristics are specific to my daughter and which are just general baby qualities.

Joanie’s personality isn’t the only one I’ve noticed. There’s Shane and his excitable hops. There’s Tare, always striking a pose. I like to call her saucy baby. And there’s Siobhan, who screams when the attention is shifted from her, little narcissist that she is. Can a baby be a narcissist? Aren’t all babies narcissists? Is it narcissistic to call a baby a narcissist?

As for being blank, Joanie is anything but. She has her father’s scowl, her mother’s evening grumpiness, and her own urge to stand up and dance. Though I’d like to think I can shape her, and I’m not discrediting the value and efficacy of nurturing, my daughter’s personality will develop on its own. It’s odd, if not unsettling, that I have to remind myself that babies are little humans with agency, rolling, crawling or walking through the experience that will determine who they become.

Joanie is not a dog. I’m not imagining her smile, but I can’t presume to know why it’s there.

Cave-Ladies and their Little Cave-Babies

“It is assumed that our bodies will ‘know,’ even if we don’t, what pregnancy is like and what it is for; that we are, on some cellular level, wise, or even keen on the reproductive game.”

Anne Enright skeptically writes in Making Babies about the innate sense mother’s are presumed to have about pregnancy, bodies and parenting. If it were true that this sense exists, and I’ll say right now that I have only the slightest inkling of that inborn faculty, then why are there so many texts written about the subject? Why does the What to Expect conglomerate have its own movie? Why are there endless online discussion boards that contradict internally and whose sheer length render them useless? Aside from the obvious profit, I think the answer lies in a real need, one that combats the idea of a natural knowledge.

Before I go any further I want to assure everyone that I don’t deny the existence of a nurturing instinct. Lots of women find they know exactly what they’re doing as soon as that sneaky sperm weasels its way into the egg. I for one was astounded by the confidence with which I held my daughter on her first day in the world. But the notion that I should know my body, my daughter and what to do with both of them is laughable to me. It applies unimaginable pressure.

Despite my reticence towards mantras, I have one: “If cave-ladies can do it, so can I.” My relationship with the mantra is complicated, largely because of my tendency to over think it, rendering it useless. While it has occasionally helped with some of my more insurmountable anxieties, more often than not it leads to a series of questions. What did cave-ladies know about pregnancy and motherhood? At what point did a cave-lady even realize she was pregnant? Was it when the urge to push became undeniable? Terrifying. I imagine the infant mortality rate among cave-babies was significantly higher than it is among their twenty-first century counterparts. It likely took a lot of trial and error to successfully raise a child to fifteen and cave-mums would likely benefit from some warning regarding what to expect. While suggestions of what music to play to a fetus are useless to the average neanderthal, I’m sure they would have appreciated some instruction about labour and delivery.

As much as Heidi Murkoff’s patronizing tone annoys me, I needed her books. Although I forgot everything I’d read as soon as I felt Joanie’s wriggling, slimy body for the first time, I’m thankful that I am not a cave-person, and that I can refer to a vast library of resources for advice about baby sign language, poop taxonomy, and chapped nipples. I have no innate sense when it comes to the aforementioned topics and I challenge anyone who implies that I should.

Note: If you’re like me and you don’t feel like being placated by TLC (the channel not the girl group. If T-Boz, Chilli and Left-Eye want to placate me they’re welcome to) or Heidi Murkoff or Vicki Lovine, then I recommend Anne Enright’s Making Babies. Enright treats her readers like the intelligent, mature and thoughtful people that they are. Her book is an island of reality in a sea of schmaltz.

At The Children’s Hospital (The only title that wasn’t too glib)

Preamble:

Joanie is fine. She had a complication from a virus that landed us in the hospital under observation for four days, but she has since recovered fully. So nobody freak out… for her… feel free to freak out for all the other parents and kids still there.

The Children’s Hospital in Montreal, like any children’s hospital is a terribly depressing place. No matter how many Despicable Me t-shirts the nurses wear or how many broken mobiles hand from the particle board ceilings, it’s still wreaks of sorrow. Tragedies are behind every curtain. Across the hall from our room a boy no older than thirteen recovered from a tracheotomy while escaping periodically to smoke. A mother was shipped off to the general hospital because she collapsed. She was, as I overheard, “non-responsive.” Walking down the hall of the seventh floor, I couldn’t help but peer through the windows at the rooms that looked a touch too lived in. Large sofas, cots made up with sheets from home, framed family photos on side tables; these comforts suggested a ramshackle make-shift permanence instead of the home all the kids were missing. Amidst all this weighty chilling sadness shine tales of unbelievable bravery.

On the other side of the curtain that separated our room, I heard the high pitch gasps of an infant struggling to inhale enough air into her too tiny lungs. It was constant but the rhythm was irregular. I listened, trying to intuit the kind of illness that would cause the squeals, until the second morning when Jim, her father, said from behind the curtain, “don’t worry, the team here is really great.” I couldn’t see his face but I could tell from the cheerful timbre of his voice that he wore a soft grin.

“They’re very nice,” I added. Without having much more to say I sat in silence.

Then his face, gaunt and stubbly appeared smiling from the other side of the curtain. He was clutching a mug with a picture of a baby boy printed on it. “We were here with my older son last year. He has a lesion in his brain. One in two thousand babies have it and he needs neurosurgery. We’ve been here for a month with my daughter. They transferred us from Ste. Justine a couple of days after she was born. She was diagnosed with down syndrome,” he said with a boggling degree of detailed nonchalance. “Everyone here is really great,” he repeated.

“I’m sorry,” I said, stupidly. Again, I was at a loss for words, and blurted something, anything out, when I probably should have said nothing.

“Don’t be sorry,” he corrected, “this was determined when she was only eight cells. She couldn’t be any other way. She wouldn’t be her if she wasn’t this way.” He had rehearsed this speech, but it was still so heart-warming. Maybe it was that it was rehearsed that made it so poignant.

For the following two days I listened to Jim and his wife Ella work together as a practiced team. They scheduled appointments, shared research, alternated the questioning of doctors and found time to chat excitedly about the hockey game. Despite having a daughter in the hospital, recovering from a cesarean, and planning another surgery for their son, Jim and Ella remained positive and proactive.

Could I do that? I wondered. Yes, I think eventually I could, but I imagine it would be tough. Much tougher than saying I could do it. Jim and Ella were professional parents in control of everything. I marvelled at the almost super-human qualities they displayed in the face of life’s most difficult trials.

Over the four days and three nights Joanie, Eric and I were in the hospital, I barely left the building, and when I did I felt distant from all the people around me. They were bustling to and from work, school, the gym, library, shops, doing their every day duties while I had slid off into this otherworldly space that is the hospital. It was as if I was very far away from the humanity of everyday, while simultaneously so close to the extremes of it: a mother desperately searching the halls for her missing son, a father collapsing at the sight of his daughter’s blood, families decorating hospital rooms, trying to make a dire situation and a sterile place seem like home.

Everyone there is really great.

Let’s Talk About the Weather

I’m thankful I don’t live in New York or Boston’s sudden winter wonderland?- hell? Though I’m not currently buried under snow, though I will be in a month or two, I wouldn’t call Montreal’s climate temperate. It’s volatile. One day I breeze down the cracked but dry pavement in my ivory suede boots (they’re really nice), the next I dredge along in winter boots. They’re deep purple, a colour I regret. One day Joanie is dressed in her cute furry bear outfit, the next she’s wriggling frantically in an ugly down snowsuit that’s too big for her. It was a last minute purchase when the temperature plummeted over night. Eric and I bussed up to the Joe Fresh by Parc metro to find that the only snowsuit in Joanie’s size was pink with polka dots, ruffles and a skirt. I refuse to dress her in a snowsuit with ruffles, so we bought one from the boy’s section, a size too big, but at least it has no superfluous skirts.

I’ve lived in Montreal for almost twenty years and I should expect dramatic climate shifts, but I wasn’t prepared for the extra forty-five minutes it takes to get anywhere. Aside from the twenty minutes it takes to zip and strap a seven-month-old into a snowsuit that she hates, I have to account for twenty-five minutes of pushing a stroller like a broken sleigh over ice frozen in clumps around the foot-prints of all the people moving faster than I. When she’s not in the stroller I have her strapped under my maternity coat screaming all the way to day care and back. She’s hidden under a special insert, so to passersby it looks I have some kind of shouting tumour on my chest.

Then, because it is Montreal and the weather is so unpredictable, the next day I’ll wake up to a dry sidewalk. I’ll be carrying a screaming child, the jacket she has shed, her back pack with the giraffe on it, while sweating through my parka.

Next week… Next week… Wait… Next week, I promise

Standing in the middle of my living room, up to my knees in stuffed animals, discarded socks and receiving blankets, I remember a time when my apartment was tidy, minimal except for the alphabetically organized books. I might even venture to call it sleek. Order was maintained with little effort, but since Joanie’s birth, when we returned home and collapsed in an explosion of wipes and forms, pills and bottles, I have been frantically scrambling to catch up with all the annoying chores that compose my life. No matter how many post-it memos I leave myself I can’t pay my bills on time, I always forget items at the grocery store, I order pizza too often, and I still haven’t written my will.

On weekends I serve brunch at a restaurant in my neighbourhood. At the end of my shift on Sunday I slump onto the couch, order pizza and watch an episode of Gossip Girl, despite my promise that I wouldn’t watch that stupid hallow show anymore. In my state of exhaustion I say to myself, “next week I am going to be on top of everything.”

This affirmation reminds me of a similar pronouncement I would repeat when I was twenty. I was living in an apartment with my best friend, a performance artist, an international student, and a university professor whom I never met and would never meet. Most nights I’d work the overnight shift at a diner, then meet up with bartender friends for breakfast, go home and sleep until three or four in the afternoon. For an entire winter I didn’t see sunlight and on days I didn’t work I’d go to a carpeted bar to drink and dance. It was loads of fun, but outside of work and drinking I didn’t do much. My bills were left unpaid, the floor of my room was littered with pizza boxes and Lord help you if you expected me to respond to an email. And just like I do now, I’d wake up once a week and say, “this week I’m going to get my shit together.”

When friends hold Joanie on their knees and watch her wobble on her six month old legs, they laugh at a joke I’ve heard time and time again: “she’s like a little drunk person.” Babies may stumble through life as it they were intoxicated but I assure you it is the parents who live as drunks do. We’re sleep-deprived, we walk into doors, and we insist on talking about gross things nobody wants to hear about (see my other posts on poop). Most importantly, parents are constantly trying to catch up with their own lives, wishing there were twenty-eight hours in a day. Even as I write this, I should be calling Canada Revenue to wade through some bureaucratic nonsense. But it’s Friday. Tomorrow I work and I’m sure, come Sunday evening, I will make all sorts of promises about the week ahead.

Hear Me, Hear Me

(Please excuse the silly title but I couldn’t resist.)

Last April I told a story at Confabulation’s Lies My Parents Told Me and the good folks at No More Radio were kind enough to have me on Confabulation’s podcast. Feel free to picture me eight months pregnant to complete the visual as you listen to my tale of the Blood Sucking Hermit Pope.

Listen here!

Everything I don’t Know About Boys and All the New French Words I’ve Learned

To hear a full grown woman with a medical degree ask another full grown woman how many “pee-pees” and “ka-kas” she has a day is off-putting. I asked a Francophone and translator friend of mine about this and she said it’s a common French idiom, at least in Quebec. I don’t care how common it is. It’s infantilizing and it makes me uncomfortable.

While on the subject, my friend and I discussed another word, one I have just recently learned: zi-zi, meaning penis. It is similar in tone to the way a child might say wee-wee, but more widely used. I first heard it in a conversation between two of Joanie’s caregivers at daycare, Lise and Esfir.

(I’ve translated their conversation because my French grammar is hopeless.)

Lise: Why is Lawrence wet?

Esfir: He is not. Is he?

Lise: He is. Touch his leg.

Esfir: (With her thumb and index finger around Lawrence fat baby thigh) Eh? It makes no sense I just changes him.

Lise: (Taking Lawrence to the change table. Bursting with laughter after removing the diaper) Esfir, Esfir, comes see. You put his zi-zi to the side and he peed out the leg hole.

Two things strike me about this exchange. One: adults can call a penis zi-zi in conversation with each other and apparently it’s not weird. Two: parents of boys have to worry about the direction of the zi-zi. It has occurred to me that while I have learned so much about parenting, and I understand that gender is fluid, and I believe that most of what is true for baby girls is true for baby boys, there are things about boys that will never apply to girls. I am so glad that I never have to worry about zi-zi direction. That is unless I have another child and it’s a boy. Then I’ll be fluent in zi-zi and speak comfortably about pee-pee direction with all the other full grown adults.

Note: I asked my friend if there was a female equivalent to zi-zi and there isn’t. Any word she came up with was either vulgar or Georgio O’Keefe.