The Parenting Stylus 1: First ShotsThomas Beller
I write from a strange place, literally. I’m in the lobby of a hotel in my own city. I checked in last night with my family. If you are staying in a hotel in the city where you have a home there is a story. Here is how this one starts:
My son just had his first year shots. I sat in the fluorescent light of the doctor’s office, held him tight, and shielded his eyes. The boy is child number two. I’m a veteran. This is my designated role–I hold the children in my lap while they get shots. It’s an act of both consolation and restraint.
The needle went in, came out. A thin sliver vanishing into his thigh. An optical illusion. He made no movement, no sound, for what felt like a minute but was probably two seconds. It was like a pain Doppler Effect—his brain was trying to process an urgent, shocking telegram delivered from his thigh. I almost laughed. I must be a terrible person, I thought. I am laughing in anticipation of my son’s scream. I suppressed the laugh. It took some effort.
Why would I laugh? Maybe out of nervousness and anxiety. Guilt at having known the pain he is about to feel before he knew. Maybe because as a grown up we know the catastrophe’s of childhood, like a shot, are not so bad. I knew I was playing the necessary role of bad cop so that when the cries came, mama could come to the rescue.
There was a silent moment of reddening in the face, then head. It was a trembling that built like an earthquake. Then it all poured out. Yelling. Crying. He writhed in my arms. I held him tight as the next needle vanished into his flesh and was removed. Then, almost an afterthought, the pricking of the finger so blood could drip into a little vial—the lead test.
For this I averted my eyes.
“Why is it taking so long?” I asked.
“We have to fill two capsules,” said the nurse. “But he’s bleeding well.”
It was a rare instance in which the news your infant is “bleeding well” is good news.
Then it was over. I handed him to mama. He went to the breast but not before throwing me a look. His lower lip pouted in indignation. “How could you have let that happen?” the lip seemed to say. But he was in his mother’s arms now. Everything started to get better. She was making those great sounds. The consoling, nursing, feeding, caring, mommy sounds.
Writing from across the divide we recently crossed, I have to pause on this moment when his mother took him to her breast. I realize how invested I am in the idea that breast feeding is a good, healthy thing. Healthy not as some life-style choice, or as a reproach to anyone who doesn’t do it. As an inate act of connection, sustanence, protection. Somehow breast-feeding has become contested territory in the culture – I suppose as an extension of maternity, seat of many great Freudian ambivalences – but really, for a baby, even one getting so big at one year old, it feels like the best source of health and protection. Of strength. Safety. But there is a limit to the protective quality of breasts. Maybe, for the baby, no limit to their reassuring qualities. But a limit to its redemptively healthy qualities.
I left the doctor’s office that day feeling that things had gone well. There had been some scenes with my daughter involving getting blood that had been much worse. Situations that were traumatic, probably more for me than for her. They returned to me now as a dim flicker. Holding her down. A full body press as she writhed and screamed. I had to do it on a couple of occasions. It shattered me a little.
I thought about how having a second kid is so much easier. Why? Partly is because of the skills you have learned from having raised the first. You now know what to expect. To a point. But is is only a matter of accumulated skill and knowledge?
It’s also this: Parenting wears you down. It brings you closer to a mean – as in average, not cruel, though maybe that also applies – that seems healthy. And being worn down insists that you balance your bursts of anxiety with a faith, born out over time, that things will generally work out. When you have your first kid you are like the stylus of a very finely tuned turntable. Every imperfection jumps at you. By the second kid you have become a bit worn out. This may mean you lose the full range of sound, lose some crispness. O the other hand the little scratches and bumps on the record don’t seem so conspicuous.
Here I am, I though that morning, a worn out but hardy stylus bumping along on the record of life, taking things in, doing what I can… I waltzed out of the doctor’s office with this hubristic epiphany floating before me like a balloon. I don’t believe in God but I believe in the Gods. You should never feel you have too much of a handle on things. Two days later that it popped in my face. There are some scratches on a record that no stylus can handle.
(to be continued.)
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